Caught between the westernmost tip of the Carpathians and the flat plain of the Danube, with both Austria and Hungary tantalizingly close, BRATISLAVA has two distinct sides to it. On the one hand, there's the old town or staré mesto, a manageable, attractive, mostly pedestrianized quarter lined with renovated baroque palaces; on the other hand, there's the rest of the city or nové mesto, a mixture of interwar tenements and postwar high-rises typical of the former Eastern bloc. More buildings have been destroyed here since the war than were bombed out during it, not least the Jewish quarter, bulldozed to make way for the colossal new suspension bridge, most SNP, symbol of the city's upwardly mobile thrust under Communism.
For centuries, Bratislava was known as Pressburg to the German-speaking world, which supplied around half its inhabitants until the 1945 expulsions, and as Pozsony to the Hungarians, who were forced to use it as their capital for several centuries during the Turkish occupation of much of Hungary, crowning their kings and queens in the cathedral and holding their Diet here until the Turks were finally beaten back from the Hungarian plain. At the turn of the twentieth century, the city had barely 60,000 inhabitants, most of whom were German, Hungarian and/or Jewish, with a smattering of Romanies and Slovaks. The balance shifted with the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, which gave a leg-up to the Slovaks, who took over the cultural and political institutions and renamed the place Bratislava after Bratislav, the last Slav leader of the Great Moravian Empire.
Over the last eighty years, the population has increased more than sevenfold to 450,000, making it by far the country's largest city, occupied by roughly eight percent of the Slovak population. However, the historical centre is surprisingly small, with most of the population living in the city's mushrooming high-rise estates. Whatever Bratislava's previous identity, it's now Slovak through and through, its youthful centre packed out with students and the new Westernized generation of Slovakia's burgeoning population. The multicultural atmosphere of the prewar days is only vaguely echoed in the city's smattering of Magyars, Romanies and day-tripping Austrians, but there's still a ring of truth to Metternich's much-quoted aphorism, "East of Vienna, the Orient begins".
You'll need a couple of days at least to soak the city in; and with none of the sightseeing crowds of Prague, the relaxed feel of the old town, and some of the best weather in the country, you may want to stay longer.