A Pet Friendly Day Trip to Bratislava
If our day in its capital city Bratislava is anything to go by, Slovakia will be worth a return visit. It’s only an hour away from Vienna and inexpensive to get to from there: 3 Euro per person on a bus a bit more if you want to hop on a train.
You can of course opt for a more expensive option and buy a package that provides you with pick-up at your hotel, a fancy bus with a bathroom and AC and a tour guide for your walking tour waiting for you upon arrival. That is what we opted to do. When pressed for time, and making a last minute decision, we find that sometimes paying more is just fine if it means less worry. We found our tickets through the Vienna Information Office near the Opera house.
Note: Be careful not to over pay! Keep in mind that a guide in Bratislava is getting about 3 Euro an hour from the company (We were shocked – they live off the tips!) and that even if you took the train it would all be less than 15 Euro per person. So keep that in mind when bartering for the packages.
Our day started early. The driver picked us up at the hotel as promised and on time. He knew a dog was part of the deal and greeted me with much enthusiasm. We were dropped off near the Opera House where he pointed out clearly where our bus would pull up and told us it would be bright yellow and what number would be displayed on the front. Sure enough – after a pee break on the Opera House lawn – the bus showed up. We got in, no one cared that a small dog was joining them. Off we went! Easy.
The drive to Bratislava (and back) was uneventful. Smooth highways, beautiful countryside… and because both countries are part of the European Union (EU) no border stop and no passport control. Before we knew it we were driving over the BIG Bridge over the Danube River – same river that goes through Vienna in fact!
This bridge is significant. Remember that until not that long ago the people of Slovakia and thus the citizens of Bratislava, were living under the harsh rule of communism. That bridge and the Danube River were constant reminders of what was JUST out of reach. Out there … only an hour away was Vienna. Much like with the Berlin Wall that bridge and river saw many executions as people tried to get away.
Today, if you want to get the most amazing view of the city you can take the pedestrian walkway under and across the bridge (surprisingly beautiful compared to many communist monstrosities), then take the elevator (or stairs!) up to the observation deck that looks much like the Seattle Space Needle. It’s about 300 feet above the Danube, and there is a restaurant up there if you feel so inclined. Sadly the whole thing takes over 2 hours to enjoy and we simply didn’t have the time. Poop!
Bratislava’s Old City Centre
Our bus dropped us off where the bridge connects to the Ring Road. There is an off ramp that takes drivers to the Old City. I will not lie to you. The stop was grungy, filled with graffiti tags and a smelly bathroom. It also had a kiosk selling cigarettes, beer, vending machine coffee, maps and other such things. We didn’t feel unsafe, but you could tell that the city had other priorities. It reminded mom of communist Hungary years and years ago the one she had visited as a child. Within moments our guide led us across the “bus lanes” and into the old city with all the beauty it had to reveal.
Our tour started with a surprise; a statue of Hans Christian Anderson. I did not know this, and neither did mom (who lived in Denmark and saw the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen) but he lived in Bratislava for a while. I know right? Who knew? He lived there long enough to write one of his most famous stories: The Little Match Girl. It was an intriguing discovery!
We kept walking down a pedestrian street that is just beyond pretty. A good way to get our blood flowing into our legs after the long bus ride. It’s very green (pee break!) with loads of trees. This space is usually filled with a market but we were there just a tiny bit early and got to see it unencumbered. The cute houses and restaurants are some of the oldest in the city.
We then headed down towards the Danube, where river cruise boats await along the open promenade. It was a little loop we did so that those that were going on a river cruise (and not returning to Vienna) could drop off their suitcases before continuing with the walking tour. I quite enjoyed the view…. And learning about the bridge and the struggles the county and its people suffered until it’s “Velvet Divorce” from the Czech Republic in 1993 from our guide.
Heading back into the Old Town, we made our way towards some of the major landmarks and sights. You know the drill! Opera houses, Parliament buildings, Concert halls. Many resembling the ones we had seen in Vienna.
The Old Town Hall dates back to the 13th century and is one of the only remaining old stone buildings of that time. I loved that it had this most pretty tower that you can climb up as part of the museum ticket (very good but not pet friendly- a handoff will be needed). It’s a lot of stairs but really worth it! The inner courtyard had stellar archways all around. I was allowed in the courtyard and took full advantage of that!
The Old Town hall is one of the many buildings that surround the main square and at its centre is the Maximillian or Roland Fountain. Built in 1572, its base is 9 metres in diameter.
The column is 10 metres high and topped with a man in shining armour. Some claim it’s Maximillian I other’s say it’s the Knight Roland, defender of the city. Hence the two names for one fountain. Either way, its importance was in providing drinking water to the main square and its people, saving them the hike to the river. I liked running all around it!
In the same square is a statue of a Napoleon soldier. I have no idea why it was there – or the story behind it – but it made for a fun photo op. I was slowly learning that Bratislava had a lot of fun statues around.
Around a bend towards the Western edge of the historic Old City Centre we went. We just loved the vibe of the city. Sure it’s not as grand or majestic in style as Prague, Vienna or Budapest for that matter, but it has soul. I was particularly fascinated by the juxtaposition of new buildings built where war had destroyed the previous one, often right next to a survivor. One building broke our heart. Its Art Deco beauty something to behold but nearly abandoned if not for one resident on the before last floor.
We hope someone scoops it up and gives it the facelift it needs. Its location is amazing too – right across the street from Saint Martin’s Cathedral.
Saint Martin’s dates back to the 15th century. The Castle on its hill towers above it from across the road (more on that soon!) but the Cathedral doesn’t seem to … care… LOL! Maybe because it knows it has importance of its own. You see many a coronation was had there. A full ELEVEN kings and EIGHT Queens to be precise! Plus it’s kind of neat that they built the Cathedral right into the city wall. It’s a beauty inside so if you can do a hand off (no dogs inside) do visit, it’s worth it! The church is free and the treasury a little extra DO pay for that. You will not regret it.
It’s a fascinating architectural piece. You can see the evolution from Romantic, to Gothic to Baroque. The spire is topped with an exact replica – in gold – of the crown of St. Stephen. And crazy enough … this amazing Cathedral is just a few meters away from the busiest of city ring roads (where the bridge into town connects!). Oddly we did not feel overwhelmed by the noise of traffic. I know not what magic that is!
In the same square and much more sobering is the Holocaust Memorial. The discrete steel and and stone sculpture commemorates the 105,000 lives of those killed. On the wall behind the sculpture is a silhouette of the Neolog Synagogue which used to sit on this site before it and the entire Jewish ghetto was destroyed by the Soviets in 1967 to make way for the bridge.
With only 4 hours left we decided that as much as we wanted to linger and see more of the Old City we needed to start our hike up to the castle if we were to see it at all. Following some simple signage we walked past St. Martin’s Cathedral and found ourselves on the vestige of the old city walls. You would never have known they were there if the signs didn’t point that way! Here there is a great series of old photos and plaques showing the Jewish community that once thrived there. And a photo of that Synagogue!
We managed to cross the Ring Road to get to the other side of it, for it separates the Old City from the Castle grounds.
We passed in front and started climbing up and up and up the stairs…You can see some homes being restored and modernized, right next to those overgrown with vines. It’s pedestrian so I was off leash again! I LOVED the bike ramp with wooden barrier on the right of “not all” (so weird) steps!
And then the castle ground pathways materialized. At first the oldest ones made of cobble stones.
And before you know it we looked up and there is was looming above you: Bratislava’s Castle.
Just touring the castle grounds and gardens is worth the hike. The variety of eras represented in this one massive collection of buildings is mind boggling. The castle was built on Roman remnants the main building’s range from 1531 to 1783.
Note: Pets are not allowed inside so we gave it a pass. Time was of the essence anyway.
I really wish we had a bit more time but realizing we had to hike all the way back so we headed off.
As we made our way back towards our bus top we walked through the truly lovely streets of the Old City Centre of Bratislava. Finally – and quite literally – I stumbled upon my favourite statue in the entire city: Čumil!
It may be “just” a statue of a man peeking out of a manhole but it is amusing none the less. Probably one of the most photographed spots in the city! Yes a total tourist thing to do… but heck when in Bratislava…
Three theories around what he is doing option a) he’s resting after cleaning the sewer or b) he’s trying to look under women’s skirt c) it’s a reference to communism and the lack of incentive to work so he’s … people watching. Originally there was no warning sign next to him but after he lost his head twice when delivery trucks (it’s a pedestrian area) went over… well … something had to be done. For him and for the suspension of the trucks!
So it is with a giggle in our heart we poped into a tourist store to get a Slovakia Flag badge for my sling bag and we JUST caught our bus back to Vienna where cake and coffee awaited!