Situated squarely in the center of Europe, Croatia and Slovenia share an area of only 30,000 square miles combined, but possess an enormous variety of microclimates, landscapes, languages, cultures and culinary traditions shaped by their position between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea and their history of Venetian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences. From majestic Alpine valleys to azure waters of Dalmatia, Croatia and Slovenia offer a bounty of destinations that are among the most picturesque of all Europe yet remain undiscovered by mainstream travelers. Our itineraries cover some of our favorite spots and give our travelers a taste of what this fascinating region has to offer.
Called Styria in English, Steiermark in German and Štajerska in Slovenian, this beautiful land existed as a distinct political and administrative entity from the 12th to the early 20th century. In 1918, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I, the Duchy of Styria was divided between the newly established Austria and the Yugoslav States of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. Maribor is the capital of Štajerska Slovenia and the country’s second largest city set in the picturesque surroundings of Pohorje Mountains on one side, wine-growing hills on the other, and the river Drava winding its way through it. Back in the 12th century, Carthusian monks selected Štajerska Slovenia as the ideal place to build their first monastery outside of France or Italy, and planted the first pinot noir vines on the southern slopes of Klokočovnik and Lipoglav hills. The Štajerska micro-climate, with warm breezy summer days and cooler nights, along with its special soil composition create the ideal environment for sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, chardonnay, welschriesling and pinot noir grape varieties.
Logarska is a glacial valley carved into the heart of the Kamnik-Savinjska Alps and encircled with mountains over 6,000 feet high. The valley is 4.5 miles long, and has an average width of 750 feet. It consists of three parts: Log, Plest, and Kot. The first two are covered with meadows, while the third is mainly covered with forest. Air echoes with the magnificent thundering of the Rinka waterfalls behind the green curtain of the forest. The serene and peaceful landscape of the valley dotted with picturesque farms and villages seems to find the harmony of man and nature. Logarska Valley is one of the most breathtaking Alpine glacial valleys in Europe.
With unforgettable natural beauty, Bled ranks among the most charming alpine resorts, renowned for its mild, healing climate and thermal lake water. The beauty of the mountains reflected in the lake, sun, serenity and crisp air attract artists, explorers, sport enthusiasts, old and young from all over the world, enchanting them to return again and again. Bled has a mild sub-Alpine climate with the longest swimming season of any Alpine lake resort. The ridges of the Julian Alps and the Karavanke Mountains protect it from chilly northern winds. During the summer months there is no fog and average July daytime temperatures range between 70F and 80F.
Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana is one of the greenest and most fascinating urban centers of Europe. The charm of the Ljubljanica River that winds its way through the historic Old City, friendly cafes that line its banks, meticulously restored baroque and neoclassical houses create a captivating atmosphere. With a population aged just over 30 on average, , Ljubljana is a very young city with a great vibe, where history and modern life are blended seamlessly and create a unique, feel-good environment that both locals and visitors equally enjoy.
The Vipava Valley wine region lies midway between Trieste and Ljubljana. This delightful corner of Southwest Slovenia has a highly varied geographical landscape. No surprise that its climate mirrors its terrain with a unique blend of mild Mediterranean and continental Alpine temperatures that produce some very special grapes. Viticulture is, in fact, the main agricultural product of this scenic valley (60%) and vines cover over 3,000 acres of its total area of 135 square miles. Small, family-based vineyards are concentrated on terraces at higher elevations.
Goriška Brda (Gorizia Hills)
The Slovenian wine making tradition dates back to Illyric and Celtic times. Evidence suggests that wine was made in this area in the 6th century BC. Goriska Brda is one of the most important Slovenian appellations. Located on the border with Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region, some local wineries have vineyards in both countries. Slovenian and Italian are spoken on both sides of the border.
This area of gently rolling hills, occupied by picturesque villages and dotted with small churches boasts an ideal climate. Its hardworking people are dedicated to working their land and producing delicious cherries, peaches, apricots, olives, figs, chestnut and of course, wine, by hand and with the utmost respect for nature.
Charming Piran, nestled at the tip of a narrow peninsula, is one of the best preserved historical towns anywhere on the Adriatic. It is famous for its Venetian Gothic architecture, narrow and winding streets, romantic atmosphere and tempting Adriatic seafood. A member of the European Walled City Association, Piran enjoys a special status of a protected national monument.
Often called the “new Tuscany”, Istria is a triangle-shaped peninsula that is located just south of Trieste in Italy and speaks both Croatian and Italian. Istrian rolling hills, ancient villages, olive groves, pine forests, farmhouses, wineries and Adriatic beaches provide an idyllic setting for relaxation. The pace of life is slower here, food is wholesome and delicious, and the people are committed to their culinary traditions, proudly harvesting malvasia and teran grapes, cultivating olive trees and hunting for truffles.
In the northern part of Istria, overlooking the Mirna River valley, lies a hilltop medieval town of Motovun. The 13th-century Romanesque-Gothic bell tower standing next to the 17th-century Parish Church of St. Stephen dominates the town’s historic center. Motovun Forest, which stretches along the Mirna River valley, is especially rich in truffles, the underground malodorous fungus believed to be an aphrodisiac. Istrian forests boast three sorts of black truffles as well as the most prized big white truffle. Whether hunting for these delicacies on their own or enjoying them in risottos, pastas and omelettes, there is no better place to do it than in Motovun, Istria.
Rovinj is one of coastal Croatia’s most romantic places. In October 2014 it was included in the list of most beautiful coastal towns of the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine. Besides being a popular tourist destination, it still remains a true Mediterranean fishing port. The massive Church of St. Euphemia is in the center of the Old Town that is crammed into a small peninsula and surrounded by water. Medieval houses built on cliffs crowd the web of narrow and steep cobbled streets lined with shops and open air cafes and restaurants filling the salty air with mouthwatering aromas of freshly grilled seafood, garlic and espresso.
Charming and tiny Trogir is a coastal town of medieval stone walls and winding narrow streets. It boasts a vast collection of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, which flourished under Venetian rule, and for which in 1997 Trogir was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Its romantic seaside promenade is lined with cafes and restaurants. Situated in Central Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast, just north of Split, it is a popular harbor for yachts starting their voyages to nearby islands. Only about 3 miles from Split airport, Trogir is the perfect place to start exploring Dalmatia. Dubrovnik, Šibenik, Hvar, Zadar and other Dalmatian destinations are within the radius of only a few hundred miles.
Split is the economic and administrative hub of Central Dalmatia, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants. The site was first settled when at the end of the third century AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian built his palace here. The importance of Diocletian’s Palace far transcends local significance because of its amazing level of preservation. Split’s growth became particularly rapid in the 7th century, when the inhabitants of the destroyed Greek and Roman metropolis Salonae (present-day Solin) took refuge within its walls. The lovely ruins of Solin outside the city can still be explored today. In the Middle Ages, Split was an autonomous commune. Many of Split’s historical and cultural buildings can be found within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. Today Split is a great place to see and experience Dalmatian lifestyle, also known as fjaka (pronounced fyaka) – the relaxed life. Grab a seat at a local café or restaurant and practice some Dalmatian small talk or people-watch while sipping on a cup of kava (coffee) or a glass of vino.
Šibenik and Primošten
Magnificent medieval Šibenik is a city of about 50,000 inhabitants and an important access point for Krka River National Park and the Kornati Islands. Šibenik’s main monument is its Gothic-Renaissance Cathedral, built of Dalmatian stone and now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands on a raised piazza close to the seafront promenade. Seventeen miles south of Šibenik, the island town of Primošten began its dramatic history in the 7th century BC. Build as an island fortress, it was later bridged to the mainland by a pier. Primošten’s claim to fame are its unique vineyards planted with the local grape variety called Babić. Winegrowing has existed in this area since the 8th century BC when the first vineyards were planted here by Illyrian and Liburnian tribes. Tradition was later continued by the Greeks, the Romans and the Croats. The region’s characteristic Mediterranean climate with hot, windy summer days and cool nights combined with poor rocky soil create ideal conditions for babić grapes. One of the most dramatic and rugged sites here is Kremik, a true testament to hard manual work and dedication to traditional soil cultivation and agricultural methods. Man-made stone walls crisscrossing the vineyard protect and hold in place the shallow red soil and vines. A permanent picture of this vineyard is displayed on the wall at the United Nations building in New York City as a tribute to this amazing achievement.
The Island of Hvar claims to be the sunniest island in the Adriatic and it has the figures to back it up. Simply put, Hvar is one of the most popular and spectacular Dalmatian islands. Hvar Town alone is estimated to draw around 20,000 visitors a day in the summer months. Mostly pedestrian, Hvar Town is a laid back place, quiet by day and lively by night. There is plenty to explore on the island: heavenly pebble and sandy beaches, pine trees, lavender fields, vineyards and olive groves. At night, pick a local konoba (tavern) and indulge in some fresh Adriatic fish prepared with local olive oil, garlic and parsley, or perhaps try some roasted lamb or octopus cooked in an open fire grill under the peka (dome-shaped pot cover).
The largest island of Southern Dalmatia, Korčula was discovered by the ancient Greeks, who named it Kerkyra Melaina, or “Black Corfu.” Ruled by the Venetians between the 10th and the 18th centuries, it was in the center of several bloody sea battles with archrival Dubrovnik Republic. Korčula’s main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the famous traveler, Marco Polo. The entire town of Korčula is built from the local stone and resembles a smaller version of Dubrovnik. The key difference is in the peculiar fishbone pattern the narrow streets run off the main thoroughfare, preventing the cold Bura winds from blowing through the town in the winter. Local pošip and grk wines are considered to be the best white wines in Dalmatia.
Pelješac and Ston
Pelješac, a 45-mile long peninsula stretching between Dubrovnik and Korčula, boasts dramatic views of the Adriatic Sea and breathtaking serpentine coastal roads chiseled into steep mountains. A sense of timelessness prevails here on the hills above the sea among ancient villas and gardens, stone walls and crumbled columns, cypress, lemon, fig and almond trees, herbs, wildflowers and, of course, the most unique and stunning plavac mali vineyards in Croatia. Pelješac Peninsula is home to the legendary and protected Dingač appellation. Its 45 degree steep vineyards facing the Adriatic produce the most delicious and prestigious plavac mali wines to ever come out of the Dalmatian Coast. A short ride to the north, Ston is a small village that connects Pelješac to the mainland. It’s 13th century city wall is over three miles long and is the second longest defensive wall in the world after the Great Wall of China. Ston oyster farms is what makes this village famous. Considered by many to be the best oysters in the world, these ostrea edulis from Mali Ston Bay are like no other. The pure seawater rich with salt and minerals mixes here with the karst spring freshwater over the sea floor packed with phytoplankton creating an ideal habitat for oysters.
The Pearl of the Adriatic is a cliché, but it is precisely what Dubrovnik is. It is a gem, there is absolutely nothing like it! With over 1,000 years of history, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, this resilient city and its inhabitants have a lot to be proud about. Visitors remain in awe of the city walls that protected the maritime Republic of Dubrovnik for five centuries, its marble streets, its baroque buildings and of course, its azure Adriatic Sea, no matter how many times they may return. Dubrovnik managed to survive through adversity and constant threats to its territory. It bounced back after the shelling of 1991 to become once again a thriving cultural center of the Dalmatian Riviera.