At the crossroads of the Slavic, Germanic and Mediterranean cultures lies a bite-size country with a population of just over 2 million. The entire country would fit inside the territory of Wales or the state of New Jersey (the fourth smallest US state), but it boasts staggering diversity in terms of landscapes and attractions. It is a country of spectacular beauty, endless possibilities and perhaps the world’s creamiest dessert. Its manageable size and good infrastructure mean that you can see just about the whole country in a matter of 5 days, though you’ll surely end up wanting to stay longer. Here are our recommendations for what to see, do, eat and experience on a visit to Slovenia.
Ljubljana’s charm is undeniable, from the irresistible banks of the Ljubljanica River to the striking hilltop castle. But it is also a dynamic and innovative city – named Green Capital of Europe 2016 for, among other things, its inventive waste management and heating systems, its abundance of public drinking fountains, and its electric and gas-run public transport system – with a population of over 50,000 students that keep the city active and exciting. It is, for our money, quite simply one of the most pleasant and liveable capital cities in the world.
The city’s unique architectural look is owed in great part to Jože Plečnik, the visionary urban planner responsible for many of the buildings and monuments of his hometown. Despite the presence of a range of styles throughout, from Baroque to Secessionist, Plečnik moulded the city into what it is today and managed to give it cohesion, harmony and a sense of timelessness. Most notable among his creations are the pillars of the Central Market and the iconic Triple Bridge.
The lazy Ljubljanica winds its way through the old town, its emerald waters flanked on either side by a slew of charming cafes, restaurant terraces and tree-lined pedestrian boulevards. After dark the whole area becomes one big party, with throngs of merrymakers slowly making their way along the river between bars, and on Sundays the riverbanks host a fantastic flea market, full of knick-knacks, antiques and some remnants from the days of Communism.
To take it all in at once, ride the funicular to Ljubljana Castle at the top of the hill (or enjoy the manageable hike up on your own two legs) and admire the city’s tiled roofs and green expanses from on high. Sunset is without a doubt the best time to go. While you’re up there, visit one of the museums now housed in the castle or enjoy a coffee in the courtyard; the whole complex is now a beloved public space.
Ljubljana is surprisingly well connected – besides its own manageable airport, there is convenient and affordable transport from other nearby airports, including Zagreb, Venice, Trieste and Graz, no journey taking longer than 3 hours. Most importantly, from Ljubljana you can easily drive to just about any place of interest in Slovenia in under two hours, which makes it the perfect base from which to explore the rest of the country.
The first stop on most itineraries will be Bled, a crystalline lake straight out of a fairy tale. The tiny island in the middle of the lake (reachable only by the delightful experience that is a gondola ride) is home to an iconic little church, the centrepiece of most photos of the area. Just as impressive, though, is the perilously placed castle hanging from a cliff just above the water. If you’re up to it, we highly recommend hiking up to the castle for some of the most breath-taking views you’re likely to find anywhere, or alternatively take a leisurely stroll around the lake (which should take a couple hours).
Just minutes away from Bled you can find the mesmerising Vintgar Gorge, which has been fitted with a kilometre and a half of walkways that allow visitors to get up close to the rushing emerald waters and the heart-stopping scenery.
If you feel like venturing just a bit further, nearby Lake Bohinj is larger, fresher and more untamed than Bled, and many say more beautiful, as well. Unless you’re extremely short on time, though, you will definitely want to visit both.
Soča River Valley and Triglav National Park
Adventure seekers will want to head to the Soča River Valley and Triglav National Park. The first is a prime spot for kayaking, white-water rafting and other water-based injections of adrenaline, as well as a place of untamed wilderness, tranquil hikes and glorious landscapes, while the latter, named after the country’s tallest mountain, is an expansive reserve of natural wonders and magnificent mountain vistas.
Karst Region Caves
The Karst region encompasses some of the world’s most extensive and spectacular cave networks. Postojna is the most popular cave to visit, and for good reason. The tour begins with a 2 kilometre train ride that takes you deep into the earth, followed by a walking tour through the mesmerising underground stalactite and stalagmite forests. The nearby Škocjan Caves offer a rather different experience, with more grandiose cavernous halls and precarious-looking bridges. Both look like something straight out of a fantasy movie, and both definitely deserve a visit.
Only minutes away from Postojna lies a feat of architectural wonder. Predjama Castle is embedded into the side of a mountain, clinging to its rocky edges over a precipice. As a fortress it seems pretty much impenetrable, but the rear of the castle leads into a vast network of caves that were used by its inhabitants to roam freely, even when the castle was under siege. It is a feat of medieval engineering and a sight to behold.
Slovenia can boast only 47 kilometres of coastline on the Adriatic, but that small stretch of coast packs a punch in terms of beauty and entertainment. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the small town of Piran, an idyllic village of pastel-coloured buildings and small fishing boats gently rocking as the waves come in, conjuring images of coastal Italian villages. A maze of narrow alleys and minute piazzas winds its way around the central square, up the hill and all the way to the tip of the city, jutting out into the sea, the perfect location to end your visit to the unexpected delight that is Slovenia.
Where to Eat
The best place to sample Slovenia’s eclectic cuisine is Odprta Kuhna (Open Kitchen), a weekly dining extravaganza held every Friday from spring to autumn on Pogačarjev trg in Ljubljana. Some of the city’s best restaurants offer sample portions of select dishes at this open-air market, allowing visitors to try a number of local specialities and revel in the general merriment of the occasion. Slovenia has been heavily influenced by its neighbours through the centuries, incorporating features of Italian, Hungarian, Balkan and Austrian food into their cuisine. The result, as you will quickly realize at Odprta Kuhna, is a diverse palette of flavours, and we highly encourage to try as much as you can.
Where to Drink
Nebotičnik (meaning ‘skyscraper’) is a 13-storey high-rise from 1933 in the centre of Ljubljana, once the tallest building in Europe. The top floors are home to a sleek bar and a swanky club and lounge, as well as the very best views of the city, the panorama encompassing the old town, the castle and the green expanse of Tivoli Park. Grab a drink on the terrace at sunset for the most serene and stunning views, then head down to the club for a raucous night out. Alternatively, meander along the banks of the river, where you’re spoilt for choice in terms of nightlife.
Where to Go for Coffee
Park Café, in Bled, is the home of the original kremšnita, a famous and beloved confection, equal parts light and creamy (and our editor’s all-time favourite dessert). You can find kremšnita all around the country, but as any local will tell you, Park Café is the place to go for the very best one. Pair it with a hot coffee and enjoy the unmatched views of the lake and the castle towering overhead.
Where to Shop
The best shopping experience can be found in Ljubljana’s Central Market. Located in the very heart of the city, along the riverside colonnade designed by Jože Plečnik, this vibrant market offers fresh produce and organically grown food, as well as delicious home-made products and offerings from around the world. The jovial mood of both shoppers and sellers makes it feel more like a party or friendly gathering than a day of shopping.
Where to Sleep
Our top pick for accommodation has to be Hotel Cubo, a luxurious design hotel located in a stunning Art Deco building right on the edge of Ljubljana’s old town, just minutes away from the river and about a 15-minute walk from the train and bus station, with abundant shopping and dining options within easy reach. The rooms, many of which offer brilliant views of the castle, are spacious, modern and fully-equipped, including very high-quality bedding. But one of Cubo’s greatest selling points is the breakfast, which goes beyond the typical cold cut offerings to include warm dishes prepared fresh on demand. In terms of location, comfort, perks and service, Hotel Cubo is the best place to stay in Ljubljana.