Michigan Alumni Travel had the pleasure of chatting with alums KT Maviglia-Morgan, ’14, and Jordan Morgan, ’13, MENG’14, about their podcast, On Arrival. They recently talked about Slovenia and shared the below guide about traveling to this fantastic country.
At the crossroads of Italian, Slavic, and German culture, Slovenia is a relatively tiny nation of just two million people, and an underrated, unforgettable destination.
It’s also one of the safest, greenest countries on the continent, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
We called Slovenia home for a year and can attest to that. KT felt comfortable walking, taking buses, and grabbing taxis by herself all around the capital city of Ljubljana.
If you’re new to our podcast fam, Jordan’s basketball career took us there. He played for Petrol Olimpija, a club team located in Ljubljana, as well as for the national team — and even holds dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Slovenia.
Call it a best-kept secret, a hidden gem — or, as our guest Gregor Födransperg calls his native land, “the Pearl of Europe, still quite undiscovered.”
Gregor is a lifelong world traveler who has led expeditions to Mount Kilimanjaro, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Iran, to name just a few places. When he and his wife started a family, he launched Slovenia Explorer, a company that specializes in small group tours and experiences throughout the country.
On an episode of On Arrival, Gregor shares his top five can’t-miss attractions, as well as how to eat like a local, why it’s the ideal place to travel during COVID, and more.
🏰 A fairy-tale tour: Slovenia’s must-see destinations
Even if you can only stay a few days in Slovenia, these attractions should be at the top of your list. But don’t think the emphasis on history means you’ll be at all bored, especially if you’ve seen your fair share of the continent.
“People who travel around Europe a lot, especially Australians, have this saying: ABC — another bloody castle, another bloody church,” says Gregor.
So when he leads tours to these churches and castles, he’s sometimes met with skepticism.
“But when we get there, they’re like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,'” Gregor adds.
In our opinion, Ljubljana is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. The nation’s capital has everything: stunning architecture, picturesque bridges, a vibrant central market, field-to-fork cuisine, and world-class museums, as well as seasonal festivals and even a storybook castle looking over it all. But Ljubljana is relatively small and compact, and the historic city center is closed to motor traffic, so you can explore on foot (or bike) with ease.
Tucked in the Julian Alps of the northwestern part of the country, Lake Bled is one of the most Instagrammable spots we’ve ever seen. Turquoise waters surround a tiny central island with a Gothic church that dates back to the Middle Ages. On a precipice overlooking the lake is Bled Castle, the oldest in Slovenia. It’s a dreamy, storybook destination complete with a signature pastry, the delectable Bled Cremeschnitte (custard and cream cake).
These majestic caves in Slovenia’s southwest have been carved for eons by the Pivka River. You can take a guided tour aboard a subterranean train to view the giant mineral formations (including a five-meter-tall white stalagmite called Brilliant) and an aquatic exhibit of native olms, which are cave-dwelling salamanders once thought to be baby dragons. You can even enjoy music in a huge underground concert hall — the acoustics are insane.
A few kilometers away from Postojna, this 800-year-old castle is carved into the face of a 123-meter-high cliff. Adjacent to the castle is a network of secret tunnels which, according to legend, the brave knight Erazem, known as the “Slovenian Robin Hood,” used to withstand a yearlong siege. Below the castle is another famous cave — and the home of a colony of bats. (Pro tip: they hibernate in the winter, when the cave is closed to visitors.)
In the Karst region, the village of Lipica is home to the world-famous Lipizzaner horses. You can tour the original stud farm, which was founded in 1580 (and meet some of the 300 beautiful horses in its stables), take in a classical equestrian show, and visit several on-site historical museums. The Lipica Estate also features trail riding, golf, and several gourmet restaurants. It’s KT’s favorite destination on the list.
🥘 Hungry? The dish on Slovenian food 🍰
From fine dining to hearty fare, Slovenia’s traditional cuisine is all about regional specialties.
“Because we are so small, we share our cuisine with other countries,” says Gregor. “From Italy, we get pasta, but we have our own form called fuži.”
The most famous fuži dish is Štruklji, which is rolled and stuffed with cottage cheese. It can be sweet as a dessert (often with apples and cinnamon) or savory, alongside meat.
In the northeast, you’ll find dishes with a strong Hungarian influence, like bograč, a meat stew that usually features pork, beef, and game as well as wine, potatoes, and paprika.
And because Slovenia and Austria shared a common culture prior to modern history, you’ll find plenty of sausages, sauerkraut, and dumplings. Kranjska, a pork sausage, is probably one of Slovenia’s best-known culinary exports, and it’s a protected agricultural product of the European Union.
“You get it sometimes in the States, but people don’t know it’s Slovenian,” Gregor says.
He also tells us that in 2020, the Michelin Guide awarded its first-ever stars to Slovenia. Hiša Franko in the Soča Valley, helmed by the renowned Ana Ros (star of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table”) received two stars. In addition to five restaurants that received one star, the guide included nine Bib Gourmand selections and 37 “Michelin Plate” designations.
If you’re homesick for burgers or barbecue in Ljubljana, we recommend Pop’s Place, which offers a wide selection of local craft beers to wash down all that American food. And for the best ice cream in the capital (coffee and pastries too), visit Cacao. Both are just steps away from Tromostovje (“triple bridge”), which connects the medieval heart of Ljubljana to the larger modern city.
🍷 Na zdravje! A toast to Slovenian beer and wine 🍻
Even though Slovenia is a relatively small country, it’s home to three wine-growing regions “with quite distinct wines,” Gregor explains.
The coastal region, near the border with Italy, is more Mediterranean, while vineyards in the northeast produce continental varieties similar to German or Austrian Rieslings. The Southeast is “kind of a mixture,” he says. “It’s also continental, but more specifically Slovenian wines that are not as well known outside of the country.”
Over the last three decades (Slovenia celebrated 30 years of independence in June 2021), Slovenian winemaking has come a long way.
“In the old times, in the communist times, it was mainly large cooperatives that would make cheap wine for the masses,” says Gregor. “But since independence, many smaller growers have been getting well educated in wine growing, and they’ve been getting really good results.”
But because the production is typically so small, it’s hard to find Slovenian wine overseas in supermarkets or shops — though you might on the lists of first-rate restaurants in places like New York, London, and Tokyo.
Gregor’s company offers tours (and tastings, of course) of wineries in all three of Slovenia’s wine regions.
“There’s many small producers with good wines and good stories to tell,” he says.
If pivo (beer) is more your taste, you’ll have plenty to enjoy.
The nation’s two largest breweries (Union in Ljubljana, and Laško in the eastern town of the same name) have operated for centuries, although they’re both owned by Heineken now. But in the last few years, microbreweries have flourished in Slovenia.
One of the best is Pivovarna LOO-BLAH-NAH — the phonetic pronunciation of Ljubljana — which is owned and operated by two of Gregor’s friends. Also of note: the world’s first beer fountain, in Žalec. For 8 euros, you can buy a glass mug with a microchip, which the fountain reads and pours 1-dcl (approx. 3.3-oz) tastes of six different beers.
Magic? No, it’s just Slovenia.
🧭 Going ‘incognita’: Slovenia’s roads less traveled
We could argue that the whole of Slovenia is a hidden gem, but Gregor has even more secrets up his sleeve.
“One of our tours is called Slovenia Incognita,” he says. “We don’t tell people where we’re going to take them, but we just promise that they will have a good time.”
Basically all of Eastern Slovenia is terra incognita, he adds.
“The highlights we mentioned are in western Slovenia, the Alps, or the coast. But in Eastern Slovenia, we have lots of forests, medieval castles, two-thirds of the vineyards, and most of the spa centers.”
For the uninitiated, those are hydrothermal springs — think Mother Nature’s hot tub.
The eastern part of the country is also home to a number of farm stays, which offer accommodations, along with the absolute freshest meals, in idyllic settings.
If you love outdoor sports, you can find plenty of adventures throughout the country. But if you like going downhill fast (literally), head to Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city. Just south of the Austrian border amidst pine-wooded hills, it’s ski-resort heaven in winter. Come summer, downhill mountain biking enthusiasts are drawn to the same Alpine tracks.
🧳 Planning a trip? When to go, COVID concerns, and other stops on your tour of Europe
Slovenia’s location makes it the perfect hub for wider exploration of the EU. Ljubljana is midway between Venice and Vienna, and most destinations within the country itself are within an hour or two of the capital.
For us, an ideal trip would be Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy. You can fly into Venice and drive just 100 miles east to the Slovenian border. Or, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan (or just a beach aficionado), you can tour Zagreb and the Croatian riviera before heading north to the mountains of Slovenia.
There’s never really a bad time to visit, but July and August are “perhaps too hot and a bit crowded,” says Gregor. “Winter it’s nice if it snows, but otherwise it might be a bit bleak.”
He recommends spring or fall. May and June are probably the best. September through early November are great as well, especially if you love wine. The grapes are harvested in autumn and you can enjoy young wines very soon afterwards.
Now that we can travel again, we’re psyched that Slovenia is wide open and welcoming vaccinated travelers. And even though the global pandemic isn’t over, you can be confident that Slovenia’s COVID protocols are still in place, and they’re strictly enforced.
“I think that’s the legacy of Austria,” says Gregor. “We follow the rules.”
When we talk to him in June 2021, he says wearing masks indoors and on public transport is still mandatory. All public places must offer hand sanitizer, and even elevators have special rules — only one person or family at a time.
Whether you’re headed to Slovenia this year or in years to come, we think professional tours like Gregor’s are worth checking out.
“You can always travel by yourself,” he says. “But in Slovenia, luckily for us, but not for the sustainability of the country, the public transport is not very good. So most places you can’t reach, or you spend a lot of time reaching them. And many of the attractions are just not well known. They’re not in the guidebooks. Plus, with our experience, we can optimize your time.”
And time is the one thing we always want more of when we’re traveling, especially in Slovenia.
✈️ This article is based on an episode of On Arrival – The Traveler’s Podcast. Hosts KT Maviglia-Morgan, ’14, and Jordan Morgan, ’13, MENG’14, who have traveled together to 42 countries and counting, interview fellow travelers for insights, advice, and recommendations on some of the world’s most fascinating places.