What else does Slovenia need to gain a foothold in the European itineraries of travelers? Why are the views of Lake Bled or the Skocjan Caves or the emerald green Soca River not on Buzzfeed's clickbait list of "27 Surreal Places You Should Visit Before You Die"? Why do people constantly ignore bloggers referring to Slovenia as their "favorite country they've visited"? How many times must it be referred to as "The Next Big Thing In Europe" before it finally breaks through and actually gets there? Why do travelers use Ljubljana as a one-day stopover on their way to Croatia when it should be the other way around? What else does Slovenia need? Does it need a cosmopolitan capital with plenty of activities and a bustling city center? Some of the most varied and beautiful natural areas in Europe? Kind and inviting citizens eager to have tourists learn about their nation and history? One of the most majestic and surreal small towns in the entire world? Great food in every restaurant? Great wine you've never even imagined?
Slovenia has all of these things and more; and we're going to tell you how to spend the perfect week on the sunny side of the Alps.
We're going to be using Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah and not Luh-Joob-Luh-JAHN-uh as we had hoped), Slovenia's capital city, as our base of activity for our time in Slovenia, for a couple of reasons:
- They have lots of dragon statues around because the CITY'S SYMBOL IS A DRAGON.
- It's awesome there (Did I mention the dragons?)
- The major highways of the country meet in Ljubes, and make day trips (which you'll be taking multiple) both efficient and easy.
- The entire country is about five hours driving-length wide, and LJB is right smack in the middle, so none of the destinations we'll be going to are too far away.
- It's fairly inexpensive to stay in. We stayed in a spacious one bedroom apartment with a balcony that was just outside the city center for under $50 per night.
- It was just recently named Europe's Green Capitol (which means it's both extremely clean/environmentally friendly AND full of trees/greenery).
- Again, dragons.
There are many ways to get into Ljubljana, from air (they have an international airport serviced by multiple low-cost European carriers such as RyanAir and EasyJet) to bus (FlixBus, MegaBus, and BusAbout all have stops in both Ljubes and Bled); we came from Venice on FlixBus and it took about three hours of driving through beautiful Alpine views and vistas. The ride from Venice cost us about €12 each, the change from the craziness of Venice to the serenity and relative calm of Ljubljana was a welcome one.
Once you've arrived in Ljubes, take some time to get to know your surroundings, but hopefully you're staying near the city center. If so, there's no need to rent a car, the downtown area is extremely walk-able, plus you'll be drinking a lot of wine if you follow our itinerary exactly, so driving will not be an option! If you've arrived in the afternoon or evening, spend this first evening wandering the Ljubljanica River area, with it's bustling shops and restaurants. Take the time to really enjoy the slowed down culture and extensive, UNBELIEVABLY affordable wine lists. Don't sit anywhere that doesn't have a river view and don't pay more than €4 for a glass of wine while you listen for the faint sounds of a street musician to waft by, or just simply enjoy the colors of a spectacular sunset reflecting off the river. Don't worry about cars riding by because the entire city center is a pedestrian zone, save for the free buses that shuttle tired folks around the area. Most likely you won't have to wait for a table to open up because it won't be that crowded. Try many different varietals of wine you've never heard of. Pick something off the menu that has meat and potatoes in it, you won't be disappointed. Enjoy yourself, you've made it.
No need to get up early today (there's plenty of that to come later in the week), sleep in a little bit and let that wine hangover dissipate before heading back into the center of Ljubljana. Wander into the stalls of the Central Market, grab yourself some fresh fruit or a pastry from one of the vendors and a coffee for a late, leisurely breakfast by the river. This isn't Italy where you have to stand at the bar and hastily suck down your espresso; Slovenia takes their coffee culture from Austria or France, we were told multiple times that if your coffee takes less than an hour, you're going too fast. The open air section of the Central Market is open from 6AM to 6PM and is a great way to start your day.
Next it's up to the Ljubljanski Grad, the beautiful castle that sits high atop the middle of the City of Dragons. You have a couple of choices here, you can either hike(although the Slovenians may just call it a walk, most Americans will consider it a hike) up a steep but well-maintained trail, which will probably take you around 25-30 minutes; or you can ride the glass Funicular, which will set you back €2.20 each way. If you plan on going into the castle (which I'm about to recommend in two sentences), you can buy a round trip ticket and castle entrance for €10. We took the funicular because we're lazy, it was hot, and we wanted the view as we ascended the hill. It was worth it.
Once you make it up the hill, it's actually free to check out the courtyard and have a very expensive lunch. We think it was worth it to by the ticket, as you get access to multiple museums (including a fascinating museum of Slovenian History) and the best view in town from the top of the castle bastion. It's a little terrifying if you're scared of heights, which we definitely are, but continue to subject ourselves to these views and vistas we won't allow ourselves to miss. We packed a lunch to keep our costs down and ate it in the courtyard, which was lovely. The top of the castle was also lovely, my crippling acrophobia notwithstanding.
You can probably skip the Time Machine, unless you have kids.
After you've had your fill of taking selfies with the city of Ljubljana framed by the Alps as your background, you can head back down the mountain either by funicular or an invigorating walk down (there are multiple trails down, be sure you pick the one that goes down the hill and back into the city center and not down the other side into the park) and check out the absolutely beautiful Ljubljana Cathedral (also called the Church Of St. Nicholas), with it's spectacular eighteenth century frescoes on the interior and unusually sculptured door which doubles as portraits of 20th-century bishops on the exterior, it's not to be missed.
FUN STORY TIME: When we were there, they were playing organ music, which led me to exclaim to another tourist we met days later, "They're just constantly playing organ music inside! It's awesome!" Renee gleefully informed me that I'm dumb, and that we were there immediately before a service, which was why the music was playing. She is correct. I am dumb.
If you have an extra hour, another great option in the City Center is to take a boat cruise. This isn't going to be the fanciest cruise you've ever been on (ours had picnic tables to sit at), but it'll only set you back about €8, they serve beer on board, and you'll be bound to see some HUGE local wildlife called coypu on the river banks, you can't miss them, they look like giant beavers. Until we saw one kicking it on the side of the river, we didn't realize how big it would be. I'm purposefully not going to include a picture of a coypu, in the hopes you'll see one and shriek like Renee did.
This evening, we recommend you take a food tour. We've talked ad nauseum about how much we enjoy food tours, and how they can be a valuable resource when you are beginning to explore a city and country, not to mention there's food there! And usually wine! The folks at Top Ljubljana Foods offer a spectacular food tour of Ljubljana, and if you want to read more about it, hey, here's a handy and HUGE link!
I hope you didn't drink too much wine last night, because we're taking a trip today! There is a lot to see in Slovenia outside the capitol city, and today we're going to check out a few of the natural wonders within a couple hours' drive. There are multiple options you can take to see these sites: You can rent a car, which will afford you flexibility; you can take public transport (the bus system is extremely easy to understand and most buses throughout Slovenia cost €6 no matter the destination); or you can hire a tour company. We were lucky enough to partner with Roundabout Travel, who offer multiple tours and itineraries throughout the country. If you only have a short amount of time to spend in Slovenia (and one week is definitely a short amount of time), you'll want to pack in as much as you possibly can, and you don't want to waste time getting lost driving your own car or waiting for a bus.
Our first stop today is going to be Lake Bohinj, Slovenia's largest glacial lake, about a seventy five minute drive from Ljubljana. If you're a nature lover, you can hike around almost the entire lake to a spectacular waterfall, or simply enjoy the almost five kilometer long body of water. There are boats or paddle boats for rent, fishing gear for hire, or if you're lazy like us, you can simply sit and enjoy the serene, crystal clear water. Don't forget to bring your trunks, because you can also swim in this majestic lake, although the water was about five degrees too cold for us when we were there in early June.
There are some very interesting frescoes inside the Church of St. John The Baptist, which sits on the east bank of Lake Bohinj (most likely where you parked or the bus/tour dropped you off) depicting a pale devil and women with terrible goiters. They're weird, but definitely worth checking out. Once you've seen these goitered-out paintings, you'll never forget them.
Next on the agenda is the Vintgar Gorge, one of the few places we will recommend that may actually be crowded with tourists. If you're interested, you can actually bike here from Bled (which we'll get to on our next stop) in about 25 minutes. The wooden walkway crosses multiple times over the rapids of the Radovna river, affording breathtaking views in all weather for almost a mile. If you don't want to get sprayed with mist, wear a jacket (they sell ponchos at the entrance), but if it's a hot day, you'll welcome the cool respite of the emerald waters. There is a €4 entrance fee, but it's well worth it. At the beginning (or end, depending where you start), the highest river fall in Slovenia tumbles twenty six meters. It is called the Šum, which translates to the best way to describe a waterfall: Noise.
From here we'll be going to my favorite place in Slovenia, the town which ultimately led us here. Bled is a much larger tourist attraction than it's brother Bohinj, but to me, it is perfect. I joked to Renee that it was as if at the meeting to decide what Lake Bled would be like, they had made perfect decisions without even trying:
My personal recommendation (this is how we did it) is to come up the back roads to Bled Castle, so that you don't actually see the views until you come over the hill and then, BAM, it's the greatest view ever. The Castle will set you back €10, but it is absolutely worth it for the best facebook profile pic you'll ever had. It was so beautiful there I didn't have the words, so I took a lot of pictures:
Depending on what time it is, you can do any number of things in Bled. You can take a traditional Pletna boat ride to the only island in Slovenia (that'll set you back €14 each), rent a rowboat and row yourself over (€10-14 total), or even get a stand-up paddleboard and paddle yourself over (€10-12 each). You can grab a drink and a slice of traditional Bled Cream Cake at one of the many lakeside cafes while you admire the boats slowly meandering the waters. We simply walked around the lake, pausing dozens of times for pictures or simply to admire what we were seeing, as every angle affords another spectacular view of this beautiful place.
Tonight you're going to spend the night in Bled. I know what you're saying, "Josh, we're already paying for a place in Ljubljana! Why would we stay somewhere else?" Because Lake Bled is a magical place, and you're going to want to savor your time here. There are places to stay here for all budgets. We stayed in a hostel on the lake's edge for $12 a bed, or you can splurge on one of the hotels closer to town with gorgeous vistas of the church and castle out the window of your room. Don't spend two hours here and then head back, you'll regret it later. Stay. Watch the sunset. Walk the lake at night, admire how the castle is lit from below. Sit on a bench and watch the swans and ducks slowly float by. Maybe take a late night dip in the cool waters. The possibilities are endless. Plus, you need to spend the night if you're going to catch the sunrise. FORESHADOWING.
Our friends at Roundabout Slovenia offer full day tours which hit The Gorge, Lakes Bled and Bohinj, and even include a stop at medieval Alpine town Skofja Loka, and they'll even drop you off in Bled at the end of the tour so you can spend the night!
Check the weather report and see what time the sun is rising. Set your alarm for an hour before then, because before the sun rises, you're going to be hiking to Ojstrica, one of the best viewpoints in the area to see the sunrise reflecting off the lake. You'll probably need about 45 minutes and a strong flashlight or headlamp to get to the top in time for the sunrise, but the reward will be worth it. Ask your hotel/hostel how to get to the trailhead and maybe check it out the evening before so you know exactly where to go.
Are you too lazy? Did you drink too much wine around the lake last night? Did you stay up late watching the Iceland-Portugal Euro Cup game like me? Did you just look at that picture and say, "HEY, YOU DIDN'T EVEN TAKE THAT PICTURE! I'm not going to either!" I don't blame you. Hiking Ojstrica isn't easy in the daylight (when we did it), and I'd imagine it's harder at night. No one is going to judge you if you hike Ojstrica in the early morning instead of the early early morning. It's your vacation. Check out this page for more sunrise pictures of Bled, but make sure you hike Ojstrica. It's an intermediate hike which will take you about 30 minutes in the daylight.
Spend some more time around Bled, you can explore the town today, or do as we did, and simply trace our footsteps around the lake again, pausing to admire the lake in a different light. If you didn't get to the Gorge yesterday, go today. Rent some bikes and tool around the lake and town area. If you rented a rowboat yesterday, perhaps a paddleboard today. If it is warm enough, you can swim anywhere in the lake, although there is a designated pool area with stairs and lounge chairs just under the castle. When you're ready (there's no rush), you can head back to Ljubljana via bus (one leaves every hour), car or shuttle. The shuttle seems like the best option, and there are many companies near the bus station offering rides, most likely if you wander around for a few minutes in the afternoon, you'll be offered one. We took one with a local adventure company that set us back €8 each and took 30 minutes instead of the 90 minute bus ride.
Now that you're back in Ljubljana, you can take this evening to wander around the city center and Tivoli Park, Ljubljana's largest park. If you're feeling adventurous, you can grab a Horse Burger (Yes, I said Horse Burger!) at Hot Horse, but make sure you're hungry. They're huge. And delicious.
Grab a few drinks in the Metelkova Mestro district, Ljubljana's former-barracks-turned-alternative-hangout which has dubbed itself an 'Autonomous Culture Zone', it's worth it to stop by simply for the street art, which is impressive for both it's quality and sheer numbers. There is live music there almost every night, and most of the time, the people watching show can be even better than the musicians.
Today you've got a dealer's choice. But they'll both revolve around the caves of Slovenia. Both the Škocjan Caves and the Postojna Caves are absolutely spectacular examples of the power of Mother Nature, both having been formed by the flowing rivers over the last twenty thousand years. Both offer tours through the caves, although I've been told Škocjan is more of a flat walk through the caves, while Postojna offers a train ride down into the caves followed by an hour tour. The caves are similar, both extremely beautiful, and if you have an extra day, I would recommend seeing both. But you do not want to spend your time in Slovenia without having seen at least one. Postojna is a little bit more crowded with tourists, but is also a little bit closer to Ljubljana (hence the bigger crowds), so you pick your poison.
Our friends at Roundabout offer tours to both, and both are well worth it, as the public transport to Postojna caves only runs twice daily (there is an hourly bus to town, but that's about a 30 minute walk from the caves area), and the train to Škocjan drops you almost two miles from the caves.
Here's the good news. Since you drank so much homemade schnapps with Špela last night, you're going to have a little bit of time in the car to recover. Because today, we're going to the Soča River! The emerald waters of the Soča River are another one of Slovenia's unbelievable natural wonders, caused by the sun reflecting off the limestone bed and turning the waters literally emerald green. The river looks like the Blue Lagoon of Iceland and the Grotto at the Playboy Mansion had a weird water-baby, and it must be seen to believed.
As you drive through the mountain pass Vrsic, you'll drive along 25 switchbacks going up and 25 switchbacks going down (Hope your hangover has dissipated!), stopping to check out the "Russian Chapel", built in World War I as prisoners of war built the mountain pass you're currently driving on. You can look out from the chapel and admire the Julian Alps rising in the foreground as you contemplate why you had that last shot of Dandelion Schnapps.
Once you've arrived in Bovec, an idyllic small town perched on the Soča, you can choose your own adventure sport: Whitewater rafting, Hang gliding, Canyoning, Kayaking, they're all available here. We went whitewater rafting with Top Rafting Bovec, and it was unbelievable! They provided us with everything from boots to helmets, and we spent almost 90 minutes battling the rapids in this beautiful river. I think my favorite part was the nervous laughter in our boat when our guide commented about a towering Alpine peak above us, "There used to be a great ski area up there, but it isn't open now because the lift fell down last winter." That or when Renee complained about not getting wet and he turned the raft so she got soaked on the next rapid. It was close.
On the way back from Bovec, you'll definitely want to stop at the Kozjak waterfall, a natural wonder about a thirty minute walk from the road. Make sure you're ready though, as the last 100 yards or so are basically skipping between boulders in the river. The end result is worth it though.
Don't want to drive yourself to all of these places? Roundabout Travel has got your covered there too. Public transport? Forget about it. Don't spend all your time on a bus, let Roundabout handle it and enjoy your life.
Since this is your last night in Ljubljana, I'd recommend you spend it the way you spent your first. Wander around the city center and have a huge dinner with never ending wine service. Go to the top of the Skyscraper and have a sunset drink. Make sure you do whatever you missed before. Grab one last burek. Have one last glass of Teran. Take one last dragon selfie. One last glass of ice cold milk from the vending machine. Pick up that T-Shirt or that postcard you forgot to buy so you'll never forget your time in Slovenia. Savor your last night here. You're going to miss it.
As you can tell, we loved our time in Slovenia. While this was our six day itinerary, you could spend months in this spectacular place, meeting new people, seeing beautiful sites, eating delicious food and drinking glorious wine. If you need some ideas, the folks at Roundabout Travel (who were our guides this week and helped to sponsor this post) can help craft any kind of Slovenian vacation you want. But you want to go. Make sure you get there before the next big thing becomes today's big thing. The secret is on it's way out.