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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

Whether it’s bringing home a present for the folks from your summer hols or getting that classic traditional festive treat at one of Slovakia’s legendary Christmastime markets, knowing your quality souvenirs from your tourist tack is important in Slovakia – and actually makes choosing a gift to take home enjoyable rather than tedious.

To that end, we’ve produced our top ten of the must-buy traditional Slovak souvenirs. We’re focussing here on things that really aren’t the same if you buy them outside Slovakia, that have a touch of the “only in Slovakia” about them. For more ideas, take a look at our ever-expanding shopping section! Of course, all of the below ideas are not just for Christmas…

10: A Book on Slovak History: In-English translations of Slovak writers are regrettably limited. The big exception is in the area go historical reference where several great reference books await. As readers of this blog will have intimated, Slovakia’s history is varied and rich. Slovakia’s castles and wooden churches are particularly rich veins worth tapping into, with the topics producing several books available in good bookstores like ArtForum (who also have a great section of Slovak movies) or Oxford Bookstore (soon to be the subject of a post on this blog; link currently to the Facebook page, address on Laurinska 9).

9: A Log Basket: No one likes collecting logs as much as the Slovaks; they stack them up proudly against their mountain cottages and even adapt the roofs so that the logs stay sheltered. Needless to say the country has one of the best selections of log baskets you ever will see. Buy them from Nitra Christmas Market, in the main Námestie in Nitra. Oh – and in case you want another kind of basket (košik in Slovak) plenty of other varieties for other purposes await…

8: Lacework: Lacework (Paličkovanie) in Slovakia has a fine tradition, with the old mining towns such as Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica having some of the most traditional work. Originally this would have been work for folk costumes at festival time and normal everyday clothes to boot; now it’s just nice to get a piece to appreciate the exquisite workmanship. Úl’uv have a great selection.

7: Some traditional Slovak music: Classic Slovak folk music may not be what the average Slovak listens to in their car but folk music is still big here and closely associated with the hugely traditional folk festivals that occur throughout summer in rural Slovakia. Get a taste at stores like Martinus on Obchodná where you can pick up albums by quintessential folk groups like Lučnica, classic contemporary artists like Jana Kirschner or wacky experimental stuff like that by Marek Brezovský.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica – an ancient mining town with a lot of ore still under the surface… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

6: Mineral Ore from Banská Štiavnica: This old mining town really does come up with some of the best gifts in the country. The legacy of mining here is showcased in the mining museum here, where the on-site shop is the place to buy nuggets of silver, gold and other ore unearthed in the mineral-rich hills.

5: Smoked meats: The zabíjačka (pig killing) is a Slovak tradition going back centuries and many of the products from one of these rituals make for good Christmas gifts. For starters, try the good butchers on the right side of Stara Tržnica (the old marketplace) in Bratislava. Why smoked meats? They transport better, of course…

4: Painted eggs: These can be seen in many gift shops around Slovakia. Usually ceramic, they are an important part of the Easter tradition of Šibačka (where the women present them to their menfolk – read more about the tradition here). Buy them in most craft shops, including Úl’uv.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

3: A bottle of alcohol: Slovakia, unlike the neighbouring Czech Republic, is first and foremost a wine-drinking country. For white and red wines, pay a visit to the wine shops and cellars of Svätý JurLimbach, Pezinok, Modra, and – in the far east of the country – one of the Tokaj wine-making villages like Malá Tŕňa.

Don’t like wine for a gift? Not a problem. Slovakia is also famous for medovina, a honey-like wine available on many of the stalls in christmas markets. Then there is a whole range of fruit brandies, such as slivovica (plum brandy). However far better than getting any of these potent fruit liquors from the supermarket is to get some of the homemade stuff (made by a large number of folks in the countryside) which is generally far superior.

Not to be outdone, there is also whiskey to be found in Slovakia. Slovakia makes a honey-like bourbon from Nestville Park near Stará Ľubovňa in East Slovakia. Buy the whiskey in the White Mouse whiskey shop in Bratislava or better still direct from Nestville Park after a tour there.

2: Šupulienky: These intricate corn husk figures, mostly people carrying out traditional trades such as wood-carving or butter churning, but also occasionally depicting animals, are intimate reminders of Slovakia’s rural past. Buy them from Úl’uv or from a couple of outlets on the Bratislava Christmas Market.

1: Ceramics from Majolika: Slovakia’s best ceramics are produced by this small Modra-based firm, the signature designs being old-fashioned dark blue, yellow and green floral motifs. Our two top recommendations would be their set of slivovica cups and/or hip flask, or their meat-roasting dish, with a jug-shaped spout to let juices drain off. For the best prices, buy them direct from the Majolika shop in Modra.

Bratislava Christmas Market by Miroslav Petrasko

The Old Town: Bratislava’s Christmas Market

I remember laughing the first time I heard that Bratislava’s Christmas Market, that started on 23rd November and runs until 23rd December, was one of Central Europe’s best winter festivals. With Vienna’s famous Christmas markets less than an hour’s drive away, could Bratislava’s really be considered in the same league?

Well, maybe not. But when we joined the hoards to experience it for my very first time (since then, there have been many more) I could see why people would rave about Bratislava’s festive food and handicrafts extravaganzas.

It really seems that Bratislava comes alive at Christmas. It isn’t a big city, after all, and quite often you’ll be walking through central Old Town streets like Kostolná Ulica behind the Old Town Hall, and not see another soul around as early as 9pm. But at Christmas, the people, wherever they have been hiding, emerge. Possibly they are also coming from other parts of Slovakia and even other countries, because I have rarely seen Hlavné Námestie so packed, or so animated, despite the sub-zero temperatures.

Christmas Market Food

And all because of the Christmas market: which, although you would not think to look at it, was never a traditional event in the Bratislava of olden times. Within an endearing, typically Central European encampment of red-, green- and blue-painted wooden hut-stalls you have the perimeter of handicrafts offerings, and then in the central section the smouldering aromas issuing from the food stalls: it really was like a showcase of classic Slovakia laid out for the taking, with the illuminated Baroque buildings of Hlavné Námestie framing the scene.

You could tell very soon what the most popular section was. The craft stalls, which I actually preferred, were relatively easy to browse unobstructed. But the food stalls were jostling with so many potential customers it was hard to even get close to place your order to the vendor. But it was worth the fight through the throngs: stalls were selling the likes of delectable medovina (mead), piping hot spiced but not overly sweetened wine, lokše (delicious Slovak potato pancakes, which come with fillings such as the famed Slovakian sheep’s cheese, bryndza, or sauerkraut, or perhaps duck fat paste), various assorted sausages like the traditional Czechoslovakian blood sausage called jaternice, and the pork liver burgers called cigánska pečienka.

A tip when you’re scouting for the best lokše: almost every food stall sells it, so choose carefully, because some stalls sell them when they are nigh-on bone dry. Go for a moist-looking one, and have it with the duck fat for the ultimate Slovak experience.

Slovak Handicrafts!

Somehow despite the cold a musician was churning out some typical Slovak ballads on an accordion and a stage was set for some classical music performances over the weekend (although even the most appreciative audience would surely freeze if standing there without moving for any length of time). Amongst the crafts, my favourite by far were the wonderful šúpolienky (expressive figures made from corn husks with innocent, simple features, fashioned into animals, nativity scenes or men and women doing traditional work such as collecting wood or baking vánočka (vánočka, incidentally, is another Christmas treat – heralding from the Slovak word for Christmas, vianoce – a sweet, wonderfully light bread-cake with dried fruit like currents and spices within). I also loved the room scenters – dried clove-scented fruits like pumpkins cut into small pieces and arranged artistically like hanging mobiles.

And the fun was also spreading down to my favourite Bratislava square (námestie), Hviezdoslavovo (although it’s far from my favourite to pronounce). Here a huge Christmas tree illuminated some more food and craft stalls, complementing the bright lights already twinkling from one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the Slovak National Theatre. Men in merely shirt-sleeves (it was below freezing, remember) were carving up roasted pork, old women pottered around selling products they had knitted, that piping hot spiced wine flowed and I felt well and truly christmassy.

And it’s the same, pretty much, every year – one of several iconic, vividly-brought-to-life times in the Slovak calendar year)

Opening Hours

Bratislava’s Christmas market is on every day from 10am to 10pm, until 23rd December. 24th December, of course, is when Christmas Day is celebrated in Slovakia, so that’s why 23rd December is the last day.

WORTH CHECKING OUT IF YOU LIKE THIS:

Top Ten Slovak Foods and Drinks

Another Really Cool Market in Bratislava (that runs year-round!)