Nowadays Koper is Slovenia's largest commercial port, and it has the ugly commercial development that goes with that. But away from the port the medieval old town survives, a relic of when the city was an important administrative centre within the Venetian Republic (hence its Italian name, "Capodistria"; the capital of Istria).
Koper has enough charm of its own to warrant at least a day-trip, and its good transport links make it a good base from which to explore the surrounding area.
As mentioned above, Koper has fairly good transport links to both other parts of Slovenia, and the rest of the Istrian peninsula (which includes the Slovenian coast, and runs down into Croatia). There are regular buses to other towns along the Slovenian coast, and several a day go to Ljubljana and other large Slovenian towns such as Maribor, Celje and Nova Gorica. Going outside Slovenia there are at least daily services to Porec, Pula, Rovinj and other towns in Croatian Istria.
The coach station is a bit of a ramshackle affair, with about 20 outdoor stands. It's a nice enough place to hang around in summer, but probably not so much fun in winter. At least you could wait in the train station, which is just next door and from where you can buy coach tickets (you usually can't buy them from the driver). Each stand has its destination marked clearly, and there's a fairly straight forward timetable too. It must have been straight forward if even I managed not to end up on the wrong bus.
We travelled to Koper on the bus from Trieste, just over the border in Italy, having flown into Trieste Airport on Ryanair, (a bargain at £44 for a return flight from Stansted). During the week there are regular (approximately half hourly) coaches between Trieste and Koper, although this frequency is drastically reduced over the weekend. The journey itself lasts just over an hour, about half of which is taken up by the border crossing. It's a simple enough journey but for us it had the major disadvantage of having to go through Trieste airport first.
I'm not entirely sure that a guide to Koper is the ideal place to slag off Trieste airport, but then again its my website and I can put whatever the hell I want on it. Trieste airport is without any doubt the most disorganised, badly run shambles of an airport I've ever visited in my life, and coming from someone who has worked at Heathrow for over 13 years that's really saying something. I think that it must have something to do with the Italian habit of taking the simplest, most straightforward task imaginable and then entrusting it to a gang of work-shy incompetents, preferably in a stupid uniform involving ridiculously striped-trousers and a feathered hat. For a start it took us over 30 minutes to clear Immigration, and we were in the middle of the queue. Ours was the only flight at the airport at that time, and 90% of the passengers were from the European Union. Sometimes there were two border police behind the desk, sometimes only the one, and sometimes both of them had buggered off. Once through Immigration we found we had just missed the bus into Trieste and so sat down to wait 40 minutes for the next one. Once it eventually arrived we loaded our stuff onto it, only to be told that we had to buy tickets from a counter inside the airport building. So we missed that bus and got the taxi instead. It got even worse when we were flying back though. After checking in we tried to go through security to the departure lounge only to find that it was closed, with the machines taped off and 6 malingering security guards standing round, preening their uniforms, and doing absolutely nothing. Sensibly the pillocks waited until there were passengers for three different flights waiting around before they decided to open up, and then came up with the novel wheeze of inviting everyone at the back of the queue to come through first, whilst complaining to everyone that it was getting too crowded. So, finally there we were waiting at the gate in another long queue when they announced that anyone on our flight with "special needs" could board at a different gate. Naturally everybody who hadn't bothered queuing made an immediate charge for this gate and, special needs or not, were allowed to board before everyone else. Right then, that's my complaint over, sorry but I had to get all that off my chest. It's been bothering me for a while. Actually, Trieste railway station is just as bad. It had originally been our plan to go straight from Trieste to Ljubljana, and according to the timetables at Trieste station there was indeed a train (although with a little picture of a bus next to it instead of a train) within an hour. Unfortunately there was also a queue to buy tickets... I left my fat friend in this queue to buy tickets while I went in search of the coach station to see if there was any alternative. I came back 20 minutes later to find that my friend and the queue in general had moved not an inch. Apparently one person had been served in those 20 minutes, and as there were another 6 or 7 people in the queue ahead of us we realised that there was no way we'd get tickets to Ljubljana and so decided to get the coach to Koper instead. In short, avoid bloody Trieste if at all possible, if not Italy in general (JOKE!). It speaks volumes that far more people were queuing at the border to leave Italy and enter Slovenia than were trying to go in the opposite direction.
Errr, where was I? Oh yes, Koper.
You can also get to and from Koper by train. There are several daily trains to and from Ljubljana (usually starting and finishing in Maribor). The journey takes just under two and a half hours and costs around £4 one-way. Slovenian trains are an excellent way to travel, and I shall wax lyrical further on this subject under the Getting There section of Ljubljana.
Until about 200 years ago, what is now Kopers' Old Town was an island (known as Goats Island, no less!) If you have a look at any postcard with an aerial view of Koper you can clearly see that the red roofs of the Old Town form an almost perfect circle, surrounded by more modern buildings. At the heart of the Old Town is Titov trig, visible from most parts of the town because it contains the City Tower. From Titov trig Kidriceva ullica runs westerly downhill to the sea front and Cevljarska ulica, the other main route through the Old Town runs roughly southerly.
The southern boundary of the Old Town is marked by Vojkovo nabrezje and Pristaniska ulica, which form a kind of ring road, and the northern boundary is the industrial area of the modern docks. Pristaniska ulica runs along the sea front where there is a promenade, a marina, and some small parks. The bus and railway stations are right next to each other (and share some facilities, such as toilets, ticket offices and, more importantly, a reasonable bar) and are a 10-minute walk south of the Old Town down Kolodvorska cesta.
Getting around Koper is simplicity itself. You walk. All the interesting stuff is in the Old Town, and this is not only very compact but also mostly pedestrianised. All but the most idle could walk across it is considerably less than an hour, unless you chose to dally in one or two of the many bars that dot the Old Town.
The terminally idle or unfit may have difficulty making the short walk from the train station to the centre of town, as may the drunkard (although sustenance and succour are available to him in the form of the several bars that are en route), in which case there is also a small taxi rank by the bus/train stations (that's what you call an integrated transport system). A taxi ride into the town centre shouldn't cost more than a couple of pounds.
If you want to stay in the town itself then there's only really one choice: the Hotel Koper at Pristanika 3. This 4 star hotel is right on the sea-front, overlooking the bay and the marina. From it's clean, shiny appearance you would guess that it has been recently been renovated (the Lonely Planet guidebook still refers to it as the Hotel Triglav). The reception is bright and airy with loads of comfy chairs. The rooms are even better. Mine was spotlessly clean, very big, and with a small balcony overlooking with a great sea-view. Other facilities in the room included a well-stocked and reasonably-priced mini-bar (less than £1 for a bottle of beer), satellite TV, and even a bidet in the bathroom (well, it would hardly be on the balcony, would it?). The staff spoke great English and were extremely friendly and helpful; even after we'd checked out they looked after my bag in reception for a couple of hours, rang the train station to find out the timetable, and were happy to call taxis for us. It is certainly one of the nicest hotels I've ever stayed in, and the cost of such luxury? Well, including a small mini-bar addition (some mineral water and lots of chocolate eaten by my fat friend) a double room came in at 16700 Tolars, a smidgen under £50, a night. More than I'd usually pay for a hotel, but you deserve a little luxury sometimes and this place is a bargain at that price.
Closer to the bus and train stations, but just to the South of the Old Town is the Hotel Vodisek at Kolodvorska 2.
Starting with places to eat, you could do considerably worse than the Restaurant Skolijka Pizzeria which is just off Kopaliska nabrezje (north-west of the marina; you have to go through the entrance to the bath house to get there). This is a friendly place with views out over the harbour, and tables outside if you want them. The menu is in English (as well as Slovene, Italian, German, and French), and for the terminally stupid there are even pictures of the food. The pizzas looked excellent (and if the smell coming from the next table was any indication, they tasted it too), but I went for the grilled veal (with, err, chips) and my ginger companion the ragout of venison with gnocchi both of which were delicious and came in at less than £3 each. The beer was excellent too, and also cheap.
Another pleasant to eat is the row of three or so cafes opposite the Hotel Koper (Trznica- Pristaniska 2). These have plenty of outdoor seats overlooking a small park, beyond which is the promenade, so in common with many other restaurants and bars in Koper it boasts a great view and refreshing sea-breezes (might not be so much fun in Winter though). We tried the Pizzeria Park, where I can now recommend the pleskavica, a sort of giant, spicy hamburger served in a huge slab of doughy bread. At around £2 it tasted far better and was much better value than a Big Mac, even if it wasn't the healthiest breakfast ever!
For eating on the move keep an eye out for the towns numerous iced-cream parlours (most restaurants and cafes do iced-cream as well); some excellent, if slightly unusual flavours (I liked the yoghurt flavour), good value (around 50p for a couple of scoops), and a great way to cool down on a hot day.
Right, onto the more important subject, namely bars. First the good news; there are loads of them. You'll find them at regular intervals along the sea-front and throughout the Old Town. The beer (usually either Lasko or Union) is cheap (never more than £1 or so for half a litre), although not always on draught. Now the less good news; opening hours aren't good. During the day you'll have no problems whatsoever but after around 11pm or so nearly everywhere seems to shut down. Very odd. I'd expect that there are more enlightened opening hours during the peak summer months though.
The last place to close its doors (and therefore the bar where we spent the most time) is the Carpaccio Pub which you'll find on Carpaccio Trg (square). This is an attractive building in the Old Town; the interior layout is a bit unusual with the bar running down the centre of the building and surrounded by chairs, and there's a large balcony above. But what of the beer? A bit unusual; you can get Heineken and Caffreys on draught but if you want to drink the local beer you'll have to settle for bottled. While we were there they handed out free glasses of twiglet-type cocktail snacks, although our table was the only one to finish theirs, and we weren't offered any more. There's also a table where you can play chess (well, I suppose you could play chess at any table if you really wanted to, but on this one the chessboard is actually part of the table; you can ask the bar staff for the pieces). This bar has a relaxed, friendly atmosphere (which not even the group of Germans, with their national shorts, white socks and sandals costume, who were out on the pull could quite spoil) and is a pleasant place to spend the evening, Attached is the Elite Disco, but we didn't try this. The thought of bumping into that same group of Germans strutting their stuff on the dance floor was just too much to contemplate.
The Loggia cafe on Titov trg offers possibly the best views and atmosphere in town, and another pleasant place is the M & M Bar Cenik (no idea why it's named after a chocolate) which is in an attractive old building on Carpaccio Trg and which offers comfy seats and great views of the marina.
Almost everything of interest in Koper lies within the boundaries of the Old Town. The narrow, cobbled streets and even narrower back alleys are well worth at least a half days' exploration.
The towns' undoubted highlight is Titov trg, a square which is bounded on all sides by interesting buildings.
The largest building on the Square is Cathedral of St Nazarius on the eastern side. The present building dates mostly from the 18th century but contains elements from older buildings on this site. You should definitely have a look inside the Cathedral (it's usually open); the interior is richly decorated with marble columns, paintings, and even the sarcophagus of St Nazarius himself. No, I'd never heard of him either. The Cathedrals' tower is now known as the City Tower, and is much older than the present Cathedral building (a sign on the tower says it's 14th century). It's possible to climb up the tower for what I'd imagine would be pretty spectacular views of Koper, but it seemed to be closed when I was there. Then again it was a bloody hot day, and I really didn't fancy dragging myself up all of those stairs all that much.
Hiding behind the bulk of the Cathedral is an even older church building, the 12th century Carmine Rotunda. It was closed when I was there, but it certainly looks old from the outside. To reach it take the narrow road along the northern end of the Cathedral.
On the south side of Titov trg is Koper's best known building (at least in Koper itself where it's now the symbol of the town), the Praetorian Palace. The white painted, twin-towered, battlemented building dates from the 15th century and was once home to the Venetian-appointed town officials. The building is studded with the coats-of-arms of the town, and of various powerful Koper families.
On the Western edge of the square is the towns' former armoury, which is now Koper Town Hall. On the northern side is the Loggia café. The attractive 15th century building also houses an art gallery. Quite bizarrely this building is what once stood between the two towers of the Praetorian Place. Somebody decided that it would be a good wheeze to move it to the opposite side of the square. It's all turned out fairly well in the end I suppose.
From Titov trg you've got a choice of directions. Start by heading east and only a short walk away you'll find another attractive square (this one surrounding a small park), Trg Brolo. The Cathedral backs up onto this but other buildings of interest are the 14th century Fontik, previously a granary and decorated with the coats-of-arms of past mayors of the town, the Brutti Palace, and a Franciscan Monastery further east. Keep heading east down Cankarajeva and then onto Bazoviska to reach the small church of St Ann, containing paintings by an important local 16th century artist, Benedetto Carpaccio.
Back to Titov Trg, and you could head south, through the arch in the Praetorian palace, down Cevljarska ulica, one of the main thoroughfares of the Old Town. It's actually a narrow, winding cobbled street, lined by some fairly high-class shops (its name actually means "Shoemakers Street", no prizes for guessing what these shops used to be then.). This will eventually lead you to another square, Gortanov trg which holds the Almerigogna Palace, a Venetian gothic palace decorated with Renaissance frescoes. As well as being a beautiful building it now holds a bar, so you get the best of both worlds, proving that function and form are perfectly compatible. Head roughly south-east to come to another square, Presemov trg which boasts a nice fountain at one end (the 17th century Da Ponte fountain, named for the family that erected it), and at the the other end the 16th century Muda Gate the last remaining of the city's old gates (there used to be 12 of them).
And finally from Titov trg you can go west down Kidriceva ulica, which is a bit wider than Cevljarska ulica and is only partially pedestrianised. This road eventually leads you to the sea front but on the way you'll pass one or two things of interest. Firstly there is the 16th century Palazzo Belgramoni-Tacco. As well as having a cool door-knocker this building now holds the Municipal Museum detailing the history of Koper and Istria in general, including pottery, weapons, and other archaeological exhibits, paintings and sculptures, and old maps and photographs. Keep a look out for some really old looking houses (on your left, if you're heading away from Titov trg), with exposed wooden beams, over-hanging second floors, and colourful mosaics and painted patterns on the walls.
Kedriceva ulica will eventually bring you out in Carpacciov trg, named after the painter of the same name, and bearing a pub in his name also. If he's got a pub named after him he must have been bloody good. This attractive little square holds a couple of bars, another small fountain, and the Justinian column, built in 1571 (OK, in case you're really interested I'll give you a history lesson: It commemorates the battle of Lepanto, a big naval battle in which a combined European fleet trashed that of the infidel Turk, making the Mediterranean safe for Christian ships. The town of Koper contributed one ship to the glorious victory, and so they erected the column to celebrate the fact. I've no idea why they called it Justin though.).
Once you've finished exploring the Old Town there isn't really too much else to do in Koper. On a hot, sunny day a walk along the sea-front is pleasant enough. There's a long-ish path running south-west almost opposite the Hotel Koper, and the marina is fairly picturesque. There are one or two attractive buildings along the sea-front, such as the Customs House, the building that houses the M & M Bar Cenik, and that that contains the Slovenijaturist office, but nothing to get too excited about. Small parks are dotted along most of the sea-front too, an ideal place to rest and relax with a bottle or two, and there are several bars with a sea-view.
If you fancy catching some rays (should there be any to catch) Koper's small beach is north-east of the marina, and you have to pay to get on it (although it does have an enclosed swimming area, showers, a some secluded grass where you can go au naturel, I think).Most sunbathers seem to do it for free along the quay side.