Eastern Slovenia is a land of unique charms. The long Pohorje Massif – a stretch of unspoiled, mid-range mountain rising just west of Maribor – offers breathtaking vistas, as well as unparalleled hiking, cycling and skiing. The local food and wines are excellent. And with far fewer visitors than the Julian Alps, the Adriatic coastline or the capital, Ljubljana, in the west, the pace of life feels much more relaxed.

Cities like Maribor and Ptuj are ideal springboards for the best the region has to offer. Both offer urban amenities like good hotels and restaurants, and active festival calendars, yet are small enough for a relaxed ramble through town or a short excursion out into pristine nature. Here are some of our favorite experiences in these two gems of Eastern Slovenia.

Maribor straddles the Drava River and oozes charm with its lovely vistas © Rudy Balasko / Shutterstock

Vibrant Maribor is a gateway to adventure

Maribor, the region’s commercial hub, straddles the Drava River and oozes charm with its lovely vistas. Its main claim to fame, doubtless, is the Old Vine House, the site of a 400-year-old grapevine that, remarkably, still produces a small amount of wine each year. Stop by to sample some of the region’s excellent wines (though, regrettably, none from the Old Vine itself). A guided tour from an expert sommelier starts from the Old Vine and explores the unique stories of wine makers in the region.

Maribor’s University students fuel an active cafe and bar scene, tucked away in the side alleys leading off the main square, Glavni Trg. The city center comes alive with music and theater in summer with the annual, open-air Lent Festival. For a taste of history and architecture, Maribor Cathedral dates from the late-12th century and shows off impressive Gothic interiors, while the 14th-century synagogue attests to the historic role here of the Jewish community.

Maribor is an excellent jumping-off-spot from which to access the nearby Pohorje Massif. From December to March, skiers head to Maribor Pohorje, the country’s largest ski center (located a short bus ride from the city center), or to the Rogla ski center, an hour’s drive west of the city. Because of its relatively gentle slopes, Rogla is especially popular with families – a family-friendly Tree Top Walk is at the top of mountain Rogla, telling the story of the surrounding forests and wildlife.

Family-friendly health spas can be found near Rogla © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

During the warmer months, both resorts are a paradise of hiking and cycling, with more-remote Rogla being especially scenic. Hiking trails fan off in all directions, including to a series of fascinating and rare high-elevation peat bogs at the Lovrenc Lakes. The Rogla Outdoor Center rents bikes to explore the many marked cycling paths ranging from beginner to advanced.

If the weather is warm, pedal the Drava Bike trail 19 miles (30km) from Maribor to Ptuj. This stretch is part of a longer 700km (434 mile) multinational trail that follows the Drava from its source in Italy all the way to Croatia. The journey takes about three hours at a leisurely pace, is largely flat, and parallels the river along dedicated bike lanes. Centuries ago, gold prospectors plucked nuggets from the rocky riverbed in this section of the Drava. Today, you can arrange for a private gold-panning demonstration (and even join in the fun).

There are plenty of other adventures unique to Slovenia.

An aura of mysticism survives in Ptuj’s narrow, cobbled lanes and well-preserved Gothic and Renaissance facades. © hbpro / Shutterstock

Mystical Ptuj marries history with relaxation

Ptuj is Slovenia’s oldest and, arguably, most-beguiling town. Archeological digs indicate Ptuj has been inhabited since the Stone Age, though it was the Romans – and the election here of Emperor Vespasian in AD 69 – who put the town, then known as “Poetovio,” on the map.

Roman soldiers garrisoned here dabbled in the pre-Christian cult of Mithraism, and several Mithra shines from the first centuries AD have been found in the area. To this day, an aura of mysticism survives in the town’s narrow, cobbled lanes and well-preserved Gothic and Renaissance facades. During Ptuj’s annual carnival festival, Kurentovanje, in February, residents let loose some of these inner demons and dress up as giant, fur-covered monsters (allegedly to chase the winter away, but actually to give the kids a good scare). The festival is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco.

Ptuj’s annual carnival festival, Kurentovanje, is listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity © Soru Epotok / Shutterstock

Ptuj is dominated by a giant, 11th-century castle that was originally built by the archdiocese of Salzburg. Today, the castle houses a regional museum with impressive collections of medieval weaponry, musical instruments and portraiture. Don’t miss the collection of spooky-looking Kurent masks and costumes housed in the castle’s former stables. The uphill hike to the citadel is worth it for the views out over the Drava and the town’s sprawling red roofs below.

If you’ve cycled to Ptuj via the Drava Bike trail, treat yourself to a plunge in one of the several indoor and outdoor pools at Terme Ptuj, a luxury spa where the underground springs gently warm the waters throughout the year. Kids will especially enjoy the waterslides and wave pools. Check for package deals that include accommodation and meals.

Several wineries are located within easy driving distance of Maribor © Roman Babakin / Shutterstock

Taste the region’s excellent vintages

Both Maribor and Ptuj lie withing the Štajerska (Slovenian-Styria) wine region, the country’s largest. While Maribor’s “Old Vine” is a red grape, the region is best known for its high-quality whites, including a superb Sauvignon Blanc as well as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Traminer and Chardonnay.

Several wineries are located within easy driving distance of Maribor and offer tastings (often paired with a snack or gourmet meal). It’s always best to book in advance rather than turn up at the gate.

With so many options, many visitors opt to simply put themselves in the hands of a local sommelier, who can provides guided explorations of the region’s wineries. Tours often begin or end at Maribor’s Old Vine.

The Old Vine House is home to a 400-year-old grapevine that still produces a small amount of wine each year © G.Evgenij / Shutterstock

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