A City Express train from Vienna to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia, takes just above an hour. For the most part, trains run twice hourly, but one train each hour goes to Bratislava hl. st. (the main station, north of Old Town) and the other one goes to Bratislava-Petrzalka (another station south of Old Town, in the newer section). It’s worth making sure you head to the one closest to your hotel. Since most accommodation is in Old Town or near there, definitely use Bratislava hl. st.
What helped me the most with this trip was the German train travel website, bahn.de. While you can’t buy tickets for this particular journey on the site, it gave me a good idea of timetables and what trains would be helpful to take. The staff at the Hauptbahnhof were also helpful, assuring me that my big suitcase and bag wouldn’t be a problem.
I was on an afternoon train (3:16 PM), and it got busy as it left the city and stopped at small towns along the way. The countryside was quite beautiful and green, despite it being early April.
Arrival in Bratislava is a bit of an onslaught on the senses. Everyone else seems to know where they’re going and what they’re doing. I felt disoriented, to say the least.
I got off the train in Bratislava and ended up wandering out and around to the front doors of the station. I was in mind to purchase my overnight ticket to Kraków. This took a bit of time as I had to find a window where someone felt comfortable enough to help me in English. I don’t expect everyone to speak English, of course, but I was seeing all the window signs in English and thought I could use any one of those. Not so – but someone would help me. A friendly local guided me to a window where the lady was able to sort out my ticket.
Now to get a place to sleep on the train. For this, I went to the customer service desk up a few stairs. There, after a bit of wrangling with terms, I was able to get a couchette sleeper, which, I was assured, was cheap and just what I wanted. Fine, I thought. Sounds good. I also picked up a ticket on the local bus here, the bus that should take me near enough to my hotel.
Thankfully, the bus isn’t much of an issue. Three stops, and I was just outside the Old Town. My hotel was near St. Michael’s Gate, an easy enough beacon to find in that part of town. However, I had to maneuver my fat suitcase up a hill with no sidewalk – impatient driver behind me – and then over a bridge, down some stairs, and an alley of cobblestones.
When I say fat suitcase, I mean it’s bulky and about 35ish lbs after buying things in Vienna. I had thick clothes for cool temperatures, enough to rotate through at least twice or thrice in twelve days, toiletries, an extra pair of gym shoes, and stuff from my trip so far. Winter-type clothes are heavy in a suitcase. And I wanted space for items I knew I would buy over the course of my travels.
Dear sweet heaven. Another lesson I sorted out: This is why intelligent people backpack through Europe. It’s the stairs and cobblestones, my friends.
However, I finally made it to my lovely hotel – Skaritz Hotel and Residence in the Stare Mesto (Old Town) just below St. Michael’s Gate. I had a wonderful room on the 1st floor, a large room and bathroom, one that I wished I’d be spending more time in.
At night, the pedestrianized cobblestone street leading from St. Michael’s Gate comes alive with restaurants, cafes, and shops and is flooded with beautiful light from streetlamps. It’s easy to forget about the rickety start at the train station or the schleping of my suitcase to the hotel.
I struck out after resting a bit, wandering around Stare Mesto and listening to street musicians perform under arches and stone bridges. Old Town is quiet, unassuming, and damned beautiful at night.
Bratislava deserves more of a chance than a mere few-hour stopover from one big city to the next. There’s a lot of spirit in the small city, as new businesses and cafes seem to be popping up. There were a myriad of coffeeshops in the Old Town which wouldn’t be out of place on any fashionable street in New York City or Chicago.
Since a heavy Eastern European meal wasn’t on my brain, I found a window where one young guy was churning out hot dogs and some pretty amazing burgers. Since it had quite a few people hanging around, I figured it would be quite good to try. I was right – crispy bacon, pickles, cheese, juicy burger, grilled bun – pretty fantastic. You’ll see it on the left-hand side of the street as you approach St. Michael’s Gate from the riverside. Look for a queue of people waiting for their burger or hot dog.
A few hours in, and I was enjoying this pint-sized capital already.