10 hidden gems in Slovenia
by Graeme Chuter / 30th December 2020 / reading time 10 minutes
Taking you off the beaten path, and venturing north, south, east, and west across the four corners of Slovenia. Here are my favourite 10 hidden gems, including some beautiful countryside and landscapes, some historic and attractive old towns, and some lesser-known visitor attractions.
For each place, I would like to offer you some background details, how to find it, what there is to see and do, with some suggestions for dining out and sampling the local food and beverage specialities.
10) Snežnik Castle
Snežnik Castle is located in a sparsely populated area of central southern Slovenia, in the quiet valley of Loška Dolina, close to the border with Croatia. The castle apparently dates back to the 13th century but what can be seen today is mainly from the mid-19th century. The ownership of the castle has passed through several noble families from the Habsburg era, through to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War. The last noble family owners were the Schoenburgs, who oversaw significant renovations to the castle exterior, adding a fourth upper floor, two turrets, a terrace, and elevating the defensive walls. Parkland and woodland around the castle were landscaped with new pathways constructed mainly for the purpose of hunting. The interior of the castle was lavishly furnished, and to the present day, Snežnik remains one of the best-preserved castles in Slovenia with its original 19th-century fixtures and fittings. In my opinion, this is what makes Snežnik Castle particularly well worth a visit. Guided tours of the castle will certainly provide you with an insight into local life during the period of Habsburg rule.
The castle can be visited as part of a full-day tour of the region, perhaps in combination with the nearby Postojna Caves and/or Predjama Castle. Or as a short deviation from a road trip between various locations in Slovenia and Croatia. The surrounding area is home to numerous small villages and hamlets, some of which feature a local bar or a country-style restaurant (gostilna) making it is possible to find somewhere for lunch or refreshments in the locality. For further details here is a link to the local tourist information centre.
9) Istrian hills
Venturing only a short distance away from the popular seaside resorts of Portorož and Piran, the Istrian Hills region above Slovenia’s Adriatic coastline provides an excellent opportunity for exploring authentic Istrian culture and traditions, not to mention enjoying the spectacular panoramic views across the lush green Mediterranean landscape and the deep blue Gulf of Trieste beyond. A spider’s web of occasionally steep and narrow country roads take you through the hilly forests, passing through delightful villages built in a traditional local style, using Istrian stone in various shades of beige – decorated by bright coloured wooden shutters, window panes and doors. You will also find plenty of open hillsides cultivated by grapevines, olive trees and other fruits such as peaches, figs and persimmons. The region of Istria overlaps coastal Slovenia and a larger peninsula in northern Croatia too, and crossing the border would also be highly recommended.
The local cuisine is certainly worth trying with a wide range of specialities including fish and other sea-food, air-dried or smoked sausage, salami and prosciutto, various cheeses made from the milk of cows, goats and sheep, typical Mediterranean fresh produce, homemade pasta, olive oil and truffles. One of my personal favourites for a lunchtime treat is a local dish called fritaja (or frittata in Italian), which is scrambled eggs with truffles, served with fresh crusty bread. The locally produced wine features most predominantly two grape varieties, the red Refošk and the white Malvasija. Both wines are typically dry with fairly high levels of acidity, and are said to have good health benefits – particularly the Refošk which is especially high in anti-oxidants. The character of the wines very much reflects the growing conditions as you would expect, with a soil rich in minerals, a warm climate and the salty sea air. Wine tastings can be arranged which can provide an enjoyable addition to a day out here. Or for the really keen early risers, there is the possibility to go out truffle hunting with a local farmer. For more information about this beautiful region, you can visit the website of the local tourist information centre.
8) Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge is located just four kilometers from Lake Bled. To be honest, this natural beauty spot should probably no longer be regarded as a “hidden gem”, as its notoriety has grown hugely in recent years. However, if you visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening, it is possible to avoid the larger crowds that can be expected in the peak holiday season. From Lake Bled, it is possible to walk to the gorge, taking a circular route past the village of Podhom, through the gorge from top to bottom, taking the lower exit point on to the footpath which leads up to St.Catherine’s Hill (Sveti Katerina), down to the village of Zasip and back towards the centre of Bled. There are a number of different options for lunch or refreshments, and I would particularly recommend either of the Gostilna Fortuna in Spodnje Gorje, Gostilna Vintgar near the main entrance to the gorge (but this can get overwhelmed at lunchtimes in the busiest summer months), and Gostilna Kurej in Zasip. If arriving by car or by private tour, there is a car park adjacent to the main entrance and you will need to walk down through the gorge, and then backtrack to the top. I would recommend between an hour and 90 minutes for this so that you have enough time to walk at a relaxed pace and to take plenty of photographs. For more details such as the entrance fees and ticketing arrangements you can visit the Vintgar visitor website.
7) Rogaška Slatina & Olimje
Rogaška Slatina is a well-preserved original spa town located in the north-east of Slovenia. A natural spring in the locality was documented for the first time way back in the 12th century, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that a commercial spa resort was created for visitors. The spring water at Rogaška Slatina is said to have the highest natural magnesium content in the world and is renowned for its health benefits and healing qualities. I would recommend visiting the town in combination with one or two other local attractions, as a couple of hours here is more than enough to take a relaxing stroll around the attractive pathways and colourful gardens. For more information about the town and its amenities you can visit the local tourist information website.
Olimje is located just half an hour from Rogaška Slatina through an attractive river valley, directly on the border with Croatia. The village is best known for its 17th-century monastery and adjoining Church of the Assumption, first constructed as a castle one century earlier. The monastery is still inhabited by an order of monks who with prior arrangement can provide guided tours, including an interesting explanation of the Garden of Medicinal Herbs and the Old Pharmacy. The tradition of studying and formulating natural remedies goes all the way back to 1663 when the Pauline monks first arrived here from nearby Croatia. For more information, you can follow this link.
There are several different options for lunch or refreshments in or nearby to the village of Olimje. One of the restaurants that I have particularly enjoyed is Gostinstvo Haler, which also happens to have its own microbrewery and therefore a good selection of local beers.
6) Krka Valley
The Krka Valley is located in the southeast of Slovenia, in the region of Dolenjska, adjacent to the main route between the two capital cities of Ljubljana and Zagreb. The area can be explored either as a dedicated day out from your base in Slovenia, or by making one or two interesting diversions en route to the Croatian border. Castle Otočec (pictured above) is an enchanting medieval castle built on an island on the River Krka, linked by two wooden bridges. The castle dates back to the 13th century and it has now been converted into a luxury hotel. However, it is still possible for non-residents of the hotel to take a stroll around the castle courtyards and gardens, and to enjoy lunch or refreshments on the terrace of the hotel restaurant. Approximately 20 km downstream is the charming little town of Kostanjevica na Krki, which actually feels more like a village than a town. Built on another small island on the River Krka, the town dates back to the early 13th century and claims to be the oldest known town in the entire region. The town has two parallel main streets which these days are mainly residential, with just a small number of local shops and a couple of riverside café bars. Away from the island and just a short distance away from the town centre is a former monastery, again dating back to the middle ages and built in an attractive baroque style. This is now the site of an art gallery, dedicated to the works of a famous local artist called Božidar Jakac.
5) Štanjel & the Slovenian Karst
Štanjel is located in Slovenia’s so-called Karst region, in the south-west of the country and inland from the Adriatic coast.
The Karst (Kras) is a rocky plateau that extends westwards from Mt.Učka just over the border in Croatia, across the south-west of Slovenia continuing into Italy, where the steep cliffs at Duino tower majestically above the Gulf of Trieste. The Karst region is said to have over 1,000 underground caves, including the Postojna Caves (listed in my blog – 10 best places to visit in Slovenia), and the Škocjan Caves which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also well worth a visit. The Karst region has some beautiful landscapes, typically wild and rugged in places, but also lush green with plenty of pine forests and cultivated valleys, and a deep reddish-brown fertile soil. There are plentiful orchards of olive trees and vineyards, and the region is known especially for two products – a full-bodied red wine called Teran and air dried ham or prosciutto. The region has approximately one hundred villages and towns, and it has been said that Štanjel is one of the most attractive.
The town is built on an elevated hillside position with panoramic views over the surrounding area, featuring a recently renovated castle, several cobbled streets lined by terraced houses built from local Karst stone, the Church of St. Daniel (Sveti Daniela) with its unusual gothic style bell tower, several art galleries and the attractive Ferrari Gardens (Ferrarijev vrt). I would recommend a couple of hours in Štanjel to explore the town at a nice leisurely pace. A visit to Štanjel as part of a day trip could be combined with the nearby Škocjan Caves or the Lipica Estate, or alternatively with wine tasting at a vineyard in the Karst region or the Vipava Valley which is also closeby. Restaurant options for lunch in Štanjel are rather limited from my experience, with just one restaurant in the old town located within the castle buildings (Gostilna Kobjeglava). This is more of a fine dining establishment, offering a range of tasting menus which are very good, but require plenty of time to be fully savoured and appreciated. For a more practical lunch stop, there are several country-style roadside restaurants located at numerous other villages and small towns throughout the Karst region. Further details can be found on the website of the local tourist information office.
4) Radovljica & the Upper Sava Valley
Radovljica is a quaint old medieval town located in the north-west of the country, just a few minutes’ drive from Slovenia’s most famous tourist destination Lake Bled. Established as a small market town in the 13th century, Radovljica grew in importance from the 18th century onwards as an administrative centre for the local region and as a cultural hub for music and drama, both of which have been maintained to the present day. The town hosts several arts festivals throughout the calendar year and a popular chocolate festival every April. The pedestrianised main street of the old town is somewhat of a museum piece, where many of the old baroque-style buildings proudly display some original frescoes on their facades. There are two museums here which are dedicated to two important local traditions of the region, one for apiculture (or beekeeping), and the other for baking and ornately decorating gingerbread. Radovljica is also home to a number of good restaurants serving specialities of alpine Slovenia, making it a good place to make a lunch stop. I would particularly recommend Gostilna Lectar (which also happens to accommodate the Gingerbread museum in its cellar) and Gostilna Avguštin. For morning coffee or afternoon tea, there also happen to be several good café bars serving a good selection of local cakes, pastries and ice cream. For more information, you can visit the website of Radovljica’s tourist information office.
The town is situated on a hill above the River Sava, at the confluence of two tributaries, the Sava Dolinka and the Sava Bohinjka. From here the River Sava, Slovenia’s longest river, snakes its way through the centre of the country, crossing the borders into Croatia and Serbia, where at Belgrade it flows into the River Danube. The hills above the Upper Sava Valley are also worth exploring, including the fascinating village of Kropa with its industrial heritage of iron forging, the pretty white church of Sveti Primož & Felicijan at Jamnik (pictured above), and the impressive Basilica of Mary the Virgin (Bazilika Marije pomagaj) at Brezje – a highly esteemed pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics. The landscape of dark forested hills towering above the lighter green meadows of the river valley, with the backdrop of the peaks of the Karavanke mountains to the north, and the Julian Alps to the west, is very easy on the eye.
The village of Jeruzalem and the surrounding wine hills are located in the north-east of Slovenia, a short drive from the old historic town of Ptuj, heading east. This area is still relatively undiscovered, typically quiet and peaceful, and the landscape is beautiful. Taking a detour from the main road which links the towns of Ormož and Ljutomer – names which might familiar with wine enthusiasts – steep and narrow country lanes criss-cross the rolling hills heading up towards the picture-postcard villages of Svetinje and Jeruzalem.
According to the local legend, the village of Jeruzalem was named by crusaders on their way back from the holy land in the 12th century. The story is told that the crusaders stopped on one of the hills to rest, where they were met by hospitable folk who offered them food and wine. Apparently, the crusaders liked this place so much, they decided to stay and claim it as their own, never to leave. The Church of Our Lady of Sorrows (Cerkev Žalostne Matere božje) is certainly well worth a visit. Dating back to the middle of the 17th century, the church was named after the painting of the Mother of Sorrows which is said to have been brought to the village by the crusaders, and placed into a small chapel which existed here at the time.
The region is best known for its wine and for more information about the wines produced here, you can take a look at my blog – Getting to know Slovenian Wine. A popular spot for sampling the local wines is the so-called Malek Vineyard Cottage nearby to the village, which showcases the wines of P&F (Puklavec & family), other local products, and souvenirs. There are two restaurant options for lunch where you can also try a glass or two of the local vino, Gostišče Kupljen, and Vinski Hram Brenholc. In my opinion, combining a visit to Ptuj with the wine hills around Jeruzalem makes for a lovely day out, feasible as a day trip from Ljubljana or Lake Bled. It is also worth considering one or two overnights as part of a private tour of Slovenia. For more information about the area, you can visit the local tourist information office website.
2) Upper Bohinj Valley
The Upper Bohinj Valley is quite often missed by the visitors of nearby Lake Bohinj because the main road to Lake Bled takes a more direct route through a different valley. If you are visiting Lake Bohinj (as mentioned in my blog – 10 best places to visit in Slovenia) I would certainly recommend taking the back road through the Upper Bohinj Valley. The alpine scenery is wonderful and the beautiful villages on this route – Stara Fužina, Studor, Srednja Vas, Cešnjica and Jereka – appear to have been stuck in time for the past couple of hundred years. It is possible to get a feeling of real country life in this valley, and there are several traditional inns where you can enjoy lunch, refreshments or dinner in a truly authentic setting. On multiple occasions I have used three different restaurants in the village of Srednja Vas, namely Gostilna Rupa, Gostilna & Pizzerija Ema and Gostilna Pri Hrvatu, none of which have ever disappointed. I have a particular soft spot for Gostilna Pri Hrvatu because of its idyllic location above the river and for the homemade Štruklji which are simply divine – a traditional Slovene dish composed of dough in the form of roulades with various types of sweet or savoury fillings, such as cottage cheese with a wild mushroom sauce, or chopped walnuts drizzled with honey. For more information about Lake Bohinj and the surrounding area you can visit the website of the Bohinj tourist information office.
1) Goriška Brda
Goriška Brda is a small region on the western side of Slovenia, partially encircled by the border with Italy and just a few kilometres from its nearest large town, Nova Gorica. As you can see from the picture above, the landscape is awe-inspiring, with gently rolling hills carpeted with vineyards, orchards of cherry and olive trees, and quaint medieval hilltop villages. This happens to be my personal favourite place in the entire country. But that aside I would say that “Brda” fully deserves its number one position in my top ten list of hidden gems because of its magnificent scenery, the feeling of peace and tranquillity, the friendly hospitality of the locals, and not least because it produces some of the very best wine in Slovenia.
The food here as one might expect has a strong influence from neighbouring Italy, with the emphasis on local, seasonal and fresh. There are several small towns and villages such as Kojsko, Šmartno, Dobrovo, Medana and Kozana which offer a good selection of accommodation, restaurants and wine cellars. For dining out, my favourite restaurants are Hiša Marica and San Martin in Šmartno, Belica in Medana and Hiša Štekar in Kojsko. For more information about the local wines and my tips and recommendations for wine tasting, you can take a look at my blog – Getting to know Slovenian Wine.
A couple of days in Goriška Brda can be spent walking or cycling around the numerous country lanes – but always bear in mind that what goes down must surely go back up!! Lazy afternoons can be spent indulging with long lunches, wine tasting, and sitting back to enjoy those fabulous views. This is truly a perfect location for rest and relaxation. If you are staying in Ljubljana or Lake Bled for example and would like to visit just for the day, I would recommend a road trip through the Julian Alps and Soča Valley (as featured in my blog – 10 best places to visit in Slovenia), en route to Goriška Brda to spend a couple of hours in the afternoon, with enough time for a late lunch or wine tasting. For further details about the region, you can visit the website of the local tourist information office.
So that concludes my selection of 10 hidden gems in Slovenia. I hope that you find the information provided and my personal tips useful.