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Best route from Plitvice Lakes National Park to Ljubljana Slovenia?

We (6 people) plan to visit Croatia in late August, start in Split and island hop to Dubrovnik. Explore Dubrovnik and neighboring towns for a few days, then work our way north in a rental car to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park, then end up in Ljubljana Slovenia.
Here is where I seek advice -
What's the best route from Plitvice Lakes National Park to Ljubljana Slovenia?

1. Drive? Since we will have a rental car, the easiest is to drive to Ljubljana. However, Rick Steves' guidebook advises against returning a rental car to a different country (heavy fees), therefore we are exploring other options after dropping off rental in Croatia.
2. Train? If so, will it be best to go from Zagreb -> Ljubljana? Rijeka -> Ljubljana? or... (also, which town is more interesting to spend an eve and night? Zagreb or Rijeka? We will already have spent plenty of time on coastal towns by then.)
3. Bus? Same Q as #2 above, what's the best city to catch the bus?
4. Hire a private car / driver to drive the 6 of us to Ljubljana? Has anyone done this before? Is it very costly?

Any insights are greatly appreciated.

Posted by
1923 posts

You could driive to Ljubljana, then drive to Zagreb to return the car and fly home. You should still research dropoff fees. I found that they varied significantly even within Croatia.

To avoid hefty fines, also research and buy the Slovenian vignette required for motorway driving.

Posted by
14 posts

Thank you for the lightening response.

We continue to Italy after Ljubljana, so it is a one way to Slovenia.

We are leaning towards Zagreb so we can explore the capital for 1 full day. Is 1 day sufficient?
Also, do you recommend train or bus from Zagreb to Ljubljana?

Posted by
18696 posts

There is both rail and bus service between Zagreb and Ljubljana. I think the travel time is under 2-1/2 hours. Buses are probably more frequent. in Ljubljana the two stations are very close together. In Zagreb, they look contiguous on a map but the bus station is a longer walk from the center of town. However, there's tram service from the bus station and a well-attended taxi queue. The bus station is a happening place; the train station had a disused air every time I walked past it.

I like Zagreb a lot. The historic center is large and very attractive in a central-European way. There are lots of museums; the smaller ones tend to be located right in the historic core. The larger ones are positioned between that area and the train station.

I have only passed through Rijeka on a bus, so I can't compare it to Zagreb from the tourist standpoint. I'd be shocked if it has as many points of interest as Zagreb, though. Public transportation to Ljubljana would take longer from Rijeka than from Zagreb, and I suspect it doesn't run as often.

For private transportation you might check with GoOpti shuttle service. I haven't used that company (or any other), but it has been mentioned by several happy customers on this forum. I bet if offers service between Zagreb and Ljubljana. It may be, though, that regular bus service is so frequent that it is all you need; or perhaps one of the train departures will be timed perfectly for you.. I found the Croatian inter-city buses quite comfortable. One point: There is likely to be a small fee for each suitcase stowed in the hold of the bus. It's not a shake-down by the driver.

I love Plitvice Lakes National Park, but it can be unbelievably mobbed. Be sure you see it either late in the afternoon or right as it opens in the morning (or both). Visiting during day-tripping hours will probably be a disappointing. (I've seen it both lightly visited and massively overcrowded, and there is a huge difference in the experience.)

Posted by
232 posts

We visited this area in 2019 and Zagreb was surprisingly our favorite city. Much more than Ljubljana. We had seen enough old ruins so the town which is hilly with some interesting museums was refreshing. All very walkable. Bus travel between the two cities was easy. GoOpti May be an option. Your group will almost fill the minivan. We used this service to go to Venice. The earlier you reserve GoOpti the cheaper the cost, at least the 2 times we used them. Don’t know their refund policy. We really enjoyed seeing this part of Europe.

Posted by
2716 posts

Good options up thread. We used GoOpti for our transfer from Venice to Ljubljana in 2018. It was reliable, comfortable, affordable and professional. In addition their contact center is available 24/7. The drop off In Ljubljana was less than a 10 min. stroll to our accommodation.
As for Plitvice our tour group stayed next to the Park the night before our tour. We hiked in the early am starting at the top end of the Park. Our guide mentioned it is less crowded then to start at the lower area. It all worked out well for our group.

Posted by
242 posts

Double check on the rental car drop-off charge, don't just believe the "it costs a fortune to drop off a car in another country" per RS. Same thing for different cities in the same country. I was quoted a drop-off-in-a-different-city charge at less than $50 in Italy. We rented a car in Dubrovnik, drove to Plitvice via a couple of stops, and eventually dropped the car in Ljubljana. The drop off charge was about $100 as I recall. Well worth the cost vs the cost of bus/train/shuttle tickets, as well as in time spent in transit. For me, Zagreb was certainly worth a few days, and I would choose it over Rijeka, which to my mind didn't amount to much. But, if you're looking to spend an evening and an overnight, you're not going to see much other than a walk around town and a restaurant, so I don't think it matters that much. If you want to see Zagreb "in a day", pick one, max two, museums. Or, one and a funicular ride and walk around. The Museum of Broken Relationships was a hoot (It's a chain, try The Atelier Mestrovic was a nice combination of studio and museum, but there is also a good museum in Split. The Zagreb City Museum was a very interesting collection of exhibits beginning with ancient and ending in the current day, including TV news programming which I found fascinating for a glimpse at the real life of the city. It also wasn't as crowded as the other two.

Posted by
930 posts

Driving from Dubrovnik to Plitvice Lakes National Park will take 5h 45m. Driving from Plitvice to Rijeka or Zagreb will take 2h 15m. You can then take a direct train from either Rijeka or Zagreb to Ljubljana.
I’ve never been to Rijeka but I loved Zagreb and thought it was a wonderful surprise. Make sure you walk along Tkalčićeva Street if you do go.

Posted by
18696 posts

The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb is the original one. And I agree that it is (or was, in 2015) a lot of fun. I'm very fond of naive art, and there's a really good, though quite small, museum of naive art in the Old Town. Coatian naive art is beyond world-class. However, the exhibition rooms are upstairs, and I'm nearly certain there's no elevator.

Posted by
14 posts

Thank you all for a wealth of information provided. Your tips and suggestions are reshaping/improving our travel itinerary. We will definitely include a couple of days exploring Zagreb.
Happy traveling and stay well and be safe.

Posted by
641 posts

Hi we did a similar itinerary in Sept 2019
After pricing the cost of the rental, gas, parking, stress of driving, i decided to hired a private transfer service for the 8 of us. And it was wonderful. We used Octopus transfers Croatia. They were on time, nice english speaking drivers, very accomodating. The mini bus very confortable and had Wifi. The cost was not much more then one or two rentals if you are 6 adults.
They picked us in Zagreb city centre after we had a tour of the city and drove us to Plitvice. The next day they took us to Split after our day at the park. And last leg was from Split to Dubrovnik. You will not need a car for any of those places except to get there.
We took a train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, very easy and cheap.
I also hired a private driver that drove the rest of the group since they were coming from Austria. Also a great experience, the company name’s is Turanus.

In Plitvices we stayed at Golden lake rooms hotel and I highly recommend it.

If you have other questions you can PM me

Posted by
15 posts

I am also planning a trip to Croatia for the fall and would love to go through Slovenia, but as of now, I believe, Slovenia is not open to US citizens for tourism purposes. I certainly hope it does open up for US citizens before I travel, but I’m not making plans based on that hope yet. Have you heard anything different?

This is from the embassy website; when it changes the recommendations, I will definitely make plans to visit Slovenia!

Posted by
6 posts

Definitely option 1 or 4. No questions. And in both cases, take the scenic routes through the countryside - do not travel main road to Zagreb and then Ljubljana, but take the direct route via Vinica and Črnomelj. Such an incredible landscape. Maybe it's the photographer in me, but I would never take the main road. It is longer, busy, with lots of speed traps and busy border crossing.

If you opt for 1), then finishing in Zagreb is the best way to go. Drop off van at the airport, fly home.
If 4), as previously suggested, goopti shuttle service is good - you can instantly check the price on their website. If too expensive - inquire with some local providers - some b&bs around Plitvice can arrange this for you.

Visit Plitvice, drive to Zagreb to drop off your rental car and use goopti to get to Slovenia (way cheaper that from Plitvice).

Posted by
14 posts

Thank you Luka. We are definitely going with option 1. We will take your advise to explore the country side as opposed to the express way to Zagreb. Greatly appreciate your recommendations! Can't wait!

Posted by
2129 posts

Well, here's a voice of dissent on the "scenic route" to Plitvice. We took that in 2011, from Zagreb. The road is a rural road. The locals are incredibly dangerous drivers, passing on curves, etc. There were 3 or 4 moments when I wondered if we would get there. I'd take the expressway.