For every tourist hotspot around the globe, there is nearly always an overshadowed neighbour sitting quietly to one side, unnoticed and unappreciated by the travellers (and even locals) who are wooed and wowed by the more famous sights across the border. Slovakia is a perfect example of such a place, a beautiful and heritage-rich country which boasts equal opportunities for adventure, fun and history as one can find in Austria.
Even Austrians will admit to having travelled little in Slovakia, apart from a day trip to Bratislava to the shopping outlets. Stepping over the cultural border into Eastern Europe affords many chances to learn about fascinating history and to experience different traditions, language and customs. And at only an hour’s drive from Vienna, its also possible to just visit for a day-trip.
Despite being a country that is often ignored by international travellers, Slovakia is actually larger than Denmark, Holland or Switzerland and has a higher population than Norway or Ireland. It has a fascinating history which (like many countries in the centre of a continent) has involved periods influenced by Germany, Austria, Czechia, Hungary and Turkey. Many of the most impressive castles and forts around the country come from an age of empire expansion and sieged cities.
The Slovak language forms a core part of the Slavic languages, and borrows customs and cuisine from all over Eastern Europe.
The country boasts natural beauty equal to any other European country, with the Danube snaking through the western regions, and the eastern regions dominated by the Tatra Mountain range boasting peaks over 2,000 meters high.
Although I love exploring Austria, sometimes I feel the need to be surrounded by a new language and culture, which is easy to do when Austria shares a border with so many other interesting countries. In the rest of this post, you can find some of my favourite things to do in Slovakia. While some may require a few days or at least an overnight stay, the travel time from Vienna is completely manageable for those with a bit of extra time and sense of curiosity about this untouched gem.
The quiet capital: Bratislava
Only an hour from Vienna by car or train, Bratislava is like a mini-version of the Austrian capital, but with less crowds and cheaper beer. Capped by an impressive 9th century castle, the city has a relatively small downtown, yet boasts 18th century buildings equal to any of those you might find in Vienna.
The city has a nice collection of local history museums, trendy restaurants and lively bars staffed by extremely friendly locals speaking excellent English. One of my favourite places to go for a drink or to hang out is the Urban Coffee House for delicious contemporary food, or the Café Bar Hemingway for a more lively student atmosphere.
Although Austria may feel like it has a monopoly on skiing, Slovakia offers many other opportunities for skiing with equally exciting runs, great quality facilities for both families and the more adventurous. Best of all, the ski resorts in Slovakia are often a lot more inexpensive than across the border! When I visited recently for skiing, I was able to buy a lift pass and rent all the snowboard gear I needed for 45 euros all together!
Here’s a quick list of some of the more well-known ski mountains in Slovakia:
Medieval magnificence : Banská Štiavnica and Spis Castle
Slovakia also hosts some truly gorgeous medieval towns which are very well-preserved, and are dotted throughout the country. One of the most beautiful and interesting of these, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the small town of Banská Štiavnica.
Nestled in the mountains in the centre of the country, the small ex-mining town (rich in its day from large deposits of silver in the mountains nearby) holds beautiful Gothic/Baroque buildings and Medieval ruins in a picturesque environment. Situated in the centre of a caldera formed by the collapse of an ancient volcano, Banská Štiavnica is ringed by high hills and rugged farmland.
The centre of the caldera is obvious today, as a tall spire of volcanic rock crowned by the church of the Calvary stations. Having hiked up there the last time I visited, I can really recommend making the trek for some pastoral, fairy-tale views of the valley.
Other medieval towns worth a visit include Podolinec, Kremnica and Bardejov.
One of the most impressive medieval sites in Slovakia is Spiš Castle near Spišské Podhradie in the east of the country. Also a UNESCO world heritage site since 1993, this Romanesque turned Gothic castle was the home of Hungarian kings since the 13th century, and has the proud distinction of being one of the largest castle complexes in all of Europe.
Majestic Mountains : The Tatras mountain range and national parks
While much of Austrian tourism centres around the peaks and valleys of the Austrian Alps, Slovakia can also claim to have its own examples of pure natural beauty. Slightly removed from the central ranges of the Alps, the Tatras mountains are equally impressive and play host to a wide network of trails, wildlife and adventure tourism. In my experience, one of the perks of these parks is the high standard of infrastructure, but with many less people using them.
While the peaks may not be as densely packed as in the Alps, the landscape is still home to deep forests and beautiful rolling hills which were a pleasure to explore.
In the centre of the country is the Slovak Paradise National Park (Slovensky Raj), an immense national park filled with lakes, valleys and even ice caves.
A little farther east and close to the Hungarian border, you can find the Slovak Karst National Park. Filled with rolling hills and forests, the most unique reason to visit the park is its large network of caves (some of them up to 25-kilometers long!) carved out of the limestone and karst rock. The caves have impressive rock formations and ice flows, and are an exciting place for families and kids also.
Although situated so close to Austria, Slovakia is a regional treasure often over-looked by travellers to Vienna. But if you are looking for places a little less discovered, a little less expensive and equally interesting, I have found that it is well-worth a car or train trip to explore this fascinating European neighbour.
About the author:
Thom Harding was born and raised in the UK and USA, sharing his time between Bath and Boston. Upon completing his studies in Art History and Painting in Florence, Thom travelled around Mexico and India before moving to New Mexico to start his career as a Primary school teacher.
After completing his MA in Education, he now lives and works in Vienna, Austria and enjoys spending his free time hiking, reading, travelling and exploring around Europe.
See more of Thom’s work here in the Dispatches archive.