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Situated in central Europe, Slovakia is an up-and-coming tourist destination that lures travellers from around the world with its rugged mountainous scenery, rich architectural history and, perhaps notably, its very competitive prices.
The centre for Slovakia's arts and culture is the capital city of Bratislava, which boasts many museums, art galleries, palaces and ornamental churches in and around its historic Old Town district.
The Tatra Mountains are a popular destination year round, offering skiing in winter and hiking and climbing in summer. The country also boasts a number of mineral springs and natural spas that cater for health-conscious tourists looking to relax and unwind.
Scattered among the hills and valleys of the lowlands are numerous fortified castles, relics from the Middle Ages that were built near hamlets and major roads for protection from invaders. Also among the country's greatest architectural treasures are the ancient wooden churches in northeast Slovakia. Still functioning as religious buildings today, these are unique in their construction in that they were built without nails.
Slovakia became an independent nation in 1993 when Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak Republics. The Czech Republic went on to revel in the glory of its capital city, Prague, which has become one of the must-see cities in Europe, while Slovakia's quiet charms have remained relatively unexplored.
Nowadays, the beautiful scenery, ski resorts, historic towns, and easy access from the rest of Europe mean that more and more travellers are starting to wake up to Slovakia's various and well-priced delights.
Home to incredible natural beauty and a rich, storied history, visitors will love what Slovakia has to offer. Nature enthusiasts should make a beeline for the High Tatras, which boast gorgeous, unspoilt mountainscapes with lakes and waterfalls aplenty. One of the best starting points for hikes is Štrbské Pleso, where walking trails access the lovely Skok Waterfalls.
An alternative to the High Tatras National Park, the Slovak Paradise National Park in the east of the country is also a superb hiking destination and invites visitors to explore the magical forests and valleys of Slovakia.
In addition to glorious natural resources, Slovakia is home to many ancient castles and romantic ruins, which are well preserved and still in use. The most popular with tourists include Spiš Castle, a UNESCO-listed ruin and one of the biggest castles in Europe; Bratislava Castle, looming above the capital city; and Devín Castle, said to be more than 5,000 years old.
Slovakia is renowned for its rich folkloric traditions and well-preserved architecture, with Bratislava's Old Town home to many historic buildings and a number of interesting skanzens, open-air museum villages, scattered around the country.
The UNESCO-listed town of Vlkolínec boasts the best wooden folk architecture in the country, while the Východná Folk Festival, held annually in July in the village of Východná, is said to be one of the best folk music and dance festivals in the world.
Standing sentinel on a rocky hill above the Danube River, the white castle is the towering gem in the crown of Bratislava's spectacular skyline, and provides excellent views of the ancient city, as well as over Austria and even as far as Hungary when the weather allows. It has been inhabited for thousands of years owing to its important location on the Danube River in central Europe, and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in its history, undergoing a series of reconstructions and extensions. Four towers make up the enormous building, enclosing a courtyard, a Treasure Chamber, and collections of the Slovak National Museum.
Located just an hour's drive north of Bratislava, Piestany is Slovakia's premier spa resort town and a great place to go for tourists looking to relax and rejuvenate in style. The range and quality of treatment available in Piestany is world class, though its relative obscurity means it's far more affordable and unfrequented than similar spa towns in more popular areas around the continent.
Piestany is situated in the beautiful, forested region of the Vah River Valley and is fringed by mountains to the north. The spas are the town's main attractions, catering to mostly foreign patients with chronic rheumatic and arthritic diseases. In the summer, tourists arrive looking for mud therapy, massages and even dietary advice.
The town offers a range of accommodation and resort amenities, such as a nine-hole golf course, Jacuzzis and steam baths. Other sights and attractions include a 13th-century monastery and a number of great walking and hiking trails.
During summer, Piestany hosts a popular arts festival as well as celebrations of country- and folk music. Budget-conscious travellers looking to spend some time in a top-class European spa resort should seriously consider Piestany, which, like the rest of Slovakia, is an unassuming gem of a European holiday destination.
Set in the heart of Bratislava's historic city centre, the Old Town Hall is the perfect jumping-off point for sightseeing in Slovakia's capital city. Its Gothic tower is the oldest stone building in the downtown area, and was erected in 1370, before the rest of the building was completed in the 15th century by joining three adjacent townhouses together.
A distinctive building with its colourful roof, it now principally functions as the home of the Bratislava City Museum. The museum is small but certainly worth a look, housing a collection of strange and unsettling artefacts: torture instruments, the old town dungeons, antique weapons and armour, and even a cannon ball that was shot into the wall by Napoleon's forces in 1809.
In the summer, the Old Town Hall hosts open-air music concerts in its courtyard. Many of Bratislava's other great tourist sights (such as the Main Square and Primate's Palace) are within easy walking distance of the Old Town Hall and there are numerous cafes and eateries serving excellent Slovakian cuisine.
Bratislava enjoys a continental climate with four distinct seasons, though it can often be very windy, causing a drop in temperature. In summer, between June and August, weather is hot and dry, while winters, between December and February, are cold and wet.
Autumn and spring tend to be mild and pleasant, but are much shorter seasons. Average temperatures in Bratislava range from 30°F (2°C) to 25°F (-6°C) in the winter months, and from 66°F (19°C) to 70°F (21°C) in the summer months.
The Slovakian climate is generally temperate, with four distinct seasons. Summers are warm with temperatures in July averaging 70°F (21°C); while the coldest month, January, averages 28°F (-2°C).
Winter brings snowfall, which usually lasts from November to May in the Tatra Mountains. The mountains are colder and wetter than the lowlands in general, with most rain falling in June and July. Autumn and spring are good times to visit Slovakia, as the weather is mild and the crowds are thin.
The unit of currency is the Euro (EUR), which is divided into 100 cents. The Euro replaced the Koruna (SKK) as the official currency in 2009. Visa and MasterCard are accepted at almost all hotels and restaurants in popular tourist areas such as Bratislava, and shops are increasingly accepting credit cards, but it is best to check beforehand. ATMs accepting international cards are common.
Slovak is the official language, which is closely related to Czech. English and German are the most commonly spoken foreign languages, although English is not widely understood outside Bratislava.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. Two round-pin plugs are used, similar to other European countries.
US nationals: US nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
UK nationals: Passports must be valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. A visa is not required for passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
CA nationals: Canadian nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
AU nationals: Australian nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
ZA nationals: South African nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. A visa is required.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a passport valid upon arrival, but no visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from Slovakia. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no vaccinations required for travel to Slovakia. No special precautions are necessary, except for visitors intending to spend a prolonged period in the forests and rural areas, in which case a vaccination for tick-borne encephalitis should be considered.
Slovakia has a reciprocal health agreement with most EU countries, providing emergency healthcare on the same terms as Slovak nationals. EU travellers should carry a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with them. After Brexit, the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) replaced the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for UK citizens. The GHIC allows UK citizens access to state healthcare during visits to the EU. The GHIC is not valid in Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland.
However, it's still recommended that visitors take out comprehensive medical insurance, including mountain evacuation. Hospitals are available in all major towns, and pharmacies and clinics exist in the tourist areas and smaller towns, but little English is spoken.
Ten percent tips are becoming increasingly common in restaurants, and Slovaks may also round up bills to the nearest euro. Taxi fares are usually rounded up by an extra one or two euros.
Slovakia is generally a safe country to visit and most visitors will experience a trouble-free holiday. In the cities though, it's wise to be careful of personal possessions due to incidents of pick-pocketing and bag snatching, particularly in popular tourist areas and on public transport.
Visitors should maintain eye contact with locals when talking or shaking hands, as this is interpreted as a sign of honesty and sincerity. Knowing even a few words in Slovak will be well received, and guests are expected to remove their shoes when entering someone's home.
Rowdy behaviour and loud noise are not allowed between 10pm and 6am; travellers must carry passports with them at all times for identification purposes. Bratislava has become a popular destination for stag parties and boisterous tourists have been fined or imprisoned for causing a public disturbance.
Slovakians tend to be fairly formal in their business dealings, particularly the older generation, and women may encounter some chauvinism. The normal greeting is a handshake. Although business may be conducted in English or German, an interpreter should be arranged and all written documents should be translated into Slovakian. Punctuality and politeness are always appreciated. Most businesses open Monday to Friday from about 9am to 5pm.
The international dialling code for Slovakia is +421. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the UK). Network coverage is very good and travellers will only need to bring a passport to purchase a local SIM card. Most hotels and cafes have wifi, though the connection may not extend beyond the reception or dining area in rural guesthouses.
Passengers arriving from EU countries do not need to pay duty on any items provided they are for personal use or intended as gifts. Travellers to Slovakia from non-EU countries do not have to pay customs duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco; 4 litres of wine or 1 litre of distilled liquor and spirits.
Slovakia Tourist Board, Bratislava: http://slovakia.travel/en
Slovak Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 237 1054.
Slovak Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7313 6470.
Slovak Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 749 4442.
Slovak Embassy, ACT, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 26 290 2405.
Slovak Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 342 2051.
Slovak Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 661 9594.
Slovak Embassy, ACT, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 26 290 2405.
United States Embassy, Bratislava: +421 2 5443 0861.
British Embassy, Bratislava: +421 2 5998 2000.
Canadian Embassy, Bratislava, Slovakia: +421 2/5920 4031.
Australian Embassy, Vienna, Austria (also responsible for Slovakia): +43 1 506 740.
South African Embassy, Vienna, Austria (also responsible for Slovakia): +43 1 320 6493.
Irish Embassy, Bratislava: +421 (2) 3233 8700.
New Zealand Embassy, Berlin, Germany (also responsible for Slovakia): +49 3 020 6210.
Bratislava is an old and historical city, remaining delightfully undiscovered by European standards. The pedestrianised Old Town is home to many of the city's top attractions, with centuries-old streets, squares and buildings allowing visitors to step back in time.
Landmarks include the Old Town Hall, St Martin's Cathedral and Main Square, and there are a glut of galleries and museums, including some unexpected ones such as the Pharmacy Museum and the Museum of Clocks. The historic centre is also packed with restaurants and cafes for sightseeing pit stops.
The Bratislava Castle is a must see, while a boat ride on the Danube is also highly popular and takes travellers to some of the attractions along the banks, including the castle ruins at Devin and the interesting Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum. The spa resort town of Piestany is nearby and is the perfect pampering excursion from Bratislava.
The city has a busy cultural calendar and travellers interested in attending performances, exhibitions and festivals should visit the Tourism Information Office, which provides relevant info on all events in Bratislava.
Perched above the confluence of the Morava and Danube Rivers, Devín Castle is one of the most important archaeological sites in Slovakia. The oldest traces of settlement date back to 5,000 BC, and the mighty fortress citadel was impenetrable for centuries until the arrival of Napoleon's troops, who sacked it in 1809. The village of Devín is also quaint and worth visiting, with a number of shops and restaurants. The river, while certainly photogenic, is a hotbed for mosquitoes, so visitors are advised to arm themselves with effective insect repellent.
The majestic peaks of the High Tatras are a must-see in Slovakia, stretching through Tatra National Park and across the northern part of the country in the Carpathian Mountains near Poland. The mountains, valleys and lakes of the Tatras offer countless opportunities for hiking, cycling, skiing, swimming, river rafting or just relaxing in a pristine natural environment. Small but increasingly popular resorts in the area include Strbské Pleso, Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica. There are scenic cable cars and funiculars scattered about, including those at Lomnický Stít and Hrebienok.
The small town of Vlkolínec is the best place to experience the famous and unique folk architecture of Slovakia, consisting of medieval houses and churches often built from logs joined without nails. Located about three hours from Bratislava, near the Czech Republic border, Vlkolínec is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see for tourists who are interested in European history and the folklore of the Carpathian Mountains.
With a name derived from the Slovak word for 'wolf', the town is set in a picturesque alpine landscape and features around 45 of the distinctive wooden houses, numerous carved wooden statues, and a museum exhibiting the instruments that were used during the construction of the town. There is also a Baroque chapel with a wooden belfry. A truly interesting little town, Vlkolíne certainly shouldn't be missed by history buffs.
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