The great outdoor nature guide to Croatia and Slovenia

The neighbouring countries of Croatia and Slovenia offer startlingly varied landscapes and seascapes, from towering snow-capped mountains to pine-scented islands immersed in warm turquoise waters. Welcoming and safe, they are among Europe's most eco-friendly destinations, with cultural heritages dating back millennia, delicious local food and wine, and balmy Mediterranean climates.

Where to explore

Plitvice Lakes National Park

South of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, Plitvice Lakes National Park (the oldest national park in Croatia) lies in a limestone canyon, clad with forests of beech, spruce and pine. A series of thundering waterfalls and cascades connect 16 turquoise lakes, so spectacular, they have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Follow marked paths through the woodland and raised wooden walkways around the lakes, and be sure to see the largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, which tumbles 256ft into the lower lakes. The park is inhabited by deer, bears and lynx, and is especially magical in winter, dusted in snow.

Image credit: Luka Esenko

Triglav National Park

Named after Triglav (2,864m; the highest peak in Slovenia), the three-peaked mountain depicted on the Slovenian flag, Triglav National Park combines rugged alpine summits with dramatic gorges, virgin forests, lush meadows and turquoise lakes and rivers. Much loved by adventure sports enthusiasts, it's criss-crossed by hiking and cycling trails, while you can swim in Lake Bohinj, raft down the River Soča or try canyoning or ziplining. In winter, there's also skiing and snowboarding. Wild animals include Alpine ibex goats, chamois, brown bears and golden eagles. Local folklore says that every Slovene should climb up Mount Triglav once in their life.

Image credit: Aleš Zdešar

Mljet National Park

A blissful catamaran ride from Dubrovnik, Mljet National Park accounts for one-third of Mljet island. Immersed in dense forest of Aleppo pine and holly oak, the park conceals two interconnected turquoise saltwater lakes. Hire bikes and enjoy the 90-minute cycle around the larger lake, stopping along the way to catch a boat to St Mary's islet with its abandoned 12th-century Benedictine monastery, as well as pondering over the legend that Mljet's abundant beauty meant Greek hero Odysseus called it his home for several years. Alternatively, hike up to the Montokuc viewpoint (256m) for magnificent views, or hire kayaks and paddle across the lakes. Mljet is much loved by yachters, who overnight in Pomena bay.

Image credit: Darko Kešnjer

The Logar Valley Landscape Park

Nearly 75km north of Ljubljana, the verdant Logar Valley Landscape Park lies in an enchanting glacial valley, dotted with traditional farmsteads and rimmed by the towering Kamnik-Savinja Alps, some rising more than 2,000m high. For an easy hike, follow the 7.2km-long Logar Valley Trail from the Logar farm to the spectacular Rinka waterfall, passing through green meadows and woodland of linden, larch and elm along the way. For more challenging hiking, climbing or mountain biking, explore the marked trails up the Logar Valley's rugged slopes. The park has been awarded the Slovenia Green Park label.

Image credit: Jan Godec

Get active

Hiking

Slovenes love hiking, so much so that many leave Ljubljana at weekends, with rucksacks and walking boots, and head for the surrounding mountains. They have plenty to choose from, from the rugged snow-capped peaks of the Julian Alps to walking among the lowlands of the leafy Pomurje or Kočevsko regions or tracing the boardwalks that weave their way through the marshlands of the Lovrenc Lakes. In Croatia, the rugged limestone peaks of Biokovo Nature Park, located in Central Dalmatia south of Split and overlooking the Makarska Riviera, are laced with hiking routes that serve up dramatic views of the Adriatic coastline. In some places, the sheer faces of the mountains make it appear as if they rise directly out of the sea. Just an easy day trip away from Zadar, the dramatic gorges and limestone cliffs of Paklenica National Park are loved by climbers.

Image credit: Ciril Jazbec

Cycling

Triglav's alpine landscapes are superb for mountain biking – Kranjska Gora has around 150km of bike trails, plus an energising bike park, while from Kobarid trails follow the dramatic Soča Valley. However, many cyclists prefer flatter terrain. The 144km-long Drava Cycling Route follows the River Drava, from Italy and Austria into northeast Slovenia, to pass through Maribor and Ptuj, then into Croatia and past Lake Varaždin, to Legrad. In eastern Croatia, the EuroVelo 6 route follows the River Danube through flat fertile Slavonia, past Baranja's lush vineyards and the wetlands of Kopački Rit Nature Park, while Croatia's coastline is another fertile place to pedal – from island-hopping around the isles of Kvarner Bay or tracing the EuroVelo 8 for over 1,000km along the coast, passing through places like Rovinj in the Istria region and UNESCO-recognised destinations like Zadar, Šibenik, Trogir, Split and Dubrovnik.

Image credit: Ivan Šardi

Sailing

Croatia's Adriatic coast is blessed with over a thousand islands, islets and reefs – no wonder so many yachters flock here each summer. Split, Trogir and Dubrovnik are the top yachting and sailing bases, making ideal points of departure for exploring the islands of Brač, Hvar, Vis, Korčula, Mljet and Lastovo, or sailing a bit up north to Dugi Otok island or the uninhabited rocky islets of Kornati National Park, whose pristine waters are protected against development. Although Slovenia has a diminutive 43km-long coast, there are big marinas in Izola and Portorož, from whence you might begin your summer odyssey sailing down the Adriatic, as well as picturesque coastal towns like Piran and Koper just waiting to be explored.

Image credit: Aleksandar Gospić

Kayaking

With crystal-clear waters, rocky shores, pebble coves and closely spaced islets, Croatia's Elafiti archipelago near Dubrovnik and the Paklinski Islands off Hvar are superb for sea kayaking, as is paddling beneath Dubrovnik's UNESCO-listed city walls itself. Paddling is a fine way to slow down, relax and harmonize with the elements – the Adriatic is warm and safe, with no strong tides or currents. The town of Pula with its fine Roman arena, nearby Cape Kamenjak and the island of Rab, also offer kayaking excursions along magnificent coastlines. In Slovenia, there are myriad kayaking experiences. You can paddle through the flooded lead and zinc mines that lie within Mount Peca, glide along the calm, gin-clear waters of lakes Cerknica or Bohinj, or kayak the white waters of rivers like the Sava, Soča, Kolpa or Savinja. Slovenia's coastline may be short but therein lies its appeal when it comes to kayaking, as this makes it possible to paddle its entire length.

Image credit: Slovenian Tourist Board

Slow down

Take life slowly with fjaka or a coffee in Croatia

Like most Mediterraneans, Dalmatians know how to take it easy when it's hot. They even have a word for it, fjaka, a state of summery listlessness when all is well with the world and no one has the energy to do anything, except for swim in the sea before drying off in the sun. Whatever time of year it is, though, Croats have to make time for a coffee break, a cultural institution that's as much about the drink itself as it is about the social occasion.

Image credit: Croatian National Tourist Board

Go thermal on Slovenia’s coast

Relax, zone out and refind inner peace. That's what wellness centres want us to achieve. At spas on Slovenia's Adriatic coast, you can experience novel pampering, provided by Mother Nature. In Sečovlje, you might indulge in a salt-pan mud wrap, a brine bath or a sea salt scrub. In Strunjan, bathe is warm seawater pools or book a detox fango wrap. And in Portorož, you can choose from a range of thalassotherapy treatments and multi-day packages. There's even a salt room – inhaling saline air (halotherapy) cleanses the respiratory system, boosting ones mood and immunity. 

Image credit: Slovenian Tourist Board

Soak up Hvar Island in Croatia

Trendy Hvar offers a choice of gorgeous beaches and islets with rich heritage and a strong wine-making tradition; it's jsut a direct ferry ride from Split, too. The calm, millpond-like waters around Hvar make it ideal for a relaxing sail to secluded cove you won't have to share with anyone else, as well as granting you the freedom and flexibility to explore the pristine Pakleni islands. For an alternative way to reach these dreamy pine-scented islets, you can catch a taxi-boat from Hvar, with their dozen or so pebble coves lying in wait.

Image credit: Zoran Jelača

Explore Slovenia’s caves

Slovenia's limestone karst landscape conceals a fascinating underground world of caves. Of these subterranean wonders, Škocjan holds pride of place. With grand halls graced by giant stalactites and stalagmites, and bridges leading over impressive underground waterfalls, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also in the karst region, Postojna is Slovenia's most visited cave – it can be toured aboard a family-friendly miniature train, then explored on foot, to reveal more magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. Nearby, Predjama is a Gothic-Renaissance castle, built into a rocky cliffside, concealing yet another mysterious cavern.

Image credit: Jošt Gantar

Go green

Unravel the Konavle Valley

For centuries, rural Konavle supplied the wealthy city-state of UNESCO-protected Dubrovnik with fresh produce – fruit, vegetables, meat, cheeses and wine. A lush green valley planted with vineyards and olives groves, and dotted with elegant cypresses, Konavle lies a 30-minute drive southeast of town. Come here to taste Dubrovačka malvasija white wine, unique to the region, and to eat at rustic agrotourisms serving local specialities made from organic home produce, including makaruli (handmade pasta) and peka dishes (lamb, veal or octopus, casseroled over glowing embers covered by an iron lid); if you want to get stuck in you can try a cooking class to craft these dishes for yourself.

Image credit: Ivan Šardi

Delve into Slovenia’s bee heritage

Did you know that Slovenia has the highest number of beekeepers per capita in the world? And Slovenes consume five times more honey than most other nationalities. In fact, beekeepers the world over favour the Carniolan honeybee, which originates from Slovenia – you can learn more about this at the Museum of Apiculture in Radovljica. At home, these little bees make high quality golden honey, primarily from forest trees - acacia, linden, spruce, silver fir and chestnut. And to honor them, decorating beehive panels with colourful paintings is a form of folk art in Slovenia.

Image credit: Jošt Gantar

Slow down in Međimurje in Croatia

In northernmost Croatia, bordering Slovenia and Hungary, the Međimurje region is the country's first region to have received an international Green Destination Award. Explore the charming Štrigova wine region, where gently undulating hills are planted with neatly cultivated vineyards, and welcoming family-run wineries are open for tasting – expect excellent whites, including some surprisingly good sparkling wines.  Local country roads are quiet, making them ideal for cycling. Or for total relaxation, retreat to a thermal spa for bathing, sauna and massage.

Image credit: Bojan Haron

Soak up Slovenia’s forests

Slovenia is Europe's most forested country, after Finland and Sweden – 60% of its land is clad in lush green forest, with beech, spruce and oak trees predominating. Due to their primeval nature, the beech trees of the Krokar virgin forest in Kočevje and the Snežnik-Ždrolce nature reserve are protected by UNESCO. They offer a safe natural habitat to rare wild animals, including brown bears, wolves and lynx. You can join a guided bear-spotting tour in Kočevje, or follow the funky modern Treetop Walk, high above the Pohorje pine forests of Rogla, near Maribor.

Image credit: Ciril Jazbec

Time to refuel

Trace Croatia and Slovenia’s wine heritage

Since Greek and Roman times, people have made wine on the east Adriatic. But it's one variety in particular that has made Croatia responsible for California's obsession with red Zinfandel wine, which was traced to the humble crljenak grape from Kaštela after years of searching and countless DNA samples. Other Croatian standouts are the red Dingač, made from Plavac mali grapes on the steep sunny seaward slopes of Pelješac in Dalmatia, the Istrian white Malvazija and Traminer wine, the most well-known of which hails from Ilok in the Slavonia region. Red Teran is Slovenia's top wine, but whites dominate here, notably indigenous Rebula. In Maribor, you can visit the world's oldest continually-producing vine and Europe's longest cellars, at over 2km long.

Open up Croatia and Slovenia's olive oil heritage

Like the vine, the silvery-green olive tree was probably introduced here by the Greeks and Romans. Ancient amphorae (vases) discovered by underwater archaeologists in the Adriatic would have been used to transport olive oil. Often referred to as 'liquid gold', today the best oil comes from the Istria region, where you'll be greeted by olive groves blanketing almost every inch of the landscape. Here many producers offer tours and tasting, and in Pula there's an informative Museum of Istrian Olive Oil. Elsewhere, if you head inland in Slovenia, you'll discover more oil makers in the Brda Hills and the Vipava Valley, both offering slightly different flavours than their coastal counterparts. In Croatia, the Olive Gardens of Lun on Pag island have around 80,000 trees – those with the gnarliest trunks are over 1,000-years-old.

Taste Slovenia’s green cuisine

Six Slovenian restaurants have a Michelin Green Star for high environmental standards, sustainable practices, and keeping food waste to a minimum. The Slow Food movement arrived here from Italy over two decades ago, highlighting the use of local seasonal organic produce, and the revival of almost-forgotten regional recipes. Slovenia combines four different worlds (Alpine, Karst, Mediterranean and Pannonian) and in each one, people will proudly introduce you to their local specialities – homemade pasta and gnocchi, cured meats, cheeses, cakes and pastries. Slovenia awards its most eco-friendly restaurants and agrotourisms a 'Slovenian Green Label'.

Try oysters and truffles in Croatia

If aphrodisiacal cuisine is your thing, you'll love Croatia. In inland Istria, the oak forests of the Mirna Valley, overlooked by dreamy Venetian-era hilltowns such as Motovun, give forth truffles, both black and white. You can join an organised truffle-hunting tour, with dogs, or taste these pungent fungi at local eateries, served with fuži (Istrian pasta). Down in southern Croatia, medieval-walled Ston, the gateway to Pelješac peninsula, is known for its oyster beds in Mali Ston bay. Savour them raw, with just a squeeze of lemon, plucked directly from the sea that day.

Zinfandel vineyard (Mario Alajbeg/TZG Kaštela)

Zinfandel vineyard (Mario Alajbeg/TZG Kaštela)

An olive grove in Goriška Brda (Slovenian Tourist Board)

An olive grove in Goriška Brda (Slovenian Tourist Board)

Traditional Slovenian food (Slovenian Tourist Board)

Traditional Slovenian food (Slovenian Tourist Board)

Croatian oysters (Maja Danica Pečanić)

Croatian oysters (Maja Danica Pečanić)

How to combine the pair

Croatia joined the border-free Schengen Area in January 2023, so you can travel freely between the two countries (during the 90-day stay allowed for non-EU citizens). The capitals Ljubljana and Zagreb are connected by daily trains. However, maybe the loveliest way to combine Slovenia and Croatia is to drive down through Istria, a region which straddles both countries with its rural interior planted with vineyards and olive groves and a glorious coastline dotted with noble Venetian-era harbour towns, such as Piran in Slovenia and Rovinj in Croatia.

Feeling inspired?

For more information, head over to the official Slovenia and Croatia tourist board websites.