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If you’re planning a winter trip through Central Europe, don’t miss the magic of Bratislava in winter. I’m sure this city is charming at any time of year, but in the winter, Bratislava just shimmers.
Compared with its more popular Central European neighboring capital cities – Prague, Vienna (just an hour away and a world apart), and Budapest, to name a few – Bratislava is an oasis of calm. Even the beloved Bratislava Christmas markets don’t do much to add chaos to Old Town, dispersing the tourists in smaller, more manageable numbers.
I’m not sure why it is most people skip Bratislava on their winter trips through Central Europe. Perhaps it’s overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, or maybe the proximity of Vienna makes people opt for it over Bratislava. But whatever the reason, if you make it a priority to visit Bratislava in the winter, I’m sure you’ll be as charmed as I was.
Perhaps it’s a bit of lingering Cold-War-phobia of countries with hard-sounding names like Slovakia, which make it sound more cold and inaccessible than it actually is. (Before any Slovakians get mad at me for that comment – I live in Bulgaria and the number of people who ask me “is that by Russia?” or “is it safe there?” is insane).
Whatever the reason, if you make Bratislava a priority – and you should – you’ll be delighted that you included this gorgeous Central European city on your winter itinerary.
In case you don’t know much about Bratislava (I certainly didn’t, until planning this trip), here’s a quick but comprehensive guide to 13 of the most magical things to do in Bratislava in winter.
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Visit the Christmas markets
If you’re planning a trip to Bratislava in December, it’s likely to take advantage of the Christmas market season.
If you’re a reminds me, Christmas markets lost their magic around my second one of the trip (and my most recent trip through Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary took me through at least 10 and likely more). However, for many people, Christmas markets are an indispensable part – and the main point – of a Central Europe winter trip.
Bratislava’s Christmas market is not quite as large as the ones I saw in Prague or Budapest – and definitely nowhere close to Germany, which is quite frankly in a league of its own. But I actually liked the small size of it, which meant that the crowds were fewer and the streets were easy to navigate as someone who gets anxiety in crowded places.
You’ll find all the Christmas market standards – glühwein (hot, spiced red wine), roast sausages, chimney cakes – as well as a few Slovakian specialties. If you’re looking for what makes a Bratislava Christmas market distinct, look for lokša, thick salty pancakes served salty (with roasted pork or a delicious Slovak sheep’s cheese called
Admire the (hopefully) snow-capped Bratislava Castle
The Bratislava Castle is a stunner. On a hill overlooking the Old Town, its four white turrets peep from behind rooftops all over Bratislava.
Bratislava Castle is quite stunning, especially when its white walls match the snow on the ground and it’s set against a patch of blue sky.
I especially like Bratislava Castle when comparing it to Prague Castle, as it’s way less crowded and you’re actually able to get photos without people in it quite easily. Crowds quickly ruin my experience and I loved that I was able to enjoy Bratislava Castle in peace without having to wake up at the crack of dawn to see it (this photo was taken around 1 PM).
The inside of the castle has been recently restored (somewhat controversially, as it involved quite a few changes to both the interior and exterior), and it costs 10 euros to access the interior. Reviews on TripAdvisor are mixed on whether visiting the interior is worth it; I’d say it depends on how much you like castles and how high your expectations are.
I personally didn’t go inside, but I still found walking around the exterior to be a fantastic use of about an hour, especially since it offered such beautiful views over the city.
Check out the Old Town’s greatest hits
Of course, no visit to a European capital is complete without a tour of its Old Town (assuming it has one). Bratislava’s is meticulously well-preserved and quite pleasant to stroll, so definitely save some time to wander around these streets.
A few things not to miss: Michael’s Gate, which opens up to the heart of Old Town, the millennial pink Primate’s Palace, the lovely St. Martin’s Cathedral and the
Stroll the Danube and check out the quirky UFO bridge
I’m a huge fan of odd Communist architecture and Bratislava’s UFO bridge is
The UFO bridge spans the Danube and connects the Old Town of Bratislava to the newer side of town where most locals live. You can get great views of the UFO bridge from several vantage points in the Old Town but the best
To get further off the beaten path in Bratislava, you can check out Petržalka, the largest borough of Bratislava and a hotbed of Communist-style architecture, due to its genesis as the largest socialist housing district in
If you’re a fan of Communist architecture and have the time, Authentic Slovakia’s Soviet-era Communism Tour of Bratislava enjoys a 5-star rating on
Warm up from the Bratislava winter with some comforting Slovak food
Bratislava is undoubtedly cold in the winter. When I visited in mid-December, I arrived to temperatures of -10 °C / 14 °F! It warmed up a bit from its initial freezing cold, but not by much: the warmest it got during my time in Bratislava in December was -2 °C / 28 °F.
Assume it’ll be cold and pack accordingly! I have a full, tried-and-tested winter in Europe packing list here with plenty of clothing recommendations.
But the other and decidedly more delicious way to warm up from Bratislava’s winter cold is through your stomach with some delicious Slovakian beer and comfort food!
In my opinion, Central European food is too heavy in the warmer months of the year, but it’s absolute perfection at Christmastime. I lived in Prague many years ago and really warmed up to Czech food. Slovakian food is quite similar, as it wasn’t that long ago (in my lifetime, in fact – that makes me feel old!) that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were one country.
If you know Czech food, you’ll recognize quite a few things on most menus. Food you can find in both countries include potato pancakes, sauerkraut soup, goulash, bread dumplings, and steamed fruit-filled dumplings for dessert.
In my opinion, the can’t-miss food in Slovakia is
There are several restaurants you can try this at, as it’s one of the most common Slovakian dishes, but according to locals the best is at Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar.
While I didn’t have the chance to try others, I can’t imagine a dish being better than theirs – it was absolutely divine (and the dark house beer I paired with it certainly helped!).
Shop indoors at the Old Market Hall
While Christmas markets are cute, they are decidedly cold – no matter how much glühwein you try to pump into your veins. So imagine my delight when I stepped inside the Old Market Hall (Stara Tržnica) in Bratislava and found plenty of Christmas goodness, yet zero wind or cold.
I found that the stuff at the Old Market Hall actually felt more handmade and less mass-produced (more akin to a farmer’s market, but with a still Christmassy vibe). It’d probably be where I shopped for souvenirs if I wasn’t a massive Christmas Grinch. It had a more local feel whereas the outdoor Christmas markets were definitely more predominantly touristy.
As a bonus, the stand just outside the Old Market Hall was selling the best-smelling soup I’ve ever smelled. If I hadn’t just have eaten lunch, I’d have probably inhaled a bowl or two right then and there.
Marvel at the baby blue Church of St. Elisabeth
When you live and primarily travel in Europe, you get a bit of church fatigue after a while. Yes, I know that’s the most spoiled thing to say, but it’s true. It’s hard to impress me after a while.
Well, the gorgeous blue Church of St. Elisabeth in Bratislava about a 10-minute walk from the Old Town smacked me in the face with its beauty. It looks like a Disney tower meets an actual Candyland-style gumdrop castle, and I was all about it.
Completed in 1913, the church is done in the unique is a Hungarian Secessionist style (also called Jugendstil or Art Nouveau). While it’s a Catholic church, you’d have a hard time guessing it from the exterior.
The one bummer is that the interior is only open a few hours a day. It’s open from 7–7:30AM, then from 5:30–7PM. Neither of these times are particularly convenient in the winter in Bratislava, when the sun doesn’t even rise until 7:30 AM and it’s well and dark by 5:30 PM. So you may have to do two visits, one to photograph the exterior by day and then back at night, or wake up very early if you want to see the interior as well.
Walk the oldest street in Bratislava
Kapitulska Street is the oldest in Bratislava, tracing its roots back to the 13th century, and one of the most interesting. Whereas the rest of the Old Town has been buffered and polished to tourist-friendly perfection, Kapitulska is a bit rough around the edges, a testament to the atrophy of the Communist years. (For some fascinating history as told by an American living in Bratislava, read here).
While the cobblestones and colorful houses conjure up that classic European charm, the sad ramshackle decay of some of the other houses reminds you of Slovakia’s darker hours under Communism. In a way, it’s almost a museum street. Yet Kapitulska is just one small street amongst a city of thousands, showing you Slovakia’s determination to overcome its past and reclaim its roots.
Why walk Kapitulska specifically when visiting Bratislava in winter? Two reasons. One, the street provides an interesting historical contrast to the generic Christmas markets you’ll find in the Old Town, and two, the buildings look even more beautiful when lined with a dusting of snow.
Cozy up in an adorable café
Denmark doesn’t have a monopoly on
One of my favorite Bratislava cafés is Mondieu, a Parisian-inspired mini-chain with a few locations in the city. Kids (and chocoholics) will love the Mondieu Laboratoire, where you can see chocolate fountains ready to pour a thick, steamy mug of hot chocolate to warm you from the inside out.
My favorite café in the city, though, is St. Germain, located across from Kino Lumière. If you have extra time in Bratislava, watching a movie at the Kino (many titles are in English with Slovak or Czech subtitles) followed by some cozy time at the café sounds like one of the best uses of a winter day there is.
Enjoy Bratislava’s parks and squares
There’s always something going on in the parks and squares of Bratislava, even in the freezing cold! When I visited I was lucky enough to get to watch an ice sculpting contest in one of the squares.
I don’t know if this is a common occurrence or if I just got lucky (I wasn’t able to find any information online) but one thing is for sure – Bratislava doesn’t just shut down in the winter!
Bundle up and go searching for street art
Bratislava doesn’t have a ton of street art, but there is a small, nascent street art scene emerging. The parking lot around Rajská street is the hotbed for most of the street art in central Bratislava.
Start at the intersection of Dunajská and Rajská and then wander up towards St. Germain. If you turn left on Cintorínská you’ll also find some street art tucked away in this area, plus an adorable sleeping fox piece on Kamenné
If you want to further explore the alternative side of Bratislava, you can do a self-guided tour via an app that will bring you to a less touristed side of Bratislava in a scavenger hunt-style game.
Warm up in one of Bratislava’s fantastic museums
Whereas Prague is king of the kitschy museum, Bratislava is less tourist-mobbed and therefore blissfully free of ridiculous themed museums that are just out to grab your money.
However, if you’re a fan of niche museums that aren’t tourist traps, the Museum of Clocks and the Museum of Pharmacy are both well-reviewed and inexpensive.
If you’re more interested in history and culture, check out the Bratislava City Museum, the oldest museum in the city which tracks the development of Bratislava from the medieval ages on, or the Museum of Jewish Culture located a short walk from Bratislava Castle. It’s located in the only house that survived in the old Jewish neighborhood. Slovakia lost 75% of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, so visiting the Museum of Jewish Culture is a sobering reminder of these horrific times and the endurance of the few Slovak Jews who remain.
For the artistically inclined, check out the Galerie Nedbalka in the Old Town, which focuses on modern Slovakian artists (19th century to contemporary). It’s housed in a gorgeous building whose interior actually reminds me of the Guggenheim in NYC. Admission is very reasonable, only 5 euros, which also includes a cup of coffee or tea at the gallery café – one of the best deals in all of Bratislava!
Try some tasty Slovakian wine
Slovakia isn’t known for its wine, but it’s not because it’s not high quality and delicious – it’s just because as a small country, they don’t produce much to export and instead almost all Slovakian wine is enjoyed within the country.
You won’t have many opportunities to try Slovakian wine so definitely take advantage and enjoy a glass while visiting Bratislava this winter. And I’m not talking the mulled stuff – I’m talking the real deal, bottled Slovakian wine.
Most cafés and bars in Slovakia will have a selection of several Slovakian wines. Generally, Slovakia is better known for its white wines but I find I prefer red in the winter. I tried a delicious
Be aware that like Hungary, Slovakia often measures wine by the deciliter. Therefore, a glass that is, say, 3 euros per deciliter will actually be two deciliters and therefore 6 euros. No one is trying to cheat you, this is just an oddity of how wine is measured and priced in some parts of Central Europe.
Where to Stay in Bratislava
If you’re just visiting Bratislava for a day trip, you won’t need to stay overnight, but just in case you are planning a night in Bratislava, here are my recommendations for hotels and hostels.
Budget: Hostel Folks
This affordable hostel in the heart of Bratislava’s city center, close to the Old Town and the castle, has a lot going for it! Hostel Folks is the best-rated hostel in Bratislava for good reason. The dorm rooms have tons of space – so much so that they even have beanbag lounging areas in the rooms – and a clean, uncluttered aesthetic. There are private doubles, triples, and quads, but there are also dorms (mixed and female) for solo travelers.
There’s a large common area to socialize in, complete with a flatscreen TV, a PS3 and plenty of games, as well as a computer with a printer you can use (great if you need to print a boarding pass or train ticket last minute). The hostel also boasts a clean and well-stocked kitchen, lockers, and free coffee and tea. Most rooms have A/C and the bathrooms are ultra-clean and well-kept.
Mid-Range: River View Residence
For gorgeous views over the Danube River and a prime location just 500 meters from Bratislava Castle, River View Residence is my top pick in Bratislava if you’re visiting on a middle-of-the-road budget. The rooms are enormous and spacious with plenty of room to spread out without feeling cramped. But the best part is definitely the floor-to-ceiling windows that give you sweeping Danube views! Despite feeling like a bit of an oasis away from town, the city center is just 15 minutes’ walk away, so you’re never far from a good meal.
There are a variety of room types available, including suites if you want a separate living area, and family rooms that can accommodate up to 5. Some rooms have a terrace, others have a bathtub, so check out the different room types and pick the one that’s best for you.
Luxury: LOFT Premium & Wilson Palace
There are a number of excellent luxury hotels in Bratislava but I always tend to opt for a boutique option over a more standard chain hotel as I find they have far more personality and are just a lot more memorable. LOFT Premium & Wilson Palace is a fantastic find in Bratislava, with just 32 rooms in the LOFT hotel and another 10 rooms/suites in Wilson Palace, a real historical palace in Bratislava. I mean, how often can you say you slept in a European palace?
The rooms are huge, furnished elegantly as would befit a palace, with modern bathrooms including soaking tubs (swoon) and fancy espresso machines (double swoon).
Other perks include the great breakfast spread, the free (!) minibar which is restocked daily, as well on the on-site brewery FABRIKA which produces its own beer (wait, a brewery in a palace? Can I just move in already?)