A pocket-sized country wedged neatly between Europe and the Balkans, Slovenia is proof that good things really do come in small packages. With its 1,300 turquoise lakes, soaring Alps, lush vineyards, picture-postcard medieval villages and verdant pine forests that blanket half the country, it’s an outdoor-lovers’ paradise. No wonder a third of the country is a protected natural area. This underrated European gem has all the alpine beauty of Switzerland and Austria – minus the crowds – and is satisfyingly wallet-friendly. The best part: getting from the capital to anywhere takes around two hours by car, making Ljubljana the perfect base to explore the country’s captivating landscape.
Here’s our green guide to discovering the country’s natural assets, diverse cuisine and cultural charms.
The Green City
Soak in Ljubljana’s laid-back charms – highlights are the Dragon Bridge and a glass funicular from Krekov.
Sitting between the Alps and the Adriatic, Ljubljana (which translates as beloved city) feels more like a small town than a capital. The city’s main artery, the river Ljubljanica, separates old and new Ljubljana – with the mighty medieval fortress looming over the city’s eastern bank and a plethora of art galleries and museums concentrated in the west. Cafés and restaurants jostle for business along its Venetian-like river promenade – the place to grab a bite to eat and people-watch in the city.
A great way to get your bearings is with a trip up to the castle that’s steeped in over 500 years of history. If you’re feeling sloth-like, take the glass-sided funicular from Krekov Square (beside the Central market), or work up a sweat taking the steep path that meanders up from the Old Town. Climb another 95 steps up the 19th-century Outlook Tower and your efforts will be rewarded with breathtaking views over the city – a vision of terracotta roofs and swathes of greenery framed by the snow-capped Julian Alps.
One of the city’s largest expanses of green spaces is Tivoli Park: formerly the pleasure grounds of a 17th-century stately home, only a 15-minute stroll from the city centre. You can easily while away an afternoon exploring its 19th-century gardens, lake and open-air art gallery.
Another way to get your green fix (coupled with a dose of culture), is at one of the city’s Library under the Treetops – a series of pop-up al fresco libraries set up under the shade of willow trees lining the bank.
Marvel at sights of pleasure grounds at a 17th-century home at Tivoli Park, and the iconic, grand Triple Bridge (below).
But Ljubljana doesn’t just look green, it thinks green too. Its long list of environmental initiatives – from bike sharing schemes to free electric minibuses or kavalirs (ferrying locals and tourists around the city) have led to it being named European Green Capital 2016. You can do your part by sightseeing on two wheels with a bike rented from the tourist office, or take to the water with a boat tour. Paddling along the river’s trajectory you glide under the city’s three principal bridges, including the famous marble Triple bridge, taking in sights like the Prešeren and Vodnik Squares in a two-hour long tour. Bananaway (www.bananaway.si) does daily trips at 10 and 6pm, starting at the Špica Café. If you don’t fancy either of these modes of transport you can always take in the pedestrian-friendly city’s sites on foot. The 19th-century Triple Bridge designed by native architect Jože Plečnik is a good place to start. This leads to the geranium pink Franciscan church, where you can wonder down Wolfova Street, passing impressive buildings like the baroque Philharmonic Hall and Habsburg-influenced architecture that resembles neighbouring Austria.
If you want to seek out other Plečnik masterpieces, pay a visit to the University Library, Križanke summer theatre and the Cobblers’ Bridge. And you can round off your architectural tour with a foodie jaunt to the lively covered market, located just across from the Triple Bridge. Set between grand Plečnik-designed colonnades that follow the curve of the river, the market has become one of the city’s most iconic architectural landmarks. It’s a great spot to stock up on locally grown fruits and veggies (including foraged mushrooms), wild honey, dry-cured meats, fresh bread baked in wood-fired ovens and pumpkin seed oil (a local delicacy).
The staycation from your vacation
Ljubljana has a smorgasbord of activities right on its doorstep that are perfect for day-tripping. Hire a car, take the scenic drive through the Julian Alps and get exploring:
Lake Bled (a 40-minute drive)
A church on an island in a lake in the midst of the Alps – it doesn’t get more picture-perfect than Lake Bled, and the fortress dangling above.
Plucked straight from a fairy-tale, this cobalt blue glacial lake (and Slovenia’s number-one tourist attraction) is a sight to behold – come rain or shine. And marooned on an islet in the middle of the lake, peeking out of the greenery, is the beautiful 17th-century baroque church, decorated with medieval frescoes and boasting a charming bell tower where it’s tradition to ring the bell and pledge a wish.
You can reach the island via a traditional gondola-style Pletna or a rowboat that can be rented from the castle boathouse. If you’re feeling energetic you can even swim in the lake’s thermal waters, which are a balmy 26 degrees even in autumn!
For some elevation and panoramic views, make a trip to the dramatic medieval fortress that perches precariously on a rocky crag overlooking the lake. It houses a museum, printing press and chapel.
Top tip: Get here early to beat the crowds and see the lake enveloped in a magical early-morning mist.
Tolmin Gorges (a 90-minute drive) and Hiša Franko
Don’t forget a walk over Devil’s Bridge above the gorgeous Tolmin Gorges, carved out by two crystal-clear rivers.
Carved out by the crystal-clear waters of the Tolminka and Zadlascica alpine rivers, the Tolmin Gorges are one of Triglav National Park’s natural treasures. You can hike the easy semi-looped trail that runs from the top to the bottom of the gorge (starting at Devil’s Bridge) in less than an hour.
Its pièce de résistance is the Medvedova glava – a natural bridge formed by a huge triangular rock called The Bear’s Head – wedged dramatically between two rock faces. Equally photogenic is the three-halled Dante cave – whose beauty inspired the poem: The Divine Comedy, penned by Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
Hiša Franko is a must-visit – not only is it where Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, but it’s also a foodie haven.
A 25-minute drive west is Hiša Franko, a destination restaurant/inn that no self-proclaiming foodie should pass up. Set in a stunning terracotta villa surrounded by orchards, the restaurant is helmed by self-taught chef Ana Roš, who serves up modern Slovene food with Balkan and Mediterranean flavours. Its multi-course tasting menus feature entirely native ingredients – including fresh trout from the nearby creek, edible flowers from the garden and locally sourced mountain cheeses. www.hisafranko.com
Top tip: Sleep off your salubrious lunch (or dinner) at one of the 13 rooms at Hiša Franko, where incidentally Hemingway penned his novel A Farewell to Arms.
Goriška Brda (an hour-long drive)
The magical Goriška Brda is all rolling hills, vineyards, olive terraces and quaint villages – it’s a place where time really does stand still.
Nicknamed Slovenian Tuscany on account of its pretty stone-built houses and hilly terrain, Goriška Brda is a bucolic landscape of vineyards, olive terraces and timeless villages. A must-not-miss on a visit to the region is Šmartno – a medieval-walled hilltop village where time really does stand still. Once a military fort that has been painstakingly renovated after a serious earthquake in the 1960s, the entire village has now been declared a cultural monument.
You can meander between rose-strewn houses that line a labyrinth of streets connecting its five preserved towers and baroque Church of Saint Martin – the village’s namesake. Hunt down Hiši Kulture in Šmartno’s winding alleys, which have a small Oljčni (olive) cafe where you can indulge in some guided olive oil tasting. www.smartnobrda.si
Top tip: Make a lunch date at Hiša Marica in Šmartno – a rustic family-run homestead that serves up traditional fare inspired by Grandma Marica’s recipes. en.marica.si
Postojna Caves (a 45-minute drive)
Tour the mesmerising Postojna Cave with its passages and galleries and halls, then make your way to the dramatic 800-year-old Predjama Castle.
Slovenia may be a country the size of Wales, but that doesn’t stop it having one of the world’s longest Karst cave systems. The most visited of its 23 explorable caves is Postojna – a 24km web of passages, tunnels, galleries and halls that was formed over a million years ago by the Pivka River. You can take a two-hour tour of this mesmerising limestone underworld, which begins with a narrow 1920s train ride and continues on foot, ending at the cavernous concert hall that occasionally holds concerts of up to 10,000 people.
Keep your eyes peeled for cave-dwelling white salamanders or olms, which can survive up to 14 years without food! And don’t forget to bring your postcards to send from the world’s only underground post office.
Just 9km from Postojna is the only preserved cave castle in the world; Predjama. Jutting out from a sheer rock face, the dramatic 800-year-old fortress was built under a natural, rocky arch high into a towering 125-metre cliff, making it impenetrable to intruders. Once home to legendary outcast Knight Erasmus, the Renaissance castle not only offers a fascinating insight into the Middle Ages, but also affords epic views over the Lokva river valley.
Top tip: Come prepared with a jumper and trainers to the caves, which are a nippy 10 degrees and slippery underfoot.
Bovec (a two-hour drive)
From the highest ski resort in Slovenia to rafting and kayaking in Soča, Slovenia packs quite an adventure punch.
Slovenia’s unofficial outdoor capital and hotspot for al fresco pursuits is the mountain town of Bovec in the Upper Soča Valley. Once a major battle site during the First World War, its surrounding valleys have evolved into an adventure playground for mountain biking, hiking, horse riding, paragliding and kayaking. In fact, there’s little of the area you can’t raft, climb, bike or hike!
The region’s life-blood is the Soča river, which runs high in the Julian Alps through Slovenia and continues into the Adriatic sea. Thrill-seekers can raft the emerald beauty, but its deceptively icy cold waters are not for the faint-hearted! If you have a head for heights, try zip lining in the Učja Valley, where you can soar 150 metres above ground with jaw-dropping views over Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak (www.zipline.si). For a more sedate activity go and see the dramatic Boka waterfall, set among beautifully unspoilt alpine scenery.
Top tip: Hankering for a winter wonderland escape? Bovec is home to the highest ski resort in Slovenia, Kanin.