Like Europe in miniature, Slovenia has it all in one place: a clean and safe coast and verdant countryside, snow-capped mountains and shimmering lakes, pretty rural villages and lively modern towns. Slovenia’s Adriatic coastline may be short but it has plenty of attractions in its historic Venetian towns and lively resorts. In Ljubljana, Slovenia’s pint-size capital city, there’s always something going on, often free and taking place in the open air. Slovenia is a country where almost every town has a castle, not to mention the ones in the countryside; many of them are open to the public as museums and some can even be hired for weddings. Where else can you cycle in an old mining tunnel, or stay in a guest house where you get your own key to the wine cellar?
Slovenia is perfect for energetic outdoor types; from white water rafting in the Soča Valley to mountain biking on the world championship course at Mariborsko Pohorje there’s enough to satisfy the hungriest thrill seekers. For a more relaxed holiday or for some après ski, there are dozens of thermal water parks and wellness centres; many are part of larger holiday complexes.
Slovenia’s modest size means visitors can enjoy mountain meadows in the morning and swim in the sea after a leisurely lunch; although it’s possible to see the best Slovenia has to offer in just a week, there are plenty of reasons to come back again and again. Here are our top ten recommendations.
Postojna Caves & Predjama Castle –Slovenia’s largest karst cave is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors are guided through this unique landscape of stalactites and limestone formations from a miniature train. The caves are home to the ‘humanfish’ or olm, the only vertebrate native to Europe that lives only in this underground world of limestone caverns. A short ride away by road train, Predjama is perhaps the most imposing of all of Slovenia’s castles. Almost eight centuries old, it is strategically situated on the top of a 123 metre high cliff and gives the impression of growing from the stone. The cave under the castle can be visited between May and September; it is off limits at other times because of a colony of bats that hibernate there. The Erazem festival takes place every year in July: it’s a medieval tournament named after a fifteenth century robber baron who took cover in Predjama Castle.
Piran – The most beautiful settlement on Slovenia’s coastline, this historic Venetian town is as beautiful as any on the Adriatic. Day-trippers come for the best seafood on the coast and to walk along the old city walls to admire the view from Church of St. George. The composer Guiseppe Tartini is Piran’s most famous son; he was born in a house on the town’s main square which now houses a museum dedicated to his life and career. The Tartini Festival is held each year in August and features a series of evening concerts of his music. Just down the coast the Sečovlje Salt Pans are an area of protected industrial heritage; the salt flats have been awarded nature park status to safeguard the birds that have made a home there.
Ljubljana’s Old Town –Ljubljana’s picture postcard Old Town occupies a long, narrow strip just south of the Ljubljanica river and under the city’s castle. Packed with sympathetically restored medieval houses and baroque palaces, the streets are like something from the Brothers Grimm; today some of them house galleries, boutique hotels, restaurants and shops selling designs by young Slovene fashion designers. Take your pick from the road train, the glass funicular or walking up the steep lanes to the castle; entry to the castle courtyard is free but there’s a small charge to climb the observation tower from where there are stunning views across to the Julian Alps. A Sunday morning flea-market is held near the Triple Bridge: it’s the ideal place to pick up some Communist era souvenirs like a bust of Tito or memorabilia from the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.
Lake Bled – The shimmering blue waters of Lake Bled and the ancient castle that overlooks it is the most recognisable image of Slovenia. Visitors can ride across the lake in a ‘pletna’ – a covered gondola – to the miniscule Bled Island; it is believed that any visitor who successfully rings the church bell there will be granted a wish. Bled is well known for its thermal spas and wellness centres: the waterside Grand Hotel Toplice is one of the country’s premier destinations for people looking for some well earned rest and relaxation. Throughout the year Bled hosts a variety of cultural festivals featuring performers from around the world. The highlight of the year is the New Years Eve celebration; the New Year is welcomed in with a waterside fireworks display.
The Karst region –the wide limestone plateau known as the ‘karst’ is one of Slovenia’s most scenic landscapes. The show-caves at Postojna and Škocjan form just part of the huge network of limestone caves in this south-western part of the country. The favourable climate and the famous ‘burja’ wind combine to help create two of the country’s best known products, ruby red Teran wine and air dried Pršut, the Slovenian version of prosciutto. The area is well known for its pretty rural villages; among them is Štanjel, one of the prettiest in the country; one of its main sights is Villa Ferrari, a country house and beautifully planted gardens designed by the famous Slovene architect Max Fabiani.
The Soča Valley – The iridescent green Soča River cuts a path through some of the most breath-taking natural scenery in Slovenia. Its combination of stunning landscapes and cultural and historical attractions led to the Soča Valley being the first Slovenian destination to have the European Destination of Excellence award bestowed on it. The town of Kobarid boasts one of Europe’s best war museums while the Kluže Fortress uses costumed performers to explain that part this region played in the First World War. Adrenalin seekers make a beeline for the Soča Valley to take advantage of the unrivalled opportunities for white water rafting and kayaking, and paragliding.
Lipica Stud Farm – the majestic thoroughbred horses used in dressage displays by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna are come from this prestigious stud farm in south western Slovenia. Visitors can watch a training session or take a carriage ride around the estate – driven by Lipizzaners of course! The Lipikum Museum is an interactive experience which explains more about these wonderful animals and how they are trained. There are specially organised activities for children and trail riding sessions for all ages.
Logarska Dolina – this glacial mountain valley in the Kamnik –Savinja Alps is one of the best loved spots in Slovenia. Given regional park status to reflect its beauty and significance, Logarska Dolina is a tranquil landscape untouched by the modern world. As popular as Logarska Dolina is with adventure sports enthusiasts, it’s also a brilliant place just to kick back and forget about the rat race. Photographers are drawn to Logarska Dolina and who can blame them? With views like these it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph.
Triglav National Park –Triglav National Park is Slovenia’s finest natural playground. The park, the only one in Slovenia to have National Park status, is home to nearly all of Slovenia’s 400 mountains over 2,000 metres including the country’s highest peak, Mount Triglav from which the park gets its name. The park has much more than mountains: celebrated attractions such attractions as the Tolmin and Vintgar Gorges, Lake Bohinj and the Soča River are all within the park’s boundaries. There are activities all year round: in winter the crowds flock to ski at Vogel and in the summer climbers come to scale Triglav or to walk among cool valley meadows which are filled with wild flowers. Mountain cabins known as ‘koča’ offer basic accommodation and hearty meals for hikers and climbers. Designated foot-paths such as the Pokljuka Trail and the Tolmin Troughs are just the thing for people who prefer a more gentle walking experience.
Lake Bohinj –Much less developed than Bled, Bohinj is Slovenia’s largest natural lake. It’s a favourite destination with Slovenians who like to get back to nature; the peaceful surroundings and crystalline waters make Lake Bohinj the country’s most beautiful natural attraction. Lovers of all kinds of outdoor pursuits head for Bohinj: fisherman, swimmers and cyclists. A walking trail extends around the 12 kilometre perimeter of the lake and there are off shoot paths to sights such as the dramatic Savica waterfall. Vogel, situated close to Bohinj, is one of the country’s best equipped ski resorts; boarders come in their droves to enjoy the twenty-six kilometres of runs. The attractions of Mount Vogel are not just for skiers; the cable car operates all year round and from its upper station tourists can get a bird’s eye view of Lake Bohinj.