With only 200,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana is hardly bigger than York or Luton. But the Slovenian capital packs in a surprising amount, from the walkable historic city centre to the Bohemian graffiti art of Metelkova. It’s something of an undiscovered gem: give it a few years, and the hordes of tourists currently preoccupied with Prague and Budapest will turn their attention to Ljubljana. In the meantime, you’ll be the envy of your friends and family if you take a visit to this delightful little city….
Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport is small but well-served, with regular flights to and from major European capitals including Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, London, and Berlin. There are also rail links to Austria via the central station.
Ljubljana is a walkable city, and free maps available at tourist information centres or the main railway station make it even easier to get around on foot. There’s also bicycle rental available at the tourist information centre, for a more European way of travel. If you get lost, the river and the castle make for good reference points.
If you don’t fancy stretching your legs too much, there are plenty of frequent bus services to help you. You can buy an Urbana card – a top-up travel card – at newsagents, kiosks, and larger bus stops, or individual tickets for €1.20. Buses are preferable to taxis, which can be quite expensive here.
The best place to start your tour of Ljubljana is at the castle. This 16th-century bastion, accessible by a funicular railway, overlooks the city from 375 metres up. It’s something or an architectural gestalt, combining a variety of styles built up over the centuries. You can explore the castle grounds for free, but access to the 19th-century watchtower, the baroque Chapel of St. George, the rather good exhibition of Slovenian History, the jolly Puppet Theatre, and any temporary exhibition that might be on requires an inexpensive ticket.
City centre wandering
Once you’ve finished with the castle, head westward into the picturesque city centre. It’s fairly compact, so you can spend anything from 30 minutes to the best part of a day exploring its nooks and crannies. Pop into the pink Franciscan Church, wander round the picture-postcard Prešernov Trg, marvel at the baroque public buildings of Mestni Trg, or simply rest a while over lunch or coffee on Petkovšek Embankment, taking in the atmosphere. Straddling the Ljubljanica River, the city centre is characterised by its ornate bridges: the Dragon Bridge is a symbol of the city (a green dragon adorns its coat of arms), and the Triple Bridge is a curious architectural emblem opposite the Franciscan Church.
Snoop round the markets
Markets are great places to absorb some of a city’s life. The Central Market, which has been a traditional gathering place for generations of inhabitants, is perfect to snoops around, as well as for stocking up on some local produce. It consists of an open-air square, a covered market, and a row of food shops along the river, underneath a colonnade designed by Jože Plečnik, a Slovenian architect whose legacy is felt all around the capital. Slovenian fruits and vegetables, dry-cured meat, home baked bread, and plenty of other culinary delights are all on offer here.
Metelkova and Rog Factory
What do you do with a former Yugoslavian army barracks? You turn it into an eclectic, countercultural community of course! Inspired by the likes of Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania, Metelkova was first occupied by activists in 1993, who turned it into a curious hub of alternative art and entertainment. The shabby surroundings host weird sculptures, graffiti art, bars and clubs, and a range of musical acts of varying quality. No trip to Ljubljana is complete without a visit, if only for its unique character. But if you want to out-hipster the hipsters, head over the Rog factory, a former bicycle manufacturing company turned illegal squat that has a similar Bohemian vibe.
National Museum and Gallery
Once you’ve grappled with alternative culture, make your way to the west for something a bit more mainstream. Every good European capital city has a National Museum, and Ljubljana is no different. Theirs, chronicling Slovenian history from the 6th century BC to the present day, contains an eclectic mix of exhibits, including ancient Celtic implements and Roman jewellery, to 19th-century ceiling frescoes, originally merely a part of the museum, but today an attraction in their own right. If you’re more of an artistic sort, it’s only a short walk to the National Gallery, which holds a pretty comprehensive selection of Slovenian art.
Visit Ljubljana in summer – as you should – and you might be feeling a bit hot and tired out right now. You’ve got plenty of options if you just want to sit back and relax for a little while, and, befitting Ljubljana’s environmental credentials, there are a slew of parks and squares including Tivoli Park with its neoclassical and baroque mansions, and Kongresni Trg, a city-centre square and a popular venue for concerts and celebrations. If you’re happy to just keep wandering the streets, why not stop off for an ice cream at Gelateria Romantika, one of the very best ice cream spots you’ll ever come across. On a hot day, there’s nothing better than a stroll along the river with one of their unusual-flavoured cones.
Food and Drink
Ljubljana has developed an innovative culinary scene and a thriving café culture. You’ll find some top-class restaurants and bars in the city centre, offering food and drink influenced by Slavic, Austrian, and Italian food.
In keeping with its central European location, you’ll find plenty of hearty meat dishes, sauerkraut, potato dishes, soups and stews. But, thanks to its Mediterranean influence, you’ll also find pasta, fritaja – a Slovenian variation on frittata – and Italian-esque pastries and desserts.
You can wash this down with some fairly decent beer or wine, and end your meal with a bracing shot of palinka, a central European classic.
Where to stay
If you want views of the city, the City Hotel Ljubljana offers some of the best, overlooking the beautiful streets and the castle beyond, perched on its leafy hill. With its friendly staff, comfortable rooms, and cosy little reading room, it is sure to make any guest feel welcome and at home. From €149/£131 including Wi-Fi and an underground parking garage.
Cover: Dragon bridge – image by Eigirdas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Ljubljana – image by Gilad Rom via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Ljubljana – image by Shadowgate via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
20170519_192415 – image by LeDucky via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Le marché central et la rivière Ljubljanica ( Ljubljana) – image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Rog Factory – image used by permission of Olaf Jensen
Staircase of the National Museum of Slovenia – image by Petar Milošević via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski Grad) Viewed from the Congress Square (Kongresni Trg), Ljubljana, Slovenia – image by Med Cruise Guide via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Le parc Tivoli (Ljubljana) – image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Metelkova, Ljubljana, Slovenia – image by Chris Stevenson (CC BY-NC 2.0)