Bratislava is cheeky, cheerful, and super serious about all things ice cream.
What is it that makes a town feel alive - or like it's dying? There are just some cities, some towns, even some streets that feel so inextricably alive, vibrant, thriving, pulsing with energy and growth. And then there are their counterparts, places that may be filled with shops and people, places that have amazing restaurants and vistas and views, but the energy is different, stagnant, gone.
This hard to describe, impossible to capture alive-ness is what I covet when I travel. I LOVE it when I discover a place that is decidedly ALIVE. Of course, I want to see the beauty and possibility in every location I visit and I always go in with a neutral set of expectations but there's nothing like the thrill of a destination that unexpectedly just blows you away. And that was Bratislava. I have never experienced a city more alive, more pulsating, filled with more joie de vivre than Bratislava.
To put my love of Slovakia's capital city into proper context, it's necessary to start at the end of our visit and work backwards. And, of course, ice cream is involved.
It all started with a line, a long line filled with locals, tourists, families, young, old, and everything in between. A line so thick that we couldn't really see what everyone was lined up for. Was it ice cream or a cafe? Maybe a bakery or a take out window? No matter, I knew what to do.
I once faced a similar situation in Honolulu where I joined a crowd a locals determinedly queuing outside an unmarked white van. Persistence paid off and I was rewarded with my first taste of malasadas. I took one look at the line and the crowd in Bratislava and I knew these were my people, this was my tribe, and - most importantly - that this was my line.
It WAS ice cream that everyone was lined up for! Specifically, Luculus Ice Saloon, which serves up gourmet gelato (including vegan and sugar free versions.) Luculus has an interior seated section but no one cared about sitting. It was all about the line and nothing but the line! Just look at those happy kids and their colorful concoctions! Clearly this was an ice cream shop worth waiting for.
When I finally emerged at the front, I confidently requested my choices - lavender and fig-ricotta. But Ryan's request somehow got muddled and he received the most elaborate, ridiculous, over the top ice cream we have ever seen. (It didn't help that he kept saying "yes" to every question the staff asked him). There was a homemade baked cone, chocolate, coconut, whipped cream, three kinds of fruit, sprinkles, nuts, cookies, chocolate syrup, a whole lot of ice cream - plus a jaunty paper umbrella! To his credit, Ryan made it through most of the cone.
I'd like to say that it takes more than gourmet ice cream to win over my heart, but let's not fool ourselves. However, even without a sweet treat in hand, an evening in Bratislava's old town would make anyone swoon. I have never seen locals embrace their city summer nights quite like Bratislava. Alive? This city was teeming with life!
Fathers twirled their children in the air, while dogs made sad eyes at their owners, pleading (and eventually receiving) bites of ice cream. There was a singing event in the public square. We couldn't tell if it was a competition, a demonstration, or a celebration but we were mesmerized. An open air chess board attracted plenty of attention and debate as players squared off. And buskers and musicians set up camp at every intersection. It was gloriously relaxed yet energizing.
Bratislava's exuberance that evening did not catch us entirely by surprise. We were introduced to the city's amazing energy and spirit earlier in the day, when we took part in a free, one hour guided walking tour in English, a service included with the city's affordableBratislava City Card. We've always found walking tours to be the perfect introduction to a city and, having done dozens of them over the years, we thought we knew what to expect but Bratislava had a few cheeky surprises in store for us!
We knew we were in for a memorable tour when our kindly, grey haired, matronly guide told us about a local legend.... a legend she claims will never come true as it requires the most mythical creature of all.... a girl from Bratislava who is a virgin! I can't remember all the details of the legend (Does it involve a fountain? Something on New Year's Eve?) but I'll never forget the shocking little asides that would unexpectedly drop into the conversation, compliments of this sweet, benign older lady. Who knew that Bratislavans had such a saucy demeanor?
Included on the receiving end of her sass were the Russians (specifically Soviet bureaucrats), the French (Napoleonic soldiers in particular), and a few local characters as well. (Surprisingly, neighboring Prague and the Czech Republic wasn't a target!) I began to understand that it wasn't just our guide who had a cheeky sense of humor. This mischievous outlook is also represented in the city's public art.
There's Schone Naci, a dapper gentleman of the streets, so named for his charm with the ladies ("schone" means "pretty") who currently offers a tip of his hat outside what was his favourite cafe. His friend Cumil, "The Watcher", peaks his head up from a manhole, ostensibly to catch a glimpse of the skirted female legs bustling by. And a Napoleonic soldier, from the very same group teased by our guide, leans against a bench, eager to photobomb unsuspecting tourists.
These three were my favourite but represented just the tip of the iceberg of Bratislava's public art. Tiny dragons, an homage to Hans Christian Anderson, colorful puppet people, and a tiny 'monkey-boy' (plus a few more) rounded out our jovial tour.
Bratislava's old town is small, compact, and extremely easy to walk and wander. Our plan to arrive mid-day, pick up our Bratislava card from the tourist office, join in the walking tour, see some of the sites covered by the card (which also includes public transit - easy!), and then spend the evening eating, strolling, and enjoying the city's atmosphere worked out perfectly for us. It was the kind of city that makes for the perfect 18-24 hour stopover, but it would be just as great for a week long vacation-within-a-vacation. Ryan and I both said that we could see ourselves living in Bratislava and would love to have a week long writing break there, working by morning, eating ice cream by afternoon!
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But wait! There's more to Bratislava than ice cream...
We didn't just wander the town, looking for ice cream the entire time. We also took the time to eat proper meals and get some sleep! Here are our choices:
Prasna Basta - We loved the charming courtyard and its prime location in the old city. Ryan was thrilled with his wiener schnitzel and salad and we both loved how the wait staff intervened and asked us if we wanted made-in-Slovakia soft drinks. I ordered the soft potato gnocchi with a sheep's cheese sauce and bacon (almost like a Slovak carbonara, a dish that everyone in Berlin and Prague swooned about). I quickly realized it was NOT for me, though it was fresh and well prepared. Still, I'm glad I tried it.
Cafe Verne - A fantastic spot for dinner, and not just because of its proximity to the ice cream shop! We started with a tomato salad and Ryan chose his favourite - the goulash, of course - while I had a goulash inspired dish with chicken in a creamy paprika sauce. No-fuss food at excellent prices.
Skaritz Hotel - We were easily won over by this hotel's unbeatable location in the the heart of the old city. The large bed, spacious room with seating area, and the roomy bathroom complete with a bathtub were wonderful features that we eagerly embraced after several weeks on the road. We also appreciated little touches, like complimentary mineral water in the room. We would happily stay here again.
We secured a great deal (about $120 Canadian) for this luxurious hotel by reserving well in advance. As we approached our visit, prices dropped, we cancelled our reservation and, for the same price point, booked a package that included breakfast. Breakfast was good - not great - so we were very happy we got it for "free".
We were provided with a complimentary Bratislava Card. As always, all research, writing, and opinions are our own.