Žilina – Slovakia’s best-kept secret?

by Jessica Bannister-Pearce

Žilina is one of the most beautiful Slovakian cities you’ve never heard of. I found myself there in the summer of 2018 for work, and again in May 2019 for pleasure. The city is around two hours north of Bratislava and sits near the Czech and Polish borders. With a population of 80,000, it’s the fourth biggest city in Slovakia. The city and the region are incredibly old, with their routes dating back beyond the 10th century.

Žilina, Fontána Traja Anjeli
The Fontána Traja Anjeli.

On both of my trips to Žilina, I stayed at the Hotel Grand situated on the main square, Mariánske námestie. It’s a historic sight and the square is a great place to spend some time. The old cobbled streets are filled with unique historic buildings known as burgher houses. This style of the house was common in the 12th century in Germany, to Poland and here in Slovakia. It’s not what I expected to see if I’m honest, because I only know of Slovakia as the communist country, Czechoslovakia. The truth is Slovakia is a country I know little about, and until I moved to Vienna, I hadn’t given it a thought. My first visit to Bratislava helped, but in Žilina, I began to get a better understanding of the Slovak people and culture.

While Žilina and the old centre is deeply rooted in history, the city doesn’t shy away from the modern. Just a short walk away is the wonderfully modern Mirage shopping Mall and entertainment complex. It sits directly opposite the beautiful Katedrála Najsvätejšej Trojice, or Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The Cathedral has had an interesting history. First mentioned in 1423, the church was added too, expanded and more until it was occupied and burnt down in the mid 16th century. It was rebuilt as a fortress, only to be rebuilt as a church once more. Then in 1678, the church was again burnt down completely. Even the new church bells melted. However, the locals had no intention of giving up, and once more it was rebuilt, being completed in 1687. More towers and a new chapel were added, but in 1848, disaster struck once more. Fire engulfed the city, burning it almost entirely to the ground. The church roof was also destroyed by the fire. As before, bells were melted, the cross fell from the alter and even coffins found in the crypts began to burn. What the fire of 1848 started, the Earthquake of 1858 finished, bringing the remains of the structure to the ground. By now you’d think the writing was on the wall for the church, but once again it rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, before being returned to ashes by yet another fire (Seriously!) in 1886. The damage was repaired and new roofs were added and by 1890, the whole thing was complete. During the first world war, all the bells were taken for the war effort and it would be 1924 before 6 brand new bells were returned to the cathedral. The final, last additions and constructions to the building took place in 1941, a build time that spanned over 500 years! I doubt the Mirage mall will last that long, and I really hope smoking is banned from the premises.

Katedrála Najsvätejšej Trojice, Žilina
The Katedrála Najsvätejšej Trojice. 500 years in the making.

Sitting between the Catherdral and the mall is a gorgeous open square and park known as Hlinkovo námestie. It’s a great place to hang out, to people watch or to simply soak in the rolling tree-covered hills and beautiful architecture.

However not everything is so beautiful, and a short walk to the east you’ll arrive at the main train station. This is a typically communist-era building, a brutalist icon no doubt, but not much to look at. In fairness to Slovakia, it’s only been its own country since 1993, following the revolution of 1989. Its a surprisingly short time for the new country to find itself again and grow. The fact that there are still scars left from the old times is a good thing because its easy to see how much things have changed. Indeed Slovakia is one of the biggest car producers in Europe, and Žilina is home to the Korean carmaker Kia’s entire European operation. There’s a lot of engineering expertise here and its bringing with it improvements to the local economy.

IMG 2495 Wiener Wanderland
The train Station has a very ‘distinct’look.

Heading back to the old centre, It’s time to discuss the other big draws to Žilina, the food and the people. Sitting at one of the bars that pepper Mariánske námestie is a real treat. My personal is a small place that features a Laurel and Hardy theme. The owner is wonderfully friendly and was eager to practice some English with Lynda and me over a local beer. If beer isn’t your thing, then I can’t recommend the coffee enough. They say that Vienna runs on coffee, but they’ve never had coffee in Slovakia. It’s a different and wonderful experience. For starters, all coffees are described in Grams. The strength of the coffee is measured in grams and even the smallest, lowest gram count cuppa will deliver a strong, flavourful taste that is unlike any Viennese latte. For main mails, the food is hearty and delicious. It’s also cheap. A night out with a work colleague included my meal, three beers, and all for just €10! the hangover was free as well.

Žilina is a fascinating place where the pace of life is slow, the people are friendly and the food fantastic. It’s a hidden secret that gets beyond the increasingly raucous Bratislava. There are no stag parties, no crowds, no overpriced restaurants devoid of tourist traps. Instead, you can see the real Slovakia, and its a place you can fall in love with.

Getting There.

Getting to Žilina isn’t that easy. Your best option is driving, as the motorway from Bratislava will have you in Žilina in around 2 hours. Trains run regularly from Bratislava with a journey time of 2 hours 30. If you’re travelling from Vienna, you should allow an extra 1 hour on top of that.

A room at the Hotel Grand will cost from €82 per night in mid-may for a standard double and includes breakfast.

Further Reading.

If you’d like to learn more about Žilina or any of the places we’ve talked about above, check out the links below.

http://www.tikzilina.eu/en/ – Žilina Tourist Information

https://www.zssk.sk – Slovakian Railways

https://www.hotelgrand.sk/ – The Hotel Grand

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