It’s a Road-Tripper’s Paradise: Five Days in Slovenia
Like Portugal, Croatia, and Iceland before it, Slovenia seems to be the It travel destination of the year. So much so that we selected it as one of our top ten places to visit in 2018. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
SLOVENIA – When I first told friends I was planning to visit Slovenia, I was greeted by a mixture of reactions, most of which were preceded with, “Wait, where is that again?” Some said they’d heard about the great wine, were familiar with the work of renowned Slovene architect Jože Plečnik, or thought Melania Trump was born there (she was) — all interesting tidbits, but nothing too revealing. It felt mysterious to me … and all the more reason to want to visit.
A Little Background
Slovenia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has been a part of the EU since 2004. But it seems as if many people still associate the country with its communist past or straight up confuse it with Slovakia, another central European country that’s landlocked between Czech Republic, Poland, and Ukraine.
As I did my initial research, I wondered if it would feel more Eastern or Western European, what the food would be like, and whether people would speak English. Instead of reading everything, I decided to take the old-school approach of showing up and experiencing the place in person. I’m really glad I did, and I’ll get to why in a moment.
Starting in the country’s capital, Ljubljana, I spent five days exploring the western part of the country by car. Slovenia is a really small country: It only takes a few hours to drive across the entire thing, and all of the spots I mention below are within an hour or so drive of each other. If you're planning to venture outside Ljubljana, it’s worth it to rent a car or choose a tour that provides transportation, no matter the length of your stay. It’s a road tripper’s paradise, to say the least.
As dramatic as it sounds, my first glimpse of the landscape from the plane literally took my breath away (and I have about 50 photos of the descent to prove it). Early morning sun mixed with a light fog as it snaked through green hills, Bavarian-esque forests, and rustic villages. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting of the descent into Ljubljana, but it certainly wasn’t this fairytale scene.
Happily, the vibe on the ground matched what I’d seen from the plane. I’m really sensitive to the energy of new people and places — it’s can make or break a travel experience for me. I was pleasantly surprised to find Slovenia felt gentle and open, whether I was in a small village or in the heart of the city. Slovenes seem to have an inherent trust and respect for each other, their land, and visitors, which made me feel at home almost immediately. Everyone I met seemed to be genuinely welcoming and eager to share the country’s culture and natural beauty.
Slovenia’s culture seems to reflect its geographical location, with Eastern and Western European influences coming through in its architecture and culinary scene. It’s surprisingly modern, while still honoring its history. And outdoor lovers are in for a major treat: majestic mountains, rolling vineyards, views of the sea.
Slovenia's Complex History
Something I’d wondered about before my visit was whether there would be any visible indicators of Slovenia’s political past. There are and there aren’t. While my guide spoke openly about Communist Slovenia, he also noted that the actual physical conflict leading up to the country’s independence from Yugoslavia was quite short (just ten days), which could be one of the reasons why that part of the nation’s history isn’t as readily apparent in the energy of the people or the place itself. Perhaps a longer visit would have revealed more, but during my five days there, the only visible reminder I encountered of the prior communist regime was architectural. The juxtaposition of elegant, old-world European facades against utilitarian structures was always unexpected and also served as an eye-opening reminder of the country’s history.
Lay of the Land
Ljubljana’s central Old Town at first reminded me of other European countries I’ve been to with central waterways, like Berlin and Amsterdam. The Ljubljanica River is the center of city life, its banks filled with bustling cafes, shops, and a stretch of farmers' market stalls. It wasn’t always this way: Until around a decade ago, this area was jammed with traffic. But a major urban revitalization program cleaned up the city and modernized its waste management systems, earning Slovenia the European Green Capital award in 2016. Traffic is now diverted outside the Old Town area, making it easy to get around on bikes, on foot, or by public transportation (though I didn’t take one, the buses apparently run on natural gas).
Venturing outside Ljubljana feels as if you’re stumbling upon a piece of Europe that hasn’t quite been discovered yet — similar to how going to Iceland felt five-plus years ago before the big tourism push. On the road, the bucolic greenery I’d seen from the plane was interwoven with lush forests, quaint villages, a spectacular lake, and mountainscapes. The eastern part of the country, my guide explained, is known for its healing natural hot springs. A surprise discovery was that Slovenia’s burgeoning wine country is a less touristy alternative to Tuscany. Slovenia’s food and wine scene was a revelation.
Advice for First-Time Visitors
Let go of your expectations and avoid making too many comparisons. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking Slovenia will feel exactly like one of its European neighbors. Take what you think you know with a grain of (Piranian) salt — that’s the way Slovenia’s true charm will take hold of you.
Best Jet Lag Recovery Method
Get into the local time zone at Ljubljana’s first five-star luxury hotel, Hotel InterContinental, whose sleek design and excellent service comes at a surprisingly affordable price (rooms start at around 150€ per night in the off season). Don’t miss breakfast in the roof-level restaurant — in addition to a solid morning spread of meats, pastries, and cheeses, you’ll get sprawling views of the outskirts of central Ljubljana. Travelers looking for more budget-friendly options should try the City Hotel or Hotel Nox (both starting at around 100€ per night). Airbnb has some super affordable options near the city center for less than $50/night, like this modern apartment and this cozy studio.
Best Way to Get Oriented
Start your journey in the nation’s capital with a guided cruise down Ljubljana’s main waterway. Barka Ljubljanica’s beautiful wooden boats feel authentic, not overly touristy, and offer drinks for purchase on board. It’s a great way to get a feel for the Old Town and scout your next lunch or dinner spot along the river bank. After, hop on the funicular up to Ljubljana Castle, perched on a hill overlooking the city. It has great views, frequent jazz music events, and a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating.
Best Way to Satisfy Your Design Cravings
Architecture is something Slovenes are known for, thanks in large part to Jože Plečnik, whose work includes the renovation of Prague Castle in the Czech Republic. Two famous and easily accessible examples of his work are Ljubljana’s Triple Bridge and the National University Library. The Butcher’s Bridge, above, was based on Plečnik’s original plans for a covered bridge near the former butcher stalls at Central Market, but the project was abandoned due to World War II. It was completed in 2010 and features work by Slovene sculptor Jakov Brdar.
Best Intro to the Great Outdoors
Head to Lake Bohinj and take a cable car up to Vogel peak. Sweeping views of the lake and surrounding mountains will help you plot out your adventure, whether it’s kayaking across the lake or hiking the surrounding trails in warmer weather or skiing in the winter.
Essential Photo Ops
Slovenia is so picturesque, you really won’t have a hard time finding things to point your camera at. But you’ll definitely want to come home with some shots of Lake Bled (you’ve likely seen it on Instagram — it’s got a lush little island in the middle). For stunning aerial views, there are two solid options: If you’re a morning person and are set on capturing that iconic travel blogger shot overlooking the island, hit one of the lake’s surrounding trails before sunrise. If you’d rather sleep in, head up to cliffside Bled Castle right before sunset. The light reflects off the lake, illuminating your bird’s-eye perspective of one of Slovenia’s most photogenic attractions.
Tourist Attraction Worth Waiting in Line For
While the Postojna Cave Tour isn’t exactly an under-the-radar find, Slovenia’s most famous underground cave system is such a mind-bending experience, you should brave the crowds to see it in person. To get the most out of your visit, spend the night at the recently revamped Hotel Jama, which overlooks the promenade near the cave entrance. Once the height of ‘70s opulence and a frequent stop for international elite visiting Postojna, the new Jama is a fresh take on its predecessor: high-end yet accessible, with excellent service, cool design, and a top-tier restaurant.
Best Place to Catch a Sea Breeze
Piran is a pretty little seaside town that feels a lot like Italy, which happens to be just across the Gulf of Trieste. After you lose yourself in its colorful side streets, make your way to the western side of the city to climb the ancient town wall. You’ll feel like you’re on a Game of Thrones set and get picture-perfect views of the city with the Adriatic as its backdrop.
Want to brag that you were standing in two countries at the same time? Make a pitstop at Piazzale Della Transalpina in the border town Nova Gorica, where you can literally hop back and forth between Slovenia and Italy — kind of a big deal, as the square was divided by a border wall until 2004 and free movement between the two countries was restricted until 2007.
Must-Stop for Literature Buffs
Gonjače Tower is considered to be the central point of the Goriška Brda wine region. Ernest Hemingway was stationed in this area during World War I, when it was the heart of the Austro-Italian front, and his time there is said to have been an inspiration for A Farewell to Arms. Other reasons to make the climb: You’ll score unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains and vines, and the tower itself is pretty cool. A spiraling cement structure built in 1961, it’s stands in stark contrast with its surroundings and a photo op on its own.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Currently, there are no direct flights from the U.S. to Ljubljana (LJU), so your best bet is to connect within Europe via a major hub like Paris, Zürich (ZRH), or Munich (MUC). Another option is to fly Turkish Airlines to Istanbul (IST), as I did. You have to do a little bit of backtracking to get to Ljubljana, but the opportunity to visit the Turkish Airlines Lounge at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport is enough reason to choose this flight pattern over others: The two-level space feels like a massive hotel lobby, with multiple cafes, a movie theater, library, sports-watching stations, buffets, and café carts sprinkled throughout. Depending on your layover time in Istanbul, Turkish Airlines may include a complimentary night at an upscale hotel near the airport.
A note if you travel through Istanbul: You’ll need to go through multiple security checkpoints before catching a plane to the U.S. At the time of my visit, there were six checkpoints in total: two preliminary security screenings and four additional ones right before you get to the gate (the last of which involves swabbing your body for explosives and a thorough check of your carry-on). The additional screenings add at least half an hour to your boarding process, so plan accordingly.
Book a Tour
Wajdušna offers fun, in-depth tours around Slovenia catering to whatever your interests may be. My guide, company founder Jani Peljhan, spoke perfect English, offered an honest local’s perspective, and knew every spot like the back of his hand — just the kind of person you’d want to spend time exploring a new country with. To book a tour and learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him Fathom sent you.
Continue Your Research
The Slovenian Tourist Board website is a solid and comprehensive resource.