Image source: my own photo
It all started when I found bargain flights (and I mean bargain flights — about £30 each) to Bratislava. Geography and I are very much not natural companions, to the point it’s a running joke within my family, so I had only a hazy idea of where Bratislava might be when I booked the tickets. It was a mysterious adventure.
A quick Google search revealed that Bratislava is in Slovakia and that it is a mere hop, skip, and a jump from Austria on the train. I love train journeys and I have always wanted to visit Austria, but flights there tend to be very expensive. So naturally, I was thrilled at this discovery.
First, Bratislava. We arrived late at night, in the warm exotic-smelling dark. As we queued for passport control I booked an Uber which was waiting for us when we walked out through the airport doors. From there it was a short ride to our Air BnB, a bright little apartment I’d selected mainly for its decent air conditioning. It was late June and very hot.
On the first day, we’d already planned to go hiking and I had printed off a map. Bratislava sits snugly on the edge of a huge forest park, the Zelezna Studnicka, which is within easy reach of the city centre by bus.
It’s a beautiful spot, with trails, lakes, cable cars and tiny cafes dotted here and there. There are lots of clearly marked information boards, so it’s relatively easy to wander without getting lost.
After a morning on the trails in the forest park, we climbed a bit further to the Kamzik TV Tower restaurant. This is a must-visit spot because of its famous view of 4 countries at once (Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic).
Having had a good look from the viewing platform at the four countries, and a coffee at the top of the tower, we clambered back down again and walked downhill to a bench overlooking the city, where we ate the picnic we’d packed when we were unsure whether we’d find any open cafes on the route. Then it was more hiking, looping around and back into the city center without needing to take a bus.
On the first evening, we ate at an organic restaurant in the fashionable part of the city. We were starving from all the hill walking and seemed to be eating a lot earlier than any of the locals, so we killed time after dinner by wandering along the river and eating ice-cream until the bars got busier. Nightlife in Bratislava in summer is beautifully relaxed. The weather was still warm even after dark and we sat outside various little bars until late, drinking the ubiquitous Aperol Spritzes.
The next day was the day we had set aside for our train trip to Vienna. We got up early and bought cherries and coffee for breakfast as we walked to the massive central train station, which we’d located the day before on the way back from the mountains.
My advice about the train station for anyone making the same trip is not to try to use a ticket machine. We wasted about forty euros making endless ticket mistakes before we finally accepted we needed help and queued for some advice at the ticket desk.
That frustration aside, it was a very simple process to buy a ticket, find the platform, and hop onto a train to another country. (Due to the Schengen agreement, there is no need to take a passport for this journey).
It really DID feel like another country, too. When we got off the train just a short hour after we’d climbed onto it, we were very clearly in a completely different part of the world. Different architecture, street shapes, landscape. It was intoxicating.
And, obviously, the conversations around us were all in a different language to the ones we’d heard a couple of hours ago before we got on the train. I know rudimentary German from childhood and it was strange being able to understand road signs and instructions (I don’t speak Slovakian at all).
Image source: my own photo
Vienna is famously beautiful, and the sunny weather showed it off to its absolute best advantage. It was almost too hot to enjoy the city properly, but we did our best, walking on the shady bits of the streets and paying a visit to the cavernous, ornate, and coolly dark historical library. (This was well worth the cost of a ticket for a book lover like me).
We were in Vienna, so obviously we needed to have a meal of traditional Austrian food. This, I’ll be honest, is easier said than done for a non-meat-eater such as myself. But in a dark wood-panelled narrow little restaurant near the station, I managed to buy myself a plate of potatoes, creamy sauce, and a pastry and spinach concoction that seemed authentic enough. (My meat-eating husband had schnitzel. Of course he did).
It was late by the time we took the train back to Bratislava. Barely time for another Aperol Spritz before bed, but we valiantly managed it.
The next day was our last in Slovakia, and we spent it exploring the town of Bratislava itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the place it reminded me of most was Budapest.
It’s got the same wide river running through it, of course, but that’s not the only thing. It’s something about the texture of the buildings, the color of the stone, the design and layout of the town. Very Eastern European in flavor.
After more ice cream, more food, and a lazier day in general, it was time to fly home.
And that’s how we managed a cheap trip to Austria, having flown for a mini-break to somewhere else entirely.
The trains between Bratislava and Vienna run very regularly — at least hourly. It’s an interesting and beautiful journey, which passes quickly when watching the landscape subtly change, and it only takes around an hour.
I highly recommend this slightly unorthodox way of visiting Vienna (when we are allowed to travel again). If we’d had more time available, it would have been easy to stay overnight in Vienna rather than go back the same day — I definitely think I’d do that next time.