Surprising Slovenia: from Alpine atmosphere to Mediterranean flair.
With a population of just 2 million, Slovenia is one of Europe’s smallest countries, yet also one of its most beautiful and diverse. The former Yugoslav republic borders Austria, Italy, Hungary and Croatia, and thus sits at the crossroads of Germanic, Latin, Hungarian and Slavic culture. The country’s scenery is incredibly varied and spans the Alps, the Mediterranean Sea, the Pannonian Plain and the Dinaric Mountains. And the best thing about travelling to Slovenia? Thanks to its compact size, the whole country can be explored in a single holiday.
Over a million tourists visit Slovenia every year, mostly from Austria, Italy, Germany, the UK, and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Due to the country’s international orientation, almost every Slovenian speaks English. The national currency is the Euro. As the capital, Ljubljana, is located right in the centre of the country, all points can be reached from it within a couple of hours.
A charming capital
The capital of the historic region of Carniola, Ljubljana is one of Europe’s smallest capital cities and can easily be seen in a day. Many of the city’s most beautiful buildings were designed by architect Jože Plečnik, who gave the city its modern look, and also worked on Prague Castle and buildings in Vienna and Belgrade.
The central point of the city is Prešeren Square, a large public square overlooked by the Baroque Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and renovated in 2007. On the south side of Prešeren Square is the famous Triple Bridge, the city’s main landmark, also designed by Plečnik. This set of three ornate pedestrian bridges over the River Ljubljanica joins Prešeren Square to the city’s Old Town on the south side of the river.
As well as the many traditional restaurants, attractions here include Ljubljana Castle, perched on a hill overlooking the city, and the charming, bustling Central Market – a mustsee on any visit.
Lakes and mountains in the northwest
Leaving Ljubljana and heading northwest, the terrain rapidly becomes mountainous – this part of Slovenia is characterised by the Julian Alps. The region’s main tourist destination, Bled, boasts striking scenery. Bled Castle, Slovenia’s oldest medieval castle, sits high on a precipice, overlooking the vibrant blue waters of Lake Bled below. At the centre of the lake is Bled Island (Blejski otok), Slovenia’s only natural island and home to a 17th century baroque church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The island church is a popular destination for weddings. Bled has many hotels and is popular for its hot springs and spas, swimming pools, sports facilities, and of course its casino.
Not far from Lake Bled is Slovenia’s largest lake, Lake Bohinj, which is located at the end of a deep valley and surrounded by mountains on three sides. Music and fireworks festivals take place here in summer, and the valley is popular with tourists from neighbouring countries. Northwest Slovenia’s main towns, Kranj and Škofja Loka, have well-preserved historic centres, while the resort town of Kranjska Gora in the heart of the Julian Alps is a popular tourist destination for skiers in winter and hikers in summer. It’s a great starting point for hiking in the Triglav National Park, home to Triglav, the country’s highest mountain.
Northwest Slovenia is also the location of Čedca, the country’s highest, 130 metre waterfall.
Cliffs, caves and a beautiful coast
Postojna Cave is one of Slovenia’s top tourist attractions. Over five kilometres of the cave system are open to the public, making Postojna the world’s longest publicly accessible cave system – it even has its own electric train. The caves have their own ecosystem and are famously home to an endemic species of salamander native to southeast Europe, the olm or “human fish”, so named for its light-coloured skin. Local legend held that the salamanders were baby dragons, but in fact, their closest relatives are the mudpuppies of North America. Adapted to life in darkness, the olm is blind and lacks any pigment, but its senses of smell and hearing are highly developed. No visit to Postojna is complete without also exploring the nearby Škocjan Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Slovenia’s short Adriatic coastline is characterized by Italian flair, and indeed the city of Trieste is not far away and Italian is spoken throughout the region. The main coastal towns are Piran, Portorož and Koper, a typical medieval Mediterranean architectural style. Scenery in the Piran area includes the striking Strunjan cliffs and Strunjan Nature Reserve. Further inland, a main tourist attraction in the area is Lipica Stud Farm, where the famous white Lipizzaner horses of the Vienna Riding School are bred. Visitors can tour the museum, enjoy carriage rides, take part in riding courses, and watch the horses perform and be trained.
Wine and Austro-Hungarian flair
Much of northeast Slovenia lies in the historic region of Styria and shares a common history with Austria. The area is home to the country’s second-largest city, Maribor, which is just an hour away from the Austrian city of Graz by car or train. Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest town, is also nearby. Further north and east, the Prekmurje region on the Hungarian border is culturally very different to the rest of the country and much more Hungarian in character. Part of the Pannonian Plain, Prekmurje has a number of spa resorts and springs and is Slovenia’s largest agricultural region, with sunny hills covered in vines in summer.
The dialect spoken here features Hungarian influences and is very difficult for Slovenians from the rest of the country to understand.
Castles worth visiting in this part of the country include Sobota Castle and Grad Castle.
Hills and castles
Rolling countryside covered in forest and vineyards is what defines southeast Slovenia. It’s here that the Dinaric Mountains begin, which continue into neighbouring Croatia. The landscape is ideal for cycling and hiking, and there are many castles and spa towns, as well as more caves to explore in the ancient forest of Kočevski Rog. The region is home to Slovenia’s only island castle, Otočec castle, as well as the picturesque Žužemberk Castle and Ribnica Castle. Day trips to historic cities in Croatia such as Zagreb, Sombor and Varaždin are also possible from this part of the country.