If you have a car and are in need for a “quick” weekend get-away to a new country and explore new culture and food, consider driving South to neighboring Slovenia.
What to see, you ask? Look no further (and yes, you can also consult travel sites and guides, I won’t be offended).
Ljubljana (pronounced: loob-yana; it took me about 2 days to figure that out) is the capital of Slovenia and a mere 3.5-hour drive from Vienna. The city has a very small-town feel to it (less than 300,000 inhabitants) with beautiful buildings, a castle on top of a hill, many cafes, museums, communist artifacts, a river and many bridges.
It’s a very pedestrian-friendly city and an easy place to bring small kids as there is ample room for them to run around (and a castle to discover)! The castle is on top of a hill and visitors can either walk up or take a short train ride (we opted to take the train up and walk down to enjoy the view of the city).
We spent a bit of time at the Tivoli garden that is home to a large playground and borders the zoo (we didn’t visit). Parents will also be happy to know that the cafe next to the greenhouse at the Tivoli has a playroom plus a small playground outside for the kids to roam while parents enjoy a break and refreshments.
Where to stay? We had a wonderful experience at the Alo Hotel, an apartment-hotel about a 10-15 minute walk away from the city center.
Lake Bled is simply beautiful, there’s no other way to say it. Mind you, I say this after having spent 3 days there in the pouring rain, and I still found it beautiful and very relaxing! The Julian Alps in the background, the clear blue water of the lake, and the surrounding greenery make for a colorful landscape.
This is the place to come for outdoor recreation (hiking, biking etc) and relaxing. There is a cathedral to visit on the lake’s island (take a gondola there or be brave and row your own boat!) and, of course, Bled Castle on top of the hill (bike, walk, drive, or take a horse carriage to the castle!). From Vienna, Lake Bled is about a 3.75-hour drive and about 45 minutes from Ljubljana.
The small city of Bled is home to just over 5,000 residents and there are plenty of cafes and excellent restaurants to eat your hearts out (do not miss Okarina, a fantastic Indian-inspired Mediterranean restaurant). We greatly enjoyed our stay at the Poldi apartments, about a 5-minute walk away from the lake (the apartment owner also owns the Okarina restaurant).
Oh, and, don’t even think about visiting Bled without devouring a piece of the heavenly cream cake….
When in Slovenia, you must stop at the #1 tourist attraction – a visit to the Postojna Caves. The caves are about a 4- hour drive from Vienna, an hour from Bled, and 45 minutes from Ljubljana. To visit the caves, visitors take a train ride into the caves and then walk about 1.5 km on foot throughout the caves before taking the train to the top again. The tour lasts about 1.5 hours which can be a bit long for the younger crowd. Parents should also be aware that tour guides like to have a bit of “fun” by turning off all the lights in the cave.
There are a number of other sites in the area and the cave staff does a nice job of explaining the package offers (see also here). In addition to the main cave, we visited the “Vivarium Proteus” – a small cave that showcases small critters that make their home there such as proteus, an interesting fish cave creature. Kids will like this cave because they can go at their own speed and are given a flashlight to look for the little creatures.
If you are longing for the coast (since Austria is landlocked!), head further South to beautiful Piran. The small coastal city is home to less than 5,000 residents and the small streets make driving a real challenge, which is why cars are generally parked outside of the city in one of the garages or parking lots (priced at 17 Euros/day; hourly rates apply as well). The city provides a free shuttle bus from the parking areas to downtown.
Piran is a little less than a 5-hour drive from Vienna and about 1.25 hours from Ljubljana.We stayed at the nice Piranesi apartments, a block away from the coastal restaurants and next door to the small but nice aquarium.
There is a definite Mediterranean feel here – plenty of outdoor restaurants serving fantastic seafood and coastal views of near-by Italy (if you bring binoculars!). There is also a nice main square lined with restaurants and cafes as well as an old city wall which brings you to a church high above the city and offers an amazing view.
Visitors can take the miniature tourist train from Piran to the beaches in Portoroz but note that the beaches here are not sandy. Rather, there are many boulders and rocks and pebbles so beach shoes are highly recommended. Some of the beaches in Portoroz have a very small sandy part popular with kids but all other beach access is generally via boulders or ladders directly into the ocean (this can be a bit scary for kids). Also be aware that this is a European beach so you might be seeing a bit more skin than you’re used to back home (and it’s perfectly normal for kids to skinny-dip!).
And there you have it — that’s all my knowledge on Slovenia (for the time being) – it’s a beautiful country and so close to Vienna so don’t miss to visit while you are living here!
Oh – and two final notes on driving in Slovenia:
- once you cross the border, be sure to purchase a vignette (weekly 15 Euro; monthly 30 Euro)
- if you are relying on your smartphone google map app to navigate your way, be forewarned that google maps (in the GPS app) has no knowledge of Slovenia! I kid you not….Slovenia does not yet exist in this application so be prepared and bring paper print-outs of directions or buy a road map!