There are more than twelve reasons to visit Banská Bystrica in winter, or anytime for that matter, but if you are like us, you only have a limited amount of time and want to see the best this Central Slovakian town has to offer.
We visited Banská Bystrica, Slovakia in January and spent two weeks skiing, hiking, drinking impossibly think hot cocoa, and learning about the history and culture of the town and area.
Banská Bystrica is ideal for a winter family trip to Slovakia given its location and safe, lively pedestrian old town. From Banská Bystrica you can explore the Low Tatras mountains, spas, castles, alpine ski areas, and more.
We loved the combinations of city amenities and culture, and outdoor activities in Slovenia. It doesn’t hurt that Slovakia is more affordable than its Western European neighbors.
Visit Banská Bystrica in Winter
Banská Bystrica is the sixth-largest city in Slovakia and has a population of around 80,000 people. The main action for tourists is around the Námestie SNP – the pedestrian plaza. We stayed in an Airbnb about a ten-minute walk from the square and five-minute walk from a grocery store, which made the location convenient.
We didn’t rent a car for this visit, but you could definitely get out and see more with one. We were able to use a combination of walking, rideshare (Bolt), buses, and trains to get around. It worked well for us, but there were a couple of things we left off our Banská Bystrica itinerary because they were too hard to get to.
I share how to get around and where to stay in Banská Bystrica at the bottom of the post.
What to Do in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia
- Námestie SNP and Clock Tower
- Museum of the Slovak National Uprising
- Alpine Skiing
- Nordic Skiing
- Wellness Spas
- Spania Dolina
- Hiking and Walking
- Slovak Castles
- Hornbook Village
- Slovak Beer
- Unique Coffee Shops
- Winter Events in Banská Bystrica
- History of Banská Bystrica
Banská Bystrica, like many towns in the area, is tied to the copper and silver mining industry. According to my translation app, “Banská” means “mining.”
It was awarded its city charter in 1255 by Hungarian King Bela IV (it was once part of Hungary). In the 15th and 16th centuries, the town thrived as the Thurzo-Fugger copper company dug its riches out of the nearby hills.
The beautiful buildings and stunning architecture are a result of the prosperous period.
In more recent history, Banská Bystrica is known as the home of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. We saw a memorial in the town square to the Uprising, as well as visiting the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising (both mentioned below).
Things To Do in Banská Bystrica in Winter
Námestie SNP and Clock Tower
One of the first things that stood out to us when visiting Banská Bystrica is the charming old town and pedestrian plaza: Námestie SNP. (SNP is an abbreviation of Slovenské národné povstanie or Slovak National Uprising.)
Not only is lined with beautiful, colorful buildings and crowned with a majestic clock tower at one end, but Banská Bystrica’s main square is also filled with, and surrounded by, museums, restaurants, cafés, galleries, and boutiques. This is also where you will find the info center and lots of good advice and pamphlets (in English) about what to do in the area.
In December, a Christmas Market is staged here and lights, decorations, and a huge Christmas tree make the square a lively place.
We visited in January and even during the week the walking mall was filled with people enjoying themselves.
Climb the Clock Tower (Euro 2 for adults, Euro 1 for students) to get a remarkable view of Námestie SNP, Urpín Hill, Banská Bystrica Castle, Church of the Assumption, and the surrounding area. You’ll notice the tower is leaning a bit to one side. According to legend, some angels were flying by and bumped into it, causing it to tilt.
We also liked seeing the fountains and the memorial to the Slovak National Uprising. The huge Christmas tree and decorations still filled the square and were lit up at night.
Museum of the Slovak National Uprising
The Slovak National Uprising (SNP) was an armed insurrection organized by the Slovak resistance movement during World War II. These Slovaks refused fascism when the Slovak state was occupied by German troops.
The SNP Museum is a building cleaved in two and connected with a bridge. Before we even went inside the museum, we were struck by the building. In the chasm between the sides of the buildings, there is an everlasting flame and statue commemorating the Uprising.
The building is located in a park with an open-air museum of heavy military equipment used in the SNP.
The museum documents the development of the Slovak society in the wartime years 1938 – 1945. Its exhibitions and archives are about the anti-fascist national fight for liberty and the Slovak National Uprising.
Alpine Skiing Near Banská Bystrica
There are several alpine ski areas within 25 kilometers of Banská Bystrica. The largest is Park Snow Donovaly and this is where we skied.
There are two sides to the ski area and you walk between them. One side is mostly “light” runs and the other “medium” runs. I think there is only one, short “heavy” run.
One of the things we found to be quite fun about skiing at Park Snow Donovaly was the fast t-bar lifts, it was like skiing uphill. There was one quad open when we were there and the rest were t-bars. It was a warm, low-snow season, so some of the resort was closed, but since they make snow, we still enjoyed pretty decent skiing.
The ski rental place is not connected to the ski area and only takes cash.
One of the reasons we wanted to go to Park Snow Donovaly is that during a normal winter there is ice skating, cross-country skiing, and other fun activities.
There are a few small ski areas even closer to Banská Bystrica. We would have tried them, too, but two were closed because of the lack of snow, and then Henry hurt his knee, so we never made it to the other one.
Ski Areas Near Banská Bystrica and Their Distance
- Park Snow Donovaly (25 km)
- Ski Králiky (12 km)
- Ski Turecká (12 km)
- Šachtičky Ski Centre (10 km)
- Selce Čachovo Ski Centre (9 km)
Getting to Park Snow Donovaly from Banská Bystrica: We were able to take a Bolt to the ski area for around Euro 15, but couldn’t call one to take us back. We took the bus for Euro 2/person. It doesn’t run frequently, so you need to make sure to catch it. There is an info center near the bus stop and they can help you with the schedule.
Once again, we were thwarted in our plans by a too-warm January. We planned on cross-country skiing, but there just wasn’t enough snow. Since Nordic skiing is my favorite — we love cross-country skiing all over Montana — it was a little disappointing. But, you can’t control the weather!
- Groomed Nordic ski trails leave from Donovaly (18.4 km), as well as several other places near Banská Bystrica.
- The alpine ski area, Ski Králiky is another good place for cross-country skiing in Slovakia.
- Ski Resort Šachtičky has 14 km of groomed ski trails.
What’s better than soaking in hot water or getting a massage after a day playing in the snow? Not much. There are several wellness spas near Banská Bystrica. They seem to be more of the medical variety, but you can still take advantage of the spa services.
Sliač Spa: Sliač is situated between Banská Bystrica and Zvolen near the Hron River. It specializes in treatments for cardiovascular diseases and uses naturally occurring CO2 in the water. It is part hotel and part spa, so you can stay and take a bunch of treatments, or just visit for one or two.
Brusno Spa: Brusno Medical Spa is another thermal bath near Banská Bystrica focused on medical treatments. Their specialty is diseases of digestive systems and metabolic disorders. They also offer accommodations, as well as dining, event services, and of course, medical spa services.
Holiday Park Kováčova and Kováčova Spa: Holiday Park Kováčova is best for families or people that want to have fun and or relax in the water. It’s more play than medical therapy. There are outdoor and indoor pools, a children’s pool, a whirlpool, and saunas. They also offer spa services.
Kováčova Spa is just across the road from the Holiday Park and is the medical and regenerative spa specializing in the treatment of diseases of the musculoskeletal apparatus and nervous system.
Anders and I had a lovely time visiting Špania Dolina, a picturesque mining town about 7 miles from Banská Bystrica.
Most of the architecture here are miners’ houses built of logs on stone foundations. Both the stone or wooden walls were plastered with mud and painted with lime. Most of the buildings are from the 19th century when copper and silver was mined.
The first thing you should do is head to the giant astronomical clock beneath the overhang adjacent to the restaurant/hotel and check the schedule. We did not do this and missed the clock show, which looks really cool.
The clock displays a model of one of the Špania Dolina mines. In the upper part, there is a church, several houses, and a shaft building. The shaft descends from there and is full of miners separating rock, putting it on carts, and pulling it to the surface.
The Mine clock is open year-round. In winter, the hours are 9 am, 11 am, and 3 pm. It runs more often in summer.
You can walk the 160 covered steps to the church, wander the trails, see a historic water pipeline, and visit a copper museum. When I write this, it doesn’t sound very interesting, but it really is a nice place to wander around.
Anders and I choose to follow the road/trail to an old mining shaft. Along the way, there are signs describing the mining history of the town. Some signs are in English, but they all have good illustrations that make the point even if you can’t read the text.
From there, we continued uphill and to the right until we saw a sign pointing to Špania Dolina. Once at the bottom, we started up again to climb the Maximilian Rubble Heap where we got the best view of the town and the church.
If you want to plan your route a little more than we did, there are trails signs in the town square.
After our hike, we had drinks and food at the restaurant, which was a lovely way to end the afternoon.
Getting to Špania Dolina from Banská Bystrica: We took a Bolt rideshare in both directions for around $6/each way, but you can also take a bus for about $1/person/direction. Check the bus schedule, because there aren’t that many. You may want to have the Bolt app downloaded to your phone in case you miss the bus.
Winter Walking and Hiking in Banská Bystrica
One of my favorite things about staying in Banská Bystrica is that you can walk into the woods right from town.
The easiest to find is the walk to Urpín, right across the Hron River from the old town. There are two main choices, you can walk up to the Catholic Church or you can make a loop on the Serpentine Nature Trails Urpín. You can combine the two with just a little backtracking.
Both can start near the Mesto Train Station and go up the hill. It feels like an easy climb thanks to the vast number of switchbacks. Before reaching the ridge, the trail veers to the right for the 3.6- kilometer Serpentine Nature Trail (there’s a large interpretive sign) and turns left for the church.
The Serpentine Nature Trail is a lovely walk and affords great views over Banská Bystrica. It wanders along a hillside, through a forest, past some ruins, to a natural playground and wooden instruments in a grove, and alongside a few ski jumps.
It’s easy to follow the signs and you can also pick up a map at the Information Center in the town square.
To reach the Catholic Church (Povýšenie svätého kríža – Kalvária) just keep walking up the hill. From the church, you can follow the Stations of the Cross down the other side and make a loop (and stop at the Fairy Tale Cafe on your way back to town – see below).
We also enjoyed hiking around Špania Dolina. We were told about other hiking areas at the Information Center but ran out of time. In the summer, there are trails all around Donovaly (where we skied) and throughout the Low Tatras Mountains.
If you are into long trails and pilgrimages, the Barborska Cesta, or The Barbora Way, is a 180-kilometer loop that starts and ends in Banská Bystrica and travels through Kremnica, Banská Štiavnica, and Zvolen.
St. Barbora was the patron saint of miners and there are 29 stops along the way representing the most significant points on the pilgrimage. The Calvary with the Chapel above Banská Bystrica is the last stop. It’s recommended to do this Slovakian pilgrimage in eight or nine days, spending the night in hotels, pensions, and thermal spas along the way.
Near the clock tower just off of SNP Square is the Castle Area. The buildings are beautiful to look at, but we didn’t spend much time there other than walking through. There is the Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, built in the 13th century, which is the oldest building in the city. The barbican (the fortification around a castle) now houses a restaurant and a bell tower. You can see where the drawbridge once led into the castle.
There are two castle in nearby Zvolen that are worth visiting for castle aficionados. We wanted to visit them, as Anders is a big castle fan, but we ran out of time. Zvolen Castle, Spiš hrad, is a medieval castle located on a hill near the center of Zvolen and houses the most extensive art gallery in Slovakia.
Outside of town are the ruins of another castle – Pusty hrad. This is the largest castle ruin in Slovakia. You can walk there from the train station (3.9 km following the blue signs) or drive. You can walk around the area that is under current archaeological research via the Pusty hrad interpretive path.
Hronsek is a little village just south of Banská Bystrica. It is probably best known for its articulated wooden church – the Hronsek Church.
The church was built between 1725-1726 and can hold up to 1,100 worshippers in amphitheater-style seating. It is the only wooden church in Slovakia that exhibits Scandinavian architectural influences. It’s pretty impressive and was built on a cross shape with only wooden pegs — no metal nails. The Evangelical church is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
When you wander around Hronsek, you can also see the Water Castle (Goticko-renesančny) —a Renaissance mansion, and the Soosvsko-Géczyovsky barokovy Castle — a Baroque mansion. All three buildings have an interpretive sign in several languages, including English.
We visited in January and there was no one else in town. We peeked in the windows of the wooden church, but it was closed to entry. There was a souvenir shop next door, but it was also closed. There was supposed to be a café near the Soosvsko-Géczyovsky barokovy Castle, but — you guessed it — it was closed.
The buildings, especially the wooden church, were interesting to see, but we found the whole experience a little underwhelming.
Try the Local Slovakian Beer
Urpiner is the local beer, named after the hill overlooking the town. You can find the Urpiner brewery is south of town, as well as in almost every restaurant, bar, and market. I like to drink the Urpiner Extra Hoppy while sitting at the outdoor tables on SNP Square. This beer is very popular in central Slovakia.
Linger in Slovak Coffee Shops
There are a lot of cute, cozy cafés in Banská Bystrica that serve coffee, tea, cakes, and have full bars. We especially like Leroy Café and Bar for its hygge atmosphere and thick hot chocolate.
The first time we went to Europe in 2016, we learned the difference between hot chocolate and hot cocoa. Hot chocolate is melted chocolate, so thick you eat it with a spoon. In Slovakia, it is often served with fruit for dipping and a lot of heavy whipped cream. Hot cocoa is powdered chocolate mixed with milk. A lot of places serve both.
The Fairy Tale Café is in a house that seems to be melting. A giant eagle is perched on one side and the windows are irregular. If nothing else, you should walk by and look at it. The inside has some funky touches, too.
Winter Events in Banská Bystrica
- Christmas Market (December in the SNP Square and outside the Slovak National Uprising Museum)
- Banskobystrická stopa – Nordic Skiing Event (January at Ski Králiky)
- Dog Sled Racing Wold Cup (February in Donovaly)
Getting Around Banská Bystrica
We were able to get around Banksa Bystrica without a car, but it would make getting to some of the areas outside of town a lot easier. There are places, especially hiking and skiing trails that cannot be reached without a car.
We originally planned to rent a car for one or two days and visit the hard-to-reach places. Then, Henry hurt his knee and we had to adjust some of our plans, but I still think that would be a good way to combine Slovakia’s public transportation with a private car rental to get the most out of your trip.
Here’s where we go to find car rentals.
Using the ridesharing app Bolt worked out well for us. It’s pretty inexpensive, especially when you consider the cost of four people. There is the added benefit of not having to speak the language to use it – you just put in the address of where you want to go and someone picks you up and takes you there (I am sure you are familiar with this concept :).
We took a Bolt to Donovaly Ski Area and then the bus back (you can’t call a Bolt from there). The boys and I took a Bolt to Hronsek and took the train back. And Anders and I used Bolt in both directions when visiting Špania Dolina.
To find the train and bus schedule anywhere in Slovakia go here.
Where to Stay in Banská Bystrica
While I cannot recommend the specific vacation rental we stayed in — it was not a great situation — but, renting a house or apartment can be a good solution if you want to be able to cook some meals or have more space for downtime. Check here for vacation rentals in Banská Bystrica.
Here are a couple of hotels in or near Banská Bystrica’s old town.
- Hotel Arcade is a family-friendly hotel in Banská Bystrica located on SNP Square. The rooms are quite large and include a refrigerator, mini bar, and desk. They offer a big breakfast and free parking. See reviews and find the best deals on Hotel Arcade.
- Urpin City Residence is about five minutes from the town center and located near shops and restaurants. There is a decent-sized kitchenette and lounge area in each large room. Some rooms have showers and others have a bathtub with a shower attachment (but no shower curtain). They also offer a good buffet breakfast. See reviews and find the best deals on Urpin City Residence.
Other Things to Do in Budapest, Hungary, and Slovakia
- 3-Day Budapest Itinerary
- Things to Do in Budapest With Kids
- Unusual Things to Do in Budapest
- Best Day Trips From Budapest
- Things to Do in Budapest in December
- 12 Reasons to Visit Banská Bystrica, Slovakia
- Visiting the High Tatras in Slovakia in Winter