Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is mostly visited and praised for its historical downtown, UFO bridge and castle. While these are certainly worth seeing, what about all of the history that happened in the second half of 20th century? If you are interested in how communism shaped the face of the city, you came to the right spot. In this article, I will walk you through the communist architecture waiting for you to experience in Bratislava and hopefully inspire you to explore a little deeper than just along the typical tourist lines.
I have already written about what a first timer is to do in Bratislava if they want to have a great time, yet I felt a piece of puzzle was missing – hopefully this guide will partially fill it. We will go around some rough corners and rust, but what I write is written with love – not for the communist regime or Stalin´s moustache, but for my city.
Communist heritage of Bratislava
The communist regime took over the power in 1949 and held it until 1989; that´s enough time to write history, don´t you think? During these forty years, the city changed significantly and not always for the better. Many valuable buildings were erased, beautiful nature subjected to cold engineering and the core of the city was left to crumble. Yet, something is gaudily attractive about seeing the remains of the dictatorship – certainly not for the grace and beauty, but perhaps for a certain curiosity.
There is nothing that screams “communism” louder than a concrete neighborhood. Petržalka should be your first step if you decided to experience the desolation of broken terraces; but if you expect a sombre place, you are about ten-fifteen years late! Petržalka is a lively and popular neighborhood – thanks to its practical bike lanes and trees that have grown since its construction in the 70´s, it is actually a nice place to live. No worries though, there are still some shabby spots left to embellish your dark Instagram feed.
If you have the possibility, explore on two wheels because my city is best discovered by bicycle – if not, take one of the n°90 buses, go to Hroboňova and walk around from there.
Lazy ass tip: even a bus ride will show you many interesting nooks and corners.
Maybe you will run into this abandoned ambulance that I have photographed last year:
There is this peculiar café I have never managed to enter as they seem to be always closed. If you get to do so, let me know how you liked it – I am really curious about how does it look like from the inside! (I went there one too many times as the migration police is just around the corner.)
Once you are here, you might as well check out the huge painting covering a wall of one of the panel houses – it is called Mier (“Peace”) and it is actually a re-creation of the original that is hidden under the layers of new paint. There used to be several in the same style by the same artist, however, they all have the same faith – currently there is an initiative going on to renew them, if enough money can be collected.
Petržalka is also home to the abandoned metro station (click & read the full article to find out how to get there and what to expect).
The so called New Markethall stands on a spot of a previous market place; besides a few really good (and cheap) flower shops in case you need a bouquet for your Slovak girlfriend (and you know you do), there are a couple good bakeries – you can taste what the locals eat if you buy here. Sellers of mostly Hungarian origin also offer sour cabbage, pickles, amazing patés and veggies&fruits brought from Hungary in the summer months. (I am suspicious that in winter, the fresh produce comes from the nearby Lidl.) Along with that, you can find Chinese clothes and sleazy bars where retired men with red noses silently drink their borovička and watch news with an absent look in their eyes. Passing these shrines of desolation, let´s step up the stairs – from the first floor, you can have a look from above from the balcony.
The “Union House” or Istropolis (= ”city on Danube”) is right on the opposite side of the street. It is impossible to miss it – the grey tiles and empty poles with no flags will be your guide. To get there, enter the underground passage, which presents a constant fight between the municipality and (not particularly good) street art enthusiasts on its walls. When you figure out which way to get out, head to the Istropolis building. After the fall of communism, it has served as a cinema for a few years (I have seen the Lord of the Rings in it for the first time!), but after the city got flooded with commercial centers flaunting fancy multiplex cinemas with plush carpets, Istropolis lost this battle. Nowadays, it is partially rented for dance classes, winter coat shops and what not and if you are a weirdo like myself, you might want to have a stroll around the building to see if you can sneak in to one of the empty cinema rooms.
There is also an abandoned mill in the vicinity.
“The young guard” is actually the name of a students home in Nové Mesto. It is at the same time a tram stop so you can get there very easily – jump on one of the trams heading to Rača and watch out for a pinkish building on your left. Here, you can admire the socialist taste on the walls and have a cheap beer in the bar on the opposite side of the street. Mladá Garda was built in 1954 and its name refers to an underground antifascist organization that operated in Donbas. The strip displaying workers of different occupations trims all the building and is 2,5 km long, while the clocktower is inspired by the shape of churches in Spiš (Eastern Slovakia). The watchman most probably won´t let you enter, so…yeah, that´s it. If you wish, you can also rent a room here during the summer months.
Culture House in Ružinov
This one is a treat. You can get there with a tram or a bus. If you are taking the bus (50, 78, 66, 96), get off at Maximiliána Hella bus stop. Tram n°8/9: get off at the Nemocnica Ružinov and walk across the park from there. If you want to skip the park, get off at “Tomášikova”. The “Dom kultúry” is open to whoever likes to enter and hang around. You will be rewarded for the long way with its 80s à la mode metallic decorations. Now that you are here already, there is a skeleton of an old commercial center right behind and a weird communist building next to the culture house. Check that out too if you feel nosy.
Reverse pyramid of the Slovak radio station
The Slovak pyramid is a bit more famous than other communist buildings in the city, so you have probably heard of it before. While usually you can only enter inside for a concert, there has been a series of public presentations to celebrate 90 years of radio in Slovakia in 2016 and many people (me included) have taken the chance. The architecture of this building is very particular as it has another pyramid hanging inside. There are also many recording rooms with original props for recording sounds in radio plays, such as doors that lead nowhere and all kinds of materials to produce different effects. I have been to a few concerts in the Pyramid (such as John Lord and Ken Hensley) and can confirm that the recording room has truly magnificent sound – why not try it for yourself during your visit in Bratislava?
While taking photos during the insider visit was prohibi…fervently discouraged, I still want to share a couple of shots with you (whew, I´m such a rebel!), as you are not likely to see them elsewhere. Secret info: in front of the pyramid under the concrete floor, there is a hidden medieval well that you cannot see, but that has been found and preserved during the construction works.
The Most SNP as goes its official name has a very unfortunate origin as it has replaced former Jewsih quarter of the city. It was built in the 70s and is probably the weirdest bridge in Central Europe.
You can read all the details in the article dedicated to the UFO bridge itself.
The Square of Freedom is worth visiting for its decaying fountain, supposedly representing a flower. It used to be a risky spot where you could see used needles and shards of glass just about everywhere, or meet young nazis at night, but you see, the 90s are over and Bratislava is a tame city now. Well, maybe you´ll still see a needle or too. During the teachers´ and students´ protests against the (lack of) development and reforms in the education sector, the “School” has been symbolically buried on this spot, accompanied by cold rain, darkness, speeches, mourning demonstrators dressed in black and a burial band. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for some sensible reform in our education sector.
More communist fountains
The Ružinov park is a nice place to hang out in the summer and you can witness the fountain architecture here too – these fountains, unlike the one at the “freedom square”, do work in the summer!
Another one, representing the world, stands right in front of the Presidential palace.
Bunkers and Iron Curtain trail
Again, this spot is best accessed by a bicycle. Following the Danube dykes in the direction of Austria, you will soon run into old bunkers. There is a public association organized by citizens interested in history who tries and takes care of these bunkers, however, if I were you, I´d be extra careful about “landmines” and watch my step as they sometimes serve as a public toilet. Between Slovakia and Austria, this part of the bike lanes is called the Iron Curtain Trail and is marked with a red C (that marks the bike lanes in general) and information tables about how the communist regime passionately protected its borders to keep its citizens from running away to freedom.
Find out more about bike lanes around Danube and how to find the bunkers in my article about biking in Bratislava.
Main Train Station & Vinohrady
Literally everyone will tell you that the Main Train Station is awful (because it is). Anyhow, this is the alternative guide to Bratislava and I count on you wanting to see all those wacky communist buildings! There is a good chance that you arrived to Bratislava by a train from Vienna (check) so let´s move on to the next – the train station of Vinohrady, in my opinion, is a bit more interesting as it still proudly shows of this rusty banner (besides, it is less touristy = cooler). And have a look at that staircase! You can take a train from the Main Station to get here, it will cost you mere cents and four minutes of your lifetime. There is an abandoned chemical factory area nearby that I haven´t properly explored myself, but mentioning it just so you know.
Slovak National Theater: New building
If you ever wondered what did the communist buildings look like when they were new, now is your chance! This “concrete monstruosity” as it is commonly refered to by both press and most of my family members, was planned during the communist regime; the first impulse to build it appeared in 1959, the construction started in 1986 and finally finished in 2007. It is complete with weird iron artforms in front, fancy shopping center nearby and fluffy red carpets inside. Hell yeah!
While the building is supposed to represent “open arms” welcoming the visitors thirsty for art, constructed in industrial style as a “factory of art”and is timeless (according to Wikipedia), I never developed any fondness for it.
It is however close to the next point on my list:
Port bridge – Prístavný most
Maybe you think this bridge is nothing special. After all, the UFO bridge looks far more interesting! Yet, this is my favorite bridge in the city (Girl Astray aproved) as it is a great connection to the bike lanes leading towards Rusovce. When you enter it from the downtown side of the river, you will pass yet another abandoned building (I believe some people live there in summer though) that is special because of the grafitti painted by a Colombian artist – I mean, how many Colombians have been to Slovakia AND are street artists? Then you will see a – ehm, original – concrete art in form of an arc with some typical bullshitty communist motives. In the summer, entering the bridge itself feels like going to a jungle as there are trees growing all around and within the “snail”. Then from Prístavný most you´ll get a birds view of the port with its rusty wagons and railtracks and if it is a sunny day, you might also spot the exhausts of the Slovnaft factory on the horizon. It sounds odd, I know, but think of it as a romance in Blade Runner style. This bridge has been constructed between 1977 – 1985 and daily serves to 120.000 vehicles.
Slavín is a monument and war memorial for Russian soldiers who died fighting the Nazi army in 1945. It offers a great view of the city panorama and can be easily walked to from the downtown. Inaugurated in 1960, Slavín is a perfect example of Stalinist monumentalism which is in striking contrast with the architecture of Palisády where it stands.
Socialist architecture in Bratislava: a local guide
I hope this guide to communist Bratislava will help you in discovering the parts of the city where you otherwise wouldn´t wander. There is more to the architecture of the city than its (albeit pretty) historical downtown and wether you find it disturbing, fascinating or plain ugly, it remains part of where we as locals come from and what we are used to seeing around us, shaping our thoughts and habits. That is why I felt the urge to write about the less popular, communist neighborhoods of the town.
While most of tourists coming to Bratislava will do just fine exploring the main tourist attractions, I believe that this list of suggestions will find its audience too – if that is you, let me know in the comments or send me your favorite communist selfie from your trip!
Do you have more tips on what to visit? Want to share your impressions from exploring the commie past? Loved / hated this guide? Share with me in the comment section!
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Stray story seeker. Hungry hitchhiker. Wannabe polyglot. Aspiring travel writer. Currently bumming around in Georgia.
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