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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.

The Train Station Cafe – Vestiges of Old Glamour

Wifi: Non-existent  (regrettably, given the name of the joint)

On a visit to Budapest recently I was reminded again of just how many glamorous cafes of old there are in the city – Ruszvurm near the castle, for instance, that Austrian Empress Elizabeth used to send for cakes from, or New York Cafe, that all the famous turn-of-the-century Hungarian writers like Ferenc Molnár once hung out in.

Bratislava cannot really boast such a pedigree of coffee houses – not ones with this kind of colourful history. On Hlavné Námestie there is Kaffee Mayer (which, it is true, used to count among its patrons the colourful city character Schöner Náci – statue outside the doors). There is the nearby Caffe Roland. And these cafes do admittedly lend a touch of that bygone elegance – but the ambience is someone detracted from by the numbers of tourists and the service as frosty as a layer of wedding cake icing.

But there is a touch of that bygone cafe glamour of old – just a touch – in the unlikeliest of Bratislava locales. Yes, the otherwise shabby Hlavná Stanica, Bratislava’s main railway station. The station forecourt might be a mass of decrepit snack stands but, up the steps by the departures/arrivals screen and next to the Slovenská Sporitel’ňa bank ATM, there is the inconspicuous, unassuming and somewhat puzzlingly named Caffe Internet.

Its name, one imagines, was not always thus – and, as the ailing computer terminal has now been removed – should perhaps no longer be. But there are the worn leather-upholstered booths, the ancient dark wood furniture, the stately old mirrors, the swinging chandeliers and the ceiling with the motif of an eagle alighting on a globe – trappings from another very different age. The service, a stoic old lady who gets confused if you order much above coffee or a beer, is not reminiscent of the glory days. But something in the ambience certainly is.  The ghosts of train travellers of yore, you feel, flit around the walls of this place. A shadowy bowler-hatted character from a Graham Greene novel could be behind the unfurled newspaper someone – who knows who? – at the next booth is holding aloft.

And the thing about Caffe Internet is that you are obliged to pass by its creaking old doors when you get your train out of (or into) Bratislava. It’s my most-visited coffee shop in the entire city for that reason. So take the extra twenty minutes out to stop in for a cup of the fairly decent espresso and imagine yourself transported decades back to train travel at the height of its sophistication – when young men of means took their “Grand Tours” to Austro-Hungary and when waiters in restaurant cars wore suits. It’s a step up from the disconsolate Pumpkin cafe chain that peppers many railway stations in the UK, at least…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Hlavná Stanica railway station.

OPENING: About 6am-9pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Any time you need to take a train…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station, it’s a 2km walk north to Kamzík, at which point you are all set to embark on a pilgrimage to Marianka

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!)