Fantastic hiking trails. Extensive forests. Enormous caves. These compact countries share a lot of travel-worthy notables to boast about. But if you only have time to visit one, which will it be?
Population: 5.4 million
Total area: 49,000 sq km
Famous for: Wine, car production, Bojnice Castle, St Elisabeth Cathedral and the national dish of bryndzové halušky (cheesy potato dumplings).
Population: 2.1 million
Total area: 20,271 sq km
Famous for: Wine, casinos, Lake Bled and honey – the country has four beekeepers for every 1,000 inhabitants.
Bratislava Castle (right) looms over Bratislava’s Old Town. Climb to the top of the Old Town Hall tower to see the Danube snaking through the city below. Don’t miss the pink Primatial Palace and blue Church of St Elizabeth. After street food at Stará tržnica, go for drinks on Laurinska Street.
Walk, cycle or ride a funicular to Ljubljana Castle, which is on a hill overlooking Ljubljana. At the bottom, stop by Central Market then visit Ljubljana Cathedral to view its ornate murals. Other attractions, such as the coral-coloured Franciscan Church, are north of Ljubljanica River.
The High Tatras National Park forms a natural border between Slovakia and Poland. As well as lakes and waterfalls, the mountain range is home to wild boar, brown bears and goat-like chamois. It’s criss-crossed with hiking trails, but if you want to scale its highest peak – the 2,655m Gerlachovský štít – you’ll need a guide.
For the chance to see golden eagles soaring above mirror-like lakes, trek through the Julian Alps. The range is home to Lake Bled and Slovenia’s highest peak, the 2,864m Triglav in Triglav National Park (left). If you’re more of a cyclist, explore the Kamnik-Savinja Alps instead, which have toboggan routes and ice climbing trails in winter.
Around 40% of Slovakia is forest and – good news – that percentage has been increasing since 2000. The Low Tatras, in the middle of the country, is Slovakia’s largest national park. For a more challenging hike, explore the aptly named Slovak Paradise, which has trails with ladders and chains next to waterfalls.
More than half of Slovenia is forest, making it the third most forested nation in Europe after Finland and Sweden. Trails traverse through beech, fir and oak woods home to boar, Alpine ibex and chubby-cheeked marmots. Meanwhile, Kočevsko in the south is habitat for lynx, around 50 wolves and 450 brown bears.
Slovakia has around 2,400 caves, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Take a tour to see the 26.5m-thick ice in Dobšinská Ice Cave (right) and needle-like aragonite in Ochtinská Aragonite. You can also explore 930m of the 5km-long Domica by boat, attend a concert in Belianska and climb ladders and ropes in Krásnohorská.
Slovenia has a network of 13,000 caves, although not all are accessible. Postojna Cave is so big you explore it by train. It is home to the endangered olm, a blind salamander that has frilly gills. The UNESCO World Heritage site Škocjan meanwhile is 6km long, making it one of the world’s largest caves.
It’s a close call – no wonder some travellers get them confused. While Ljubljana has more charm than Bratislava, cave enthusiasts will no doubt pick Slovakia to attend an underground concert. But then again, who’s ever seen a blind salamander?
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