Amateur historians will be in dreamland in Košice, Slovakia’s beguiling second city in the east of the country. There’s an impossible amount of noteworthy sights to get through in the Historic Centre, but the good news is that they’re all packed tightly in the space of a few streets.
Most of your attention will be on Hlavná Ulica (Main Street), which splits into two parallel branches that skirt the big monuments like the Gothic ensemble of the Cathedral, Urban Tower and St Michael Chapel. This is just the first step on a journey that will lead you through a medieval dungeon, a singing fountain, an opera house with low-cost seats, and bring you to a record-breaking brilliant stash of gold at the East Slovak Museum.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Košice:
1. Hlavná Ulica (Main Street)
All of Košice’s historic monuments are concentrated onto one glorious street.
In the north, at the Immaculata monument, the street breaks off into two parallel branches.
On the outer edge of the street are stately palaces, municipal buildings and townhouses.
On the inside are the city’s main sights, all in a line and interspersed with squares, fountains and little parks,. The cathedral, Urban Tower, State Theatre and St Michael Chapel are all here, so you can jump from one incredible monument to the next.
Hlavná Ulica is part of Slovakia’s largest historic centre, and you can duck down the side streets where more churches, museums and old-time restaurants await.
2. St Elisabeth Cathedral
With pride of place on Hlavná Ulica is the westernmost Gothic cathedral in Europe, and also Slovakia’s largest place of worship, begun in 1378. The cathedral is unusual as its north portal, rather than its west or south, is the one that is most ornamented.
Pause beneath the relief in the tympanum showing people arriving at the gates of heaven, the last judgment and Christ on the cross.
Also go around to the south facade, where above the main window is a sun dial from 1477. Inside, the frescos are also from the 15th century, as is the sensational double spiral staircase leading to the King’s Oratory.
There’s tons of detail to get through, but make time for the the crypt of Hungarian national hero Francis II Rákóczi, and go up the 60-metre church tower for a view to remember.
3. Urban’s Tower
Next to the cathedral is its former campanile, which was raised during the 15th century.
These days the inside holds a small waxwork exhibition of famous people from Košice’s past.
Urban’s Tower is also in the Gothic style, but with little extras added down the years like the portal, which was carved in the 17th century, and the arcades on the corners from the beginning of the 20th century.
These protect historic ledger stones from the 1300s and 1400s, which were embedded into the tower’s stonework after being removed from the cathedral.
The tower’s original bell was cast in 1557 and weighs seven tons.
It was damaged in a fire in the 1960s and after it was restored it was placed in front of the tower as a monument.
4. St Michael Chapel
The last of the ensemble of Gothic monuments clustered around the cathedral is this lovely chapel constructed in 1300s.
Found where the city’s cemetery used to be, it was initially an ossuary dedicated to St Michael, the patron saint of the deceased, and like Urban’s Tower it has ledger stones in its outer walls going back to the 1370s.
In the 17th century it became known as the “Slovak Church “, as it was the only place of worship where masses would be conducted in the Slovak language.
Despite its small size the chapel has all the attributes of a church, including a sacristy, oratory and choir.
At the entrance to sacristy you can find the oldest known depiction Košice’s coat of arms, dating to the 14th century.
5. Immaculata (Plague Pillar)
In a little fenced enclosure at the upper end of Hlavná Ulica is Košice’s elaborate plague pillar.
It’s a Baroque Marian column, capped with a sculpture of the Virgin and erected in the 1720s to praise her for ending the plague epidemic that had hit Košice in 1709-10. Around the pedestal are statures of St Sebastian, St Ladislaus and St Joseph.
And greeting you on the plinths that punctuate the fence are St Margaret, Archangel Gabriel, St Margaret, St Barbara, St Michael and Elizabeth of Hungary, all added later.
6. State Theatre
Košice’s striking Neo-Baroque opera house is also on Hlavná Ulica and replaced the first theatre which went back to 1756. It was designed by the German-Hungarian Adolf Lang who specialised in that bold Historicist style and contributed many grand monuments throughout Hungary.
In the lavish auditorium, tilt your head back to see the painstaking detail of the gilded stuccowork and frescos of scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedies.
You can ask for a tour at the entrance during the day, but you might as well just come by in the evening to watch an opera or ballet as tickets are absurdly cheap.
7. Mikluš Prison
On an alley off Hlavná Ulica is a compound of two medieval houses, which in the early 1600s were converted into Košice’s city prison.
It’s strange to think that for 350 years before that point these had been everyday homes.
The prison is a testament to the city’s harsh penal system, in which over 60 crimes were punishable by execution.
Inside, you’ll watch a video about the prison and Košice’s development down the centuries.
With the help of an audioguide you’ll tour the cells and will go down into the creepy torture chamber.
You can also visit the executioner’s quarters where the swords that put people to death are exhibited.
8. Levočský Dom
Right by the State Theatre on Hlavná Ulica is Slovakia’s oldest inn, which has stood here since the 15th century.
For almost all that time it has been in the hospitality business, and owned by some of the most important figures in the city.
One event that happened here was the wedding reception for Gabriel Prince Bethlen of Transylvania and Catherine of Brandenburg in March 1626. The inn’s only hiatus came in the 17th century when it was granted to the Jesuits who turned it into a pharmacy for a few decades.
You’ll recognise the inn by its elegant bay window, which has Košice coat of arms between the mullions.
9. Beggar’s House
Overlooking the Immaculata is a gorgeous Art Nouveau house dated to 1898, and one of the prettiest in the Košice.
Just under the gable there’s a mural of Elizabeth of Hungary and above it is a statue of a beggar, doffing his cap to people on the street below.
According to legend this career beggar got rich from the generosity of the citizens, and never had to pay tax from the money he received as gifts.
So with all his earnings he could afford to build a house here, in the most prestigious part of the city.
10. Old Town Hall
As good a place as any to start your visit to Košice, the Old Town Hall now hosts the city’s visitor centre and tourist office.
This fine building was finished in 1780 at the transition from Baroque to Neoclassical.
An interesting piece of trivia is that the Russian field marshal Mikhail Kutuzov stayed here on his way home after the defeat to Napoleon’s army in the Battle of Austerlitz.
In the imposing pediment on the facade is an elaborate rendition of the city’s coat of arms.
The visitor centre is on the ground floor and has a shop and small exhibition about the city.
Across the town hall’s courtyard is the Slovan Cinema, dating to 1927 and now used for concerts and plays.
11. Košice Gold Treasure
One of the first things you might read about Košice is its gold treasure.
It is the largest single hoard of gold in Slovakia, and one of the largest in the whole world.
This stash was found by chance while excavating the foundations of the Finance Directorate in 1935, and contains coins from 16 different regions in Europe.
The treasure dates to the 17th, and is made up of 2,920 gold coins, two gold medals and an exquisite gold chain.
Since 1970 it has been in the vault of this plush Neo-Renaissance museum, a few streets up from Hlavná Ulica.
12. New Orthodox Synagogue
On Puškinova Street, a couple of streets east of the cathedral, is the city’s active synagogue.
Dating to 1927, it’s the largest in Slovakia, with a capacity for 800 worshippers.
The Neoclassical facade has local historical elements like a cornice in a style often seen in Renaissance buildings in Eastern Slovakia.
By the entrance see the plaque in memory of Košice’s 12,000 Jewish citizens sent to the concentration camps in the Second World War.
More than 2,000 were actually held captive inside the synagogue, and some left graffiti in pencil on the walls.
13. Church of the Holy Trinity
For a time in the 16th and 17th centuries Košice was a protestant city.
But following the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-1600s it was in Catholic Habsburg hands.
This Baroque church was part of that Counter-Reformation spirit and was built for the Jesuits by the city as an apology for a massacre of Jesuit priests that took place in Košice during the war.
The magnificent church is richly decorated in the Baroque style and has trompe l’oeil murals, gilded altars in the side chapels and delicate carvings on the pulpit and pews.
14. Singing Fountain and Chimes
The main square (Hlavné Námestie) has a small park encircled by tall fir trees.
At the centre is a fountain with dozens of jets that perform a little show in time to classical and pop music piped through speakers around the square.
It’s a fun diversion for a few minutes while you’re taking a break on the benches or tucking into an ice cream.
The show stops on the hour for the square’s carillon to chime and then resumes.
Drop by at night as the fountain is even prettier in lights.
15. Tabačka Kulturfabrik
It’s worth breaking away from the medieval centre to see another, grittier side to Košice which has a young, arty atmosphere.
This is epitomised by the Tabačka Kulturfabrik, a cultural centre in a repurposed tobacco factory built at the end of the 19th century.
If you’re up for some live music there are bands or DJ sets most nights, and a lively program of temporary art exhibitions and cinema screenings.
The rest of the time you could hang out at the bar/restaurant which has cheap Pilsner Urquell on tap.