Small, unspoilt, and staggeringly beautiful, Slovenia is Europe’s best-kept secret. Go there now – before the crowds catch on
It’s easy to overlook Slovenia – until you actually clap eyes on it, that is. Sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia, and nuzzled briefly by Hungary to the east, it’s a tiny slip of a country – so surely you’re not missing much? But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with bombastic, mind-boggling scenery: vast inky-blue lakes betwixt snow-dusted mountains; thundering rivers in lush rambling valleys; and forest – so much forest! – as far as the eye can see. Not so unremarkable now, huh?
The one thing that Slovenia lacks, but which its neighbours have in abundance? Crowds. No queues, no selfie-sticks, and nobody blocking those incredible views. For most people, Slovenia (especially its cute capital, Ljubljana) is where you go when you’ve ticked off most of Europe… but then kick yourself for not going there sooner. You have been warned.
King of the castle
Ljubljana Castle looms over the city from its hilltop spot, unmissable in every sense of the word. Architecturally speaking, this 900-year-old stronghold is a bit of a hot mess, with parts dating from every century since it was built – but its eclecticism is fascinating. For a fun history lesson try the Time Machine Tour, led by costumed guides who bring the castle’s most momentous periods to life.
Central Europe’s history, culture and politics can be baffling at the best of times – but a trip to the City Museum of Ljubljana will see you right. With its mix of historical artefacts and interactive displays, this is an engaging way to get to know your host country’s past. Don’t miss Faces of Ljubljana, a permanent exhibit celebrating some of the city’s most notable and charismatic locals. mgml.si
Ljubljana’s Old Town is no tourist trap – the city is far too under-the-radar for that. This picturesque quarter is where Ljubljančani (city locals) come to shop, eat, and catch up with friends over a cup of čaj – tea. The cobbled streets are packed with arty shops and quirky Slovenian crafts: look out for intricate Idrija lace and Rogaška glassware in particular.
Slovenia is a nation of beekeepers, a passion which reaches fever pitch in Beeland, near Mozirje, where you can stay in honeycomb-shaped chalets and relax with honey-infused massages
Wet & wild
Bled (not so) dry
Surrounded by the snow-capped Julian Alps and a tangle of forests, the cobalt blue waters of Lake Bled are almost too beautiful to be believed. Get the best views from Bled’s hiking trails, before heading to the shore for a restorative dip: the lake is heated by thermal springs. This is Slovenia’s most famous lake; for quieter (but no less picturesque) waters, check out Triglav Lakes and Lake Bohinj.
The mighty Peričnik waterfall is one of Slovenia’s highest: a 52m-high cascade on the edge of one of the most wild and wonderful valleys you’ll ever set eyes on. Reach Peričnik on an easy walking trail from Mojstrana: the path even goes behind the falls, so you can experience its power up-close – a soggy but utterly exhilarating experience.
Deep beneath the surface of south-west Slovenia, the subterranean Pivka River has spent millenia quietly carving one of Europe’s most incredible cave systems. Postojna Cave has the scale and splendour of an underground castle: all towering stalagmites and huge echoing chambers. The river still runs at your feet, while thousands of pearly-white stalactites dangle above. It’s awe-inspiring stuff. postojnska-jama.eu
Slovenians aren’t snobbish about food: they love a good square dinner. Slow-cooked ričet (bean soup), thick beef goulash and pillowy štruklji (sweet or savoury stuffed dough) are the meals of the mountains, often topped off with a slice of kremšnita – a custard cake, typical of Bled
Slovenian chef Andrej Kuhar has travelled far and wide throughout his culinary career, scooping up Michelin stars aplenty. Now back on home turf, he gives hearty local ingredients a haute cuisine twist at Vila Herberstein, in the pretty city of Velenje: think freshly-caught bass with eggplant compote, roast lamb with black garlic, and silky-smooth hazelnut panna cotta. vilaherberstein.si
Ana Roš is one of Slovenia’s most exciting chefs: she has led the country’s petition to be included in the Michelin Guide (it has been woefully overlooked), and her menu at Hiša Franko is utterly delightful. Wild herbs, truffles and meats are her forte – served in a rambling manor house deep in the countryside. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote A Call To Arms in this very spot. hisafranko.com
Set within Ljubljana Castle, Restavracija Strelec is top of the capital’s culinary must-dos. Its city views are always splendid – especially at sunset, while sipping apéritifs on the terrace. Inside, the dramatic Medieval décor (all original) is only out-shone by chef Igor Jagodic’s contemporary take on Slovenian staples. Arrive hungry: the nine-course tasting menu is the star of the show. +386 31 687 648
For fresh air in Ljubljana, head to Park Tivoli – a huge recreation area criss-crossed with cycle paths and walking trails. It’s also home to the National Museum of Contemporary History
Zip it up
The hills are alive with the sounds of squealing thrill-seekers – for what better way to explore Slovenia’s mighty peaks than by zip line? At the zip parks of Bovec and Planica, your bravery will be rewarded with breath-taking views of lushly-forested valleys and sheer-sided canyons – and (in the latter) a bird’s-eye glimpse of the largest ski jump in the world.
Thrills and spills
With its roaring rapids and picturesque eddies, the River Soča couldn’t be more perfect for white water rafting if it tried. Long, smooth stretches give you plenty of time to admire the scenery, before – bam! – those rollercoaster rapids arrive. Not that you’ll mind getting wet: the pure, emerald-coloured water makes for a refreshing dunk on hot days. socarafting.si
Eye in the sky
If you thought Slovenia’s mountains and lakes looked great on the ground, wait ’til you see them from the sky. Up here, the sheer scale of the peaks becomes clear – and those indigo lakes look like mere puddles. If your knuckles go white at the mere thought of paragliding, worry not: those views will whisk your worries (and your breath) right away. adventures-nature.com
This old town
The little town of Ptuj (pronounced p’toy) is a charming mish-mash of Gothic turrets and Renaissance domes, augmented over the centuries like a scrapbook of European architecture. In spring, things get even stranger with the Kurent procession – an ancient ritual which sees residents dancing through the streets in masks and sheepskins, chasing away winter with ježevka – thick sticks made from hedgehog spines. Bonkers, yes, but also quite brilliant.
Thanks to its natural thermal springs, Slovenia has scores of pretty spa towns – but Dolenjske Toplice is the oldest of the lot, dating back to the mid-17th century. Conversely, its Balnea Wellness Centre is slick and modern – with four thermal pools, saunas and steam baths aplenty, and a huge array of spa treatments. It’s just the tonic after tackling the area’s excellent hiking and biking trails.
On Slovenia’s miniscule 48km coastline, the tiny town of Piran is home to everyone’s favourite seafront. This pretty peninsula was ruled by the Venetians for 500 years, and Piran still feels like a little Italian enclave – all sun-drenched plazas and ice cream stalls sandwiched between ornate Gothic architecture. From the top of its town wall you can see all along the coast, and over the Gulf of Trieste towards Italy.
Slovenians consider it a rite of passage to climb Mount Triglav – the country’s highest mountain (2,864m). Over half of Slovenia is forested, making it one of the world’s greenest countries
Where to stay
Grand Hotel Union
Set in an historic Art Nouveau building, constructed in 1905, the hotel blends seamlessly into Ljubljana Old Town. Behind its classic exterior, however, lies a stylish hotel with spacious and comfortable rooms, making it a great central base for explorers.
Set beneath the wooded Pohorje plateau, Habakuk Hotel is surrounded by nature. Cycling, horse riding, hiking and golf are just some of the activities on offer – brilliant if you’re craving some quality time in the great outdoors. The swimming pools contain thermal water, and you can make the most of the terrace pools that are open until 30 September. Inspired to go? Click here for the latest offers.
The rooftop bar of Hotel Piran is the place to be when summer hits in Slovenia. Overlooking the Gulf of Trieste, with Piran’s fantastic fish restaurants on its doorstep, this small family-run hotel is a real charmer. Inspired to go? Click here for the latest offers.
Inspired to go to Slovenia? Click here for the latest offers