I've spent my past five birthdays in five different countries (21 - Canada, 22 - USA, 23 - Australia, 24 - New Zealand, 25 - Belgium), so in order to continue that tradition, I booked a solo getaway to my thirtieth country of Slovakia with a weekend in Bratislava, the nation's beautiful capital city.
My birthday is the day before Valentine's Day, and given that I was flying solo this year, I extended the trip to include that day (materialistic as it is) and make it a long weekend dedicated to loving and treating myself.
Aside from the fact that I was convinced my 15:12 train out of Salzburg was at 5:12pm and showed up nearly two hours late (for what was actually a 3:12pm train) and managed to sweet talk the lady at the ticket office into exchanging it for free and saving me the €70 penalty fee, my weekend was a smooth sailing delight.
The train from Salzburg took just about three hours to Vienna and then I switched over to an international train for the final hour to cross the border into Slovakia. Getting to Bratislava by train is a breeze from any of the nearby cities and countries; I use trainline to book and plan all my train trips.
Bratislava is Slovakia's capital city, and has throughout history been a vitally crucial centre of importance, from being home to the coronation cathedral of eighteen Hungarian monarchs, to the signing of the Fourth Peace of Pressburg, which ultimately led to the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire. Slovakia has only been independent for less than a hundred years, since the end of the Second World War, having been under the rule of the Celts, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs and the Romans at points among others, as well as part of both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia. It's now a steadfast little country, proud of its place in the world. It sits on the Danube river, very close to the borders of both Hungary and Austria, both of which can actually be seen from Bratislava Castle!
Where to Stay in Bratislava
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a budget traveler. I travel all the time and in order to stretch my money as far and as long as possible, I'm always on the hunt for the best baragins, prefer free activites over paid ones, rarely go out to eat and always pick AirBnBs (for work travel) or hostels (for fun travel). BUT, this was my 26th birthday, and it was my 30th country, and a few months ago I got a promotion, and I was single and in desperate need of some self-love - as if I don't use that as a validator for everything I do these days - so I booked myself into a five-star hotel.
I've never stayed in a five-start hotel and thankfully, this is Slovakian prices so we're talking a very affordable five-star hotel that I got a great deal on on booking.com, but either way, I spoiled myself and felt luxurious and princessy all weekend.
I spent three nights at Marrol's Boutique Hotel, right on the edge of Bratislava's old town, offering tastefully decorated old style rooms which I absolutely adored. Breakfast at the very fancy restaurant downstairs and the perfect aesthetic interior decor really just made this place sublime. There's even a spa, too.
Where to Eat in Bratislava
By now, y'all know I'm vegan (have been for nearly two years, plus my eight years of mostly-vegetarianism before that) so half the fun while I'm traveling is scoping out the local vegan scene. Europe has been exceptional for vegan food on my travels (especially Portugal and Poland) and Bratislava was no less. There were loads of options, each with fantastic reviews. From urban restaurants, to quick take-away spots, veganism is thriving in Bratislava. Here's where I went during my weekend:
I came here for my birthday to this super hip and fun spot, that's really well decorated and has a fantastic vibe. It's not a vegan restaurant, but has loads of vegan options and they spoiled me with a mocktail and birthday cake!
Location: Laurinská 213/14
A fully vegan bistro / street food spot, I swear I could have eaten everything on the menu. Very much a comfort food yummy spot, this place homemakes many of their ingredients and just nails it. I had the yummiest, most flavourful burrito bowl and a cinnamon roll with raspberry sauce and lemon custard for pud, for my Valentine's Day treat.
Location: Jozefská 2989/23
Things to Do in Bratislava
Now, to the travel part! The best thing to do in any new city is to join a free walking tour on your first morning so that you can hear from a local a bit of the history of the city and to get your bearings of some of the highlights in town. I did an old town and castle tour with Free Tour Bratislava, whom I joined at 11am in the main square for a two-hour wander.
Then, you can spend the rest of your time seeing the bits the tour may not have covered or going back to places you saw to spend more time at and uncover more thoroughly. Here's what I saw in Bratislava:
1. Františkánske námestie
The main square in the heart of Bratislava's old town, this is the hub of activity - find the Old Town Hall here, a church - with a WWII cannon ball lodged in its wall! - cafes, statues and often live music.
2. Čumil, the Man at Work
Bratislava is full of statues, but this is the most famous, the statue of the man peeping out of the manhole on the ground. According to my tour guide, many people mistakenly believe he is either a sewer worker on a break or a peeping Tom looking up ladies' skirts, but apparently he is neither, he is just meant to symbolize the pleasant nature of the Slovaks!
3. Slovak National Theatre
Opened in 1886 when Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by famous architects F. Fellner and H. Helmer, the busts on the outside of Bratislava's beautiful theatre infamously feature no Slovakians, because Slovakia didn't exist back then! I regret not being able to see a ballet, but you can buy tickets to all kinds of performances on their website.
4. St. Martin's Cathedral
The most famous cathedral in the city built in the 13th century, this was actually the coronation spot of eighteen Hungarian monarchs during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its iconic blue spire can be seen for miles prominently on the skyline.
5. Bratislava Castle
Bratislava's most famous icon is the white castle up on the hill. Built originally in 907 AD, the castle only received its white coat of paint in 2012 and has changed looks many times throughout its history thanks to damage and usage in various situations, such as a fortress, royal residence and army barracks. The castle houses a small museum today and pretty baroque-style gardens. From the plaza in front of the castle, looking down over the Danube River below, you can actually spot three countries at once - Hungary to the left, Slovakia in front, and Austria to the right!
6. Primatial Palace
Built in the 1700s for the Archbishop József Cardinal Batthyány, this palace was the signing of the fourth Peace of Pressburg in its most famous room, the Hall of Mirrors, the signing of which ultimately led to the dissolving of the Holy Roman Empire. The Hall of Mirrors is still used to this day for welcoming guests and important meetings, and the palace itself is now the seat of the Mayor of Bratislava.
7. Old Town Streets
As you've wandered Bratislava to visit all these highlights, you'll have come across so many quaint streets, where juxtaposing architecture creates for a beautiful backdrop as you explore.
8. Blue Church
Formally the Church of St. Elizabeth, this cartoon-like pastel blue church just outside the city looks like it's come straight out of a Disney fim!
This hilltop war memorial just outside the city has sweeping views of the city and is the final resting of nearly 7000 soldiers who died in the liberation of Bratislava and western Slovakia during WWII. Moving and important.
10. Devín Castle
The most popular day trip from Bratislava, and actually the most visited tourist spot in all of Slovakia, is Devín Castle, just 10km north of the city and easily accessible by public transport (bus 29 takes you straight there) and by car. The castle sits on the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers on a crag overlooking Austria to the west across the riverbank. Built in the first century, the castle was destroyed by Napoleon's army and now lays in impressive ruins across an area that is still being excavated and discovered to this day. Be wary, it's windy!