Slovenia seems to be everywhere lately.
Why? Because it truly is a gem of a place. Why else would we have visited the country two Christmases in a row? It really is that special.
Winter escape to Slovenia? Here’s why you should do it.
I can still remember the feeling of arriving in Ljubljana for the first time. It was our first day of winter holidays. We woke early to catch our train from Budapest, tucked into cushy, leather seats next to a family from Argentina. The world sped by as the train rocked its way across Southern Hungary, covered in a recent, icy snowfall. The sky was the color of winter, a smoky gray swirled with puffy layers of white. Ice clung to the trees, scrapping our windows with each nail-biting turn.
After crossing the border, the fog lifted and the sun broke free just long enough to steal glimpses of green hillsides, country homes, churches featuring red domes, and a rocky, twisting river. As the sun set, we dipped into Ljubljana’s valley, the fog securing its dominance once again. Bidding our Argentinian friends adieu, we climbed the stairs out of the train station and into the dusky night.
Each year, Ljubljana is doused in holiday cheer, a light show designed by a local artist. For the past two years, the artist put an interstellar spin on Christmas. Match the fog with a meteor shower or Saturn’s rings, and you’ve got some seriously magical decor.
Walking the streets of Ljubljana, you can’t help but notice its genuine appreciation of art. Stretch your hipster legs and absorb the cool vibes of Trubarjeva street, known for its array of street art and cafes. Look up and count the shoes hanging on the wires above. Stop by Metelkova, the derelict prison turned hostel and public art space.
Ljubljana is small, which means you aren’t constantly fighting the crowds to see the sights or have a meal. It’s an emerging foodie city with a delicious craft beer and wine scene. You’ve got a castle, a cathedral, a sprawling weekend market, beautiful bridges spanning a rushing river… all staples of the perfect European city.
And if you need even more convincing, you can enjoy the city’s version of Central Park, complete with a maze of hiking trails. Plus, during the holidays, you bet there is a perfectly adorable Advent Market, mulled wine and thick drinking chocolate always on offer.
After enjoying the city for a few days, both years, we spent the actual Christmas holidays in Bled, home of the famously photographed Lake Bled. Here’s why I like it: aside from being maybe the country’s biggest tourist sight, and it being the holidays, Lake Bled is surprisingly quiet at Christmastime. We always had the lake nearly to ourselves for a day or two before the “crowds” appeared on Christmas Day.
It was so refreshing to stroll around the lake in the crisp air of winter. The sun warming our faces as we leisurely made our circle, the icy, shadowed side forcing us to bundle up a bit more. We hiked to Mala Osojnica for those famed views, crunching leaves beneath our feet and holding tight to iron railings as we made the steep incline, not a single other hiker in sight.
We rented a boat and rowed to the island, the bright winter sunlight illuminating each dip of the oar. We were the only customers that afternoon and although paying for one hour, we were encouraged to take our time, tempting a few extra moments just drifting, admiring the scenery.
And with the Christmas crowds, we enjoyed the annual holiday presentation, the Legend of the Sunken Bell. Brave scuba divers dipped into the chilly waters as we watched the bell, its ominous toll echoing through the trees, sink further and further. We sang a traditional song before walking the lightened path back to the little town’s center, snuggling into a wooden booth for our Christmas Slovenian feast and cups of hot wine.
The day after Christmas, we rented a car to see the rest of the country. During our two visits, we took very different trips. The first year we enjoyed a quick jaunt to Lake Bohinj, Lake Bled’s much larger neighbor located in Triglav National Park. We ascended the lake’s only ski area, not to ski, but rather to sit above the clouds and gawk at the foggy iced valleys as the Julian Alps slowly emerged.
Then, we crossed the country, the small, coastal village of Piran as our destination. Yes, Slovenia has a tiny sliver of Adriatic coastline, and you will feel like you’ve escaped to Italy. This old, walled town juts out into the emerald sea, and is essentially a maze of cobblestone alleyways so narrow you can nearly reach out and touch both sides. Despite the winter temperatures, bright clothing still hung from wires above and plants sat in the sills of windows perfectly decorated with mismatched shutters.
We ate our weight in seafood and enjoyed peaceful moments near the water’s edge, listening to the sea’s song as it pushed against the shoreline and pulled at pebbles. We spent time sitting in the enormous square where music wafted to nearly every intricate corner. And we walked the old walls, admiring the red rooftops contrast perfectly with sun-bleached facades.
The second year, we went north instead, spending time in the national park, our base being the ski village of Kranjska Gora. We were truly lucky with the weather during both of these trips, especially the second year. Our time in the park, although with limited winter light, allowed us to spend ample time enjoying nature, with sky-high trees looming above us and mountain giants appearing closer with each step. We hiked in the park and even found an old Russian church from WWI.
We continued on to the famed Soča River Valley, hiking nearby hills and cascades, and resting our heads at a farmstead. We had the most delicious food of our trip at this farm. Each night, our hosts filled our bowls with steaming soup and our plates with traditional fare. It was the perfect meal to fill us up after days exploring the nearby hills, frosty fields, and beehives.
Both years, we spent the New Year back in Ljubljana, but that deserves its own post, so stay tuned. But during the second year, we stopped at the small town of Škofja Loka on the way. This little town has some serious charm and was the perfect coffee break.
Slovenia is Europe’s best kept secret, at least for now. This little country gives you everything: Alps with plenty of hiking and skiing, lakes and cascades for exploring, wine regions, thermal baths, an Italian-like coastline, and a quaint, artsy capital city, voted the European Green Capital in 2016. We’ve collectively spent an month in Slovenia, and there is still so much to see in experience.
What do you think? What would you enjoy most about Slovenia?