Just a few years ago it seemed that Slovenia, perched between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia was fairly unknown to people. But those days are now long gone, as this country of two million in the north of the Adriatic Sea has been breaking records in tourism for the last four consecutive years, beating all of Europe with its increase in overnight stays of foreign guests and a week rarely goes by without representatives of various recognized tourist organizations or eminent media praising the splendors of one of the smallest European countries.
The country is also gaining popularity among those looking for authentic destinations and those who are unfamiliar with the explosion of mass tourism. Among these guests are an increasing number of Americans.
Meeting your inner self in Piran
If you arrive from Italy, e.g. from Venice, it is best to start your visit to Slovenia on the Slovenian coast. Despite measuring just 46 kilometers in length, it offers numerous tourist spots, places and attractions. One of these is Piran, one of the most colorful and photogenic towns on the Slovenian coast, which the Slovenians delight in calling their “Little Venice”.
Even though Piran cannot boast singing gondoliers and elegant black gondolas, it won’t take long for you to simply fall in love with this port town and its medieval town walls. The magic of Piran can best be experienced if you get lost in its narrow streets and tightly packed houses or engage in conversation with a friendly waiter in one of the selected restaurants offering a wide variety of seafood dishes. Another specialty of the Slovenian coast is connected to the sea - salt panning. In the Slovenian coastal towns of Sečovlje and Strunjan, salt is still being produced today using a 700-year-old natural and manual method. Where there’s an abundance of salt, there’s also plenty of opportunities to use its healing effects. Since Slovenians obviously don’t want to be left behind, you can enjoy sea therapy, aerosol therapy, climatic therapy and therapy with salt-pan mud.
Where fine wines are made...
While Piran is often compared to Venice, similarities are also often drawn between Tuscany in Italy and the Slovenian region of Goriška Brda. Rightfully so, as this magnificent region is just miles away from the Italian border and will steal your heart with its medieval villages and hills covered with vineyards, fruit trees and many hundred-year-old cypresses.
After you feed your soul with the almost Hollywood-like scenery of this magical wine growing region full of castles, manors and villas, it will be time to take care of your taste buds, as the Goriška Brda region is not only a place where excellent wine is made, but a place where you can eat well too. Freshly baked bread and home-made olive oil. Prosciutto and Pancetta. Goat cheese, asparagus, polenta...these are just a few of the delicious dishes in which you get to indulge in Goriška Brda, while the nearby sea gently caresses you with warm Mediterranean air.
If you’re also a fan of adventuring into the unknown, you might be in for a special treat - while travelling on meandering local roads you might lose track of whether you’re in Italy or Slovenia; which can be as welcome as finding your inner self in the middle of Piran.
Good food is also inseparably linked with the river Soča Valley, which due to its milky blueish-green color is often called the “emerald river” by Slovenians. With its development of sustainable tourism, the valley was the first in Slovenia to obtain the title of European Destination of Excellence (EDEN) and is also home to Ana Roš, who was last year crowned as the best chef in the world by the world-renowned academy of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The Slovenian celebrity chef also increased the culinary popularity of Posočje (the river Soča Valley) in 2016, when she was the only female participant in the American documentary Chef’s Table.
The greenest place in Europe
A visit to Slovenia is not complete without visiting the cosmopolitan resort of Bled and its lake of the same name, located just 15 kilometers from the Austrian border. Traditional tales claim that the lake was filled by the stunningly gorgeous mountain fairies, so they could dance in the middle of the lake undisturbed on moonlit nights and, with a little imagination, you can just about imagine such a sight when you ascend to the breathtaking medieval Castle Bled and, from a height of 139 meters, view the lake’s surface reflecting the neighboring mountains. Once you are done taking in the view, which in recent years has been a real hit on Instagram, you can pamper yourself in thermal waters, visit the eminent Vila Bled Hotel, or swim in the warm lake water, which in summer is a warm 26 degrees.
Vila Bled was once the residence of the Yugoslavian president Tito. A fascinating hotel, surrounded by a big park, partially hidden from the sight of passers-by, has sustained its charm and character from the 1950s up to today. It is here where you will be rewarded with the main prize - the remarkable view of Lake Bled, a view that was once shared by Tito and international - including American - film stars, prime ministers, kings and queens.
The adjective “royal” can also be found in one of the two golf courses Bled offers. The credit for that goes to the Karadzordzevic royal family of Yugoslavia, who realized 80 years ago that Bled is a place where the love for sport can be combined with the breathtaking beauty of Slovenian nature. Slovenia has sixteen golf courses, which are not hard to get to regardless of whether you’re on the Slovenian coast, in the lively capital Ljubljana or nestled in the Slovenian Alps.
And there is no better place to conclude the day you started with a boat ride on a glacial lake and continued with lunch at the nearby medieval Castle Bled, than in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, just an hour’s drive away, which in 2016 was awarded the title of the greenest city in Europe. The view of Ljubljana with the old town and the medieval castle on the city hill resembles the Austrian city of Salzburg. Another similarity the Slovenian capital shares with the Austrian center of classical music is the distant view of the snow-covered mountains, among which can be seen Slovenia’s highest peak, the 2,864m high Mt. Triglav.
A capital you will fall in love with
Despite having everything a capital needs, you shouldn’t look for similarities with other European capitals since Ljubljana is simply - too small. But it’s the city’s intimate character that you will fall for when enjoying a cup of coffee or a glass of wine on the bank of the Ljubljanica River in the city center while taking in the view of the old town and Ljubljana Castle. In recent years Ljubljana has also been transformed into a friendly oasis for cyclists, and it does not disappoint from a culinary standpoint, either.
Even just a few years ago, the Slovenian capital was not considered a distinct culinary capital, but this has now started to change. This has a lot to do with Ljubljana’s own culinary market event where, every Friday from March to October, the best Slovenian chefs gather and offer visitors their dishes and excellent Slovenian wines. The event has the somewhat felicitous name of “Open Kitchen” and lets restaurants and chefs from all over Slovenia offer their dishes and wines for a day at the Ljubljana market. The project, initiated by young enthusiasts with the desire to bring all of the flavors of culinary Slovenia to one spot, has now grown into one of the most popular and most visited events in the Slovenian capital.
Ljubljana, with its predominately Baroque architecture, also offers a few excellent restaurants and charming and attractive hotels. Among the latter is the hostel Celica, an artistically restored former prison that is considered to be one of the most popular tourist sites in Ljubljana. The chefs at the Otočec Castle, located less than an hour’s drive from the capital in the direction of Croatia, are also known for their imagination. The only Slovenian water castle lies on an island in the middle of the Krka River and also includes a five-star hotel.
Slovenian black gold, cimprače, sleeping in a hayloft
After you’ve enjoyed the embrace of the Adriatic Sea, breathed fresh mountain air in the Slovenian Alps, or taken a relaxing stroll in the capital, you can complete the experience with a quiet end to the week in the north-eastern part of Slovenia, at the border with Austria and Hungary, on the left bank of the Mura River, in Prekmurje. Not long ago, this Slovenian region was somewhat overlooked, but this has changed; a situation which has a lot to do with the English a decade ago buying old houses in Prekmurje for their extended weekend getaways and some even moving there permanently.
You will quickly become fond of the kindness the people of Prekmurje offer while they proudly show you “cimprače”, the traditional Pannonian houses made of wood, mud and straw, which were an important part of the housing culture of the rural population in Prekmurje, even as late as at the start of the 20th century. Of course, you cannot visit Prekmurje without indulging in the local culinary pleasures, which many agree are exceptional. While you will be spoiled with fresh seafood and olive oil in the coastal towns of Portorose and Piran, when in Prekmurje you’ll have a chance to taste the black gold, a name Slovenians use for their culinary specialty pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin ice cream, or indulge your sweet tooth with the unique Slovenian dessert gibanica, which will treat you to an intense mouthwatering explosion of flavors.