Above, my watercolor attempt at capturing Slovenia’s natural beauty
After two and a half positively blissful weeks in the South of France, what better way to cap it off than to take a 18 hour bus ride? For the low price of €50 apiece, G and I were able to take an overnight FlixBus from Marseille to Ljubljana. I apparently had become spoiled by my recent luxury bus experience in South America and was surprised to discover that our bus didn’t have some of the amenities I promised G when booking the tickets, working air conditioning for example. This did end up being the cheapest and most direct route. However, we suffered through a hot, hungry, and sleepless night. Yet it was all worth it as soon as we reached the glorious Slovenian capital: Ljubljana.
For those of you who don’t know, Slovenia is a small country in Eastern Europe that has gained more attention recently as the hometown of our FLOTUS, Melania Trump. Not a fan? Don’t let that fact turn you off. Slovenia is incredibly underrated and hasn’t been discovered by most people, which is why this hidden gem should really be a stop on anyone’s European vacation. Here are my 5 reasons why I fell in love with Slovenia.
1. Storybook scenery
Slovenia’s scenery is like something out of a fairy tale: lush forests, snowy peaks, and sparkling waters. And since Slovenia was declared the world’s “greenest” country last year, these beautiful landscapes are incredibly well-preserved. Due to its natural beauty, Slovenia makes for a perfect road trip. With most of it’s main attractions on the west side of the country, we found ourselves pulling over quite often to take a photo!
One thing to keep in mind: while the roads are well maintained, they are quite narrow as they wind through steep mountain-side cliffs. Slovenian drivers are completely fearless when it comes to this type of driving though. There were a few instances where we even got tailgated by HUGE trucks driving at 90 km around these tiny mountainous roads.
2. The cutest capital
Despite it’s unpronounceable name, Slovenia’s tiny capital Ljubljana (lyoo-BLYAH-nah) is absolutely adorable. This pastel-colored beauty is nestled along a river, right next to the Kamnik–Savinja Alps, making for some picture perfect sunsets and photo ops.
The Ljubljanica River runs through the downtown, and there is a vibrant cafe culture along the river banks. In the evening, it seemed like this was the place for the locals to see and be seen. You also have the option of taking a romantic boat cruise to see the city from the river.
The city itself is small – only about 300,000 people – so it never felt too crowded. In Ljubljana, the city center is closed to traffic. Only pedestrians, buses and bicycles are allowed, making it incredibly pleasant to take a stroll without breathing in fumes. As a result, Ljubljana is a top 20 biking city, and their BicikeLJ bike-sharing program made it easy for us to get access to bikes for just €1 for a WEEK.
As you may have noticed from our previous posts, we love street art, and Ljubljana has some of the best. A great place to see some is the Metelkova district, a former army barracks that was squatted by artists in the early 1990s and is now an autonomous social center known for having a great art, music and cheap drinks. We spent a late afternoon admiring the beautiful murals covering every inch of usable space.
Just like the town, the medieval Ljubljana castle is small, tidy, and pretty. One of 100 castles in Slovenia, it’s perched atop a hill in the center of town, and while it’s a hike to get there, you will witness some beautiful views of the orange roofed city. We went at sunset and it was lovely. For some great fine dining inside of the castle, check out Gostilna Na Gradu.
And you can’t go to Ljubljana without seeing its famous dragons. They are the symbol of the city and can be spotted everywhere: on the coat of arms, on tourist t-shirts and of course on the famous Dragon Bridge.
And finally, there’s the amazing 1,260-acre Park Tivoli, a huge preserved forest right in the middle of the city, with trails that were great for our morning jogging routine!
3. Plenty of day trip destinations
Slovenia is roughly the size of New Jersey, so everything is about 2 hours away and totally doable in a day trip. There are obviously a lot of things to see, but here two excellent areas we experienced firsthand.
After 3 days in Ljubljana, we stayed in the Soča Valley for a week with G’s family. If you decide to go to Slovenia with a big group of people, I highly recommend staying in the house we rented. The owner built it himself and it has a huge outdoor patio and grill, a pool and even a tiny vineyard. We loved it so much that some days we didn’t leave!
The Soča Valley is an absolutely picturesque area of the country, so much that Disney filmed part of The Chronicles of Narnia there. The star of the Soča Valley is of course the magnificent Soča River, which gets its light turquoise color from the limestone mountains it traverses through. It’s a common feature of alpine rivers, but the Soča was definitely the prettiest I have ever seen.
Outside of Ljubljana, Lake Bled is probably the most-visited part of Slovenia, and for good reason. Picture this: a turquoise alpine lake amidst the Julian Alps, flanked by a clifftop castle and a tiny island in the middle. Definitely fairy tale-worthy.
We spent the day walking around and taking in the sights. We stopped at Ostarija Peglez’n for yummy seafood, and also had the traditional Bled dessert – a kremšnita – at a lakeside cafe.
Bled Castle overlooks Lake Bled, and is worth the short hike up a cliff. It’s a museum inside, and also offers spectacular views of the lake itself.
4. Food & wine
I will confess that one of the main things that drew me to Slovenia was its notoriety amongst foodies. In 2012, BON APPÉTIT published this article, and I have been dreaming about a culinary road trip ever since. One possible reason for all the great food is the booming local organic farming industry. The Slovenian government is committed to making the country the “garden of Europe” by pouring a ton of resources into organic farming.
The most famous restaurant in Slovenia (and top 100 in the world) is the farm-to-table Hiša Franko, which uses all local ingredients. The chef, Ana Roš, was also just voted the best female chef in the world.
To pair with the excellent food, Slovenia has 9 wine growing regions. We stayed near the Goriška Brda region, also known as Slovenia’s “Tuscany”. One of the famous wines we discovered was Orange wine, made by the same process as normal white wine, only with the skins retained. It has a deep, bold, mead-like taste and is nothing like the Sauvignon Blanc I am used to. That said, it paired well with the fish and spicy foods we were eating.
After spending 10 days in Slovenia, I would caution that the food is much more enjoyable when eating at fancier establishments. From what I noticed, traditional recipes are still on the heavier side, relying more on meat rather than fish and vegetables.
5. Outdoor activities
We love staying active when we travel, and Slovenia is the perfect place to do it. In Soča Valley, the town of Bovec has growing reputation for adventure sports. Everything from river rafting and kayaking, biking, hiking and even paragliding. We decided on a rafting trip with Bovec Rafting team. This company takes you on the most beautiful parts of the Soča River through Class 3 rapids, stopping to jump in the chilly river and finishing off the trip with a group toast of local Brinjavec liquor. The best part is they provided free photos and videos of our boat experience taken via GoPro. We had an awesome time!
BONUS: It’s cheap
While this may not be super relevant to all of our readers, as we are budget backpackers after all, we loved that Slovenia was light on the wallet. The Eurozone crisis hit Slovenia pretty hard, so things are still very inexpensive compared to its European neighbors. For instance, while in France or Italy, a cappuccino set us back €5, in Slovenia it would be a thrifty €1.50. Beyond coffee, everything from our Airbnb to a fancy dinner out was at least half of what we were used to paying.
That said, Slovenia’s tourism industry is booming, so it’ll likely get more expensive in the years to come!