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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.

Bratislava by night...

Getting Around Bratislava: How to Get to the Main Hotels

Imagine this. It’s late. The Ryanair flight’s just landed. To cap a long journey, you’ve had to deal with officially the most ridiculous airport bus transfer in the world (yes Bratislava really is a record-breaker in this respect). You just want to get to your hotel. But actually, it’s not always as simple as that. The airport doesn’t always have enough taxis and you might not have the taxi numbers or, perhaps, object to being charged over twice the odds (20 Euros plus) a local would be for the ride from the airport to your hotel. There might be any number of other reasons, too, why you need directions to your chosen accommodation.

The good news is that most of the main city centre hotels are in a very small area of the Old Town, and here’s our fool-proof guide on how to get from the airport right to the Old Town.

Once there (ie at the Postová tram stop described in the afore-mentioned link), Austria Trend Hotel and Crowne Plaza are right by you.

If you head straight ahead on Obchodná, cross over the wide, tram track-lined road directly ahead and make a beeline for the pretty street (Michalská) heading down between the strip club and the bank, you’re through the Old Town gate of Michalská Brana, in the heart of the Old Town and right by Skaritz. Hotel Marrol’sPark Inn Danube and Radisson Blu Carlton are all within five minutes’ walk (just head down towards Hviesdoslavo Námestie and the Danube for these last three). For any of these bang-in-centre hotels, public transport to Postová followed by the five to ten minute walk through the Old Town is a great and atmospheric introduction to your time in Bratislava.

More info on good hotels:

Our article on Skaritz

 – My review of Hotel Marrol’s for the Telegraph

Our article on Bratislava’s Best Boutique Hotel (near the Old Town but not quite in it)

But for some of the other most popular hotels, things are slightly more complicated. Slightly only mind. There’s still not really a need to taxi it from the airport/bus station for any of the below either…

River Danube - Provides the pleasant backdrop to the Kempinski or Sheraton Hotels

River Danube – Pleasant backdrop to Grand Hotel River Park or the Sheraton Hotel

Grand Hotel River Park

This hotel is west along the riverside by about 2.5 km from Most SNP, next to the River Park shopping centre. It’s not the worst walk in the world from the Old Town as it’s along the river, but with a big road right on the other side, you might also want to consider public transport. Take bus 61 to Tranavské Mýto, then tram 4 which takes you eventually down alongside the river, under Most SNP and along to Chatam Sófer stop (from the airport). OR take bus 93 (bound for Petržalka) to Zochova (on Staromestská) followed by bus 39 which takes you along the river to Chatham Sófer stop (from the station).

See our comprehensive guide to the bus 61 and tram 4 routes on our Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Routes guide.

Sheraton Bratislava

The Sheraton Bratislava is in the Eurovea Shopping Centre, following the happy theme of big hotels in the city centre locating themselves near shopping centres. Look out the window from the Grand Hotel River Park or Sheraton in Bratislava and your view will be the same (beautiful Danube flanked by modern otherwise modern but unspectacular shopping centre; difference being they’re on opposite sides of the Old Town). Anyway. Take bus 61 to Tranavské Mýto, then tram 4 to Šafarikovo Nám (from the airport) OR trolleybus 1 to Šafarikovo Nám with a change at Most SNP (from the station).

See our comprehensive guide to the bus 61 and tram 4 routes on our Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Routes guide.

Hotel West (former Best Western )

Bratislava’s Hotel West is, once more, independent, and as of this year not part of the Best Western chain (which means it’ll be getting reviewed on here real soon, although in Google it still comes up as a Best Western). It’s in a strange – if rather stunning – location: up in the woods of the Mestské Lesy by the Kamzik TV mast. This is the only hotel where you really might rule public transport out, just because it’s otherwise a bit of a walk through the woods – but it is possible – and very nice if you’re staying a few days and don’t always want to get a taxi. Take bus 61 to one stop beyond Račianske Mýto, Karpatská (coming from the airport) OR bus 61/74/502 one stop to Karpatská (coming from the station). Walk a few paces up Karpatská to change to Trolleybus 203 and take the bus to the end of the line. Then continue walking up the road from approximately 1.5km. Just head up if in doubt – it goes into the woods but don’t worry – eventually the road will divide, with the left branch curling up to Kamzik and the right branch going to the hotel. A taxi from the centre: about 7 Euros. A taxi from the airport: about 25 Euros.

See our comprehensive guide to the bus 61 and trolleybus 203 routes on our Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Routes guide.

Holiday Inn

The city’s Holiday Inn is in RužinovBus 61 to Bajkalská, then bus 74 a few stops south to Mliekárenská (from the airport). Bus 61 or bus 74 to Tranavské Mýto then tram 9 to Slovanet from where you’ll have to walk a few hundred metres south on Bajkalská (from the train station)

Bratislava’s Airport Hotels

For the NH Gate One and VI Hotel Chopin, the two out-of-centre airport/business hotels, take Bus 61 from the airport (5 minutes) OR train station (30 minutes) and get off at Avion Shopping Centre. See our post on Bratislava’s airport hotels for more.

A Footnote

I should add, by the way, that me mentioning these big hotels is by no means an absolute endorsement of them. Quite the contrary. With the exception of Austria Trend Hotel, Skaritz and Hotel Marrol’s, all of these hotels fall for me into the category of slightly samey international chain options, and as a rule quirky quintessential Slovakia-ness is what we like to wax lyrical about on this site! Moral of this post: save 20 Euros on the taxi from the airport and spend it on a good meal out for two (possible in Bratislava) or dirt-cheap beer.

If you want to say To Hell with this post, I’m getting a taxi, then a cross-town (across the Old Town that is) or train station to Old Town taxi ride is around 5 Euros, and from the airport to the Old town you’ll pay 15 to 20 Euros (more for the Best Western Hotel West and Kempinski Hotel River Park because they’re through the Old Town and out the other side).

RELATED POST: The Cognac Express Taxi to the Airport!

Verne

It’s always the way, right? You come to a beautiful city centre, you see the key sights and then you build up a thirst – or even a hunger – for after all, being a tourist or a traveller or a wanderer or whatever word you choose to use for it is, sometimes, draining. And of course when you are in afore-mentioned city centre in x country you realise nearly all the places to eat are fearfully expensive, devoid of atmosphere and certainly devoid of locals: the last places, if you are anything like me, that you would ever wish to eat.

This is where a joint like Verne comes in. You’ve come down to the Old Town through the beautiful Michael’s Gate, taken a picture (for some reason) of the compass on the cobbles, checked out each of the quirky statues in the city centre (like the bronze man emerging from the manhole) and amiably strolled through those gorgeous medieval central squares. You’re bang in the centre of things and you want lunch (or indeed dinner). Verne is there to help out… if, that is, you want your city centre meal to be the opposite of what’s described above (i.e. somewhere reasonably priced, brimming with ambience and always bustling with local clientele.

Verne is on the north side of Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, my favourite of Bratislava’s squares because of its length, leafiness and the gorgeous Slovenské Národné Divadlo (Slovak National Theatre) at one end. Its entrance, as with most under-the-tourist-radar places, is not obvious: in the hot weather they have a few tables out front but otherwise you have to descend some steps within an ornate tree-shaded building on either side of two far brasher bar-restaurants that, if you weren’t know, you’d end up in. (Fear not – with the Englishman in Slovakia, you are IN the know.)

I’ve been going to Verne on and off two years now.

This wine was actually pretty good :)

This wine was actually pretty good :)

When you come into the bar area, you’ll see why, too. In its own understated way this place exudes elegance. Namely normal, everyday Bratislava folks tucking into their food in a dimly lit underground dining area that looks a bit like the aftermath of a party in a sumptuous aristocratic house about, say, 1880: old slightly crooked standard lamps, lavish but rumpled tapestried seats, cupboards stocked with old wines that look like they’ve been sitting in the same positions since Slovakia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A carefully orchestrated atmosphere of ailing grandeur, in other words. And, unlike quite a few city restaurants I could mention, people talk here. Conversation fairly ricochets off the beamed ceilings. But the talk is almost 100% locals – families, large groups of friends… it’s a popular ex-pat hangout too (those slightly-drunk older guys speaking about city politics in English loudly at the bar, you know).

Steak on a bed of rice… a Verne staple

Steak on a bed of rice… a Verne staple

The atmosphere is why to come to Verne.

The food is very reasonable price-wise but don’t expect top quality. The steaks are too well-done. The salads are heavy on the grated carrot which reminds one of typical English pub salads (so ask for the feta and tomato salad instead, which Verne does very well).

But there is variety. It’s the ideal place for a breakfast the morning after the night before (good, well-cooked comfort food). The soups are very tasty. The stuffed chicken with mozzerella always goes down a treat. There are a lot of different tasty pasta options (the spinach lasagne is my favourite).  The cooking mixes up the more typical Slovak fare (dumplings, potatoes and sheep’s cheese) with plenty of healthier veggie offerings. The wines? They veer from OK to wince-ably acidic.

But you’re always going to have a good-enough meal here and with prices this cheap and an atmosphere this good, the overall experience is going to be better, and a fair bit more authentic, than anywhere else in this part of Bratislava.

And if you want dinner before heading for a concert at the wonderful Slovak Philharmony or opera at the afore-mentioned Slovak National Theatre, this place is the perfect choice.

MAP LINK: The pinpoint on Google maps goes to Kogo Bar, which doesn’t exist; nevertheless this is the approximate location of Verne

LOCATION: Hviezdoslavovo Námestie 18 – there’s no website (just the Facebook page given above) which means pre-booking is tough. In any case, it’s unnecessary. Verne is a veritable rabbit warren inside with lots of tables, and it’s rare to find it with no free space. So just turn up. This is Bratislava, remember, not London or Paris.

OPENING: 9am-midnight Monday to Friday, 10am-1am Saturday, 10am-midnight Sunday.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Come in for dinner about 9-9:30pm to find this place at its liveliest – or mid-afternoon/early evening in summer you can grab a pew on the outside tables overlooking the pretty Hviezdoslavovo Námestie.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Precede a visit to Verne with coffee at Kava.Bar, a 700m walk northwest

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!)