Photos by John Roberts
I'm here let you in on a secret: Bratislava.
"What is that?" you ask.
The capital city of Slovakia is a rising tourist destination that you'd better get hip to now. Just think about it. You can say you were one of the first to the party.
The former socialist state was conjoined with the Czech Republic until the two nations went their own ways in 1993. So it's just 23 years since the Slovak Republic has been charting its new course in the world, and Bratislava is at the heart of its budding draw for tourists.
The city charms with its spot along the Danube River, making it a popular destination for cruisers. The old town area is easy to navigate and shows off the complicated history and stark contrasts that existed through eras that stretched from independence to Soviet domination and a return to the democratic freedoms Slovakia now enjoys.
The narrow cobblestone paths that course through the small old town pass 18th-century buildings that are home to sidewalk eateries, bars and cafes. The medieval Bratislava Castle and the gothic St. Martin's Cathedral are the dominant features in the skyline and represent much of the city's rich history.
The castle was home to the Holy Crown of Hungary, which represented the entire of the Hungarian state, for more than 200 years. St. Martin's Cathedral was the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1563 to 1830.
From more recent decades, the city still shows strong evidence of its communist history. Aside from the uniformly square or rectangular high-rises, apartments, hotels and government buildings you can spot on the fringes of the historic old town area, you will notice the New Bridge, or UFO Bridge, which crosses the Danube and encroaches unusually close to the doorsteps of St. Martin's Cathedral. It's called the UFO Bridge for the circular structure atop the 1,400-foot-long span. This feature provides panoramic views and also houses a restaurant.
The bridge was built in 1972 and is the source of controversy because of a large portion of Old Town below the castle and almost all of the Jewish quarter were demolished to make way for the bridge.
Freedom Square features the largest fountain in the city (Fountain of Union), a giant stainless steel linden flower, which is the symbol of the Slovak people. The largely derelict space is surrounded by more Soviet-era, window-filled buildings built for form, not function.
But Bratislava is increasingly looking toward a more vibrant future. Its younger people bring energy to the old town district and budding craft brewery scene. Many speak English, and the euro is the country's currency. More and more travelers are discovering the value and diversity of experiences you can have in the city.
Many visitors will breeze through, hitting Bratislava on an itinerary more focused on exploring the nearby capital cities of Vienna or Prague.
And while travelers might do a little sightseeing at the castle, take a city tour, grab a quick bite to eat and be on their way, Bratislava deserves much closer inspection. The compact old town is the gem.
Smaller crowds mean more space for you to enjoy the warm sunny days that are characteristic of its springs and summers. You also catch a big break on price. You can find a two-star hotel for about $30 a night and four-star spots for $70.
Aside from checking out the iconic castle and churches, boutiques, museums, historic statues, monuments and quirky sculptures in old town, you can just wander the streets and settle into a seat at one of the many breweries serving a range of craft brews. Look for the chalkboards listing the names of the latest batches, and start savoring beers that will only set you back about $2 for a giant glass of golden lager or rich amber suds.
The city is also a fine place to take up an active adventure, with biking/walking paths lining the Danube. And you won't have to pedal too far before you can reach well-marked routes that lead to meadows and preserves.