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Sitting along the Danube River on the western edge of Slovakia, the capital of Bratislava is the cultural, economic, and political hub of the country. Once drab and deserted from 40 years of communism, today the city flourishes with a fascinating mix of the old and new. Gothic cathedrals share the streets with modern shopping malls, a tree-lined riverbank sits below a UFO, and the 10th-century Bratislava Castle looms over the busy highway. Within the historic Old Town, colorfully restored buildings house rooftop bars, lively cafes, and spirited nightclubs. Outside the city, the lush surroundings of the Little Carpathian Mountains provide an ideal landscape for outdoor recreation and winetasting. Close proximity to the borders of Austria and Hungry offers easy access to both the neighboring capitals of Vienna and Budapest.
Bratislava is divided into 5 districts and 17 boroughs, but the best and most exciting attractions are concentrated in a few parts of the city. If you only have a short time to explore, these are the areas you simply can’t miss.
Staré Mesto (Old Town) — The smallest yet most vibrant of Bratislava’s districts, Staré Mesto—or Old Town—is where you’ll find the majority of the city’s hotels, restaurants, cafes, museums, and historic attractions. The center of the Old Town, around the quaint Main Square, is a pedestrian-only area, making it easy to walk between sites like Michael’s Gate, St. Martin’s Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and the Art Nouveau Church of St. Elizabeth. To the west of the main highway, the imposing Bratislava Castle perches high atop a hill overlooking the city. Further north in the district, the Slavin War Memorial pays tribute to the Soviet soldiers who died while liberating the city during World War II. The southern border of the district abuts the Danube River and connects to the other side of the water via the futuristic New Bridge.
Nové Mesto (New Town) — Directly to the north of the Old Town, New Town is exactly as it sounds—a neighborhood marked by modern buildings including high-rise apartments, the Polus Center shopping mall, and stadiums like the Ondrej Nepela Arena. Around half of the borough is taken up by the Bratislava Forest Park that lies in the foothills of the Little Carpathian Mountains. Here, find a dense network of hiking trails and recreational facilities, as well as the observation deck atop the 643-foot (196-m) Kamzik TV Tower.
Ružinov — To the east of Old Town, Ružinov is where you’ll arrive in Bratislava if you’re flying into the airport. Just down the street is the city’s largest shopping center, Avion Park, which houses nearly 200 restaurants, shops, and specialty services. The neighborhood is also home to the Miletičova Open-Air Market, offering fresh flowers, ripe produce, and handmade cheese from Monday to Saturday. In the warm weather months, the Zlaté Piesky lake offers a restful place to swim, sunbathe, and enjoy sports such as volleyball and mini-golf.
Petržalka — Across the river from the Old Town, Petržalka is a favorite for those who are interested in Communist-style architecture. Much of the neighborhood is made up of 1970s block housing known as panelak, in which roughly 130,000 people still live today. The borough’s main attractions are located near edge of the river. These include the leafy lawns of Sad Janka Kráľa park, the stylish shops and activities at Aupark Mall, and the UFO Observation Deck on the south end of New Bridge. From June to September, the area below the UFO comes alive with places to eat, drink, relax, and play.
Karlova Ves — A former winemaking village for much of its history, the borough of Karlova Ves sits directly to the west of the Old Town. While today it’s home to one of the largest populations in the city, its maintained much of its small-town charm. The area offers easy access to the hiking and biking trails in the forest surrounding Devinska Kobyla, the highest peak in the Devin Carpathians. On the east edge of the borough, find the scenic Botanical Garden and the Bratislava Zoo, the latter of which houses more than 170 species of animals and a dino park featuring lifesize animated sculptures.
Devín — Further west, the borough of Devin is a rural suburb sitting in the shadow of Devinska Kobyla. The area is famous as the home of Devin Castle, an ancient ruin on a dramatic cliff looking down upon the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. Come here to explore the mysterious ruins and then stick around to enjoy the charming restaurants and cafes that dot the quiet streets below the cliff.
Head to the open-air UFO Observation Deck for unparalleled views over the city. In 45 seconds, an elevator takes you to the height of 312 feet (95 m), where you’re met with jaw-dropping views for up to 62 miles (100 km) in each direction. Come as early as 10 AM to see sights like Bratislava Castle and St. Martin’s Cathedral in the daytime, or as late as 11 PM to watch the city lights sparkle into the Danube below. Once you’ve basked in the beauty of Bratislava, make your way inside for an unforgettable meal of “Mediterasian”-inspired creations at one of the most prestigious restaurants in the city.
Discover the best-kept secrets of Bratislava with a local guide who’s in the know. On a tour in the afternoon, wander the streets of the Old Town to landmarks like Michael’s Gate and St. Martin’s Cathedral. Along the way, pop into hidden shops to sample traditional food and drinks such as salted bread and borovička liquor. Next, make the trek up the hill to Bratislava Castle, where you stop at a picture-perfect viewpoint for a picnic while looking over the city. Enjoy time to explore the Gothic grounds before hopping on a trolley toward wooded Mountain Park. Check out a tucked-away memorial with sweeping views of the city before stopping into a local pub for a refreshing pint of beer.
Once you’ve seen the city by day, uncover all of its charms after the sun goes down. Start with another stroll to Bratislava Castle to admire breathtaking views of the skyline twinkling at night. Later, walk through the historic center, passing by illuminated landmarks like the Maximilian’s Fountain and Slovak National Theatre. Traverse the banks of the Danube toward the UFO Observation Deck, and get whisked away to the restaurant that sits at the top. Here, sip on a handcrafted cocktail or a local glass of wine while gazing out upon panoramic views lit up at night.
After exploring Bratislava, travel east for a visit to the Hungarian capital of Budapest, embarking on a culinary journey along the way. As you drive through picturesque valleys and tranquil villages, make stops at wineries and food shops on both sides of the border. Sample wines like fruity veltliner and oaky chardonnay, along with tasty bites of sausages, pastries, and handmade cheese. By the time you arrive in Budapest, you’ll have a pro’s understanding of the similarities and differences between the 2 countries’ cuisines.