6 Off the Beaten Path Localities in Slovenia
If you’ve already been to Slovenia or have heard anything about it all, you’ll already be familiar with the famous picture-postcard perfection of Lake Bled and the pedestrian-friendly capital city Ljubljana. Postojna Cave and the coastal city of Piran are high on the list of must-see sights as well, but for such a small country (it’s less than half the size of Switzerland or slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey) there are countless other locations in Slovenia that are worthy of similar attention, yet rarely attract visitors in significant numbers. Here we list 6 off the beaten path localities in Slovenia.
If you like honey, chocolate, and gingerbread, sprinkled on top of a rich diet of exquisitely preserved medieval buildings, then Radovljica, just 6km south-east of Lake Bled is for you. Built on a rocky promontory above the River Sava and the beautiful Sava Valley, its main square sparkles with some superb Gothic and Renaissance architecture, and it has one of Slovenia's most curious, quirky and engaging museums. And it's all highly accessible from the bus station and train station; in fact, the town boasts what must be one of the prettiest train station locations in the whole country, nestled as it is just below the old town with a grand vista of the Sava Valley before it.
Radovljica’s most famous son is Anton Tomaž Linhart, who wrote the first theatrical play in Slovene and the first history of all Slovenes as a unit. The main square is named after him and everything of interest in the town is centered around it, bordered by those exceptional Gothic and Renaissance buildings. The obvious highlight is Thurn Mansion with its thickly stuccoed façade, but it’s inside that is of even greater interest, as it houses the marvelous Beekeeping Museum. Don't be fooled into thinking that it must invariably be a dull topic, as beekeeping is one of Slovenia's oldest and most celebrated traditions. After going over the history of beekeeping and examples of pioneering apiculture the unquestionable high point of the museum is its collection of over 200 beehive panels - wooden end panels decorated with religious, satirical or humorous motifs and scenes.
The wonderfully preserved merchant houses on the square and nearby these days play host to some terrific cafes offering examples of local delicacies, but it’s the live gingerbread workshop and museum at no.2 Pension Lectar that best demonstrates Radovljica ’s long chocolate and gingerbread-making tradition. If you’re in Slovenia in mid-April then be sure to check out the Radovljica Chocolate Festival. The town can also lay claim to the only extant medieval town moat in the country.
Kamnik is one of the oldest towns in Slovenia situated along the Kamniška Bistrica river and is the gateway to the Kamnik-Savinje Alps and hence some great hiking and skiing experiences; it’s the perfect base for trekking up to the herdsmen’s alpine settlement of Velika Planina (see below). It was even the capital of Carniola, an important part of the Holy Roman Empire, in its heyday back in the Middle Ages. Just 23km from Ljubljana, its well-preserved medieval core contains some interesting historical gems, including the ruins of the Mali Grad (Little Castle) that today contains a delightfully atmospheric whitewashed, two-story Romanesque chapel and crypt, which is one of Slovenia's oldest surviving ecclesiastical monuments.
Both the Kamnik Mesto train station and the bus station are very centrally located in Kamnik. If you arrive by bus then you'll immediately notice that very prominent Romanesque chapel within Mali Grad. The hill upon which the chapel rests provides a magnificent view of the town and the Kamnik-Savinja Alps. According to local myth, the castle was home to Countess Veronika, half-woman, half-snake, who is said to jealously guard the castle's hidden treasures, and her legend lives on in the town seal that you will see adorning the town.
The Kamnik Museum is definitely worth a visit. It’s housed in the 16th century Zaprice Castle which was later remodeled into a Baroque mansion and occupies another prominent hill in town. For a small provincial museum, it's remarkably well presented, and it has a good exhibition on the life of the mountain folk and their folklore in the nearby Alps, and on bourgeois life in 19th century Kamnik. On the top floor, there's an intriguing display on the types of Slovene products manufactured and exported abroad under the Yugoslav Republic. You might recognize one or two.
If you’d like a brisk but short hike (30min) with outstanding views at the end of it, then take the track up the 585-meter-high (1919ft) Bergantov Hill to Stari Grad (Old Castle). The lookout point at the top is magnificent; from there you can enjoy the panorama of Polhov Gradec hills, the Julian Alps, Karawanks, the Kamnik-Savinja Alps and Tuhinj Valley.
3/ Velika Planina
Located high up in the Alpine pastures of the stunning Kamnik–Savinja Alps near Ljubljana, Velika Planina is the site of one of Europe's very few surviving high mountain herdsmen's villages where traditional Alpine herdsmen's culture is still alive and ringing loud and clear with cowbells. But while it’s very popular with Slovenes, it’s a bit more difficult for independent tourists to get to because of the dearth of public transport from Ljubljana or Kamnik. You either have to take a taxi from Kamnik to the cable car station or ask the very friendly staff at the local tourist office for the bus timetable.
If you go by cable car to Velika Planina, then the journey to the top of Mt Gradišče (1666m or 5469ft) where the settlement is located unfolds in two stages: first a dramatic 10min cable-car ride on the longest cable car in Europe without support pillars from the lower cable car station (560m) to the upper station (1419m), and then a 15-minute double-seat chairlift to the peak.
The wonderfully bucolic alpine pastoral settlement of Velika Planina is on the other side of the summit; ignore all the sham cottages around the summit itself, which have been built by hotel companies and holidaymakers from the city. Follow the signs and you'll soon hear the cowbells of the cattle that belong to the herders' community and see the distinctive silvery-grey huts with their conical, shingled roofs of Velika Planina itself. The settlement comes alive every June when herdsmen return to the settlement and tend to their cattle until September. If you're lucky they might offer you a taste of their dairy products, such as the traditional trnič cheese.
You will notice that the huts are not quite as traditional as you'd think - there are modern amenities like solar panels and television aerials - and most of them have been built since WWII. But they are mostly in keeping with the principles of traditional mountain architecture and the huts are genuinely used as herders' accommodation. One of the huts serves as a museum.
There is also a beautiful wooden church called the Chapel of Snow Mary which is located slightly above the herdsmen’s settlement. It was burnt down by German soldiers during the war and was rebuilt in 1988 on the herdsmen’s initiative.
If you hike up to Velika Planina, then the best starting point is the village of Stahovica, which is about 5km from Kamnik, at the turn-off to Praprotno. The hiking trail begins where the road ends - follow the signs for the Church of St Primoz (Cirkev Sv Primoz), Mala Planina and eventually Velika Planina. The hike should take about 3 hours if you're in good condition. But you shouldn't really attempt it without picking up a free hiking map from the tourist information center in Kamnik first.
Once you’re at the top you might want to reward yourself with some traditional repast from the Zeleni Rob restaurant below the top chairlift station, which is well-known for its delicious 'štruklji' rolls with cottage cheese filling and other old herdsmen’s favorites like ‘jota’.
4/ Škofja Loka
Škofja Loka (Bishop's Meadow) has an easily navigable and very pretty old town that lays claim to being one of the oldest settlements in Slovenia. The historic core is the best preserved in the country with compulsory cobbled alleyways, tightly packed houses barely at arm's length from one another, theatrically dramatic Gothic churches, and sleepy open squares where the locals quietly contemplate proceedings over a pastry or two. And it's all topped off by a medieval castle adjudicating over town proceedings from an immediately adjacent grassy hill.
The town has a train station, but you’re much better off taking a bus as you’ll disembark right next to the old town by the River Sava. As you cross the river from the bus stop, you'll also notice to your right a stone arch bridge, which with some imagination could be compared to the famous Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. This is Capuchin Bridge, which was built on the orders of a bishop in the 14th century, making it one of the oldest of its type in Europe.
If you go back around and approach the old town via the Capuchin Bridge you'll go through the arch that once served as the town gate and be rewarded with entry into what definitely feels to be authentically medieval in the narrow alleyway that leads up to the imposing and rather intimidating Convent Church of St Mary.
The lovely old medieval marketplace, a lozenge-shaped space bordered by colorful three-story burgher houses called Mestni trg (Town Square) is where you'll find the excellent tourist information center and its very helpful English-speaking staff. Check out the beautiful Homan House (Homanova hiša) at the northern end of the square with its exceptional amalgam of Gothic and Renaissance styles, and its outdoor cafe shaded by a stately old linden tree.
The town castle (Loški Grad) was first mentioned in 1215 as "castrum firmissimum Lonca" (strongly fortified castle), though what you see today is mostly a 16th-century rebuild. The castle’s raison d’etre these days is to house the excellent Town Museum, which contains an impressive exhibition on the rise of the town’s craftsmen and their guilds set up the protect the interests of blacksmiths, tanners, tailors and other trades from both local and foreign competition. The equally extraordinary ethnographic collection upstairs depicts how the peasantry lived prior to industrialization, a lifestyle which survived through to the early post-WWII years. Check out, in particular, the fascinating and detailed displays on how to make hats from felt, combs from bullhorns, sieves from horse hair and linen from flax.
If you’re a keen photographer then you won’t want to miss the Devil's Footbridge (Hudičeva brv) south of the old town in the district known as Puštal, named after the ancient appearances of the devil. With the Poljane Sora river sometimes raging beneath it amid a deep green and lush landscape, the footbridge is one of the most picturesque locations in Škofja Loka.
Have a chat to the tourist information center staff about hiking and cycling possibilities around Škofja Loka and in the Loka Hills and they'll provide you with a wealth of options and some excellent maps. They’ll also rent you an electric bicycle if you’re not wanting to over-exert yourself. A couple great cycling destinations nearby are the villages of Suha and Crncob (Black Grave) with their photogenic medieval churches.
5/ Vipava Valley
A “little Slovene Eden” is how revered Slovene poet and writer Ciril Zlobec described the intoxicatingly verdant Vipava Valley, found a mere hour’s drive from both the Italian coastal city of Trieste and the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. The valley is a veritable vinicultural paradise and what it lacks in world renown it certainly makes up for with a magical hotchpotch of mostly small family-owned and operated vineyards that have been cultivating grapes on and off for hundreds of years. In fact, when vines were first planted here at least two thousand years ago, they took root right away and have flourished ever since.
The valley trades in on ideal sea level altitudes and a topography perfect for winegrowing, with its many hills and undulating landscape. Influenced by the warm Mediterranean climate arriving from the west and the ministrations of the Burja, a periodically powerful wind blowing in from the northeast, an ideal microclimate is created, which in combination with the rich soil produces an abundant grape harvest that features a number of different and unique grape varieties. While classic varietals thrive here, like Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malvasia, old indigenous varieties have been making a strong comeback recently, like Zelen, Klarnica, Poljšakica, Pergolin, Glera and Vitovska Grganja. It’s a genuine wine lover's paradise.
Another great feature of the valley is the number of old wine stone cellars which every old family vineyard owns. The vaulted cellars are normally underground, where wine can be stored correctly all year long. Local villages boast cellars that are several hundred years old and still illuminated by candlelight just as in centuries past. A wonderful example is the village of Goče, with a population of a mere 200, but with over 60 wine cellars, and a view of the valley below to die for. The streets seem to be built impossibly close to one another, which one might conjecture is a defense against the sometimes cruel Borja, but oral tradition has it that the houses were built so compactly because the land belonged to the church, which allowed its residents to be exempted from military service.
While it doesn’t seem that the village cellars are open for business, knock on any door and you’ll soon find a local winemaker who’ll be happy to provide a wine tasting and sell you a few bottles. If you’re lucky enough to find Davorin Mesesnel at home, then be sure to avail yourself of his wife and daughter’s amazing cooking and imbibe a few of his wines from his upstairs terrace while casting an eye across the roofs of Goče to the valley below. Notice all the rocks lying on the roof tiles, which is not the result of bored youth, but a tried and true measure for keeping a roof on your head during the worst of the Burja.
Getting to Goče and the many other wine-producing villages in the Vipava Valley is near impossible without your own transport, but contact Go Real Europe and we’ll arrange a special wine or outdoor adventure tour for you with local guides who’ll call in to collect you from your hotel in Ljubljana if you wish.
6/ Šmarna Gora
Šmarna Gora is a double-humped hill lying in the northern extremity of Ljubljana that offers visitors easy access to the best views of the Slovene capital and a great cardio workout if you need to get your blood pumping before or after a day of relaxed sight-seeing in the city. The ascent to the summit of Šmarna Gora hill, 669 meters (2,194ft) above sea level, takes from half an hour to a little over an hour, depending on your level of fitness. The top of the hill, accessible by 15 well-maintained, signposted and relatively easy routes, offers beautiful views of Kamnik and the Julian Alps, the Ljubljana basin and the distant Dolenjska region with Mount Trdinov vrh. To get there from the center of Ljubljana, take bus no.1B or no.8 to Tacenski Most.
The hilltop is occupied by a restaurant and the Baroque Church of the Mother of God, built in the first half of the 18th century. Šmarna gora's oldest sight is a plague column erected by those who survived various plagues and the struggle with the Ottoman Turks. Another attraction sited on top of the hill is a famous wishing bell, believed to fulfill the wishes of those who ring it.
You can reward yourself after your climb up with typical Slovenian meals and pastries or a beer at the Ledinek Inn, which opens early and finishes late.
If you’d like to visit any or all of these 6 off the beaten path localities in Slovenia, then call one of our travel consultants today and they’ll be more than happy to customize a travel itinerary that reflects exactly where and what you want to see.
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