Day 1. Exploring Bratislava

On noticing that Ryanair had introduced weekly flights to Bratislava from Leeds Bradford Airport we were tempted into a weekend break in the Slovakian capital.  Dragging ourselves out of bed at 3.15 am to reach the airport in time for our early 6.45 am departure wasn’t great but the upside was that we would be touching down in a new destination at 10.10 am giving us a full day to explore the city.

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Old town, Bratislava

Arriving into Bratislava’s modern terminal building ten minutes ahead of schedule we bought a 7 day travel pass from an automated machine.  At first it was hard to figure out what we needed as there was only an option for single tickets or day passes, but a second try at tapping on the day ticket option revealed a further selection, one of which being a 7 day ticket costing €11.40 each.  We actually only needed four days but this ticket was better value than a three day and a one day option.

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Old Town Square, Bratislava

The ticket was a flimsy small piece of paper but only needed to be activated on the first journey and could then be put away for safekeeping.  Please note that if you are buying transport tickets from the airport that only the machines inside the Arrivals Hall accept card payment, the machines located outside by the bus stop are cash only.

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Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava

It was a bright, sunny morning and we waited about 10 minutes for a bus to the railway station (No.61) remembering to validate our ticket on entry.  This journey took 20 minutes from where we transferred to a modern tram (No.1) for the short ride to the edge of the old town.

Our first impressions of the historic old town was one of delightful old buildings on cobbled streets leading to the main square.  It seemed quiet with just a handful of tourists around and very few locals.  Spotting the Tourist Information, we called in for a map then decided as it was noon that it was time for some lunch.  Just off the main square we found a typical Slovakian beer house and ordered a couple of beers with sausage and pickles.  Our snack tasted good and sitting in the pub gave us an opportunity to study our city map and get our bearings.  Setting off, we looked out for some of the ‘Men at Work’ brass sculptures which are to be found scattered around the old town.  The first we came across was of a man taking a rest and leaning over the back of a bench in the main square.

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Man at Work Sculpture, Bratislava

Strolling towards the Slovak National Theatre we passed several others, our favourite being ‘Cumul – the man in the sewer’ who even comes complete with his own road sign!  Passers-by could easily trip over this pavement sculpture if they weren’t looking where they were going.

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Cumul, the man in the sewer, Bratislava

We soon reached the wide River Danube and from one of its bridges we had splendid views of the castle and the UFO Tower.  As it was such a clear, sunny afternoon we decided to take the lift to the top of the 95 metre high tower.  Tickets costs €7.50 each but to reach the outdoor viewing platform it’s necessary to clamber up four short flights of steps after using the lift.

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UFO Tower over River Danube, Bratislava

The views were magnificent enabling us to see across to the Austrian border, a full stretch of the mighty Danube and several of its bridges.  Descending the stairs we came to an inviting cafe/ restaurant with panoramic views over the Danube and decided to stop for pots of tea whilst soaking up the views.

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Bratislava Castle from top of UFO Tower

After a short rest and a chat with the waiter we returned down the tower and crossed the Danube once again, this time heading towards Bratislava Castle.  It was a steep uphill walk and then several flights of stone steps until we reached the castle lookout points, the clear blue sky providing us with far reaching views.  From afar, the castle appears quite large but seems much smaller when up close.  Several Viking  River Cruise tour groups were looking around, the flat topped riverboat moored directly below probably belonging to them.

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Bratislava Castle

It had now reached 25 degrees and we’d been wandering around with our weekend luggage all day so we were starting to get tired.  A glance at our transport map indicated either Tram 8 or 9 from the old town would take us to our hotel, the journey only taking 10 minutes once we had found the tram stop.  Our hotel, the Holiday Inn was about another ten minute walk from the tram and was located in a small park.  We were fortunate to check-in when we did as just as the receptionist was handing us our room cards a large group of people arrived forming a lengthy queue.

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Holiday Inn, Bratislava

An hour’s rest, and several cups of Earl Grey tea with numerous shortbread biscuits later we popped down to the Wellness Centre to use the sauna and indoor pool before heading back into the city centre for an evening meal in the Slovak Beer House.  Trying to select a local dish, I opted for Sheep’s Cheese Dumplings which were very tasty if a little heavy, so late at night.

Day 2.  A Day in Vienna

Waking at 7.00 a.m. to the sounds of our alarm, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the Holiday Inn’s light and airy restaurant before setting out.  Our plan, to spend a full day sightseeing in Vienna.  I’ve not been to Vienna before, in fact I’ve only ever visited Austria once and that was many years ago on a ski holiday staying in Westendorf in the Austrian Tyrol.

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OBB City Shuttle between Bratislava and Vienna

Our hotel was located in a quiet suburb so we found the nearest tram stop and rode into Bratislava’s Railway Station with 20 minutes to spare before the hourly service to Vienna.  Queuing for no more than five minutes, we bought return tickets costing €14 each which could be used on any service within the next 14 days.

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Belvedere Gardens, Vienna

Our train was already on its platform and was quite busy (9.38 a.m. service on a Saturday morning) but we managed to secure window seats facing each other for the 65 minute journey to Vienna.

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Belvedere Palace, Vienna

We had carried our passports with us but these were not required as we left the large, ultra modern Vienna Hauptbahnhof (Railway Station).  We’d planned our own walking route around the main sights and instead of following signs to the city centre, set off in the opposite direction towards Belvedere where we marvelled at its stunning architecture and elaborate gardens.  The Belvedere palaces were built in the early eighteenth century as summer residences comprising upper and lower Belvedere together with its gardens.  Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Belvedere contains the largest collection of Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present day.

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Karlskirche Church, Vienna

Continuing, we strolled along to Karlsplatz where we admired the magnificent baroque Karlskirche church on the south side of the square and the flower bed in the shape of a musical treble clef in front of the statue of Mozart in Burggarten.

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Mozart statue, Burggarten, Vienna

Our walking tour continued through the museum quarter and onto the Austrian Parliament building.  The Parliament was completed in 1883 and is the seat of the National Council and the Federal Council.

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Austrian Parliament Building, Vienna

Adjacent to the Parliament stands the Rathaus (town hall), built in a neo-gothic style and completed in 1883.  It houses the office of the Mayor of Vienna and its city chambers and on the day of our visit was crowded with cycle enthusiasts as a BMX festival was taking place which was generating much interest.

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Rathaus (Town Hall) Vienna

Our cameras clicking constantly in this most beautiful of European cities, we consulted our phone map briefly, then made our way to the Burg Theatre and the Spanish Riding School.  From there, we strolled through the narrow archways of Albertina, jostling for space with tour groups coming towards us, following guides waving flags and umbrellas.  The majestic Hofburg Palace was next on our agenda, this architectural gem is the former imperial palace and is now the official residence of the President of Austria.

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Hofburg Palace, Vienna

Nearby we came to Graben which is one of the most famous shopping streets in Vienna.  Most of the buildings in the pedestrianised area date from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It’s surrounded by narrow alleyways with elegant shops and tempting cafes tucked into historic buildings.  I loved viewing the fine porcelain in Augarten and the wonderful gourmet delicatessen of Julius Meinl which was filled with tempting Austrian delicacies.

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Vienna

After window shopping along both Kohlmarkt and Naglergasse we needed to rest our feet awhile so we relaxed in one of the many cafes, feeling revitalised after a pot of Earl Grey tea and a large slice of marzipan gateau.  A few steps further on, we came to Stephansplatz dominated by St. Stephen’s Cathedral where we were able to look inside and admire this Romanesque and Gothic masterpiece.  The cathedral’s brightly tiled roof is one of Vienna’s most recognisable landmarks.

Our next idea was to walk along the banks of the Danube, so another quick look at our phone map and on our way we went.  With hindsight we would have been much better taking the UBahn from Graben over there as it was a long walk with little of note to see along the way.

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Along the Danube in Vienna

The Danube is extremely wide as it passes through central Vienna and at Donauinsel (Danube Island) a long narrow island lies down the middle splitting the Danube into two creating the Neue Donau.  Many people were enjoying picnics and catching a few rays of the spring sunshine, with the riverside bars and restaurants doing a good trade.  Walking across the pontoon bridge we returned to Vienna Central Station by UBahn.  Single tickets cost €2.20, a flat rate fare payable irrespective of journey length.  Back at the railway station we were too early for our train so we passed the time with another pot of tea and a cake – we’d walked so far today, I think we deserved it.  We’d loved every minute of our day in Vienna but really we didn’t do the city justice.  This was just a taster and we now need to return and spend a few days there to see the city in more depth and visit some of its museums and gardens.

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Crossing the Danube over the pontoon bridge

Our Bratislava train departed at 5.16 p.m. and was a much quieter service than on our outbound journey and a chance to rest our feet for an hour before returning to the hotel by tram.  Next followed a well earned rest in our room after walking more than ten miles around the streets of Vienna.  It was a bit late to take a sauna bearing in mind that the trams stop running near our hotel at around 11.00 p.m. and as it was too far to walk back from the old town we went straight out for supper instead.  The narrow streets of the historic centre were bustling with activity as it was Saturday evening but we soon found an inviting hostelry before returning to the Holiday Inn for the night.

Day 3.  The Bratislava Marathon and a visit to Trnava

Whilst waiting at the tram stop on our way back to the hotel the previous evening I noticed a sign indicating weekend transport service disruption because of the Bratislava Marathon so back in the hotel we researched its route to find a good spot to watch it from.

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Bratislava marathon

As luck would have it,  the race was passing quite near our hotel and, once in position, we only had to wait around 10 minutes before the elite runners came through.  It’s the 12th annual race and this year 12,000 competitors were participating.  Conditions couldn’t have been better with clear blue skies and no wind and we had fun spectating and taking in the atmosphere, the runners being helped along their way by the sounds of steel bands and other live music.

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Musical entertainment along the route of the Bratislava marathon

I’ve watched the London marathon a couple of times but can’t recall seeing any others.  We’d no idea this marathon was taking place during our visit so it was an added bonus to watch it pass.  Then back to original plans, a stroll to an unaffected tram line for the short ride to the railway station to board a train to Trnava.  Tickets for the 30 minute journey cost €5 each and can be used on any service with the exception of Inter City trains.  With half an hour to spare before our train was due, we sat on the terrace of a nearby cafe and sipped glasses of cool beer in the morning sunshine.

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Second class carriages seating six passengers on trains from Bratislava

The rail journey was a treat, boarding the train we discovered it had small compartments seating just six passengers and, surprisingly, no-one joined us and we had the compartment to ourselves for the entire journey.  I love these little compartments, something we never find in the U.K. nowadays, except on heritage steam routes but I remember as a young child sitting with my parents in them and being so excited arriving into Euston Station for a visit to London.

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Trnava Town Hall, Slovakia

We had decided on a visit to the small town of Trnava as its only 50 Km from Bratislava and easy to get to.  About a ten minute walk to the gateway of the fortified old town, we wandered along cobbled streets to the attractive main square dominated by its Clock Tower which can be mounted, but only on the hour (€3).

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Trnava Main Street, Slovakia

The town has some stunning architecture, its buildings are painted in shades of pink, yellow and blue but it’s a sleepy place, at least it was early on the Sunday afternoon of our visit.  A hot, sunny day with several cafes having terraces spilling out onto the square, yet few people about.  The majority of shops are closed on Sundays in Slovakia so this might have something to do with it, but it seemed strange.

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Trnava, Slovakia

Finding a pleasant cafe we settled down to a lunch of paninis and cool drinks then sauntered back to the station for the 3.00 p.m. service back to Bratislava.  The marathon now finished, trams were back to a normal service so we caught one into town where we had pots of tea and slices of cheesecake overlooking the Slovak National Theatre.  The old town was teeming with people, so different from our experience on Friday when there were few people around.

Back at the hotel we relaxed in the leisure centre’s pool and sauna then took the tram back into town for dinner after another interesting day in and around Bratislava.

Day 4.  A final day in Bratislava 

The final day of our city break in Bratislava, and one on which we planned to slow the pace somewhat.  Allowing ourselves a much deserved lie in, we enjoyed a leisurely, late breakfast before checking out of our hotel at 11.00 a.m.  This huge, out of town hotel catering mostly for business travellers and conference delegates had been quiet during our stay and with the standard facilities expected of a Holiday Inn, had met our needs perfectly.  Do bear in mind though that if you choose to stay here whilst in Bratislava that it is a little way out of town necessitating the use of trams followed by a ten minute walk to reach the hotel.

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Bratislava tram

After three days of non stop sightseeing it was time for a little retail therapy with a trip to the Central Mall located just out of town.  Here we found a good range of stores in this large, modern, shopping centre and better still as it was a Monday morning, we had the place almost to ourselves improving the shopping experience.

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Central Mall, Bratislava

Leaving the mall with several purchases, we headed back to the old town in time for a lunchtime pot of tea and slice of cheesecake overlooking the Slovak National Theatre.  We then resumed our sightseeing in temperatures of 26 degrees Celsius – having experienced wall to wall sunshine since we arrived on Friday morning!

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The Blue Church, Bratislava
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Interior of the Blue Church, Bratislava

Not far from the National Theatre lies the Blue Church which is an absolute delight.  Spoilt only by a fashion shoot taking place on its steps.

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Presidential Palace, Bratislava
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Changing of the Guards, Presidential Palace, Bratislava

Moving on, we headed to the Presidential Palace where we were just in time to watch the Changing of the Guards ceremony at 3.00 p.m.  Surprisingly there were only a handful of other people present but it was so nice to see.

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Bratislava old town architecture

Having looked around, we found a sunny terrace to enjoy glasses of local beer before taking a final walk through the streets of this quaint old town and enjoying a meal before returning to the airport for our late evening flight back to the UK.

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Bratislava Castle overlooking the River Danube

I would highly recommend a weekend city break in Bratislava but as it’s such a small capital city (similar in size to Tallinn, Estonia) it would probably be difficult to find enough to fill four days.  However, coupled with a full day in Vienna and a half day in Trnava we kept ourselves fully occupied and would have no hesitations about returning sometime in the future, as it’s a delightful little place where we felt safe and secure the entire time.  Our Ryanair flights were cheap and coupled with hotel costs I doubt we spent more than an equivalent weekend to London travelling by train.

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