A Guide to exploring Slovenia’s Riviera
SLOVEnia is a beautiful country with a gentle vibe that draws you into its graceful culture and laid back way of life. Yet when I think about Slovenia, its coastline is the last thing that comes to my mind. Perhaps understandably as it only accounts for 1% of the county’s landscape. Mountains, winter sports, lakes, and evocative gorge valleys, oh yes without a doubt – coastline no! And yet Slovenia’s Riviera is a very special region that offers a very unique experience for the weary traveller looking for a bit of respite and a seaside fix.
Slovenia is a million miles away from its iconic riviera cousins in Italy and France. It has a very different feel to the cosmopolitan crowd magnets to the west. No sandy beaches, no ostentatious towns with bling as their middle names, no marble style promenades with cruising chicks rollerblading in skimpy thongs.
Just like with everything in Slovenia, its Riviera coastline is charming and alluring. Nestled between Croatia to the south and Italy to the north, this Istria region offers a trip to the seaside with a difference. It’s a subtle cultural experience that graces you with softness and authenticity and it will have you returning for more of its tantalising caress.
Less than 30 miles long, the rugged coastline washed by the Adriatic Sea, fuses perfectly with the mountain backdrop where olive groves and vineyards compete for the summer sunshine. Whilst there are fourteen settlements along the coast, there are five main villages that draw you into their distinctive Venetian style. Strewn with marinas, red-roofed buildings and church towers whose bells toll for anyone inclined to listen, you can while away an hour or two and feel the heart beat of the Slovene coast.
Much like many places in the arc of this Adriatic shoreline, salt has been a major player in the region’s wealth, with production dating back to 9th century. And today, you will still find active salt pans using traditional methods of extraction. And on top of that, the province is a thriving wine producing area and offers some unique tasting olive oil that has a slightly acidic taste to it, although worthy of a little purchase.
Whilst just skirting around Slovenia’s Riveria is possible, as with most destinations, this place seriously deserves your time and attention. Take more than a few days to explore, soak up its atmosphere and get off the beaten track. This is just what we did October 2019. Let us take you on a journey that might inspire you to head south and have your own seaside adventure.
Slovenia’s coastal jewel – Piran and Portorož
As a starting point, I feel the need to draw you to the south edge of the Riviera. It is here where sights of Croatia attempt to lure you south. Yet Piran and its more touristy seaside neighbour Portorož (Port of Roses), easily hold your focus.
On the southern side of the Piran peninsular, Portorož is the archetypal seaside town with its pristine promenades, palm trees and posh hotels. Although turning a blind-eye, we felt ourselves passing by this more touristy end of the Riviera with our sights set firmly on Piran.
What can we say about Piran? Out of every coastal town that we have had the privilege to visit, this has been the prettiest, most charming and least tourist-infected of them all. When you think that Venice is only just across the Adriatic Sea, it’s a wonder that more coach loads have yet to gravitate in this direction.
Piran has a couple of highlights. First is the view of the marina with the backdrop of the monastery and bell tower behind. The Tartini Square (dedicated to the violin virtuoso and composer Guiseppi Tartini) is magnificent and you can twirl 360º and get a different perspective of the town. With its subtle shades and seemingly wonky buildings, this is a great place to begin your Piran journey.
Walking further along, there’s the iconic view as you gaze along the coastline towards the lighthouse and church. A health warning though! The aromas seeping out from the promenade restaurants will tease you and surely have you trying their mariner’s fare.
Wandering through the cobbled streets, you could loose yourself in the Salt empire of medieval times. Buildings scarred with maritime history and the narrow alleyways telling their own stories from ancient eons. Hidden in their midst you have to visit the Monastery and the Church of St Francis, which dates back to 1301. Look out here for the 500 year old root of a native Olive Tree called Piran Buga.
The other great view point that will give you a breathtaking perspective of the peninsular is the bell tower. For a mere 2€ you can climb the 400 year old tower with its 140 steps and get a bird’s eye view from 47m up. Just be warned – don’t do it on the hour, unless you have ear plugs!
And finally, take the climb up to the old town walls. Adorning the town’s perimeter, these walls date back to 14th century where they protected the town from Turkish invaders. With its magnificently restored towers that crane their necks far above the town, you can an even better view from here, across the town and on towards Venice. The sunsets from here must just be incredible.
Top Tips for Piran
- You will not be disappointed by a visit to Piran. Although we suggest you cycle from Izola along the Parenzana Cycle Trail and then walk around the town. Parking is prohibited inside the town and there are only a few parking areas anywhere close and they are not suitable for motorhomes. There are regular buses operated by Arriva that run every day from Izola every 30 minutes and the journey is just half an hour.
- Piran Town Walls cost 2€ to climb for the view and are open from 8.00am until dusk.
- Piran’s Bell Tower is open from April to October from 10.00am and costs 2€.
- If you come in April you can experience Piran’s Salt Making Festival where they celebrate their salty heritage.
- Head to Caffe Teater where you can sit and watch the waves whilst languishing in coffee and the most delicious raw cakes. If you have never tried one, then this place is a must.
- For a fabulous lunch try Pavel’s Restaurant along the southern edge of the peninsular where most of the tourist restaurants are. Their fish platters are amazing to share. Arrive early around 12noon or after 2.00pm for a guaranteed table with coastal views.
- Allow at least 3-5 hours to wander as this place has a timeless feel about it.
We have put together a massive gallery of images. Piran is so picturesque it was far too hard to select just a few. So you have them all! Click the image below for a full view of this magnificent place.
Strunjan and its Nature Reserve
Slovenia’s Riviera is a beautiful blend of rugged coastline and curvaceous uplands that cry out for exploration. Just 10 minutes outside of Izola towards Piran you have the quaint little settlement of Strunjan. Still a Salt-pan region, although more geared for visitors now. With its pebble beaches, cafe and Reserve, you can cycle reasonably easily (if you have electric) to check out this classy Spa seaside town. The Nature Reserve has a plethora of hikes along the cliff tops, with vistas out across the sparking blue Adriatic Sea towards Venice. So get your rucksack, hiking boots and a packed lunch and head out for a day of fresh sea air tramping through the countryside.
Top Tips for Strunjan
- If heading to the Riviera in summer, remember temperatures can be very warm. So make sure you have plenty of water.
- There are marked cycle paths everywhere, although just bear in mind that some of them are not tarmac and can be tricky to navigate, as we found out. These paths need mountain bikes and steely nerves to manage the rough and rocky path.
- If you cycle to Strunjan on the road, via the Nature Reserve, then it is a windy and steep route down. Rather than cycle it back up, take the Parenzana Cycle Trail which will take you back to Izola with a lot more comfort.
- Secure your bikes in Strunjan and walk up around the coast to the view points. We didn’t do this as we were carrying a couple of injuries, although with fitness, this would have been our route.
- Buy an ice cream from the sea-side cafe. They are to die for. €4 for four scoops! Yum.
- If you can, head here for the sunset, the view of which takes in the Piran peninsula and the iconic Bell Tower.
Check out our slightly smaller gallery of three below!
Izola – the marina town
Slap bang in the middle of this seaside paradise is the delightful village of Izola. Whilst we are not interested in going back to a house at this point in our lives, if we did, Izola is somewhere I could live quite happily.
An arial view would probably give you your best vision of Izola, taking in the different boat-harbouring alcoves. There must be over 500 vessels harbouring in its calm waters. It has a quiet demeanour compared to its Koper neighbour and yet a gentle buzz of people that is never invasive. We had five days in the Slovene Riviera with our base in Izola overlooking the marina. This curved bay sheltering from the often vicious Bora winds, creates a safe haven for water sport lovers. With a promenade that is shaped in tune with the crescent bay, you can take a gentle walk, indulge in a 2 mile run (which I dabbled in to stave off the ever expanding waistline) and cycling. The walk into Izola is just five minutes along the marina with echoes of clinking boats that takes me right back to my childhood.
Within minutes the street cafe bars and restaurants present their offerings. One of which is the traditional Izolanka cake. Well it would have been rude not too. Digging into a friend’s ample portion, we had images of an ancient tale behind this local, multilayered chunky masterpiece. Alas the story of its creation is not so old. It was designed by a village baker in 2011 and named by the schoolchildren. Its creation symbolises the town’s relationship with its environment, melding the taste of the sea, the wind and the sun with its nutty chocolate, orange and vanilla cream combo. Sweet although lovely and worth a nibble.
Walking around Izola’s inner harbour and small town square, there is a real intimate feel about the place. Venetian buildings tower over you with their slatted wooden shutters whilst vibrant green pine trees line the coastal pathway. In the maze of narrow cobbled streets, the chances of cats crossing your path is far more likely than people and yet when you emerge back out to the harbour you are reconnected with the marina’s vibe. You can climb the village’s tallest building – its clock tower, for free which gives you an amazing panoramic view of the townscape. Just avoid going up at mid-day as the gonging of the bells will deafen you.
Top Tips for Izola
- There are plenty of areas to camp up if you re travelling in a motorhome. Some of the areas you pay €10 and that includes services and electricity.
- We stayed at Argo Parking, which is operated by the app EasyPark, which with transaction fees is €11.50 without services, although this has the best view and location for the village centre. You can pay with cash, although you need coins. It does get very busy though at weekends with locals. You can get services at the car park on the north edge of town for free. See the interactive map for details.
- For a great meal with lovely service visit Morski Val opposite the small inner harbour and next to the fountain.
- Use Izola as your base as it is perfectly situated between the two main towns of the Riviera and offers you the best place for water sports and swimming.
Yet another picturesque village with a gallery full of beautiful images. Check it out by clicking on the image below.
Koper is the main port of the area, which has to compete with Italy’s Trieste just to the north. So this has a more industrial feel to it and is the fifth largest city in Slovenia. Cruise ships sometimes dock here and you will often see larger freight tankers gliding on the outer limits of the harbour waiting to berth. Subsequently, the old town, we felt was slightly engulfed by the commerciality that has naturally sprung up because of the port traffic. As a result this was our least favourite part of the Riviera, although explore into the heart of the medieval town and there are some treasures to be found. As friends said, who used Koper as their base to explore, ‘It grows on you the more you wander its streets.’
Koper has some seriously old history to its name, going back as far as at least 6th century when Romans fled here from nearby Trieste. Since then, the town has grown from settlement to major trading post with Venice, to today’s modern port offering a significant contribution to Slovenia’s economy.
Seeking beyond Koper’s commercial hub, you can find a lovely marina and pedestrian area which offers a very chic cafe culture and a nicely landscaped park with sculptures and fountains. And in the heart of the historical centre a couple of landmarks will gratify the history seeker. Mostly centred around the Titov trg, Koper’s key points of interest are the 15th century Praetorian Palace, which now houses the local government offices, the Cathedral of the Assumption and its towering campanile. Aside of this, Koper is the starting point of the Parenzana Cycle Trail, which we talk more about below.
Top Tips for Koper
- Good place for all your shopping needs.
- A good starting point for the cycle route to Piran.
- Has coloured fountains that start at 5.00pm.
The Parenzana Cycle Trail
If you want to get around Slovenia’s Riviera, then renting or bringing your own bicycle is a perfect option to explore the coastline. For no better reason than it has a dedicated cycle path running along its entire length. Constructed in 2002, the track takes the route of an old narrow-gauge railway line that was built by the Austrian’s in 1902. It was a vital link for the transporting of salt, wine and olives between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. The 75 mile (123km) route actually starts in Trieste and goes all the way through to Poreč from which the trail takes its name.
A reasonably easy track to cycle, the Parenzana hugs the coast at Koper through to Izola and then weaves north of the town through the vineyards and olive groves. Avoiding the nasty steep and busy main road, the cycle route passes through two tunnels en route to Piran and offers toilets and rest areas along the way. It is a perfect way to see the main sights of this beautiful and sedate coastline.
Check out our gallery below.
Off the beaten track – Vinka Fontana Marezige
We love to get away from the main tourist spots and forge paths less travelled. Sometimes it gets us into some bother when village streets narrow and the walls seem to move in to tickle our wing mirrors. Still it’s all part of the adventure. At least our experiences can forewarn you if such crazy thoughts of going off piste cross your mind too.
Up in the mountains shielding the coastal towns you enter a world of wine producers and olive oil groves. The shapely and undulating foothills offer great views to the sparkling Adriatic Sea which seem to entice you home. Although these small settlements give you a really authentic look at Slovenia’s Istria region, making sure you stick with these mountain routes. Famous for the Refošk wine, this area is lovely to explore and we stumbled across one of the most unique places we’ve seen for a while. Marezige, a vineyard Mecca just 20 minutes from Koper that has a wine fountain. For a mere €8 you buy a glass, which you take home with you and, together with three tokens, allows you to sample three of four wine taps. With stunning views across to the coast, you can sip your way through a choice of two Refošk reds and two whites. If you have never considered Slovenia as a wine connoisseur, then think again. It may be a young industry although have no doubts about it, Slovenia is an up-and-coming wine producing country that is demanding the world’s attention.
Top Tips for visiting Marezige
- Coords are 45.507527 13.799384
- Avoid taking the mountain road through Korte. There’s a 6m limit and makes Stelvio’s Pass seem pretty wide and straight.
- Follow your SatNav that will take you on the main road from Koper.
- If there are two of you who enjoy a tipple, either share a glass to limit the impact of drinking and driving which has a low tolerance in Slovenia or get a taxi from Koper.
- In the summer months, take the tourist bus that takes you around the local vineyards.
Check out our gallery of images below – just a small handful this time.
Final Thoughts on the Slovene Riviera
If Slovenia is on your list then you will be in for a treat. Whilst our path through this delicious country has not covered all corners, the parts we have seen have endeared us to this gentle nation. And to now have added the coastline, all 1% of it, to our route map, gives us a more rounded perspective of their heritage and geography. We can’t recommend Slovenia and its Riviera highly enough and implore you to put it on your Wish List.
Top Tips for a visit to Slovenia
- If you want winter sports – then Kransjka Gora is a great place to go. With excellent ski runs, jumps and cross-country activities this is a great base for snow sports.
- Kransjka Gora is also amazing outside of winter, with plenty of hiking and cycling opportunities. Don’t miss Lago Superiore, just 20 minutes west towards the Italian Border – it’s a stunning location in the mountains.
- The Soča Valley is just sensation with its deep gorges and ice-blue waters, it lends itself to hiking, swimming and kayaking.
- If WW1 is an interest of yours then Bovec is a great base; Ravelnik is the site of an Austro/Hungarian outpost against the Italians and is free to walk around. There are also Fortresses and War Cemetries to pay your respects.
- As capital cities go, Ljubljana is a compact and bijou city-break and we loved it. Half-a-day, will have you navigating its main sights with ease.
- Lake Bled is an iconic must, although whilst here, don’t miss out on Vintgar Gorge and Lake Bohinj as super additions or alternatives.
- If you intend to visit Slovenia for more than five days and want to travel around, whilst we are not motorway lovers, getting around Ljubljana and going south is far easier on the toll roads. So you’ll need a vignette that you can buy from any major garage. 7 days costs €15.
- The Slovene language is a tough one to get your tongue around, although the basics of Dobry dan (hello), Prosim (please) and Hvala (thank you) will get you a long way to earning their respect.
- Slovenia’s currency is Euros and although many garages, supermarkets and main shopping centres will take cards, make sure you have enough cash on you for cafés, bars and restaurants.
- Many of the car parks, some of which allow you to stay overnight if with your camper, are payable with the app EasyPark.
- Slovenia does not allow wild camping, so do so at your own risk.
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