Go back in time and enjoy the fairytale-esque landscapes of this stunning Eastern European wonderland!
I knew very little about Slovenia before starting to plan our trip there but as soon as I started Googling images of this tiny yet perfectly formed land, I was blown away by how surprisingly beautiful it was and couldn't wait to go.
Nestled between the Alps and Adriatic, Slovenia boasts coastal retreats in the west, mountainous lakesides in the north and heaps of history in between. It really is a geologist and historian's dream, and at just 8,000 square miles (just a little smaller than Wales), it's easy to travel around to see it all during one trip.
I may be a little biased as it's when we went, but I think the best time to go is Autumn - with temperatures still around 15-20C in September and October and stunning scenery dappled in the red and orange glow of the changing leaves, it's a picture-perfect time to explore.
Days 1-4: Lake Bled
Our first stop after landing in the vibrant capital of Ljubljana (more on that later) were the tranquil shores of Lake Bled. Just 30 minutes from the international airport, travelling straight to Bled gives you an immediate taste of the spectacular scenery that Slovenia has to offer. And despite my Googling and Instagramming, the pictures don't do this gorgeous country justice.
Spanning over 2,000m in length, the lake itself is mesmerising, with a small island hosting a church in the middle and an imposing, grand castle on the cliffs above. A great way to get your bearings and to see the area is by doing the 6km walk around the entire lake. With relatively flat and even terrain, it can be spread over a couple of hours at a leisurely pace, taking in the beautiful painted boats, local markets and spectacular views. An optional extra is to hike up Ojstrica Hill which is a fairly short but steep (the top stands at 611m high) walk at the west shore of the lake, offering incredible panoramic views across to the mountains and castle with the lake itself in the foreground. I can testify that the sweat and breathlessness are worth it!
Another great viewpoint on this walk is the iconic Bled Castle, a medieval structure positioned dramatically on a precipice 130m above the city. As the oldest Slovenian castle, it was first mentioned in 1011 but later devastated by two earthquakes before being lovingly restored in the 1950s. Now hosting sun-drenched courtyards, an on-site museum, gourmet restaurant and wine cellar, it's a good place to wander around in the afternoon. The real attraction, however, are the views from the terrace across the lake and surrounding area. I recommend going towards sunset to take in the panorama whilst enjoying a chilled glass of wine / beer accompanied by the local delicacy, Bled Cream Cake, which is both decadent and delicious.
Venturing further out from Bled, popular nearby spots to visit are the ski town of Vogel, quieter waterside location of Lake Bohinj and spectacular rapids and waterfalls of Vintgar Gorge. Located in the Triglav National Park just over an hour's drive from Bled, the ski resort of Vogel is just as brilliant a place for exploring even during the warmer months. There's a cable car which takes visitors from the car park for €20 which will reward you with breath-taking alpine views across the valley - do take extra layers though, as it tends to be much colder at the top.
Travelling back towards Bled but staying in the National Park, Lake Bohinj is a gorgeous spot and a good alternative to the busier Lake Bled despite being only a 30 minute drive away. If we went again, I'd choose to stay here as I fell in love with it in the small time we were there. Though not as glamorous or lively as it's sister lake, it's placid waters are just as picturesque but without the inevitable crowds, and the area is perfect for outdoor activities such as walking, kayaking, cycling etc. If you have time, you could easily spend a day exploring this neck of the woods or even stay here during your time in the area for a slightly slower pace.
The final stop I'd recommend in this part of Slovenia is the hugely impressive Vintgar Gorge, which lies just 4km north-west of Bled. A true spectacle of natural beauty, the crystal clear aquamarine waters are magical, and visitors can follow the rapids, pools and waterfalls of the 1.6km gorge along man-made wooden walkways which takes about 2 hours to complete. The vivid colours coupled with the thundering sounds of the water are out of this world.
Days 4-7: Piran
What I really love about Slovenia is how in such a small space of land, you can have such varying landscapes and experiences. Driving just 2 hours southwest of Bled, you leave the alpine mountains behind and soon reach the coastal town of Italian-influenced Piran. Located on a peninsula in the Istria region, sitting next the Adriatic Sea and the Croatian border, the characterful town of Piran is full of medieval and gothic architecture, narrow streets and cultural attractions with the small-town feel of a fishing village.
The focal point of the town is the main square, Tartini Square, named after Piran-born composer Giuseppe Tartini and hosts a monument of him in the centre. Lined with restaurants, galleries and shops, the square has a lively buzz and echoes the Venetian style, which isn't surprising as the town was part of the Republic Of Venice until the late 18th Century. To take this all in fully, head up to St George's Parish Church or the Piran Town Walls to experience spectacular views across the town and sea. I'd recommend either sticking around for sunset here as this is one of the best vantage points - and Piran really knows how to put of a cracking sunset! - or heading back down to the water's edge to enjoy the sun going down across the rocks as you breathe in the salty sea breeze. Both are equally magical.
The water front is also a lovely place to have dinner, with an abundance of relaxed restaurants, many of which specialise in the local fresh seafood. It's worth noting that during the main Summer season, there's a restriction on cars in the main town but there are car parks on the periphery which you can either walk from or hop on one of the mini shuttle buses.
Piran is a great base from which to explore the magnificent castles and caves of Slovenia, the most famous being Predjama Castle and Postojna Cave.
Spectacularly built into a cave mouth over 100m high in a southern Slovenian cliff, renaissance fortress Predjama Castle dates back to the 13th Century and is the stuff of myth and legend. With many a story within its walls, its most famous is how it provided refuge for renowned 15th Century robber baron Erazem Leuger whilst he was a fugitive during the wars between the Hungarians and Austrians. Supporting the former, the castle came under a lengthy siege by the Austrian army in 1484 forcing Erazem to remain holed up in the ancient castle. Assuming they could starve him out, the Austrians laid in wait, but unbeknownst to them, the elusive Erazem was able to regularly escape to garner food and water via secret passageways in the cave walls.
Extremely well organised, tickets include a comprehensive audioguide taking visitors around the impressive fairytale landmark and through it's fascinating history. You can also purchase a joint ticket for both Predjama Castle and the network of caverns underneath, Postojna Cave, which is a 15-20 minute drive away.
The Postojna Cave is a 2 million year old and 24km long network of tunnels and passages hollowed out over time by the Pivka River. It is jaw-droppingly impressive, but the set-up is very touristy, with hour and a half tours on an electric train which have the feel (but lack the excitement) of a theme park ride. The tour explores 5km of the cave network, taking in spectacular sights such as the Russian Bridge which was built by prisoners of war in 1916, the 500m-long Beautiful Caves and snow-white Winter Hall, before finishing in the awe-inspiring Concert Hall which can accommodate 10,000 people.
For a more authentic experience of Slovenia's dramatic cave networks though, I'd recommend Škocjan Caves, which lie approximately 30km east of Predjama. We went there in the morning before heading to Predjama and Postojna and though more basic, found it a much more informative and interesting tour of the cave network. Given the status of an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, the Škocjan Caves are a spectacular subterranean network of chambers spanning over 6km and are thought to be millions of years old. Stepping inside, you are immediately transported to another world and time, surrounded by stalagmites, stalagmites vast open canyons and treacherously narrow pathways. For fans of Lord Of The Rings, it's akin to entering Moria and is a truly unique and special experience - though those with a fear of heights (like me!) will need to have their wits about them!
Days 7-10: Ljubljana
Slovenia's capital and largest city, Ljubljana, is romantic, historic and full of life. Littered with food markets and quaint shops along its cobbled streets, and with the Ljubljanica River running through the centre, it's made up of beautiful bridges and spectacular architecture, the most famous of which are the Dragon Bridge and the Triple Bridge. As with all of Slovenia, I had no idea what to expect but was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful architecture and higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets of the city.
Like Bled, the focal point of this exciting capital is the medieval fortress of Ljubljana Castle which sits at the top of Castle Hill which is accessible by a funicular railway. Originally built in the 11th century, it has undergone a number of changes and refurbishments over the centuries and is now the cultural centre of the city. The castle hosts an extensive exhibition on Slovenian history and an extraordinary puppet museum. Similar to Predjama Castle, you are given an audio guide, which takes you on a self-guided tour of the landmark, but the real attraction are the beautiful views across the city from the Outlook Tower so make sure you go on a clear day if possible.
After spending a morning seeing the city from above, take a river cruise along the Ljubljanica River to see if from ground level. Looking up at the buildings gives the opportunity to really appreciate the detail of the beautiful buildings, from medieval structures to the art nouveau designs of the 20th Century. The tours aren't particularly informative so don't go in expecting a history lesson, but they are a relaxing way of seeing the city from a different perspective.
However, though equally beautiful during the day, Ljubljana really comes alive once the sun sets, with the numerous bridges filled with lights giving the city a cosy soft glow and electric atmosphere. The riverfront is scattered with outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants creating a real buzz and it's clear that Ljubljana is the culinary hub of Slovenia with countless gourmet restaurants to choose from. We loved just mooching along the river during the day and into the evening, dipping into cute cafes, cocktail bars and eateries at our leisure, romantically lit by the twinkly lights. For fellow foodies, I'd certainly check out the Slovenian Wine and Culinary Festival, which takes place in November too.
We only scratched the surface during our visit, but as you can see, there's so much to see and do in beautiful Slovenia. As mentioned, with it being such a small area of land, you can easily condense your trip to just one area if you don't have a full 10 days, or equally base yourself in one of the locations highlighted and drive to the sights from there. The options are endless but I defy you not to fall in love with Slovenia!