In the shadow of the High Tatra Moutains in eastern Slovakia sits Prešov, the country’s third city. Prešov has a history going back to medieval times and was at the peak of its powers in the 1600s, growing rich from opal, salt mining and a bobbin lace industry.
The historic centre of Prešov is infused with the wealth of that time and has streets flanked by stuccoed townhouses. It’s easy to get around on foot as road traffic is restricted in the centre, giving the city an intimate small town vibe. Nearby you can get to grips with Prešov’s opal trade at a mine, or conquer the spellbinding castles right outside the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Prešov:
1. Historic Centre
In Prešov most of your sightseeing will be done on Hlavná Ulica (Main Street), a long artery that cuts through the old town and splits into two parallel arms.
In the space in between the two branches are monuments like the city’s Gothic cathedral from the 1400s.
All along Hlavná Ulica are regal townhouses and palaces, and as this part of the city is mostly pedestrianised it is taken over by outdoor seating for restaurant and bars in summer.
There are little passageways beckoning you off this central street and into the side alleys to happen upon monasteries, churches, historic monuments with compelling stories behind them.
A couple of names to jot down are the 18th-centruy Klobušických Palace and the Black Eagle a block of burgher houses on the south side Hlavná Ulicam going back to the 1500s.
2. Cathedral of St Nicholas
The imposing cathedral for the city’s Catholics was begun in the mid-1300s and completed in 1515. It has thee naves, each identical in height, rising to 16 metres and culminating in graceful vaults.
There were fires in 1711 and 1788, so the church is now a fusion of High Gothic and 18th-century Baroque.
There’s a lot of rich ornamentation inside, so keep your eyes peeled for the altar of St Nicholas, which dates 1696 and blends Gothic and Baroque art.
The older sculptures depicting angles are by Master Paul of Levoča, a master carver working in the first decades of the 16th century.
3. Church of St. Alexander Nevsky
Prešov’s Orthodox cathedral is a sign that you’re on the eastern side of Slovakia, where most of this congregation resides.
It is dedicated to the Russian saint Alexander Nevsky, a 13th-century Grand Prince famed for triumphing against Swedish and German invaders.
The church is a modern construction, built on the back of the Second World War in the traditions of Russian Orthodox architecture.
It has five onion domes, and inside there’s a double-breasted iconostasis with icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary surrounded by the various saints of the Orthodox church.
4. Orthodox Synagogue
The Orthodox Synagogue is on a quiet street in the historic centre, and has a discreet Neoclassical design.
Dating to 1898,it is infused with subtle Moorish elements that you can make out in the mouldings above the first floor windows.
The understated exterior gives no hint of the lavish hand-painted decoration inside, where the Moorish motifs continue.
The ark containing the Torah is a highlight, and was composed by a sculptor from Graz.
The degree of preservation inside, considering the events of the Second World War, makes this one of Slovakia’s finest Jewish monuments.
You can sign up for the guided tour to hear about Prešov’s Jewish community and visit the small museum in the women’s gallery upstairs.
5. Krajské Múzeum (County Museum)
Across Hlavná Ulica from the Cathedral of St Nicholas is one of the finest residences in the historic centre, the Rákocziho Palace.
It came about by joining two rich townhouses together, and it is named for its 17th century owner, the knight Žigmund Rákoci, who gave the palace its Renaissance current design.
This contains a museum for the Prešov Region, which brims with interesting exhibits like historic weapons, clocks, furniture, Solivar lacework, natural specimens and a useful timeline of Prešov from the 800s to the 1800s.
6. Cathedral of St John the Baptist
This Baroque cathedral is for Prešov’s Greek Catholic congregation.
It took shape in 1300s and was acquired by the Minorite order in 1603. They gave the building its current design in the middle of the 18th century, when its highly decorative portal, pilaster and capitals were crafted.
Inside you can see the tombs of the bishops Pavel Peter Gojdič and Basil Hopko, both of whom were martyred by the Communist regime.
The pair were incarcerated in 1950: Gojdič died in prison in 1960 and Hopko was released into a nursing home in 1964. The cathedral also houses a faithful replica of the Turin shroud.
On the upper side of Hlavná Ulica is the city’s Immaculata, a Marian column inscribed as a Slovak national treasure.
This is a memorial erected by the Jesuits in 1751 to remember the victims of the plague epidemics that struck the city in 1679 and 1710. It is crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary with Child to thank her for bringing the epidemics to an end and preventing more.
This sandstone column is very richly carved, and beneath the image of Mary there are statues of eight saints at each corner, arranged over two levels.
For a glimpse of the countryside there’s a stunning Baroque religious complex on a low rise to the west of the city.
This was another “recatholicisation” effort by the Jesuits and has a set of 15 chapels, a church, catacombs and a cemetery, all at the top of a long flight of stairs.
The funding came from the city, but also donations from noble families, whose coasts of arms can still be seen above the portal of several chapels.
The heavyweight attraction up here is the Church of the Holy Cross, from 1753, with interior walls expertly painted to amplify the sense of scale.
History aside, the Kalvária is a calming place for a walk with a very photogenic view of the city.
9. Prešovská 49. Rovnobežka
A diverting curiosity can also be found a few metres from the Immaculata monument.
There’s a small installation here to mark the course of the 49th Parallel North, and you can trace its route across the pavement and square on Hlavná Ulica.
A throwaway piece of trivia about this line is that it forms the Canada-USA border around 3,500 kilometres.
There’s a long row of cafe terraces next to the monument so it’s something to muse on as you sip a cold beer or cup of coffee.
10. Neptune Fountain
This fountain with a statue of Neptune holding brings extra gravitas to the small park on Hlavná Ulica.
It’s the oldest and most magisterial of Prešov’s ten fountains, and dates from 1789. It is where the city’s original drinking fountain used to be and was presented as a gift to Prešov by the Jewish merchant Marek Holländer for allowing him to do business in the city.
And for that reason it’s loaded with significance as before this time Jewish people were forbidden from living or working in Prešov.
Neptune wields his trident and sits on an island in the fountain, surrounded by stone animals like a snake, toad, tortoise and crocodile, all spouting water.
11. Caraffa Prison (Caraffova Väznica)
Just off Hlavná Ulica, this building dates to the 1400s and is linked with one Prešov’s most traumatic events.
In 1687 General Caraffa, an Italian General Comissary in the Habsburg Kingdom locked a number of Prešov’s noblemen in this building, under suspicion of insurrection.
In an episode that has gone down in the city’s history, 24 of them were tortured, tried and executed in public, and their heads stuck on spikes.
In 2012 the building was renovated and opened as Prešov’s city gallery, hosting art exhibitions and a permanent collection of Solivar lace and opal.
12. Statue of St Rochus (Súsošie Svätého Róchusa)
Shaded by trees in front of Prešov’s Franciscan monastery is a sculpted monument that is also on the list of Slovak national treasures.
It was funded by the Franciscan order and features St Rochus on its main plinth with Francis, Florian and Anthony each on platforms further down.
These are all fashioned from sandstone, and have undergone a few restorations over time.
The most recent was in 1993 when an identical copy of St Rochus replaced the weathered original.
13. Šariš Castle
Just a glance at the ruins a couple of kilometres outside Prešov and you’ll know that a formidable castle once stood here.
The castle was raised in the 900s and commanded the trade route along the Torysa River on a volcanic hill that had been inhabited since the Stone Age.
Improvements were made in the 1200s and 1500s, when it was strengthened in the face of the growing threat from the Ottomans.
But in 1687 the gunpowder magazine caught fire obliterating the castle.
It’s a National Nature Reserve, a breeze by car from the city.
So Prešov’s residents visit for walks and to poke around the walls, towers, keep, bastion and other ruins, all in decent shape more than 300 years after the catastrophe.
14. Spiš Castle
If this has whetted your appetite there’s another castle west of Prešov that you absolutely have to see.
Spiš rests imperiously on a hill more than 600 metres above sea level in front of the jagged peaks of the High Tatra Mountains.
Going by area, Spiš Castle is one of the largest in Europe and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In medieval times it was the favourite stronghold of the noble Zápolya family, and the last king of Hungary before the Habsburgs, John Zápolya was born at this very castle in 1491. After more than 600 years of occupation the castle burned down in 1780, but not much has been lost.
The kitchens , dungeon, renaissance arcade and much of the keep have recently been restored and contain exhibitions about the storied history of the building.
15. Slovak Opal Mines
The largest and most valuable chunk of opal ever found was discovered nor far southeast of Prešov, on a riverbed in Dubník.
This is known as the “Harlequin”, weighs more than half a kilogram and is kept at Vienna’s Natural History Museum.
Discoveries like this gave rise to intense mining in the 19th century, and one of these mines is open to visitors.
The Viennese jeweller Solomon Goldschmidt had the lease, and the mine was in business up to 1880. Of more than 22 kilometres of tunnels, 1.5 is navigable to the public.
Best come in summer though, because in winter the tunnels are home to thousands of hibernating bats representing 16 species.