When you dream of European mountain ranges, what comes to mind? I often picture the Alps in Switzerland and Bavaria. Or I imagine myself frolicking amongst the Dolomites in Italy and the Pyrenees in France. I long to set eyes on Norway’s endless line of peaks, reaching north like outstretched fingers. But Slovakia wasn’t on my radar — at least not until I visited. While living in Budapest, the country quickly became a go-to for a little escape, and the secrets of Slovakia are some of my favorites.
Secret #1 — The Mountains
My first encounter with Slovakia was a mini adventure crossing the border in the High Tatras Mountains. Immediately, I was hooked. There is just something about the mountains, their massive stature that simultaneously evokes power and meekness. How they make you feel small under their shadows, yet give you a burst of energy. I fill my lungs with the fresh, crisp air, and I’m instantly relaxed, rested, renewed.
Even though it is reason enough to go, Slovakia is much more than just magical mountains. Here are nine other secrets that Slovakia holds.
Secrets #2, #3 & #4 — A Quaint Capital City with Quirky Statues and Ideal Day Trips
If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of popular European capitals, I highly recommend journeying to the east. There are countless little cities to fall for, but a capital city always holds a little extra wonder, filled with cherished art, culture, and history. Bratislava is no exception, as a perfectly quaint European capital.
A weekend exploring the cobblestones, in search of the numerous quirky statues (seriously, you can make an entire scavenger hunt out of them), is idyllic. Gaze up at the perfectly preserved castle, a wondrous sight, or trek up to the Slavín War Memorial to understand the country’s complex history. The food is good, the craft beer is delicious, and the city’s proximity to nearby Vienna and Budapest makes it a great complement to a regional trip. And if you’re there in the winter, take warning that the Christmas Market may make you weep with childlike joy.
Secret #5 — Castles
And speaking of childlike wonder, it’s easy to get lost in fairytales with Slovakia’s humbleness about its fortresses. A few favorites include Devin, Spiš, Bojnice, and Orava. Devin Castle sits high, the great Danube River sprawled out behind it, twisting and turning. Spiš Castle will shock you with its dramatic look, perched high on a hill, as if it grew naturally right out of the rocks below. Bojnice will remind you of the famous Peleș Castle in Romania, with its tall spires. And Orava, Slovakia’s largest and most famous castle, again erupting from a rocky hillside, will take you right back in time.
Secret #6 — Hipster Hidden Gem
While out castle-hunting, bump into Slovakia’s second, lesser known city of Košice. It sits directly opposite of Bratislava, near both the Ukrainian and Hungarian borders, and its small size is ideal. A leisurely stroll down the main pedestrian street, which curves poetically around the St. Elisabeth Cathedral, is all you really need to wonder why you haven’t heard of it before. Follow your curiosity down the hidden side streets that twist under archways and discover little shops and cafes where the food is divine. It’s a secret little hipster haven tucked deep into Central Europe. You will certainly find plenty of organic, locally grown goodies. Or, take a bundle of dried flowers home, where women layered in shawls sell them with a genuine and crinkled smiles.
Secret #7 — National Parks
It may be a small country, but Slovakia has nine different national parks. The Tatrys are a part of this allure, but so are the rolling hills of the east, the expansive beech forests, and the deep caves. Keep searching and you’ll find lakes, preserved churches, and even thunderous cascades. You can really do just about anything here: rock climbing, backpacking, mountaineering, kayaking, hiking, fishing, biking, caving, swimming… the list goes on. And its low-key reputation means your own private adventure.
Secret #8 — Autumnal Hues
With so many forests, Slovakia offers some of the best leaf peeping I’ve experienced. Driving through the heart of the country, every tree shone bright and true in anticipation of winter’s slumber. Brilliant shades of every color imaginable hung in the air. The sunlight flickering through, illuminating the final act. It was autumn perfection.
Secret #9 — The Food
And after a day romping through the wilderness, you can enjoy some traditional Slovakian cuisine, which is rich, hearty, and totally comforting. A lot of European countries support the notion of hiking from hut to hut, meaning you don’t have to sleep under the stars unless you want to. Your other option includes adorably cozy wooden cabins that dot the tree line, serving hot meals and a place to lay your head, to rest your feet.
Secret #10 — Mountain Huts
You can hike for days in the mountains and forests, absorbing all that nature has to offer, in absolute stillness and silence only the back country can offer. But then, come nightfall, you can curl up in a hut with a roaring fire, either all by yourself or in the company of fellow trekkers, and sop up that hearty soup with a slice of freshly baked bread.
The entire country of Slovakia feels subtle and hidden. It’s a unique place, one that continues to give even after experiencing it. Which secret would you chase the most?