Jamnik, Slovenia

Things You Need to Know before Visiting Slovenia for the First Time

Interested in finding out more about what there is to see and do in Slovenia? Here's everything you need to know about this small but stunning European nation before you visit.

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Nína Þorkelsdóttir

16. May 2018

Things to do and see when visiting Slovenia

A majestic valley between two tall mountains. Vrata Valley. Unsplash/Frantisek Duris. 

Sitting between Austria, Italy, and Croatia, Slovenia gained independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991. It's a small country by European standards, with a population of just over two million. And the great news for travelers is that it is still relatively undiscovered as a vacation destination.

Slovenia packs a lot into a small area; Adriatic beaches, Alp-like mountains offering wintersports and hiking, beautiful lakes, and vibrant cities such as the capital, Ljubljana. There are other advantages to Slovenia too, so why not put some of these things on the list for your next trip?

Start your travels in the capital, Ljubljana

Slovenia's capital city is a great introduction to the country as a whole, and an excellent way of getting your big city fix before heading out into the countryside. The small size of Ljubljana makes it perfect for exploring on foot, discovering those hidden corners you just wouldn't usually see by car. It's a cosmopolitan city and English is widely spoken, so pick up a map from the tourist information office and start exploring.

A lone tree, covered in snow with houses in the background. Ljubljana in the winter. Unsplash/Marco Secchi. 

The natural place to start any visit to Ljubljana is in the old town, and the maze of narrow streets around the river and castle. There are plenty of pavement cafes should you want to take a break from admiring the Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings which are found all through the city center. Also worth a visit is the Tivoli City Park, a vast formal garden with statues, art, and a famous rose garden.

Don't leave Ljubljana without visiting the medieval fortress of Ljubljana Castle, constructed in the 12th century and offering superb views from the castle walls or from the top of the Outlook Tower. There's also an interesting puppet museum and an exhibition running you through the main events in Slovenian history. Although it's situated high above the city you don't have to walk up if you don't want to – there's a funicular railway from the foot of the hill.

Lake Bled – Slovenia's top outdoor attraction

It's hardly surprising that Lake Bled is the most visited place in Slovenia outside the capital. It's simply breathtaking, with crystal blue waters surrounded by pine forests, topped off by a little island with a church right in the center. One of the most popular pastimes for visitors is to take a trip in traditional wooden boats called pletnas across to the island, climb the 99 steps up to the church, and then ring the church bell. Legend says that anyone who rings the bell will have their dreams come true.

An islet with houses and trees on Lake Bled. The Amazing Lake Bled. Unsplash/Joel Sparks. 

Hiking is a popular way to enjoy the landscapes of Lake Bled, and there's a hiking trail all the way around the lake's edge. The four-mile trail will take around two hours to complete, and along the way you can enjoy views not only over the lakeside, but across to the castle and further towards the mountains that lie beyond. Bled Castle, reputedly the oldest castle in Slovenia, stands on top of a steep cliff right on the edge of the lake. It's well worth the steep climb up from the waterside just for the views from the terrace. Inside the castle there's stores, restaurants, and a small museum.

While you're in the area, don't miss the chance to visit the Vintgar Gorge. It's only open in the summer months, but visit during the warmer months and you can walk up the gorge on narrow wooden walkways hugging the 100-foot rock faces above your head. The water beneath your feet is clear and turquoise, and when you walk to the very end of the walkway you can see the famous waterfall. It's one of Slovenia's most famous natural wonders.

Interested in an active vacation? Slovenia has plenty to offer

Slovenia is a very ourdoorsy country, with plenty of opportunities to try all sorts of sport, whether familiar or more unusual. Gentle hiking in the hills is one option, but there are lots of extreme sports available too. It's not for nothing that Slovenia is often branded "Europe's outdoor playground," so why not plan some active days into your Slovenia trip?

Soča river rafting

An aerial view of a man kayaking on a large river. The Soča river is also good for kayaking. Unsplash/Marko Balazic. 

There are two distinctive things to know about the Soča river – the gorgeous emerald-green color of the water, and the great white water rafting found there. The best waters are in the far northwest of Slovenia, in and around Žaga and there are several companies offering organized trips down the river by raft. There are great mountain views along the way, but you'll probably be having too much fun to even notice!

Skiing in Slovenia

Sunset behind snow-covered mountains. The kind of view you can expect while skiing in Slovenia. Unsplash/Klemen Tusar. 

The ski season in Slovenia runs from December to March, so if you're visiting during this period, pay a visit to the country's largest ski resort at Maribor Pohorje. The resort offers 26 miles of skiing, including six miles which are floodlit and can be skiied until late in the evening. There is a mix of blue, red, and black runs, perfect for skiiers of all abilities. During summer months, visitors can go mountain biking, use summer toboggans, or hike on the well-marked trails.

Mountain biking through the forest at Bohinj

A man standing on a flat rock, taking a picture of the surrounding mountains. Triglav National Park. Unsplash/Kate Joie. 

One of the prettiest spots in the country is the Triglav National Park. This area to the east of Lake Bohinj is perfect for biking. Rent a bike in the lakeside village then head off along the purpose-built, traffic-free cycle path. The circular route is around 15 miles, winding its way through forests, meadows, and alongside the lake and should take around three hours to complete, with a few stops along the way.

Slovenian cuisine – what can I expect?

Food is a big part of many people's vacation, and wherever in Europe you're spending your time, it's only natural to want to sample some of the local delicacies. Slovenian cooking is influenced by nearby countries such as Italy and Austria, so you'll find plenty of restaurants serving Wiener schnitzel or pizza. But if you're after something authentically Slovenian, then here are a few options.

A close-up of a white and yellow kremsnita cake. Yummy Kremsnita. Flickr/F_A. 

Probably the most famous Slovenian dish is Kremsnita, a sweet treat invented in the Bled area. It has crispy pastry on the base and top, and in between, layers of fresh cream and a thick, rich custard. Another popular dessert option is prekmurska gibanica, a layered pastry filled with seeds, cream cheese, apple, and nuts. Or try a nut roll or potica; a sweet yeast dough spiral, usually filled with ground walnuts.

Štruklji, a dough dumpling filled with anything from cheese to fruit, are a staple food throughout Slovenia. It's a hearty, filling dish and the most popular variety in Slovenia are filled with tarragon. Sausages, beans, and potatoes often feature on menus, and in towns and cities you'll find international dishes. Wash it all down with a wine from the Primorska region, which produces mainly dry white varieties.

A pink house in a forested area. Hisa Franko offers an unforgettable dining experience, using mostly traditional Slovenian ingredients. Photo: Hisa Franko. 

One woman single-handedly transforming Slovenian cuisine is Ana Ros, named the World's Best Female Chef in 2017. Her restaurant, Hiša Franko in Kobarid, high in the mountains near the Italian border, offers seasonal tasting menus and a truly out-of-this-world dining experience. Expect beautifully presented works of art, with new twists on traditional Slovenian ingredients such as goat, beef, or trout.

Taking it easy in Slovenia

Not everyone wants to spend their vacation rushing between castles and museums, or indulging in thrill sports like white water rafting. What about those who just want to relax, be pampered, and experience a little luxury? Well, Slovenia is geared up to cater for those types of travelers too. Of course, a vacation doesn't have to be one thing or the other, and Slovenia's small size means it's perfectly possible to combine action with gentler pursuits.

Hit the beach

People walking on the street by the marina of Piran. The charming town of Piran. Flickr/Marika Bortolami. 

Slovenia's beaches face the Adriatic Sea, with clean waters for swimming and lots of chic restaurants and cafes perfect for people watching. The country's premier seaside resort is Portoroz, which together with the neighboring town of Piran are some of the most elegant places on the whole Adriatic. This is where Slovenians choose to spend their summers, and it's a ritzy, glamorous place which is perfect for rest and relaxation.

Pamper yourself

Portoroz is also a great place to head if you enjoy being pampered in a spa. The town has a reputation for offering excellent wellness treatments using local salt-pan mud and seawater. Book yourself in for a relaxing massage, body wrap, or facial – it'll take the years off you! Away from the coast, the town of Podčetrtek in the east of Slovenia has several spa hotels and retreats, where pampering, peace, and quiet are guaranteed.

Enjoy a little retail therapy

If relaxation for you means a spot of retail therapy, then Ljubljana has the best variety of shops. The pedestrianized old town is where you'll find all the top European designer brands, mixed with boutiques selling clothes and accessories from local designers too. Wine or schnapps is a popular gift to take home, as is anything with the Ljubljana emblem of a dragon on it.