Bratislava, capital of Slovakia and just an hour by train from Vienna, is the comeback kid among European capitals. A decade ago, the city was virtually a ghost town. But today, Bratislava is downright charming, bursting with colorfully restored facades, lively outdoor cafés, swanky boutiques, in-love-with-life locals, and — on sunny days — an almost Mediterranean ambience.
World War II left Bratislava a damaged husk. Following the war, communists showed little interest in preserving the city’s heritage, razing the Jewish quarter to make way for their ultramodern New Bridge, erecting a highway that slices through the Old Town (though it will soon be diverted to a tunnel that runs beneath the Danube), and even selling the city’s medieval cobbles to cute German towns, which were rebuilding after the war and trying to restore some of their elegant Old World character.
With the fall of communism in 1989, the new government began a nearly decade-long process of sorting out building rights and returning them to their original owners. By 1998, most of these property issues had been resolved, and owners were encouraged to restore their buildings. The city also did its part, replacing all of the street cobbles, sprucing up public buildings, and making the Old Town traffic-free. Bratislava was reborn, and life returned with a vengeance.
The bustling centerpiece of Old World Bratislava is Main Square. From Easter through October, cute little kiosks, adorned with old-time cityscape engravings on their roofs, sell handicrafts and knickknacks. During the holidays, a Christmas market blankets the square. At the bottom of the square is a line of extremely atmospheric cafés, from Kaffee Mayer, an institution here since 1873, to Café Roland, housed in an old bank building with a coffee-filled vault.
The buildings that surround Main Square date from different architectural periods, including Gothic and Art Nouveau. When these buildings were restored, great pains were taken to achieve authenticity, each one matching the color most likely used when it was originally built. The impressive Old Town Hall, with its bold yellow tower, stands at the top of the square. Near the bottom of the tower, a cannonball embedded in the facade acts as a reminder of Napoleon’s impact on Bratislava. Another reminder is the cartoonish statue of a Napoleonic officer bent over one of the benches on the square. With bare feet and a hat pulled over his eyes, it’s hardly a flattering portrait.
This is just one of several whimsical statues dotting Bratislava’s Old Town. Most of these date from the late 1990s, when city leaders wanted to entice locals back into the newly prettied-up Old Town. Standing outside Kaffee Mayer, a jovial chap doffs his top hat. This is a statue of Schöner Náci, a poor carpet cleaner who, dressed in a black suit and top hat, brightened the streets of Bratislava during the communist days, offering gifts to the women he fancied. Another Bratislava fixture is the statue of Èumil “the Peeper,” popping out of a manhole with a grin plastered on his face (despite being driven over by a truck — twice).
Exploring the Old Town provides a look at where this country has been. But wandering outside the center offers a look at where it’s headed. The city is busy transforming its entire Danube riverfront area into a people-friendly park. And just downstream from the Old Town is the futuristic Eurovea, resembling a computer-generated urban dreamscape come true. This development includes a riverside park, luxury condos, a modern shopping mall, and an office park.
Despite massive progress, holdovers from the city’s communist past remain. The most prominent landmark from this time is the bizarre, flying-saucer-capped New Bridge. Locals aren’t crazy about this structure — not only for the questionable Starship Enterprise design, but also because of the oppressive regime it represents. However, capitalists have reclaimed the bridge in part, turning the space up top into a posh eatery called, appropriately enough, UFO.
With 70,000 students at six universities, Bratislava has a youthful energy and optimism. You can feel their presence, especially at night. Because there are no campuses as such, the Old Town is the place where students go to play. And much of the partying goes on in former bomb shelters, built during the tense times around the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today these make ideal venues for clubs — right in the town, but powerfully soundproof.
Bratislava was one of the big surprises of my travels this past year. What I once thought of as a drab, depressing place is now lively and joyful. Bratislava has blossomed into the quintessential post-communist Central European city, showing what can happen when a government and its people work together to rebuild a city.
Rick Steves ( www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.