Language(s): Slovenian, English (anyone under 40 speaks it)
Currency: Euro (1 euro = $1.12)
Must-See: Lake Bled, Dragon Bridge, Triple Bridge, Ljubljana Castle, Pink Church, Metelkova
You probably don’t know where Slovenia is. You may not even know that it’s a country. You probably get it confused with Slovakia or think that it’s still part of Yugoslavia. You wouldn’t be the only one (*slowly and inconspicuously raises hand*). The country has even made a popular series of postcards that say these same things, mocking itself in its anonymity. So, let’s start with a few facts about the country before we dig into things:
1. Yes, Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia, but became independent 25 years ago in 1991. It was the first kingdom within the country to do so.
2. When the Balkan Wars began, Slovenia only participated for 10 days. Lucky them, because the bloody war continued until _____.
3. Slovenes love to garden. The majority of them at least partially grow their own food.
4. The capital, Ljubljana (pronounced lyub-lya-na) was named the Green Capital of Europe in 2016. They’re great recyclers and composters.
5. The Slovene national anthem is similar to a drinking song. It cheers to the beautiful Slovene women, then to the handsome Slovene men and at the end to all of the people in the world who want peace. That’s beautiful.
Did you expect any of that out of this small spot of land smack dab between Western and Eastern Europe? I didn’t. Slovenia is a hidden gem.
If you’ve ever heard of someone traveling to Slovenia previously, it was most likely in regards to visiting Lake Bled in the Julian Alps. This is an incredible spot that we will get to later, but Ljubljana also deserves some attention. It’s a smallish town, in comparison to other European capitals, with just 280,000 inhabitants, but there are plenty of things to do to keep you busy.
Because we showed up with zero knowledge of the country, we decided to join The Ljubljana Walking Tour. It began at 3:00 pm and was totally free (though you should tip your awesome tour guides, because they’re awesome). We started in the new part of town right in front of what residents call the Pink Church. It was at one time painted red, but after years of wear and tear, it’s now the famously pink building where locals meet up. Surely some street performer will be there, so grab an ice cream cone and enjoy the sun here for a few.
We then crossed each of the main bridges in town, including the Dragon Bridge and the Triple Bridge. Ljubljana has a main river that passes through it and with these bridges, the vibe is very similar to Amsterdam. Not to mention the hordes of folks on bikes. Once you cross these bridges, you’ll find yourself in the old part of town. Check out one of the cute cafes or the souvenir shops on this side. Our tour also passed by the university (Free for anyone in the world to attend, just learn Slovenian. Easy, right?) and a former monastery-turned-theater.
After your tour, it’s obligatory to climb up the hill to the Castle to watch the sunset. The funicular is fairly cheap as well (around 2 euro, one-way), so that’s an option if you’ve got a few extra coins. Don’t bother entering the castle unless you have time to kill (it’s not free). Just enjoy the city view from up there, watch the day end and contemplate what a great life you live.
When the stars come out over Ljuljana, you’ll want to be near the river. Plenty of bars and restaurants offer happy hours and the pretty little lights make this place seem magical. When it’s time to go out, check out Metelkova. This area of the city was turned into a graffiti arts district, very similar to the Heidelburg Project that exists in Detroit, Michigan. It gets crowded on the weekends, but it’s a unique experience to go out there, so just suffer.
Now on to the part you’ve probably heard of or at least have pinned on a Pinterest board somewhere: Lake Bled. Within the lake sits a cathedral atop of the only island in Slovenia. The backdrop is a view of the snow-covered Alps. You’d swear you were in Switzerland, however you’re in SLOVENIA, A PART OF THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA AND A UNCOVERED PARADISE.
For views of the entire lake from above, you can climb up to the castle. It costs 10 euros to enter (5 euros for students). We chose not to do this, since you can see the island well from down below, but if you have the time and extra cash, it would probably be excellent. We instead chose to hike around the lake. It’s a paved path, so it’s easy to walk and offers stops along the way for swimming or dipping your feet. You can also rent boats or SUP boards (about 10 euros/hour) or even take a traditional boat ride (also about 10 euros) to arrive at the island in the middle. Again, we chose not to do this in order to save money and due to time constraints, but our hike around the lake was lovely.
To get to the lake, you can take a bus from Ljubljana for around 12 euros round-trip. Just stop by the central bus station and purchase them from a machine or from a real person. However you prefer to live your life. The bus stops in Bled at the central bus station as well, so just go down the hill and you’ll see the lake. They leave Ljubljana every hour beginning at 10 am and return from Bled about as frequently. Once you buy your ticket, you are free to return at any time you like. Just how up to the bus stop and hop on.
During the summer, the town is hopping as a resort-like place. However, once this dies down you won’t need to spend much time there. Just enough to take a hike and enjoy a traditional cream cake or in my case, the ice cream version. One day is plenty for Lake Bled, unless you are using it as your jumping off point to explore the Julian Alps or the nearby National Park Bohinj.
As far as must-try Slovenian food, the list includes hearty sausages and even horse burgers.Yes, they eat those and yet you can buy them in the central market that happens every morning. I tried traditional sausage with an apple buckwheat porridge for around 9 euros, which was pretty good. Slovenes love their meet, so vegetarians beware. Of course there are a ton of food options, such as Thai and Indian cuisines, but if you’re a meat-lover, traditional Slovene food will be perfect for you. For dessert try gibanica. It’s a layer cake filled with apples, ricotta cheese and walnuts and it’s the best dessert lasagna you’ll ever try.
Finally, when thinking about lodging, might I suggest staying at C-Punkt Hostel. It’s within the city center, but a short distance away from the main plaza on a university campus. The wifi was strong, the staff chill and the beds comfy. It was no more than a college dorm, but it was an excellent and cheap place (14 euros/night for a 6 bed mixed dorm) to lay our heads at night.
If you’re looking for a place open to tourists but not filled with them yet, set amongst the Alps at prices a quarter of those in Switzerland, then Slovenia is your place. If you’re young (in age or at heart) and looking for a unique place to visit on your next trip, then Ljubljana is even better. I hope you’ll give it a chance.
As always, comment with questions.
Bye, Bye, Bye,