Top Five of Slovakia
Ahhh Slovakia! Imagine the dramatic peaks of the Tatra Mountains, hearty food, and medieval castles– does it get much better? Modern, thriving Slovakia is a popular destination for skiers, hikers, and those in search of a little peace and quiet, but if a good party is more your style go no further than Bratislava. Bordering five other European countries (Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, and Poland) makes it a great platform to explore from, so don’t miss out!
Old Town Bratislava
Ahhh, Bratislava! A super short bus ride away from Vienna, but a big difference when it comes to us being able to afford anything. Like hot mead, yum! Bratislava hits that sweet spot between being small enough to be walk-able but large enough to have plenty going on. Bratislava is a bit of a mixing pot in terms of food culture, but you can’t go wrong with a Slovakian staple like bryndzové halušky, which you’ll be able to find all over the city centre. If you’re looking for a a nice, evening walk, head towards St. Martin’s Cathedral. Start just outside the cathedral; you’ll find a semi-boarded up building where artists have taken the liberty of adding their spin on a few of Van Gogh’s paintings to the boarded windows. From there, check out the cathedral of course, but afterwards go up the stairs and you can walk along the old city walls. It was a nice evening when Nat and I were in the area, so we took the bridge over Staromestská Street and made our way through the park up to the castle. It’s a fun, little hike and we even found a mermaid along the way!
If you’re in central Slovakia, don’t miss out on Bojnice Castle! It’s an incredibly beautiful, romantic palace. And even though I wouldn’t consider Nat and I much for tours, the castle tour is actually really good. Full disclosure: we were getting most of the information filtered through our couchsurfing hosts because the tour was in Slovak, but it was one of those tours full of fun anecdotes about castle stories, myths, and superstitions. One room featured four different dog carvings, and apparently your favourite of the four gave a clue to your character (honest, hard-working, etc). They also had girls dressed as angels (I think?) come out and dance periodically. That seemed a bit confusing, but maybe it would have made more sense if we could understand the guide? Regardless, it was a good tour, the castle interior has been extensively decorated and well-maintained, and the exterior is just so pretty! At 8€ (plus another 2€ to take photos) it was a bit more expensive than some of our other Slovakian adventures, but we felt it was well worth it.
In case you couldn’t tell from Nat’s post on Banská Bystrica, this little firecracker is the perfect example of why you can’t judge a book by its cover! This lovely, little city roared to life as soon as the sun set on New Year’s eve. In fact, some people were so eager to get the party started that the sun was still up when they started shooting off their roman candles. Besides the incredible fireworks display, Banská Bystrica has a few other quirky tricks up its sleeves. I loved the medieval Barbican and the Church of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The stained-glass windows of the church looked downright magical at night, and there was something enchanting about the red-stone detailing on the corners. The clock tower in SNP square leans a bit to one side apparently, but after Nat told me that I started thinking all the towers look like they’re a bit tipsy…
Levoča and Spiš Castle make the perfect day-trip pairing. They’re a short, local bus ride apart and we were easily able to spend time in both before heading home to our couchsurfing host in Spišská Nová Ves. Levoča is a bit more off the beaten track, and in need of a bit more restoration work, but this medieval town still has its fair share of charming architecture. Among my favourites were the picturesque Old Town Hall (now a museum), the Thurzov house, and the Church of Saint James. The Church of Saint James was closed for renovations while we were visiting, but contains the largest Gothic altar in Europe, carved by Master Paul of Levoča around 1520. Once you’ve had a nice time exploring the main square of Levoča, head down the hill to the bus station and head to Spiš Castle for the grand finale to your day in the Spiš region.
We were in for a battle the day we took on Spiš Castle. A blizzard was blowing in fast, but we knew this would be a our only chance to see it since we would be leaving for Ukraine the following day. And let me tell you, it was worth it! This sprawling, behemoth of a ruin is so epic that it’s been used in a number of movies, including Dragonheart! We weren’t able to go inside unfortunately, but if you find yourself in the area you really should. There’s a bit of a walking path up to and around the castle, and it’s an enjoyable stroll if you have the time. You can find some really interesting, exterior shots of the castle, and you have some spectacular views of the surrounding forest and countryside. You can even see Spišská Kapitula, an ecclesiastical town just on the edge of Spišské Podhradie. We unfortunately ran out of time before we could see it, but you should definitely visit it if you have time. Pope John Paul II visited the Kapitula in 1995, and the cathedral is supposedly one of the largest and most interesting Romanesque monuments in Slovakia.