Bratislava- Central Europe’s Missed Capital

A view down a traditional street in Bratislava’s old town

Whilst I was planning my interrail trip around Europe I was desperate to go to the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. It might seem like a very weird place to want to go given that it is sandwiched between the far more popular Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, but my reason for wanting to go was even weirder. It could have been down to its interesting mix of traditional and Soviet architecture or its varied history. However, the reality is that I had guessed Bratislava as an answer on the British TV quiz show Pointless whilst watching it, only for it to be the best answer of the whole round. From that moment on I knew that it was somewhere that I had to visit: Central Europe’s missed capital.

So, that was that. Whilst planning my trip Bratislava was added to my itinerary. It fitted perfectly after my stop in Prague and before I headed on to Budapest. The more traditional stop would be Vienna, it is in fact only about 70km between the two cities, but that was never on my radar. To be perfectly honest, I knew next to nothing about Bratislava before I went. I had booked a hostel for a couple of nights and decided that it was best to get there and see what the city had to offer.

I arrived in the late afternoon from Prague. As was usual my train was later than expected but I had become used to this by now. My first experience of Bratislava was therefore the train station. When I stepped off my train and saw the station, I immediately thought: oh dear I’ve made a mistake here. It is undoubtedly the worst major railway station that I have ever been to. There are only 6 platforms to service all of the trains that pass through and it seemed the idea of having shops at a station may have only just reached Slovakia. To round it all off, the exit to the bus terminal was through a tunnel under the station which looked as though it had barely been cleaned since the station was built in what looked to be the 1960s Soviet era.

I quickly hopped on my bus and headed towards the city centre, hoping that the station was just an anomaly and not a sign of what else was to come. Luckily for me, the station turned out to be nothing like the old town. I stayed at a little hostel sat right on the edge of the old town. After an evening spent outside on the patio meeting lovely fellow travellers over a few pints of Slovakian beer, I decided to get an early night.

The next morning, I went on a walking tour of the old town. This was not a tour organised by the hostel itself as they sometimes are, but instead one that was suggested by the people who worked at the hostel and run by a group of locals.

The tour started in the main square and looped around the majority of the old town, ending at the castle. Unlike the cities of Budapest and Prague, the old town of Bratislava had not been so carefully looked after by the Soviets as they deemed it to be less attractive. This means that as a tourist it is very easy to see in just a day. The castle is undoubtedly the highlight. It stands on top of a hill, overlooking the rest of the old town.

A view from the castle across the old town

The views from the castle are remarkable. You can actually see three different countries: Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary as well as the whole of Bratislava. Across the river from the castle is the area of the city known as Petrzalka. Here is where the dozens of identical Soviet tower blocks are situated. My guide on the walking tour said that she had been over there a few times and every time she got lost as everything just looked the same.

After the tour, I spent the rest of the day exploring the castle gardens and finding a brilliant ice cream shop just off one of the old town boulevards. That night I again spent a few hours at the hostel bar before making my way to bed for an early train the next morning to Budapest.

Bratislava castle and its gardens

Bratislava is certainly not somewhere to spend days on end, it simply isn’t as big as the likes of Budapest or Prague. However, I would argue that it is worth a visit just as much. Not only is it far less crowded than many of the other central European cities, it truly does have a unique feel. The difference between the beautiful old town with the bland Soviet architecture is extremely stark due to their proximity. The old town itself is arguably more unspoilt than the equivalent in other central European countries due to the fact that it is off the traditional tourist route.

In my opinion Bratislava doesn’t deserve to be Central Europe’s missed capital anymore.