What do you get when you combine the medieval charm of the Czech Republic with the scenic natural beauty of Switzerland and culinary temptations of Italy? The answer is Slovenia, a tiny country sandwiched between Austria, Hungary, Italy and Croatia, that was quick to shrug off its identity as a former Soviet nation – it gained independence in 1991– to emerge as a modern, quietly confident, and inviting European destination.
While it is appearing on global travellers’ radars increasingly frequently (most recently for being the birthplace of a certain first lady), Slovenia’s claims to fame are in fact, far more worthy – for one, it was recently awarded the best European country for sustainable tourism.
A trip to this Eastern European nation should begin in capital Ljubljana, which has all the attractiveness of Prague, without the tourist crowds. Check in at the centrally located Vander Urbani resort, where luxury designer chic meets friendly warmth; their in-house restaurant offers great food too.
The small and eminently walkable old town area centred around the Preseren Square is a smorgasbord of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture – a lot of which can be credited to renowned local architect Jože Plečnik. Notable among his designs is the Venetian-style Triple Bridge, one of many that traverses Ljublanca river, which meanders through the city centre. End a leisurely stroll along the cobblestone streets soaking up all the history at any of the restaurants, bars and cafes on the riverfront, where you can enjoy everything from wood-fired pizzas to local specialties such as sausages with potatoes.
Ljubljanski Grad (Ljubljana castle), situated on a hill just outside the city, is a picturesque 15th century monument that is a must visit, not just for the history it provides an insight into – there is a museum and art galleries on-site – but also for the stunning views it offers of the red-roofed city and green landscapes beyond. And unlike most eateries in tourist sites, the old-meets-new Slovenian cuisine at Strelec restaurant, housed in the castle’s archer’s tower, is among the best in town; it’s like a history lesson through food, offering contemporary interpretations of ancient dishes.
Food is a big part of the story in Slovenia, where hyper-local, seasonal produce and different influences, from Mediterranean to Balkan, have led to an evolved cuisine. This is, after all, home to Ana Ros, voted world’s best female chef in 2017 by the World’s 50 Best list.
Another fairytale castle – and probably Slovenia’s most recognised attraction – is Bledski Grad, located by the picture-perfect Lake Bled, a short drive from the capital city (happily, nothing is too far from anywhere in Slovenia). Come here for the Insta-perfect photo ops of the tranquil glacial lake with its tiny island housing an ancient monastery, and stay for the Kremna Rezina, a delicious layered vanilla cake this region is famous for.
Also not to be missed is the stunning Soca valley – a natural paradise of lush green meadows, forests, secret lakes and waterfalls, and the turquoise-coloured Alpine river, Soca. Stretching between the densely forested Triglav National Park to the foothills of the Julian Alps, this region is also the adventure sports hub of Slovenia, with everything from whitewater rafting, canyoning, and ziplining, to hikes and treks of different levels on offer.
For slightly more leisurely pursuits, the temperate landscapes of Goriska Brda, the country’s foremost wine region – Slovenian wines are among the most under-rated in the world! – offers rolling hills carpeted with vineyards, quaint little red-roofed villages dotting the vista, and even more historic castles.
Throw the allure of sun-kissed Adriatic beaches into the mix – Slovenia’s coastline is less than 50km long, but is just as beautiful as its better-known neighbours such as Croatia – and it’s clear that Slovenia punches well above its weight as a destination. It’s small wonder then, that it is fast transforming from hidden gem to hot new getaway, so go there fast – before the rest of the crowds catch on.