By Joseph Francis
Slovakia boasts a long and interesting history that tells tales of Roman imperialists, Celtic tribes, Slavic kings and more; as well as a gorgeous backcountry of undulating hills, misty forests and wild ranges, all peppered with traditional medieval villages and highland towns. But despite its lovely topography and cultural wealth, Slovakia remains something of an off-the-beaten-track destination, drawing the occasional skier away from the Alps, partiers to Bratislava’s Old Town bars, or a smattering of sightseers to the Gothic spires of Levoča, Kežmarok or Banská Bystrica. Here’s an eye opening Slovak travel guide to the top attractions waiting to be discovered in this interesting European enclave, from bubbling spas and castles to Carpathian hiking trails and old town alleyways.
One of Europe’s less trodden capitals and a real unexpected gem on the trail through the east of the continent, Bratislava pulses with a youthful energy and vibe. Its Old Town heart is a gorgeous labyrinth of winding cobble streets and hidden alleyways, the corners concealing Slavic beer bars in basements and the squares hosting bustling al fresco cafes. Crowning the horizon is the mighty Bratislava Castle, shimmering in white and commanding views of the Danube Basin and Austria in the distance. Nearby stands the quirky and curious UFO bridge, while Bratislava tour guides often recommend travellers head just outside of town to see the enchanting ruins of Devin Castle.
Soaring high above the hilly terrain of northern Slovakia, Spiš Castle commands the borderlands of the beautiful Košice Region in truly Game of Thrones style. A onetime bastion of the Hungarian kings, it was constructed in the 12th century to secure Magyar power on the frontiers of historic Szepes County. Today the structure is hailed as one of the largest medieval fortifications in all of Europe by area, boasts a UNESCO World Heritage listing and houses the Spiš Museum in a newer, reconstructed area on-site.
Levoča and the St Apostle Altar
Nestled just on the edge of the rising ridges of the Tatras, the little 13th-century town of Levoča remains arguably the most attractive in the entire country. It’s dressed in a handsome Renaissance veneer; a remnant of ambitious rebuilding projects dating to the late Middle Ages. Boasting a UNESCO tag and countless hidden squares and churches, it’s a fine place to get a taste of Slovakia’s more historic edge. What’s more, the town is home to the famous St Apostle Altar: a gorgeous Germanic timber carving and the largest of its kind in the world that’s found housed in the wonderful St Jacob's Church.
Low Tatras National Park
Wild, rugged and irresistibly beautiful for any mountain lover, the Low Tatras National Park arches like a great backbone through the heartlands of northern Slovakia. It lines up neatly along the edge of its counterpart national park – the High Tatras National Park – that forms the border with Poland, and offers dramatic broadside views of peaks like Gerlachovský štít (the highest in the Carpathians as a whole) and Lavínový. Within the park’s own borders, travelers will discover the up-and-coming ski resort of Jasna Chopok, complete with a great smattering of red and black runs and some all-new cable cars, along with countless hiking routes that delve deep into the fir and spruce forests.
Set deep in the verdant interior of an ancient and extinct volcano, Banská Štiavnica is unquestionably one of the most fascinating towns in all of Slovakia. Its long history is intimately tied up with the rich silver, gold and mineral deposits that abound in the surrounding hills; the raison d'être for both its immense wealth and formidable fortifications. For a glimpse at this history, be sure to head to the appropriately named Old Castle, which rises above the city in a series of sheer-cut bulwarks and battlements. Banská Štiavnica tour guides also recommend wandering around the old heart of the city, seeing the pretty Trinity Square and the immersive open-air mining museum as you go.
Get the camera ready for your trip to the high-perched castle complex of Orava, which crowns a precipitous bluff just south of the Polish-Slovak border. Unquestionably one of the most beautiful fortifications in all of Europe, this 13th century masterpiece has inspired recreations of legends like Nosferatu. At once both eerie and magnificent, travellers can today explore the cobbled courtyards of the Upper and Lower Castle, along with the restored museum rooms of the Orava exhibition, the Knights' Room and more.
The spas of Piestany
It’s thought that humans first settled close to the natural thermal springs of Piestany more than 80,000 years ago; attracted by the year-round warmth of the waters and abundance of natural life that resided in the region’s forests. Today, people still flock here from far and wide, to make the most of Slovakia’s most famous spa facility. Situated amidst the flowing waters of the Váh River, the iconic complex boasts sulphurous springs that bubble to the surface at a soothing temperature of 67 degrees Celsius. Rich in minerals and natural agents, these mud-packed waters are thought to help treat arthritis, wounds, stress and so much more.
Slovak Paradise National Park
Slovak tour guides eager to showcase the rugged backcountry and wild hinterland of their country often make a beeline straight for this appropriately named national park just south of Poprad. With a whopping 300 kilometers of maintained hiking trails, and a collection of dramatic and challenging treks that crisscross timber bridges, chains and stepped sections, the area certainly makes the most of its gorgeous position amidst the Slovak Ore Mountains. Expect sweeping ridges of spruce and fir, deep valleys dotted with mirror-like lakes, misty groves of beech trees, gushing waterfalls and even rare bears and foxes besides.
Caves of the Slovak Karst
The sprawling and uber-famous cave systems of the Slovak Karst make their home just on the edge of Hungary. They range from the Baradla-Domica caverns, where evidence of human habitation going back more than 5,000 years has been discovered, to the great Gombasek Cave, famed for its colossal stalactites and humidity-packed air that’s good for soothing respiratory problems. Meanwhile, the Jasovská Cave offers some of the longest subterranean walking routes in Slovakia and is also the oldest publicly accessible cave in the country. All are definitely worth the visit!
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/gos4pM (Guillaume Speurt, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/tpJtJ3 (mariejirousek, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/zt9n4V (Terra Libera, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/d71UrC (Avisionn Photo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/crZE8Y (julsnewton, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/kXXvB (Miloš, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/evAdfL (EadaoinFlynn, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/w9KEUJ (Traveltipy, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/vqEC9U (Traveltipy, CC BY 2.0)