The question I got asked the most this summer (besides why I decided to elope) was what made me choose Slovenia for our big summer trip. (And, er, where is that, again?)
The answer feels a little silly: it’s because of the Netflix show Chef’s Table. When I watched the season 2 episode featuring Ana Ros and her restaurant Hisa Franko, I was blown away by how beautiful the country looked. Sure, the cinematographers on that show could make a dingy back alley seem romantic. But there was something about the place that felt special—a secret oasis of natural wonders untouched by mass tourism, despite it being just a stone’s throw from the Italian border.
A few months later, I saw that one of my favorite Hashi Posse members, Sarah Wilson, had adventured there. Hearing her rave about the diverse scenery, eco culture, and fresh (gluten-free friendly) cuisine, put it even higher on my bucket list.
So when Charlie and I began discussing another European summer road trip earlier this spring, I thought it would be the perfect place to get the best of the mountains, alpine lakes, and Adriatic seashores—all the hot spots of the summer high season—without having to spend 50 euro a person at every meal.
The country surpassed our expectations in every way imaginable, and though we had a full 10 days to explore, it felt like we were only scratching the surface. That said, one of the hallmarks that makes Slovenia worth at least a week of your time is that you can cover so many different landscapes in a short distance.
With less than three hours of driving, you can visit the fairytale capital city of Ljubljana—with a public recycling system that’s even more impressive than its castle—laze by the water in the quaint, postcard-perfect town of Lake Bled, explore the otherworldly underground caves in Postojna, invoke your inner mountain goat in the Julian Alps, raft in the emerald waters of the Socca River, taste countless natural wines in Goriška Brda (Slovenia’s Napa), and float along the salty shores of the Mediterranean in Piran.
With a population of only 2 million, even during the busiest weekends of summer, the country still felt refreshingly empty and undeveloped. We barely heard any English speakers while we were there, and yet, due to its history, most Slovenians speak perfect English, along with several other languages.
Neighboring Italy, Austria, Hungry and Croatia, the country’s borders have been a constant moving target. Until voting overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, the country was the economic breadwinner of Yugoslavia. It was also the only present-day European nation to be completely absorbed and annexed into Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Hungary during World War II.
Despite this tumultuous history (or perhaps because of it?), the center of Slovenian pride and culture is love. There was far more tourist regalia dedicated to the fact that it’s the only country with love literally spelled out in the name than the fact that Melania Trump came from there. More importantly, the combination of being an international nexus, with a rich landscape, and heart-led people, meant truly memorable food.
Read on for my tips on eating gluten-free in Slovenia, the best restaurants we tried, hotels with stayed in, and how to plan an epic road trip itinerary.
With health and hedonism,
How to Eat Gluten-Free in Slovenia
Thanks to the neighboring countries, you’ll encounter a lot of different culinary influences depending on where you are in Slovenia.
There’s the humble Hungarian-influenced peasant food that uses some combination of sausage, sauerkraut, beans and barley. Homemade pastas and Italian-style pizzerias on every corner. And no shortage of beer at the tavern-like Gostilnas across the country.
Farm-to-table local ingredients reign supreme throughout, with specialties including trout from the socca river, game meats like venison and rabbit, and all manner of wild mushrooms. If you’re a truffle lover, you might just pass out eating in Slovenia, where you can get freshly shaved truffles on appetizers that cost less than 15 euro. Take advantage of the porcini and chanterelles too!
Eating gluten-free in Slovenia was fairly easy. While servers aren’t as knowledgeable about cross-contamination and the particulars (so many thought barley was GF) as in Italy, many menus had in depth allergen indexes or icons.
Even at more rustic gostilnas (inn-restaurants), you can find some simple options like grilled trout with a side of spinachy potatoes, baked sausage with sauerkraut, grilled polenta, or a large salad with the oil and vinegar on the side to dress yourself. Plus, one of the most prevalent grains was buckwheat, which was served as risotto or a hardy side in its whole grain form.
10 Days in Slovenia: A Road Trip Itinerary
Our time in Slovenia was designed around two main events: a 3-day trek through the Julian Alps and the Socca Valley, and dinner at Hisa Franko, which we locked in before we even had plane tickets!
Below is a snapshot of our itinerary, with slight modifications for how I wish we had done things. We had a lot of guidance from our travel guru, Miha at SloTrips, and I know we wouldn’t have been able to design such a comprehensive, robust experience without him.
Especially if you’re looking for more than just day hikes, I’d highly recommend working with SloTrips to design your adventure itinerary. They can put together your whole trip for you, including arranging wineries, hotels and restaurant reservations. But if you don’t want to go all in like a traditional travel agent, I would at least recommend having them handle a hut to hut hiking experience for you, which we would have never been able to dream up or execute ourselves from the States.
Charlie and I are not ones for organized group travel. We don’t like spending most of our trip with strangers! So the self-guided option was perfect. Miha handed off a detailed packet of instructions for every stop we made on our trip and directions down to the turn for our hike so we didn’t get lost. He arranged transfers for the bikes, and to bring us back to our car when we finished. He even gave us a local smart phone with all the contacts built in, PDF’s and marked maps to follow.
Since we knew so little about Slovenia before going, it was also a treat to have someone give us a whole rundown on the history and fairytale lore behind each town we visited, and the best restaurant and local artisans to try. Miha put together an insanely comprehensive 40+ page guide for us that was like our own personalized Lonely Planet. I give full credit to him for half of the delicious things we ate listed below!
A few other notes:
We found the cheapest direct flights through Venice, which is about 2 1/2 hours by car to Ljubljana. To connect through another major city by plane would have taken roughly the same amount of time and was more expensive. We opted to design our trip around a few days in Venice on the backend, which was a fun way to round out the trip.
Instead of spending 3 nights in Piran, if we had it to do over again, we would have added a second night upfront in Ljubljana. It’s small enough to do in 24 hours, but also quite a pleasant place to ease into the trip, learn more about Slovenian culture, eat great food, and more importantly, get over your jetlag before more adventurous outdoor activities await.
- Day 1: Arrive in Venice and drive to Ljubljana. Wander the canal in the afternoon and enjoy dinner at Spajza.
- Day 2: In the morning, visit Central Market and explore the castle. Drive to Bled (45 minutes) in the afternoon. Walk around the perimeter of the lake. Enjoy dinner at Castle Bled Restaurant.
- Day 3: Relax by the water and rent a paddle board or canoe to visit the island in the center. Do a nearby hike to visit one of the great overlooks over the water. Another option would be to rent bikes, take the train to Lake Bohinj (25 minutes), and explore that region.
- Day 4 – 5: Drive to Kranjska Gora and begin hut to hut hike through the Julian Alps and into the Socca Valley.
- Day 6: Finish the hike. Return to your car and drive to Kobarid in the Socca Valley. Go to Hisa Franko for dinner and stay there for the night!
- Day 7: Drive to wine country and do a tasting at one of the many fabulous wineries. You can also pop over to Friuli on the Italian side. Another option is to visit the caves in Postojna. Arrive in Piran in the evening.
- Day 8: Relax in Piran. Bike through Portorosso to the salt flats and dip in the Adriatic. Enjoy dinner at Pri Mari.
- Day 9: Optional day trip to Croatia or unwind again by the sea in Piran.
- Day 10: Return to Venice and fly home.
What to Do and Where to Stay in Ljubljana
Though it houses a third of the population, Slovenia’s capital feels more like a town than a city. You can easily explore all the major landmarks in the old quarter in 24 hours. But it might be worth spending a second night there to try more of the fabulous restaurants and experience some of the more idiosyncratic remnants of socialism, like the pay-by-the-kilo art galleries, or cafes where you can hang out all day like it’s your home and just pay for your time when you leave.
For recommendations on great shops, music and art to check out, my friend Bianca’s article is a great guide. For more recommendations on restaurants that we didn’t have time to try, Sarah Wilson’s post is another great resource.
We loved the sleek feel of this boutique hotel and its proximity to the center of old town. Request a room facing the castle!
Where to Eat in Ljubljana: The Best Gluten-Free Restaurants
This restaurant on a quaint side street in old town was the perfect mix of old school Slovenian fare and refined farm-to-table cuisine. Make sure to take advantage of the extensive seasonal specials, which during our stay, included a wealth of fresh truffles (for a fraction of the price you’d find in Italy). I had a beautiful appetizer of baked scallops on the half shell with buttery chanterelles, and Charlie enjoyed mixed mushrooms and truffles with eggs. While my duck breast special was a little tough and undercooked, his entree was the real winner: bacon wrapped rabbit over a silky-smooth pea puree. It was good enough to forgive carving up one of my childhood friends alongside my spirit animal, “young horse,” which appeared multiple times on the menu as a specialty.
Off the main canal drag, this small tapas bar is a great option for small plates or a light lunch of fresh local ingredients. The menu is well marked for allergies, and I was able to order a beautiful trout crudo with roe and grilled octopus.
It was a true treat to find gelato on the same level as neighboring Italy, but with inventive flavors like cucumber-lime and strawberry-basil. The former was a tart, refreshing revelation. And needless to say, there were plenty of options for dairy-free folks and vegans alike. Had I risked a little more cream before our hiking trip, I would have had the black sesame – it was insane. Sadly no GF cones, FYI.
We didn’t manage to make it to this modern space with minimal, creative dishes. But heard great things! At dinner time the service is more formal with elaborate tasting menus. Go for lunch if you want a casual a la carte experience.
What to Do in Lake Bled
Lake Bled is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Slovenia, and can be swarmed with people during peak summer weekends. That said, it’s a relatively small town that’s mostly dominated by the lake. And since there are very few hotels and villas built around its perimeter, you can almost always find a quiet place to perch for the day.
The lake itself has garnered a lot of folklore over the years (you’ll notice there’s a lot of fairytale speak built into Slovenia’s major landmarks, in general). Besides the fairies who initially inhabited the valley and eventually flooded it to prevent the nearby shepherds from letting their flock feast off its mossy floor, the biggest lake legend involves the gold bell originally intended for the church in the center of the lake, which upon initial transport, sank to the depths, never to be recovered.
In later history, the lake has also been home to Nazi outposts during WWII, and is said to be the final resting place of several intelligence resources, and a large swath of hidden gold. Note to self: don’t leave anything in the lake that you intend to find again.
The perimeter is around 6 kilometers and has a well-groomed flat walkway along the edge that’s perfect for a light stroll. The sidewalk gets a little too congested for a pleasant bike ride during the high season (when we were there) but bikes make for a great way to get to and from dinner, since the roads themselves are even more congested. When we mapped out our journey one night, it was actually faster to walk than drive!
About a 25 minute train ride away from Bled is a second lake that’s equally beautiful and much less crowded. Sadly, we did not make it to Bohinj to confirm this, but if you have trouble finding accommodations in Bled, it would be the perfect alternative for visiting the lake region, or a second option for daytime activities, should you find Bled too mobbed.
Where to Stay in Lake Bled
We chose to glamp at this fabulous matrix of tree houses and tents rather than opt for a traditional hotel. It’s a little pricey for what you get (and compared to some of the more formal hotels in the area), but we wouldn’t have traded the experience of sleeping by a beautiful creek, above an estuary of trout, and getting to relax by their man-made “beach” during the day. The restaurant on site is quite tasty and they source all the produce from the garden on the premises (and fish from those waterways!). Had we done it over again, we would have splurged for one of the larger tree houses cabins or tents versus the pier tents we stayed in (where you couldn’t stand up).
The old country home of former Yugoslav president Tito, this beautiful villa is on the lake and includes a secluded area of beach chairs right on the water. You can also rent paddle boards and boats straight from their boathouse. We didn’t get to see the rooms, but the prices seemed reasonable given the grounds on offer.
The Best Gluten-Free Restaurants in Lake Bled
You can’t beat the views at this elegant restaurant overlooking the lake. While ordinarily one might expect overpriced and uninspired fare fitting of such a tourist venue (inside the Bled Castle), instead the tasting menu is refined without being fussy. If you let them know in advance, they will also provide homemade gluten-free options, which for me included a gorgeous tart stuffed with pumpkin and fresh local mozzarella, instead of the pasta course. The highlight of an all-around tasty meal was a seared trout served with buckwheat risotto. Sadly, it rained the night we went, so we enjoyed our meal inside the modern, minimalist interior, but ordinarily, there is outdoor seating cliff-side with a perfect vantage point of the island.
Despite it being ranked as number 1 on TripAdvisor, we found this restaurant to be hit or miss. The ambiance was beautiful, housed in a courtyard garden (with a live pianist) a kilometer or so from the lakeside. The white glove service was painfully slow, and the food similarly uptight. But there were some nice dishes, including a venison main course, wild mushroom risotto, and a light, cream-free carrot soup.
Slovenia takes its fine dining seriously, and most of the plates we ate while in the country were carefully composed. But as you know, I’m usually happier in a cozy trattoria environment. Which is one of the reasons I so enjoyed my meal at this little mom and pop fish shop. It’s a great option for a simple lunch or unfussy dinner of reasonably priced seafood. We got a fish for two served in a large roasting pan with mixed vegetables and potatoes.
If you’re looking for an unpretentious farm-to-table (or garden to table) meal, the restaurant on site of Garden Village Bled is a great option. It’s particularly fun for lunch in the daylight since you can sit in the middle of their man-made pool and feast on tables covered in live grass. Make sure to order a side salad with their beautiful fresh assorted greens. The chicken skewers with rice off the kids menu was a safe and satisfying meal after so many indulgent ones at fancier restaurants.
Unfortunately we didn’t make it to this cute wine bar just a short walk from our glamping site, but I heard great things. I wish we had tried it instead of Penzion Berc!
THE JULIAN ALPS AND THE SOCCA VALLEY
Your jumping off point for all things outdoor adventure is southwest of the capital, in the towns of Kranjska Gora, Bovec and Kobarid. The first was where we begun our hut to hut hike into the Alps, but you can also find some beautiful day hikes. Bovec, where our trek ended, is where you can book other activities like mountain biking, rafting and sky diving.
So many of the pictures you see throughout this post were taken from our SloTrips 3-day adventure. It was an incredible way to see the country as it morphed from densely wooded forests, to craggy peaks, to mossy Fern Gully banks that lined the socca river. A day hike along the river is a must, though the water looks more inviting than it is. We could only stand putting our feet in for 30 seconds before they went numb!
Going from hut to hut also allowed us to taste some humble mountain foods like sausage and sauerkraut stew. As someone with an information-based business myself, I don’t want to give away our hiking itinerary. So make sure to get in touch with SloTrips if you’re interested in designing your own adventure.
We ended our hike in the Socca valley, which is insanely green and dotted with beautiful medieval churches. In Kobarid, we stayed at an AirBNB apiary for the night among the bees, which was a cool experience, before heading to Hisa Franko for our culinary reward.
They offer a small number of moderately-priced rooms above the restaurant, and if you’re going to be eating dinner there, I highly recommend you try to book for the whole night, as the wine pairing was generous and not to be missed!
So, as for the main event…
The meal at Hisa Franko blew me away. As you know, I’m not one for Michelin star, molecularly overly wrought meals. On the surface, this is what you get during your 11 course tasting menu. But Ana Ros’ cuisine is infused with so much more soul than the sum of her foams combined.
Our favorite dishes were among the most simple: her trout in a milky broth with briny beets to cut the fat, and the only substantial meat course, a beautiful venison medallion with anchovy butter and spruce dust that tasted like the forest.
The iconic pasta dish is sadly not gluten-free. Instead, they served me a delicate sardine. But I stole a little taste of Charlie’s ham and hazelnut broth. It was insane. I would recommend all GF folks request a cup of the broth without the pasta. I asked them if I could have it instead of one of the desserts and they laughed politely and said no.
My favorite part of the experience was Ana and Valter’s hospitality. They aren’t present in the dining room or kitchen during service, but since the restaurant is an extension of their home, you can see them having family dinner with their kids and wandering around during the day. They are incredibly friendly and make you feel at home.
GORISKA BRDA WINE REGION
These hills, a stone’s throw from Italy’s Fiuli region, are considered the Slovenian Napa. It’s a small area with lots of producers clustered around, and many have restaurants on the premises that offer tastings along with a tasty meal. There’s a large influence from Italy and much of the meats and cheeses (as well as the tourists) come from across the border.
Since most of these wineries of small family-run operations, you can’t just show up. Email them in advance to set up a tasting session or lunch reservation.
The wineries recommended to us were Klinec Medana for orange wines, Movia for natural whites, Edi Simcic for great reds, and Erzetic to learn from a younger next generation producer. We had a lovely lunch at Klinec Medada with overlooking the grapes with beautiful produce from their neighboring farm. I wasn’t as wild about the orange wines, but they were interesting to try.
The wine pairing at Hisa Franko introduced us to a lot of lesser known producers, and throughout the rest of the trip we tried many of the above wineries off the restaurant lists, so by the time we made it to wine country, we didn’t feel the need to do more than 1 appointment.
In general, the wine in Slovenia is mostly natural, organic and biodynamic. We got to try some interesting grapes I wasn’t familiar with like Malvasia, and generally loved everything we tried. If you find a Slovenian wine on a your menu, order it!
Last but not least, we made our way to the Istrian Peninsula, which is home to Italy, Croatia and Slovenia. In fact, if you lived in Piran for most of your life, there’s a chance that you’ve had citizenship to 4 different countries as the borders changed.
What to Do in Piran
This sleepy seaside village is the perfect place to unwind after a rigorous few days of adventuring. The Adriatic sea is incredibly buoyant, pristine, and perfect for habitual porpoising. You won’t find sandy shores, but the perimeter of town is lined with some pebbly patches to perch, and plenty of small concrete docks to dive off of if a dip is all you’re after.
The high salt content also makes it a hub for sea salt production. If reading by the rocky shore isn’t enough activity for you, try renting bikes and visiting the salt pans 5 kilometers outside town center towards Portorosso, the more commercial stretch of the marina. It’s an easy flat ride along the shore. Otherwise, your best bet for exercise is to hike up to the church at the center of town and take in the view.
Where to Stay in Piran
This is the main game in town, and though we found it a little shabby and overpriced for you what you get, you can’t beat the location and view. The rooftop restaurant is a great place for an evening spritz as the sunsets. And the breakfast buffet even had GF bread!
Note that cars aren’t allowed in the town center, but some hotels like Piran offer a shuttle service so you can drop off your bags and then return your car to the lot at the edge of town and get a ride back in. The hotel also offers bikes to rent that were very pleasant for exploring the outlying areas.
The Best Gluten-Free Restaurants in Piran
We loved this cozy gostilna so much that after a mediocre experience at Pavel (don’t recommend), we decided to go back a second time for dinner. The sea bass baked in sea salt with baked potatoes and spinach is the perfect simple meal. For those who can partake, Charlie raved about his vongole pasta. And I was majorly smitten with my saffron risotto with prawns. Make sure if you’re celiac to avoid the crispy potatoes that come with some of the single serving fish entrees as there’s cross contamination in the fryer. Don’t miss the pannacotta for dessert and ask for a special aperitif to go with it. Whatever bitter anise-y spirit they served was just what we wanted.
A short walk or bike ride outside town towards Portorosso, this restaurant is one of the more formal in the area, with prices to match. Still, the prawn and truffle risotto was affordable by US and Italy standards. We also had a beautiful beef carpaccio with truffles. Basically, we ate an entire truffle between the two of us and had no regrets.
Right in the center of town by the shore, this restaurant is slightly touristy with some mediocre dishes as a result. BUT it was one of the few places with gluten-free pasta in town and the clams did not disappoint. I’d recommend it just for a vongole with a view.