Can you really see a capital city in a day?
Usually I’d say no, but I suppose in the end it depends on the city. You can try, all you like, to whizz around Paris or London in 24 hours, but it’s a fairly pointless exercise. Far better to pick a museum, a gallery and a neighbourhood or two and concentrate on those. Cities like that are too vast to get a handle on in 24 hours.
Bratislava – small capital of a small nation
But when the city in question is the small capital of a small nation, suddenly the idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
And the idea really took hold at the end of our first day in Bratislava – population just half a million – the rather pretty but unsung capital of Slovakia, which sits on the River Danube and borders both Austria and Hungary.
It’s undeniably cute – with its narrow pedestrian streets, candy-coloured houses and manicured medieval air – and it’s very definitely on the small side, with almost everything that you want to see tucked into an old town area that’s guarded by a pristine hilltop castle.
Anywhere in southern Europe – Spain, say, or Italy – this would be a decently sized town, where you might spend the night and then move on. Because it was a capital city – and because we’d never been before – we were booked in for four nights, which at the end of the first full day was beginning to look like three nights too long.
Extreme sightseeing – check out the video!
So we looked at where we’d been, and what we still had to see, and challenged ourselves to do it properly the next day – but all in one day. That’s what the video shows you – extreme sightseeing in one of Europe’s most do-able-in-a-day cities.
Essential sights, it has to be said, are few. Bratislava castle is a beauty – heavily restored in the 1950s, but with some interesting collections inside and sweeping views from the walls and terraces. If you start here, you quickly get an idea of the city layout, and it’s only around a 15 minute walk uphill from the centre.
Head back down, and you get a flavour of the old walls and fortifications – again, completely restored – around St Martin’s Cathedral, while from the balconied tower at Michael’s Gate there’s a closer look at the old town.
There are national museums – of history, archaeology, and Jewish culture, among others – and a whole host of Baroque palaces, while other landmark buildings catch your eye as you stroll the old town, like the neoclassical Slovak National Theatre and opera house.
A quirky, pint-sized capital
But very little of this is as tantalising as the charm and setting of the city itself – a quirky, pint-sized capital on the banks of Europe’s greatest river.
We had time, even in just a day, to stroll along the riverside, eating artisan ice cream from the very cool Koun ice cream parlour. We listened to a classical pianist as he entertained passers-by in a serene courtyard, ducked in and out of vintage shops near the old town hall, and chilled out in the funky Gorila Urban Space, which is a combined cafe, bookshop and performance space.
Quirky statues provided photo ops – like ‘Cumil the Peeper’, a genial figure climbing out of a manhole right in the city centre.
And we finished the day in a brew-pub, sampling Slovak beer – really good Slovak beer – and deciding whether we’d done the city justice. (Actually, to be honest, we finished the day back at Koun, after the pub, trying more of their amazing ice cream.)
True, we didn’t go in any galleries, or spend a great deal of time in museums or churches, but I don’t think that those things are always a measure of a city.
A whirlwind day in Bangkok or New York is unsatisfying. You see so little, and end up frustrated. So part of the beauty of Bratislava is certainly its size. Experts will tell me, I’m sure, that we also missed so much in Bratislava, but it didn’t feel like that – and maybe that’s its charm too.
You can see a capital city in a day. Just make it a small one, and keep buying ice cream.
Want to read more about central Europe?
Sachertorte in Vienna – the best chocolate cake in the world?
Biking in Budapest – the best way to get around the Hungarian capital
First-time Prague – how to avoid the Segways!
Vienna’s craziest building – the house that Hundertwasser built
My Bratislava images