When I booked my first flight to Slovenia a few years ago, it was quite simply because Ljubljana was the cheapest destination in mainland Europe that came up in my search. I was about to set off on a round-the-world backpacking trip and had no real idea where to begin. As it turns out, I was to find myself immediately smitten by a country I knew very little about. Even the journey from the airport, through daintily pretty countryside, was a pleasant surprise. Like a Europe in miniature, Slovenia packs enough culture, natural beauty, outdoor activity options and relaxation opportunities into its 20,000 square kilometres to keep the most ambitious traveller occupied. Here are my top reasons to feel the love for Slovenia.
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1. LJUBLJANA, A CAPITAL GEM
As European capital cities go, Ljubljana doesn’t get the accolades it deserves. Straddling the Ljubljanica river, it’s as if the grandeur of Prague has been crossed with the colourful yet understated lines of Scandinavia, with a little of Italy’s la dolce vita attitude thrown in for good measure.
It has everything you’d expect from a cosmopolitan city; café culture, historical landmarks, trendy shopping, beautiful architecture, green spaces and artisan culture by the bucketful. It may be Slovenia’s economic and political hub, but it’s the tangible sense of community and convivial, sociable atmosphere that strikes you most as you walk around – and that’s another big point in its favour – it’s an ideal city to explore on foot and one I would love to return to and explore some more.
2. THE PICTURE-POSTCARD PRETTINESS OF LAKE BLED
With its dark-green forest setting and a stunning backdrop of often snow-capped peaks, the translucent cobalt hues of Lake Bled are what picture postcards were invented for. Its stand-out feature is Bled Island with its prominent 17th century church of the Assumption, which you can visit by traditional Pletna boat from one of five locations around the lake. You can also walk around the lake’s perimeter at a reasonably leisurely pace in a couple of hours or so, or if you’ve energy to spare, climb the steep 135 metres up to Bled Castle. At around 50km away from the capital, it’s unsurprisingly Slovenia’s most popular resort, and if you ever wanted a city & countryside twin-centre break, I can’t think of any other example that gives you as much variety, gorgeousness and ease of access as you’d get by combining Ljubljana with Lake Bled.
3. THE WILDER WAYS OF LAKE BOHINJ
Further away from Ljubljana and therefore less touristy, lies Lake Bohinj and the surrounding wilderness of the Julian Alps. The easiest and most popular ways to appreciate the scenery are either up-close-and-personal, by way of a boat excursion across the lake itself, or by ascending for a higher perspective and taking the 5-minute cable car ride to the top of the 1800m Mount Vogel. Mount Vogel serves as Slovenia’s No. 1 ski resort during the winter season, but during the rest of the year makes for a spectacular viewpoint for admiring the beauty of the lake nestled among the mountains. Bohinj is Bled’s untamed, more rugged cousin – and no, I’m not sure how to pronounce it either – but whether you go for Bo-hinge, Bo-heen or Bo-hinya, what isn’t in doubt is its natural splendour.
4. A SPELL BEHIND BARS AT THE CELICA ARTS HOSTEL
There’s a wide range of unusual accommodation in Slovenia, from adapted fairytale castles to sustainable ecolodges set in the most spectacular alpine scenery, but for the quirkiest of overnight stays it’s hard to beat Ljubljana’s Celica Arts Hostel. A former prison, the accommodation includes 20 individual rooms, each of them a former prison cell retaining features such as barred doors and windows. It’s well-organised, varied, welcoming and fun, with a relaxing Oriental Lounge and a buzzier hookah room. The (optional) food is top-notch too, and it’s all just a few hundred metres from the city centre – perfectly located for exploring the city. The quirky thing about booking the hostel is that you can’t request a particular room – in keeping with the authentic prisoner experience, you go where you’re told to go! It’s all part of the fun, so why not give it a try next time and see where you end up?
5. OUTDOOR ADVENTURES GALORE
Motivation can come from the least expected sources. Not being a naturally sporty type, I had expected the proliferation of Slovenian adventure companies offering umpteen types of sporting activities to be rather off-putting, if not downright intimidating. Not so. In fact, I found myself biting the bullet and going right out of my comfort zone – not once, not twice….but three times! I went canyoning, tried horse-riding for the first time and climbed up my first actual, proper rock face. I was still a little bit scared – especially when a near-miss saw me accidentally tangled in a rope and almost hurled into the water-filled canyon below – but mostly exhilarated. Slovenia is an inspirational place to try new outdoor exploits and if you’re not tempted to give it a go while you’re here, chances are you never will be.
6. GETTING GEOLOGICAL AT POSTOJNA CAVE
The border between Slovenia and Italy is straddled by a large limestone region known as the Karst Plateau. Karst develops through a process of water drainage and subsequent dissolution of sedimentary rocks, often resulting in a labyrinth of underground grottos, such as the famous Postojna Cave. Getting there is an adventure in itself, as you descend via a clattering, swerving train ride worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. You emerge into the cold caverns of twisted, gnarled formations, brought to alienesque life by a rainbow of directed lighting, and you still have to keep pinching yourself that it isn’t a fantasy film set. With the results of thousands of years’ worth of geological activity in front of you, it’s impossible not to marvel at the forces of nature.
7. THE DARK AND MYSTERIOUS WORLD OF THE OLM
Part of the Postojna experience, but meriting its own mention, is the mysterious olm (aka proteus anguinus). An aquatic member of the salamander family, its eerie appearance is partly due to the almost total lack of pigmentation in its body, giving it a ghostly aura. For aeons, the olm has carried on its evolutionary journey in the dark, breeding and feeding perhaps only once per decade and living for up to 100 years. Here, deep in the subterranean karst pools, vision has no purpose, so it is also completely blind. It’s endemic to this region of Europe and you can see it here, at Postojna’s Vivarium Proteus exhibit. Here, in 2016, speleologists excitedly witnessed the birth of several of these ‘baby dragons’, a rare occurrence adding valuable numbers to this unique and endangered species.
8. SLOVENIA’S ADRIATIC COASTLINE
‘We don’t really consider ourselves central European’, says our tour guide Julija. ‘Look over there, that’s Italy. We’re right next to it, and our culture, views and lifestyles have much more in common with western Europe’ she continues.
We’d taken a short boat excursion from Piran, to better appreciate Slovenia’s short (a mere 47km), but underappreciated coastline. I was explaining how this was only my 2nd time in central Europe, when Julija cut in, politely, to challenge my perception. It was one of those moments that has stuck with me and continues to shape my approach when travelling.
Piran itself huddles around a narrow peninsula stretching prettily into the Adriatic Sea. Historically it has been part of the Republic of Venice, the Austro-Hungarian empire and Yugoslavia before finally, in 1991, claiming its place as part of independent Slovenia. Its Venetian heritage is easy to spot in the pastel hues of the buildings hugging the shoreline, but its charm extends beyond the peninsula and picturesque marina.
Venture inland and you’ll find hazy backstreets to explore, where the sleepy village life has a definite air of western Europe. Art galleries, street traders, folk nattering on street corners, the smell of freshly-baked bread, kids playing in the dusty alleyways, it’s all there to savour, and when you’re ready for break, you’ll find a range of cafes and a good spot for people-watching at the elegant Tartini Square.
Slovenia beckons with its unbeatable range of activities and attractions. You can opt for either rugged or refined, active or leisurely, quirky or classic, town or country, modern or historic, coast or mountains…you get the idea. Frankly, the only downside to visiting is Slovenia is deciding what to do.