By Jacqui Gray
For a little bit of context and more information about this beautiful city, check out part one here!
Before I really get into the nitty gritty, I just gotta say: don’t go to the clock museum… it’s a clock museum!
But there are plenty of other reasons to visit Bratislava.
While I fell in love with the pedestrian areas and history of Old Town Bratislava, I was keen to find out how the city moved through the struggles of wars and Soviet occupation.
Iron Curtain Bike Tour gives you a glimpse into Bratislava’s recent history. As with anything in life, if the person telling a story has passion they will take you on a whole other journey. Let me tell you, our wonderful local guide had passion in spades! He bought history to life with family stories interwoven with important historical dates and events. He shared how life has changed for him and his family, their involvement in uprisings and how each person makes a difference to their part of the world. He was a great storyteller and a super nice guy!
We got off the beaten track to see and learn about places tied to Bratislava’s communist past and more recent transformations. We rode under the controversial UFO-like SNP Bridge, visited the former Iron Curtain border zone, saw unused bunkers built in the 1930’s and visited a favorite camping spot on the banks of the Danube. Political buildings and structures from Soviet times were discovered and discussed. Without our guide, I would have been lost in the vast concrete housing estate, which is the largest socialist housing project in Europe. At the end of our tour, we got a local tip for beer AND, more importantly, food. The tour has quality bikes, all the safety gear you need and most of the riding is done on cycle paths… on the flat terrain.
Not keen on a bike ride? The same company also do a similar tour but you get to travel around in a funky retro style. The tours are done in the legendary Czechoslovak 70s Škoda car or a crappy 8-seater Škoda 1203 van. A quirky way to get around!
Bratislava’s biggest surprise – the food and drink scene. So many freakin’ awesome cafes and bars! Who knew?
Cocktail Bars – intimate, uber cool, with banging cocktails and great service. Of course, there are the big shiny Irish / English bars along the main streets, but you don’t have to dig hard to find something different. They were just around the corner on a side street, down some stairs or in a closet. Yep, a closet!
They call Michalska Cocktail Room a secret hideaway, but nowadays everyone knows about it- and for good reason! A great little speakeasy-style bar upstairs from Urban Bistro, you literally enter through the closet doors to another world of cool tunes, ambiance and outstanding cocktails. Sexy and mysterious is the overwhelming feeling at The Cuba Libre Rum and Cigar House. A normal enough entrance, but I felt like I was walking into a James Bond movie. Outstanding cocktails with a view, for me it was Skybar. As the name suggests, great views over the city and local takes on some classic cocktails.
Coffeehouse culture died away during communist times but has made a resurgence and the Old Town is just teaming with SO many wonderful cafes and great coffee. Some house small art galleries are elegantly appointed or have bench seating for people to tap away on laptops. Whatever your preference, you will find it, oozing with distinct personality and top notch coffee.
Coffee isn’t your thing (who are you people?) – Check out the Underground Tea Room. . A bunker has been converted into a dedicated tea room, I will admit, just as cool as any of the coffeehouses.
I don’t consider myself a foodie but of course, love a good meal. Visiting in the cooler months you MUST try a couple of traditional dishes. Best value meals that warm and fill you up.
Garlic Soup – oh yes you heard me right!
Now ranking as one of my all-time favs. Ever!! Usually served in a bread bowl, it is creamy, cheesy and exquisite! They tell me not to worry about having garlic breath because of the special way it is cooked. Who knows if that is correct… I figure as long as everyone I am traveling with has some, then I can eat as much as I like.
Bryndzove halusky – say what? Most commonly described as potato gnocchi or dumplings with sheep’s cheese and bacon. I saw it as the Slovakian version of loaded Mac n Cheese. It’s not much to look at, but tuck in! Great comfort food with a bit of zing.
Don’t even get me started on the awesome beer…. That is a whole other blog. Even the non-beer drinkers (me) need to give it a go, that’s how good it is.
I only had a few days in Bratislava but got to see and do plenty, without being overwhelmed by ridiculous numbers of tourists. The old town is easy to get around, fun to discover and moves at a delightfully slower pace than her bigger counterparts in neighboring countries.
While the castle gives you great views over most of the city, for a closer bird’s-eye view of the Old Town, head to Michaels gate. Enter the weapons museum and go to the top of the tower. Your reward? Close up views of the Old Town!
From September onwards (presumably for winter) things start to slow down for tourist in Bratislava. I found a lot of tours no longer ran daily. If you are coming with four or more people then booking a private tour is always an option. That said – don’t let it put you off. It is an easy and enjoyable place to get around.