Slovenia is a little green gem, roughly the size of Wales, but packed with stunning Alpine scenery, flower-filled meadows, lakes, crystal-clear rivers, caves, castles and a small stretch of Adriatic coastline. It's like Europe was a 100 years ago - heavily wooded with historic towns, minimal traffic and few tourists - but with all the benefits of modern infrastructure and a prospering economy. The relaxed and attractive capital, Ljubljana, is likened to a mini-Prague without the tourist hordes.
The people are friendly and welcoming. Although a former Yugoslav province (it gained independence in 1991), Slovenia escaped the Balkan conflict that engulfed its southerly neighbours. Tucked in between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, it's easy to get to, easy to travel around and inexpensive compared to the rest of Europe. For those who enjoy fresh air and outdoor pursuits (from fly-fishing, riding and hiking to rafting and canyoning), the Soca Valley is a real discovery.
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Slovenia's capital city is utterly charming: cobbled streets wind along an emerald-green river that's overhung by weeping willows and bisected by pretty bridges. Its main centre and old town are fully pedestrianised, so it's a cinch to explore on bike or foot - meaning there's no need to hire a car here (just bus it from the airport). Prešeren Square, Robba Fountain and the triple Tromostovje bridge are the famous historic landmarks, and it's worth wandering up to the castle for sweeping vistas over the city. Back in town, there's a flea market every Sunday - knickknacks, vintage postcards and quirky memorabilia - and on Fridays the Open Kitchen market is a melting pot of all the best the city has to offer. Stalls set up from lunchtime peddling delicious food, including slow-roasted beef-cheek sandwiches, and homemade lemonade infused with basil.
The Soca Valley (pronounced 'socha') is dominated by the beautiful Soca River, whose stunning turquoise hue flows for about 100km against a backdrop of imposing limestone mountains cloaked in dense forests, lush meadows rich in wildflowers and a clutch of small towns and villages. It has a rich history - the WW1 Soca Front was one of the bloodiest mountain battles ever known - of which there’s an award-winning museum in Kobarid. Nowadays, the valley is a hotspot for outdoor pursuits. Go hiking, horse riding, kayaking and fly-fishing in Triglav National Park; head to Bovec for an exhilarating morning of white-water rafting, or take a cable car and hike to Prestreljenik Window (2499m) for glorious views over it all. The fearless can paraglide.
The eastern side of Slovenia is far less touristy than the Soca Valley or Ljubljana, and relatively undeveloped and rustic in comparison. The main industry is agriculture and the Mariborske and Slovenske Gorice regions are famous for their wineries. Landscape wise, its gently undulating hills and long dusty plains mean it’s a great place to walk and bicycle, and there are natural thermal springs dotted around the countryside. Maribor is Slovenia’s second biggest city: must-sees include a 12th-century Gothic cathedral, the Renaissance town hall, the 15th-century castle and the stunning waterfront district, Lent (pictured). Ptuj is the country's oldest city, brimming with medieval treasures and traditions, including a 10-day Hedonism & Fertility festival in February!