The oldest city in Slovakia, Nitra was first ruled by Slavic princes in the early middle ages. At that time this beguiling city was the capital of a principality that took up most of western Slovakia. Nitra also has the country’s oldest diocese, the seat of which is St Emmeram’s Cathedral. This monument rises from the city’s highest perch within the walls of Nitra Castle, and is a jumble of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings.
Allow as much time as possible to bask in the rarefied ambience in the Castle and Upper Town. Also be sure to scale Zobor hill, which is steeped in legend, and pay a visit to the many churches and monasteries in this venerated clerical centre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Nitra:
1. Nitra Castle
At the top of the old town and defended by 16th-century ramparts and bastions, Nitra castle is where the city was born.
In the early middle ages a Slavic tribe built its stronghold here on top of a Bronze Age and the city flourished around it.
Rather than a single building the castle is more of a historic precinct.
And with meandering cobblestone alleys, many centuries of heritage and vantage points over Nitra, it’s awesome to uncover on foot.
The cathedral and episcopal palace are both up here, along with the Diocese Museum and an archaeological exhibition inside the 17th-century gun emplacements.
2. St Emmeram’s Cathedral
The marquee attraction within the castle walls is the cathedral, which is a compound of different buildings.
In this ground is a 14th-century Upper Church, a rotunda from the 11th century and a Lower Church dating to the 17th century.
They were all given a uniform Baroque exterior when then the Lower Church was completed.
In the Gothic upper church, see the sumptuous altar to Christ the Redeemer above a bewitching relief of the entombment by the 17th-century Austrian sculptor Hans Pernegger.
Also here is a bewitching 14th-century fresco depicting a dying Virgin Mary in the presence of the apostles.
3. Nitra Synagogue
Dating to 1911, Nitra’s fine synagogue is a Slovak “cultural monument” and was constructed for the city’s Neolog Jewish community.
It was designed by the Budapest architect Lipót Baumhorn, who contributed 20 synagogues in the days of the empire.
This one is Art Nouveau, fusing Moorish and Byzantine decoration, and has recently been restored by the city.
The synagogue is no longer active, becoming a cultural centre and exhibition space for the city, with an emphasis on its Jewish history.
There’s a small exhibition for the 20th-century Israeli painter Shagra Weil, who was born in Nitra in 1918. And upstairs in the women’s gallery is a thought-provoking display about the fate of Nitra’s Jews in the holocaust.
Up against Nitra’s northern suburbs is a 587-metre hill blessed with a complete panorama of the city.
Zobor is the last peak of the Tríbeč range before the lower-lying Nitra Valley.
The city looks like a scale model from this height, and you can see for miles to the south as Zobor is the first hill on the north side of the Nitra Valley.
The slopes have a challenging incline but the scenery on the top and the oak, beech and pine woodland make up for the trek.
There are six springs on Zobor and in the Bronze Age around 3,600 years ago there was a vast fort on this position.
5. Dražovce Church
West of Zobor is a small Romanesque church, dating from the 11th century and still in excellent condition.
The church is a famous image in Slovakia, appearing on the 100 Koruna note before the switch to Euros, and can still be seen on postage stamps.
It has a modest single nave a with an apse that is trimmed with a subtle pattern on the external wall.
It stands at the top of a hill, breaking off into a cliff on one side.
As you idle on the hilltop you might notice signs of earthworks, as there was another fort on this rise during the Iron Age.
6. Upper Town
After passing under the County Hall you’ll be in the peaceful Upper Town, which came together down the slope from the castle in medieval times.
This was protected by an outer ring of fortifications, long since dismantled.
The Upper Town has bending cobblestone streets and Baroque and Classical mansions and palaces and sights like the Great Seminary, Franciscan Monastery and the city’s beloved Corgoň sculpture.
On Pribina Square is a modern statue of the namesake the Slavic prince Pribina, who was the first ruler of Slavic origin to be baptised and build a Christian church.
7. Marian Column (Mariánsky Stĺp)
About a quarter of Nitra’s population was claimed by outbreaks of plague In 1710 and 1739. In 1750 this column, capped by a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary, was erected to remember the dead and also give thanks to Mary for averting further epidemics.
The monument, in front of the castle gate, was ordered by Imrich Esterházi and sculpted in an exuberant Baroque-Rococo style by the Austrian Martin Vögerl.
The pedestal below the column is loaded with symbols and decoration, including the statues of four saints, vases, scrolls, reliefs, Imrich Esterházi’s coat of arms and angels holding monuments belonging to the city.
8. Church of St Ladislaus
One of the must-see monuments in the Lower Town (Dolné Mesto) is this Late-Baroque church, which is part of a complex that has monastic buildings and a school for the Piarist Order.
It was started at the beginning of the 18th century, and just as the final touches were being made the church burnt down, and wouldn’t be consecrated until 1789. The facade has pilasters and niches below two domed towers.
Much of the decor was composed by the Austrian sculptor Martin Vögerle, and it’s worth allowing some time to examine the frescos.
One series depicts religious episodes in Nitra’s past, like the ordination of the city’s first three Slovak bishops and the arrival of the evangelical saints Cyril and Methodius in Great Moravia.
An emblem for Nitra, Corgoň is the name of a statue depicting Atlas on the corner of the palatial house built for the Bishop Jozef Kluch in the 1820s.
This curio was soon given a new back-story: That depicted of Corgoň, a Nitra blacksmith living in the city at the time of the Ottoman siege.
He had been working at the forge and came out covered in soot to fight the Ottomans off by hurling enormous rocks from the battlements.
The attackers fled, scared even more by his menacing blackened appearance than the rocks.
Corgoň is now the name of a beer brand and has even crept into local turns of phrase, where if someone is very strong they are “as mighty as Corgoň”.
10. Nitra Calvary
You’ve seen Nitra from the north, but there’s also a satisfying view to be had from this rise to the south of the city. The hill is imbued with religious meaning and hosts numerous little religious buildings and monuments.
The centrepiece is the group of stone crosses in which Jesus is flanked by the two criminals who died next to him.
On the hill’s lower reaches is the Church of the Assumption of Mary, which, is up to 900 years old.
This sits next to the Virgin Mary’s Mission House, dating to 1765 and erected for the Spanish Nazarene order.
As you climb the hill there’s a series of tiny 19th-century chapels every few steps, each relaying an image from the Passion.
At the crest of the hill summit, beside the crosses is a small hexagonal chapel, which was once a watchtower communicating with the castle.
11. Diocese Museum
In the castle courtyard is the Diocese Museum, containing a collection of illuminated manuscripts and the liturgical treasures belonging to the cathedral.
The texts date from the early days of Christianity in the region, and the most valuable is the Nitra Evangelistary, composed in 1083. This was then bound in the 1300s and the front cover has precious gilded embossing.
The cathedral treasury is as rich as you’d guess.
The finest piece here is the gold Chalice of Udalric de Buda, which was crafted at the start of the 16th century and is inlaid with 18 gold coins, the oldest minted by the Dacians in the 1st century BC.
12. Monastery and Church of St Peter and St Paul
Like the cathedral, the Franciscan Church of Peter and St Paul is older than the Baroque exterior suggests and dates to 1630. There’s an interesting vestige from those early years just by the entrance.
You can see a stone relief of St Peter and St Paul, which used to be on the altar before the church was ransacked by the Ottomans in 1663. The interior was reworked in the 18th and 19th century and is brightly decorated.
Maybe the exciting detail is the series of oak reliefs around the walls.
These were etched by the 18th-century Viennese sculptor Franz Xaver Seegen and recount the life of St Francis Xavier.
13. Slovak Agricultural Museum
Full of machinery and farming artefacts, the national agricultural museum has indoor galleries, a large open-air exhibit and locomotives from a 19th-century railway.
Inside you can track the prehistoric roots of farming in Slovakia, get to know the agricultural motifs in Slovak art and browse traditional handicrafts.
There’s a lot of heavy machinery in the pavilion like vintage threshers, seeders, tractors and harvesters, but also an aircraft used for crop-dusting.
In the open-air museum are more than 30 old-time facilities, among them a wine press, bakery, various mills and distilleries, haylofts, beehives and much more.
Then the railway yard has locomotives you can ride in summer, as well as wagons, switches and all sorts of other train paraphernalia.
14. County Hall (Župný Dom)
This palatial Neo-Baroque building is at the southern foot of the upper town, and is actually where the main city gate used to be in medieval times.
Even today you have to walk or drive through a passageway in this building to begin climbing the hill.
The County Hall goes back to the 1700s and has been modified and extended many times since, gaining its current design in the 1910s.
Since 1970 it has also housed the highly-regarded Nitra Gallery, which holds more than 4,000 works from Nitra and its region, and puts on many expertly-curated exhibitions each year.
15. Mestský Park
Nitra’s city park is 20 hectares of greenery coiling around the river below the castle, all within walking distance of the city.
The “Sihoť” area is the oldest part of the park, where an avenue of limes and a Neoclassical building were provided for Nitra’s bishop in the 1830s.
Today this is where most of the action happens in summer: There’s a mini-zoo with donkeys, goats, pigs and sheep, as well as a bar, children’s playground and outdoor pool with slides.
Things are quieter by the water on a gentle riverside path traced by rows of poplars.