Bratislava. It’s Vienna without the crowds. It’s Budapest without the crowds. It’s Prague without the crowds. Notice a trend?
If you’ve been traveling around Central Europe, you’ve probably been to Prague and Budapest by now. Along with many other tourists following the same route. So by the time you reach Vienna, you may be ready to break away from the pack. Follow the Danube River south to the capital of Slovakia. Though only an hour away, Bratislava’s cobblestone streets aren’t clogged with pedestrians, pigeons still outnumber people in charming squares, and you don’t have to elbow someone out-of-the-way to take a photo at the castle. There are even a few empty outside tables at the popular cafés in the Old Town.
Start in Hlavné námestie. The Main Square is the center of the city. It’s surrounded by Gothic buildings and Baroque palaces. The copper-roofed tower is Michael’s Gate, one of the oldest buildings in the city. And Bronze statues appear in seemingly random places. Visit St. Martin’s Cathedral–the largest church in Slovakia–where the coronation of Hungarian kings and queens used to be held. Climb the hill to Bratislava Castle. The 16th century rectangular castle offers amazing views of the river, the city, Austria, and even Hungary, on a clear day. But you can’t look away from Most SNP, a strikingly modern suspension bridge that crosses the Danube.
There are plenty of ancient fortifications, churches, and palaces to explore, but remember you were looking to relax and slow down. Drink a pale ale at a new microbrewery. Eat an open-faced sandwich and traditional Slovak soup with sheep’s milk cheese at a café on a side street. And sip a full-bodied red wine at a tiny wine bar along the river. Then wander through Sad Janka Kráľa. The park is the ideal place to walk it all off.
By the end of the day, you’ll be ready to return to the major sites–and the crowds they attract. Or maybe you’ll find a cute little hotel that would have been booked months ago in a bigger city. No need to return just yet.