Slovenia is where Eastern Europe meets Western Europe, where Alpine meets Adriatic: a country in the Eurozone where you can make contactless payments from your phone but still witness fields being worked by hand.
Having been ruled by pretty much everyone throughout its long history, including the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, the French (briefly) and the Venetians, it is fair to say that despite its small size (it is under 8,000sq miles and has a population of just over 2 million) it is a hugely varied holiday destination with something for everyone.
Flights to Slovenia are frequent and inexpensive from the U.K., with the airport situated about 30 minutes drive north of the capital and largest city, Ljubljana. Car hire is inexpensive too, with brands and car sizes to suit every budget available from the airport. With empty roads and good quality tarmac, driving around is easy and hassle free.
Ljubljana. Ljubljana may lack a world famous tourist attraction but what it does have is plenty of charm and an awful lot of history. The story of Jason and the Argonauts was partially set here and their tales of Dragons (which has led to one of the many city bridges crossing the Ljubljanica being called the Dragon Bridge) pre-date that of the Welsh dragon by several thousand years (or so the Slovenians claim!).
The city centre is easy to walk around and parking is plentiful and affordable, with the parking at Tivoli gardens our recommended spot. The city sights of the photogenic Old Town mostly lay along the Ljubljanica River which is now adorned with bars and restaurants with the unique Triple Bridge in the centre of what is now a fairly sizeable pedestrian zone.
Just a short walk away is the funicular railway that will take you up to Ljubljana Castle which provides stunning panoramic views of the city below.
The entrance fee covers entrance to the grounds, museums and gives you access to the best view of the city. You can walk to the top or take the fabulously designed funicular. Open to late, it provides the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the city and surrounding area.
The Triple Bridge, opened in 1932, sits at the heart of the city, linking extensive pedestrian zones each side of the river. At one end of the bridge sits Preseren Square with the beautiful 18th Century Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. A good route to walk is from the Dragon Bridge, via the Butchers Bridge to the Cobblers Bridge as all give lovely views of the city and all have very different architectural styles.
Not as famous as its Danish namesake, this large park at the edge of the city centre was devised during the brief period when Ljubljana was the capital of the French Illyrian Province. The park features numerous Baroque sculptures, a rose garden, extensive ponds and landscaping and is home to Tivoli Castle and the Cekin Mansion which houses a museum on Slovenian history.
The Postojna Caves are the second largest cave network in the country but are the most visited and the easiest for tourists to get to. It is perhaps one of the few places you will encounter large number of other tourists, but well worth a visit. The tour includes an underground train ride and it is worth paying the few Euro’s more to include the vivarium to see the range of alien-like creatures that inhabit the caves (including the Olm, the largest fully cave-dwelling animal in the world and which is native only to Slovenia).
North of Ljubljana is the famous Lake Bled, which sits just south of the only national park in Slovenia: Triglav. Triglav, named after the highest peak in the country, is a sizeable and rugged mountainous area in the south of the Julian Alps. At 2864 metres high the mountain is rightly popular with mountaineers and hill walkers alike.
The small town of Bled is well set up for tourists having been firmly on the destination trail since the 1960s. However, it has not been overdeveloped and still retains a real local feel. Restaurants and bars are plentiful and well priced, including a couple of exceptionally tasty pizzerias (you are after all only a short drive from the Italian border).
Lake Bled and the surrounding town of Bled are like something out of a fairy tale. The crystal clear glacial lake is overlooked by Bled Castle which sits proudly atop a rocky outcrop and has looked down over the lake since the 11th century.
Most of the castle that you will see today is from the 16th or 17th century. Needless to say, the walk to the top is well worth the steady climb and can be compensated for by eating the local Bled Cake which, depending on who you are speaking to (and where that person is from), is local to Bled, or Hungary, or France… Wherever it is from, we can assure you it is good. So grab a table by the castle walls and enjoy a slice whilst taking in the breathtaking views.
Further along the lake, and only accessible by boat (including their own version of a gondola), is the pilgrimage church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. Complete with 99 stone steps to its approach the 17th century church is in a simply stunning location and the both the island and the boat ride to it give yet more sensational views of the area.
A short drive away from Bled is Vintgar Gorge. Allow a good couple of hours here for, despite the gorge only being 1 mile, it is worthy of your time. The narrow path, which is attached directly to the gorge walls in most places, winds its way down to the Sum Falls via seemingly never-ending sets of rapids and pools. Large trout can be seen in the perfectly clear water and photo opportunities are aplenty. The hydro-electric dam and railway bridge partway down make for a surprising addition to this otherwise completely unspoilt landscape.
At the fringes of the Triglav National Park is Lake Bohinj, another beautifully stunning glacial lake. From here you can take the ski gondolas up to the mountain tops (even out of ski season) or simply stroll along the lake shore to soak up its beauty.
Beautiful and rugged, Triglav National Park needs careful planning to explore as the road network is sparse and most roads are usually dead ends. The rewards for explorers are great, with deserted trails, waterfalls and gorges dotted all around. Wildlife can be spotted here too, with Lynx, Ibex and Chamois amongst the permanent residents while Brown Bears are frequent visitors.
At just 30 miles long it may hardly seem worth visiting the Slovenian coast. But visit you must. Formerly part of the Republic of Venice, it is not surprising that the area has a distinctly Italian feel. The towns of Piran, Izola and Koper are all worth stopping at and all have a slightly different vibe about them, but at the same time can all be visited in the space of a day.
The town of Piran is perhaps the best known of the three. It has an unusual town square which used to be the town’s inner harbour. It is worth paying the €1 fee to climb the very rickety-rackety staircase of the spire of St George’s Church which provides the most impressive views of this walled town.
Izola, perhaps the least known of the three, is our favourite. With its narrow streets and its quaint harbour, it is the perfect place to sit back, enjoy a wine or beer and watch the world go buy.
The Italian town of Trieste is just a 15-minute drive away, so why not take the opportunity to go and visit one of the grandest towns in Northern Italy? With its huge buildings, roman ruins and expansive seafront, Trieste is certainly worthy of prizing you away from Slovenia for a short while at least.
It is great anytime of the year, but we recommend visiting in autumn, when the colours of the trees and still mild climate make for an extremely enjoyable stay (unless you wish to go skiing of course) but Slovenia has something to offer everyone whatever time of year you go and flights are available all year round.
Slovenia is small enough to travel around from one base but varied enough to consider moving around, it is all down to you! It also works as a standalone holiday destination but why not use it as your starting point as a wider tour of the Balkans?
Slovenia is a beautiful and diverse country to explore. If you’ve more time than me I’d recommend making it a self-drive trip and including Croatia into the mix. Take a look at Mark’s Slovenia and Croatia Self-Drive Holiday. As with all of Mark’s trips, any of this can be tailormade to suit you’re travel style and budget.
By Scott Hadden
All images by Scott – And here’s me just to prove I was there!