How to visit Bratislava, the fascinating, forgotten crossroads of Europe

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is located in the far southwest of the country – AMKOPhotography

Lounging in the Mirror Bar of the Carlton Hotel, downing a shot of Borovicka, the potent local liqueur, I am hit by a sudden wave of déjà vu – which is strange, because this is my first time in Bratislava.

Then I shoot again and I realize why this strange environment feels so familiar. This opulent, old-fashioned cocktail bar, with its courteous, eccentric bartenders, resembles a scene from one of my favorite films: Wes Anderson’s tribute to Mitteleuropa. The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Carlton Hotel's Mirror Bar specializes in creative cocktailsThe Carlton Hotel's Mirror Bar specializes in creative cocktails

The Carlton Hotel’s Mirror Bar specializes in creative cocktails: Mirror Bar

Anderson’s dreamlike film wasn’t set in Bratislava, but nowhere else I’ve been can the surreal atmosphere be better summed up than in this decadent drinking den, embedded in this grand hotel. Like Bratislava itself, the Carlton Hotel has experienced an extraordinary fall and rise, from the 19th to the 21st century, from capitalism to communism and then back again.

Situated in a prime location on the Danube River, Bratislava has always been coveted by the competitive empires of Central Europe. Before railways and highways, the Danube was the main artery of the continent, and whoever controlled Bratislava controlled traffic between Vienna and Budapest.

Consequently, it has been a prize for every European despot, occupied alternately by Hungarians, Austrians, Germans and Russians. Until the end of the First World War it was part of the Habsburg Empire. Between the wars it was part of an independent Czechoslovakia.

During World War II it was the capital of Nazi-controlled Slovakia. After World War II it was part of Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. When Czechoslovakia threw off the Soviet yoke during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it became part of an independent Czechoslovakia again. And during the Velvet Divorce of 1993 it finally became the capital of an independent Slovakia.

If you had experienced all these changes here, it must not have been fun at all – but if you are a visitor, Bratislava’s turbulent past is fascinating. From baroque palaces to bourgeois villas, from communist apartment blocks to shiny new skyscrapers: every era has left its mark on the city.

There are many beautiful viewpoints in BratislavaThere are many beautiful viewpoints in Bratislava

There are many beautiful viewpoints in Bratislava – Crot Production

The best place to start a tour of Bratislava is at the sturdy hilltop castle. The main building is medieval, but the foundations date from Roman times. There is an excellent museum inside, which highlights the castle’s long and complicated history, but the best thing about this rugged fortress is the view. From these windswept battlements you look down on the picturesque old town below, the Belle Époque outskirts, the Brutalist suburbs and the forested hills beyond. Through all this meanders the mighty Danube River, which runs all the way from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.

A more modern vantage point is the UFO Tower, which overlooks the busy road bridge on the other side of the river. Built in 1972, the futuristic design now seems absurdly dated. It wasn’t supposed to look like a flying saucer, but somehow the irreverent nickname stuck.

Today it is a tourist attraction, a nostalgic souvenir from a bygone era. The restaurant inside is quite formal, but if you don’t fancy a sit-down meal you can easily buy a ticket for the observation deck above.

Bratislava is a sprawling city with half a million inhabitants, but its car-free center is compact and easy to explore on foot. It’s pleasant rather than spectacular, an attractive mix of architectural styles, from rococo to Art Nouveau.

There are a few drab remnants from the communist era, but most of the old town has been beautifully restored. There are a few tourists, but none of the large tour groups you find in Prague.

Take a city tour with PrešporáčikTake a city tour with Prešporáčik

Take a city tour with Prešporáčik – Prešporáčik

The Bratislava City Museum gives you a good overview of the city’s medieval heritage, but if you are more interested in modern history, there is no need to visit a museum. Everyone over 40 has their own story to tell. My guide Eva has experienced two revolutions here.

As a child, she witnessed the failed uprising of 1968, when attempts to liberalize the Soviet system were brutally suppressed by Russian forces. As a young mother in 1989, she joined a new generation of courageous demonstrators. Incredibly, this time they were successful.

The Soviet Union collapsed and Bratislava regained its freedom after half a century of foreign rule. Eva is far too modest to say that, but it was modest people like her who changed the course of history.

Yet Bratislava is more than history lessons. A vibrant modern city with a vibrant nightlife and a wide range of stylish cocktail bars. At night it is seductive and a bit creepy, an ideal setting for a film noir.

Stanislav and Peter from the Mirror Bar took me on a nighttime tour, to the rooftop Sky Bar to enjoy the breathtaking views over the city, and then to the Antique American Bar, a lovely hideaway straight out of a short story by Graham Greene or Ernest Hemingway.

We ended up at Michalska, a cozy speakeasy behind an unmarked door, a Narnia for drunken insomniacs. I downed a Bloody Mary and shuffled off to bed, dreaming of sultry waitresses and friendly bartenders in white tuxedo jackets and bow ties.

On my last evening in the city we drove to Eck, a chic modern restaurant with its own winery, surrounded by vineyards, on a hill above the Danube. On the other side is Austria.

Restaurant Eck is located on a hill above Bratislava's trendy Devín districtRestaurant Eck is located on a hill above Bratislava's trendy Devín district

Restaurant Eck is located on a hill above Bratislava’s trendy Devín district

You feel that you are here in the heart of Europe, on the border between the Slavic and German worlds. There are only six tables and only one setting for dinner. Waiters glide between the open kitchen and the tables, serving delicious small dishes. The tasting menu isn’t cheap, but I can’t remember the last time I had such a good meal.

The next morning I walked to Sky Park, a cluster of sleek tower blocks designed by the late Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. A new city center has emerged around these iconic buildings. Visitors go to party in the old town, but this is where locals come to work.

I stopped by Tomáš Šajgal, a Slovak sommelier with his own wine shop and bistro, Mad Wines. As we brunched together in his chic little shop, it was hard to believe that this enterprising capital was once communist.

I spent the last few hours in Bratislava wandering through the art galleries. I started at Nedbalka, a private gallery on a quiet side street on the edge of the Old Town. The stunning collection of Slovak art stretches from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, reflecting the tremendous upheavals of that turbulent century and the heroic artists who fought against the status quo.

I ended up at the Slovak National Gallery, a large modern building on the waterfront. There was more Slovak art inside, but what caught my attention were the visiting schoolchildren. They seemed so happy and excited, and their happiness and excitement were contagious.

I thought Bratislava would be a nice place to grow up these days – so different from the time when my guide Eva was at school here, behind the Iron Curtain, and you had to be careful what you said unless it got you in trouble .

Bratislava combines a number of architectural styles, including Rococo and Art NouveauBratislava combines a number of architectural styles, including Rococo and Art Nouveau

Bratislava combines a number of architectural styles, including Rococo and Art Nouveau – Crot Production

Today, the Cold War seems nothing more than a bad dream in Bratislava. Slovakia is part of the EU, the Eurozone and NATO. Slovakia’s quirky capital has had more than its fair share of bad luck.

It deserves the current good times, a destination for foreign tourists instead of foreign troops. But as Slovaks know best, peace and prosperity are never guaranteed here at the crossroads of Central Europe.

How to do that

Fly to Bratislava with Ryanair ( from Edinburgh, Leeds-Bradford, Manchester or Stansted, or with Wizz Air ( from Luton. You can also fly to Vienna, just 30 miles from Bratislava, from London Heathrow with British Airways ( or Austrian Airlines (, from London Gatwick with Wizz Air, or from Manchester or Stansted with Ryanair.

Several bus companies operate services between Vienna Airport and Bratislava. Book with FlixBus ( from £5.99 each way. The journey takes about an hour. A taxi costs about €50 and takes about 40 minutes.

The author traveled to Bratislava as a guest of the Mirror Bar at the Carlton Hotel ( A double room at the Carlton Hotel costs from £100, excluding breakfast (

With a Bratislava Card you get unlimited public transport, free entry to local museums and galleries, discounts on other attractions and a city center tour: 48 hours for €24 or 72 hours for €26. For more information, visit

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