The town of Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia is a jewel in the Carpathian Mountains. This small-town is an amazing specimen of medieval life in the greater Hungarian Empire. These days, the town offers a slower pace of life that is downright serene. However, just beneath the surface, you see how the town of Banska Stiavnica changed the world.
Today, the town of Banská Štiavnica and the Pohronie (the Hron River Region) area are visited primarily by Slovaks for weekend getaways, however, the town has a more notable history. It is the oldest mining town in Slovakia and sits atop The Theresa Vein – one of the richest deposits of silver during the Middle Ages. Banska Stiavnica was a wealthy town and received the nickname of Silver Town.
The mountains surrounding Banska Stiavnica and the Pohronie were at the eastern edge of the Celtic empire over 2,000 years ago. In the 14th century, Banska Stiavnica was the largest purveyor of precious metals in Europe. By 1627, mining was a deeply entrenched industry in the mountains around the town. In that year, gunpowder and explosives were used in mining for the first time. This revolution and the many subsequent inventions put the town in the history books. The community is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not just for the charming village, but also for the contributions to the mining industry.
Our guide, Magdalena Valkovicova, took us from our hotel on a walking tour of the town. We wanted to get a sense of the place and to understand what makes Banska Stiavnica so special:
The Mining and Forestry Academy and the Botanical Garden – Situated on the hill immediately above our hotel on Akademicka road, we learned about the school founded by Maria Theresa in 1762. Here, the important work of transforming and modernizing the mining and forestry industries took place. Just behind the Academy, a lush Botanical Garden occupies a small plateau and the surrounding hillside. Most impressive for us, they have a giant sequoia – the first time we have ever seen the tree outside of California.
The Old Castle – Located just over the hill from the Academy, the Old Castle stands guard at the top of the town. Originally a church, it was built into a fortification in 1564 to protect from the Ottoman Turkish invasions. Today, the Old Castle houses a number of exhibits, including a medieval jail.
The Holy Trinity Square – Below the Old Castle is the heart of Banska Stiavnica – the Holy Trinity Square. The tourist information office is located here on the ground floor of the Berggericht – a building with a large mineralogical exhibition. But the highlight of the square is the massive red stone baroque sculpture to the victims of the plague. Even in completely overcast conditions, the Holy Trinity statue seemed to shine.
The New Castle – At the opposite end of the town, the New Castle fortification kept watch for invading Turkish forces. The castle has a commanding view of the town as well as the entire valley.
We then drove about a mile out of town to the Slovak Open-Air Mining Museum, where we learned about the technical aspects of mining in the region and how this changed the region. It was also a chance to dress up in bright yellow hardhats and descend deep into the earth to see how the silver was extracted.
We jumped at the chance to have lunch at Erb Brewery. Banska Stiavnica had a long history of brewing beer, but today there is only Erb Brewery. A modern upstart (founded in 2010), Erb brews some of Slovakia’s best beers. Compared to massively hoppy brews in other parts of the world, Erb focuses on classing lagers and darks in the original European tradition. There’s nothing like enjoying frothy brew while sitting next to the mash tun. For lunch, we enjoyed their creative take on Slovakian cuisine with a duo of pork and beef.
One of the benefits of the Pohronie Region is the number of world class spas in the vicinity. We went from Banska Stiavnica to the a neighboring town about 20 minutes away to soak in the hot waters at the Kupele Sklene Teplice spa – this communist era spa traces its roots back to the mid-1800s. It also has a hot springs within a cave (called the Parenica) which is unique in Europe.
The town of Banska Stiavnica makes a great base to explore some of the other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Slovakia. We used the town to explore the mountainside village of Vlkolinec, Slovakia and also the Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains.
Finally, as we visited a number of churches before we left town, we had a curious observation. Banska Stiavnica was a town of extreme wealth due to its role in silver mining. But that wealth dried up long ago. Until it was discovered by tourists, Banska Stiavnica was preserved through poverty and didn’t modernize. The result is a beautiful old town for us to visit.
And that may be the magic of Banska Stiavnica. The town seems to be from an earlier age. There are over 360 preserved buildings and historical sites in the town. The pace of life seems to creep along. We wandered the historical sites while stopping into quiet cafes for a drink. The town just feels like it is plucked from the past.
Things to do in Banska Stiavnica and the Pohronie Region
The Botanical Garden: Hours from May to mid-September are 8:00am-8:00pm daily and from mid-September to April from 8:00am-6:00pm daily. Located immediately behind The Mining and Forestry Academy on Akademicka road. Admission is free.
The Old Castle: Hours from May to September are 9:00am-5:00pm daily. From October to April, the museum is open Wednesday-Sunday from 8:00am-4:00pm. Admission is €10.00 for adults.
The Holy Trinity Square: Accessible 24 hours a day. The square has a free wifi hotspot. The tourist information office is open 9:00am-5:00pm daily during the summer and from 8:00am-4:00pm daily from October-April.
The New Castle: Hours from May-September are 9:00am-5:00pm daily and from October-April from 8:00am-4:00pm on Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is €2.00 for adults.
The Slovak Mining Museum: Hours from April-June open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00am-5:00pm. From July-August open Monday from 12:00pm-5:00pm and Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00am-6:00pm. From September-October open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00am-5:00pm. Tours are generally available on the hour during peak season and only available at 9:00, 12:00 and 15:00 in the office season. Cost for admission is €5.00 for adults. The museum is 1.5km from the town center on Jozefa Karola Hella road. Website: http://www.muzeumbs.sk
The Seven Wonders of Banska Stiavnica
The town has something they call the Seven Wonders of Banska Stiavnica. These “wonders” highlight both unique aspects to the town as well as quirky plays-on-words. Being completely honest, we didn’t totally understand some of them. However, locals are incredibly proud of their “seven wonders” so we share them here:
- In Banska Stiavnica, the snow falls every year on St. Peter and Paul. This is a play on words. In Slovakia (like in other Catholic countries) people celebrate Name Days – a day of the year associated with one the various Catholic saints. The name days for Peter and Paul are at the beginning of summer. So, it is obviously not snowing. This wonder refers to the statues in front of the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and it snows on the statues at least once a year. This seems to mean something more to the residents of Banska Stiavnica than it does to visitors.
- The Hands of the Banska Stiavnica Town Hall Clock. This wonder doesn’t need much translating. Anyone can look at the town hall clock can see something unusual – the big hand marks the hours and the small hand marks the minutes. There are a number of interesting legends as to why this is the case, but we’re thankful someone explained it to us.
- The Ground Floor is the Top Floor. The town of Banska Stiavnica is built into some very steep valleys on the sides of the volcano caldera. Because of this and the layout of the roads in the town, many of the homes have their entrances on the very top floor and the rest of the house is built below.
- Goats are Tied to the Chimney. This wonder of Banska Stiavnica also relates to the hilly geography. Evidently, locals are accustomed to tying up their livestock (primarily goats) to the chimneys of their homes.
- Water Crosses the Bridge. This is sometimes phrased no water under the bridge. This wonder refers to the construction of aqueducts to carry water for the purposes of mining.
- There is a Bull in the Chimney. This wonder relates to a story where a bull was grazing in a field and fell down into a mine shaft. The bull survived, but it took residents of the town a day to wench the bull up and out of the mine shaft.
- The Human Clock of Banska Stiavnica. During the middle ages, a guard in the New Castle tower kept watch for approaching Ottoman invaders. The guard tooted his horn every 15 minutes let the town know that he was on watch and there was no threat. In this instance, silence meant invasion. Today, the horn is still blown every 15 minutes.
These seven wonders of Banska Stiavnica are a bit unusual and some of them seem to be inside jokes, but the residents enjoy talking about their “wonders.”
We were the grateful guests of the Slovak Tourist Board. We would also like to extend special thanks to our guide and translator Magdalena Valkovicova. As always, all opinions and photography are our own.