It’s remarkable how quickly an itinerary fills up once you factor in a destination’s must-sees, which, like cliches, got that way for a reason. Striking a balance between seeing the sights you’d kick yourself for missing and discovering new beauties is extra challenging on shorter trips, as is so often the case in Europe, where travelers approach countries with a buy-one-get-one-free mentality.
In Slovenia, a nation roughly the size of New Jersey, you could cram the highlights into a side trip from Italy, Austria, or Croatia, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by skimming one of Europe’s most scenery-rich countries. If you can, take your time traveling between lakes, caves, and mountains; seaside towns or ski resorts, depending on the season; and the historic settlements in between. Even if you are just passing through, remember: There’s more to Slovenia than Lake Bled.
Ljubljana is bigger than its old town.
Ljublana’s city center is everything you want an old town to be. Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, many of them pastel, flank pedestrian streets that converge in open squares. The Ljubljanica River cuts through the middle, beside which cafes open their patios when it’s warm, and a series of bridges stitches the two sides back together. It’s dreamy, but it’s also misleading.
Ljubljana isn’t the sleepy capital its old town would have you believe. Slovenia’s oldest and largest university, attended by some 40,000 students, sits on the edge of the city center. Accordingly, Ljubljana has all the trappings of a student city: punky art centers, pubs and clubs, a relatively low cost of living. It’s creative and forward-thinking without being aggressively hip, even more now that new startups have brought young professionals onto the scene.
The alternative and nightlife-loving crowds cross paths at Metelkova Mesto, a former squat in an old army barracks that’s grown into a massive cultural center and entertainment venue. Stop by if you like DJs, LGBT club events, stage shows, art exhibits, and headquarters covered head to toe in graffiti. Fans of performance art and repurposed spaces will also enjoy Stara Elektrarna, or the Old Power Station, a venue located in a former power plant that stages plays, dance productions, concerts, and eclectic one-off events throughout the year.
Not to be written off as a party city, Ljubljana was named the European Green Capital in 2016. Its largest park, Tivoli, stretches 1,000 acres beginning just outside the old town. In the center, the Jakopič Promenade designed by Jože Plečnik, who’s considered Ljubljana’s architect much like Gaudí’s credited with designing Barcelona, doubles as an open-air venue for photography exhibits. Tivoli Castle, a mansion turned graphic arts center, serves as the promenade’s terminus. Another stately residence, the Cekin Mansion, now houses a history museum.
Just past Špica, a small riverside park that’s nice for picnics, you’ll find even more flora at the Ljubljana Botanic Garden. More than 4,500 species to be specific. With a bit more time, and preferably a car, make your way to Radomlje, about 20 minutes away on the outskirts of the city. Here, you’ll find over 200 acres of gardens, water features, walking paths, and some 3,500 plant species at the Volčji Potok Arboretum.
Spend less time in cafes and more time at restaurants.
There is one good reason to hang around the old town: food. Ljubljana’s cafes get a lot of love from tourists on break from sightseeing, but the city’s best restaurants, largely concentrated in the center, don’t always get the attention they deserve. Slovenian cuisine is still a question mark for most, but that’s starting to change.
In 2017, Slovenian chef and star of a Chef’s Table episode Ana Roš was named the World’s Best Female Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, bringing the food she grew up on into the limelight with her. As a crossroads of Slavic, Germanic, and Mediterranean culture, Slovenia has a rich and varied culinary tradition, rewarding those who embrace it like a pizza lover in Naples with everything from Istrian prosciutto to kielbasa-like Carniolan sausage. Though Roš’s restaurant, Hiša Franko, is located a couple of hours outside the capital, she does co-own a restaurant called Gostilna Na Gradu inside Ljubljana’s castle complex, where you’ll also find fine dining at Strelec Restaurant in the Archer’s Tower.
Elsewhere in the old town, Roš has endorsed Pop’s Place, a burger and craft-beer bar that also slings killer cocktails, and Bistro Monstera, maybe the best breakfast place in the entire city. For a casual yet romantic spot with a Mediterranean menu and excellent wine pairings, try Julija.
Dodge the Postojna Caves crowds at another cave system just 20 miles away.
Slovenia’s 15-mile Postojna cave system is impressively roomy, but the usual sea of visitors won’t do claustrophobes any favors. Not even half an hour away is another cave system that’s smaller yet just as significant, scoring a UNESCO World Heritage nod with just four miles of karst caves. One of the largest subterranean canyons in the world, the Škocjan cave system is an equally important archaeological site, showcasing relics of a human history dating back to the Mesolithic period. Guided tours are possible throughout the year either just through the canyon or through the canyon and beyond, following along the underground Reka River.
Bled isn’t the only lake. It’s not even the best one.
It wouldn’t be fair to call Lake Bled overrated. It really is as striking as it sounds, with blue-green waters surrounding an island topped with a sweet little church, and Bled Castle perched on a cliff to one side. In the distance, the Julian Alps watch over it all.
Neither would it be fair, however, to gloss over how packed it can get. Between the curated tourist circuit and mobs of people, not to mention its very own Disney Castle, Lake Bled can feel like part of a theme park during peak travel season.
Lake Bohinj, fewer than 20 miles away, is considerably larger than Lake Bled. It’s also less crowded and, some might argue, even more beautiful. Fed by the Savica Waterfall, Lake Bohinj is located in Triglav National Park, the only national park in Slovenia. Budget time to explore while there, exploring everything from the Soča river to Mount Triglav itself. In between, sprinkle in cultural sites like the Church of St John the Baptist or Alpine Dairy Farming Museum.
There are hundreds of lakes in Slovenia, most of which are more remote than the first and second most-visited lakes. There’s Lake Jasna in the country’s northwest corner and heart-shaped Lake Planšar near the Austrian border. Even the country’s largest lake, Cerknica, is less touristy than Lake Bled, granted it’s only full part of the year, after the rain starts to pick up during fall. Lake Bohinj is the largest permanent lake.
The cream cake is good, but don’t skip the ice cream.
Let’s face it: No matter what we say, you’re going to visit Lake Bled, where you’ll see signs for the famous Bled cream cake every few feet on the footpath that connects the boat dock to the paddleboard area across the lake. Kremna rezina is a tall, two-toned block of custard and cream sandwiched between thin, flaky pastry. It’s a tasty, if overwhelming, dessert, but it’s hardly as universally beloved as Slovenia’s other favorite sweet: ice cream.
Both my Airbnb host and several Slovenes I met answered simply with “ice cream” when asked about the best things in Slovenia. Most agreed on two things: The ice cream stand on Bled Island is better than any cafe peddling cream cake, and Vigo has the best ice cream in all of Ljubljana. With flavors like lemongrass, white peach, white chocolate with pomegranate, and mascarpone with nutella, not to mention a full-on chocolate sauce tap, it’s easy to see why.
Don’t forget Slovenia’s sliver of coast.
Blink and you might miss Slovenia’s riviera. It’s there, just barely separating Italy from Croatia, but if you didn’t know better, you might mistake it for one of its neighboring nations’ more famous coasts. In fact, the three countries share the Istria Peninsula, which stretches from the Gulf of Venice to the Kvarner Gulf in Croatia, including Slovenia’s mere 30 miles of shoreline.
Koper is the largest town in Slovene Istria and an active port with a nice enough old town. Most head farther south, however, past fishing town and solid budget option Izola to pretty Piran, where you can fill entire days winding through the Venetian Gothic old town; lazing on small, rocky beaches; and devouring sinful amounts of ice cream, wine, and fresh seafood along with Mediterranean views. What the next town south, Portorož, sacrifices in charm, it makes up for in plush hotels, spas and wellness centers, and clubs and casinos if that’s your thing. Piran and Portorož are the most popular choices for weekenders, so expect crowds in July and August.
Or its historic wine country.
If Slovenia’s riviera has been overshadowed by Italy’s beaches, then its wine country has been totally eclipsed. Yet according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the world lives in Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city. No harm in visiting the museum that the 400-year-old vine now clings to, but when it’s time to taste, head to the Goriška Brda wine region. Here, hills braided with vines like those in Tuscany roll toward the Italian border, sharing the land with orchards and settlements established long ago.
Plan to visit Dobrovo before setting off on the wine roads. Information on the wineries and villages to see is available at the Renaissance-era Dobrovo Castle, beneath which you can warm up your tastebuds at the Klet Brda Winery’s co-op Goriška Brda Wine Cellar. While touring wine country, complement your tastings with locally made cheese and olive oil. And if cherries are in season, have some.
Lean into the wellness scene.
Thermal spas have existed in Slovenia far longer than Slovenia itself has existed. Romans built baths around the hot springs, whose mineral-rich waters are said to be healing. The tradition is still alive and well, with no shortage of spas and wellness centers for visitors to choose from, but Terme Olimia is a safe recommendation for every type of traveler, whether solo or in a group, with family or friends.
Pamper yourself with indoor and outdoor pools, Finnish saunas, and relaxing treatments at the Wellness Orhidelia center, complete with mood music and lighting. Or, during summer, bring your kids to the Thermal Park Aqualuna for water slides, wave pools, and even events like concerts. If you end up making it to the coast, Terme Portorož is another favorite, offering Shakti ayurveda and thalasso centers, multiple saunas, massage and relaxation areas, and more.
Slovenia’s gorgeous in summer, but it’s magic in winter.
All this talk of a coast like Amalfi’s and a wine country like Tuscany’s certainly hints at a summer trip. Ljubljana may be livelier when the sun’s out, save during its annual Christmas market, but come winter the surrounding Alps are a playground for skiers, both alpine and cross country. Get a SkiPass for access to the best resorts, including popular Kranjska Gora and family-friendly Cerkno. Some say Vogel, the only resort in Triglav National Park, offers the prettiest scenery.
Not far from Kranjska Gora in the Planica Valley, a different breed of skier can be spotted launching from ski jumping hills at the Planica Nordic Center. The valley is world-famous for ski jumping, partially owing to the nordic center’s Letalnica bratov Gorišek flying hill, which is among the steepest in the world. As for sporting events, the Biathlon World Cup is held in Slovenia’s Pokljuka Plateau every year.