My Kind of Place: Bratislava, Slovakia

Scale isn’t as important as the variety of attractions when visiting this eastern European capital, writes David Whitley.

St Michaels Gate is one of the best places to begin a wander through the pedestrianised streets of Bratislava and explore the capital city of Slovakia. Courtesy Corbis
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Why Bratislava?

Surrounded by central Europe’s attention-seekers – Budapest, Krakow, Prague and Vienna – the Slovak capital is a mousy little thing. Often written off as little more than a country-ticking stop on river-cruise itineraries, unassuming Bratislava revels in its smallness. A long history of playing second fiddle in larger kingdoms and empires give it the feel of an accidental capital, much happier doing its own thing without the glare of the limelight.

Approach is key here. Tackle it as a frenetic tick-list of must-sees, and disappointment awaits. Enter mooch mode, ease into the cafe culture and ferret through the oddities, and it’s much more engaging. Those oddities aren’t all that tricky to spot – the massive spacecraft-like Nový Most Bridge across the River Danube is a marvel of Soviet era architecture, and the upside-down pyramid of the Slovak Radio Building is so phenomenally ugly that it’s mesmerising.

Bratislava, however, is best used as a springboard to nature. The Carpathian mountain range starts here, and you only have to walk a couple of kilometres out of the city centre to be surrounded by bucolic rolling hills and walking trails.

A comfortable bed

The Kempinski River Park (; 00421 2 3223 8222) is one of the new developments cropping up alongside the Danube, and goes all-out on internationalist plushness. Massive, high-quality beds (infuriatingly rare in Bratislava) combine with free Rolls-Royce transfers into the old town and a top-floor pool-and-spa complex designed to make even a humble lap swimmer feel special. Doubles cost from €255 (Dh1,273) per night.

For old-town charm and character, Marrol's (; 00421 2 5778 4600) hits the sweet spot between elegance, luxury, carefully chosen modernity and good value. There's homeliness in the chessboard side tables, bath salts and dark-wood floors. Doubles from €93 (Dh463) per night.

Best value, however, comes from Apartments Bratislava (; 00421 918 397 924), which has a number of well-appointed, spacious apartments in handy locations. Rates start at €49 (Dh245).

Find your feet

St Michael’s Gate is the logical starting point for a lazy meander through the pedestrianised streets of the small, but winningly pretty, old town. Allowing yourself to get lost is a better way of exploring than marching towards any particular attraction. Keep an eye out for some marvellously weird public art on the way, the most popular of which is a statue crawling out of a fake manhole cover on the corner of Panská and Rybárska.

Gradually wind uphill towards St Martin's Cathedral, where 11 Austro-Hungarian monarchs were crowned, and Bratislava Castle (; 00421 2 5972 1111). If it looks brand new, that's because it is – the original burnt down in 1811; this reconstruction was completed in 1953. The museum exhibits inside are fusty, but the view from the ramparts is great. The Danube, the tower blocks of the communist housing estate Petržalka, the Nový Most (UFO) Bridge and wind farms over the Austrian border make for tremendously surreal snaps.

Meet the locals

The most easily accessible slice of the wild – and a hugely popular hiking and biking area for local residents – is the Bratislava Forest Park in the north of the city. Trolleybus 203 will get you there.

Book a table

Slovak food leans towards heartily stodgy – expect meat, potatoes, cabbage and dumplings. Doing this better than most is Prašna Bašta (; 00421 2 5443 4957), which has a gorgeous, blossom-flecked courtyard terrace and less gut-busting options such as grilled trout with herbs, almonds and crashed potatoes (€11.50 [Dh57]).

Lemon Tree (; 00421 2 5441 1244) is swankier and has a fab seventh-floor roof terrace. The menu is half Mediterranean and half Thai-inspired. Authenticity isn't the strong point – the duck breast red curry with lychee, pineapple and aubergine (€19 [Dh95]), for example – but the food is inventive and good quality.

Shopper’s paradise

Poke your nose into the courtyards off the main old-town streets to find interesting galleries, although the Katka crystal shop ( on Panská hides in plain view. Its glasses and vases are beautiful, if not bargain-basement everyday tableware.

For folksy art and crafts, ÚL'UV at Obchodna 64 ( is the best bet. It has woodcarving and basketry workshops at the back, while the shops at the front are good for the likes of hand-painted eggs, embroidery and surprisingly untacky wooden dogs.

What to avoid

Strauss romanticised the river as the Blue Danube, but in reality it’s a murky brown.

Don’t miss

Authentic Slovakia (; 00421 911 77 33 22) runs fabulously informative, warts-and-all tours around the city in a 1971 Skoda. The emphasis is on the communist era – taking in pompous monuments, socialist housing projects and more than a few eyebrow-raising stories of corruption. The highlight is driving past old bunkers along the military road that ran along the east and west-dividing Iron Curtain. A grass verge is all that separates it from a road on the Austrian side of the border. Prices start from €19 (Dh95) per person.

Getting there

Emirates (; 600 555555) offers flights from Dubai to Vienna from Dh2,645. Postbus ( services connect Vienna Airport to Bratislava, costing €7.70 (Dh38) and taking one hour.