Slovak capital is dotted with communist-era curiosities among the historical treasures
It looks like something out of a science fiction movie, perhaps The War of the Worlds or a long-forgotten 1980s television series called The Tripods. Bratislava’s UFO Tower, which sits on a bridge that spans the Danube, is nothing if not attention grabbing. With a circular restaurant at the top that is like a metal head, its windows acting as the beady eyes, the whole structure resembles a giant metal insect. The 95-meter tower, which opened in 1972, must rank as the most off-beat of the many communist-era buildings that survive in the Slovak capital.
The views from the restaurant are no less breathtaking than the exterior, and on one side at least, are considerably more pleasing aesthetically. Looking across the river toward the Old Town, the blindingly white castle takes center stage, sitting above St Martin’s Cathedral, where more than 10 Hungarian monarchs were crowned. In the other direction, vast swathes of communist-era apartment buildings dominate the skyline and, further afield, wind turbines dot the countryside of neighboring Austria.
Bratislava can easily be visited from Prague for a weekend, and with its wealth of attractions, it has more than enough to justify a week-long stay. After enjoying the views from the UFO Tower, visitors can walk back across the river and dive into the beautiful Old Town, which is like a mini version of Prague’s and has echoes of the attractive centers of many European cities, notably the Baltic capitals.
The city, founded early in the 10th century, was the Hungarian capital for almost three centuries until 1830, and during this time many of its baroque masterpieces were built. There are also Gothic, Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings, and the whole area is delightful to wander through, with streetside cafés and pubs, attractive squares, fountains and offbeat statues for tourists to pose next to.
Among the highlights are the Reduta Palace from the early 20th century and the stunning neo-Renaissance old Slovak National Theater building from the late 1800s.
It is worth leaving the crowds of the Old Town behind to see some of the rather tired relics of communism, which are more prominent here than in Prague. A short walk from the main center sits a large, but almost deserted, park with an ugly metal fountain, an office building decorated with Socialist-Realist artwork — and graffiti, and the offbeat former Slovak Radio building, shaped like an inverted pyramid and clearly the inspiration for the celebrated China pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai world expo.
Externally at least, probably Bratislava’s most impressive building — the UFO Tower perhaps excepted — is the castle, which sits on a hill believed to have been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. The castle’s heyday was from the 16th to 18th centuries, when it was the seat of the Hungarian monarchs, who were crowned in the cathedral nearby but apparently mostly resided in Vienna, which is less than 60 kilometers away.
Subsequently, the castle, which had undergone various conversions over the centuries in styles including Renaissance and Baroque, fell into disrepair, although a major restoration project was begun in the 1950s.
It seems as though no expense has been spared to restore the complex, but the whole building does feel sterile, and has little sense of the castle’s lengthy history. However, given the traumas the castle has suffered during its lifetime — at one time it was reduced to acting as a military barracks — this perhaps could not be helped.
The exhibits are beautifully displayed and therefore, given its collections of artworks and artifacts, it is still a worthwhile attraction. It also offers impressive views over the Danube, the UFO Tower and the rows of communist apartment buildings on the far side of the river. The housing is now thankfully painted in bright colors to cover up their dreary gray concrete.
When it comes to impressive vantage points, however, none can match that of the Kamzík TV Tower, another legacy of the communists. It sits atop a heavily forested hill just outside the city borders and offers spectacular views. The UFO Tower, the castle and the Old Town appear like tiny children’s toys from the Altitude restaurant, which sits 70 meters up the TV Tower, which tops out at 200 meters, although it is the height of the land here, rather than the building itself, that creates the amazing views.
Remarkably, entry to the restaurant is free, and all visitors are expected to do is to make a purchase from the menu, so the tower is a fine place to relax with a 2 euro coffee at the end of a packed weekend of sightseeing. It is a delightful setting. Reaching the tower is part of the fun: it involves an interesting bus ride to the city’s far edge, then a pleasant walk by road through the woods.
Getting to Bratislava itself is also easy enough. There are direct trains from Prague, while bus companies such as Eurolines and Student Agency run services from the Czech capital’s Florenc bus station.