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Inhabited for more than 270,000 years, Slovakia is a land both timeless and contemporary. As the country with the highest number of castles and chateaux per capita, there is ample evidence of past periods of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. Its own rich culture rose to the fore in the 20th century, during the era when the land was half of Czechoslovakia. After the Communist period ended in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Slovaks began to call for full independence, but on friendly terms. In 1993, the so-called Velvet Divorce made Slovakia its own democratic nation—and it has never looked back.
With one of the world’s highest standards of living and a thriving economy, Slovakia has become a major player in the European Union. Visitors to its capital, Bratislava, find world-class dining, nightlife, and culture. And beyond the city, Slovakia is a natural wonderland, with two stunning mountain ranges—the sweeping Carpathians and jagged High Tatras—as well as hundreds of tarns (glacier-cut mountain pools) and epic underground cave systems (five of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites). Forty percent of the country is forested, a landscape punctuated with fairytale villages and stone castles from times gone by, as well as young vineyards supporting the growing wine industry. No wonder so many Europeans flock here every year to indulge in its charms. Just over a quarter-century since independence, Slovakia is the model of what life after the Iron Curtain should look like.
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Bratislava's Old Town
Though it has only been a capital city since 1993, Bratislava has been a destination since the Old Town was rising in the 14th and 15th centuries. Its Old Town Hall and Neo-classical Archbishop’s Palace transport visitors across the centuries, as does Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral, where the Kings and Queens of the Habsburgs were crowned. Compact in size, Old Town is perfect for a stroll down to the banks of the nearby Danube. Visitors are only steps away from the spire-dotted neighborhoods that boomed in the 18th century, when artists and entrepreneurs filled the city’s cafés and corridors. Bratislava’s leisure heyday was interrupted by the Socialist era, and you can still see heavy-looking architecture and political statues that call to mind those years. But that era is just a memory now, and the Old Town feels new again.
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The hills above what is now Bratislava have been settled since the Stone Age, when the Celts called the land Oppidum. But the first reference to Bratislava in writing comes from 907, when a military fortification began to rise. Over the next 800 years, the castle that we see today took shape, its final elements put in place by Maria Theresa in 1768. With its white walls reflecting the light and four red-roofed towers, it looks like a fairytale illustration. Visitors seek out its Crown Tower for the best views of the city and the winding Danube beyond. Inside, the castle boasts fine art, like the Baroque Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and historical collections from the Middle Ages.
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St. Martin's Cathedral
Between 1563 and 1830, there was nowhere more regal in (what was then) the Kingdom of Hungary than St. Martin’s Cathedral of Bratislava. This was where king and queen after king and queen were crowned, 19 in succession, including the famed Maria Theresa. Built during the 13th and 14th centuries, and set into the town walls as part of the fortifications, the cathedral had been enlarged and expanded upon by the time it was coronation central. Despite boasting a solid gold crown atop its spire, the interior was originally fairly sparse, letting the pomp and circumstance of royalty provide the flash. Today, the cathedral contains Baroque and Gothic artwork, huge altars, an underground crypt with catacombs, and one of those legendary crowns, a model from the 19th century.
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This relatively small mountain range—just 62 miles long—runs perpendicular to the Danube River in Bratislava. Hidden treasures abound here, including castle and church ruins, and the verdant slopes boast tranquil panoramic views of the river, grassy fields, and surrounding deciduous forests.
The Little Carpathians are the ideal setting to cultivate wine vineyards, which is why numerous viticultural centers are located here. Journey to the base of these mountains to sample traditional Slovakian wines, and tour a wine cellar to get a better idea of how this local business runs.
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Immerse yourself in Slovakia with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Discover Bratislava’s realistic sculptures that add an artistic—and humorous—aspect to the city.
The Sculptures of Bratislava
New public art in an old city
Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is a city on the Danube River whose centuries-old buildings attest to its long history. But several more recent works of art are also likely to catch your eye as you stroll along the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, thanks to local sculptors who have made the city exceptionally rich in public art with modern sensibilities—often with a touch of humor.
It takes an upward glance to view the typical historic monument to some past ruler or general mounted high on his horse. But you have to look downward at the intersection of Panská and Laurinská streets in Bratislava to see one of the most popular local sculptures: Cumil the sewer worker, portrayed in bronze as he emerges from a manhole wearing his hard hat. Created by sculptor Viktor Hulik in 1997 in the spirit of “low art,” Cumil seems unperturbed by the fact that all of his many admirers are looking down on him.
Cumil’s popularity has pleasantly surprised his creator, who worked with fellow artist Juraj Melis to create several works of public art when improvements were being made to Bratislava’s pedestrian-only zone in the Old Town. With a grin on his face, Cumil rests his chin on his hands and seems to be contentedly viewing the world from his low perspective. He has even occasionally inspired imitation from “living sculpture” posers who put on metallic face paint and mimic his position.
Modern art reflects the city’s past
Two other sculptures of life-sized figures created as part of Melis and Hulik’s project are nearby and offer a contemporary perspective on people from Bratislava’s history. Not far from Cumil on the street named Rybárska brána, a statue of a smiling man greets passers-by with a tip of his top hat. He’s known as Schöne Náci, a term of endearment meaning “beautiful Ignác,” reflecting the full name of Ignác Lamár, who was a beloved figure on the streets of the Old Town during the first half of the 20th century.
The original Schöne Náci had aspired to become a comedian and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather. But he ultimately found his calling in the heart of Bratislava, where for decades he strolled from cafe to cafe in top hat and tails brightening everyone’s day with cheerful, elegantly presented salutations. In particular, he was known for greeting women with the phrase “I kiss your hand” in three languages: Slovak, German, and Hungarian.
Another notable sculpture is found in the city’s Main Square. A life-sized Napoleonic soldier leans in a casual pose on a park bench facing the Roland Fountain and Old Town Hall, always ready to look over the shoulder of any visitor who takes a seat. While the relaxed pose is a modern twist, the soldier’s long coat and hat portray a uniform from the early 19th century, when Napoleon’s troops occupied the city—then called Pressburg—twice, in 1805 and 1809.
An abundance of work from Slovak sculptors
Slovak sculptor Tibor Bártfay has also created many works that contribute to Bratislava’s wealth of public art, including a statue of Hans Christian Anderson in Hviezdoslavovo Square in honor of the Danish author’s 1841 visit to the city. A versatile artist, Bártfay’s work ranges from the fanciful “Witch near the castle” (also called “Girl with ravens”) next to Bratislava Castle to the more abstract, spherical Peace Fountain at Hodzovo Square.
Many other public artworks grace Bratislava’s streets and parks, from a statue of a paparazzi-like photographer sneaking a shot around the corner of a building to a street-level figure pointing upward to direct your gaze to a giant ear on the side of another building. With its exceptional number of outdoor sculptures in both traditional and contemporary styles, the city is a virtual gallery of public art, much of which adds a contemporary flair to its many-layered history.
New public art in an old city
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Slovakia in December-February
After the last of the autumn leaves fall across heavily-forested Slovakia, cold descends and snow moves in. Winter is chilly here—about 30 degrees Fahrenheit on average—and very quiet, as few tourists visit during the winter months. In Bratislava, the holidays bring teeming Christmas markets to each of the city's central squares, where red-and-white stalls sell all manner of traditional Slovak cuisine and locally-made crafts. Even after the holidays end, central Bratislava's old pastel buildings, narrow streets, and orange-tile roofs are particularly charming as snowflakes fall.
Outside of Bratislava and the High Tatras, most of Slovakia's tourist sites close during the winter months.
Holidays & Events
- December 25: Christmas
- December 31-January 1: New Year's Eve is a massive party in central Bratislava, and a popular 10k the following day rings in the new year.
- January 6: The Feast of the Epiphany is an important holiday in Slovakia, and it marks the beginning of fašiangy, or Slovakian Carnival, which lasts until the beginning of Lent.
The High Tatras span the Slovakia-Poland border, and winter is a particularly beautiful time to visit these alpine peaks. Winter sports like cross-country and downhill skiing are popular at several mountain resorts, and winter hiking is also an option. During the holidays, Bratislava turns up the charm with cozy Christmas markets that rival the more commercial festivities in Western Europe.
Slovakia in March-May
Warming days herald the arrival of spring in Slovakia, from a high of around 43 degrees Fahrenheit in March, to highs in the 60s in May. Flowers bloom across the country and fruit trees, which line Slovak roads, send out heady blossoms. Bratislava's botanical garden opens in early April every year, and cafes and restaurants in the pedestrian center set up their patios and sidewalk seating areas in anticipation of long summer days.
With mild temperatures and fewer tourists than the summer months, this can be an ideal time to visit Slovakia.
Holidays & Events
- Easter celebrations in Slovakia bring old traditions to the forefront, including the practice of dousing young women with buckets of water to impart vitality and strength.
- Last week of April: Fjuzn is Bratislava's Festival of Minorities, featuring workshops, concerts, performances, and exhibits highlighting the cultures of the many minorities in Slovak society.
- May 1: International Worker's Day is similar to the American Labor Day. Some businesses close for the day.
- May 8: Victory in Europe (VE) Day is a national holiday in Slovakia, marking the surrender of Nazi Germany to Allied forces.
Slovakia in June-August
Summers in Slovakia are short and hot, with an average temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Occasional heat waves bring the mercury up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the lowlands, while the High Tatra mountains are more comfortable in the mid-70s. Frequent showers pass through Slovakia in July, the rainiest month of the year. Of course, summer is the busiest month for tourism in Slovakia.
Holidays & Events
- June: Bratislava's Junifest is Slovakia's answer to Oktoberfest—a celebration of beer that also features a variety of concerts.
- July 5: Slovaks commemorate their patron saints with a national holiday on Saints Cyril and Metodius Day.
- August 29: National Uprising Day recognizes the 1944 armed uprising against German occupation of Slovakia.
Summer is a popular time to visit Slovensky raj ("Slovak Paradise") National Park, a forested enclave of narrow gorges, caves, waterfalls, and meadows. The unique topography, with plenty of shade and rushing water, provides a break from the heat and plenty of opportunity for adventure.
Slovakia in September-November
With forests covering so much of Slovakia, fall colors sweep across the landscape in September and October. Temperatures cool a bit—dipping into the low 40s Fahrenheit by late November. Generally, the weather remains warm and stable, and since tourist traffic dies down after summer ends, this is an excellent time to visit. North of Bratislava, where vineyards stretch across low hills, autumn is the time for grape harvest and wine festivals. In the city, classical and jazz festivals bring music to well-established concert venues, and independent rock festivals enliven the streets.
Holidays & Events
- September 1: Slovak Constitution Day is the country's national holiday.
- November 17: Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day commemorates student protests against Nazi occupation and later Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, and is now celebrated in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Across Slovakia, stunning autumn foliage provides a beautiful backdrop for stately castles and charming cobblestone villages. Grapevines turn a burnished red-gold during the harvest as well. When the weather turns cold, Bratislava's cozy coffeehouses and hip underground bars are a welcome respite from wind and rain.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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