The charming but minuscule Old Town lies at the historic heart of Bratislava, the mini-capital city of Slovakia, clustered around the much-restored, landmark Renaissance castle and crammed with fountain-filled piazzas connected by a warren of medieval cobbled alleyways. It is a cosmopolitan district of red-roofed, pastel-colored townhouses brimming with high-end designer stores, souvenir shops, sophisticated restaurants and local bars, with more than its fair share of Baroque churches and Neo-classical palaces.
The area's great Gothic Cathedral of St Martin was the coronation venue of Austro-Hungarian monarchs, and there are also museums aplenty to explore—with collections encompassing artwork, weapons, music and Jewish history—and a thriving cultural life thanks to the Slovak National Theatre.
Bratislava’s landmark castle peers over the Starý Mesto (Old Town) from its rocky eerie over the north bank of the River Danube, visible from all over the modern city with its distinctive, red-topped corner towers. The first fort on this site was mentioned in 907, by which date Bratislava was already an important trading post on the River Danube, and today’s white-washed, red-roofed and squat Renaissance palace was constructed in the mid-16th century on the remains of earlier medieval and Gothic castles.
It was one of the many palatial residences of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled over much of Europe for centuries and also housed their crown jewels. In the 1750s, Empress Marie Therese gave the castle’s interior a gracious rococo overhaul, but after her death in 1780, it became a garrison before being tragically destroyed by fire in 1811. It was to remain in ruins until reconstruction was completed in the 1950s.
Just west of the center of Bratislava, Devín Castle clings to the top of a steep limestone cliff 695 feet (212 m) above the confluence of the Danube and Morava. Due to its position overlooking the rivers, this rocky fragment has had strategic importance for centuries, and the first fort was constructed here in Celtic times. Down the centuries, a Roman fortress and a subsequent Moravian stronghold replaced the Celtic battlements, and the land changed hands many times until the castle was finally blown up in the early 19th-century Napoleonic Wars.In today’s post-Communist Europe, Devín Castle is separated from Austria only by the waters of the Danube, and its role is significant as a symbol of nationalism for the Slovak people. Closed during the Soviet era, the castle is now a photogenic ruin to explore, with winding passageways and cobbled courtyards all open to the elements.
Bratislava’s finest Neo-classical palace is tucked behind the Old Town Hall on Primaciálne námestie in the Old Town, and even today its majestic façade still glows with shades of pink and honey. It was built by Melchior Hefele as a residence suitable for powerful Hungarian Archbishop József Batthyány in 1781 and is situated around a courtyard filled with classical statues, plus a fountain depicting St George slaying the dragon. Batthyány’s coat of arms appears above the ornate pediment over the palace’s main entrance.
Today parts of the palace are given over to the city’s mayoral office but several sumptuous apartments are open to the public, including a gallery containing a few nondescript paintings plus a truly exceptional selection of fine English tapestries dating from the 1630s, with their mythological subject matter singing out in bright, jewel-like colors.
Dotted by shady plane trees and lined with pastel-colored Baroque townhouses, Franciscan Square is one of the main meeting paces in Bratislava’s Old Town and is dominated by the oldest church in the city. The Franciscan Church has a Baroque façade dating back to the 18th century, but it was originally 13th-century Gothic in form.
Consecrated in 1297, the church has a wealth of Renaissance and Baroque detailing inside, including statuary and gilded artworks, but its chief feature is the Gothic Chapel of Saint John the Evangelist, where Hungarian aristocrats were once ennobled as knights of the realm. The Marian Column in the middle of Franciscan Square gives thanks for the victory of Hungarian King Leopold I over a Protestant rebellion in 1657. Classical concerts are held in the church in the evening.
Set on a hill above the Orava River in northern Slovakia, the Orava Castle is considered one of the most beautiful castles in Slovakia. Built in the 13th century while the area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the castle stands on the site of an old wooden fortification that was built to protect from Mongol invasions. While it was originally designed in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, it was later rebuilt as Renaissance and neo-Gothic.
Today, the castle is home to the Orava Museum, one of the oldest in Slovakia. The museum features multiple exhibitions, including an ethnographic exhibition focused on Orava regional folk culture that is located in the Dubovsky Palace within the castle. The natural history exhibition displays photographs of the natural history of the region, rock and mineral specimens and paleontological findings.
Banksa Stiavnica is a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Slovakia. Once a leading center of innovation in the mining industry, today it is known more as a destination for tourism and recreation. The site was settled as early as the Neolithic period and later by the Celts, Slavs and Germans. During the Middle Ages, it was the main producer of silver and gold in the Kingdom of Hungary, but the town began to decline in the 15th century.
The heart of Banska Stiavnica is the historic Holy Trinity Square, which is dominated by the Holy Trinity column. Many sightseeing tours start from this square. To gain an understanding of the region’s mining history, visitors shouldn’t miss the open air mining museum, which features a mile-long excursion in a 17th century mine. The town is also surrounded by dozens of artificial mining water reservoirs built in the 15th through 18th centuries and connected by an extensive system of channels.
Once called “Grandpa” by locals, Lomnicky Peak is one of the highest and most visited peaks in Slovakia’s Tatras Mountains. With a summit of more than 2,600 meters high, visitors can see as far as the Polish lowlands and more than one-fifth of the area of Slovakia on a clear day. The peak is best reached by a cable car that was the most modern in Europe at the time it opened in 1940. Visitors take one car up to Skalnate pleso, followed by another car up to the peak, rising 1,700 meters. Mountaineers can hire a mountain guide to take them up to the peak as well, but it is prohibited to try to climb the peak without a guide. While visitors previously simply took the cable car up and back down again right away, they now have the option to spend the night on the mountain, at the highest situated apartment in Central Europe.
Set in the Stiavnicke Vrchy Mountains near the town of Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia’s Open Air Mining Museum is one of a kind and not for the faint of heart. Mining in the area dates back to the 3rd century B.C. and the area boasted one of the richest silver deposits in the Middle Ages. Gunpowder was used here for the first time ever in 1627 and over the two centuries that followed, the region was home to most of the major developments in mining and metallurgy, as well as forestry and chemistry.
Visitors have the opportunity to descend into an underground mining pit that stretches for 1300 meters underground, with the deepest section laying 45 meters below the surface. During the 90 minute tour, visitors learn about the history of mining in the Stiavnicke Vrchy Mountains and see exhibits showing both current and obsolete mining techniques and technologies, including drilling technology and methods for transporting ore.