Updated July 12, 2007
It is known as the greenest country in Europe, with a larger part of its land in forest than any other nation on the continent. Add spectacular mountains and clear blue Adriatic waters and you have a country of indescribable beauty. Blend charming Austro-Hungarian architecture with people who are both gracious and industrious, and you have the recipe for a wonderful place to live, even if you only have time for a short vacation. From fine dining in Ljubljana to whitewater rafting on the Sava River, from sun-drenched days on the Adriatic to underground adventures in huge networks of caves, you'll find hundreds of enjoyable ways to see this country and experience its culture.
Though Slovenia, as a region of Yugoslovia, sat behind the Iron Curtain, it seems a prosperous and comfortable place. Our trip this summer took us to four former communist nations, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia. Of those countries, Slovenia seemed to have suffered the least from the lack of trade with the west. Because of its scenic beauty, it long been a tourist destination and has many facilities that serve modern travelers.
If you have any concerns about traveling to a former communist nation, Slovenia is the best place to start. You will find roads and facilities as good or better than many you find at home. Its major highways are well designed and easy to navigate. Its people are friendly and many speak English.
A common ways to arrive in Slovenia is by car from Hungary to the northeast. We drove from Budapest to Ljubljana in about three and a half hours. The only major slowdown was at the border crossing. Many travelers arrive in Slovenia from Italy. If you are going to Ljubljana, travel from Italy is easy and the capital city is clearly signed. You may encounter some difficulties on the way from Italy to the seaside towns of Koper, Porteroz and Piran or if you are traveling on to Croatia, because the road signs near the Italian/Slovenian border may use the Italian language rather than Slovenian name for those cities. After you translate the names from Slovenian to Italian, travel into Slovenia is easy.
The hills of northeastern Slovenia are dotted with quaint farm villages and charming farmhouses and churches painted in bright yellows and pinks. "It's so beautiful" became my mantra until we descended into the foothills of Ljubljana. Momentarily, I soaked in the sprawl of the capital city as we headed toward the downtown castle section of Ljubljana. And by the time we were at our hotel, I was chanting "its so beautiful" again.
Though Ljubljana is Slovenia's largest city with modern housing and businesses encircling its historic old town, it seems very compact and easy to navigate. The old section which hugs the banks of the Ljubljana River is easy to walk and is beautiful as night starts to fall. At about $110 a night, the room was a splurge for our budget, but its location and elegant breakfast made it a good value.
View from Ljubljana Castle across the City
Three Bridges across the Ljubljana River
Lake Bohenj southwest of Lake Bled
The island church of Lake Bled
The stunning Vintgar Gorge near Lake Bled
The Russian Memorial Church of Triglav National Park
Inside the Postojna Cave
The Marina at Piran
As you stroll the river walk, you spot many restaurants serving traditional Slovenia food--a blend of Italian and Hungarian styles with a strong emphasis on seafood. We had dinner at Gostilna Sokol, a block away from the the Three Bridges crossing the Ljubljana River in the town square. Our hotel recommended the restaurant for its traditional faire. We were delighted to find a reasonably priced menu (under $15 USD (in 2006) each for full meal with beer or wine) and great service. The menu included a variety of game meats including venison. It is also a great place for anything with truffles, one of the local delicacies.
Shopping in Slovenia ranges from a very simple market in the town square to dozens of chic stores along the riverfront. If you are looking for anything, you should be able to find it in the capital city.
There are many lodging options in Slovenia. We stayed at the Hotel Grand Union which we found through Orbitz, at one-half its normal rate. This four-star hotel has been the refuge for business travelers for more than a century. It now includes an executive wing with large, comfortable rooms and elegant marble bathrooms. The room comes with a sumptuous breakfast buffet spread across 8 banquet tables; it has the obligatory cereals, pastries, eggs and breakfast meats augmented by delicious salads and vegetables making the meal an incredible feast.
The charming mountain lake with Slovenia's only island is a cherished vacation destination for Slovenians and foreign tourists. It is a particularly popular with rowers who find the long stretch of flat water to be an ideal place to train. The town of Bled is filled with hotels and restaurants serving the crowds of tourists you'll find there on a summer day. As you circle the lake, you will find campgounds with access to great swimming beaches and the rowing club.
There are many ways to enjoy the lake and its pleasant waters. You can take a guided tour from many spots on the river or you can rent a rowboat and paddle out to the island. If you just enjoy scenic beauty, you can walk around the lake in about an hour. If you are a strong swimmer, you can swim out to the island and the church. The classic facade of the Church of the Assumption is probably the most photographed landscape in the country. As you wander along the lake, you see the church on the island from many perspectives; some include the Bled Castle, perched on the side of the lake.
The activities in the Bled region are those you would associate with a trip to a beautiful recreation spot: swimming, boating, bicycling and hiking. A short drive from Lake Bled gets you to the dramatic Lake Bohenj which is popular with locals because it doesn't have as many tourists as its better known neighbor. In the Bohenj area, you will find a dramatic waterfall hike and a ski resort that offers gondola rides year round. You can also find many campgrounds in the region and places to rent boats.
Just a few miles from Lake Bled is Vintgar Gorge. A well maintained trail, often a wooden boardwalk along the river, guides you through the steep tree-lined canyon carved by the Vintgar River. At the end of the trail, you'll find a small snack shack serving drinks and goodies. It is a long but easy walk with many photogenic moments.
Skiing, mountaineering and dramatic mountain vistas are the major attractions in the Julian Alps, much of which are preserved in Triglav National Park. As you travel through Slovenia, you recognize the amazing engineering skills that Slovenians have developed. The road to the high peaks of the Julian Alps is one demonstration of the accomplishments of Slovenian workers and engineers, with dozens of switchbacks getting you up to and down from Slovenia's highest peak. Descriptions of the road may sound intimidating but if you are comfortable driving the narrow mountain roads of the western states of the US, the road to Triglav will seem like a freeway. Use the experience you have taking turns carefully and gearing down as you head downhill, and you'll feel safe. The views from this amazing highway are worth the effort.
Much of the labor that went it to building this road was supplied by Russian prisoners of war, forced to work by the Germans during World War I. The cold weather and harsh conditions cost many of the Russian soldiers their lives. Their efforts are memorialized with a beautiful chapel on the way up to Triglav from the north.
The Sava River drains the Julian Alps and provides great recreational opportunities for kayakers on one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. The turquoise color of the pristine water runs through deep rock gorges before becoming a river that can be run with kayaks. There are many outfitters in the area who rent equipment will take you out on the river, a refreshing way to spend a warm summer day.
Postojna Jama is Slovenia's largest cave network most noted for its huge central room. You ride an open train deep into the cavern where tours are conducted in five languages, including English. The guides will point out many of the cave's geological features and show you the white salamanders that have lost pigmentation over their centuries of cave dwelling.
This is a cave for those who are intrigued by the process that creates caves. Years of tourism have caused changes in the environment of the cave though efforts are made to protect the creatures who live there. It is just inevitable that hundreds of people breathing and moving through the space will leave lint and oils that change the colors of the formation. If you are a spellunking purist, you might enjoy lesser known caves in the area. But if you want to be awed by a spectacular geological site, Postojna Jama can deliver. The train ride in is memorable and the rooms you are guided through have many different formations that will help you appreciate the variety ways that caves evolve.
Not far from Postojna Jama is Predjamski, the castle built at the opening to a cave network. Though less visited than Postojna, it is a famous Slovenia tourist attraction providing tours through both the castle and the cave network behind.
If you are staying in Ljubljana, check with your hotel or the local tourist office for tours to the caves. The are located just a short ride from the coast or from the capital if you'd like to drive, or make a side trip to the ranch that breeds Lippazaneer horses. Signs to the cave and castle are easy to follow.
Slovenia has a small stretch of Adriatic coast, with many tourist facilities that will make a beachside stay comfortable. On a summer weekend, Slovenians crowd the highway heading to the warm waters of the Adriatic. The towns that dot the coast reflect the strong connection between this region and the Venetian empire.
The main town is Koper (Capodistria in Italian), just a short drive south of the Italian border. As the country's commercial port, it is a busy, industrial place but dotted with many signs of its long history and the foreign powers who controlled the territory. Rooms are a bit cheaper in Koper than other cities along the coast.
Nearby Izola has a great marina and many facilities. It is a popular destination with Slovenians so book early if you want to spend the night in the town.
Porteroz is a very tourist oriented town on the coast. Equipped with many hotels and lodging services, the city offers a pleasant beach, access to cruises and tours and great dining. If you want to enjoy the "Slovenia Riveria" this is the place to stay.
We stayed in the town of Piran with its tiny marina and stunning town square. The city is charming, with a small lighthouse at land's end and dozens of seaside restaurants. As you stroll through the city, you can definitely see the Venetian influence, in both its architecture and food.
We arrived in Piran on a weekday afternoon and quickly found a comfortable tourist apartment just above the daily market through the town's tourist information service. At about $75 USD per night for a spotless room that included a shower and small kitchenette, only a block from the water, it seemed like a very reasonable price. Organize your luggage before you arrive in Piran because the tiny town has very limited "in-town" parking. You'll be able to stop long enough to drop off you bags but will then have to move you car to the nearby parking lots. The city provides bus services back to your car. You will find it much easier to use that service if you limit the amount you need to take to your room.
While we were there we took Rick Steeve's recommendation to eat the Neptun Restaurant which is tucked a few blocks away from the town square. The food was great and the homemade schnapps we enjoyed after dinner was both savory and strong. Fortunately, it was only a short walk back to the apartment.
Driving in Slovenia
Like other former communist nations, Slovenia is a country that some car rental agencies will not allow you to visit. If you are considering a trip to any eastern European nation, discuss the restrictions on your rental agreement before you make a reservation. Note that most companies have a limited number of cars that may be driven to the East, so make your reservations early and BE CERTAIN that you can take the car to the countries you'd like to visit. Unlike Hungary and the Czech Repubilc, you can drive the roads of Slovenia without any permit. A few of the main roads charge small tolls, but generally you will find driving through Slovenia a safe and easy experience.
Currency in Slovenia
Though most former communist nations are still using their own currency, the Slovenians now use the Euro. With the current low exchange rate for the dollar, Slovenia appears to be a bit more expensive this year, with low rate rooms via the internet running around $100 USD. If you are comfortable waiting until you get to the capital and get there early in the day, you should be able to find a more reasonably priced room.