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The Emerald Experience > River and city guides > City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Bratislava

City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Bratislava

Retaining a small town charm throughout its ancient cobbled streets, lined with vibrant and colourful buildings; Bratislava is one of Europe’s most laid-back yet immersive capital cities. The hustle and bustle of London and Paris streets could not be more different to the Slovakian capital, where you can explore the romantic terraces, café-lined squares, fairy tale castles and authentic eateries at your own pace.

Perched on both banks of the Danube, the charming capital city has been shaped by more than 2,000 years of history. The impact of Celtic, Roman and Slavic invasions can still be experienced in this ancient city, all leaving their mark on the culture, architecture and locals of Slovakia. The glut of architectural styles are brought to prominence through a mixed palette bringing the colourful buildings to life, with buildings of blue, pink, orange and green sitting peacefully, side by side.

Bratislava has enjoyed a prominent position, financially and culturally, throughout its existence. The wonderful placement on the Danube, at the intersection of European trade, helped Bratislava become one of Europe’s great Renaissance-era cities. And thankfully, Bratislava and the locals revel in their history, with the charming Old Town carefully maintained for current and future generations to enjoy. There is a sense of stepping through time as you work your way through the beautiful streets of the Slovakian capital, enjoying the relaxed café culture and time-honoured culture.

bratislava city guide

This history dates back to around 200 BC, when a Celtic Boii tribe founded the first settlement on the site of modern Bratislava. The city quickly fell under Roman influence, of which remnants can still be enjoyed today, not least the Roman pursuits of grape growing and winemaking.

From the 11th century to the early 20th century, the city’s affiliations were to a selection of different countries and kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire and Czechoslovakia. This represented a period of significant turmoil, thanks to the city’s favourable and strategic position on the Danube drawing the envious attention of opposing empires.

Sadly, the city’s unique position was cause for concern following World War II, with the boundary of the Iron Curtain separating the Soviet Union from non-Soviet-controlled areas landing within sight of Bratislava’s city centre. This disrupted the single economy of the region, affected local cultures and split neighbours from one another. Thankfully, the end of the Cold War in 1991 led to the fall of the Iron Curtain, and moves to heal the wounds of the conflict started in earnest.  

Since 1993, Bratislava has enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity, named the capital of the newly-formed Slovak Republic. And thankfully, much of the city’s historical artefacts have managed to survive, found through the beautiful streets or housed in one of Bratislava’s enchanting museums.

Must-See Sights

Bratislava, and Slovakia as a whole, may be looking forward to a bright and prosperous future, but many of the city’s great sights and experiences are entrenched in the past. Celebrating the unique history of this beautiful city is incredibly enjoyable, with living monuments to the past sitting pretty on the delightful streets of Bratislava.

Bratislava Castle – Perched above the Old Town, Bratislava Castle with its vibrant white walls and rich red peaks, is perhaps the first thing most first-time visitors to Bratislava will notice. A fortified settlement has existed on the castle’s hilltop site since the 9th century, but has undergone massive changes and reconstructions over the years. After falling into a ruinous state in the early 19th century, the castle was subsequently restored to its former glory, starting in 1953.

Today, the palatial building is home to the Slovak National Museum, hosting the nation’s most important artefacts and objects. Events and exhibitions celebrating the history of Bratislava occur throughout the year, and Shakespeare performances can often be caught on the star-lit courtyard throughout the summer.

bratislava city guide

Devín Castle – Although not quite as well kept as the above castle, Devín Castle’s charm lies within its ruinous appeal and geographical position. Just a few miles from Bratislava’s Old Town, Devín Castle stands on a massive cliff and offers stunning views across the Danube. The old ruined castle remains a symbol of Slovak unity and is a popular picnic site for Bratislava’s families.

Church of St. Elisabeth – Built at the start of the 20th century, the Church of St. Elisabeth offers a striking appearance. Known as Blue Church due to the striking colours and designs of the outer wall, the building is a truly unique spectacle. The interior is just as captivating, with the blue theme continuing throughout. It’s difficult not to feel serene and at peace in this beautiful church which has recently celebrated its 100th birthday.

Michael’s Gate – The only gate to have survived from the medieval fortifications of Bratislava, Michael’s Gate is one of the city’s oldest structures. In medieval times, there were only four routes to enter Bratislava, through one of the four guarded gate buildings. As the sole survivor, Michael’s Gate is a wonderful tribute to a time when Bratislava was restricted to just the Old Town district. Although dating back to 1300, the current Michael’s Gate has more than a little 18th-century charm, when it was given a baroque facelift in 1758.

Today, Michael’s Gate leads onto one of Bratislava’s best-loved luxury shopping streets, home to Christian Dior and Swarovski flagships amongst others.

Slavín – A memorial and military cemetery overlooking the city, Slavín is the burial ground of thousands of Soviet Army soldiers who lost their life in World War II liberating Bratislava. The solemn and awe-inspiring structure features a stone soldier set atop an 11-metre pylon. After paying your respects, enjoy the panorama of Bratislava, one of the best views of the city.

Fast Facts

Here are a selection of our favourite Bratislava-based facts.

  • Bratislava is only 30 miles from the Austrian capital, Vienna
  • And is the only capital city which borders two countries (Hungary and Austria)
  • Bratislava used to be known by its German name, Pressburg
  • Train travel is completely free if you’re aged 62 or over
  • The inventor of the parachute, Štefan Banič, was born just outside Bratislava
  • In Bratislava, you can eat dinner in a UFO-shaped pod positioned high above the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising

Bratislava is a popular stop on our river cruises on the Danube. For more information about an Emerald Waterways river cruise on this captivating waterway, visit our dedicated Danube river cruises page, or call our friendly sales team on 0808 301 4705.

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