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Before leaving on my last trip to Slovakia, I thought I knew about all of the country’s most beautiful cities and towns. The charm of Bratislava was already very familiar to me after repeat visits. I’d also heard good things about places like Kosice out east and am still waiting to see them myself. The mining town of Banska Stiavnica more than delivered and set a high bar for my next destination, Banska Bystrica. And what a surprise the city turned out to be!
Found north-ish of my previous stop, Banska Bystrica felt more like a default choice than a deliberate travel destination. And I have to say, I don’t think the photos I saw of Banska Bystrica before visiting did it justice. If they had, I would have been far more prepared for its beautiful historical centre. So you don’t go in blind like I did, here is why Banska Bystrica is worth visiting when in Slovakia.
The City of Banska Bystrica
Before we dig into the things to do in Banska Bystrica, it might help if I provide a little overview. Banská Bystrica is a moderately large city in central Slovakia, resting just on the edge of Low Tatras National Park. Today it’s the fifth largest city in Slovakia and is relatively modern, with just a small but gorgeous Old Town.
The city’s history and development has long been tied to copper and silver mining, explaining how it managed to afford such a beautiful historical centre. Because Banská Bystrica is surrounded by hills and mountains it’s a popular destination in Slovakia for those looking for ski resorts and hiking trails.
These three factors make it a reasonably popular tourist destination. In fact, with the obvious exception of Bratislava, I’ve never seen more tourists in Slovakia than here. I’m sure that will change when I finally visit the ever-popular Tatras Mountains, but in terms of Slovak cities, the number of tourists really caught my attention.
For the best sights to see in Banska Bystrica there’s really nowhere else to start than with the city’s main square. So much is going on in this great long square that there’s no question it’s the beating heart of the city. Called SNP Square, this open plaza leads to the Dolna pedestrian street, which together form the bulk of the Old Town. The historical centre is really quite a small slice of Banská Bystrica, but it’s definitely packed with major attractions.
I’ll get to some of the more important sights around the square separately, but there are many more worth mentioning here. For instance there’s the city’s Clock Tower seen above, which dates from the 16th century. Because it sits at the top end of the long sloping square, it offers some great views over the city, despite being only 20 metres tall. Interestingly, it also has a slight lean to it, giving Slovakia its own leaning tower.
While there are some elegant and interesting building around the square, I want to focus on two other landmarks instead. In the centre of SNP Square stands two proud monuments, the Marian Column and the Black Obelisk. The Marian Column is an ornate plague column from 1719 and a fairly common sight in Slovakia and central Europe. Less common is the Black Obelisk, a memorial from 1945 dedicated to Russian and Romanian solider who died liberating the city.
Barbican of Banska Bystrica Castle
Just off the main square with a little plaza before it is Banska Bystrica Castle, a.k.a the Barbican. One of the few remnants of a medieval castle, this fortification was once an entrance to the castle and protects the City Tower. The Barbican was built in 1512 and you can still see where its bridge crossed a man-made moat.
Nearby you’ll find Matej’s House which is also adjoined to a remainder of the castle fortifications and is easy to spot with its old stonework. Back to the castle remains, they now house the Bystrická Klubovňa gastro pub which I really recommend.
One last specific attraction on the main square I want to mention is the City Hall of Banska Bystrica. It’s not one of the largest or grandest buildings there and yet you’re sure to notice it when walking past. That’s because this otherwise traditional building has a glass pyramid emerging from its roof. Normally I wouldn’t like this kind of inconsistency and yet for the City Hall it kind of works.
The other thing worth mentioning is that you really should take peek inside. The interior of the City Hall wasn’t what I expected and is rather elegant with chandeliers and old photographs. It’s also where you’ll find the city’s Tourist Information Centre if you want help or a map.
Between visiting each of the above attractions there’s one thing you’re bound to notice about the Old Town of Banska Bystrica. All around SNP Square and its side streets you’ll spot a fantastic assortment of grand buildings representing several different architectural styles.
They range from the Renaissance sgraffito of Thurzo’s House to the striking 20th century building above named the Kammerhof. The variety of buildings encourages you to take your time while sightseeing but also explore the rest of the historical centre as well. The depth of Banska Bystrica’s gorgeous architecture may have been the greatest surprise from my visit and made this city so memorable.
Calvary and Hill Views
With its location in the hilly interior of Slovakia, hiking in Banska Bystrica had been on my mind before visiting. All things considered, it would have been best to go hiking around Špania Dolina as it’s meant to be a stunning mining village with great local trails. On that note, there are loads of cool places to explore around Banska Bystrica, including Hronsek and Ľupčiansky Castle.
What I ended up doing though was taking to the trails up around the city’s Calvary behind the train station. Crossing the river and taking a steep residential street it wasn’t hard to reach the small chapel. Beyond the Calvary though there weren’t many clear trails, so I took to worn paths criss-crossing the hillside meadows. Rambling about I thought I’d reach the city observatory but never actually made it there.
Instead I took a detour, curving around to Urpín Municipal Forest Park and took a stroll through the woods there. The reason I mention these woods is that they’re home to Radvanská Rock, which offers the fantastic view above. Walking here maybe wasn’t the epic hike I had in mind, but it certainly made do.
Missed Banska Bystrica Attractions
One short visit is never going to cover everything a destination has to offer. I definitely missed a few common attractions during my time in Banska Bystrica, but I did manage to stumble upon this crazy-looking house. If you too want to see it in person, it’s found on Pod Urpínom en route to the calvary. Regardless, here are some landmarks I missed that you may want to remember for your own visit.
- Slovak National Uprising Museum: Also known as the SNP Museum, this history museum features an outdoor exhibition of aircraft and heavy military equipment from World War II.
- Clock Tower Views: While I mentioned the Clock Tower earlier, I never actually climbed it. Several school groups going up were a serious deterrent, but I imagine there are some wonderful views up there.
- Ski Resorts and Fields: Even had there been lots of snow in the nearby mountains, I’m not a skier so this was always unlikely. Still, this does seem to be one part of the Slovakia known for its slopes.
Tips for Visiting Banska Bystrica
By now you should have a pretty good idea about what to expect in terms of sightseeing in Banska Bystrica. But there’s always more to a trip than just its sights. First of all there’s where to stay, which isn’t a problem as there are a decent range of hotels and guesthouses in Banska Bystrica. For an old-fashioned guesthouse in a great location, I can personally recommend Penzion Grand, but it’s nothing fancy.
Just as important though is the matter of getting to Banska Bystrica. Some places in Slovakia can be a little complicated to reach with public transport, but not here. Since it’s one of the larger cities, connections by bus and train are pretty decent. The thing to understand though is that Slovakia’s mountainous landscape can get in the way of direct routes. As such a Bratislava to Banska Bystrica bus can sometimes be cheaper and quicker than taking the train. The easiest places to reach the city from seem to be Zilina, Nitra and Bratislava.
Have you ever heard of or visited the city of Banska Bystrica in Slovakia? Do you think it’s the kind of destination you’d travel to if you went to Slovakia for a trip? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
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