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March 24, 2019

Slovakia: Bratislava, Communist Era Buildings

Colorfully painted Communist-era apartment blocks across the river from Bratislava’s old town

Thirty years ago Bratislava Czechoslovakia was just on the Warsaw Pact side of the Iron Curtain. A few miles away from the city center, visible from its high building tops, is Austrian territory. Separating Austria and Czechoslovakia was a border barrier designed in part to keep those living in the Eastern Bloc from leaving. If you lived in Bratislava you could not in general migrate to nearby Vienna, 60-odd kilometers away.

Things have changed dramatically in the intervening years. The Velvet Revolution at the end of 1989 signaled the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia. By the start of December of ‘89 the border barriers were being dismantled. Roughly three years after democracy was restored, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries are now both part of the European Union and are signatories to the Schengen Agreement, allowing free movement between 26 participating countries that was limited before. Now Slovak citizens in Bratislava can choose to relocate to Vienna to live, if they care to.

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Bratislava has evolved as a popular tourist destination, receiving roughly a million visitors each year. Part of Bratislava’s appeal is its accessibility. The Schengen Agreement means that there is no longer a regular border checkpoint between Austria and Slovakia. River cruise ships heading up and down the Danube transport their cargoes of tourists between nearby Vienna and Bratislava without a customs and immigration delay. With easy accessibility tourists can base in one city and daytrip to the other by river ferry, train, or car.

Most would say that Vienna is the more interesting of the two cities. For sure Vienna is larger than Bratislava and has a richer history. But there is one thing that Bratislava offers that is not available in Austria: Communist-era buildings.

For those who grew up in the West there was always an image of the austerity of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It just seemed bleak. But was it really? Or was this just the image that the West wanted to portray?

Perhaps most famous of Bratislava’s communist era buildings is the UFO Bridge.

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It is impossible to go back in time to know for sure. But one thing does remain: Many buildings and parts of the urban infrastructure from the Communist era are still in use today and can be seen. It is interesting to wander around modern Bratislava and try to pick out the buildings, statues, and other things that were constructed during the Cold War.

It’s not always as easy to spot the Cold War-era buildings, as it seems it would. The Communist buildings in Bratislava really aren’t that different to structures being built in the West at the time. (Apartment buildings constructed in the 70’s tended to look bleak no matter where you are in the world.) Yes, if you look closely Communist buildings are a little more austere, but the buildings are within the normal range of styles of the day. Indeed, though we were on the lookout for Communist-era buildings, it took us days to realize that the hotel we were staying, Hotel Devin, was in fact built during the Cold War. We’d thought we would have noticed but we didn’t.


We visited Bratislava in October of 2018.

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