How to explore Bratislava, Slovakia on a budget

This mini-Vienna can be explored on a mini-budget, writes Richard Tulloch.

We canny travellers don't usually buy the most expensive opera seats, but in Bratislava I make an exception. They cost a fraction of the price of the cheapest seats in that swanky opera house in that swanky city up the river. 

I had my brilliant "Visit Bratislava" idea just seconds after blanching at the hotel prices in neighbouring Vienna, the only place where I've seen ATMs issue €100 banknotes. They know you'll need them there. 

Trains from Vienna Hauptbahnhof take only an hour to reach Bratislava and cost a mere €13 ($19) ; where else can you travel between capital cities for that kind of money? I share my train with other bargain hunters. When it pauses on the outskirts of town, I'm joined by happy Slovaks, their baskets overflowing with freshly picked mushrooms. 

To avoid any taxi rip-offs, I've chosen a hotel within easy walking distance of Bratislava's Central Station. I have a fuzzy map downloaded free from the internet. 

Hmm … two streets diverging away from the station are named Stefanovikova and Stefanicova, but as I dither I soon find that the entire population of Slovakia is anxious to practice its English on me. A kind lady goes out of her way to guide me to the hotel, where the receptionist tells me the beer in my minibar is complimentary. Miser heaven!

Suitably fortified, I set off into town in search of affordable fun. It costs exactly nothing to stroll through Stare Mesto, Bratislava's Old Town. The cobbled streets and attractive squares have inviting outdoor cafe terraces. I buy a clearer city map and the shopkeeper calls me back because she's overcharged me by 10 cents. I really like this place!

The idea of a wander along the bank of the Danube River is appealing, though it's somewhat marred by the busy road cutting it off from the city. River cruise boats disgorge passengers onto buses for their guided city tours. There's plenty to keep them happy for a day and they'll probably wish they had more time here.

Bratislava, until 1919 known as Pressburg in English, is blessed with wide, tree-lined boulevards and elaborate baroque architecture. 

 For a mere €10, a Bratislava Card offers me not only 24 hours on buses and trams, museum and restaurant discounts, but also a walking tour with guide Zdenka. 

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She enthusiastically tells us of the city's history and of the excitement after the fall of the Iron Curtain. When the first McDonald's opened in Bratislava, the queue was a mile long. It's still popular with locals, though authentic Slovakian cuisine is more attractive to visitors.  

Funki Punki Palacinky captures my attention both with its name and the colourful advertising bike out the front. It turns out to be a pancake parlour, though on first glancing at the menu I only recognise two words - "Nutella" and "kiwi". 

The waitress kindly refers me to the English in the back pages. Ahhh, now I see! 'Kiwi and chestnut paste' sounds an odd combination but I stick with it and it's fine. 

If Bratislava's art museums can't compare to the wonderful galleries of Vienna (and very few can), the city makes up for it with quirky public sculpture dotted around the streets. In the central town square a bronze Napoleonic soldier leans his crossed arms on the back of a bench. Visitors line up to take selfies with "Hubert", whom legend has it stayed behind after his army moved on. 

A grinning (or is he leering?) gentleman known as Cumil emerges from a manhole cover, under a sign Man at Work.

A popular statue of Hans Christian Andersen is adorned with witty images from his stories. He once visited Bratislava for a few days. Asked whether he would write a story about his time there, Andersen is reputed to have replied, "If you want a fairytale, your whole town is a fairytale". We writers soon learn how to suck up to our hosts. 

Determined to squeeze my €10's worth out of that Bratislava Card, I take a chance on the Museum of Pharmacy and the Museum of Arms; respectively predictable collections of pots and jars and wicked-looking cutlasses and pistols, but the latter has the advantage of being housed in St Michael's Tower, offering a bird's eye view of the old city to those who don't suffer from vertigo.

And now I'm at the opera, in the best seat in the house, with a 10 per cent Bratislava Card discount, enjoying a fine production.

The Slovak National Theatre is a sort of reverse Tardis; large and imposing on the outside, surprisingly small on the inside. It was a gift to the city from Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, who set the condition that it must not upstage the grand opera house in Vienna.

So the gorgeous three-tiered wedding cake seats only about 500 privileged guests. Many of my fellow audience members will have travelled in from Vienna, Zdenka tells me. They must be knowledgeable skinflints too.

The opera breaks for interval. Hang the expense, I'll lash out and have a glass of champagne. Just €1.50? For champagne? At the opera? Tomorrow I'm moving on to Vienna. Maybe I'll take another one, before I have to break into a €100 note. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Opera tickets at the Slovak National Theatre cost from €8 to €35. See snd.sk; visitbratislava.sk

GETTING THERE

There are direct flights to Bratislava Airport from London and Amsterdam. Or fly to Vienna and take the train (€13) or even cheaper bus to Bratislava. Boats run up the Danube from Vienna between April and October.

STAYING THERE

Loft Hotel is just outside the Old Town. Double rooms from €58 per night. See lofthotel.sk

EATING THERE

Funki Punki Palacinky's pancakes cost from €1.40. See funkipunki.sk

Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar is a brewery that runs a cafe by day and a bar by night, serving local Slovakian fare. It's very popular, so booking is recommended.  See mestianskypivovar.sk 

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