It’s only the size of New Jersey, hidden amongst powerhouses of Western Europe like Italy, Austria and Croatia. But, Slovenia offers the best of the region, a small country that is easy to navigate and overflowing with charm. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as your first European country to visit, but after navigating a few other big cities with crowds and tourists, Slovenia feels like what we all expect old and quaint Europe to be.
The capital, Ljubljana, is compact and walkable with picturesque bridges crossing back and forth over the river cutting through the city. Coffee shops line the pedestrian-only streets and the architecture draws out everyone’s cameras as they try to capture the Old World ambience. After a hectic start to the school year, Mitch and I snuck away for our anniversary and attempted to slow down for a week, reconnecting and recharging our tired batteries. Ljubljana was the perfect place to start.
Always ready to test out restaurant recommendations from friends and other travel bloggers, we started our first night on the right foot dining al fresco under the stars at Julija (pronounced Julia. Sadly, we butchered the Slovene language, but everyone there speaks English, so no worries!) Another night we splurged at one of the city’s finest and oldest establishments, Spajza. The best gelato we’ve ever had was at Vigo and we made it there at least once every day. Or twice : ) Mitch enjoyed the hipster coffee shops and much to my delight, many also served wine! We frequented Todz in the morning, evening and late night.
A good free walking tour is a staple for us at every city stop, and Ljubljana’s was everything we needed and wanted. Two hours of history woven into memorable stories that helped us understand this former Roman city, Austro-Hungarian territory, Italian region and jewel of Yugoslavia—now a proud and prospering country with its own identity in a corner of the EU.
Much of Slovenia can be reached within an hour or two, so we explored the wine region, caves, lakes and mountains on day trips from Ljubljana. With fall colors bursting from the forested mountains, we explored the outdoors and appreciated the fresh, cold air that we hadn’t yet experienced at home. Each of these deserves a full day, but they are easily accessible on Slovenia’s excellent highways so we recommend renting a car.
Lake Bled, Bohinj and Vintgar Gorge – Take a 3-mile, easy walk around Lake Bled, breathe in the fresh mountain air and gaze at the iconic island with the church in the center. We heard it’s unbearably crowded in the summer, but early October brought a beautiful clear day and very few people. We rented a wooden rowboat and paddled out to the church, but the best views are from the shore. Lake Bohinj is much quieter and every bit as picturesque. As the sun was setting, we ran out of time to hike the waterfall or take the cable car to the top of one of the mountains overlooking the lake, but I’m sure both would be stunning. Instead, we drove 20 minutes away to Vintgar Gorge and traversed bridges and walkways over a rushing river and waterfalls.
Vrsic Pass – If driving 50 switchbacks up and down the Julian Alps gets your heart pumping, head up to the Vrsic Pass to enjoy craggy mountain peaks, historic WWI relics and beautiful hiking trails. My stomach wasn’t fit for Mitch’s Top Gear driving, but the views were worth the climb.
Skocjan Caves – Europe’s largest underground cavern is found in Slovenia, and I have to admit, I didn’t think I’d be impressed. We’ve seen some amazing caves, stalactites and stalagmites in the U.S. and New Zealand, but I was actually stunned to experience the unbelievably imposing limestone karsts and cross a bridge 1500 feet high above a dark cavern of thunderous water. The nature was beautiful inside the cave and out, and we enjoyed an afternoon of hiking through the Slovenian forest.
Vipava Valley Wine Region – Not far from the caves is Slovenia’s top wine region, and we happened upon the “house of pinots” where Tilia vintner Matjaz Lemur gave us an extensive education and tasting in the cellar at his home. The Vipava Valley is laced with vineyard-lined hillsides and small, family-owned wineries that are happy to give you a taste.
The slower pace of life in Slovenia, coupled with the crisp autumn weather, sent us home refreshed. Quality time is my “love language,” and I found Ljubljana and Slovenia as a whole to offer the things that Mitch and I enjoy together— exploring quaint European cities on foot, food, wine and nature.