Despite its breathtaking natural beauty, the central European nation of Slovenia remains off the radar for many travellers. Yet in an area less than a tenth the size of the United Kingdom you can find towering mountains, picture-perfect lakes, vast caves, elegant cities and fast-running rivers.
With even just a few days at your disposal, it’s easy to pack all the country’s major highlights into your trip without ever feeling like you're in a rush.
Breathe in the beauty of Lake Bled
Chances are, if you’ve only seen one photo of Slovenia, it’s of Lake Bled. And the turquoise lake, embellished with a steepled church on a tiny tear-shaped islet, set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, is just as gorgeous in the flesh. Fill your lungs with fresh mountain air as you glide across the lake to the island aboard a traditional pletna rowing boat, take a dip in the crystal-clear waters, or hike up the hill to storybook medieval Bled Castle and enjoy the magnificent views.
For active types, the area offers many hiking opportunities, as well as other sports such as mountain biking and canyoning. And if Lake Bled is a little touristy for your liking, you might find you agree with the many locals who prefer Lake Bohinj, just a 26km drive away, which has a similar alpine beauty and is just as great for swimming, kayaking, cycling and hiking.
Compact and beautiful capital Ljubljana
Some European capitals can seem overwhelming, unfriendly or even ugly when you first arrive, but not Ljubljana, which is clustered in a compact pedestrianised area on a bend in the pretty Ljubljanica river. For superb views of the city, take the glass funicular up to Ljubljana Castle, where you can also dine in two of the city’s top restaurants – Gostilna na Gradu and Strelec. Beneath the castle lies the Old Town, a warren of 19th-century wooden shop fronts, quiet courtyards and cobblestone passageways, as well as the city’s various markets, where you can stock up on delicious fresh fruit, meats, fish and cheeses.
A stroll or boat ride along the Ljubljanica river, flanked by elegant colonnades and squares, and crossed by several pretty bridges, is a great way to familiarise yourself with the city. The lively riverside cafes and bars are the perfect place to relax after a busy day of sightseeing. Later on, head north of the centre to quirky Metelkova Mesto, where art installations, nightclubs and live music venues bring a former army garrison to life at night.
Slovenia’s Karst region hides a treasure chest of secrets under its relatively unassuming surface. Whole rivers have been swallowed up by the porous limestone bedrock and once underground the water has carved out vast subterranean landscapes.
Slovenia’s most famous cavern, and a fantastic place to see these geological processes at work, is Postojna Cave. The enormous cave has been receiving tour groups since 1819, when the Emperor of Austria Ferdinand I came to visit, and it shows in the impressively slick operation. Each hour hundreds of visitors are whisked into the cave on a 3km-long underground railway. Inside there are vast caverns filled with elaborate stalagmites and stalactites, as well as more unusual rock formations, such as huge pillars, translucent curtains and spaghetti-like strands hanging from the ceiling. Extra packages are available if you want to encounter strange pink cave salamanders or embark on a potholing adventure deeper into the cave.
Whilst Postojna brings to mind a baroque cathedral dripping with elaborate mouldings, visiting nearby Unesco-listed Škocjan Caves is like stepping into the pages of The Lord of the Rings. The highlight of a visit is crossing the jaw-dropping 150m-deep underground canyon carved out by the river Reka – you might wish you had Gandalf with you as you stare into the abyss from the narrow Cerkevnik bridge.
Coastal sunsets and saltwater spas
Slovenia has just 47km of coastline, but what it lacks in range it makes up for with beautiful Venetian Gothic architecture. The jewel in the crown is Piran, which is set on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic.
At the base of the peninsula is a pretty marina crammed with colourful boats, and the marble-paved Tartinijev Square surrounded by pastel-hued Venetian-style buildings. For superb views over the town, wind your way up through the narrow streets behind the square to the Cathedral of St George and its San Marco Campanile-inspired bell tower. As the sun begins to set, head down to one of the restaurants or bars on the southern promenade to admire the round-towered church at the tip of the peninsula perfectly silhouetted against the fiery sky.
Piran is at its best in the shoulder seasons and can become overcrowded at the height of summer. For some peace retreat to the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park, a large wetland area traditionally used for salt production and home to a wealth of birdlife. You can explore its pathways on foot or by bike, or book into the open-air Lepa Vida Thalasso Spa for a relaxing saltwater treatment.
Whitewater adventures on the Soča river
Snaking through the far west of the country like an aquamarine serpent, the Soča river is a haven for watersports enthusiasts. Its drinkably-pure waters swirl through canyons, plunge over waterfalls and gush along pine-forested valleys, providing plenty of spectacle for sightseers and action for thrillseekers.
Bovec is the main adventure hub in the Soča Valley, with numerous operators, including Aktivni Planet and Bovec Rafting Team, offering a host of exhilarating activities such as whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoning and riverboarding.
Wine tasting in the Vipava Valley
The fertile and picturesque Vipava Valley nestles near the Italian border in the west of the country. The valley’s mild climate, combined with its proximity to the sea and the strong winter Bora winds, makes it perfect for wine making. Excellent reds and whites are both produced here, but for something unique to the valley try one of the fragrant white wines made from the indigenous Zelen or Pinela grape varieties. In addition to wine, the valley is also famous for stone fruits such as cherries, apricots and peaches.
The valley's main hub towns are Ajdovščina and Vipava. The tourist information centres here can help you arrange a walking, cycling or driving tour of the surrounding villages and vineyards. Each town also has a wine shop and tasting room (Faladur in Ajdovščina, Vinoteka Vipava in Vipava), where you can try wines and other produce from the valley. Winestronaut run tours of wine cellars, including the opportunity to meet local wine makers.
Anna Tyler travelled to Slovenia with support from Spirit Slovenija. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.