Going strong over two decades as an independent state after the break-up of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Europe's most castellated country, is a bastion of untrammeled wildernesses, where some of the continent's densest forest coverage gives way to dramatic fortresses and craggy mountains harboring outstanding hiking.
Slovakia's small size is possibly its biggest attraction. You can traipse woodsy waterfall-filled gorges one day and yodel from 2500m-plus peaks the next. Dinky capital Bratislava is awash with quirky museums and backed by thick forests. With its rabbit-warren old town, it might just win world prize for most cafes per city resident. Do not leave without heading east, where fortresses tower over tradition-rich medieval towns such as LevoÄa or Bardejov and hiking trails lace the hills.
Sitting on both sides of the Danube in the southwest corner of Slovakia, Bratislava is a festive city, with meandering streets and tiny but grand buildings. With its rural atmosphere, on a hot afternoon a flock of sheep would not look out of place grazing on Františkánske Square. The Old Town showcases the skill of Slovak town planners, who crammed a city’s worth of palaces, shops, cafés, pubs, restaurants, museums and churches into a few blocks.
This East Slovakia's industrial powerhouse has cosmopolitan clout and a buoyant cultural scene plonking it firmly on Europe's city-break map. As 2013's European Capital of Culture, Košice has accordingly initiated a new string of attractions including major arts installations in a combination of impressively revamped buildings, and eclectic events to enliven city streets.
A time-trapped medieval delight, Banská Štiavnica enjoyed a 16th-century heyday as an internationally renowned architectural showcase and grew to become the old Hungarian Kingdom's third-largest city. As the minerals ran out and mines closed, progress stopped, leaving buildings wonderfully untouched. Meandering among the steeply terraced hillsides now you can see many of the same old town burghers' houses, churches and alleys that you would have seen then. UNESCO recognized the town in 1972. At a fraction of its peak population today, the town is primarily a holiday destination with numerous mining-related attractions and two castles facing each other across the steep valley.
The High Tatras, the tallest range in the Carpathian Mountains, tower over most of Eastern Europe. Some 25 peaks measure above 2500m. The massif is only 25km wide and 78km long, but photo opportunities are enough to get you fantasizing – pristine snowfields, ultramarine mountain lakes, thundering waterfalls, undulating pine forests and shimmering alpine meadows.
The road to Vrátna Valley in Malá Fatra National Park runs south from Terchová up through the crags of TiesÅˆavy Gorge, past picnic sites and scenic stops. The Vratna Výt'ah cable car then hauls you from the top of the valley to Snilovské saddle (1524m) below two peaks, Chleb (1647m) and Velký KriváÅˆ (1709m). Both these hikes are on the red ridge trail, one of the most popular in the park.
Dominating the southwest of the old town on a hill above the Danube, the castle today is largely a 1950s reconstruction; an 1811 fire left the fortress ruined for more than a century and renovations continue. Most buildings contain administrative offices, but there is a museum of Slovakia through the ages, and lawns and ramparts provide great vantage points for city viewing.
Heralding from at least as early as the 13th century, Spiš Castle and its vast complex of ruins crown a ridge above Spišské Podhradie. Its claim to fame as one of Europe's largest castle complexes will seem accurate as you explore. Be sure to ascend the central tower for spectacular panoramic views across the Spiš region, and imagine yourself as a patrolling medieval guard whilst traipsing this colossal fortress's outer walls.
Spread-eagled over a cliff above the old town, TrenÄín's castle ranks as one of Slovakia's most impressive. Added to over virtually a millennium, much of what you see today is reconstruction – most recently from the 20th century – although there are remnants aplenty dating to medieval days. The lower echelons can be explored solo but to enter the keep and other furnished buildings you will need a guide.
Slovenský Raj National Park:
The national park has numerous trails that include one-way roklina (gorge) sections and takes at least half a day. Slovenský Raj is most famous for its sometimes hair-raising ladder-and-chain ascents – paths where you are clinging to a waterfall-splashed rock face on creaky metal supports.