Right in the heart of Europe, Slovakia is a land of castles and mountains, occasionally punctuated by industrial sprawl. More than a quarter-century after Czechoslovakia's break-up, Slovakia has emerged as a self-assured, independent nation. Capital city Bratislava draws visitors to its resplendent old town and tankard-clanking drinking culture. But Slovakia shines brightest for lovers of the outdoors. Walking trails in the High Tatras wend through landscapes of unearthly beauty, with mirror-still glacier lakes backed by 2000m peaks.
Almost an alternate realm, Slovakia's less-visited east is speckled with quaint churches. Within its national parks are landscapes battle-scarred by the clash of river and stone. Beyond eastern metropolis Košice, a boutique charmer of a city, the Tokaj wine region unfurls across thinly populated countryside.
Despite a storied history and varied topography, Slovakia is small. For visitors, that can mean fortresses, hiking and beer-sloshing merriment – all in the space of a long weekend.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Slovakia.
Crowning a travertine hill above Spišské Podhradie village, this vast, Unesco-listed fortification is one of Central Europe's biggest castle complexes. Its bulwarks and thick defensive walls date to the 12th century (at the latest), and once guarded Hungarian royals and nobles from flying arrows. Highlights of the four-hectare site, connected by stony pathways and stairs, include views from the 22m-high tower, and a museum of medieval history within the former palace.
The windswept location of this world-class art gallery is as invigorating as the works on display. On a promontory jutting into the Danube, the Meulensteen immediately impresses with its outdoor sculpture garden. Inside, the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the water, providing an organic backdrop to mostly contemporary art. Many Slovak and Czech artists are featured, like Viera Kraicová’s bold nudes, end-of-days tableaux by Vincent Hložník, and realist-abstractionist mash-ups by Rudolf Fila. It's 15km south of Bratislava with year-round bus links.
The sight of Orava Castle, roosting on a forest-cloaked hilltop, sends a chill down the spine. Vampire aficionados may recognise its stern silhouette from Murnau’s classic 1922 movie Nosferatu, but the castle’s history is easily as interesting as its silver-screen appearances. Famous residents include György Thurzó, who sentenced real-life vampiress Elizabeth Báthory for hundreds of bloodthirsty murders, and Nicolaus Draskovics, rumoured to have skinned servants alive. Check the website for English-language tours (thrice daily in summer).
Slovenský Raj's rocky plateaus, primeval forests and interlacing streams form some of Slovakia's most picturesque hiking terrain. Treks often involve scaling metal ladders or balancing on footbridges above waterfalls. For some, the ice-cold slap of river water is reward enough; for the rest of us, it's the views: cliffs giving way to forests and fog-filled valleys, and soft meadows. Trails are challenging but well-marked, and information centres offer multilingual advice. If visiting outside July-to-August high season, read up in advance.
Perched between Slovakia and Austria, rugged Devín Castle makes a popular day trip from Bratislava. From the ramparts there are admirable views of rivers and goat-speckled hills beyond. Inside, the museum hosts an archaeological exhibition with neolithic grave finds and bronze-age sculptures. In summer, kid-friendly medieval games and souvenir stalls consume the grounds. From November to March you can enter the grounds but exhibitions close. Bus 29 links Devin with Bratislava's Nový Most (stop 6); get a 30-minute ticket (€0.90).
The nucleus for Bratislava's history, festivals and chic cafe culture is Hlavné nám (Main Sq). There's architectural finery in almost every direction, notably the Stará Radnica (Old Town Hall), a complex of attractive 14th- and 15th-century Gothic buildings, and Palugyayov Palác, a neobaroque former palace.
Dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary in 1913, the early-20th-century 'Blue Church' is a vision in sapphire and powder-blue. From its undulating arches and ceramic roof tiles to the tip of its clock tower (36.8m), it's a marvel of art nouveau design.
Pop-art pioneer and provocateur Andy Warhol (1928–87) would perhaps have wryly approved of Slovakia's peculiar museum in his name. The neon-splashed gallery dominates the otherwise dreary eastern town of Medzilaborce, where Warhol's parents grew up. Photographs and newspaper clippings detail the lives of the Warhols, but the art is much more interesting. Alongside Warhol originals are temporary exhibitions of present-day artists as well as Warhol's contemporaries. The museum's opening in 1991 was controversial; today it makes an entertaining detour.
Gazing at fairy-tale Bojnice Castle stirs fantasies of knights and maidens in even the world-weariest travellers. Blushing sandstone towers and crenellated turrets make this romantic castle the most visited in Slovakia. Only foundations remain of the original 12th-century fortification, but an early-20th-century reconstruction by the Pálffy family took inspiration from the castles of France’s Loire Valley, lifting Bojnice to the neo-baroque splendour that stands today. Visits are by 75-minute guided tour only and taking photos carries an extra charge (€2).