Slovenia: Ultimate Travel Guide
Slovenia is a land of fairy tale castles, baby dragons (more on that later), and delicious moonshine. You may also know this former Yugoslavian republic as Melania Trump’s place of birth. But Noah Charney, an American expat and Slovenia resident since 2006, says his adopted country deserves to be known for so much more.
“They do a very good job of taking care of citizens…and it really looks like the backdrop for Grimms’ Fairy Tales wherever you go,” says Noah, author of several books including Slovenology: Living and Traveling in the World’s Best Country. In the latest Postcard Academy episode, I talk to Noah about why he believes Slovenia is the best place to live, and we come up with a great list of all the places you must see when visiting this beautiful Balkan country.
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What to do in Slovenia
Don’t be afraid to chat up locals during your travels. This country of 2 million is very tourist-friendly and many people speak English. “I know several expats who don’t speak Slovenian at all and it’s not a problem,” Noah says. “Slovenians are really welcoming if you try at all.”
Ljubljana’s old center is small enough to stroll around in half a day. “The easiest parallel is probably Zurich. Most of Ljubljana has some baroque, winding, charming, Habsburg, Austrian-Swiss-looking sections to it.” About 300,000 people live in the capital city, including 50,000 students.
Kamnik, a charming baroque village 25 minutes north of Ljubljana, is worth a stroll before driving to nearby Velika Planina, the largest shepherds’ settlement in Europe. From June to September, the shepherds stay in spruce-shingled huts “that look, either from Iceland, or from Middle Earth. It’s a very beautiful, surreal place that looks like some sort of fantasy world.” Enjoy an Alpine lunch or even stay overnight here. To reach the plateau, take the cable car from Kamniška Bistrica.
Lake Bled, perhaps Slovenia’s most iconic photo op, can be found 40 minutes north of Ljubljana. Take your camera/smartphone on this daytrip and become the king/queen of Instagram.
Predjama Castle, one of the most photogenic castles in the world, is built on a sheer cliff front, with a cave underneath it. After touring the castle, make the short drive to Piran, a beautiful seaside town and former Venetian colony. Here, you can explore the underground cave Postojna, which is “absolutely amazing. It’s 5 kilometers of hugely elaborate, vaulting underground caves. It’s a little bit Disney, in that you go through on a train, which makes it easier to do.” Get a combo ticket to visit both of these attractions.
UNESCO named another cave, Škocjan, a World Heritage site. Here, you’ll feel like you’re “walking through the mines of Mordor from Lord of the Rings.” You’ll see ‘human fish’, or olm, “which is this amazing, blind amphibian, that has translucent skin, that, for centuries, people thought were baby dragons that live in these caves.” Finish the day in Hrastovlje, a tiny village with a fortified church, where you can see an impressive Dance of Death fresco.
Hang out and do nothing. “A lot of the best times are hanging out at a café along the Ljubljana River, especially in the summer, and watching the world go by. It’s a city with plenty going on, but it has a very chilled atmosphere, where you don’t feel the frantic sensation you do in a place like London, or Madrid, that you have to constantly engage with stuff.”
Foods to try in Slovenia
A lot of the food is what you’d find in Austria. “It’s basically alpine food. They like Weiner schnitzel, sausages, and sauerkraut, or the local variation, which is ‘sauer’ turnip, which I’d never heard of before I came here, but it’s very good.”
Kranj is the local sausage and has UNESCO geographic protection.
Potizza is Slovenia’s national desert. Eaten during the holidays, it’s a Bundt cake with a swirl of caramelized walnuts inside.
Gibanica is a layer cake with poppy seeds, baked apple, and a curd-based cheese.
Where to eat in Ljubljana
Splurge on one of the tasting menus at JB, recognized as one of the best restaurants in Europe. “If you’re into slow food, and giving your evening over to this, this is something that you will always remember.” They even have a vegetarian menu.
Enjoy some exotic coffee at Črno Zrno, which means ‘the black bean.’ Owned by a Colombian gent who married a Slovene, Črno Zrno is located on Ljubljana’s oldest and most charming street, Gornji Trg. “He makes amazing coffees in lots of different varieties, and I think he’s expanding the way Slovenes think about coffee. Traditional Slovenes drink Turkish coffee every morning. In fact, they drink the second most coffee, in terms of quantity, of anyone in Europe.” (Italy is #1).
Carnivores can delight in a ćevapi crawl. “Ćevapi is like the hamburger of the Balkans, it’s by far the most popular fast food. It’s ground meat, rolled into oblong meatballs. One translation is ‘meat fingers’, but that’s a really repulsive translation. It’s probably the most popular food in Slovenia, even though it isn’t Slovene. I like to take people to try out lots of different ćevapčići places, and so I would order one portion at four or five different places around town, and use it as an excuse to walk through the old town.”
Where to go out at night in Ljubljana
Slovenes like to make homemade žganje, often called schnapps, and this is the first thing you’ll be offered if you go to someone’s house (other areas of the Balkans call this alcohol rakia). Made with fermented apples, distilled twice, you can find žganje in all sorts of flavors, including lemon and Williams pear, the local favorite. If you don’t get the chance to drink at home, try žganje in one of Ljubljana’s bars.
Start the evening with a drink inside the castle on the hill. You can get there on foot, public transport, or funicular.
Go to a concert at Križanke, a converted medieval monastery. “I saw the Pixies there, this summer. Most of the big bands come through Ljubljana, but when they play, they play in a reasonably sized venue. I saw Green Day at the stadium in Ljubljana, but the stadium only fits about 10,000 people, so you can actually see the acts.”
Drink with the skeletons at Pr'Skelet. “It’s in a basement in the old town, you go down the stairs, and it’s decorated very tackily in fake skeletons, in lots of weird positions, and they have really cheap cocktails. It’s kitschy, but in a fun way.”
Best shopping in Ljubljana
The Central market is made up of an open market and a covered market designed by architect Jože Plečnik. You’ll find produce from the countryside and typical Slovenian products you should sample and/or take back home:
- Piran salt, from the salt flats on the coast in Piran. This salt has been mined since ancient Roman times. “It’s literally seawater, with the water evaporated by the sun, and it’s very special.”
- Homemade schnapps (žganje) is said to have medicinal properties. “If your tummy hurts, you take a shot. If your shoe is too small, you’re supposed to rub schnapps in the sole, in the heel of it, and it expands it. So, it cures what ails you.”
- Sauerkraut. There are several sauerkraut stands in the market, but only one has a line in front of it, and that’s Marjetka’s. Her family is the last keeper of an indigenous type of cabbage, called Ljubljana cabbage. “They have a pillowcase full of its seeds, and these are the last examples of the seeds that exist. It’s supposed to be the best one for making sauerkraut.”
Note the market is closed on Sunday and holidays.
How to get around Slovenia
Slovenia has good public transportation, but rent a car if you can. “It’s going to be much more fun, and you don’t want to have to rely on schedules. The country’s small enough that you can cross the country in two and a half hours, otherwise you’re out of the country.”
What currency do they use in Slovenia?
Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004 and uses the euro.
Top etiquette tip for travelers
Slovenians like to wear slippers indoors. When visiting someone, be prepared to take off your shoes and wear a pair of the slippers they offer you. “At every school, including high school, all the kids take off their shoes when they walk in, and so you go into a high school, and everybody has on these little slippers.”
Noah is undoubtedly Slovenia’s biggest cheerleader. “The quality of life…things like safety, cleanliness, early childhood education, health systems, insurance, reasonable taxes based on what you get in return, friendliness of locals, opportunities, location in terms of getting elsewhere…it’s the complete package.”
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.