More than 300 castles – many only evocative ruins – dot the landscape throughout Slovakia. These fortified places that often sheltered entire towns from rapacious invaders are poignant reminders of the perils of times past. It’s not surprising, then, that there are so many castles in Slovakia, which stands at the crossroads of cultures, religions and conquerors. In the 14th and 15th century, three Slovak castles were among the largest in all of Europe: Devín, Spiš and Trenčín.
Why are so many in ruins? With invading Magyars (present-day Hungarians, who swept into the Carpathian basin in the 9th c.), Tatars (13th c.), Turks (16th c.), Napoleon Bonaparte (early 19th c.), as well as religious wars (15th c. and 17th c.), punishment for rebelling against the Austro-Hungarian Empire (18th c.), frequent fires and simple neglect, the better question would be: how have so many survived? (more about Slovakia’s history)
There are two words for castle in Slovak language: hrad, which connotes defensive, fortified structures, and zámok, signifying palaces, chateaux or manor houses, built in more peaceful times by nobles and royals as luxurious homes or hunting lodges in place of the cold, drafty castles of yore. Many of them were changed through the centuries to combine both types.
Many castles and manor houses have interesting museums. Some host festivals and re-enactments of their glory days. Others are simply haunting remains, to be viewed with the respect that their mere survival, against all odds, deserves.
Please note that all castles have lots of stairs/steps to climb and no ramps or elevators for those who have difficulty climbing. But you’ll still want to look at them from the outside – these are always the most enchanting views!
Various written records show that in the past there were more than 300 castles in Slovakia, but during the course of Slovak history only a few of them survived the onslaught of numerous battles. Generally, they were built at the most important places on merchant’s routes. During the Great Moravian Empire the biggest royal castles served as the administrative headquarters of political and religious organisations.
In the 11th and the 12th century the region of western Slovakia was invaded by the Czech and the Moravian Dukes many times. The invasion of the western Slovakia in the years 1241-42 resulting in the disintegration of the whole Ugrian State was a further catastrophic blow. In the Middle Ages particularly, a whole system of castles and forts was built whose main role was to protect the Ugrian land. Between the 16th and the 17th century the last Turkish invasions razed the Slovak ethnicity.
Thus, in the course of Slovak history about 300 castles came into existence from which only a few survived. These days the castles, the majority of which also serve as archaeological survey sites, are national cultural monuments. Some of the castles however, also enjoy silverscreen fame. Peculiar silhouettes of the ruins of Čachtice, Spiš and Strečno castle have earned them a role in famous Hollywood films.
One of the most magnificent sights in Slovakia is that of the ghostly, sprawling ruins of Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) atop its lonely hill 200 m above the surrounding land. It is situated in a region called Spiš, above the town of Spišské podhradie and the village Žehra. Covering 41,426 m2 (10 acres), Spiš is the largest fortified castle in Central Europe and since 1993 a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (together with nearby related monuments).
History of the castle is very rich. While there is evidence of habitation since Neolithic times, Spiš Castle started as one tower in 1113 and was enlarged to protect the wealthy Spiš area. The castle soon became a political, administrative, economical and cultural centre of Szepes county (Slovakia in Hungarian monarchy). Through its history it had more owners such as Hungarian kings, the Szápolyi family, the Thurzo family, the Csáky family. Since 1945 Spiš Castle is owned by Slovakia. It was one of very few castles that did not fall during the Tatar invasion of 1241.
Visitors can climb up the 600 m-high hill for a stunning view of the High Tatra mountains and take a quick look in the castle museum, which has torture devices, weapons and a replica of the castle before it was gutted by fire in 1780. Spiš Museum (Spišské múzeum) with medieval arts and feudal jurisdiction is located inside the castle. It is opened to public from the beginning of May until the end of October.
Also, UNESCO’s heritage site designation includes the two towns – Spišská Kapitula and Žehra.
Spiš castle is not only the biggest castle in Slovakia but with its unique dimension of more than 41,000 m², it is rightfully one of the biggest castle complexes in Europe. In 1993 it was listed as a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. It dates back to the 12th century and in the span of following 600 years it acquired its great size. From the first settlement of the Neanderthal man through being the first ancient fortress in the 5th century BC till the Celtic tribes in the 2nd century AD it was constantly inhabited. In the
2nd century, life in the castle came to an abrupt halt and the next 900 years it remained abandoned. Spiš castle is one of the few
castles, which withstood the destructive Tatar invasions in 1241.
However, its strongholds were gradually strengthened and thus a big courtyard, lower castle front, two residential towers and an entrance tower were added to the structure. In the 15th century the new owners of the castle the Zapoľsky family tried to turn the upper castle into an aristocratic residence. Additional new buildings and a chapel were built in the free expanse of the courtyard of the castle. In the renaissance period the Thurzovovci and the Czakovci made additional changes to the castle entrance and strengthened it to withstand canon attacks. Wit h the help of the arcade and the courtyard galleries of the upper castle they tried to unify the architecture of the castle, at the same time the older buildings were turned into farm buildings. In the beginning of the 18th century the castle couldn’t meet the requirements of the aristocrats and in the year 1780 it fell victim to fire.
These days the castle is being gradually reconstructed and many places are open to public: the so called educational path in the lower courtyard, the western gate of the middle courtyard, the foundations of the prehistoric-cult site, renaissance corridor of the arcade and historical exhibition showing records of settlements and the building of the castle since its beginning.
Trenčín Castle (Trenčiansky hrad) is the third-largest castle in Slovakia and belongs to the National Cultural Monuments of Slovakia. It is situated on a steep slope above the city Trenčín and commands a view over the Váh River on a cliff inscribed by the Romans in 179 A.D. to commemorate Marcus Aurelius’ victory over Germanic tribes. The inscription is visible from the Secessionist (Art Nouveau Vienna-style) Hotel Tatra below the castle.
As mentionned, history of the castle dates back to the Roman Empire. The castle was first built in the 11th c., and then enlarged in the 14th c., but the oldest part is a stone rotunda, probably built during the period of Great Moravia (9th century). The castle was also a residence of Matúš Csák, who is one of the legends of Slovakia. Nobleman Matúš Csák fought against the Hungarian king and declared his Kingdom of the Váh and the Tatras – precursor to modern Slovakia – with Trenčín as his capital.
Castle is divided into upper and lower sections. Central medieval tower, the highest point of the city, is surrounded by several palace buildings. An old parish church and a small upper square (can be reached by historic stairs) are situated below the castle, on the hillside. Some of the best views are from the cobblestone streets of the pedestrian-zone Old Town underneath the castle itself. It is dramatically illuminated at night.
Bratislava Castle (Bratislavský hrad) is situated on a rocky hill of the Little Carpathians in the centre of the city and is overlooking the river Danube. It also provides an excellent view of Bratislava and Austria. The massive building has four corner towers, reminding an upturned table.
Rich history of the castle started in the late Stone Age. It had a very important role in 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, as it was the Main Castle of the Kingdom of Hungary. During the centuries Bratislava castle was ruined by Celts, Romans, Germans, Slavs, Austrians and Hungarians. The castle had to be rebuilt several times. Latest reconstruction started in 2008 and should take 5 years.
Nowadays the Bratislava castle is used for exhibitions and state functions. You can find the Treasury of Slovakia on the ground floor. To other interesting things in the castle belongs a collection of archaeological findings, branch of Slovak National Museum that covers historical furniture, modern art and history. Gardens of the castle are the most convenient place for pleasant walks, offering beautiful views.
High above Slovakia’s capital city looms austere Bratislava castle – built and rebuilt many times over more than 1,000 years of existence. Starting out as a 10th century fortress, the castle’s “upside down table” design we see today is from the 15th century. This was the residence of Hungarian kings while the Turks occupied Buda in the 16th and 17th centuries. Legend has it that the castle stairs are very wide and shallow because Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, too heavy to climb them herself, insisted on riding her horse up and down instead. The castle suffered the indignity of being nearly burned down by drunken Austrian soldiers stationed there in the early 19th c. during the Napoleonic Wars. It was reconstructed in the mid 20th c.
Bratislava Castle is now home to the Slovak National Museum. Most notable exhibits: the 22,800 B.C. Venus of Morovany, a fertility figure carved from a mammoth tusk, and the historical furniture collection, which includes fabulous Secessionist (Viennese Art Nouveau) and Art Deco pieces. The Museum of Folk Instruments is also worth visiting.
From the castle, you have an unbeatable view, looking out onto three countries — Austria, Hungary and Slovakia.
One of the most romantic and most visited castles in Slovakia – Bojnice Castle (Bojnický zámok) is standing on the travertine hill above the town Bojnice. This beautiful castle is a national cultural monument and museum at the same time. It was declared as a National cultural monument in 1970.
First written record about the castle dates back to the year 1113. As it was originally built as a wooden fort, to reach its actual shape it was necessary to gradually replace the wood by stone. First owner was Matúš Csák who received the castle from the Hungarian King – László V. Held by more kings and noble families it went through more reconstructions; last great rebuilding from 1888 till 1909 was organized, architected and designed by Ján Pallfy. After his death the castle became a property of Ján Baťa (czech shoe magnate), from whom the communist Czechoslovak government confiscated the castle in 1945.
Because of the exceptional beauty, Bojnice Castle was used for filming several fairy tales and other movies. One of the main attractions is the International Festival of Ghosts Spirits held regularly at the end of April and beginning of May or Summer Music Festival.
Museum located in the interior of the Castle is full of historical and artistic collections, such as historically important Late-Gothic altar of Bojnice from the 14th century or the original furniture of the Castle. Very interesting is also the cave under the castle that is connected to the 26 meters deep water well.
Bojnice is the most visited castle in all of Slovakia – not only because of its fairytale-like appearance but also because of the popular Festival of Ghosts and Spirits held there every May. The castle also hosts a romantic St. Valentine’s Day weekend. With fortifications that date back to the 12th century, Bojnice Castle was owned in the early 13th c. by Matus Cak, an early Slovak hero. It was reconstructed by its aristocratic owners in the late 19th century to resemble chateaux in France’s Loire Valley, although an elaborate 17th c chapel covered with medieval frescos remains. The castle has a museum with weaponry, furniture and paintings, as well as Slovakia’s best zoo. Among the castle’s valuable artwork is a 14th c. altar by a Florentine master, Narda di Cione.
One of the biggest castles in Slovakia – Devín Castle (Hrad Devín) is situated in the capital Bratislava. Castle is standing on the massive hill above the confluence of Danube and Morava rivers. It has been a National cultural monument since 1961. Nowadays the Castle serves mostly as a museum.
Devín Castle was built in 9th century and is one of the three oldest historically acknowledged castles in Slovakia. Due to its advantageous position it was able to control the most important trade routes along the Danube and part of Amber Road. This Slavic castle played a dominant role during the wars between Great Moravia and Franks. During the Great Moravian period a christian church has been built in the complex. After that, Devín Castle was owned by Hungarians, Pallfy family, destroyed by Napoleons troops, so due to its rich history it became a very important historical monument.
55 meters deep water well is situated on courtyard of the middle castle. Just next to it there is a terrace with an unforgettable view on an abandoned amphitheatre with Danube behind it and the Austrian mountain Brausberg. During the main season there are many performances organized – historic fencing as an example. The castle is open to public from April to November except Mondays as all museums in Bratislava are closed on Mondays.
Rising defiantly out of a rocky hill at a strategic location overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Morava Rivers near Bratislava, Devin Castle has been a symbol of Slovak nationalism for more than 1,000 years. The first traces of fortification date from Roman times. By the 10th century, the Great Moravian Empire strengthened the walled settlement and used it as a base for fighting against Frankish overlords. In the 13th c., Devin was held by Hungarian nobles, who added a palace in the 15th c. Napoleon’s troops laid waste to Devin in 1809. Devin Castle was the scene of several events connected with the 19th c. Slovak National Revival and an insurrection against the Hapsburg Empire.
Devín castle along with Nitra and Bratislava castle are among the oldest castles in Slovakia. The extraordinarily strategically and significantly located castle, at the confluence of the rivers the Danube and the Morava, was well-known even by the Celts and the Romans. First references of it date back to the year 864 under the name of Dowina mentioned in the Fulds Annals. This place, which has been inhabited from the prehistoric times, apart from being an important great Moravian defence stronghold of the Knight Rastislav, was also a part of the border defence system of Limes Romanus. In the period of the Great Moravia, Devíin was one of the most important forts against the expansion of the Franz Empire. The castle was significantly expanded only in the first half of the 15th century when a new residential palace with outer eastern castle grounds was built. Till the second half of the 17th century it had been built several times. Its downfall is recorded with the beginning of the 18th century along with the end of the Turkish impact. Devín lost its defence significance and its complete destruction has been attributed to the Napoleon army in the year 1809, when it was razed to the ground. Since the 1930s various parts of Devín have been archeologically surveyed and in the year 1961 it was declared a national cultural monument. In parts of the castle, the outlines of the ground plan can be seen. Partly repaired caves are also part of the upper castle.
Orava Castle (Oravský hrad) is a part of the most typical and natural regions of Slovakia. It is located on the rocky hill above Orava River and Oravský Podzámok village. Exhibitions of the Orava Museum – one of the most ancient museums in Slovakia, are organized inside the castle.
Castle was constructed in the 13th century from wood; slowly the wood was replaces by stone. During the Hungarian Kingdom the castle became the main centre of Orava region. Originally, the castle was built in Romanesque and Gothic styles, later reconstructed into Renaissance and Neo-Gothic styles. Through the history it was owned by several owners, went through many reconstructions, especially after a huge fire in 1800. The most extensive reconstruction was after the World War II. Nowadays, the castle is in a very good condition.
Nowadays, the castle consists of three separate parts – the upper, middle and the bottom part. This unusual solution was forced by the shape of the rock, on which the castle is located. Castle is easily accessible by car, bus or train from Ružomberok. To reach the top of the rock there are nearly 300 stairs to climb. During the high season you can find a variety of cultural events there. Very popular are night visits that include theatre performances and eerie events.
Dramatically-sited Orava Castle perches on a cliff over a river by the same name, just south of the Polish border. Its present elaborate, neo-Gothic look is the result of an early 20th century reconstruction. The castle’s first incarnation was as a 9th century fort of the Great Moravian Empire, then a 13th century castle of the king of Hungary.
Special events at Orava castle: “Unlocking Orava Castle” (end April/early May), the Festival of Ghosts and Spirits (end May), Valentine’s Day, Christmas, a spooky Dracula festival (late Aug) and evening tours by candlelight. The unlocking (or opening) includes folk music, a craft market and re-enactment of daily life from the past. You can also go rafting on the quiet Orava River, below the castle.
112 metres above the river Orava majestically stands one of the most visited Slovak Castles – Oravian castle. This once mansion was first mentioned in the year 1267, when it was still a royal property. In the course of the century the Oravian castle underwent several changes along with its owners. Its present look can be credited to Thurza, whose renovation made the castle one of the most significant buildings of the renaissance period. In the year 1800 the castle caught fire and most of it was damaged. Its last owners, the Pálffy family tried to give the castle, particularly the middle of the castle, a romantic look.
Last but the most significant and complex renovation, since the fire in 1800, was carried out in the years between 1953-1968 and minor repairs are still being carried out. The present look is characterised by graphite façade, timber and stone structures with fulcrum plastered façade. The interior of the castle retains the traces of the Gothic, the renaissance and the romantic period. The most preserved part is the furnished chapel interior from the year 1752.
Castle Krásna Hôrka
Krásna Hôrka is located 8 km eastwards from Rožňava above the Krásnohorské Podhradie village. It is a Natural Cultural Monument since 1961.
The first written mention of the castle is from 1333. It was a Hungarian cultural monument for over 500 years. The castle was inhabited until 1812; last owner Andrássy rebuilt its interior to a museum opened to public in 1906. Chapel of Nativity of the Virgin Mary was built in the second half of 18th century. On the main altar there is a painting of black Madonna also referred to as the Virgin Mary of Krásna Hôrka.
History and development of the castle, way of life of the historical nobles are illustrated in the exhibition of Betliar Museum hosted by Krásna Hôrka. Exhibitions of medieval and modern weapons are also very interesting and original. It is almost inevitable to visit the art museum and mausoleum in Krásnohorské podhradie in order to have a comprehensive picture of the history and heritage of Andrássy family. Also, the beautiful and charming manor house called Betliar is very close.
Krasna Horka (near Roznava in the Slovak Karst)– Brooding high on a limestone hill in the Slovak Karst area, Krasna Horka castle was a Gothic fortress originally guarding the route between the rich Spis region and the city of Kosice. It was converted into a museum at the turn of the 20th century by its aristocratic Hungarian owners, the Andrassy family. See how the castle’s kitchen looked in its heyday and view the collection of furniture and weapons from the 16th-17th centuries. The mummified body of one of the resident countesses is also on display. Also worth visiting is the elaborately decorated (17 lbs of gold) Andrassy Mausoleum, built in the early 20th century by a renegade member of the Andrassy family in memory of his wife, a Czech opera singer who was not of noble lineage. He was disowned by his family for marrying her – which is why the mausoleum is separated from the castle and why he made it so grand!
Zvolen Castle (Zvolenský hrad) located on a hill is a dominant of Zvolen town. Nowadays it is known as Deserted castle, but it is not deserted at all. It stands above the confluence of rivers Slatina and Hron. For its historical, artistic and architectural values it was registered as a National Cultural Monument of Slovakia.
Originally, it was built in a gothic style in the 12th century by Louis I. from Anjou and it served as a hunting lodge and a villa for Hungarian kings. It witnessed an engagement of Louis’s daughter Mary and Sigmund Luxemburg. Fortifications and an entrance gate were built to it in 16th century. The castle is in a Baroque style since 18th century.
This well preserved castle is hosting exhibitions of the Slovak National Gallery. Exhibitions include the Old European Art exposition, From the history of Zvolen exposition and expositions of many artistic works of modern Slovak artists. Very popular is a theatre festival called Castle Plays of Zvolen (Zámocké hry zvolenské) that is organized every year during the summer time.
Banská Bystrica Castle
Town Castle of Banská Bystrica (Mestký hrad v Banskej Bystrici), a Slovak National Cultural Monument in Banská Bystrica, is a silhouette of two bulb towers. Parts of the castle’s area is a Church of Our Lady, Slovak Church, A City Hall, the House of Matej, a fortification with bastions; and a port to the Barbican, which used to be a way to enter the area. Visitors can also find a Gallery of Central-Slovakia there.
One of the oldest fortified sites in Slovakia, Nitra started out as a fortress during the Great Moravian Empire (8th-9th c). Devastated by the Turks in the 17th c., it was rebuilt in the next century. From its rocky perch above the river, you have a splendid view. Within the castle complex is Nitra Cathedral – the first church in the country and possibly in all of Central Europe, worth seeing for its frescos and modern stained glass.
This castle, which towers over the Čachtice region, came into existence in the second half of the 13th century and is counted among one of the first castles which safeguarded western borders of the Ugrian empire. It is remembered as the first border fort and never became a luxurious residence of the gentry. In the 15th century it was owned by Ctibor, the master of Beckov. He only started the reconstruction of the castle and added renaissance courtyard with a gothic chapel, farm buildings, and workshops and tunnel entrance. The credit for the castle becoming famous through its legends goes to Lady Alžbeta Bathory, who lived at the threshold of the 17th century. She is rumoured to have murdered 600 young maidens and bathed herself in their blood in order to stay young and beautiful forever. It is said that for her crimes, Palat in Thurzo sentenced her to a life in prison in 1611.
Thus the Čachtice castle became the most well-known fort of the Váh river region. In 1614, 3 years later „Báthoryčka“ died. Later during 1664-1670 it was owned by Nádašhys and Drugets families who together had it repaired. The year 1772 was the beginning of its end, when during the attack of the conquering army of František Rákoci II it got burnt down. Since then the remains stayed abandoned and today only its ruins, providing wonderful view, are the only remains left.
Červený kameň Castle
Cerveny Kamen castle has rugged medieval-style bastions and torture chamber on the one hand and more refined neo-Classical living quarters and formal gardens – typical of a chateau — on the other. Today, visitors can attend falconry days, knights’ tournaments, a historical swordsmanship festival and other celebrations at the castle, which has displays of weapons and period furniture.
Fortification System in Komárno
For 300 years, the Turks tried to take the city of Komarno, which today straddles Slovakia and Hungary. Thanks to the town’s vast fortification system, one of the largest in the world with 11 bastions, they never succeeded.