Atmospheric churches, crazy bridges, grand castles, and cliché cobblestone streets: What do locals in Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava recommend visitors see first?
“Vienna,” jokes Barbara, my Slovak Airbnb host, who has lived in Bratislava her entire life, since the 1960s. While she’s quick to follow-up with a plethora of things to do during my visit, it does emphasize the accessibility of Bratislava, which lies just an hour outside Vienna, about two hours and 40 minutes from Budapest, and about four hours from Prague, with direct train and bus connections from all three. A comparatively small, easily navigable city of 500,000 inhabitants, this former Eastern Bloc city is an appealing, albeit off-the-radar, destination for people from all walks of life.
To truly get the most out of your visit, I think a guided tour is a must—they help introduce geographically, culturally, and historically the city in a way that is difficult to achieve on your own. Plus, free walking tours are a great way to meet new friends, especially as a solo traveler. Be Free Tours Bratislava offers several great tour options every day of the week, and their licensed guides work for tips only, so you are more likely to get great service and only pay what you think it is worth.
Free walking tours start from the main square in Old Town Bratislava, which is called Hviezdoslavovo Namestie. As our small group gathers, our guide, Lucia, gives a brief history of Bratislava and Slovakia at large, explaining its place in the global scale, starting as a part of the Hungarian empire in the 10th century and ending with its eventual “reestablishment” as a Soviet Satellite State in 1945. Lucia explains the significance of the thousand-year-old square where we stand, concluding with a very pivotal moment in 1988, the Candlelight Demonstration, which ignited the revolution against the communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia. Five thousand Slovaks peacefully protested in the heart and soul of the city, and while it ended in violent confrontations with the police, it led to the eventual downfall of communism in Slovakia and beyond.
The tour takes us through Old Town, with its cobblestone streets and numerous churches, much like any other European capital city.
As we approach the Danube river and the edge of Old Town, we hit a massive freeway. Lucia explains that in the early 1960s, a third of Old Town including the entirety of the Jewish quarter, was leveled to build this road and connecting bridge.
She points to the bridge in the distance. Seemingly hovering over the bridge is a UFO-like structure where a restaurant and bar is housed.
“We lost so much history in favor of this area,” Lucia says. “If there is any good, I suppose it is in that the UFO Bridge attracts a lot of tourists to the area, and that has helped revitalize the Staré Mesto side of Bratislava.”
We move along, to the other large plaza in Old Town, Námestie Slobody. It is a behemoth of a square with six paths leading down to the largest fountain in Slovakia. Hundreds of park benches are scattered throughout the grassy area and former Soviet government buildings flank the sides.
Lucia explains that this square was repurposed during the socialist rule, that they, “built the fountain so that it was too loud to talk to anyone. The benches are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter to sit on and the incline is too extreme for the back. The entrances are exactly a tank-width wide.” It was the picture-perfect square that subtly dissuaded revolting of any kind. Nowadays, the fountain lies in disrepair, the local government asserting that it would take several million euros to fix. The benches sit empty, a silent reminder of days past. Graffiti slowly fills every nook and cranny, calling for change. A French woman on the tour says, “Bratislava is the perfect combination of ambition and neglect,” and I cannot agree more.
As we continue onward, I realize how impacted I am by the stories of protest and resistance of the Slovaks against the communist regime. Above all, there is a deep resiliency within the very souls of the Slovak people, and this resiliency is evident in every aspect of Bratislava. You can feel it in the colorfully painted communist-block buildings and in each paint particle of graffiti and street art on the walls. You see it in the eyes of the old man waiting at the bus stop with his curly mustache and striped socks and in every patch on the back of worn denim jackets of the punk kids hanging out by the Fountain of Union.
If you pay attention, it is obvious.
As the sun sets, I meander my way to Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, where my Airbnb host, Barbara, promised to meet me before leading me back to her apartment. I spot her at a table in the center of the room, talking to a waiter.
As I sit on the opposite side of the worn, wooden table, Barbara says, “I’ve ordered all of Slovakia for us tonight.”
While we wait for our food, Barbara recounts stories from her youth growing up in the Communist era. She talks of censorship of every aspect in life, of constant surveillance, and food shortages. “Life was hard back then, but it was all we knew,” she says, reaching for a bread roll, a Rožky. She describes how much things have changed over the last 20 years, with a slow rise in tourism to the former Soviet Satellite States.
“It is good that curious people like yourself are visiting. The government is finally investing in infrastructure,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and I have a job.”
A woman of her word, Slovak dish after dish arrive in front of us, from the potato dumplings topped with sheep cheese and bacon of Bryndzove Halushky, to the garlic and flour oil-fried potato pancakes of Zemiakové Placky, to the creamy delicious garlic soup of Cesnaková Polievka. To complete the feast, two vase-esque beer glasses filled to the brim with a deep golden-blonde ale appear in front of us, followed by two thumb-sized chalices containing a murky liquid.
I stare at the chalices, confusion no doubt evident on my face.
“It’s like the body and the soul,” she says, pointing at the larger glass and then the small chalice. “We pay attention to the soul in Slovakia.”
As I’d later come to learn, the beer we were drinking was Affligem, a Belgian brew inspired by the 1,000 year old Benedictine tradition of serving the yeast, the “soul” of the beer, in its own glass. The idea is that the yeast, the magical ingredient that drives the fermentation process, is its own delicacy, and is worth celebrating in its own right.
Barbara informs me there are several ways of serving the drink, but this is her favorite, the Slovak way. There is something special about sipping the life force of a beer from a tiny chalice, this centuries-old tradition where the discarded becomes the focus, where that which is ignored is finally given its well-deserved spotlight.
“To life, to new friends, and to keeping the soul alive,” Barbara toasts, and as we drink the amber liquid, I can’t help but believe that Slovakia does the soul good.