If you had never heard of Slovenia, your introduction to it may have come within the last year, since it is the homeland of the current First Lady.
We didn't know much about it either. But on a holiday in Italy a few years ago, we found ourselves with a couple of extra days in Venice. What to do? Since Slovenia is right next door - only about an hour's drive away - we decided to be spontaneous, rent a car, and go.
A quick look at Rick Steves' recommendations, and we were off!
With the river running through the city center of the capital, Ljubljana, it reminded me a bit of Salzburg. It is a compact, walkable city with beautiful bridges and architecture. It even has a medieval castle high above the city. Walk up the steep hill, or cheat by taking the funicular. This is very much a university town, with lively streets and cafés filled with students.
The river bank through the downtown is lined with outdoor cafés. In the chilly weather, every seat had included a warm, cozy blanket for you to use - a practice I could totally get on board with in other cities. Because the country has heavy Slavic, German, and Italian influences (most people seem to speak at least three or four languages), you can find just about any kind of cuisine here.
Every single picture of me in Slovenia has me wearing this jacket and scarf. When our trip started in Rome a week earlier, temps were more than 90 degrees, and I had brought clothes for warm weather. But temps in Slovenia plummeted into the 20s, creating a fashion emergency that required a stop at the center city Ljubljana H&M for a coat. Scott bought the warm, cozy scarf from a street vendor in Venice, and I still wear it multiple times each week during the fall and winter.
As lovely and vibrant as the capital is, you'll want to get out of town and head north to gorgeous Lake Bled. It is less than an hour's drive from Ljubljana, and the scenery is worth every minute of that trip.
During holidays, it is a busy resort. But when we arrived in early October - off-season for tourists - we found a peaceful, uncrowded village. We enjoyed the stunning fall foliage during a walk around the serene lake. You can also go out to the small island in the middle of the lake that hosts the beautiful Church of the Assumption of Mary.
Head up to the cliff-hanging Bled Castle, which dates back to 1011 (the road is a steep climb, or you can take a tram) to visit the castle and take in the breathtaking views of the Julian Alps.
The views are definitely worth the climb.
I was freezing, but clearly having a great time.
You can stay locally in Bled, but you can easily take in the sites and views on a day trip from the capital.
Slovenia was an unexpected treat for us - definitely a hidden gem in Eastern Europe. Where is the most interesting place you have visited that is off the beaten path?