Bratislava is a great place to run out of money. Prices in the Slovakian capital are far lower than in western Europe: hostel dorms start at €12, double rooms can be snapped up for as little as €40, good meals will set you back under €10 and when it comes to the beer, it’s usually cheaper, millilitre for millilitre, than water.
If times are tight on your travels, you can still enjoy Bratislava without spending any money at all. Here's our guide to seeing the city for free.
One of the best activities in Bratislava is simply soaking up the delightful Old Town views, either by strolling the labyrinthine cobbled streets, lingering on the Hlavné Námestie (Main Square), or clambering up high for a birds-eye view. If you’re going for broke, there’s no better way to start exploring the city than with the excellent, well-established Be Free Tours (befreetours.com). Setting off on fun and informative free tours of Old Town sights at 11am and 3pm daily, they also offer pub-crawls and tours of Communist sights, though for these you need to part with some cash.
The large, loveable white box on the hill high above the Danube defines the Bratislava skyline, but it’s no secret that, despite its good looks from the outside, venturing into Bratislava Castle really isn't the best use of your euros. Keep them well stashed and instead come up to the castle grounds for the fantastic views over the Old Town, the Danube and the vast housing estate of Petržalka on the river’s far bank. You can wander all the outer castle grounds here for free and, on the way back down from the eastern outer walls, meander through the small but beautiful old Jewish Quarter.
Slavín Hill and War Memorial
The other hill just north of the castle, characterised by the luxurious houses, embassies and leafy streets on its lower slopes, is Slavín. Slavín is actually the name given to the military cemetery that crests the summit. Buried here are thousands of Soviet soldiers who died liberating Bratislava from the Nazis. It’s a poignant place – particularly the colossal war memorial itself – and the wooded park is a good place to picnic or pause and appreciate the vistas of Bratislava which unfold below.
The Blue Church
On a visit to Bratislava, most people will make a beeline for St Martin’s Cathedral, which has its own appeal, but the Church of St Elizabeth (more commonly known as the Blue Church), just east of the Old Town, offers something a little less modest. Painted pale blue and white both inside and out, and accented with gilded motifs, this art nouveau house of worship will make you wonder how the faithful ever succeed in concentrating on their prayers.
The opening of the city walls
It may look like the old city walls of Bratislava skirting St Martin’s Cathedral have been overlooked in favour of the dual carriageway running alongside, but fear not: come summer, these now open up into a merry medieval world of wine and handicraft stalls, and archery demonstrations. Access them right opposite the cathedral entrance.
The city has earned its place on the map of top European winter break destinations thanks to the charm and colour of its Christmas market, which runs from the end of November until 23 December. Because the central city squares where the market takes place are quite small, a wonderfully cosy feeling predominates as locals and visitors flock to peruse handicrafts, quaff medovina (mead) and scoff lokše (potato pancakes).
Bratislava Forest Park
Surprisingly few visitors make it up into the pretty forested hills that rise up directly north of Bratislava, but they should. You can walk up to the entrance of the Bratislava Forest Park, or Mestské Lesy as it is known in Slovak, in about 40 minutes from the main train station. Every last enticing, undulating acre of the woods here is free to explore. There are a few viewpoints and lots of hiking and biking trails, a couple of which wind up towards a ruined castle called Pajštún which, unlike Devín Castle, its more famous neighbour to the west, has no admission charge whatsoever.
Kaffee Mayer's intriguing statue
Kaffee Mayer (kaffeemayer.sk) is Bratislava's equivalent of Budapest’s Café Gerbeaud or Vienna’s Café Sperl: it's a glamorous historical establishment aiming to tempt the finest passers-by in for coffee and cake. Now don’t get too excited, as the city’s poshest coffee shop is not about about to invite you in to quench your thirst for nothing. But the statue outside the door – of colourful former city resident Schöner Náci – can be enjoyed for free, and should serve as a model to the budding penny-pincher. Back in the day, Náci (whose real name was Ignác Lamár) was a dapper gentleman known for his impeccable sense of dress, friendly disposition, and the fact that several city cafes let him eat and drink for free.
Bratislava is a city that takes its festivals very seriously. Rarely a fortnight elapses without there being something worth seeing somewhere, and its rich, year-round events program puts on plenty of free entertainment. The Summer Festival (facebook.com/Kulturneleto) is a case in point. Running from June to September, its attractions include a number of stages scattered through the Old Town, each showing live music performances which can be seen without spending a euro.