If you're planning a trip to Slovenia, you likely have Lake Bled and the Soča Valley on your list. But what about the hills and huts of shepherd settlement Velika Planina? Or the annual lace festival in charming Idrija? Though Slovenia is small (roughly the size of New Jersey), there are still plenty of places off the tourist trail to discover.
Most of the locations listed here are just a day trip away from the capital city of Ljubljana. The easiest way to travel is by car—most roads are well marked, although some can be rather narrow. If for some reason you get lost, don't fret: Slovenians are friendly and most know English, making it easy to doublecheck your directions. And for more of the best places to visit Slovenia, take a look at this article.
Hike Among Herdsmen in Velika Planina
New Zealand may be known for Hobbiton, but Slovenia boasts the closest thing to a functioning fantasy realm. Velika Planina is one of the largest shepherd settlements left in Europe, with roughly 140 spruce shingle huts sprinkled throughout. The village comes alive in spring and summer when herdsmen bring their flocks to pasture on the highland plateau, and those visiting can either hike or take a ski lift up to the many mountain trails available for walking and biking.
Be sure to visit Marija Snežna (Snow Mary chapel), the Veternica and Dovja Griča caves, and when you start feeling hungry, try an authentic shepherds lunch of sour milk and žganci (buckwheat mush). Just be aware, it can get crowded with locals during summer weekends.
Go Underground Biking in Peca
Biking isn't merely an outdoor sport—at least not in Slovenia. The northern region of Koroška is home to legendary Mount Peca, where centuries of mining has left nearly 500 miles of tunnels. Grab a headlamp, helmet, and gloves and take a 2-3 hour valley-to-valley ride three miles underground through pitch black tunnels as you learn about the history and geology of the region. While the terrain is rough at times (this is underground after all), the ride should be fine for casual bikers. Is kayaking more your speed? You can also take a trip through underground rivers and lakes created by the flooded mines. For more adrenaline-inducing activities, read about the Top Adventures in Slovenia.
Watch Lipizzaner Horses Train in Lipica
Equestrian enthusiasts will want to stop at the village of Lipica in the Karst region for a close encounter with the famed Lipizzaner horses. Best known for the Spanish Riding Schools of Vienna, these elegant white horses originate from a 16th-century stud farm that's still in operation today. Visitors to the estate can watch the horses train, tour the area on a carriage ride, go to the museum or take in a 45-minute classical riding show.
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Celebrate Slovenian Culture in Idrija
As a former mercury mine, Idrija was one of the wealthiest European towns during the middle ages; nowadays, it's a UNESCO world heritage site. This well-preserved town is famous for its intricately patterned lace, which they celebrate with a festival in June featuring competitions, workshops, and exhibitions (this article lists a few more of Slovenia's festivals and other local experiences). There is even edible sugar lace to try, created in traditional patterns. Last but not least, Idrija is home to Slovenia's national dish: idrijski žlikrofi, a delicious little dumpling filled with potatoes, pork fat, onions, and herbs. They are specific to the region—so specific, in fact, that they even have protected geographic status.
Visit the Salt Pans of Secovlje Salina Nature Park
Only one percent of Slovenia is coastline, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in beauty. In Southwestern Slovenia, you'll find Piran, a medieval village of narrow streets and Venetian Gothic architecture jutting out into the Adriatic sea. While the center of activity tends to be Tartinijev Trg (Tartini Square), it's the salt pans of the Secovlje Salina Nature Park that you can't miss. Fleur de sel, a prized sea salt, has been hand-harvested here using the same techniques for over 700 years. Take a guided tour of the pans, or if relaxation is part of the plan, head to Lepa Vida, a spa specializing in thalassotherapies (sea therapies) such as salt-pan mud wraps and sea salt scrubs.
Check Out Venetian Architecture in Koper
Not too far from Piran and just three miles south of the Italian border lies one of Slovenia's oldest cities, Koper. With settlements dating back to the middle bronze age, what brings people to Koper is the Venetian culture and architecture that prevailed from the 13th through the 18th century. In the city's central square, Tito Trg, you'll find the 15th-century Praetorian Palace (still in use as city hall) along with the Cathedral of the Assumption, a 12th-century church with its 162-foot tall bell tower where you can climb the steps and take in an incredible view of the area.
Learn All About Beer in Žalec
Beer lovers will want to make a pit stop at the eastern town of Žalec and experience the Green Gold Fountain. Located at the town center, this semi-circular fountain designed to look like a hop flower is Europe's first beer fountain. As Slovenia's hop-growing region, visitors can purchase a microchipped beer mug allowing them to sample the six local varieties of beer on tap. Once you feel adequately lubricated, take a walk over to the Eko Muzej, a museum dedicated to hops, brewing, and yes, more beer tasting.