Ah, Bratislava. How I am so glad I decided to visit you on a day trip from Vienna. Let’s retrace my steps for a minute. I first visited Vienna 10 years ago during my Contiki tour of Europe. I remember it being the coldest place we visited, so I didn’t do a lot of sightseeing. I instead spent a lot of time indoors trying not to die of frostbite. Fast forward 10 years and I thought I would return to Vienna and see if I fell in love with it.
As it turns out, I still didn’t instantly connect with Vienna. It doesn’t have the cheap prices of Eastern Europe, nor the amount of attractions as some Western Europe countries. So after spending one day doing a free walking tour, eating a schnitzel larger than my head and wandering the streets solo during golden hour, I decided to do something different on my second day in the city. What did I do? Well, I did a day trip to Bratislava. If you’re looking to do a solo trip to Bratislava as well, this is what I got up to with only a few hours in the Slovakian capital.
Bus from Vienna to Bratislava
So, I booked my return bus trip from Vienna to Bratislava the night before my trip. I think the earlier the better, but I got lucky and there were still seats left. I booked through FlixBus again, as they were my default during this trip to Europe. In Vienna, there was a different bus company working under FlixBus, so the buses weren’t the usual bright green and didn’t have power outlets. So make sure your phone is charged before getting onto the bus (a.k.a don’t do what Hayley did).
The bus left from the Vienna International Bus Terminal, which was easy to reach via the metro from my hostel. It took just over an hour to reach Bratislava from Vienna — isn’t that crazy? I timed it so I arrived about 20 minutes before a free walking tour started, which happened to meet a short walk from the drop-off area in Bratislava. This wasn’t a terminal, just a designated bus parking area under the UFO Bridge (it’s marked on the map below). Another company I saw arrive about the same time as us was Slovak Lines, if you’d like to compare prices and times.
Be Free Tours in Bratislava
We all know how much I love free tours. I thought doing one in Bratislava would allow me to see (and learn) as much as possible about the city in my limited time. Sona was our guide from Be Free Tours and she was fantastic. There was also quite a large group of us, with people from Greece, Canada and a family from New Zealand. This is a list — and a lot of photos — of some of the things we saw on the nearly three hour tour (I didn’t think it would necessarily go for this long, but in the end I learned so much that I didn’t mind).
• Our first stop was a look at the Hans Christian Andersen statue, who often visited Bratislava and called it a fairytale in itself. From this square we also got a good view of the controversial UFO Bridge. On a clear day, you can see Slovakia, Hungary and Austria from the revolving restaurant.
• Around the corner was St Martin’s Cathedral. Don’t forget to look up here, as the main spire has a little gold crown on top.
• We then walked into Bratislava’s Old Town. I struggled to keep up with the group as I took too many photos of the interesting and colourful architecture. I don’t think I will ever tire of Eastern European buildings. The ornate details. The pristine condition. The colours! The Old Town is also known for its statues. Check out this guide to find them all, but I did like the Man at Work.
• They were setting up the Christmas markets in the Main Square, which unfortunately we were too early for. But our guide told us a lot of Slovak traditions, including how they have their big celebration on Christmas Eve instead. There is also a “Christmas carp” tradition, and many families keep the fish alive in their bathtub until it’s time to cook it. On Easter Monday, there’s also a tradition of women being spritzed/drenched with water, or whipped on the legs with willow by men. Sona said this is not a fun tradition when you’re younger!
• Our next stops included walking through Michael’s Gate, which is one of the city’s oldest buildings. We then saw Trinity Church and the Presidential Palace as we headed to our next stop. Along the way our guide told us about traditional Slovak cuisine and pointed out a couple of good dining and drinking options. Apparently the Slovak Pub is a popular place.
• Commonly referred to as the Blue Church, the Church of St. Elizabeth is a Hungary Secessionist Catholic Church. It’s Bratislava’s most prominent art nouveau building and feels like it belongs somewhere like Mykonos, not in the Old Town of Bratislava. Although it was closed, we peeked inside and the interior looked just as exquisite.
• Sona finished the tour by speaking about Prague Spring, which occurred in 1968. It was a brief time when Czechoslovakia was liberated from Soviet rule, which had dominated since World War II. She showed us a now infamous image captured during Prague Spring, when we were standing in the exact same spot. The buildings behind this protester haven’t changed in 50 years. Sona told us how Slovakia gained independence twice, which I didn’t realise. I only knew about its independence in 1993.
All in all I saw a lot and learned a lot during this free tour. Highly recommend.
As the tour finished later than I predicted, I didn’t think I’d have enough time to journey up to Bratislava Castle. Hence my biggest recommendation for you is to leave Bratislava as late in the evening as possible, to give yourself the chance to head up to the castle. I bet the views would be great. As I was visiting on the cusp of winter, the sun set very early as well, which didn’t help matters.
Old Town Bratislava
Instead of visiting the castle, I wandered around the Old Town looking for photo opportunities. What I found was a juxtaposition of grit and grandeur. You start on one street in the Old Town that has the most amazing architecture, and then you turn the corner and find yourself surrounded by buildings with peeling paint exteriors and graffiti tags. What a fascinating city. I wish I could have stayed longer.
Returning to Vienna
Now, my bus was delayed by about 30 minutes. I guessed it was due to traffic, but who knows. Fortunately, there were a few other English-speaking visitors waiting with me, so we were all slightly panicking together. Once the bus eventually arrived, we were treated to a stellar sunset on the journey home. We were dropped off at the same bus terminal in Vienna, and I once again got the metro to my hostel. Only to return to the same bus terminal the next day to head to Budapest.
What I wore in fall
I also just wanted to point out that I visited in November and it was COLD. Although the sun was shining, the high was still only 7°C. Plus, standing still on the walking tour for long periods makes you even colder. I was wearing three layers, plus my trusty jacket, a scarf and a beanie. Be prepared.
Self-guided Bratislava walking tour
If you’d like to recreate the walking tour I did with Be Free Tours, I marked our most important stops on the below map. But I’d still recommend doing the tour, as I learned so much about Bratislava and Slovaks. Plus you can tip as much as you want at the end. Either way, just make sure Bratislava is on your Europe itinerary.