Bratislava - Slovakia holds the rotating presidency of the EU, pushing its capital, the “little big city” of Bratislava, into the spotlight this month as host of the Special EU Summit. But there’s far more to explore here than politics.
Get your bearings
Bratislava lies astride the Danube, bordering the Austrian and Hungarian frontiers. The main draw is the Old Town, a largely pedestrianised area. The tourist office is at Klobucnicka 2 (00 421 2 5443 3715; visitbratislava.com). Arrive at any time between 10am and 3pm and you should catch them. Bratislava Airport is about 9km north-east of the city centre. From the airport, bus No 61 goes to the train station every 20 minutes (a one-way ticket costs e0.90). From here, tram 1 or bus 93 take you to the Old Town within 10 minutes. Taxis cost e25-30 one way, and the journey should take about 15 minutes.
Take a view
Get an overview of the city by whizzing up in the lift to the open-air observation deck at UFO (entry e6.50) the flying saucer-shaped cupola sticking up 87m above Most SNP bridge. The UFO offers spectacular views along the Danube and across the Old Town rooftops to the surrounding hills. Treat yourself to a coffee or a cocktail in the bar of the stratospherically priced UFO restaurant (00 421 2 6252 0300; *-f-o.sk).
Take a hike
Start in the Old Town’s main square, HlavnÃ NÃ¡mestie, where in December you’ll find traditional Christmas markets. Admire Napoleon’s cannonball, still embedded in the wall of the Old Town Hall’s tower, then walk through the Old Town Hall’s elegant courtyard to emerge into another historic square, this time adorned by the pink 18th century Primate’s Palace.
Turn right and walk along LaurinskÃ¡ Street, where you can admire the humorous statues of SchÃ¶ne NÃ¡ci (tipping his top hat) and Cumil (The Watcher), peering out from his manhole cover). This leads to St Martin’s Cathedral, a three-nave Gothic church and the site of the coronation of 19 Hungarian kings and queens. Daily services and concerts are held 9am-11.30am and 1pm-4pm. Monday to Saturday and at 1.30pm-4.30pm on Sunday (00 421 2/3054 4334; dom.fara.sk; free entry).
Lunch on the run
A short walk over Most SNP bridge, in Sad Janka KrÃ¡l’a park (one of the oldest municipal parks in Europe), Leberfinger (00 421 917 115 116; leberfinger.sk) is a lovely lunch spot in an 18th century building overlooking the Danube. Go for the classic dish of goose leg with red cabbage, e17.90.
Back in the Old Town, the popular Orbis, at LaurinskÃ¡ 7 (facebook.com/orbisfood), is open from 11am and offers street food from around the world: Moroccan wraps, masala omelettes and twice-cooked Belgian frites (chips).
Bratislava’s Old Town is filled with indie fashion boutiques and folk craft emporia. Kompot at LaurinskÃ¡ 19 (00 421 948 630 852; kompot.sk) offers hip T-shirts, bags and homeware. Open 10.30am-7pm Monday to Friday, 2pm-7pm Saturday, closed Sundays.
Slavica Design Shop is a local favourite found on the fourth floor of the KC Dunaj building (Nedbalova 3), selling clothes, jewellery and ceramics by young local designers. Open 2pm-8pm from Tuesday to Thursday, 2pm-9pm on Friday, and 4pm-9pm on Saturday. Closed Sundays.
The seventh floor Sky Bar (00 421 948 109 400; skybar.sk) offers a dramatic view across the red rooftops to Bratislava Castle, St Martin’s Cathedral and the hills beyond. Sip a crisp local white wine or try a cocktail made with some local Borovicka juniper brandy.
Dine with the locals
Up in Bratislava Castle’s grounds, at NÃ¡mestie A Dubceka 1, Restauracia Hrad (00 421 2 5972 4256; facebook.com/restauraciahrad) offers a lighter take on classic Middle Europe dishes (such as local catch zander with potato souffle, e15.90), quality local wines and a spectacular view from the terrace.
Or roll further down the cobbled hill to atmospheric, low-lit ModrÃ¡ Hviezda (00 421 2 5443 2747; modrahviezda.sk), in an 18th century, late-Baroque building, for traditional specialities such as roast Mangalica pig with chestnuts and pumpkin puree.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
In the early 1900s, the Habsburg-style Kaffe Mayer (00 421 2 5441 1741; kaffeemayer.sk), at Hlavna *Ã¡mestie 4, tempted Viennese ladies to travel 60km by tram for top-notch kaffee und kuchen - the latter here meaning a choice of 37 cakes.
Or for a contemporary brunch, chill out in a hammock and order the halloumi and portobello mushroom burger (e6.90) at the self-consciously oh-so-cool Urban House (00 421 904 001021; urbanhouse.sk) at LaurinskÃ¡ 14.
A walk in the park
Bratislava is incredibly green. For a truly local view of its prettiest parts - along with a bit of brutal history - forget walking and join brothers Branislav and Peter Chrenka of Authentic Slovakia (00 421 908 308 234; authenticslovakia.com), who take visitors on fascinating bike rides along the Danube to see the Iron Curtain border bunkers and explore hidden gems in verdant Sad Janka KrÃ¡l’a. A two-and-a-half-hour tour costs from e22 per person.
Take a ride
Bratislava has excellent public transport operating 5am-11pm daily, with nine tram routes, 14 trolleybus lines and 66 bus routes. Buy tickets from machines at bus/tram stops and stamp as soon as you board. A 24-hour ticket offering unlimited travel via tram, bus and trolleybus costs e6.90.
The Slovak capital is also criss-crossed with cycle paths. Two companies (bikebratislava.sk and bratislavabikepoint.com) rent bikes; two hours starts from e8. Both banks of the Danube offer lovely, leafy cycle routes.
For more fresh air, take a 15-minute ride on trolleybus 203 from Hodzovo *Ã¡mestie up to Koliba-Kamzik and explore the cool, well-signposted walking trails of the Bratislava Mountain Park. A favourite local route is to walk down via a flower-filled meadow to the ZeleznÃ¡ Studnicka (Iron Well), where little stalls offer beer and sausages.
The Rococo-style Mirbach Palace (00 421 2 5443 1556; gmb.sk; entry e4) at Frantiskanske *Ã¡mestie 11 offers two beautifully wood-panelled rooms displaying prints created between 1704-80 that recall scenes of aristocratic life. The PÃ¡lffy Palace (00 421 2 5443 3627; gmb.sk; entry e4), also in the Old Town at PanskÃ¡ 19, has a permanent exhibition by Bratislava-born artist Matej KrÃ©*, where his captivating PasÃ¡z (Passage) installation sees the visitor walk between vertiginous walls of books. Both galleries open 11am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday.
Bratislava boasts two opera houses under the name of the Slovak National Theatre: the Historic SND (00 421 2 2047 2111; snd.sk) on Hviezdoslavovo *Ã¡mestie, and the New SND (00 421 2 2047 2299; snd.sk) at Pribinova 17, opposite the Eurovea mall. Both have Sunday performances at 5pm, with tickets costing from e6 to e65.
The icing on the cake
The outrageously charming Blue Church of St Elizabeth at BezrucovÃ¡ 2, with its Art Nouveau flourishes and light blue icing-sugar details, is like something from a fairytale. Opening hours are awkward (6.30am-8am or 5.30pm-7.30pm Monday to Saturday, 7.30am-noon or 5.30pm-7.30pm Sunday, or during a regular mass; free entry) but it’s worth a walk if only just to see the exterior.
Afterwards, stick with the arty vibe and enjoy imaginative, seasonal dishes in Cubist-themed U Kubistu around the corner at GrÃ¶sslingovÃ¡ 26 (00 421 948 077 845; ukubistu.sk).
With 21 rooms and nine comfortable split-level maisonettes, the supremely stylish Arcadia, at FrantiskÃ¡nska 3 (00 421 2 5949 0500; arcadia-hotel.sk) in a listed 13th-century building, offers romantic weekend packages from â‚209 per night.
Hotel Devin, Riecna 4 (00 421 2 5998 5111; hoteldevin.sk), has a great breakfast buffet and a spa with doubles for e69.
Downtown Backpackers, PanenskÃ¡ 31 (00 421 2 2075 6777; backpackers.sk), offers dorms and rooms named after artists. Doubles cost‚18 a night. Breakfast isn’t included, but there’s a great pub providing bistro lunches.