Slovak cuisine focuses mostly on simple and hearty recipes. Historically, what is now considered genuinely Slovak has been the traditional food in the northern villages where people lived off sheep grazing and limited agriculture – in the harsh conditions many crops don’t grow, and herbs are more accessible than true spices. Therefore, the staple foods mostly involve (smoked) meat, cheese, potatoes and flour. This does not make the food bland, however, and much of it is quite filling and flavoursome, though can be a bit heavy. As no strong spices or truly exotic ingredients are used, sampling local wares is a safe and rewarding experience.
Some dishes are authentically Slovak, many others are variations on a regional theme. A lot of cheese is typically consumed, out of meats pork and poultry products are the most common, with some beef and game dishes, most common accompaniments being potatoes and various types of dumplings. Since Slovakia is a land-locked country, fish and seafood options are limited (carp is served at Christmas, trout is the most common fish). Soups are quite common both as an appetiser and, as some are quite filling, as a main dish.
If you are a vegetarian, the variety of food in the cities should be decent. However, when venturing out into the countryside, the offer may be limited as vegetables are mostly considered a side and/or eaten mostly raw or in salads. Also, be aware that even though some dishes will be in the vegetarian section of the menu, this merely means that they’re not predominantly meat-based and still might be prepared using animal fats or even contain small pieces of meat, so make your requirements clear. Fried cheese with ham or Cesar salad(!) are good examples. Still, almost every restaurant in the country will serve at least the staple choice of fried cheese (the normal, non-ham variety) with fries, which is a universally popular. There should be a good selection of sweet dishes as well, with pancakes, dumplings filled with fruits, jams or chocolate and sweet noodles with nuts/poppy seeds/sweet cottage cheese most common. Seeking out the nearest pizzeria is also a good and accessible option mostly everywhere.
The main meal of the day is traditionally lunch, though this is changing especially in cities due to work schedules, and dinner is increasingly becoming the main meal there.
In all but the most exclusive restaurants it is not customary to be shown to your table by the staff. So when you enter, do not hang out by the door, but simply pick a table of your choice and enjoy. Once you are comfortably seated, waiting staff will be over shortly to give you the menu and let you order drinks.
Again with the possible exception of the most exclusive establishments, there is mostly no dress code enforced in restaurants and informal clothing is fine. Hauling yourself into a restaurant for a well-deserved meal after a day of hiking/skiing in your sporty clothes might attract a few frowns, but you certainly won’t be turned away. Generally, anything you would wear for a stroll in town is perfectly fine. You don’t need a jacket or closed shoes and in summer shorts are also acceptable.
Bryndzové halušky is a Slovak national dish made out of potato dumplings and a special kind of unpasteurized fermented sheep cheese called ‘bryndza’. This meal is unique to Slovakia and quite appetising (and surprisingly filling), and you should not leave Slovakia without trying it. Please note that while this dish will usually be listed in the vegetarian section of the menu, it is served with pieces of fried meaty bacon on top, so if you are a vegetarian make sure to ask for halušky without the bacon. Halušky can be found in many restaurants; however, the quality varies as it is not an easy dish to prepare. If you at all can, seek out an ethnic Slovak restaurant (this can be harder than it sounds), or at least ask locals for the best place in the vicinity. In the northern regions you will also find authentic restaurants called ‘Salaš’ (this word means sheep farm in Slovak and many take produce directly from these), which serve the most delicious and fresh variety. Sometimes, a variety with smoked cheese added on the top is available. A separate dish called strapačky might also be available where sauerkraut is served instead of bryndza, but it is not as typical (this will also come with bacon on top).
A salaš will usually serve also other typical Slovak dishes, and many will offer several varieties of sheep cheese to buy as well. They are all locally produced, delicious, and well worth buying if you are a cheese fan. Verieties include bryndza (primarily used to make ‘Bryndzové halušky’, but it is a soft spreadable cheese which is very healthy and often used as a spread), blocks of sheep cheese (soft and malleable, delicious on its own or with salt), parenica (cheese curled in layers into a small peelable roll, sold smoked or unsmoked) and korbáčiky (this word means hair braids in Slovak, and korbáčiky are threads of cheese woven into a pattern resembling a basic braid). Some of these cheeses are available to buy in supermarkets as well but these are mass produced and not as good.
Most other dishes are regional, and their varieties can be found elsewhere in Central Europe. These include kapustnica, a sauerkraut soup typically eaten at Christmas but served all year round in restaurants. It is flavoursome and can be mildly spicy based on what sausage is used. Depending on the recipe it may also include smoked meat and/or dried mushrooms.
Various large dumplings called pirohy can be found and depending on the filling can be salty or sweet. Fillings include sauerkraut, various types of cheese or meat or simply fruits or jam. They closely resemble Polish pierogi.
Goulash is a regional dish made with cuts of beef, onions, vegetables and squashed potatoes with spices, which is very hearty and filling. Depending on the thickness it can be served as a soup (with bread) or as a stew (served with dumplings). Goulash can be sometimes found outdoors during BBQs or at festival markets, where it is prepared in a big cauldron, sometimes with game instead of beef – this is the most authentic. A variety called Segedin goulash also exists, which is quite distinct and prepared with sauerkraut. Goulash can be quite spicy.
Apart from kapustnica and goulash, which are more of a main dish, other soups are quite popular as an appetiser. Mushroom soup is a typical Christmas dish in many parts, and there are several soups made out of beans or bean sprouts. In restaurants, the most common soups are normal chicken and (sometimes) beef broth, and tomato soup and garlic broth (served with croutons, very tasty, but don’t go kissing people after) are also very common. Some restaurants offer certain soups to be served in a small loaf of bread (‘v bochniku’), which can be an interesting and tasty experience.
Other typical streetfood includes lokše, potato pancakes (crepes) served with various fillings (popular varieties include duck fat and/or duck liver pate, poppy seeds or jam) and langoš, which is a big deep fried flat bread most commonly served with garlic, cheese and ketchup/sour cream on top. A local version of a burger is also common, called cigánska pečienka (or simply cigánska). This is not made out of beef, however, but instead pork or chicken is used and is served in a bun with mustard/ketchup and (sometimes) onions, chilies and/or diced cabbage. If you are looking for something sweet, in spa cities such as Piešťany, you will find stands selling spa wafers, which are usually two plate-sized thin wafers with various fillings. Try chocolate or hazelnut.
Especially in the western parts, lokše can be found in a restaurant as well, where they are served as side for a roasted goose/duck (husacina), which is a local delicacy.
Other foods worth trying are chicken in paprika sauce with dumplings (‘paprikas’), Schnitzel (‘Rezeň’ in Slovak, very common dish. ‘Čiernohorsky rezeň’ is a variety that is made with potato dumpling coating used instead of batter and is very good) and Sviečková (sirloin beef with special vegetable sauce, served with dumplings). From the dessert section of the menu, try plum dumplings (sometimes other fruit is used, but plums are traditional); this is a good and quite filling dish on its own as well.
In some parts of the countryside, there is a tradition called zabíjačka, where a pig is killed and its various meat and parts are consumed in a BBQ-like event. This is a lot more historic celebration than you are likely to find in mostly modern Slovakia, but if you have an opportunity to attend, it may be an interesting experience, and the meat and sausages are home-made, delicious and full of flavour. If you can find home-made húrka (pork meat and liver sausage with rice) or krvavníčky (similar to hurka, but with pork blood) on offer elsewhere, they are both very good. There is also tlačenka (cold meat pressed together with some vegetables, served similar to ham), which is served cold with vinegar and onion on top, and can be bought in supermarkets as well. Various other type of sausages and smoked meats are available commercially.
A thick fried slice of cheese served with French fries and a salad is also a common Slovak dish. It is served in most restaurants, and worth trying out, especially the local variety made from smoked cheese (‘údený syr’/’oštiepok’) or ‘hermelín’ (local cheese similar to Camembert). This is not considered a substitute for meat.
There is a good variety of bakery products, including various sweet pastries- try the local fillings of poppy seeds and/or (sweet) cottage cheese (tvaroh). Strudel (štrúdla) is also popular, try the traditional apple and raisins filling or fancier sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries version. For something savoury, try pagáč, which is a puff pastry with little pork cracklings. Local bread is excellent, but please note that some of the several varieties are sprinkled with caraway seeds. You may or may not like this! Baguettes and baguette shops/stands are very common and you will be able to choose from a variety of fillings.
For dessert, visit the local cukráreň. These establishments, though slowly merging into cafes, exclusively specialise in appeasing your sweet tooth and serve a variety of cakes, as well as hot and cold drinks and (sometimes) ice-cream. The cakes resemble similar fare in the Czech Republic or their Viennese cousins. The selection is diverse and on display, so just pick one you like the look of, perhaps a ‘krémeš’ (a bit of pastry at the bottom, thick filling of vanilla custard, topped with a layer of cream or just chocolate) or ‘veterník’ (think huge profiterole coated in caramel), selection of tortas etc.
When you are shopping in the supermarket, remember to pick up Tatranky and/or Horalky, two brands of similar wafers with hazelnut filling and lightly coated in chocolate that the locals swear by.
Italian restaurants and pizzerias are extremely popular in Slovakia, and have become ubiquitous. Even if you don’t go to an ethnic Italian restaurant, there will be a pizza or pasta dish on almost every restaurant menu. Italian (and generally Mediterranean)ice cream is also very popular.
Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine is also becoming more common everywhere, and kebab/gyros (a bun with sliced bits of meat) stands are very common.
In bigger cities, you will find a selection of ethnic restaurants including Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Italian, French and many others. Moreover, as mentioned above, many Austrian, Czech, Hungarian and Polish dishes with a Slovakian twist are commonplace.
Fast food establishments can be found in Slovakia as anywhere else in the world, McDonalds can be found in many bigger and smaller cities. However, due to the other food being relatively cheap in comparison to the Western prices of fast foods, this is not usually considered the truly budget option. A food in a cheaper restaurant will cost 1-1.5x the price of a meal combo (sometimes even less) and might prove a better value. Still, these establishments are reasonably popular, especially with the younger generation.
For non-alcoholic drinks try Vinea, a soft drink made from grapes, in both red and white and also non-carbonated. Kofola, a Coke-type soft drink, is also very popular among locals and is available both on tap and bottled. Slovakia is one of three countries in the world where Coca-cola is not the number one in the market.
Mineral waters are some of the best in the World, come in numerous varieties and each has unique positive health effects (e.g. getting rid of heartburn, improving digestion etc.) depending on the type of minerals naturally found in the water. There are many types available from shops and supermarkets, for example Budiš, Mitická, Slatina, Rajec, Dobrá Voda, Zlatá studňa, Fatra etc. Others are only available directly from the many natural mineral springs common all across the country. As these are true ‘mineral’ waters, they will invariably contain minerals, and the taste will differ according to the brand/spring. If you don’t like one, try a different brand! You may also try mineral waters with various flavourings, ranging from raspberry to ‘mojito’.
In contrast to what you might be used to, sparkling water is the default option, so if you prefer still you might have to look for this specifically. The level of carbonation is marked by the label. Dark blue or Red label usually indicates carbonated ones (“perlivá”), a green label indicates mildly carbonated ones (“mierne perlivá”) and white, pink or baby blue indicates those without carbon dioxide (“neperlivá”). Due to the excellent local choice and quality of the water, international brands are not as common.
In restaurants, serving of a free glass of water is not a part of the culture, so remember that if you ask for one it is quite likely that you will be brought (most likely sparkling) mineral water instead (and charged for it).
Out of hot drinks coffee is available everywhere, mostly in three varieties (cafes in cities will offer more) – espresso, ‘normal’ coffee which is served medium-sized, small and black and Viennese coffee which is ‘normal’ coffee with a dollop of cream on top. Cappuccinos are quite common as well. Coffee is served with sugar and cream/milk on the side. Hot chocolate is popular as well. Tea rooms are quite popular as a place to chill out in major cities. These usually have a laid-back, vaguely oriental ambiance, and offer a great variety of black, green, white and fruit teas. Schisha might be on offer as well. A part of this culture spread to the other catering establishments, most of which will now offer a choice at least between fruit and black tea. Note that black tea is served with sugar and lemon in Slovakia, serving of milk or cream is not common. Some places may offer a beverage called ‘hot apple’, which tastes a bit like softer hot apple juice.
Drinking is very much a part of the Slovak culture and some form of alcohol will be served at most social occasions. However, the locals mostly hold their liquor well and being visibly drunk is frowned upon, so be aware of your limits. Note that some locally brewed spirits may be stronger than what you are used to, and that the standard shot glass in Slovakia is 50ml, which may be more than you are used to if arriving from Western Europe. If you order double vodka, you will get 1dl of it! Alcohol in general is cheap compared to Western Europe or the US. There are no special shops, and alcoholic beverages can be purchased in practically any local supermarket or food store. You can legally drink and purchase alcohol if you are 18 years or older, but this is not very strictly enforced. You still might be IDed in some city clubs if you look very young, however.
For beers, there are a great variety of excellent local brews that are similar in style and quality to Czech beers (which are also widely available), and beer is mostly the local drink of choice. Try out the Zlatý Bažant, Smädný Mních, Topvar and Šariš. Šariš is also available in a dark version that is thicker and heavier on your stomach. If the local tastes do not satisfy, “Western” beers are sold in the bigger restaurants and pubs.
Slovakia has also some great local wines, many similar to Germanic Riesling styles. There is a number of wine-growing regions in the south with centuries worth of tradition, including the area just outside Bratislava. If you can, try to visit one of the local producer’s wine cellars, as many are historical and it is a cultural experience as of itself. You might also be offered home-made wine if you are visiting these areas, as many locals ferment their own wines. The quality obviously varies. Every year at the end of May and beginning of November, an event called Small Carpathian Wine Road takes place in Small Carpathian Wine Region (between Bratislava and Trnava), where all the local producers open their cellars to the public. Buy a ticket in the nearest cellar and you will receive a wine glass and admission into any cellar in the region, where you can sample the best produce from the previous year.
There are also sweeter wines grown in South-Eastern border regions called Tokaj. Tokaj is fermented out of the special Tokaj grape variety endemic to the region (part of which is in Hungary and part in Slovakia) and it is a sweet dessert wine. Tokaj is considered a premium brand with a world-wide reputation and is arguably some of the best Central Europe has to offer. Other Slovak wines might not be widely known outside the region but they are certainly worth a try. Around the harvest time in the autumn, in the wine-producing regions, young wine called burčiak is often sold and popular among the locals. As burčiak strengthens with fermentation (as it becomes actual wine), its alcohol content can vary quite wildly.
Slovakia produces good spirits. Excellent is the plum brandy (Slivovica), pear brandy (Hruškovica) or herb liquor Demänovka. But the most typical alcohol is Borovička, a type of gin. Czech Fernet, a type of aromatic bitter spirit is also very popular. In some shops you may try a 25 or 50 ml shot for very little money, so as to avoid buying a big bottle of something of unknown flavour, then decide whether to buy or not to buy. International brands are also available, but at a price premium (still cheaper than in most Western countries, however).
If you are a more adventurous type, you can try some home-made fruit brandys that the locals sometimes offer to foreigners. Slivovica is the most common, but also pear brandy, apricot brandy, or raspberry brandy can be found. Drinking is a part of the tradition, especially in the countryside. If you are visiting locals, don’t be surprised if you are offered home-made spirit as a welcome drink nor that the host may be quite proud of this private stock. The home-made liquors are very strong (up to 60% alcohol), so be careful. If Slivovica is matured for 12 or more years, it can become a pleasant digestive drink.
In winter months, mulled wine is available at all winter markets and mulled mead is also common. A mixed hot drink called grog, which consists of black tea and a shot of local ‘rum’ is very popular, especially in the skiing resorts, and really warms you up.