If you're in search of an under-the-radar European getaway – one that will surprise and delight while inciting major FOMO in others – consider Slovenia for your next trip.
The shared borders with Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Italy mean this country has most, if not all, of their alluring characteristics: charming towns, endless natural beauty, outdoor adventures, delicious food, Adriatic coastline, fascinating culture and a fascinating, ever-present history.
Yet Slovenia remains a relatively undiscovered paradise. To get the inside line on planning the perfect trip to Slovenia, I recently spoke with Saša Sme, our Elsewhere by Lonely Planet local expert. Read on to learn more about both Slovenia and Saša and why you should work directly with Elsewhere's team of local experts to plan an unforgettable trip.
First off, how do you pronounce your first name?
And how did you get your start in the travel business?
Quite coincidentally. I was looking for a summer job during my third year at university and answered an ad from a tour operator here in Slovenia. I had a great summer in Greece. Then I got my tour guide's license, and I've continued doing this in different places ever since. Now I'm doing it from my home base of Ljubljana
Do you find that travelers are familiar with Slovenia?
Most have no idea about Slovenia in general, especially those who are from outside of Europe. Even with Europeans their knowledge of Slovenia varies. Most of them, especially maybe the older generation, remember Slovenia being part of Yugoslavia. Even those who know about Slovenia, or where it is, mostly have little specific information.
How would you describe Slovenia to someone who has never been?
I would describe Slovenia as the sort of a green oasis in the middle of Europe – a place that is relatively small compared to at least the immediate neighboring countries. The natural diversity in Slovenia is unbelievable. In a matter of maybe an hour or a couple of hours' drive, you can go from skiing up in the mountains to having lunch by any of the lakes, and in the afternoon you are enjoying the swim in the sea.
We have put a lot of emphasis on protecting the environment over the last 15 years . We enjoy very clean air.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Slovenia?
We always stress to all potential visitors to Slovenia that they have to spend at least a day or two in Ljubljana. Even though our capital doesn't offer as much as some other European cities, Ljubljana Castle is definitely the most distinctive part of the old city. You need to see the hustle and bustle of the city center. A lot of people are surprised that we still have open green markets every day (apart from Sundays). Then we have a special fish market and a covered market.
What do you recommend outside of Ljubljana?
Our natural cave system, and specifically the Skocjan Caves. People are amazed by the fact that it has the biggest underground river canyon in any of the caves around the world. Križna (Cross) Cave is also quite interesting because you can canoe underground. So that's also a pretty cool experience.
Then we have the emerald green Soča River and beautiful Alpine lakes, like Lake Bled.
Those lakes are pretty popular, no?
Lake Bled is probably on top of the list for all visitors coming to Slovenia, so even if they don't have time for anything else, they will do that. It doesn't matter if it's sunny, if it's raining, or if there's traffic. They are all very, very determined to go. This creates logistical problems in the summer, because the infrastructure was never built for the influx of visitors we have nowadays.
That's why we urge people to come either in spring or September and October.
What about the food?
We also have one of the best restaurants for fine dining in Slovenia, Hiša Franko, which is led by chef Anna Roš, who just recently received another Michelin Star. She also has a new restaurant, Jaz by Ana Roš in Ljubljana. Her gastronomic expertise has led to a rise in Slovenia's culinary scene.
Is there a particular experience you plan that visitors love?
The wine safari. Goriska Brda is one of the three wine regions in Slovenia, most famously described as the Slovenian Tuscany. You'll see a similar type of scenery, and they're known for their white wines. The focus is on producing white wines like Rubela (Ribolla Gialla in neighboring Italy). The safari takes you through vineyards, wineries, smuggling routes, and it's a fun day and great way to get to know the region.
Why should travelers book their trip with Elsewhere?
Slovenia may be small, but knowing exactly where to go and how long you need requires expertise and solid relationships. I recommend the kinds of local experiences that you couldn't find anywhere else.