While you have doubtless heard of the charms of Ljubljana, it is not always clear what else should be on one’s itinerary when venturing beyond the teacup capital. When I got married to a spectacular Slovenian (something I highly recommend, incidentally), I prepared some notes for our international wedding guests. These suggestions have been developed over time and augmented with insider tips, bolstered for instance this summer, when I spent many weeks crisscrossing the country with one of its most famous chefs, Janez Bratovž (his restaurant, JB, was once ranked the 10th best in Europe), helping him to prepare his next cookbook and eating our way from coast to karst. What follows is a recommended itinerary for a three-day holiday, based in Ljubljana but exploring beyond its confines.
Day One: Gate to the Alps
While it is easy to take day trips out of Ljubljana, the town of Kamnik, my adopted home just twenty-five minutes from the capital, is a great point of departure to access Slovenia's alpine and lakes region. The utterly charming town boasts three castles and famously pure local water that has attracted four microbreweries, making it the nation’s beer capital. Each of these breweries (Mali Grad, Maister, Lampelj and Barut) sells out of all it can make, and the four beers can be tasted at the local hipster bar, and my home away from home, Gostilna Korobač. The town also has lively cultural offerings, including a Baroque monastery, the Mehkinje Samostan, that will open shortly as a multicultural centre and hub for study abroad programs.
Kamnik is just five minutes from Arboretum, an elaborate, world-class botanical garden that surrounds a lost palace that was destroyed after the Second World War by the Partizans, who objected to its noble origins. It is also a twenty-minute jaunt to the Krvavec ski resort and to Velika Planina, a vast, verdant meadow atop a mesa-like mountain. With its odd, low-slung shepherds’ huts and highly-specific traditions (including a rain-repelling shepherds’ gown made of strips of shaven tree, anti-witch knives carved with runes and its breast-shaped cheese, Trnič, which always comes in pairs), it could be a stand-in for the Shire in Middle Earth.
Day Two: Postcard Perfect Lakes
Before my first visit to Slovenia, back when I was a backpacking university student, I loaned my Lonely Planet: Europe on a Shoestring to five friends who had previously gone ‘Eurailing’. In their annotations, I was surprised to find that all five, without colluding, said that Lake Bled was the most beautiful place they’d seen in all of Europe. I’m now inclined to agree. The icon of Slovenia, ridiculously picturesque Lake Bled, around forty minutes north of Ljubljana, features a single island dotted with a medieval church and a cinematic castle perched atop a sheer, sky-hugging cliff beside it. Once a favourite vacation spot for Tito and 19th century German tourists, the town of Bled now has a faded, 50s-era glamor, but the setting is one to remember, as are the famous Bled cream cakes, to be consumed lakeside at the Park Hotel. But for my money, the more moving body of water is twenty minutes further on. Lake Bohinj is wilder, more dazzling and dramatically unkempt, a Romantic entity, perhaps Heathcliff to Lake Bled’s refined Mr. Darcy. It’s also a great place to hike or to ski, with Vogel ski resort looming above it. And in the summer, you can find surreal alpine sandy beaches, nestled in hidden crooks of the lake.
Day Three: Venice and Dalmatia in One, Plus Spelunking
The highway stretches from Ljubljana to Koper, just a ninety-minute drive. On route you can stop at one of Slovenia’s many karst limestone caves. The touristy choice is Postojna, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its population of ‘human fish’, aka olms or proteus anguina, a blind amphibian with translucent skin which featured on Sir David Attenborough’s Ark. With hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking there every year, and a train that takes you through it, it is rather more Disney-fied. I prefer the cave less-travelled, Skocjanska, which is accessible only by hiking, and has a dark majesty that feels like the Mines of Mordor. Further along the route to the coast, the wise, intrepid tourist can stop at the miniscule Church of the Holy Spirit in Hrastovlje. A tiny fortified chapel (to keep away those marauding Turks), it is home to one of the finest, and best-preserved ‘Dance of Death’ fresco cycles in the world, in which viewers are offered cold comfort to see that everyone, from king to peasant, is equal in the eyes of inescapable death. Moving on to lighter fare, Slovenia’s coast was once a Venetian colony, and Koper had surprising influence as the lead city of Istria (the name in Italian is Capodistria, or the ‘head of Istria’), and even features a wonderful altarpiece in the cathedral, by Carpaccio. Piran is like a miniature Dubrovnik, red brick spiked with bell towers and meandering streets that smell faintly of fish (in a good way).
These are just three recommended day trips of many. There are more listed in Slovenology the book, and if you have specific questions, you're always welcome to be in touch. Happy travels!