The Lay of the Land
Slovakia is a compact country, sandwiched between Austria and the Czech Republic to the west, Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, and Hungary to the south. It borrows a little bit from each of its neighbors. Linguistically and culturally it's closest to the Czech Republic, with whom it shared a common state for more than 70 years. With the Poles, the Slovaks share a deep Catholicism, and here as in Poland, you'll see people lined up at the church door on Sunday morning. Hungary ruled over the Slovaks for 1,000 years until 1918 and the Hungarian influence is still evident, if difficult to pinpoint. The easiest-to-see example might be in the cooking. The Hungarians brought the peppers and paprika, and Slovak goulash has been the better for it ever since. The Austrian influence is also strong but hard to describe. Vienna, for Slovaks, remains the absolute pinnacle of class and manners, and every time a waiter nods or clicks his heels as he serves you your coffee or strudel he's echoing a notion of Viennese civility going back centuries.
The Regions in Brief
For a small country, Slovakia possesses a wealth of regional diversity, both cultural and geographic. The western third of the country includes the capital Bratislava and, except for a few hills running north of the city, is relatively flat. It takes in the Danube lowlands and much of the border region with Hungary. The mountainous central region, running from the Malá Fatra highlands east of Zilina to the country's highest peaks, the High Tatras, is considered quintessential Slovak territory. The far eastern third of the country defies easy description. While geographically it's mostly rolling hills, ethnically speaking it's diverse, including ancient communities of Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Germans. Here folkways and traditional wooden architecture dominate and religion is very important. A visit here is very much a trip back in time.
There are no special requirements for entering Slovakia. Passport holders from the U.S., Canada, and Australia can enter the country without a visa and stay for 90 days. Passport holders from E.U. member countries, including the U.K., do not need a visa. Slovakia is a member of the E.U.'s internal Schengen zone, meaning you will not usually have to carry a passport if you are arriving directly from another Schengen country (Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) -- though keep your passport with you just to be sure. This does not apply to the Ukrainian border.
Slovakia joined the E.U.'s euro zone on January 1, 2009, with the euro replacing the Slovak crown (Sk) as legal tender. The euro has bank notes of 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, and 5 euros, and coins of 1 and 2 euros, as well as smaller denominations of 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1-euro cent. At press time, 1 euro was equal to about $1.27 (but subject to considerable fluctuation).
While the euro is being phased in 2009, you may still see dual prices -- euros and Slovak crowns -- on some goods and services. Note that this is only to allow consumers to make price comparisons. Slovak crowns cannot be used to make purchases (so don't buy any on the black market). Banks will accept Slovak crowns for exchange until December 31, 2009. After that they are only good for the scrapbook.
Major credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, restaurants, and shops. Traveler's checks are less useful and must usually be cashed at banks. ATMs are ubiquitous in both big and small towns. They remain the best way to get cash on the spot.
A Note on Prices -- While this book was being researched in the summer and fall of 2008, prices for goods and services, including restaurant meals, hotels and admissions, were still denominated in Slovak crowns. Prices here have been converted to euros at the prevailing rate of exchange (1€ = 30 Sk) but may differ slightly from the actual prices after euro adoption on January 1, 2009.
Tips On Accommodations
The number of newer, privately owned hotels is on the increase. If you arrive in town without a room, the best place to go is the local tourist information office. Many of these, including the helpful office in Bratislava, can advise on rooms and book according to your wishes. Failing that, look around for private rooms, usually identified by the word UBYTOVANIE (accommodations) or PRIVAT on the outside. These are invariably bed-without-bathroom setups, usually in an unused part of the family home, but are almost always clean and cheap.
Tips On Dining
With disposable incomes on the rise, more people are eating out more often and the restaurant situation is improving dramatically. The transformation is easiest to see in Bratislava and Kosice. That said, you may still find yourself in a small town with relatively few options aside from the ubiquitous pizzeria on the main square and a couple of unappetizing pubs, catering mostly to old guys crouched over beers. While you may occasionally find good food in an old pub, it's usually a safer -- if less interesting -- bet to go with the pizza. On the other hand, special folklore-type restaurants, sometimes with the word koliba in the name, are a real treat, usually serving traditional foods and grilled meats, occasionally with a live band or "gypsy" music to accompany the meal.