Bratislava’s landmark castle peers over the Starý Mesto (Old Town) from its rocky eerie over the north bank of the River Danube, visible from all over the modern city with its distinctive, red-topped corner towers. The first fort on this site was mentioned in 907, by which date Bratislava was already an important trading post on the River Danube, and today’s white-washed, red-roofed and squat Renaissance palace was constructed in the mid-16th century on the remains of earlier medieval and Gothic castles.
It was one of the many palatial residences of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled over much of Europe for centuries and also housed their crown jewels. In the 1750s, Empress Marie Therese gave the castle’s interior a gracious rococo overhaul, but after her death in 1780, it became a garrison before being tragically destroyed by fire in 1811. It was to remain in ruins until reconstruction was completed in the 1950s.
The charming but minuscule Old Town lies at the historic heart of Bratislava, the mini-capital city of Slovakia, clustered around the much-restored, landmark Renaissance castle and crammed with fountain-filled piazzas connected by a warren of medieval cobbled alleyways. It is a cosmopolitan district of red-roofed, pastel-colored townhouses brimming with high-end designer stores, souvenir shops, sophisticated restaurants and local bars, with more than its fair share of Baroque churches and Neo-classical palaces.
The area's great Gothic Cathedral of St Martin was the coronation venue of Austro-Hungarian monarchs, and there are also museums aplenty to explore—with collections encompassing artwork, weapons, music and Jewish history—and a thriving cultural life thanks to the Slovak National Theatre.
Just west of the center of Bratislava, Devín Castle clings to the top of a steep limestone cliff 695 feet (212 m) above the confluence of the Danube and Morava. Due to its position overlooking the rivers, this rocky fragment has had strategic importance for centuries, and the first fort was constructed here in Celtic times. Down the centuries, a Roman fortress and a subsequent Moravian stronghold replaced the Celtic battlements, and the land changed hands many times until the castle was finally blown up in the early 19th-century Napoleonic Wars.In today’s post-Communist Europe, Devín Castle is separated from Austria only by the waters of the Danube, and its role is significant as a symbol of nationalism for the Slovak people. Closed during the Soviet era, the castle is now a photogenic ruin to explore, with winding passageways and cobbled courtyards all open to the elements.
Bratislava’s finest Neo-classical palace is tucked behind the Old Town Hall on Primaciálne námestie in the Old Town, and even today its majestic façade still glows with shades of pink and honey. It was built by Melchior Hefele as a residence suitable for powerful Hungarian Archbishop József Batthyány in 1781 and is situated around a courtyard filled with classical statues, plus a fountain depicting St George slaying the dragon. Batthyány’s coat of arms appears above the ornate pediment over the palace’s main entrance.
Today parts of the palace are given over to the city’s mayoral office but several sumptuous apartments are open to the public, including a gallery containing a few nondescript paintings plus a truly exceptional selection of fine English tapestries dating from the 1630s, with their mythological subject matter singing out in bright, jewel-like colors.
Dotted by shady plane trees and lined with pastel-colored Baroque townhouses, Franciscan Square is one of the main meeting paces in Bratislava’s Old Town and is dominated by the oldest church in the city. The Franciscan Church has a Baroque façade dating back to the 18th century, but it was originally 13th-century Gothic in form.
Consecrated in 1297, the church has a wealth of Renaissance and Baroque detailing inside, including statuary and gilded artworks, but its chief feature is the Gothic Chapel of Saint John the Evangelist, where Hungarian aristocrats were once ennobled as knights of the realm. The Marian Column in the middle of Franciscan Square gives thanks for the victory of Hungarian King Leopold I over a Protestant rebellion in 1657. Classical concerts are held in the church in the evening.
Set in the Stiavnicke Vrchy Mountains near the town of Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia’s Open Air Mining Museum is one of a kind and not for the faint of heart. Mining in the area dates back to the 3rd century B.C. and the area boasted one of the richest silver deposits in the Middle Ages. Gunpowder was used here for the first time ever in 1627 and over the two centuries that followed, the region was home to most of the major developments in mining and metallurgy, as well as forestry and chemistry.
Visitors have the opportunity to descend into an underground mining pit that stretches for 1300 meters underground, with the deepest section laying 45 meters below the surface. During the 90 minute tour, visitors learn about the history of mining in the Stiavnicke Vrchy Mountains and see exhibits showing both current and obsolete mining techniques and technologies, including drilling technology and methods for transporting ore.