How Slovenia is taking the lead as a top cycling destination in Europe

At the end of the first day on the 16-stage Slovenia Green Wellness Route, which launched on June 22 this year, a climb — mild but continual — reminds your legs that you are indeed cycling in the Alps.

Your eyes need no such reminder. From the route’s starting point in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, the trail rolls north for 30 kilometers (18 miles) as mountain peaks fan out across the horizon and the Kamniška Bistrica River ushers you along an undulating path enveloped by the Kamnik-Savinja Range.

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From the town of Kamnik, that first day’s destination, the Slovenia Green Wellness Route, or SGWR, then takes cyclists on a two-week loop around the country’s eastern half, which is riddled with thermal springs-fueled spas and health resorts — the reason for the new route’s “wellness” theme.

This combination of pedaling and spa stays provides an innovative, yet obvious, way to fuse a daily mix of adventure, rejuvenation, culture and slow, responsible travel.

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Crossing the Soča River in the Julian Alps, Slovenia © Saro17 / Getty

“Innovative yet obvious” could be the appropriate credo for this Central European country’s recent surge of cycle-route development.

The philosophy is simple: pair Slovenia’s natural strengths of hospitality, food, wine and incredible landscapes with self-powered locomotion to create more intentional experiences for travelers and locals alike.

The other observation one could make about the country’s growing menu of two-wheeled offerings: Slovenia has been busy. On June 30, just eight days after the launch of the SGWR, the ribbon for another route, the Slovenia Green Pannonian Route, was also cut.

The three-day SGPR cycling loop — the sixth cycling route created here in the last two years — takes riders to the nation’s northeastern corner, where diverse cultures and languages straddle the Mura River and hug the Austrian, Hungarian and Croatian borders.

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A cyclist climbs a hill on the road to Mangart Pass in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia
A cyclist climbs a hill on the road to Mangart Pass in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia © Norbert Eisele-Hein / Getty

Quiet roads, rolling trails and easy navigation

A hallmark of the routes developed in Slovenia over the last couple of years: They are doable. Translation: All travelers, regardless of skill level, are able to experience the country at human speed.

The new SGWR and SGPR, for instance, average approximately 45 kilometers (28 miles) per day of easy-to-moderate-difficulty cycling on a combination of quiet streets with light traffic, bike paths, forest roads and packed-gravel trails.

As well, easy-to-follow and downloadable GPX navigation is available to any cyclist.

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Most importantly, the routes were created — and actively work — to preserve Slovenia’s cultural and environmental health. More often than not, stage-ending layovers are located in destinations that have proven their dedication to sustainability by earning the nation’s strict Slovenia Green certification.

That certification guarantees towns and villages have satisfied criteria across a wide slate of categories ranging from responsible land use to respect for heritage to the satisfaction among locals for their destination’s tourism development.

“The first thing everybody usually notices is that the country is clean and locals really take care of their environment and make sure the towns and roads are well kept,” says Maša Klemenčič, a project manager at the Slovenia Tourist Board.

Klemenčič believes one of Slovenia’s chief cycling strengths comes from its varied terrain of the Alps, rivers, lakes, the Karst region and the Adriatic coast. “These routes are much more than their name implies.

They bring you closer to the most authentic and pristine Slovenia one has a chance to discover, as they lead you through off-the-beaten-track destinations to the places where locals really live.”

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Mountain biking along the trails surrounding the Ekohotel Koroš, Slovenia
Mountain biking along the trails surrounding the Ekohotel Koroš, Slovenia © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

A route for every cyclist

Starting in the mid-2000s, Slovenia established several cycling itineraries.

These include the 290-kilometer Juliana Bike loop encircling Triglav National Park, the Trans Slovenia mountain bike trails, the Drava Cycling Route rolling through Maribor in the northeast and the Parenzana, a trail that follows the former Parenzana Railway that connected Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, from 1902 to 1935.

The last two years, however, have seen an accelerated flurry of route development.

Coincidentally or otherwise, this uptick has coincided with multiple factors: the Covid shutdown, a growing demand and soaring popularity of cycle tourism and the country’s dominance in professional cycling.

Slovenes have claimed the last three Tour de France victories, the last three wins at the Tour of Spain and top podium places at the last two Tours of Slovenia, the country’s popular multi-stage pro race.

The best of the country’s many new routes

Since 2020, this nation — half the size of Switzerland, with a population of 2 million — has created a half-dozen cross-country, multi-stage, themed, Slovenia Green cycle routes.

The first was a weeklong journey called Bike Slovenia Green, which starts in the Julian Alps, catches the Soča River Valley and then rides down to the Adriatic coast. It was also the first route in the world to connect only green-certified destinations.

Cycling through the Slovenian city of Maribor
Cycling through the Slovenian city of Maribor © Roman Babakin / Shutterstock

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The next five routes went public in rapid succession. The three-day Slovenia Green Capitals Route links Ljubljana, the administrative capital, with the Kočevsko Region, the country’s natural capital and Bela Krajina, the cultural capital.

The four-stage Slovenia Green Kočevsko Cycling Loop circumnavigates primeval forests. One of the most popular itineraries, the 11-stage Slovenia Green Gourmet Route, focuses on food and wine, Michelin-starred restaurants and Slovenia’s title as the European Region of Gastronomy for 2021.

Finally, the Slovenia Green Wellness Route and the Slovenia Green Pannonian Route, which both opened this year, round out the most recent free-to-all bicycle products created during tourism’s “shutdown.”

“I believe having the Covid time to reflect on travel strategy reaffirmed what we knew: Slovenia is perfect for cycling,” says Jana Apih, the co-director of GoodPlace, a Ljubljana-based NGO, which develops sustainable-tourism strategy and specializes in cycle-route design — including the Slovenia Green itineraries.

“This is a country of villages, mountains and clean rivers. A country of vineyards, outstanding food and farmers. Farmers make excellent hosts.”

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A cyclist crosses Napoleon's Bridge over the Soča River, Slovenia
A cyclist crosses Napoleon’s Bridge over the Soča River, Slovenia © Robert George Young / Getty

Cycle tour planning made simple

As any cycle-touring regular will attest, pedaling your bicycle through perched village panoramas and between wine tastings is the easy part. Sorting the logistics, on the other hand, is often the most challenging aspect of any expedition.

Getting the bike, packing your gear, traveling to the head of the route and then back from the final destination are often details that derail would-be adventurers.

“Being sustainable as a country and as a cycle-route developer means remembering that self-powered transportation can’t just be sustainably strategic to reduce car traffic,” says GoodPlace’s Jana Apih.

“It also must be enjoyable, enriching and convenient for travelers. Slovenia’s cycle routes take advantage of our train network, which acts as wheel spokes coming off the central hub in Ljubljana.

Starting expeditions by jumping on a train at the beginning and end of the journey makes planning significantly easier.”

Top things to consider when planning your cycling adventure in Slovenia

Whether planning your first tour or your hundredth, it is important to think through a few details before your arrival in Slovenia.

  • When to go? Late spring and autumn are ideal times for weather, and there are fewer people and cars.
  • What to bring? Packing appropriately is a lifelong puzzle, but understanding how to scale down to the necessities is a skill every bit as important as bike handling. The adage “take less, bring home more” is a valuable mantra.
  • Which route to choose? Reading through the itineraries will be helpful. Understanding your priorities, however, is the most important. There are routes here focused on culture, food, adrenaline and wellness. Find the one (or several) that inspires you.

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Cycling through the Mežica Mine, Slovenia
Cycling through the Mežica Mine, Slovenia © Photo courtesy of Podzemlje Pece

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Hire a local guide

Though all of Slovenia’s routes were designed so independent travelers can see the country at their own pace, there are plenty of options to ride with local experts and/or have your gear transported as you spin down your trail of choice.

Whether you want the full service or just advice and information, it is worth communicating with a bike-savvy operator before your adventure.

Helia, headquartered in Bled, rents bikes and runs a variety of cycle-touring itineraries around Slovenia to fit any taste and sightseeing desire.

SLOTRIPS, an operator located in Ljubljana, guides cycling tours and has self-guided options so travelers can best see this magnetic country.

Visit GoodPlace, also based in Ljubljana, rents bikes, offers self-guided possibilities and leads several tours related to the routes listed here.

A great place to start any search for Slovenian adventures is with Slovenia Outdoor, which lists a litany of experiences and information about every region.

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