Bratislava: Soviet-influenced city of the future still feels fresh and new

Inverted pyramid in Bratislava.
The Egyptians built pyramids, but the Soviets built one upside down. Photo credit: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

There's a European capital whose crowning glory is a flying saucer that stands higher than the Statue of Liberty - but this sci-fi city isn't troubling anyone's list of the continent's most visited destinations.

Anyone visiting Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, will find it hard to miss the aptly named, 95m high UFO Tower which has looked out over the River Danube since 1972. Right opposite Bratislava's historic Old Town, its rooftop panoramic terrace and restaurant offer the best views of the city and the surrounding region.

Remarkably, the otherworldly aesthetics of this tower aren't that unusual in a city which was once a testbed for some of the boldest architectural projects either side of the Iron Curtain.

More than three decades later after the fall of Communist regime the physical legacy of that era still dots the streets of Bratislava, where it stands in stark contrast to the classical harmony of the Hapsburg era downtown and the modern high rises that have sprung up in recent years along with Slovakia's newfound prosperity.

The inverted pyramid

You just need to venture a few hundred yards beyond the tidy, café-lined streets of the Old Town to stumble upon a truly unique structure that is unlikely to leave anyone unmoved.

The Slovak Radio Building is an 80m inverted pyramid.

This is exactly as it sounds: Starting from its ground level vertex, this rust-coloured building, which houses the country's national broadcaster, gets wider with each ascending floor.

This architectural extravaganza was completed in 1983 after nearly two decades in the making and, to this day, it polarises opinions among architects and the general public alike.

While some consider it a masterpiece and it has enjoyed protected heritage status since 2017, others deplore its looks and find it a dark reminder of the communist past. The UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper even included it in its list of the world's ugliest buildings.

Its architect, Štefan Svetko, was also the author of several residential projects that encapsulate the aesthetics of that era.

One of the most remarkable, Medzi Jarkami, built in 1979 in the eastern outskirts of Bratislava, consists of several residential blocks, laid out in circular and almost tangential patterns. The open space within the largest of those circles is fitted with yet another UFO-themed monument. In this case, the flying saucer is at ground level, as if it had crash-landed when arriving from outer space.

Watch the skies

UFOs were a recurring theme at the time. The vault covering the grand hall of the Slovak University of Agriculture is also reminiscent of a flying saucer. This building, completed in 1966, is located in the city of Nitra, some 60 miles from the capital. Its architect, Vladimir Dedeček, left his imprint in and around Bratislava with other brutalist-style works, such as the Slovak National Gallery, the Slovak National Archive as well as the State Political School, in Modra, a nearby town.

While some of these sights require a dedicated excursion, a short walk in the centre of Bratislava is all you need to get a snapshot of the country's socialist-realist heritage. Just around the corner from the pyramid, for example, you'll find the colourful mural adorning the facade of the Slovak University of Technology or the early 1980s Fountain of Union, in Námestie Slobody ("Freedom Square"), a flower-shaped piece of metal urban decor that transmits strong sci-fi vibes.

The fountain's current state of disrepair only adds to its dystopian looks, but this may be temporary, since, at the time of CNN Travel's visit in July 2022, restoration work was ongoing at Freedom Square.

Street art and daring new architecture

In recent years, this Communist-era heritage has proved amenable to reinterpretation. A case in point is Bratislava's centrally located Hotel Kyjev, which has been closed for around a decade.

In 2018, as part of the Bratislava Street Art Festival, a visual project by artist Lousy Auber managed to transform one side of this drab 1970s Soviet-style high rise into an eye-catching landmark that is visible from miles away.

Cityscape of Bratislava with main symbols of the city: castle, SNP bridge over Danube river, St.Martin's church and broadcast tower in background. Warm sunset light.
Cityscape of Bratislava with main symbols of the city: castle, SNP bridge over Danube river, St.Martin's church and broadcast tower in background. Warm sunset light. Photo credit: Miroslav Orinčák/Adobe Stock

To do so, 17 painters abseiled simultaneously from its roof in order to cover the building's western-facing facade in geometrical white and brown patterns.

Change doesn't stop here. In line with the country's transformation and economic growth of the last couple of decades, a spattering of contemporary buildings have been rising up all over the place.

An early example of this new architectural wave leaving its mark in the Slovak capital is the Strabag building, the local headquarters of an Austrian construction firm. Built in 2007, it features a cottage-style house hanging upside down from the side of the glass and steel structure.

Even larger in scale is the latest addition to the Bratislava skyline, courtesy of the renowned firm Zaha Hadid Architects.

The first stage of the Sky Park development was completed in 2020 and comprises three residential towers. It incorporates into its grounds a pre-existing office block as well as the reconstructed Jurkovičová Tepláreň heating plant. The second stage of this project, which is expected to open soon, will include a fourth residential tower as well as a 120m office building.

One of Europe's youngest capitals

The marked contrast between all these apparently antithetical styles is less a novelty than a feature in this city that throughout its history has often found itself on the dividing line between cultures and blocs.

Bratislava has, after all, at different times in its history been known by its German and Hungarian names (Pressburg and Pózsony respectively), reflecting its diverse cultural mix, which also included a large Jewish community.

We could, in fact, go all the way back two millennia when the Roman "limes" passed through these lands (there are remains of Roman garrison forts at several spots on the Danube's south bank near Bratislava) or, more recently, the divide between the communist and capitalist blocs, which ran around some of Bratislava's suburbs.

Nowadays, with open borders, a common currency and, perhaps even more importantly, the EU's free cell phone roaming area in place, travelling from Vienna in Austria to Bratislava in Slovakia - that is between Germanic and Slavic-speaking Europe - is a seamless experience that takes less than an hour on a suburban train.

This close proximity to the Austrian capital (Bratislava and Vienna are two of the world's most closely positioned national capitals), may have also hampered Bratislava's efforts to establish its own credentials more firmly as a Central European destination.

Look no further than the city's air links: while Bratislava has its own airport, most visitors arriving by air do so through Vienna International Airport, located barely 30 miles away and boasting a much larger number of connections.

As one of the continent's youngest capital cities - it earned its status in 1993 - it doesn't have the recognition of the other Habsburg capitals nearby, such as Prague and Budapest, or the visitor numbers.

On the plus side, this geographical and cultural porousness, which so prominently extends to the architectural domain, has shaped the Slovak capital into the edgy city it is today, a place full of unexpected treats that are waiting to be discovered by the discerning traveller.