Slovenia, a tiny gem of a country in central Europe, is best explored by car. Whether it's your main destination—or if you're combining with a trip to neighboring Italy, Austria, or Croatia—allow yourself extra days on the road to explore the Julian Alps, visit medieval seaside villages, and sample some of Europe's best wines.

Discovering Slovenia

Low-key Slovenia has plenty to offer travelers, especially those who like to get around by car: the country's bucolic mountainscapes, pretty coastline, and up-and-coming wine regions are all perfect road trip destinations.

There are two main theories on how best to structure a trip around Slovenia. You can either stay in the centrally located capital of Ljubljana and head out on daily excursions—most points of interest are just a couple hours' drive away—or hop from place to place. For the best experience, allow yourself a week to ten days.

A few practical details to consider before putting the keys in the ignition: in Slovenia, vehicles drive on the right side of the road. Roads are generally well-maintained, and signs are well-marked and consistent with what you'll find in the rest of Europe. Be aware that all vehicles traveling on Slovenian motorways require vignettes (paper passes available for purchase at local gas stations.) If you plan on renting a car, check ahead, as many companies provide vignettes for you. If not, purchase your own: a weekly vignette costs about €7.50. 

Ljubljana, the Can't-miss Capital

Ljubljana

Since Slovenia's international airport is located about 30 minutes outside the capital, your trip will likely begin or end in Ljubljana. Even if it doesn't, you'll want to give yourself at least a solid day to visit the city. With a population of just over a quarter million, Ljubljana is a small, easily walkable medieval destination.

While taking in the baroque architecture and cobblestone streets of old town, make sure to check out Prešeren Square, the Triple and Dragon Bridges, and take in city views at Ljubljana Castle, which overlooks the surrounding area. It's also where you'll find fine dining at its best—but at a lower price point than in most major European cities—at venues like Strelec Restaurant and Gostilna na Gradu. 

Take a stroll along the Ljubljanica River, lined with various cafés, restaurants, and wine bars. People-watch with chocolate or a piece of cake from Lolita or Kavarna Cacao. Looking to see a show or visit a nightclub? Head to Metelkova Mesto, a former army base turned into a bohemian hot spot.

For more ideas on how to spend a perfect day in the city, have a look at this article. And if you're looking for a place to stay, consider booking a room at one of the best boutique hotels in Ljubljana.

Lake Bled, Vintar Gorge, and Lake Bohinj

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Row your own boat on Lake Bled

Located about 34 miles northwest of Ljubljana, and even closer if you're coming directly from the airport, Lake Bled is one of Slovenia's most popular tourist destinations. With a single picturesque island that's topped with a tall medieval church tower—and the snow-capped Alps rising in the distance—it's a fairytale setting come to life no matter what time of year you visit. That's not the case everywhere in the country, however: find out here about the best times to visit different destinations in Slovenia.

While Lake Bled can get busy during peak summer months, don't let that discourage you. Bled is a great place to go hiking or take a canoe out onto its blue-green water. Or you could purchase a round-trip ticket to the island on a pletna (a traditional wooden boat), which will set you back €15. After walking all 99 steps from the dock up to the Church of the Assumption and ringing the tower bell, head back to the mainland and up towards Bled Castle to savor the scenery.

While in the area, reconnect with nature with a hike along Vintar Gorge, located just a few miles outside Bled. Take in lush greenery, steep limestone cliffs, and crisp, cool alpine water as you make your way towards the stunning Šum Waterfall. Driving roughly 30 minutes west will take you to quiet Lake Bohinj, Slovenia's largest alpine lake, located just inside Triglav National Park. Take a dip in the water or ride up the cable car for better views, which are best during sunset.

Check out this guide to exploring the Slovenian Alps if you're interested in more outdoor adventures.

Adventures in the Soča Valley

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A hiking trail cuts close to the water's edge in Tolmin Gorge

If you're seeking natural splendor and outdoor activity, head west towards the Soča Valley. It's here you'll find Mt. Triglav, Slovenia's highest peak, as well as the crystal-clear, emerald blue Soča River, where you can go rafting, kayaking, or hiking along Tolminka Gorge. Be sure not to miss Boka Waterfall. At over 430 feet high and nearly 50 feet wide, it's considered one of Europe's best waterfalls. It has the highest flow rates in spring and autumn. Those looking for more extreme forms of entertainment can try zip lining, paragliding and bungee jumping.

Note that driving in the region is an adventure, too. If you're behind the wheel, make sure you're holding on with both hands as you navigate Vršič Pass and it's 50 hairpin turns.

After an exhausting day, you'll want to find somewhere memorable to spend the night. There are numerous camping and glamping options in Bovec, such as Adrenalinček and Camp Vodenca, or you can spoil yourself with a stay above the clouds in one of the four Alpine cottages of Chalet Nebesa outside Kobarid. This is also where you'll find Hiša Franko, of Chef's Table fame. The chef, Ana Roš, was recently named World's Best Female Chef.

Discover more unique lodging options in Slovenia here.

Majestic Caves and the "Tuscany of Slovenia"

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The so-called "Tuscany of Slovenia"

Less than an hour's drive southwest of Ljubljana, you'll arrive at the Škocjan and Postojna Caves. While Postojna is the more visited of the two, Škocjan is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's entirely possible to visit both. But if you have to choose, Postojna has a two-and-a-half hour tour that includes an indoor train ride, caves full of stalactites and stalagmites, and the chance to see an Olm, an eyeless cave-dwelling salamander. On the other hand, Škocjan's cave system is just as immense, with gigantic halls and the Cerkvenik Bridge, suspended 150 feet above the Reka River. Sorry, Instagrammers: photos are not allowed.

After a day of spelunking, make your way to Goriška Brda wine region and Vipava Valley to finish your day with some wine tasting. Located along the Italian border, Goriška Brda and its nearly 700 wineries are known as the "Tuscany of Slovenia." With rolling hills full of vineyards and olive groves, this region between the Alps and the Mediterranean is most famous for its white varietal. The best-known is Rebula, but you'll also find familiar wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

40 minutes south, in the Vipava Valley, where you'll encounter a different local varietal called Zelen. You'll also find the best range of dinner and hotel options here: various restaurants serve affordably priced multi-course farm-to-table meals. For something more upscale, try Majerija House or Gostilna Theodosius.  

If you think Slovenia sounds like the perfect place for a honeymoon, you're not alone. This article offers ideas for planning a romantic trip.

The Charming Port Cities of Slovenian Istria

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The postcard-perfect port city of Piran

Slovenia doesn't have a significant coastline, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. Located approximately 90 minutes southwest of Ljubljana is Slovenia's Istrian Peninsula. Here, you'll find the medieval Mediterranean port towns of Koper, Izola, and Piran

Jutting into the Adriatic, Piran is best known for fleur de sel, a high-end salt they've harvested the same way for over 700 years. Salt aside, this small village packs loads of Venetian gothic influence into its narrow streets. Start your day at the main square, Tartinijev Trg, before making your way to the Cathedral of Saint George and its iconic bell tower. It's the birthplace of composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini, and music fans might enjoy a visit to his onetime home, Tartini House. At the end of the day, watch the sunset over the Adriatic at Caffe Neptun while enjoying a coffee, craft beer, or cocktail.

In Koper, head straight for Titov Trg square and feast your eyes on the ornate beauty of the Praetorian Palace with its 15th-century gothic architecture. Get lost walking through the streets of old town, head to the beach, or dine on excellent Mediterranean cuisine served with a glass of the local red varietal, Refošk. A few miles further west, in often-overlooked Izola, there are also good restaurants and fewer crowds.

This 11-day itinerary focusing on Slovenia's coast has helpful suggestions for how to spend your time in the area.

Slovenia's Historic Eastern Wine Region

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At the Shrove Sunday carnival in Ptuj

After experiencing the "Tuscany of Slovenia," wine lovers could head east to Slovenia's second largest city, Maribor. Located in Stajerska, a subregion of the larger Podravje wine region, this area is known for its white varietals like the Laški Rizling (Riesling).

More importantly, it's home to the world's oldest surviving grapevine. Located in Lent, Maribor's old town, you'll find the over 400-year-old vine at The Old Vine House, where you can also try a tasting of local wines and learn about the area's extensive viniculture heritage.

While in the region, take a walk along the Drava River to check out the town's famed towers. Begin at Judgment Tower, where witch trials were held during the 14th century, and end at the Jewish Tower and Synagogue located in the medieval Jewish district. Finish your evening at Rožmarin, a modern wine bar, or make reservations at Restavracija Mak to try contemporary Slovenian cuisine at its best.

A half-hour drive from Maribor will lead you to Ptuj, Slovenia's oldest city, with records dating back to the first century. Start your day at Ptuj Castle, with a museum featuring over 300 musical artifacts, 17th-century Turkish motifs, and a colorful collection of carnival masks and costumes (worn in Ptuj during a popular pagan carnival celebrating spring called Kurentovanje).

Make your way to the Dominican and Minorite Monasteries before visiting Slovenia's oldest wine cellar, Ptujska Klet, dating back to 1239. Here you can take various guided tours and tastings, all dependent on how deep you want to dive into their vault. Raise a glass to the wonders of Slovenia, one of Europe's best-kept secrets!

Take a look at this article on the best things to do in Slovenia for more travel inspiration and advice.