Slovenia caught our imagination in 2014.
Colleagues spoke of remarkable alpine and forest scenery; of a pristine country with a high standard of living – part of the Balkans but particularly modern and prosperous; and a friendly, multilingual people with amazing traditional food.
Before then, about all we knew was that Slovenia brushed up against the Alps while also bordering the Mediterranean; had played in the 2010 World Cup; and was home to Lake Bled, regularly named among the most beautiful places on earth.
Our interest was piqued further when we heard that Slovenia’s cobble-stone capital, Ljubljana, was being described as ‘the new Prague’.
And the more we researched, the more Slovenia intriged us.
For a start, it seemed like a cultural melting pot.
Unlike its Balkan neighbours, the area had been largely controlled for much of its history by the Habsburgs of Austria, creating a vastly different heritage.
However, there’d also been some rule by Bavarian Dukes, while parts of Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast had been part of the Republic of Venice.
Slovenia is the most industrialized and urbanized of all the former Yugoslav republics, despite having a population of only about two-and-a-half-million.
It is also a ‘green capital’ of Europe, with substantial emphasis on environmental protection.
There are large areas of mountains, limestone plateau, dense forest and rural farmland.
Hiking trails criss-cross the country and Slovenia is known for outdoor and extreme sports.
Our initial visit to this fascinating country started in Ljubljana.
What we found was a fairytale city of rare beauty.
Close to Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, the ancient capital of Slovenia is easy to reach and has an attractive Old Town alongside the pretty Ljubljanica River.
This pedestrian-only city centre boasts strikingly colourful architecture; outdoor cafes and coffee shops; wide public squares; cobblestone streets; museums, a big university; and Baroque fountains, sculptures and monuments.
And above it all sits the imposing Ljubjiana Castle, an 11th Century fortress that can be reached by glass-sided funicular railway or by several walking trails.
From the castle towers, you can see across the red rooftops of the Old Town and over the suburbs of Ljubjiana to the snow-topped Julian Alps in the distance.
Ljubljana Castle towers are ascended using twisting circular steel ladders.
Everywhere you look in Central Ljubljana there are superbly preserved Art Nouveau buildings, many housing cultural and artistic institutions, such as museums and art galleries.
Others host shops, banks and businesses.
The fact that Ljubjiana has less than 300,000 permanent residents gives the city a particularly friendly and laid-back atmosphere
Ljubjiana University, with 63,000 students, also helps give the city a vibrancy, as well as boosting the strong local art and music scene.
At Ljubljana’s centre is Preseren square, just a short walk from the Old Town across the three-pronged Triple Bridge.
The square is surrounded by beautiful historic architecture, including the salmon-coloured Franciscan Church of the Annuncian.
This among several eye-catching churches in Ljubljana’s heart.
Slovenia is a modern country in every sense and its capital city has many trendy bars, including Metelkova Mestre, a former army building that was taken over by squatters and is home to fringe art centres, alternative clubs and music venues.
Other travellers may be more interested in the city’s vibrant cafe scene, stunning architecture and range of museums and galleries.
And Ljubljana has a growing reputation as a foodies paradise, with many restaurants serving a range of traditional Slovenian fare, including mushroom soup, pork sausages, beef dishes and chicken paprika with dumplings.
Overall, this is a wonderful destination for travellers of any age.
It is particularly accessible because the majority of the city’s wonderful attractions are concentrated within its Old Town and easily reached on foot.
The city well and truly lives up to its reputation as a hidden European jewell.
We suggest you experience Ljubljana and Slovenia in general before the mass tourist market swoops.
9/10 – Ljubiana is flat and easy to get around – even though the central city is largely vehicle-free. The attractions of the old town are close together. Most of the museums and lovely old buildings contains lifts and are wheelchair accessible. The castle can be reached by funicular railway and the city is well served by planes, coaches and trains.
Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.