Set behind the former Iron Curtain that divided Europe for 40 years sits Slovakia, a country whose modern history only began in 1993. That year marked the “Velvet Divorce,” a peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia.
Slovaks inherited a land of extraordinary natural beauty, where fertile plains in the south rise to Alpine mountains in the north. A land with a 180 medieval castles and romantic castle ruins (the highest number per capita worldwide), it has 1,200 mineral springs and a number of destinations listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Slovakia is still a lesser-known travel destination, where you will find high-quality hotels, fine wining and dining, cultural institutions and sport venues, all available with a smaller price tag than many alternative travel destinations, and without stressful tourist crowds.
Located in the geographical heart of Europe, Slovakia spans an area of 49,035 square kilometres. It shares borders with Austria and the Czech Republic to the west, Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east and Hungary to the south. Slovakia is a member of the European Union and NATO and, since 2007, has also been part of the Schengen Area. In 2009, the country adopted the euro as its currency.
The main mountain ranges are the Tatra and Fatra mountains, with 29 peaks higher than 2,500 metres. The principal river is the Danube. The capital city of Bratislava stands at an historical trade crossroads on both banks of the Danube, being the world’s only national capital that borders two states — Austria and Hungary. The proximity of Bratislava to Vienna is also noteworthy, at just 65 kilometres.
Slovak rural architecture is largely inspired by its folk heritage, a fact most apparent in the mountain regions of Orava, Liptov and Spiš, where entire villages either still exist in their original beauty or were carefully re-created to form splendid open-air museums. The most precious buildings, however, are the wooden churches with their nail-less construction and intricate ornamentation — unique in Europe. There are also nearly 700 castles, castle ruins, chateaus and manor houses in Slovakia. The historical city centres of Bratislava, Košice, Banská Bystrica, Trnava or Bardejov date back to the 13th Century or earlier.
Our ancestors also discovered the healing effects of many springs, now an attraction at 25 spas scattered across the country. Modern-day sport enthusiasts flock to the Tatra Mountains to enjoy great skiing. Many of us return there or to other highlands from April onwards to enjoy cycle paths or hiking trails.
Slovakia in five days
Getting to Slovakia is easy. There are daily flights operating between Toronto and Vienna, Austria. Once in Vienna, trains and buses leave for Bratislava every hour throughout the day. Because Slovakia uses the euro as its currency, it minimizes the hassle of adding one more country to your itinerary once in Austria, since the money is the same and there is no border-crossing check. The prices are more attractive than anywhere in Western Europe and huge tourist crowds are a rarity. Besides being accessible, all the four- and five-star hotels, restaurants with fine foods and wines, spa treatments and museums and galleries are affordable.
Although the following tour is only five days, we hope you stay much longer.
Day 1: Bratislava, Červený Kameň, Trnava and Piešťany
Leave Bratislava and head north along the scenic small Carpathian wine route through small towns nestled between centuries-old vineyards. In about 45 minutes, you will arrive at Červený Kameň (Red Stone), one of the best preserved Slovak castles. Tour this meticulously restored medieval residence of the noble Pálffy family, with displays of precious decor and furnishings, porcelain, armour and the largest wine cellars in central Europe.
For lunch, head to the nearby village of Dubová. In this region, you will fine many excellent wine producers, along with good restaurants, in a striking setting. Take the country road cutting through the picturesque fields to Trnava, one of Slovakia’s oldest towns. Once headquarters of the Church of Hungary, the town features numerous churches, monasteries and chapels, thus becoming known as the “Slovak Rome.” After about a 30-minute drive, you will reach the spa town of Piešťany, your final destination for tonight.
Day 2: Piešťany, Bojnice and Banská Štiavnica
Over the past 200 years, Piešťany has evolved from a small village with several mineral hot springs into a world-famous spa destination, offering treatments for rheumatic and arthritic conditions. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven, Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha and numerous members of European aristocracy contributed to the town’s glory. About 20 minutes after you leave, you’ll come across Kúria Beckov, a tastefully renovated manor house set directly below a striking ruin of the 13th-Century Beckov Castle. Consider a short lunch break here. Continue to Bojnice, another spa town famous also for its castle, which ranks among the most romantic castles in Europe. Take a guided tour of the castle interior and then head to Banská Štiavnica.
Day 3: Banská Štiavnica, Vlkolínec and Demänovská Dolina
Spend the morning exploring Banská Štiavnica, a UNESCO World Heritage town, which was one of Europe’s main gold- and silver-mining centres between the 13th and 18th Centuries. After lunch, drive north to Vlkolínec, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scenically located amid the dense forests of the Fatra Mountains, this small village has been left intact for centuries and its wooden houses are a living museum. Make Demänovská Dolina your next stop. On the way, you might want to stop briefly in Kremnica, another medieval mining town. It is famous for continuous coin production since the 14th Century.
Day 4: Demänovská Dolina and the High Tatra Mountains
Start your day in Demänovská Dolina by visiting one of Slovakia’s most famous ice caves, Demänovská ľadová jaskyňa, the entrance to which is about five minutes from the popular hotels. Finish your morning in the Low Tatra Mountains by taking a brand new cable car to the summit of Chopok (2,023 metres). The Rotunda Restaurant offers magnificent 360-degree views and modern cuisine inspired by traditional Slovak recipes. If you have good weather, you will be able to glimpse the High Tatra Mountains. After about a 50-minute drive, you will reach Glacier Lake of Štrbské Pleso (1,346 metres). You have ample choices for accommodations where you can relax or, if you’re still feeling energized, rent a rowboat on the lake before sunset.
Day 5: High Tatra Mountains, Spišský Hrad and Košice
The High Tatra Mountains, the highest mountain range in Slovakia, can be easily explored for a week, yet you can make the best of your visit by taking a cable car from Tatranská Lomnica to Lomnický Štít (2,634 metres) and gradually descending on a fairly easy and well-marked walking trail. Your two-hour hike will reward you with beautiful vistas. You can stop for lunch at the traditional Zamkovského cottage, known as chata, and end your hike in Starý Smokovec, from which a modern tramway will bring you back to your hotel. After checkout, head eastwards to the largest castle in Central Europe, UNESCO-listed Spišský hrad. This 11th-Century marvel can be visited on your own, at your own pace.
During summer, several Renaissance tournaments and fairs take place here for families with children. Košice, a mere one-hour drive from Spišský hrad, is Slovakia’s second largest city. Largely walkable and dominated by the Gothic masterpiece of St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral, this city is a jewel, tracing its roots to the 12th Century. Wine lovers should consider a side trip to the Tokaj wine region, where world-famous wine is produced.
Bratislava’s charming Old Town is quite compact in size and very walking-friendly, which makes exploring it on foot easy and enjoyable. Try to avoid visiting on Mondays when public museums and galleries are closed. Instead, schedule your visit to include Saturday, when many extra activities are offered by cultural institutions or the municipality itself.
Start your day at the Bratislava Castle, a true symbol of the city dating back to the 13th Century. Quite massive in structure, the castle was never conquered throughout its long and complicated history. Descend the castle stairs to St. Martin’s Cathedral, the coronation church of the Habsburg monarchs, who reigned from 1563 to 1830 and enjoyed the rarity of a female ruler. Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa reigned from 1740 to 1765 and as co-regent with son Emperor Joseph II until her death in 1780. Marie Antoinette was among her 16 children.
Visit the renovated Gothic interior and admire the colourful stained-glass windows, or the pipe organ, once played by Franz Liszt himself. Continue via Panská, Ventúrska and Michalská streets, which are lined with former palaces of Austrian and Hungarian nobles. When you reach St. Michael’s Gate, the only remaining medieval gateway to the city, climb up its tower for another lovely view of the Old Town. After that, take Michalská Street towards the colourful Main Square. Small coffee shops offer many opportunities for a break.
The city’s most traditional coffee house, Kaffee Mayer, which dates back to 1873, serves fresh house-made cakes, the kind once delivered from here daily to the Habsburg royal court in Vienna. A prominent part of the square is occupied by the Old Town Hall. Enjoy your afternoon by promenading along the Danube River, even crossing to the right bank to admire the town from the opposite side. A great idea is to take a 60-minute boat ride to Devín, Bratislava’s second medieval castle. Devín is one of the most important historical and archeological locations in Central Europe. It exudes rugged beauty and offers great views of the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.
Come and discover beautiful Slovakia, a unique country in the heart of Europe. Whether you are a nature lover who enjoys the splendid beauty of untouched mountains or an urbanite who seeks vibrant cities, rich in history and culture; whether you fancy winter sports or prefer summer activities, whether you seek out world-class spas or enjoy great wines and delicious cuisine, a holiday in Slovakia is simply always a good idea.
Should you consider Slovakia as your next travel destination, my team is pleased to assist and answer any questions you might have. Visit www.slovakia.travel for detailed information.
Andrej Droba is Slovakia’s ambassador to Canada.