Slovenia may be the best-kept secret in Europe. Just half the size of Switzerland, the country is often treated as fly-over—or drive-through—territory by travelers heading to better-known places in Croatia or Italy. That's good news for anyone choosing Slovenia as a destination in its own right. It means fewer crowds—even in the peak summer touring months—fewer hassles, and in many ways, a more authentic travel experience.
And Slovenia's sights are no less outstanding than those of its neighbors. Admittedly, Slovenia's small Adriatic coastline—not even 50 km (30 miles) end to end—can't match Croatia for sheer natural beauty. But the coastal towns, especially the intact Venetian jewel of Piran, are still lovely. The Julian Alps northwest of the capital are every bit as spectacular as their sister Alpine ranges in Austria and Switzerland. The electric-blue-turquoise waters of the Soča River, rushing out of the mountains, must be seen—or better, rafted—to be believed. And that's just a start. The extensive cave systems, unspoiled countryside, and funky charm of Ljubljana await those with the imagination to choose a destination that is more off the beaten path.
Slovenia's relative obscurity owes much to its history. From Roman times to nearly the present day, Slovenian territory was incorporated into far-larger empires, relegating Slovenia through the ages to the role of rustic, though charming, hinterland.
The territory of Slovenia has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, but the country's modern history begins with the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century BC. They built villas along the coast and founded the inland urban centers of Emona (Ljubljana) and Poetovio (Ptuj), which today still retain traces of their Roman past. The 6th century AD saw the first influx of Slav migrants, the ancestors of present-day Slovenes, who set up an early Slav state. During the 8th century, the region came under the control of the Franks, and in the 9th century it was passed to the dukes of Bavaria.
In 1335, the Habsburgs took control of inland Slovenia, dividing it into the Austrian crown lands of Carinthia, Carniola, and Styria. Meanwhile, the coastal towns had requested Venetian protection, and they remained under la serenissima until 1797, after which they, too, were taken by Austria. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Turks, eager to extend the Ottoman Empire across the Balkans and north to Vienna, made repeated attacks on the region. However, Slovenia remained under Habsburgs control until 1918, with the exception of a brief period from 1809 to 1813, when it became part of Napoléon's Illyrian Provinces.
In the aftermath of World War I, Italy seized control of the coastal towns, whereas inland Slovenia became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes; in 1929, the name of the kingdom was changed to Yugoslavia (Land of the Southern Slavs).
Hitler declared war on Yugoslavia in 1941, and shortly afterward, Axis forces occupied the country. Slovenia was divided between Germany, Italy, and Hungary. Josip Broz, better known as Tito, set up the anti-Fascist Partisan movement, and many Slovenes took part in resistance activities. When the war ended in 1945, Slovenia became one of the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia, with Tito as president. Slovenes today are proud of their Partisan past, and traveling through the country you see monuments and wall plaques bearing the red star, a symbol of the Partisans and of communist ideology; many squares and roads are still named after Tito.
Half Slovene and half Croat, Tito was undeniably an astute leader. He governed Yugoslavia under communist ideology, but the system was far more liberal than that of the Soviet-bloc countries: Yugoslavs enjoyed freedom of movement, and foreigners could enter the country without visas. During the cold war, Tito never took sides but dealt cleverly with both East and West, thus procuring massive loans from both.
However, when Tito died in 1980, the system he left behind began to crumble. The false nature of the economy, based on borrowing, became apparent. During the 1980s, an economic crisis set in and inflation soared. Slovenia, accounting for only 8% of Yugoslavia's population, was producing almost a third of the nation's exports. This hard-earned foreign currency ended up in Belgrade and was used in part to subsidize the poorer republics. Eager for change and buoyed by the recent revolutions across Eastern Europe, in early 1990, Slovenia introduced a multiparty system and elected a non-communist government. Demands for increased autonomy from Yugoslavia intensified, with the threat of secession. A referendum was held, and nearly 90% of the electorate voted for independence. Unlike the other Yugoslav republics, Slovenia was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic group: Slovenes. Thus, the potential status of ethnic minorities, should the republic secede, was never an issue. Slovenia proclaimed its independence on June 25, 1991, and the so-called 10-Day War followed. Yugoslav federal troops moved in, but there was little violence compared to the heavy fighting that occured in nearby Croatia and Bosnia, as Belgrade had already agreed to let Slovenia go.
In 1992, Slovenia gained international recognition as an independent state and began the painstaking process of legal, political, and economic reform needed to join the European Union. That effort bore fruit in 2004, when Slovenia, along with seven other Central and Eastern European countries, was admitted into the EU; it adopted the euro as its official currency in 2007. Today, Slovenia's future looks bright. It's simply a matter of time before the country's charms are fully discovered.
The principal areas of interest to tourists include the lively and loveable capital Ljubljana, the Julian Alps and Triglav National Park, to the northwest, the alpine lakes of Bled and Bohinj, and the Adriatic coast and the Karst region to the southwest. The region to the east, centering on Maribor, Ptuj, and the Haloze Hills, has several vineyards and excellent wine cellars.