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A family travelogue in four acts.
It’s a question my partner Kate and I must’ve heard a dozen times in the lead-up to our vacation. Our short answer was: “Croatia, but cheaper.” Yet, that’s not fair. The truth is, Slovenia might be one of Central Europe’s best-kept secrets, a little-thought-of country that boasts many of the same glories usually associated with its more-famous neighbours, like Italy or Austria. Think: multiple ranges of Alps, vast underground cave networks, endless forests (more than 60 percent of the country is treed) and, down in the southwest, even a bit of Adriatic coastline. Plus, It’s quieter and, yes, less expensive than those other countries, and compact enough that everything can be seen on a few day trips from Ljubljana, its stunning, old-world capital city. Want proof? Here are four regional Slovenian highlights that my own family (including two kids, aged 8 and 12) was able to tick off on a single tank of gas.
On our first day, we decide to focus on Ljubljana and get to know this city a little better. we’re staying in an Airbnb in the old quarter, which is already full of history: the neighbourhood sits on top of 2,000-year-old Roman ruins, and some experts trace the city’s symbol, the dragon, all the way back to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts.
Perched atop a hill in the centre of town, the Ljubljana Castle has dragons on it, too: they’re carved into each step of the staircase that takes us up to the viewing tower, from which, on a clear day, you can see a full third of the country. But when we pull ourselves away from the view, we find plenty of other things to do here, too, including an OG-style escape room (complete with puzzle game) and an interactive museum of puppetry—an art that has held a key place in Slovenian culture for over a century. My kids prove to be on the fence about puppetry, but they’re fervent converts to audio tours, and the castle has a good one—how can you go wrong with secret passageways and open-air prisons?
Back on the ground, we spend the afternoon wandering around downtown Ljubljana, most of which is pedestrian-only. There is no shortage of restaurants and cafés (arising out of a food culture that takes pride in a range of locally made wines, spirits and even tonic water), and the abundance of bridges crisscrossing the Ljubljanica River—one of which has a photogenic dragon statue adorning each corner—makes for a stroll that’s easy but full of old-world sights that will stay in our memory for a long time. Distracted by said sights, we find we’ve wandered just a bit too far—but no problem, we just flag down one of the city’s electric-powered Kavalir (“gentle helper”) carts, which seem always on hand to offer a free ride to anywhere in the pedestrian zone.
Summertime in Slovenia can get hot. And when the temperature gets too high, there’s only one place to go to cool off: the caves.
The country actually has two world-renowned subterranean systems, and we opt for the Škocjan Caves, which are a 45-minute drive from the capital and one of only three caves in the world to make the UNESCO World Heritage list. Guided tours leave from the visitors’ centre every hour, and they take you into an environment that is truly spectacular: the stalactite-studded chambers we walk through cannot be offered justice through photos (which is handy, because you aren’t allowed to take any). If crossing a bridge 50 metres across a chasm above a deep underground river doesn’t put your heart in your throat, then seeing the intact original ropeways—and imagining them being used by the 19th-century explorers who made them—will.
Unlike neighbouring Croatia, Slovenia isn’t well known for its coastline, but it does have a sliver of access to the Adriatic Sea. Full credit to wife Kate, then, for finding Moon Bay, an isolated, crescent-shaped beach near the coastal town of Piran. Accessible via an unmarked path cut into the cliffside, the water is clear and cool, and the view is picturesque, with Trieste visible in the distance. Our actual swimming has mixed results (sliced toe, scraped knees), but that’s mostly because the beach is rocky and we stubbornly refuse to invest in water shoes.
Like Ljubljana, Piran has wisely sealed itself off from vehicles, and visitors have to park at a nearby parkade, then take a free shuttle into town. Once again, our chill commute pays off as soon as we enter the charmingly labyrinthine alleyways and encounter nothing but fellow foot traffic. I’ve always been a seafood fan, and maybe it has something to do with the 33-Celsius heat, but at a hole-in-the-wall outdoor restaurant I eat the best damn plate of calamari I’ve ever had in my life.
After seeing the caves and the water, we feel the mountains starting to beckon. Which brings us to the northwest of the country, into the Julian Alps, where we decide to visit what we’d been warned in advance was perhaps the country’s single busiest tourist attraction: Lake Bled.
When it comes to unforgettable sights, Lake Bled has so much to take in that It’s almost an embarrassment. The first contender is the water itself, which shimmers like something out of a fairy tale. Then there’s the tower of the Church of the Mother of God on the Lake, which sits on a little island in the middle; you can admire it from the shore, or hire a traditional wooden boat called a pletna to take you out so you can ring the church’s 16th-century “wishing bell” yourself. And, of course, there’s another castle up on the hill. It’s all incredibly beautiful, and, even by 10 a.m., incredibly busy. We were warned.
But Bled isn’t just famous for its scenery—the region is also known for its “kremna rezina,” a double-decker cream cake with thick layers of custard and whipped cream. Variations of the cake have been around for centuries, and while in the 1950s the Hotel Park created the version that is now the standard (the hotel still sells as many as 3,000 slices per day), you can get it at almost any bakery in town. Later that night, I dream of trying each and every one.
Every summer, Slovenia’s nomadic herdsmen travel to a plateau in the Kamnik Alps called Velika Planina, to move into the single-room wood huts located there while their cattle graze for the season. But the sublime views from the mountaintop have also become a magnet for tourists, and the place now lives in a state of symbiosis: visitors can take a gondola and chairlift up from the nearby town of KamniÅ¡ka Bistrica and tour the site, while the herdsmen enjoy a direct, rotating audience for their homemade cheese and other wares.
We start off wary of feeling like oglers or intruders, but it turns out Velika Planina has been developed with an eye toward balance. The distinctive oval-shaped huts are spaced out far enough that tourists and locals don’t rub elbows unless they choose to. Meanwhile, my son and I are torn between taking in some of the best mountain views we’ve ever seen or knocking on the door of the various huts selling cheese and Åganci (a traditional Slovenian buckwheat dish served with pork cracklings). Happily, there is time for both.
Velika Planina might not get as much publicity as the Bled region, and—no question—the lake did impress. But I’ll be thinking about the wonders of this plateau and the quiet, unique herders’ village that sits there for far longer than many of the more famous sites in the country.