These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Café Culture, Bratislava-style

To hear locals tell it, it was nearly impossible to have a drink or find a good cup of coffee in the old town just 10 years ago. Things have changed dramatically since then.

On a sunny day or warm evening, the Old Town swarms with café culture. Outdoor cafés line seemingly every public square and romantic little ally, and they're all packed with attractive people basking in the sun or luxuriating in shade. Perhaps the most impressive spot to café hop is Hlavné Námestie, the main square. Here you find the town's largest and most Vienna-like cafés, table after table of people nursing a beer or cappuccino, smoking cigarettes, languidly conversing, seeing and being seen. It's a brilliant atmosphere and must not be missed.

But what interests me more are the Old Town's little out-of-the-way places, the small cafés as interested in serving up a good cup of coffee as they are in creating a "scene." Here are a few of my favourites

Pohoda (Radničná 1). This is one of Slovakia's great teahouses (there are also fine examples in Trenčín and Banská Štiavnica). The name can loosely be translated as "well-being," and that is what's being served up in little pots outfitted with tea strainers. The service, as if sending a message to patrons to unshackle themselves from the tyranny of time, is slow and casual. Accept it.

The menu is loaded with teas from all over the world, including such trendy varieties as rooibos, from South Africa, and maté, from Argentina. The interior is gently lit and inviting for a winter cuppa, and in the summer there's a nice shaded outdoor area. At the counter there's a shelf full of little pastries. Explore it - it includes some of the best baked goods in Bratislava.

U Čerta (Beblavého 2). Bratislava's main hipster café, U Čerta is located on one of the few strips of the castle hill that wasn't destroyed in the building of the New Bridge. It's a dramatic little neighbourhood, its cobbled streets winding up to the castle. Right now, it's desolate in the way that all hipster neighbourhoods are in Western cities before they gain trendy status. But the neighbourhood's architecture is too old and interesting for it to remain a desert long. U Čerta is a pioneering café, the first in what I predict will be several.

The interior is dim, the waiters appropriately gaunt, goateed and angst-ridden, and the coffee is excellent. U Čerta is one of Bratislava's few cafés that offer coffees from Ethiopia, Brazil, and other places of origin. This is the place to come and curl up with a gloomy novel, or write dark poetry. Enjoy it while it's hip - before it gets trendy.

Buddha Bar (Medená 16). This place combines the charm (and teahouse spirit) of Pohoda with the hipster edge of U Čerta. It occupies a basement space on the Old Town's eastern fringes - another neighbourhood that could soon "happen," as they say in New York. Buddha Bar amounts to a series of dim, imaginatively decorated rooms ending in the back with the tearoom, which is outfitted with low tables designed for Eastern-style floor sitting.

Whereas many of Bratislava café's play mindless pop, Buddha Bar features cutting edge European music played by deft DJs. The tea and coffee are both very good; but the main draws here are the music and the atmosphere.

Malevill (Uršulínska 6). This café is deceptively large. It's made up of several small, intimate rooms. The highlight here is the coffee, made from fresh-ground Lavazza beans from Italy. This is one of the few places in Slovakia where you can find a correctly made café latte - one part strong espresso, two parts steamed milk, and just a little foam on top.

Greenwich Time Cocktail Bar and Café (Zelená 10). This bar, tucked away in a long, winding alley, is Bratislava's number-one trendy cocktail bar. At night it's a fashion show of trendy people flaunting their prettiness and brandishing mojitos, cosmos, and other fashion-statement cocktails. But by day it's a relatively calm café - and one of the few in Bratislava that serve coffee from the great Italian roaster Illy.

Its outdoor tables offer prime daytime people watching. It's a wonderful place to sip a correctly pulled, delicious espresso and watch the Bratislava elite go about their business.

Domenico (Námestie Ľ. Štúra 4). The cafés on the main square, while certainly fun, merely allude to the grandeur of Vienna's great temples to coffee and pastry. Domenico, in a large old space near the Danube, actually delivers it. Large windows let the sun stream in, bathing everything in its glow. The coffee here is very good, but the main draw is the huge array of small pastries. This is a great place to come with a newspaper in the winter, linger near a sunny window, order a Viedenská káva (strong coffee topped with whipped cream) and revel in the delights of the Central European pastry tradition.

Archa (Uršulínska 6). This is another Old-Town café nestled in a narrow alleyway. The place serves good, inexpensive food, and most importantly, a well-made cup of coffee. In winter, this many-roomed place is perfect to duck into on a cold day for a warming cappuccino. But it really comes into its own in summer, when its small outdoor tables are packed with people taking in the breeze.

Tom Philpott

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

Make your comment to the article...