Located in the heart of Central Europe, Slovakia is bordered by Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine. The capital is Bratislava, located in the south west of the country, just several miles from the Austrian and Hungarian borders. The famous Danube that runs through Central and Eastern Europe, connecting some of its greatest cities, runs through Bratislava.
Just outside of Bratislava are some of Slovakia’s most popular wine regions – including the Little Carpathian Wine Route, making it easy to taste the product of vines that have been cultivated since Roman times, and to gather a sense of the natural beauty that is a constant thread throughout the country.
Slovakia’s position at the convergence of many cultures contributes to a multifaceted destination where visitors can step back in time, to various eras that have left their mark in the architecture, open air museums, churches, castles, Gothic relics, and small villages situated across the country.
The natural beauty of Slovakia is one of its most alluring assets. Karstic landscape complemented by greenery in the south and central regions give way to snow-capped peaks in the High Tatras mountains of the north and east, and lowlands elsewhere. Vines grow in fertile valleys around Bratislava and in other pockets throughout the country.
Within serene forested mountains and rolling hills that characterize much of the landscape lie many surprises. These include huge caves to be toured, deep gorges to be hiked, thermal pools to be soaked in, and rivers and reservoirs to be explored.
The majority of people in Slovakia are Slovak. There is a large Hungarian minority population, as well as a number of other ethnic groups represented throughout the country.
Slovakia became an independent nation in January of 1993. It retains influences from Czech, Austrian, and Hungarian cultures, though it also has its own distinct cultural identity.
Slovaks have a strong connection to their traditional folk culture – as shown in the traditional dress, crafts, folk music, gastronomy, and in the lifestyle in small villages throughout the country. Customs, dress, religion, and cuisine vary slightly from region to region, and between ethnic minority groups.
In the past Slovakia was largely an agriculturally based society. Today it remains so in the isolated villages of the mountains, and in rural areas, though more modern ways have taken root in the capital and the cities. Yet even Bratislava, Slovakia’s largest city, feels quaint for a European capital.
Slovaks are generally friendly, welcoming people. They are well educated and many speak or have a basic understanding of several languages. English may be spoken in Bratislava and touristic areas, though it is not common in rural areas and villages.
Friendships, family, and close relationships are very important in Slovakia. It is important to dress nicely and behave politely if invited to be a guest in someone’s home. It is also customary to bring a gift, such as flowers, and to remove your shoes upon entering the home. Slovaks are generally kind, polite, and friendly. They may be somewhat private in nature, except when in the company of close friends or family.
Slovak cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors, yet it also retains its own originality. There is some variation between regions. Food in the mountains tends to be more based around meat, dairy, and a few vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes. In more moderate climates, and in the lowlands, the diet is a bit lighter, with fish and vegetables, as well as fruit or jam filled pastries being more widely incorporated.
In general, cabbage, dairy, and meat such as pork are staples in the Slovak diet. Soups and stews, such as cabbage soup (kapustnica), and goulash play an important role. Dumplings are common, filled with a savory meat and vegetable stuffing, or served plain, to be dipped into sauces and flavorful stews. Sausage is very common, either on its own, or added to soups such as kapustnica.
One of the most beloved Slovak dishes is bryndzové halušky – delicate potato dumplings served with creamy bryndza cheese made of sheep’s milk, and bits of fried bacon. This dish is typically served with buttermilk.
Slovakia produces some great wines. Check out one of eight wine routes to thoroughly explore the wines of the country, or simply visit one of many small wineries around Bratislava, or in one of the other wine regions. Spirits include strong brandies made from fruits such as plum or pear.
Pastries and sweet breads are excellent, often enriched with butter, and sometimes filled with delicious homemade jams and preserves or fresh fruit. Try žemľovka a rich bread pudding made with apples or pears and sweetened milk, or the specialty Skalický trdelník (cylindrical pastry traditionally baked on a spit over an open fire).
Bratislava and Košice both have international airports, though small. Train may be the best way to arrive if coming from elsewhere in Europe. There are frequent train connections from other European cities.
Travel within Bratislava is easy – buses, trams, and trolleys run regularly in the city, which is also very walkable.
Renting a car may be a good option for those who wish to explore one of the many designated cultural and historic routes (routes are marked with posted signs and informational boards), or who wish to explore the countryside and visit small villages and other attractions at leisure. Roads in the country can be narrow, and sometimes difficult to navigate.
There is a national train service. The main line runs from Bratislava to Košice in the east. Buses connect most towns, though not some small villages, which may be only accessible by car.
The official language is Slovak. Other languages spoken include German, Hungarian, and Czech. Other languages are spoken by minority groups in some regions.
Slovakia is generally a safe and healthy place to visit. Travelers should take the usual precautions of keeping their money in a safe place (out of reach of potential pickpockets), and keeping valuables locked in a hotel safe when available.
Ticks can be a problem if hiking, or spending a lot of time outdoors, as well as other bugs and insects. To reduce the risk of tick borne infections, when hiking in wooded areas or tall grassy areas, cover your skin with light, non-baggy clothing, and regularly check your skin and clothing for ticks, which can be miniscule. Travelers may want to consider a vaccine prior to travel if extensive hiking will be involved or if traveling to specific areas where tick borne disease is high.
Residents of Australia, New Zealand, U.S., Canada, Japan, and EU countries can stay in Slovakia for up to 90 days without a visa. Citizens of other countries need a visa to enter the country, which must be arranged prior to arrival.
When to Go
The main tourist season runs from approximately May to September. Spring and autumn are good seasons to visit the countryside, with fewer tourists. Spas may be crowded in the beginning of the year. Ski season runs roughly from December to March/April.
Temperatures are warmer in Bratislava and southern Slovakia than in the rest of the country, with warm or hot summers and mild spring and fall seasons. There may be snow in the winter.
Temperatures can be very cold in the mountains, especially in the winter. Travelers should be prepared for this variation in temperature, especially if traveling to many different climatic regions within Slovakia during their stay.
If hiking or spending time in tick endemic areas, bring protective clothing that can cover your skin (light colors are best).
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