Eastern Europe is quickly emerging as one of the hippest travel destinations for the year ahead, with Slovenia (known to the locals as ‘Slovenija’) in the lead as a vibey cultural haven with all sorts of unexpected attractions. Here’s why you should get excited about Ljubljana and Slovenia in general:
It’s a country of artisans
If one of the main reasons you travel is to meet new people from interesting cultures, Slovenia should be at the top of your log. The Slovenian people are exceptionally broad-minded, yet interestingly conservative, with a deep-seated confidence and patriotism that results in honestly warm hospitality – they love their young country so much that they can’t wait to share its many splendors with visiting travelers.
Slovenia as it stands today was only established in 1991, when the former Yugoslav state gained independence and quickly set to work to right their economic ship and join the ranks of countries that make up the Eurozone. As such, you’ll notice that a fair amount of Slovenian citizens are artisans with thriving cottage industries, many of which are tied to the growing, harvesting or preparing of food. This includes everything from bona fide shepherds who graze their flocks among the verdant pastures of the Soča Valley, beekeepers who tend the indigenous Carniolan bee, lavender farmers who welcome visitors to participate in the harvest during June and July, as well as honey bread bakers, fishermen, truffle hunters, olive oil producers, micro-brewers and, of course, plenty of wine makers. Many Slovenians also make a living by harvesting salt by hand in the Piran Salina field, which yields salt with a distinctive taste and fragrance that is sought after the world over.
Fun fact: Slovenia is home to the oldest living vine in the world that still bears grapes. Over 400 years old, the ‘Old Vine’ still bears around 50 kg of grapes each year.
Ljubljana is a cultural microcosm
Nowhere is the singular mishmash of Eastern European and Mediterranean influences for which Slovenia is known more evident that in its capital, Ljubljana. This exceptional destination was named the European Green Capital for 2016, due to its forward-thinking environmental policies that include a pedestrian-only CBD, as well as incentives for cyclists (look out for the bike-sharing programme when you’re there!).
But aside from its incredible sustainability initiatives, Ljubljana is also just, well, cool. The country’s communist past resulted in a fair amount of Slovenian activists who took to the city to decorate its walls with beautiful street art propaganda. If this is your thing, make sure to visit the Metelkova district, where former army barracks were taken over by artists in the early 90s and converted into a vibrant creative epicenter.
Other must-see attractions include the famous Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana Castle, Central Market (a lively open-air market where you can buy all the makings of an al fresco picnic to enjoy in Tivoli Park), historic Prešeren Square, and the magnificent Baroque Cathedral of St Nicholas.
Related: The Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana made it to our top bucket list things to do in Europe this year!
Top tip: The Ljubljana Card, available online (at a 10% discount) or from tourist information offices throughout the city, includes entry to 15+ attractions, public transportation and more. Go to the Ljubljana home page to find out more.
The food scene is on fire
Foodies, assemble! If you tend to travel by taste bud, Slovenia is going to knock your gluttonous little socks off. Slovenia is quickly becoming one of Europe’s most intriguing culinary destinations with spellbinding meals and brightly-hued wines made according to unusual and mysterious winemaking techniques.
First up – the food. To dine in Slovenia is to immerse yourself in culinary influences from Italy and Austria, Hungary and Croatia, even Turkey and Russia. The country’s chefs are at the forefront of farm-to-fork cuisine, experimenting wildly with the glut of fresh produce and pasture-reared meat available from its artisanal producers. There has been a return to regional cuisine, which celebrates the Slovenian heritage and, at the same time, meets and surpasses the trendiest of dishes being served in the world’s food capitals. Think Ajdovi žganci na kislem mleku z ocvirki (cold-smoked buckwheat porridge with sour milk and cracklings), lamb’s lettuce salad with hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese pancakes flavored with tarragon, rich Ljubljana goulash, and fragrant štrukelj (rolled pastry of leavened dough, filled with butter, apricot jam and candied orange peel).
Next up- the wine. You’ll be tempted into thinking that you know quite a bit about the world’s cultivars and wine-making techniques until you step foot in Slovenia. The country’s new wave of winemakers combine traditional grape production and wine-making with modern knowledge and technology, using interesting techniques to arrive at elegant vintages – e.g. aging wine in clay amphorae lined with beeswax and buried in the ground like the ancient Romans did (we know, right?!). There is also a big focus on preserving and developing indigenous cultivars.
Top tip: If you’re a budding wine connoisseur, make a point of sampling ‘Zelen’ while you’re in Slovenia. This beautiful white cultivar makes for fresh, yet mineraline, vintages that age gracefully and results in extraordinarily layered bouquets.
It has a secret bit of Mediterranean coastline
When you think ‘Slovenia’, chances are you’re conjuring images of forests and mountains, not golden Mediterranean beaches. But get this – the country holds 46km of prime coastline between Italy and Croatia! The Slovenian Istria, as this region is known, is a picture-perfect salt-tinged destination that calls for sun-soaked seafood meals along the unspoiled coastline. Best of all? Very few people are aware it exists, so visitors enjoy all the benefits of the gorgeous Mediterranean climate without the clamouring hordes – bliss!
The scenery is epic
Oh, and have we mentioned Slovenia is 100% gorgeous? The country offers an outstanding mosaic of natural diversity that ranges from the stoic attraction of the Sečovlje saltpans, to the lush beauty of the Logarska dolina landscaped parks and the prehistoric fascination of the UNESCO-protected Škocjan Caves that boasts the world’s largest underground canyon. As thought that isn’t enough, there’s also all sorts of epic glacial valleys and lakes, including Lake Bled – arguably Slovenia’s most picturesque natural attraction. This stunning Alpine resort destination is renowned for its healing thermal waters and mild climate amidst dramatic mountain peaks. Throw in an island in the middle of the lake with a bell tower that you can ring to make a wish come true, and you’ll see why it’s the stuff of fairy tales.
Top Tip: When you visit Lake Bled, take the time to visit President Tito’s Tearoom – a historic destination that recently reopened to the public with all the original furniture and art still intact. Super affordable and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
See? What did we tell you?! Now that the awesome Slovenian cat is officially out of the bag, we recommend that you start planning your holiday here before the huddled masses cotton on the fact that there is a lesser-known Mediterranean/Eastern European gem hidden away between Italy and Croatia. Now is the time to blaze the trail and enjoy all the marvellous sights (and tastes!) before a barrage of visitors descends