Quaint but modern, Slovenia captures imaginations

Traditional pletna boats ferry visitors to a tiny island on Lake Bled, where children can ring the church’s bell.
Traditional pletna boats ferry visitors to a tiny island on Lake Bled, where children can ring the church’s bell. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

On my first morning in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, after a fruitless hour digging through my suitcase looking for the jeans I swore I packed, I headed to the lobby of the InterContinental Ljubljana hotel armed with a credit card and my smartphone.

"Zara?" I asked tentatively to the uniformed doorman, pointing to my Google maps. "Straight ahead, 10 minutes' walk," he responded in English, not missing a beat.

I share this anecdote because, in a way, it symbolizes the extent to which American families will feel comfortable in this city, which is, according to the locals we met, unrecognizable from how it was a mere decade ago. Yes, the quaint inner city is well preserved and provides that dose of Old World charm and culture that most parents want their children to experience in Europe, but the surrounding streets have been fairly recently transformed into pedestrian walkways with appealing shops (some international brands but also local boutiques) and cozy eateries.

One of the best ways to give the kids an overview of the city is to hop on a 45-minute Laker Craft boat ride, which wends along the Ljubljanica River on a hand-crafted, flat-bottom wooden vessel and offers views of the key sites.

Organ grinders on a bridge in Ljubljana, which straddles the Ljubljanica River.
Organ grinders on a bridge in Ljubljana, which straddles the Ljubljanica River. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

From there, head to the funicular for a ride up to Ljubljana Castle, where costumed, English-speaking guides bring Slovenian history to life with interactive tours and where young visitors can try to save a dragon in the castle's escape room attraction.

This is a walkable city, and school-age kids can easily explore some of its most interesting baroque and art nouveau sites, including the Krizanke Outdoor Theatre for concerts and special events, the Napoleon monument, the Central Market, Preseren and Congress squares and, especially, the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge, popular among adults and children alike for panoramic shots and selfies.

It only takes about an hour and 15 minutes by car to travel to Lake Bohinj, one of Slovenia's most popular, family-friendly destinations. Located in Triglav National Park, the Alpine lake is surrounded by mountains and forests that offer boating, hiking and winter sports, depending on the season.

After a leisurely boat ride on the lake, we boarded a cable car for the ride to Vogel mountain, also within Triglav National Park at about 5,000 feet above sea level. Vogel offers a long ski season in winter, often from November to May, as well as a restaurant and vista point at the cable car summit. Vogel hiking routes in warm weather months range from easy, child-appropriate climbs to a challenging trek to Slap Savica, not to mention Zipline Bohinj for even more high-adrenaline fun.

For a mix of entertainment and culture, try a private boat ride on Lake Bled about 50 miles from Vogel, where you can board a traditional pletna, a wooden boat with origins dating to the 16th century. Each pletna is helmed by its own oarsman, whose occupation has been handed down through many generations and whose narration includes an engaging mix of history and local gossip. Passengers disembark at the miniscule Bled Island, where children can climb a tower, wander through an ancient church and ring the huge bell by dangling from a giant rope — while making a secret wish.

You can't go to Bled without stopping at Bled Castle, which, besides looking cool, features a museum and an ancient printing press that's still in use.

Bundle the kids in sweaters and sturdy shoes for a visit to Postojna Cave, which is about 45 minutes from Bled and is Slovenia's top tourist attraction. The site comprises a series of underground caves that are so eye-popping that they've drawn some 35 million visitors over the years. One of the largest cave systems in the world, Postojna boasts eerie and intriguing formations as well as an odd species of blind creatures called olms, which locals call baby dragons.

Medieval armor and weaponry displayed at Predjama Castle, a Renaissance fortification built into a cliff.
Medieval armor and weaponry displayed at Predjama Castle, a Renaissance fortification built into a cliff. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

The Renaissance Predjama Castle nearby is noteworthy even in a country full of castles, because it's built right into a cliff and presides over an especially picturesque little town.

Children who love horses can wander the grounds of the Lipica Stud Farm about a half hour away, which is the original home of the famous Lipizzaner horses that are usually associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

Kids old enough to be interested in history might enjoy a tour of Goriska Brda, starting at the Peace Park on Sabotin hill, overlooking the Adriatic Sea and the Julian Alps. The region was at the center of the Austro-Italian front in World War I — Ernest Hemingway was here during the war and is said to have been inspired to write "A Farewell to Arms" — and remains as an open-air museum. This is also wine country, so families can pick up a bottle or two at the end of their tour at Dobrovo Castle or rent electric bikes or scooters for a ride around the vineyards.

Finally, you'll think you're in Croatia in Piran Old Town overlooking the Adriatic Sea, where you can sip refreshments at an outdoor cafe in Tartini Square and wander the winding, ancient streets.

As for hotels, our accommodations included the InterContinental Ljubljana, the Hotel Jama at the Postojnska Cave and the Gredic Castle Hotel, all of which would work well for families.

Dining is a big part of the Slovenia experience, and we ate well throughout our stay, although our dining skewed toward upscale, adult fare with wine pairings. In Ljubljana, we enjoyed trendy fare at AS Aperitivo, which offers indoor and al fresco dining, and at JB Restaurant, overseen by local star chef Janez Bratovz, but of course, less formal eateries are available throughout the country.

Visit www.slovenia.info/en.

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