Košice: Slovakia’s eastern winter wonderland

Destinations

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With a Christmas market, skiing and other winter sports, fairytale castles and cheap flights, Eastern Slovakia’s largest city is the perfect location for a winter break with a little bit of everything

Imagine somewhere with a classically Central European air, easy access to some stunning scenery, a relaxed atmosphere, quality skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports venues, and yet hasn’t been invaded by tourists. That’s Košice.

History and culture

The Singing Fountain in Košice illuminated at night, with St. Elizabeth Cathedral in the background — Getty ImagesThe Singing Fountain and St. Elizabeth Cathedral are Košice’s two most prominent sights — Getty Images

Košice was European Capital of Culture back in 2013, and since then it’s gone from strength to strength. It melds its stunning collection of monuments and buildings — grand swathes of medieval, gothic, baroque and more — with a forward-looking, laid-back culture of little coffee shops, bars, cool new pop-up restaurants and independent businesses, all of which will be happy to see you as you duck inside out of the cold.

The Old Town is based around Hlavná, a long, wide boulevard on which you can see many of Košice’s treasures. At the southern end, you’ll find the archaeological museum and the majestic St. Elizabeth Cathedral — Slovakia’s largest — dramatically bedecked with altars, frescoes, bronzes, sculptures, and a mighty organ. Leaving the cathedral, head on up past the Singing Fountain (it’s illuminated at night and plays delicate tunes on 22 bells at different times) towards the hugely lavish State Theater, a magnificent sight under its atmospheric floodlights.

Christmas gifts

Two women eating snack at a Christmas market — Getty ImagesKošice’s Christmas market is sure to get you into the festive spirit, and the crowds are a fraction of the size of those in bigger Central European cities — Getty Images

Visit in December, and Hlavná is also where you’ll find the Christmas market. Browse dozens of stalls selling traditional Christmas decorations, crafts, and spiced seasonal treats like mead, mulled wine, and delicate cakes. Entertainment comes in the form of folk groups, local bands, choirs and theater troupes, as well as activities for kids.

After the market, one of the most rewarding things to do is to simply explore the winding streets of the Old Town and see what you can see. Look up to spot wonderful frontages on grand houses, or dive into cozy coffee shops for a warming drink or a slice of cake. If you don’t mind the cold, there are also a number of guided tours you can take, touching on things like the medieval history of Košice, the history and legacy of Košice’s Jewish population, or what the city calls “Local nomad tours” — a couple of hours with young, local volunteers, looking at everything from street art to the impact of communism, local characters and quirky stories.

Out of the city

The countryside surrounding the city is beautiful, with mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, and in winter, it provides the type of scenery that only needs a phalanx of medieval knights on horseback heading home to their castle to finish it off.

Ladder leading from a canyon in Slovak Paradise National Park — Getty Images Explore the rugged but very beautiful Slovak Paradise — Getty Images

To the northwest of the Košice region lies Slovak Paradise (Slovenský raj) National Park, one of Central Europe’s most beautiful mountain ranges. Hike, climb, and explore the peaks and valleys with the help of walkways and ladders to get you to the best views of the surrounding landscape. You’ll need stout winter clothing, and some of the climbs are not for the faint-hearted, but you’ll be rewarded with a snow-covered postcard landscape. It’s not called Slovak Paradise for nothing!

Around an hour away from Košice, also northwest, Spišský hrad is the ruins of what was once a mighty castle dating from the 12th century. Perched on a dramatic hilltop, it dominates the countryside for miles around. Formerly home to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the region, it went through stages of fortification and gentrification, and finally fell into disrepair. Saying that, however, it’s still one of the most famous places in Slovakia, and evokes fascination and romance in anyone who visits.

Family favorites

Košice is a great place to come if you have kids; the city itself is small enough to be friendly and walkable, and there’s so much to do around and about.

Children's balloons at Košice Christmas market — Košice AirportThe Christmas market will keep the whole family entertained, but if you go further afield, you’ll find several other kid-friendly activities — Košice Airport

As previously mentioned, the Christmas market is the obvious place to begin. Its lights, music and delicious treats, as well as the spectacular tree, mean it’s magic for all the family.

Back out in Slovak Paradise, if you can’t manage the energetic scrambles up the mountains, stay below and explore the stunning Hornád gorge. In winter, this section of river freezes over, becoming the longest ice rink in the country. We doubt you’ll explore all 12 kilometers of it, but for a wonderful day outside the city that’s sure to tire everyone out, there’s nothing better. 

If it’s wildlife you want, you can see plenty of it near Košice. The city zoo is the largest in Central Europe, with over 150 species of animals, and has special events all year round, including Christmas. Some of the animals won’t be on view in the winter (bears in hibernation, for example), but there’s still a lot to see.

How about looking (very far) back into the past? Košice DinoPark is set in a beautiful valley, where dozens of animatronic dinosaurs lie in wait, from a herd of stegosauruses grazing peacefully, to a T-rex lurking and waiting to pounce on its unsuspecting prey…! There’s a 3D cinema showing dino-things, a bunch of playgrounds, as well as a museum displaying skeleton fragments and other prehistoric artifacts.

Skiing, snowboarding and more

Snowboarder in snowy Slovakian hills — Getty ImagesMake the most of all that snow — Getty Images

In the region immediately surrounding the city, there are over 30 kilometers of ski slopes serviced by 52 lifts. Skipark Erika — Kojsovska Hola alone offers over 5 kilometers of trails and runs, its highest point being at over 1,200 meters.

For fans of cross-country skiing, there are loops and trails ranging from just over a kilometer to far more testing runs of up to 22 kilometers. The beautiful trails run through the forest and along the ridges, meaning there’s plenty to see when you stop to catch your breath in the cold, crisp air.

If you’re looking for something with a bit more grunt, the Rejdová ski area offers snowmobile tours through the Ore mountains. The routes are of varying lengths, the longest being 65 kilometers. You can even head out after the sun goes down, to do a bit of hooning around in the dark with just your headlights to guide you!

Come to Košice!

With flights to Košice from London, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Warsaw, Prague and more, as well as regular train and bus connections both locally and internationally, it truly is an easy place to come to for something a bit different.

No matter what you’re looking for in a winter vacation — relaxation, adventure, city life, family entertainment, sports, or anything else — Košice truly is something unexpected.

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