People often talk of Bratislava’s Old Town as being compact but actually it’s rather sprawling with a dual carriageway (which becomes the famous Novy Most) cutting between the medieval core and Bratislava Castle, and the Presidential Palace almost stuck on a little island between the main shopping street and the train station. I’ve even heard of the Slavin Monument being described as being in the Old Town though having walked there from the train station and through the leafy residential district that leads to the monument, it somehow seems too far out (and a bit too new). In this review I've opted to write only about the core section of the Old Town, and not to include the castle which deserves a review in its own right.
Those visitors who are short of time can easily see the chief sights of Bratislava in a day but you do need at least two if you want to take in a couple of museums or galleries too. It’s perfectly possible to tour the lower part of the Old Town in the morning and the castle in the afternoon, breaking for a good lunch and stopping for a mid-morning or afternoon coffee at one of the cafes on the main square. For those who prefer, there are plenty of walking tours available and these can be booked through the tourist information centre or through your hotel. The lower section of the Old Town is most flat though there are some slight inclines and a few cobbled areas, but there is a moderately steep walk up to the castle and beyond that to the Slavin Monument. The lower section of the Old Town is predominantly traffic free which makes for pleasant strolling and a handy footbridge over the very busy road that separates the Old Town from the castle keeps you safe and cuts a good ten or fifteen minutes off a walk to the castle.
The wonderful Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral is a good place to start a tour. You'll find it right beside the road leading onto the Novy Most and it's easy to spot because of its 85 metre tall tower which is capped with a replica of the Hungarian royal crown; this serves as a reminder that this cathedral was the scene of the coronation of eleven Hungarian kings and eight queens between 1563 and 1830. You can go into the cathedral but there is an admission charge and there are strict hours for tourists; depending on your budget and how much time you have available, this may influence your decision on whether to view the interior or not, however, the exterior is interesting in its own right anyway (though I can vouch for the fact that the stained glass windows are better appreciated from inside). If you do go in, be sure to take a look at the presbytery which has the most fabulously complex vaulted ceiling.
The streets to the north of the cathedral, between here and St. Michael's Gate, make up my favourite part of the old town. These streets are quiet and don't contain any of the city's famous buildings, in fact many of them are either semi derelict or undergoing restoration work. Many of the offices of the Archdiocese can be found in these streets and you'll often see trainee priests dashing to classes at the seminary. There are several music schools and private teachers based in the old town and I love to hear the musicians playing through the open windows.
Dating from the first half of the fourteenth century, St. Michael's Gate is the only remaining gate from Bratislava's medieval fortifications. The 51 metre tower holds the Museum of Arms & City Fortifications over its six floors. I've heard that the view from the tower is excellent but I can't comment personally as the content of the museum has neer persuaded me to go in.
Hlavne namestie is Bratislava's main square; it's on a more personal scale than its equivalents in other central European cities and, unusually, the buildings along the sides aof the square are not the grandest in the city. This place was formerly the site of the old city market and yard sticks and a butcher's knife can be seen by the entrance to the Old Town Hall. There's a fountain in the middle of the square which is named the Maximilian Fountain because it was commissioned by Maximilian II in the 1580s after a huge fire had swept through this part of the city. The sculpture on the fountain depicts Maximilian as the knight Roland and legend has it that on New Years Eve Roland will turn around. So far I don't believe that anyone has seen this happen and not only because it is also said that this will only happen if there's a sober, Bratislava born virgin there too.
It is actually Hviezdoslavono namestie which is the city's most impressive square. It used to be the city's moat but that was filled in on the orders of Marie Theresa when the city walls were demolished in order to make space for grand new projects. This is the place to see and be seen, with restaurants and pavement cafes along the sides. In the winter there's a free ice rink in the middle of the square, in the summer an over-sized chess board. The magnificent National Theatre is at one end of the square; the first time we visited Bratislava the ballet company was performing a premiere and we went up to the doors where we pushed our noses up at the window to have a look inside at the sparling chandeliers and the men and women of the audience in their finery. Opposite the American embassy on Hviezdoslavono namestie there's a statue of Hans Christian Anderson; he visited Bratislava in the 1840s and declared it to be a fairytale of a city.
The squares are lovely places to sit out on sunny days but you will pay a lot more for a drink there than you would on one of the side streets. My advice would be to go a little further for lunch as you can get a good set meal in the newer part of town for a reasonable price, and save the old town squares for drinks.
The Old Town Hall (Stara radnica) which stands at one end of Hlavne namestie is a building I like very much because of the mix of architectural styles; that's because bits have been added over five centuries. This building is the home of the City Museum: it's your typical history museum with archaeological exhibits, old coins, arms and armour, and all those things you find in any museum like this in Europe.
The art museum in the Palffy Palace is more to my liking and it contains pieces from the National Gallery of Bratislava on a rotational basis.Part of this lovely building houses the Austrian embassy and a plaque commemorates the concert that Mozart played here in 1762 at the tender age of six. The main art collection of Bratislava is housed in the Mirbach Palace, a building I love for its rococo facade. The paintings I am not so keen on, at least not in such concentration, because this collection consists almost entirely of Baroque paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Personally, unless the paintings are by an artist I'm really interested in, I prefer to visit somewhere with a bit more variety.
It might sound like I'm being a bit negative about this part of Bratislava but actually I like the area very much. It's the so-called attractions that don't do that much for me. I'm interested in history but I find the museums here rather heavy and uninspiring. I much prefer to wander around the little lanes, nosing in the courtyards and spotting the quirky little features that make the old town so special. These could be old signs over archways, pretty courtyards or fun statues; one of my favorites is the statue of Ignac Lamar holding out his top hat: apparently he was a Bratislava dandy who denied his only true love and spent his days wandering round the city giving flowers to women and sweets to children until his death in 1967. Alas, a couple of years ago his statue was vandalised by a British stag group but has since been repaired.
Bratislava is a great city and it does have a handsome Old Town which deserves to be explored but don't feel bad for sitting and soaking up the atmosphere at a cafe rather than traipsing round a museum or church. We liked Bratislava so much we went back nine years later, and even the second time when faced with the option of visiting a musuem we said 'We can do it next time'. Fortunately next year we'll live only a couple of hours away and might get back sooner.