Slovenia: Discovering Europe’s Hidden Gem

A funny thing has been happening lately…whenever I ask someone about their favourite country in Europe, the same name keeps popping up, again and again: Slovenia. It hasn’t always been like this—there was a time when mentioning Slovenia would illicit a blank stare or some vague confusion with Slovakia. But those days are gone. There are still plenty of folks who can’t find this compact nation on a map, but anyone who has experienced its charms firsthand will tell you they can’t wait to go back.

Bordered by Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia. Within its borders are picturesque alpine regions, shimmering lakes and some of the loveliest cities in Central Europe. You’ll even find sunny beaches here—there’s a 47-kilometre stretch of coastline along the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is small enough so you can reach most of its attractions within a single day from the capital, Ljubljana. For Aussie travellers, the simplest way to get there is by flying into Vienna and taking the train to Ljubljana, a scenic rail journey of just over six hours.

Discovering Ljubljana

The best way to see the stunning sights of Slovenia’s cosmopolitan capital is on foot. Join one of the free walking tours that leave from the pink church at Preseren Square or grab a map from the tourist centre and stroll out on your own. Ljubljana is a city of quaint bridges (with fearsome dragon statues), inviting plazas and cobblestone streets, with intriguing little laneways to explore and an eclectic mix of cafes to choose from when it’s time to take a break.

Foodies will be in heaven here. The influence of neighbouring countries is obvious—there’s Austrian strudel, hearty Hungarian goulash and some of the best pizza and gelati you’ll taste anywhere. But Slovenia’s home-grown dishes are well worth sampling, too. My favourites are Goveja (beef soup) and Carniolan sausages.

Don’t miss the view from the top of Ljubljana Castle, right in the heart of the city. A funicular will take you up if you’re not feeling energetic. Other must-dos include a boat cruise along the river, a visit to Tivoli Park and a wander through the lively open-air central market.

Natural wonders

Away from the capital, Lake Bled is one of the most popular destinations in the country—for good reason. You can walk around the entire lake in a single afternoon, with views of the Julian Alps from every vantage point. If you want to visit the pretty island in the middle and its 17th-century church, rowboats are available for hire.

Slovenia

As much as I love Lake Bled, I think Lake Bohinj is even better. It’s less touristy, more natural and every bit as beautiful. Hike through the lush forest to a waterfall, canoe or sail along the crystal-blue lake or ride the gondola up to Mount Vogel for yet another unbelievable Slovenian view.

I was never someone who gets terribly excited by cave tours—until I went to Slovenia. Moving through these wonders is like being on a surreal movie set with towering rock formations, underground rivers, cascades and cavernous spaces on an epic scale. Postojna and Skocjan are two of the most popular but there are thousands of lesser known caves scattered around the country too, many with mind-blowing natural water features.

If the weather is warm, make your way west to the seaside village of Piran, where you can take a refreshing dip in the Adriatic and then indulge in some traditional calamari with cheese and ham at a waterfront cafe. Piran is chock-full of historic buildings and feels a bit like being on the Italian Riviera—complete with red-tiled, whitewashed villas and the kind of steep hills that can turn a walk into a serious workout.

For alpine splendour, it’s hard to go past the town of Kranjska Gora in the country’s northwest, close to the Italian and Austrian borders. Jagged, snow-covered mountains rise out of thick temperate forest—a perfect playground for snowboarders in winter and mountain bikers in summer.

And did you know?

  • Ljubljana was named the Green Capital of Europe in 2016
  • Slovenia has some of the highest quality drinking water in the world
  • Over half of Slovenia is covered in forest–there are even a few brown bears here
  • You’ll find the world’s largest ski jump in Slovenia
  • The famous Lipizzaner horses originate from Lipica in Slovenia

Slovenia–it truly is Europe’s most underrated, travel-friendly surprise package!

Images: © Kevin Casey

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