A wander through the colourful and historic borough of Petrzalka is one of the more unusual things to do in Bratislava, Slovakia. Here are my photos and tips for visiting.
Like many travellers before us, we didn’t know what to expect from Slovakia. But we soon found that Bratislava, the capital city, is full of pleasant surprises. Formerly a coronation city ruled by the Hungarian Empire, Bratislava is best known for its well-preserved Old Town and castle. The tourist zone is well defined, and few visitors cross the Danube into Bratislava’s outer suburbs. When I heard about a colourful Communist-era suburb with curious architecture, I wanted to go and see it for myself.
Petrzalka is the city’s biggest residential area and a repository of local history. Its paneláky apartment blocks, originally an extension of Communist ideology and now a symbol of the city’s cultural vibrancy, are on a scale reminiscent of Hong Kong’s birdcage apartment blocks, with just a hint of DPRK about them.
This little corner of Central Europe is well worth a few hours of your time if you’re looking for unusual things to do in Bratislava. In this guide to Petrzalka, I offer some background about the area, plus my tips for visiting.
What is Petrzalka?
Let’s start with some superlatives. Petrzalka is:
– The largest borough in Bratislava;
– The most densely populated residential district anywhere in Central Europe;
– Home to the highest concentration of paneláky apartment blocks anywhere in the region;
– The location of the oldest public park in Central Europe, Sad Janka Krala, which was established in 1776.
Spread over 2,000-plus hectares and home to more than 120,000 people, Petrzalka (Petržalka) is huge by Slovakian standards. It’s a predominantly suburban area known for its paneláky: Low-rise, pre-fab concrete apartment blocks. These structures are common throughout the region, but Petrzalka is probably the most colourful example of such a suburb.
Petrzalka as a settlement dates back to the 1600s, when the area was made up of a series of interlocking islands. Its modern history as a neighbourhood begins in 1920 with the founding of Czechoslovakia. This is when the area received its contemporary name. Meaning ‘parsley’, the moniker refers to the herbs and vegetables that once grew in Petrzalka’s fertile soil. Historically, Petrzalka was a refuge for German and Croatian immigrants who fled to Bratislava (then the capital of Hapsburg Hungary) during the Ottoman wars. When Czechoslovak was signed into existence, Petrzalka was marked on the map as the country’s largest village.
Nazi Germany annexed Petrzalka in 1938 and later turned the area into a labour camp before the borough was liberated (along with the rest of Bratislava) in April 1945. Today, Petrzalka is a known as a sídlisko or sídliště (housing estate) and home to people with Slovak, Hungarian, Czech and German roots.
Petrzalka’s distinguishing feature is its panelaky (panelový dom or ‘panel house’ in Slovak language). Popular as a low-cost housing solution throughout the Eastern Bloc, these huge apartment blocks were erected en-masse during the Communist era to cope with the influx of people coming into cities from rural areas. Panelaky are usually associated with Czechoslovakia, but also appeared anywhere Communism slammed down its iron fist (later in our trip, we would see them as far west as Ljubljana). At one time, roughly one-third of Czechoslovakia’s population lived in a panelak.
Petrzalka’s panelaky started popping up in 1977. Originally made from silvery concrete, the uniform, no-frills design was meant to reflect Communism’s collectivist nature.
I’m not sure exactly why (if you happen to know, please drop me a comment!), but some time after 1989, someone had the bright idea to transform Petrzalka’s grey concrete jungle into a field of painter’s canvases. The colourful panelaky are all well-maintained and probably just as vibrant as the day they were designed. We even saw workers doing touch ups on a few blocks as we wandered around.
Just take a look at some of the designs…
The colours of Petrzalka
It’s tempting to call Petrzalka a rainbow or kaleidoscope—but the designs and colours of the panelaky are honestly far more nuanced than that. Subtle palettes, imaginative combinations of complimentary shades, ombre hues, lines that emphasise a building’s volume or highlight a particular feature of the concrete. Many of the stand-alone blocks are book-ended with geometric designs on their only windowless surface.
It’s no exaggeration to say Petrzalka’s panelaky are works of art. Whoever came up with the designs fully embraced their concrete canvas. They obviously didn’t view each panelak as a solitary figure, but as part of a whole. Look at the way the blocks are arranged and stacked together when viewed from different aspects. The colours and patterns are in perfect harmony. Each building communicates with its neighbour in a symphony of colour.
Brightening Communism’s corners?
Panelaky are often criticised for being both impractical and too stark, but we noticed some interesting urban design elements. The larger blocks have pedestrian underpasses through the bottom and wide, elevated concrete promenades at the foot. In some cases, there is a layer of shopfronts and businesses on the ground floor. The oddly shaped interstitial spaces between the buildings have been turned into parks or playgrounds. We saw a few concrete statues, exactly like the ones that grace the Botanical Gardens in Hanoi nearby where we lived.
I wonder what it would be like to live in one of these flats. Do the colours really lift your mood? Was that the intention? I was mainly focused on the designs, but I would love to see a proper street photography project to learn more about the people who call Petrzalka home.
From what I’ve read, the neighbourhood has always been diverse and not necessary a low socio-economic area (as may be the case with high-density estates in other countries). There isn’t any stigma attached to Petrzalka by Bratislavans, and by all accounts it’s quite a nice place to live.
Unusual things to do in Bratislava: Tips for visiting Petrzalka
Exploring Petrzalka is one of the more unusual things to do in Bratislava. If you’re only spending a day or a weekend in Bratislava you’ll probably want to stick to the main sights. But if you’re staying longer—or if you have an interest in alternative activities—I highly recommend taking some time to visit Petrzalka.
It’s one thing to see Petrzalka from a distance—but being on the ground, standing amongst the massive colour blocks, is a pretty cool experience. The neighbourhood is huge and it would take days to see all the buildings. The best way to approach it is to choose a point on the map and explore on foot from there. We aimed for ⚑ Petržalská Klubovňa, a really excellent local restaurant with an on-site brewery and a set lunch menu. It was the perfect place to start our adventure.
To get to Petrzalka from Bratislava, take bus 83 or 88 from the Zochova bus stop at the foot of Bratislava Castle. I recommend this route because it takes you over the (in)famous UFO Bridge. Tickets can be purchased from the little machine before you board and must be validated on the bus. Trams 1 and 3 also connect Petrzalka with Bratislava Old Town via a different bridge. We went this way back to town, again buying our tickets on the platform. Bus and tram both take less than 20 minutes.
Once you arrive in Petrzalka, my best advice is to follow your nose and see where the road takes you. There are quiet streets, pathways and parks for pedestrians—all easy to navigate. Shopping centres, restaurants and a stream act as landmarks so you won’t get lost. In case you want to follow in our footsteps: Some of the most colourful buildings pictured here are located between the restaurant I mentioned and this ⚑ Lidl supermarket. The area is very flat, so it would be fun to hire a bicycle or scooter to cover more ground. We walked around for about 1.5 hours and only saw a very small cross-section of the buildings.
A final note: Petrzalka is public area where it’s free and permitted to wander wherever you please. We visited on a weekday and hardly met anyone on the paths at all. The few locals we did run into either ignored us completely, or gave us a friendly smile. I got the distinct impression that no one really minded a couple of camera-wielding tourists being there. As always, be respectful when taking photos, and be careful not to cross onto anyone’s private property.
Have you visited Petrzalka? What are your favourite unusual things to do in Bratislava? Have you ever seen a neighbourhood similar to Petrzalka elsewhere in the world?