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Things to do in Slovenia: An interview with a resident

Slovenia is a small Central European country with a population of 2.1 million. Nestled within the borders of Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, it has a 46 km coastline with the Adriatic Sea. As a young country, having officially declared independence in 1991, Slovenia is a popular tourist destination, known for its natural beauty, cultural heritage and urban charm. We spoke to Janez, a resident of the city of Novo Mesto in the south east, to learn more about Slovenia.

Thanks for catching up with us Janez. So you were born in Slovenia and live in Novo Mesto?

Janez: That’s right, I’m from Novo Mesto, a small city that’s strategic for transport because it’s right between Ljubljana and Zagreb, the capitals of Slovenia and Croatia. I’ve been all around Slovenia. We’re a small country. From the furthest parts southwest to the northeast, it only takes 4 hours of driving by car.

Great. What are some main attractions and nice places to visit in Slovenia?

Janez: Ljubljana is extremely beautiful. The city centre is very romantic. There’s unique architecture by Jože Plečnik, who was one of the most famous European architects. You have the statue of France Prešeren, considered one of the greatest Slovenian classical poets of the 19th century. There is the very famous Ljubljana Market and the Dragon Bridge is worth a visit. The dragon is a symbol of the city of Ljubljana. Also the Triple Bridge is where Queen Elizabeth would walk when she visited Slovenia.

So that’s Ljubljana, then at the seaside there’s a really nice place called Koper. Also Portorož. You can get some great food there. Then a bit north of the coast is a part of Slovenia where wine is produced. And even more north, we have the Alps. Triglav is the highest mountain in the country that apparently every Slovenian should climb at least once in their lifetime. Kranjska Gora is a great place for skiing. Nearby Planica hosts regular ski jumping contests; we’re well known for winter sports. Also in the same northwest region, Blejsko jezero (Lake Bled) and Bohinjsko jezero (Lake Bohinj) are two famous, very beautiful lakes.

Ljubljana is in the real centre of Slovenia. On the other side in the southeast, which is my area, we have a famous castle called Otočec Castle. We’re well know for our castles because the Habsburg dynasty was controlling Slovenia, as well as the Romans beforehand and the Celts. Otočec Castle is on an island, surrounded by a beautiful lake. Many people get married there. In the northeast are the cities of Maribor and Celje, which are the second and third biggest cities in the country. In Celje there was one of the first Slovenian medieval dynasties called Celjski Grofje (Counts of Celje), so it’s a historical city. Maribor is similar to my city Novo Mesto. It’s quite industrial but also very cultural. It has the oldest vine tree in the world there.

The last part of Slovenia I want to mention is very northeast. There you have the Prekmurje plains with beautiful scenery, castles and a thriving craftsmanship scene of glassmaking and wood crafting. We have a lot of hot spring there too.

Aerial view of Lake Bled, Slovenia
Lake Bled, Slovenia.

You’ve touched on this with the castles, but let’s say a tourist visiting Slovenian wants to learn more about the history and culture of the country. Where else can they go?

Janez: So, about the castles, Ljubljana Castle is amazing, on top of the hill of Ljubljana. You can see the whole city. Predjama Castle is one of the most famous. The castle is built off the cliff of a cave. They are mostly all open to the public and operate like museums. For example Ljubljana Castle is part museum but also has restaurants inside and serves as a viewpoint for taking pictures. Predjama Castle has much more of a historical museum focus.

The National Gallery of Slovenia in Ljubljana is the main art museum in the country and is super fascinating. And the School Museum, which is a small one, is well worth visiting because you can learn about the traditional Slovenian school system; the learning techniques, the punishments and how they used to write before there were pens. One of the most famous museums in Slovenia is Dolenjski Musej in Novo Mesto, which was a main Celtic centre when they were fighting the Romans in ancient times. Novo Mesto is known as the “City of Situlae”. A situla is an ancient bucket or pot that when someone died, items were placed in the bucket and the deceased person was buried with it. The most situlae in the whole world were found in Novo Mesto and you can see these in Dolenjski Musej. You can learn a lot there.

Where can people go to experience the natural beauty of Slovenia?

Janez: One of the biggest natural caves in Europe is in Slovenia called Postojnska jama (Postonja Cave), where there is a special breed of fish. We call it ‘human fish’. It’s a species that only exists in Slovenia. You can see it swimming in the cave but the cave is really big. Sometimes concerts are held inside and there’s a train that takes you all around. It’s beautiful. We have the seaside, lakes, springs, waterfalls and mountains. Great for hiking, skiing and water sports.

What’s the best way to travel around Slovenia?

Janez: I would highly recommend to rent a car. I wouldn’t really recommend buses because sometimes there’s a very long waiting time. Buses are ok for cities like Ljubljana or Maribor, but not really for the rest of Slovenia. And if you’re staying in Ljubljana, there will be many tour options with transport provided, so there won’t be any problems with waiting or confusion. Actually vehicles are prohibited in most of the old city centre, so many of the beautiful tourist spots in the city can be seen by walking or cycling. There are city cycles you can hire. But the best thing is to find a friend the first day you visit! They’ll be super friendly and show you how to get around. In general this counts for the whole of the Balkans. Make a friend the first day you come and you will be set.

What are the main languages people speak in Slovenia?

Janez: Slovenia is quite diverse. Our national language is Slovenian but because of our history, ex-Yugoslavian languages are quite common. Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Bosnian. Older people will definitely speak them and people listen to a lot of ex-Yugoslavian countries’ music. In general because of our education system, almost everyone in Slovenia speaks at least 2 or 3 languages. English is widely understood throughout the country. In the west, very good Italian. In the north, good German and it’s widely spoken because we’re taught it in school. So mainly Slovenian, ex-Yugoslavian languages, English, German and Italian.

What kind of weather can a tourist expect?

Janez: We have nice and warm summers and quite cold and bitter winters. Obviously at the seaside the winter is much milder but for the rest of the country we have snow every year. Skiing in the winter is almost obligatory. You just do it. In summer the rivers get warm enough to swim in and it’s a great time to go cycling, hiking and being one with nature. So any time of year you choose to go to Slovenia, you’re going to have fun.

Triglav mountain, Slovenia
Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia.

What are some local Slovenian food and drink people should try?

Janez: It very much depends on which part of Slovenia you visit. From the northwest, central and eastern part of the country, the food is Germanic. Try Matevž, which is a mash of potatoes plus brown beans. Also you can take the potato bean mash, which is matevž, and add sauerkraut to have a meal called Jota. Barbeque culture is spread throughout the whole country. At the seaside it’s very Italian and you have pasta dishes with a Slovenian twist. In the Istria region, which is a peninsula in the Adriatic sea shared by Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, there are specific types of pasta unique to the area. Istria is also very famous for its truffles. They’re grown there and they’re one of the best quality truffles in the world. Also try Burek, a pastry that has its roots from the Ottoman Empire and Bosnia.

For drinks, we’re very much a wine country. We have a lot of local types of wine. In my area it’s called Cviček. At the seaside and the Primorska region, there is Malvasia, a very Istrian type of wine. Also we have a tree that produces flowers called Bezeg (elderflower). You cook this flower and add sugar or lemon to make a sugary syrup concentrate, then you add water. It’s called Bezgov sok (elderberry juice) and it’s one of the best things you’ll ever try. For soft drink fans, we have our own cola brand called Cockta, which is the Coca-Cola of the Balkans. The bubbles are a bit milder and the flavour is enhanced. For me, it’s better than and easier to drink than Coca-Cola. Everyone who tries it loves it.

From a personal perspective, what do you appreciate about living in Slovenia?

Janez: I love the diversity and that you can find so many different cultures here. I also appreciate that Slovenia is quite small and everyone is friendly. There’s a big community feel. Ljubljana is the biggest city with around 290,000 people. But most places have just a few thousand people. My city has around 25,000 people, and you get to know a lot of people. It’s easy to get around, it’s safe, both summers and winters are nice, you can enjoy the whole year round. The nature is so well maintained here. One of the greenest countries in the world, covered with forests and a large variety of animal species like our own species of horse called the Lipizzaner. They’re very elegant and beautiful.

Do you have any tips or anything else you’d like to add about visiting Slovenia?

Janez: Any time you come, bring sunscreen. Also it would be smart to at least plan your transportation in Slovenia before you come. Renting a car is a good idea. Accommodation wise, you have one of the most famous, trendy hostels in Europe called Celica. It used to be a prison. You literally sleep in a prison cell but of course it’s converted to an amazing hostel room. It’s an amazing place. And then you have great hotels. The InterContinental is one of the best around, but that’s for a different budget. In the seaside area, there’s the Kempinski Hotel in Portorož and the LifeClass Hotels. I would also recommend looking into farm tourism, because you can just stay at a farm and nowadays they’re getting very luxurious. There are a lot of camping options too.

You’ll get a diverse experience here. Our work ethic and our organisation is very much Austrian, so it’s very precise, very strict, very on point and punctual. Then the other part is the Italian influence on the country. Very good food and wine. But then the other side, the mentality is very Balkan; very easy-going, relaxed and love to have fun. We’ll get coffee and sit in a café for 3 hours, talk and have fun.

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