Hidden in the hills of central Europe, Slovenia has gone virtually unnoticed by American tourists. This country, largely unheard of (until the recent American election that is), is a untapped gem that we bet, will become a mainstream tourist destination in only a few years. Our recent trip this November confirmed what a quick Google search of Slovenia instantly paints: a picture of magical lands and peaceful, hospitable people.
Slovenia history is varied as the result of multiple empires and surrounding European powerhouses who have left their mark in the best way possible. First the Roman Empire, later the Habsburgs and then Yugoslavia, Slovenia is bordered by Italy on the West, Austria on the North and Croatia / Hungary to the east. It's central location makes Slovenia one of the most water-rich European countries, while it's people and commitment to natural resources ware the reason Ljubljana was recently awarded the "Most Green" European capital.
While we boarded the plane knowing our views would be spectacular, we did not realize we'd discover some of the best European food and hospitality found across the entire continent. After our history lesson however, it became apparent how this seemingly unknown country ranks top marks in all categories. Slovenia had adopted the best qualities of the most amazing cultures and made it their own - Mediterranean-infused food, Romanesque architecture, open-mindedness and more from their neighboring countries and varied past.
We recommend visiting this unique, magical country before word gets out just how amazing Slovenia is. And if you are wondering if Slovenians speak English (we had no idea upon arrival), don't worry. Almost everyone we met spoke perfect English.
Start in the country's captial, Ljubljana
Ljubljana, pronounced "Lube-lee-ahna," is the youthful, lively capital of Slovenia where you will most likely start your journey. Charmingly energetic, the romantic building facades lining the river are constantly filled with locals eating, drinking and strolling through town. Ljubljana's tourist area is centrally located and easily walkable, with many roads blocked off to cars and buses, making this city one of the most pedestrian friendly capitals. Almost everything we did was within a 20 minute walking-radius.
High above the city lies the Ljubljana Castle, overlooking the town and surrounding area. Hiking paths and a funicular are available, as are guided tours. We opted for the combo ride + museum entrance to get the full experience but many areas are available (including a general viewing tower and cafe) are available with no additional entrance fee.
While the city has many cultural activities to view, Explore Beyond is all about living like a local and that means FOOD and WINE. Slovenia did not disappoint. Knowing virtually nothing about Slovenia food, we realized we had stumbled upon a goldmine of local wines and delicious food. Combine that with the affordability and cheap cost of living, we lived like kings.
Because of Slovenia's central location to the Mediterranean, food focuses on fresh seafood, vegetables, lean meat, pasta and olive oil. Almost every restaurant we stumbled upon had fresh made pasta, risotto, fish and interesting enough, everything truffle (truffle soup, truffle pasta, truffle shavings). Pairing wine with all of our meals proved affordable and necessary: Slovenian wine has been around much longer than Italian wine. Winemaking existed in the area during the time of Celtics and Illyrian tribes and today, almost all of the wines are drank domestically; it's virtually impossible to find a Slovenian wine at your grocery store. Our average wine pour cost around $4 but you could find it as cheap as $1.50.
We found a restaurant on a local blog called TaBar - a local tapas joint featuring small, Slovenian plates, which allowed us to feast like kings (and live like kings, with the affordability). Wanting to try as many dishes as possible, we stopped by and ordered the chef's menu: three tastings per person.
The food was spectacular and the menu varied, including some of the best octopus we've found on the planet. Other noteable plates included chicken liver pate (surprisingly hearty and comfort-food level), spicy beef and garlic-aioli shrimp. YUM. The best part, the bill! We had six small plates and four glasses of high caliber wine and our total check came out to ~$45. In the states, you are looking at $45 for the glasses of wine alone.
Other notable eateries include Julija's (risotto and pasta), Most (river seating and Italian style food), Vigo (cafe and ice cream) and Lolita's (cafe and bakery).
Exploring beyond the capital
Exploring beyond Ljubljana is relatively easy with the bus and train station jointly located. Staff is very knowledgeable and speaks English, which makes planning relatively easy. Looking for outdoor adventure like rafting or hiking? Slovenia has it. Want beaches and coastal towns? Slovenia has it. Want romance and castles? You guess it, Slovenia has it. With over 60% of their country covered by forest, this is the adventurers dream.
On our trip, we explored a small town near the Austrian border: Bled. Only an hour and a half bus ride away (leaves Ljubljana on the hour, every hour), we picked this destination for it's romantic, magical mysticism and stunning views.
The main draw of Bled is it's enchanting lake, sharply accented by Bled Castle, nestled atop the arduous, steep mountain side. No matter where you look, the castle never leaves the peripherals and becomes the beacon of your navigation. Settled sweetly in the middle of Lake Bled is the Church on the Island - a fitting name for what seems to be a floating island, only reachable by boat. The entire lake is surrounded by walking paths, which lead you to the main town, to different vistas and hidden gardens.
November was a slow month for Lake Bled and it became apparent this city shines in the summer. We saw remnants of water slides and sporting activity available only during the warmer months. Yet that only made this town more enchanting. The relatively quiet atmosphere combined with an overcast day, had us transported into another time.
- Rent a personal row boat or join a group boating out to the Church on the Island
- Tip: buy your own groceries and have a make-shift picnic or grab wine at the cafe located near the church
- Boats can be located on the southwest section of the lake (if you are at the main town, walk left until you reach just left of the island)
- Walk the entire loop around the lake (about 1.5 hours)
- Explore the hilly streets in town, following all the random paths the town has to offer
- Explore Beyond stayed at Vila Istra, a four star hotel on the southwest section of the lake
- Vila Istra is a restored Victorian house with superb customer service and attention to detail
- Book the Luxury Suite for a trip you can't forget and a view worth the price
- Sova (strangely named "Wine bar&restavracija Sova" on Tripadvisor) was our winner for best meal in Lake Bled. It was so good, we went twice
- An expansive menu of pasta, meats and seafood this affordable restaurant was worth the walk from the main part of town (10 minute walk)
- Pizzeria Rustika had amazing, fresh pizza and salads in a cozy environment
- Try the spicy pizza for a kick!
Getting to Slovenia
From the US
Flights to Slovenia (LJU) will require at least one stopover, as Adira is the primary airline and flies only regionally. A quick google search on 12/11 yielded flights as low as $900 out of Atlanta (for June vacation) or $700 for an NYC departure. Venice is also very close, only 100 miles away from Ljubljana with many transfers available. Once on the ground, food and hotels are very reasonable.
Regarding hotels: particularly in Ljubljana, we noticed the majority of "hotels" were actually B&Bs or apartments. This was one of the most charming features as Slovenia isn't overrun with commercialized hospitality industries. Every place we stayed, whether a B&B or apartment was charming and more than adequate for a western traveler.
And in case you happen to explore Slovenia during the holidays, we recommend this off-the-path Christmas market in Ljubljana. More quaint and charming than Germany markets (and seemingly safer since the recent terror alerts), it's worth the trip alone.