Tiny Slovenia is a veritable treasure trove of attractions and activities – from Venetian coastal towns to white-water rafting – that would rival a country many times its size. Despite being Slavic to the core, its cuisine, culture and even architecture have been influenced strongly by its neighbours – Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary. The incredible mixture of climates here brings warm Mediterranean breezes up to the foothills of the Alps, where it can nonetheless snow even during summer. And with more than half of its total area forested, Slovenia really is one of the world’s greenest countries. The general and unerring impression is also that Slovenia is quietly conservative, deeply self-confident, remarkably broad-minded, extremely tolerant and very, very hospitable
Slovenia can be called a “hidden gem” and still claim to remain hidden. But those who come to this tiny country that’s nestled between the Alps and the Adriatic feel like they’ve discovered a little-known paradise. While cheap flights from Europe’s major cities have made it an easy weekend destination, and the capital of Ljubljana is popular on the stag and hen party circuit, the entire country boasts wonderland landscapes. Beyond the confines of the charming, Slovenia offers travellers a destination that is easy to navigate, while it is one of the safest countries in Europe, and also the cleanest (it won National Geographic’s 2017 World Legacy Award as the most sustainable tourist destination, while Ljubljana was declared Green Capital of Europe in 2016).
Every season has its attractions in Slovenia. Spring is a great time to be in the lowlands and floral-carpeted valleys, while snow can linger in the mountains until late June. Summer is the ideal time for hiking and camping, while it’s also the peak season for visitors – when accommodation in Ljubljana and on the coast can be in rather short supply, so be sure to book ahead. Autumn is beautiful, particularly in the mountains of Gorenjska and Štajerska, and is also a great time for hiking and camping, particularly because it’s cooler. Ljubljana in winter, under a light covering of snow, resembles a scene out of a fairy tale, while over Christmas and into January the illuminations on Castle Hill and the winter markets are magical. Otherwise, winter in Slovenia is perfect for skiers.
The twin lakes of Bled and Bohinj are Slovenia’s most talked-about attractions. Bled dazzles in all of its regal fineries – an elegant church spire punctuates a lonely island in the middle, a crumbling stone castle sits high atop a nearby bluff, and open-air terraces line its banks to serve sunbathers. Bohinj, on the other hand, prefers to flaunt her natural beauty. Stringently protected under the mandate of the Triglav National Park, it catches the reflection of the pine studded mountains in its clear, emerald waters. Ask any Slovenian and they’ll likely say they prefer Bohinj, though most tourists opt for the dramatic juxtaposition of history and nature at Bled.
The region of the Slovenian Riviera features a distinct blend of Roman, Venetian and Medieval architecture, with towns so closely clustered that they all blend together seamlessly
Walkways are plentiful around Bohinj’s edge; most hikers choose to take in a bit of the lake before departing on a more vertical hike into the surrounding mountains. Mount Vogel is a popular choice due to the views and amenities that await at the top, and, most importantly, due to its cable car that links Bohinj to its ridges. A thriving ski resort in winter, Vogel is a hiker’s paradise during the warmer months, with trails leading to compelling observation points in every direction.
Triglav National Park represents the essence of rural Slovenia, with the country’s highest peak that is a rite of passage for every Slovenian, but hiking its lake-lined gorges – which are well preserved within the limits of the national park – should feature high on any traveller’s to-do list. Often called the Valley of the Seven Lakes (though there are actually 10) the Julian Alps’ most scenic trek eventually clears the tree line and features stony moonscapes dotted with cool blue lakelets.
River gorges, canyons, streams, meadows and forests cover the landscape in Slovenia’s only national park, which is home to the Julian Alps. You don’t need long in Slovenia’s small and slow-moving capital city, so heading to Triglav seems more than appropriate after a few of days of feasting on dumplings, goulash and cream cakes while strolling the leafy river’s bridges and touring the city’s castle. The park has hiking trails and mountain passes, along with the exhilarating Mount Triglav climb.
Hiking has a historical twist around Kobarid, which is situated not too far from Bovec. Walking in the valley and up the ridges reveals its disturbing history from World War I, when the area was known as the Soča Front – a horrific zone of trenches and mines that divided Austro-Hungarian forces from the Italian army. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives in the fight over the land – and today only hollowed out bunkers and exposed underground passageways remain.
In the evenings you can delight in one of Slovenia’s culinary treasures. The nation’s most famous chef, Ana Roš, was catapulted to international fame thanks to the Netflix series Chef’s Table. A seat at her restaurant is today the most coveted reservation around. She approaches her locally-foraged, fished, and found ingredients in a less disciplined fashioned than the New Nordic chefs of Copenhagen – that playfulness is noticeable in the servers’ attitudes as well, as they pass your table filling your glasses with local wines.
Around a 40-minute drive from the scarred earth of war, you will find the Brda region, also situated along the Italian border, halfway between the snowy Alps and the breezy Mediterranean. Sliced up by international accords, the line drawn between the two countries is wickedly arbitrary, zigzagging as it does through private vineyards. During the Yugoslav era, soldiers patrolled grape fields to keep Slovenians well within the socialist side of the border, while their produce was managed by the state. The Brda region has today flourished and produces some of the world’s highest quality wines, largely due to the so-called ‘opoka’ soil beneath the vines – coveted marl-rich earth.
At Klinec, in the border village of Medana, you can sample the finest in home-cured hams, slow-stewed meats, a cavern of cheese and freshly baked bread – it’s everything you’d want from a meal in a small Italian hamlet, except you’re in Slovenia, so it’s delightfully untouristed. A vineyard visit down the street will take visitors deeper into the complexities of local winemaking, including a tasting of the locally celebrated rebula grape (ribolla in Italian) and an introduction to skin-contact wines – white blends made using a red blend technique.
The high-altitude glacial water ultimately drains out at the Slap Savica falls, which feed the glassy tides of Lake Bohinj below. Travellers with an accredited mountain guide can continue their ascent towards Mount Triglav and Mount Kanjavec, staying in prim-but-basic ‘bivis’ – permanent bivouac huts along the route – or at Savica, tumbling back to the inhabited valleys only to ascend along a different route the next day.
There’s something supernatural about the colour of the Soča River – it glows with an iridescent turquoise tint that only the finest and clearest waters in the world could possess
There’s something supernatural about the colour of the River Soča – it glows with an iridescent turquoise tint that only the finest and clearest water in the world could possess. And in the south-western corner of the Julian Alps, almost every facade in the village of Bovec has been turned into a paddling operator selling heart-pumping trips down the white waters of the gorges. You can kayak through some of the calmer sections of the emerald river system, hop aboard a guided rafting trip down some Level 5 rapids, or try a canyoning adventure between the rock crevasses carved out by millions of years of stone-scraping glacial run-off.
Across the country, in Kreslin’s Prekmurje flatlands, you can taste the finest Styrian pumpkin seed oil, hand-pressed in century-old presses by the family and with such a flavour and delicacy that it is used not only to dress salads but as a sauce for ice-cream and to flavour bars of dark chocolate. You can wind through the hills of Tolmin, above the emerald Soča, experiencing a real-life Narnia and meeting a farmer bringing back the colossal, leopard-skinned Soča trout, with meat that’s so delicious that it is today served only raw, as a form of carpaccio. At the salt flats near Piran, on Slovenia’s 46km of karst-land coast, you can meet families that have been harvesting salt for generations, from flats that date back to the Roman empire, when salt was used as a form of payment (the term salary comes from salaria, meaning salt).
The Slovenian Riviera refers to Slovenia’s small coastal region along the Adriatic, sandwiched between Italy and Croatia. Due to its location, this region features a distinct blend of Roman, Venetian and Medieval architecture, with towns that are so closely clustered that they blend seamlessly together. Here you won’t find classic beaches like those of other riviera regions, but there are still ways to connect with the water and bask in the glorious Slovenian sun.
Piran is one of the most visited beaches in the country among holidaymakers. Steeped in red-roofed Renaissance architecture, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Dubrovnik due to it being enclosed by stone walls and situated immediately beside the waterfront.
Portorož is the jewel in the crown of the Slovenian Riviera – and also its most modern destination. Its ritzy Hotel Palace was a frequent getaway for Austro-Hungarian royalty, while its casino, beach and watersports options are loved by all.
Koper, located just five kilometres from the Italian border, is Slovenia’s main port city. It has an impressive array of historic architecture, ranging from the Venetian Gothic loggia, via its 15th-century palace to the 14th-century Cathedral of St Nazarius.
Izola is an ancient Roman port that’s bursting with Venetian charm and historic stone architecture that ensures strolling through this quiet fishing village is a treat for the eyes.
Salt-making has been important practice in Slovenia since at least the 13th century, so it made sense to protect the precious ecosystem that allowed the creation of such a prosperous market. Visitors to the Secovlje Salina Nature Park are today treated to glimpses of rare flora and fauna that are specially equipped to deal with these salty conditions, including a wide array of birds and the Etruscan shrew – the world’s smallest mammal.
The Strunjan Nature Park, just north of Piran, is a breath of fresh air away from Slovenia’s coastal towns. Covering a total of four kilometres of coastline and featuring a peninsula with rocky cliffs that tower above the waterfront, alongside is a long pebble beach that’s incredibly popular during the summer months. There are also scattered salt pans and the chance to see all kinds of plants and wildlife that call this beautiful slice of coast home.
Piran has special hiking and cycling trail connections to other towns along the coast, as well as the lively Portorož. There’s even a 130-kilometre-long cycling trail known as Parenzana, which runs from Trieste in Italy right down to Croatia via a number of Slovenia’s coastal regions.
Predjama Castle, which is not strictly on the riviera but is close enough for an easy excursion, is a spooky-looking castle that appears as if it’s come straight out of a fairytale, carved into a hillside and surrounded by green, sloping fields and a network of underground tunnels. Built into the mouth of a cave and representing the largest cave castle in the world, today you can visit between May and September, but beware of the family of bats that have laid claim to its shadowy walls.