The sun-kissed capital of Littoral Slovenia (called also Slovenian Istria or simply Slovenian Coast) emerged on a rocky island in a form of a shield. The first known name from the Greek times is Aegida, meaning Athena's shield. By the legend, Athena's shield hit the ground when she was fighting with Poseidon because he had a love affair with Medusa in her temple. Zeus then made peace and created the town of Koper out of that shield.
First settlers of today's Koper’s hinterland were attracted by the local mild sub-mediterranean climate and fertile land. The conditions were brilliant for then-new cultures, wine, and olive. In that period, different tribes had been fighting for the rights of trade with goods and slaves between North and South of Europe.
Romans were reportedly the first who settled the Aegida Island. They named it Capris and later Insula Capraria, after the goats that were pastured on the island when they arrived. After the fall of the Western part of the Roman Empire, the settlement was integrated into the Eastern part called Byzantine Empire. Locals named it Iustinopolis after the Ceasar allowed them to stay on the island. At the same time, the Slavic tribes began to push towards the coast. Close to today’s Koper, an important treaty called Rizana Treaty was signed in 804, confirming the peace between the Roman population in the towns, the Slavic in the hinterland, and the new Germanic governors.
At the same time, not far away, the Venetian Republic was gaining more and more power, especially on the sea. Thus, Venetians started to penetrate into this part of the Adriatic Sea smartly and softly, with carrots not with sticks, with favorable trade agreements and political support not with the army. Finally, in the 14th century, Koper became a town under full Venetian rule, called Capo d' Istria, meaning the main town of the Istrian peninsula. A century later, 42 Istrian towns were governed by Koper; its population was about 10.000 inhabitants.
The Venetian period left probably the most marks in Koper’s history. Several masterpieces of Venetian Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque are expressing the importance of Koper in those times. The cultural life arose with the arrival of Benedictines in the early 10th century. In the late 12th century, the first 'public' school in Istria was opened. Later on education had been improving in Compagnia della Calza, Accademia dei Desiosi (16th century), Accademia Palladiana and Accademia dei Risorti (17th century). In 1675, Collegio dei Nobili was founded, which became the most prominent school in the entire region.
Two men from Koper were among the most influential humanists of the era: Pier Paolo Vergerio Sr, and Pier Paolo Vergerio Jr. The latter one had to flee from town due to his protestant ideals. In Tubingen (Germany), he met and became a great supporter of Primož Trubar, a Slovenian national hero who wrote the first book in the Slovenian language in 1551.
The Renaissance movement brought out paintings and sculptures of masters such as Vittore Carpaccio and his son Benedetto, Gerolamo Santacroce, Tiziano Aspetti, Girolamo Campagna. Koper even hosted the workshops of Venetian School masters Palma il Giovane, Tintoretto, and Veronese.
Talking about music, Antonio Tarsia was a great composer and organist of the Baroque period.
A progressive clergyman in the area was bishop Paolo Naldini, who founded the bilingual seminary Seminarium Italo-Sclavorum Naldinianum in 1710, defending the idea of united people of different origins far before the European Union.
Important local members of Enlightenment were Gian Rinaldo Carli, and his cousin Girolamo Gravisi. The first was an important local education and economy supporter, who moved away in the mid 18th century after the bankruptcy of his wool factory; the latter continued with the cultural and scientific work on the basis of cousin’s ideas and it’s remembered as one of the greatest Koper’s citizens of all times.
After the splendid period of La Serenissima, in the late 18th century, Koper fell into some kind of decay. The French under Napoleon didn’t care much about the town, the same later the Austrians. The salt trade, so developed under the Venetians, was abandoned; the salt pans were dried up and dedicated for further constructions and new urban plans.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, still under the Austro-Hungarian government, the town witnessed nationalistic clashes between Italians and Slovenians.
After WWI the area was integrated into Italy on the basis of the Rapallo Treaty; at the same time, the dangerous and obscure ideology of Fascism was arising, with Benito Mussolini atop. This caused additional tensions, and we can say Slovenians in the coastal part of present-day Slovenia didn't have any break between the two world wars because the first simply just extended to the second one. Until the end of wartime, plenty of precious artistic works disappeared and were later found on different addresses around the world, some even lost forever.
After WWII and a short period of Free Territory of Trieste, Koper was integrated into the newly-established Yugoslavia, the federation of six Slavic countries, extending from the center towards the south-east of Europe. In that period many Italians left the town and its suburbs, which were settled by the newcomers from continental Slovenia and other republics of Yugoslavia. That was the time of industrialization of the area, the foundation of the modern Port of Koper, logistic company Intereuropa, Bank of Koper, petrol company Istrabenz, legendary Tomos Motor Company, urbanization of once farming areas, and Socialistic architecture as I call it; certain creations remind to the proper Brutalism.
After the independence of Slovenia in 1991, Koper started a new, European way. Among the most important achievements is the foundation of the University of Primorska in 2003 and other faculties later on, which brought to Koper fresh energy for the challenges of modern times, which we all strive to surpass in a successful way.
The conditions for development are favorable. Koper enjoys a strategic geographical location in the middle of Europe and is well connected to known destinations around Slovenia as well as with the hotspots in neighboring countries Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Italy.
How to get to Koper?
For visitors, it’s easy to get to or from Koper. The nearest international airports are Ljubljana (130km - 80mi) and Trieste - Ronchi (65km - 40mi), even Venice and Treviso are not that far (both about 175km - 108mi). All are easily reachable by trains or busses from Koper.
If you travel by car towards Ljubljana (about 1,5 hours, highway), you can visit the famous Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle on the way.
From Ljubljana, you have plenty of options for day trips and tours around Slovenia. You can continue for another 45 minutes to the Alpine region with Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, and Kranjska Gora. Driving towards the northeast, you reach the third-largest Slovenian city Celje in an hour, further on the second-largest Maribor in about two hours, and Prekmurje region in two and half hours. Going towards the southeast, you can get to the town of Novo Mesto in about an hour and the neighboring region of Bela Krajina in another half hour.
What about Soca Valley and the Brda Wine Region in the west of Slovenia? Locals usually take the roads through Italy. It's simply faster since we've all been one European family, and there are no in-situ borders anymore between the two countries. Recently it's possible to visit Slovenia also by cruise ship. Koper is among the top-rated cruise destinations in Europe.
Interesting facts about Koper
Koper is the largest municipality area in Slovenia by the size of 311 sq km (120 sq mi). The town itself with close suburbs is ranked the sixth.
Koper municipality comprises 22 districts and village areas, in total the population is about 50.000 inhabitants.
The Port of Koper is not just the only Slovenian port. It is also the entry port for all landlocked countries of Central Europe, so Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia. It's strategic for other countries too, like Germany and Poland. Often I can see trucks even from Belarus, Baltic countries, Ukraine and Russia. The reason is again the geographical position of Slovenia in the north of the Adriatic Sea. Shipping the cargo to Koper means the fastest and safest sea-transport to the center of Europe. This fact was not overlooked even by the car industry - Koper's car terminal is the second-largest in the Mediterranean, just after Barcelona's one.
The University of Primorska was founded in 2003, after the ones in Ljubljana (1919) and Maribor (1975). 6 faculties, 1 research institute, 1 student residence, 1 university library, and 1 associate are its members. Among approximately 6000 students, 15% are foreign.
Koper is a bilingual town. All signs are in Slovenian and Italian language.
Santorio Santorio (1561, Koper - 1636, Venice) was an inventor in medicine, a physician, and a physiologist. Among his inventions, the most known is a thermoscope, the predecessor of the thermometer.
Blessed Monaldo of Koper (1208 - 1280) was a canonical lawyer. One of the candidates in the Vatican to become a saint. Still waiting.
Koper was called 'Istrian Athens', due to the reclamation of three-quarters of the marshes around, after WWII.
What to do in Koper and around?
Ok, let's leave eating and drinking for a bit later, and move our body first. Savrini Hills in Koper’s hinterland is an excellent option for a cycle tour.
Mt Slavnik (1028m - 3372ft) is considered the Mt Triglav of Littoral Slovenia. It is not a difficult hike, about 2,5 hours up and down, moderate walk. For me personally, Mt Slavnik is kind of a soul and body therapy.
We are at the sea, so sea sports are a tradition in Koper. Recently, a various offer of sports is united under the brand Active Koper, including courses in the wind-surfing. You can even reserve your beach volley field or practice at an open-air gym.
My favorite in the summertime is swimming along the coast, towards the town of Izola. The coastal road is permanently closed, so you can place yourself at any of the huge rocks along with it, and just swim. There is no danger for any sharks or monsters like that. Ok, maybe, exceptionally, once per century. But most likely they will be full of fishes from before, so they won't need you as a meal. (I remember I’ve read they caught one some 40 years ago. The poor fella was big and lazy.)
With this, I can’t avoid mentioning fishing, which has been a tradition since the fishermen exist. The sea and the fishes were there before them, anyway.
During the winter Koper is quite asleep, while in the summertime it gets the life with the festivals, theatre shows, concerts, and performances. Most of them are open-air, under the moon, and the soothing Mediterranean breeze. Food and wine festivals usually last all day long, while farmers’ markets on Saturdays and flee markets every third Sunday in a month are happening in the morning time.
In Tomos Museum on Kidričeva Street 41, you can explore the history of Tomos motors, while in the Center of Experiments a bit further up on the same street (n. 17) you can improve your knowledge in Nature Sciences.
In the villages around Koper, from spring to autumn in normal circumstances, the village patron's celebrations or 'Šagre' are going on. On the patron's day, the locals prepare folklore shows, markets including flee ones, live concerts, dances, and sure, a lot of eating and drinking. Plenty of villages, plenty of patrons, plenty of parties.
What can I see in Koper?
Koper still boasts several palaces, churches, and other majestic buildings of that time, even though the urbanistic changes of the 20th century affected its Venetian appearance the most among the coastal towns.
Certain palaces are home to various educational and cultural institutions.
A 14th-century Venetian Gothic Palace on Gramsci Square is hiding the Ethnographic department.
An early 17th-century Mannerist Belgramoni – Tacco Palace on the Museum Square is the seat of the Regional Museum of Koper.
The Baroque 18-century Gravisi – Barbabianca Palace is a headquarter of the regional Elementary and High Music schools.
Not far away on the Brolo Square in the same period the Brutti Palace was erected, today public library.
Former Grainery of 13-century on the same square is among the oldest buildings in town with a facade full of historical reliefs and coats of arms, now one of town’s public administration office buildings.
In the past, Koper had even three walls from different periods, as it had extended through time. In medieval times, twelve gates around the island were dedicated to visitors coming from different destinations. In this way, authorities had more control over export and import from the town. Behind the gates, usually, there were squares to welcome and take the first look at the newcomers, usually very loud market places with a very wide selection of goods.
The central Tito Square has been the main Koper’s square for centuries, while on innumerable little squares at the crossroads of narrow curvy streets you can still dive back in time and imagine the rumors passing from window to window.
Few steps from the main Tito Square, the Brolo Square.
Typical medieval Venetian urban plan - around the square the noble palaces of the time, in the middle an underground rainwater container with two once public water wells, showing the importance of such constructions in the dry regions as Littoral Slovenia is. Let me mention at this spot, that bigger palaces had their own water wells. In very dry seasons nobles were taking advantage of poor people who didn’t have this option and were selling them water for either big sums of money or goods in return. Humans, always the same.
Today's Preseren Square was one of the main entrances to the island of Koper. A long bridge over the marshes was a connection with the mainland; in the middle of it the Castello del Leone (Castle of Lion), a toll collection point. Unfortunately, we can admire the castle just on the paintings, while the relief with St Marcus' Lion is still visible on the Totto ex Gavardo Palace on Kidriceva Street.
A massive Muda Gate with part of the wall aside is the only remains of the former entrance point.
Da Ponte Fountain is the largest in Koper, with an arch symbolizing the Rialto Bridge in Venice. The reconstruction in 1666 was sponsored by that time podesta’ Lorenzo da Ponte, hence the name.
St Bassus Church is one of Koper’s smaller ones, being a St Nazarius sanatorium until the early 18th century.
Carpaccio Square is named after the house where two prominent Renaissance artists have lodged: father Vittore and son Benedetto. The 14th century Venetian Gothic Carpaccio House (n. 6) is one of the oldest in the old town.
In the middle of the square a fountain, and St Justine pillar of 1572 glorifying the Venetian victory in the battle of Lepanto, the last larger battle in the war history with just galleys.
St Mark salt storage is closing the square towards the old pier. A long building is utilized as an event place today.
Cevljarska (Cobblers) Street was, as the name explains, once a hub of artisans, mostly shoemakers.
Today, you can do shopping in numerous boutiques and small shops, or take a drink in one of the cafes along the characteristic street.
Kidriceva Street was a ’catwalk’ in the medieval Koper. The main street in town, where all the ladies and gentlemen showed their new purchases.
By walking from Tito Square down towards the seaside, you can take a photo of several conserved Venetian Palaces, among them already mentioned museums and the peculiar 15th-century house 'a gheffo', meaning with a 1st-floor pier, leaning on wooden support beams. (Momentarily under restoration.)
Being the biggest municipality in Slovenia, Koper’s hinterland offers plenty of options for a perfect getaway. The 104 villages and hamlets undoubtedly amaze with their coziness and Mediterranean-style look. Stone, the far most appreciated construction material around here, embraces you on every step if you visit them. Let me mention just some, although every single one deserves a note.
The kingdom of Refošk wine, one of the thickest red wines in the world, to which a series of festivals is dedicated, The Festival of Refošk is happening in May, while the most important the St Martin’s in November. Recently they opened the Wine Fountain, the first of this kind in Slovenia.
Three spots to visit in Hrastovlje village, all by previous agreement.
The St Trinity Church is a site of national importance. Very well conserved frescoes by Janez of Kastav were discovered by a painter and art historian Jože Pohlen, to whom a gallery not far away is dedicated. The most known frescoe is the 'Danza Maccabra'.
Near the church, you can learn more about WWI and WWII in the museum of Mr. Grozdan Pohlen.
By previous agreement, you can see the only underground church in Slovenia and far around, dedicated to the village saint, St Socerb.
Above this tiny village, on the rocks of Karst Edge, you will admire the view over the Slovenian, Croatian, and Italian coastline, all at once.
One of the European hotspots for climbers. A village under the Karst Edge amazes with perfect conditions for climbing all year round. Camping and rooms are available. When entering the village, you drive below one of the highest viaducts in Europe (the highest pillar about 100m - 328ft).
On the top of the nearby Crni Karl cliff, an easily-accessible remain of an 11th-century fortress amazes with a fantastic view over the region. So much, that I could almost say: even through the fog.
Reportedly one of the highly-energetic spots in Slovenia.
Before entering the village, on a strategic location, a prehistoric stone with barely seen motives is intriguing the imagination of historians and archeologists.
What's the local food in Koper?
As always on the crossroads of equal (cultural) roads, there is no main dish in Koper too.
The sardine is the local queen of the sea animals, the pig is the local king of continental animals. You know what I mean by that.
If we pass to the plants, the indigenous Refosk vine is the king, while the olive tree the queen. From the first, we get a splendid Refosk wine, from the latter among the healthiest olive oil (due to geographical and geological specifics, which are the reason for the high amount of phenols).
You could comment the food as slightly 'Mediterranean', as well as maybe a bit 'Continental'. The local dishes you can eat in Koper are simple and still rely on an old tradition to eat 'what's available around the house in a certain season'. Whether we talk about vegetable minestrones, various fish in 100 ways including the superb fish spread called 'baccala', all kinds of dried meat including legendary 'prosciutto', dairy fantasies such as goat, sheep, and cow cheeses of this and that type - you will mostly eat the locally-produced goods. I would point out the fact that most of the customers are locals. And locals know what's local food is about.
Where can I eat or have a drink in Koper?
When everything will be reopened again, and the clouds will disappear, you could please your taste buds in various places to eat and drink, each of them with different culinary touch.
A unique experience is definitely so-called 'Osmica', meaning number 8, the number of days farmers were free to sell the surplus of their wine and other farming products without taxation in times of Habsburg Monarchy. By tradition, they still mark the house which is hosting 'Osmica' by a tree-branch. This particular law was introduced in today's wine-growing regions of Karst and Coast, and a tiny part on the other side of the border, in today's Italy, in the villages above the city of Trieste. If you have in mind a wine tasting in Slovenia, 'Osmica' could be a great experience, especially for the local blends lovers.
Other places for foodie lovers we hope to be reopened soon, are Dzungla Gastrobar (inventive style), Skipper Restaurant (seafood), Slavček (minestrones, simple dishes), Nimis (meat), Na stopnickah (vegetarian - vegan), Ancora (pizzeria, meat). If you have already eaten and you would go just for a sweet, there are Triglavska Slascicarna, and Krostola by the sea.
I will definitely improve the listing in the near future.
Where can I sleep in Koper?
One of the hotel options is Aquapark Zusterna, a kilometer from the town center. The old Koper Hotel is under reconstruction and it's gonna be reopened under a different name.
Apartments and hostels offer are getting wider and wider.
The best way of spending the nights out in nature is a Camp Vovk under the cliff in the village of Osp, Supot Camp in the village of Kostabona, or lodging in the eco-houses in the village of Truske.
My recommendation would be to try one of the tourist farms around Koper. Let me know what are your wishes and I will do my best to suggest you the right ones.