Things to Do in Slovakia
The Old Town (Stare Mesto) of Bratislava is the historic heart of the Slovakian capital. The neighborhood consists of a medieval castle, restored buildings, cobblestoned alleyways, and beautiful palaces. This small district is also packed with history, nightlife, eateries, and shopping for visitors to explore and discover.
Perched atop a forested hill on the north bank of the Danube River, overlooking the Old Town (Stary Mesto), Bratislava Castle(Bratislavsky Hrad) is the city’s most distinctive landmark. Visible from all over the city, the grand Renaissance palace dates back to the 16th century and now houses the Museum of History, part of the Slovak National Museum.
The architectural focus of the eastern flank of Hviezdoslavovo namestie (one of the two Baroque main squares gracing Bratislava’s Old Town), the Slovak National Theatre (Slovenské Národné Divadlo or SND for short) is a splendid Neo-Renaissance building. Created by Viennese theater designers Hermann Helmer and Ferdinand Fellner, the SND was completed in 1886 in a time when the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire was thriving and its elaborate pillared, colonnaded façade is encrusted with busts of playwrights such as Shakespeare and Goethe.
Seating for just over 600 in the plush, red velvet and gilded auditorium is in banks of boxes, and the season runs from September to July. The repertoire features a full program of opera, ballet and drama, including such old favorites such as Mozart’s Magic Flute, as well as contemporary performances by the Dragon Kungfu Dance Company.
An innovative new adjunct to the Slovak National Theatre opened in 2007 on the banks of the Danube; the seven-story SND New Building is of gleaming glass and marble, seating 1,677 in its three auditoriums.
Right in the heart of Bratislava is the neoclassical Primate's Palace (Primaciálny Palác), with its pink facade. What was once the archbishop’s residence now serves as the seat of Bratislava’s mayor and hosts the city council. This architectural jewel is where Napoleon signed the Peace of Pressburg in 1805 after the Battle of Austerlitz.
The low-slung, white-washed Baroque Grassalkovich Palace (Grasalkovicov Palac) sits on Hodžovo námestie on the northern edge of Bratislava’s Starý Mesto (Old Town) and was built in 1760 as the private residence of a wealthy adviser to Empress Marie Therese. Anton Grassalkovich surrounded himself by beauty and music in his elegant residence; composer Joseph Haydn and elite members of the Hungarian nobility were frequent visitors to his salon.
The palace has played a considerable part in Slovakian history, as it was here that Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand met his wife; in 1914 they were assassinated in Sarajevo and their deaths led to the outbreak of World War I. After World War II, the palace became home to Josef Tiso, first President of the new Slovak Republic, but during Soviet times the building was used as a day center for children. It was renovated following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when it once more became residence of the Slovakian president.
The colorful Changing of the Guard takes place outside at 1 p.m. daily, and although the palace itself is not open to the public, the surrounding formal French gardens are, and they make a perfect picnic spot on summer days among a cluster of madcap modern fountains.
Just outside Bratislava, Devin Castle (Devinsky Hrad) shows Slovakia’s oldest traces of Slavic settlement, from the ninth century. The castle changed hands many times and was renovated until it was blown up during the 19th-century Napoleonic wars. The castle remains are now a Slovak national symbol and feature stunning panoramic views from the towers.
Like many Bratislava churches, St. Martin’s Cathedral (Dóm Sv. Martina) was built over the remains of an earlier Romanesque basilica on the edge of the Starý Mesto (Old Town). Today’s three-naved Gothic cathedral (Dóm Svätého Martina in full) was consecrated in 1452, and between 1563 and 1830, 11 Hungarian monarchs—including the much-loved Empress Marie Therese—and their spouses were crowned here, a fact celebrated by the placement of a replica coronation crown on the top of the 279-foot (85-meter) Gothic spire.
The church’s interior is awash with Gothic detailing, from the soaring wooden altarpiece found in St Anne’s Chapel, which depicts the Crucifixion, to the vaulted ceilings in the presbytery, while other ornamentation in the cathedral is variously Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque in style. Along with the vivid colors of the 19th-century Viennese stained-glass windows, highlights include the vibrant equine statue dedicated to St. Martin, plus the extravagantly Baroque side chapel of St John the Almsgiver. Below, the cathedral, crypts and burial grounds are being excavated; currently only one is open to explore.
The futuristic Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (also known as the Nový Most or New Bridge) is 1,420 feet (432 m) in length and was opened in 1972 to commemorate Slovak resistance to German invasion in 1944. The road bridge crosses the Danube in a single steel span supported by one pylon standing 312 feet (95 m) above the south bank of the river and is an unusually successful, stylish and popular piece of Soviet architecture.
Atop its single pylon is the circular UFO Observation Deck, which is endlessly crowded with tourists enjoying peerless views of the Starý Mesto (Old Town). An elevator whisks up to the deck in 45 seconds for panoramic views across the city and out to the brightly colored Communist-built apartment blocks in the suburb of Petržalka, where some 120,000 Bratislavans have their homes. If you’re not sure what you’re looking at, there are informative graphics and telescopes all the way around the deck.
Also found on the UFO Deck is Taste, Bratislava’s highest restaurant and one of its best, with spectacular cooking (and prices!) to match the views.
Stara Radnica is the Old Town Hall in the center of Bratislava, Slovakia. It is in the city's Old Town, and aside from serving as the town hall from the 15th through the 19th centuries, it was also used as a prison, a mint, an arsenal depository, a municipal archive, and it was a place of trade and celebrations. It is the country's oldest town hall building and one of the oldest stone buildings still standing in Bratislava. The building has gone through several renovations giving it characteristics of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Renaissance styles. Today it serves as the Bratislava City Museum.
Visitors can see displays in the museum that tell of the city's history starting with the Middle Ages and the feudal justice system. Items include torture instruments, dungeons, antique weapons, armor, paintings, and much more. You can also climb the tower to reach the viewing platform at the top where you'll be rewarded with great views of the main square and city.
Now the only remaining fortified gate—of the original four—in Bratislava’s double ring of medieval fortified walls, Michael’s Gate (Michalska Brana) is a Gothic tower that has its beginnings in the 14th century and was commonly used by fishermen bringing their catch into the Starý Mesto (Old Town) from the River Danube. In the 1750s, the gate's Baroque copper cupola and a statue of St Michael slaying a dragon were added, bringing the tower’s height up to 167 feet (51 meters).
It was at Michael’s Gate that newly crowned Habsburg Austro-Hungarian kings would stop to pay their respects to the Archbishop of Bratislava. Today it is a landmark on the skyline, reached via the teeming restaurants, cafés and stores of narrow Michalská, and looming high over the Old Town. A circular viewing terrace on the sixth floor gives panoramic views across the red roofs and cobbled alleyways of central Bratislava. The diminutive Museum of Arms and City Fortifications breaks the journey up the steep steps to the top of the tower.
More Things to Do in Slovakia
Set in the Stiavnicke Vrchy Mountains near the town of Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia’s Open-Air Mining Museum (Slovenské Banské Múzeum) is one of a kind and not for the faint of heart. Mining in the area dates back to the 3rd century B.C. and the area boasted one of the richest silver deposits in the Middle Ages. Gunpowder was used here for the first time ever in 1627 and over the two centuries that followed, the region was home to most of the major developments in mining and metallurgy, as well as forestry and chemistry.
Visitors have the opportunity to descend into an underground mining pit that stretches for 1300 meters underground, with the deepest section laying 45 meters below the surface. During the 90 minute tour, visitors learn about the history of mining in the Stiavnicke Vrchy Mountains and see exhibits showing both current and obsolete mining techniques and technologies, including drilling technology and methods for transporting ore. Above ground, exhibits include original mining buildings and an exposition about the geological development of the country.
Dotted by shady plane trees and lined with pastel-colored Baroque townhouses, Franciscan Square(Frantiskanske Namestie) is one of the main meeting paces in Bratislava’s Old Town and is dominated by the oldest church in the city. The Franciscan Church has a Baroque façade dating back to the 18th century, but it was originally 13th-century Gothic in form.
Consecrated in 1297, the church has a wealth of Renaissance and Baroque detailing inside, including statuary and gilded artworks, but its chief feature is the Gothic Chapel of Saint John the Evangelist, where Hungarian aristocrats were once ennobled as knights of the realm. The Marian Column in the middle of Franciscan Square gives thanks for the victory of Hungarian King Leopold I over a Protestant rebellion in 1657. Classical concerts are held in the church in the evening.
Banksa Stiavnica is a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Slovakia. Once a leading center of innovation in the mining industry, today it is known more as a destination for tourism and recreation. The site was settled as early as the Neolithic period and later by the Celts, Slavs and Germans. During the Middle Ages, it was the main producer of silver and gold in the Kingdom of Hungary, but the town began to decline in the 15th century.
The heart of Banska Stiavnica is the historic Holy Trinity Square, which is dominated by the Holy Trinity column. Many sightseeing tours start from this square. To gain an understanding of the region’s mining history, visitors shouldn’t miss the open air mining museum, which features a mile-long excursion in a 17th century mine. The town is also surrounded by dozens of artificial mining water reservoirs built in the 15th through 18th centuries and connected by an extensive system of channels. Nearby, Mount Sitno is the highest peak in the region and provides good hiking opportunities.
Banska Stiavnica is also notable for its Renaissance era Old Castle and its New Castle, which is visible throughout town.
Set on a hill above the Orava River in northern Slovakia, the Orava Castle (Oravský Hrad) is considered one of the most beautiful castles in Slovakia. Built in the 13th century while the area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the castle stands on the site of an old wooden fortification that was built to protect from Mongol invasions. While it was originally designed in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, it was later rebuilt as Renaissance and neo-Gothic.
Today, the castle is home to the Orava Museum, one of the oldest in Slovakia. The museum features multiple exhibitions, including an ethnographic exhibition focused on Orava regional folk culture that is located in the Dubovsky Palace within the castle. The natural history exhibition displays photographs of the natural history of the region, rock and mineral specimens and paleontological findings. An archaeological exhibition features findings from excavations at the castle itself and the historical exhibition documents the castle’s transformation over time. Also worth seeing are the castle’s chapel, the Knights’ Room, the Painting Gallery and the Weapon Room.
Located in the north of the Slovak Ore Mountains in the eastern part of Slovakia, the Slovak Paradise National Park is one of nine national parks in the country. The park includes more than 300 kilometers of hiking trails, many of which feature ladders, chains and bridges. The paths are marked by red, blue, yellow and green colors. More than 350 caves can be found within the park, but only the Dobsinska Ice Cave is open to the public. One of the largest ice caves in Europe, Dobsinska has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
While the park is 90 percent forest, it also contains several famous gorges, as well as a large water reservoir that is popular for water sports, swimming and fishing. At nearly 12 kilometers, Prielom Hornadu is the longest canyon in the park while Zavojovy vodopad is the highest waterfall at 70 meters tall. The park is also rich with flora and fauna, with 2,100 species of butterflies, 930 species of plants and 40 species of mammals, including bears, foxes, wolves, wildcats and deer. Overall, 95 endangered species call the park home.
Established in 1949, Tatra National Park (Tatrzanski Park Narodowy) is the oldest national park in Slovakia. Covering nearly 300 square miles in north central Slovakia, it encompasses 600 kilometers of hiking paths, 16 different bike trails and more than 100 mountain lakes. The park also includes the highest peak in the country, Gerlachovsky Stit, as well as Lomnicky Peak, easily accessible by cable car, and Krivan Peak, the most popular among the Slovaks. Krivan has become a symbol of freedom for Slovaks and it is said that every Slovak has to climb to the top at least once in his or her lifetime.
While some 300 caves can be found within Tatra National Park, only Belianska Cave is open to the public and is one of the most visited caves in Slovakia. Two thirds of the park is covered by forest, including spruce, Norway spruce, Scots pine and Swiss pine. Thirteen hundred species of plants, 115 species of birds and 42 species of mammals can be found within the park as well.
Once called “Grandpa” by locals, Lomnicky Peak (Lomnický štít) is one of the highest and most visited peaks in Slovakia’s Tatras Mountains. With a summit of more than 2,600 meters high, visitors can see as far as the Polish lowlands and more than one-fifth of the area of Slovakia on a clear day. The peak is best reached by a cable car that was the most modern in Europe at the time it opened in 1940. Visitors take one car up to Skalnate pleso, followed by another car up to the peak, rising 1,700 meters. Mountaineers can hire a mountain guide to take them up to the peak as well, but it is prohibited to try to climb the peak without a guide. While visitors previously simply took the cable car up and back down again right away, they now have the option to spend the night on the mountain, at the highest situated apartment in Central Europe.
The ruins of Slovakia’s Spis Castle (Spissky Hrad) form one of the largest castle sites in central Europe. Built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier castle, the Spis Castle once stood tall above the town of Spisske Podhradie and the village of Zehra. It was completely rebuilt in the 15th century, but burned down in 1780. In the second half of the 20th century, the castle was partially reconstructed and visitors can now explore the castle’s kitchen, bedroom, washroom, armory, chapel and torture room. Also on display are archaeological findings from the Stone Age through Middle Ages, including some Roman coins. The castle’s tower is well worth a climb for the panoramic view and photo opportunities.
If you are visiting during the summer months, be sure to check out the castle’s schedule of activities as it sometimes hosts medieval festivals or night tours in the summer.
Visitors come to Pieniny National Park (Pieniński Park Narodowy in Polish, or Pieninský Národný Park in Slovak) for its mountains and massifs - the most famous peak being Tri koruny (Three Crowns), standing high at 982 meters above sea level. It is possible to climb to its summit and take in the view from an observation deck, but the most popular way to admire the scenery of the Pieniny National Park is to navigate through the picturesque limestone ravine known as the Dunajec River Gorge. This is one of the most scenic canyons in Europe, with cliffs often as high as 300 meters. The rafting trips, which have been organized in the park since the first half of the 19th century, last two to three hours. Hikers and cyclists will also find interesting trails, totaling 34 kilometers. The fauna and flora is to be seen - around 6500 animal species have been proven to live in the Pieniny, but it is believed that up to 15,000 species actually live in it, along with the hundreds of plant species who thrive in the park thanks to its waterways, including 640 kinds of mushrooms. Even though Pieniny National Park is small in size at 23.46 km2, making it the smallest in Poland, it is the most visited national park in the country.
Hlavne Namestie is the main square in Bratislava, Slovakia. It is located in the center of the city in the Old Town. Throughout the year, vendors sell crafts and other souvenirs in the square, and during the Christmas season, this is the place to come for the city's Christmas markets. Other festivals, concerts, and outdoor events are also held in the main square. One of the most significant buildings on the square is the Old Town Hall. Though refurbished, it has been in use since 1434, and you can still see the preserved underpass that was built in 1442 to allow people to enter the building from the square.
Visitors can also see a line on the Town Hall building marking the water level of the Danube River during terrible flooding in February 1850. The Bratislava City Museum has an exhibition of the history of the city inside the Old Town Hall building. The main square charms visitors with its Renaissance-style fountain and many outdoor cafes.
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