How to spend a weekend in Maribor, Slovenia
Against a backdrop of a restored old town, the Slovenian city is embracing its cultural identity, from colourful festivals to age-old winemaking.
On the banks of the Drava River, Slovenia’s second-largest city cuts a handsome dash. A riot of colour, the medieval, red-roofed houses and turquoise church spires of Maribor stand against a forested backdrop of the Pohorje Mountains. As the seasons change, so too does the landscape, shifting from green to orange to brown and then snowy white.
The city itself is no stranger to transformations, either. After decades of war and occupation, Maribor has been revitalised. It’s no clearer than in the car-free centre, where restored baroque buildings are now home to fine dining restaurants and boho cafes serving speciality coffee and vegan ice cream. With six of its restaurants receiving Michelin stars for the first time in 2020 and now the 2021 European Region of Gastronomy, Slovenia is enjoying its culinary moment in the sun — palpably so in Maribor, where the streets smell of freshly baked rye bread and tarragon-filled dumplings, and restaurants serve buckwheat stews, and Slovenian ales are sipped kerbside on candle-lit Poštna Street.
The country’s largest wine region is right on the doorstep, too. Here, family-run vineyards age their wines just as the Romans did, with the finest bottles appearing on tables across the city.
Day one: old towns and old vines
Glavni Trg, Maribor’s main square, in the old town, was once a marketplace. Second World War bombing badly damaged many of its pastel-coloured, 14th-century buildings, but most have now been restored to their former glory, and there are plans to reintroduce a farmers’ market — a tradition dating back to medieval times. Take it all in from the terrace of Nana, a cafe serving brunches made using local ingredients such as pumpkin seeds and honey.
Afterwards, head to Gosposka Ulica and Jurčičeva Cesta, the main shopping streets, to browse Idrija lace in Slovenski Zakladi or handmade souvenirs at ARTmijeMAR. Refuel with homemade vegan ice cream at Slaščičarna Ilich, a cafe dating back to 1909.
It would be remiss to visit Maribor without experiencing its wine culture. A five-minute walk from Glavni Trg is Vinag Wine Cellar, one of Slovenia’s largest and oldest underground wineries. Walking through dimly lit tunnels lined with bottles and barrels is an adventure in itself, but the wine-tasting, which takes place inside a room-sized concrete tank and involves squeezing feet-first through a metal hatch, is quite the experience, too. For an extra fee, you can enjoy local cheeses with more wine, all by candlelight.
Afterwards, cross the river to the Lent area to visit the Old Vine House. Home to the world’s oldest productive vine (at the ripe old age of 400), this small museum tells the story of Slovenian winemaking and offers tastings and purchases.
There was a time when the neighbourhood of Lent didn’t have a great deal to tempt visitors, but the growing number of wine and cocktail bars are slowly pumping life back into this historic riverside hangout. Vinoteka Maribor, housed in a former 16th-century fortress known as the Water Tower, has an extensive list of ecological wines from the Podravje region, plus views over the Drava.
A few minutes’ walk away, the recently revamped Piranha Cocktail Bureau serves some of the city’s best cocktails from a menu of 277 spirits, while Kavarnica Rokaj, a bar where posters of Queen and AC/DC grace the walls, is the place for Slovenian craft ales with a generous side of rock ’n’ roll.
Day two: wine country and Roman ruins
Maribor is the ideal base for exploring Podravje, the largest of Slovenia’s three wine-growing regions. Family winemakers here preserve age-old viticultural traditions, such as using amphoras to age wine underground, or using all-natural methods. You can hire a car in Maribor and explore the many vineyards yourself — mostare best-known for their white varieties. Call ahead for tastings.
Alternatively, take a half-day tour with local sommelier Jernej Lubej, who focuses on boutique ecological wineries near the Austrian border, such as Ducal, Doppler and Kušter. Be sure to make time for Dreisiebner, a guest house, winery and restaurant in Špičnik with great views of a much-photographed heart-shaped road nearby.
Take a short detour on your way back to Maribor to visit Ptuj, Slovenia’s oldest settlement. The ruins of Roman temples discovered here suggest this riverside town has been continuously inhabited since the first century AD. Today, Ptuj is a picturesque mix of medieval churches, Roman ruins and cobbled streets lined with cafes, wine bars, art galleries and craft shops. Climb to the top of Ptuj Castle to look out over the Drava, then head down to its 700-year-old cellar for a peek at Slovenia’s oldest vintage, bottled in 1917.
Afterwards, indulge in some of the 100 beers served at Kavarna Bodi, or fuel up on coffee and a slice of gibanica (a pastry made with cottage cheese and eggs) at Kavarna Kipertz, a cafe roasting its own beans since 1786.
The east of the country played a key role in securing Slovenia’s title as European Region of Gastronomy, with a focus on sustainable, experimental, yet traditional, cooking. It’s the sort of cuisine you’ll find at Mak, a menuless Maribor restaurant that was recently awarded the Michelin Plate. Maverick chef David Vračko is bold with his choice of flavours, but his interaction with guests — theatrical and memorable — is even bolder.
If you finish your meal early enough, dive back into the town centre for a nightcap along Poštna Street. It’s Maribor’s liveliest thoroughfare past 8pm, with wine bars such as LeVino Wine Bar and Kavarna Isabella often spilling out onto the pavement at weekends.
Top five vineyards to visit from Maribor
The Vadhuber family have been producing dry white wines in the Slovenian Hills, close to the Austrian border, since 1931. Today, they host guided wine-tastings, which you can enjoy with a selection of cold cuts and homemade bread. Don’t want to leave? Stay the night in one of the vineyard-view apartments.
The design of Ducal justifies a visit in its own right. Modern touches — floor-to-ceiling windows, various interesting sculptures — sit alongside a century-old wine cellar. Wine here is aged using qvevri, Georgian-style vessels made from clay. ducalwines.com
3. Hisa Joannes Protner
This award-winning winery in the Šempeter Hills, just above Malečnik village, is most famous for its Rhine Riesling, but also produces excellent Pinot Noir, Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Wine-tastings come with home-made pate and cottage cheese drizzled with pumpkin seed oil.
Eco-conscious Leber-Vračko has been cultivating Styrian white wine varieties since 1795. Today, the family estate is largely solar powered and pesticides and herbicides, are banned. The wines are aged in oak barrels and amphoras.
In the hills of Ritoznoj, seventh-generation winemakers Matjaž and Andreja Freser are at the helm of this family vineyard, which has been producing wine since 1832. Sommelierled tastings include a tour of the winery.
Three culinary souvenirs from Maribor
1. Pumpkin seed oil
If you notice something unusual about your salad in Maribor, it’ll be the pumpkin seed oil. This nutty, almost spicy, dark brown elixir is produced in the regions of Styria and Prekmurje, and often replaces olive oil in salad dressings and marinades. Pick up a Kocbek-brand bottle at the Old Vine House’s on-site shop. staratrta.si
Crimson borovničevec is a sweet liqueur made from wild Pohorje blueberries. Home distilled by families in eastern Slovenia for centuries, it’s a popular aperitif served before an evening meal, particularly in the cold winter months. You’ll find it served in most restaurants, and you can buy a bottle at Zadruga Dobrina.
There are more than 10,000 beekeepers in Slovenia, producing a range of honey varieties, from acacia and spruce to chestnut and linden. In Maribor, you can buy local honey-based products in Medičar in Svečar, or, for a more hands on experience, visit nearby apiary Čebelarstvo Vogrinčič.
Five of the best festivals in Maribor
Locals will tell you that there’s no bad time to visit Maribor because there’s always something to celebrate. The city hosts dozens of events throughout the year, from classical music concerts and puppet shows to grape-picking ceremonies and street food festivals.
1. Lent Festival
Hosting more than 500,000 visitors each summer, the Lent Festival is one of the biggest multi-genre performance events in Central Europe. For two weeks at the end of June, a number of venues operate in the neighbourhood, including a floating stage on the Drava that hosts jazz concerts, ballet performances, theatre shows, folk music, comedy and much more. Street food stalls, meanwhile, serve regional delicacies from around the country. festival-lent.si
2. The Old Vine Festival
This festival in late September serves as a tribute to a local vine that’s said to be the world’s oldest. Celebrations include wine-tasting events led by the region’s vintners. There are also food stands, brass bands and folk dancing. The event concludes with the ceremonial harvesting of the 450-year-old vine, followed by a public tasting of the freshly picked grapes in front of a crowd of hundreds.
3. Festival Maribor
Slovenia’s most famous classical music event sees the country’s biggest chamber and orchestral music stars come together for two weeks of nightly performances in September. The shows are staged in venues across the city, including the fin-de-siècle Union Hall and the Slovenian National Theatre Maribor. festivalmaribor.si
4. Summer Puppet Pier
For over a century, puppet theatres have been a popular form of entertainment in Slovenia. Every August, Maribor Puppet Theatre hosts national and international puppeteers, who stage shows for adults and children alike. Puppet-making workshops and exhibitions are also on the programme. lg-mb.si
5. International Festival of Chilli and Chocolate
It was Trappist monks who first introduced chocolate-making to Slovenia, in the late 19th century, yet few people outside the country have tasted Slovenian chocolate. This festival, held in October, aims to raise the profile of independent chocolate-makers in the country. Expect spicy chocolate cocktails, chilli-eating competitions and live music.
How to do it
EasyJet flies from Stansted to Ljubljana year-round, while British Airways offers summer flights from Heathrow. Maribor is then around a two-hour bus or train ride away. Hotel City Maribor offers doubles from €185 (£159), B&B.
Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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