It’s not the biggest capital city in emerging Europe, but Ljubljana punches well above its weight. A mix of Italian style and Hapsburg elegance, it’s one of the greenest cities in Europe and boasts one of the most happening nightlife scenes on the continent.
Ljubljana sits slap bang in the centre of Slovenia. The city’s airport is 26 kilometres to the north, near Brnik. A taxi will cost around 40 euros, and the journey should take no more than 35 minutes. There’s a bus too, which takes about an hour. Tickets cost a bargain 4.10 euros. As you head into the city it will not take you long to see why Ljubljana was Europe’s Green Capital in 2016. Parks and green spaces abound, and even the castle, which dominates the city centre, appears to have been set down in the middle of some enchanted green forest. Directly below the castle is the Old Town, which straddles the river Ljubljanica. Look for a hotel in this area. The gorgeous Vander (Krojaska Ulica 6–8; vanderhotel.com) stands on the river bank and comes complete with infinity pool on the roof and one of Slovenia’s best collections of wines in the cellar. Slightly less plush but no less comfortable is the charming Allegro (Gornji trg 6; allegrohotel.si) which boasts a rather lovely courtyard where you can take breakfast in good weather.
The Old Town
Let’s be honest, the Old Town is what you’ve come for. Start at the castle (ljubljanskigrad.si), built in its current form by Habsburg Emperor Frederick III in the second half of the 15th century. These days reached by a funicular, it has served as both a fortress and royal residence over the centuries and is today the city’s most visited attraction. There are various tours and attractions within its walls, of which the pick is the view from the top of the well-named Outlook Tower. Below, Ljubljana’s cathedral may have a modest exterior, but its Baroque interior is stunning.
Almost as iconic as the castle and more photographed than the cathedral is the Triple Bridge (Tromostovje), originally a road bridge constructed in the late 1800s, but much embellished in the 1930s by Jože Plečnik, a local architect who added two pedestrian walkways and gave the whole ensemble its panache. Plečnik in fact designed much of today’s central Ljubljana, including the central market next to the cathedral. The market is the starting point for a walking tour of Plečnik’s Ljubljana: incredibly popular, you will need to book a spot in advance at the Tourist Information Centre next to the market.
On the far side of the Triple Bridge is a magnificent statue of France Prešeren, an early 19th century romantic poet widely regarded as the founding father of Slovenian literature. You’ll find his name given to squares across the country – including this one – and his face can be seen on the Slovenian 2 euro coin. Cafes line the square and river, not a few of which are tourist traps. Head for Cacao (Petkovškovo Nabrežje 3; cacao.si) which besides fantastic coffee, cakes and sandwiches is also home to Ljubljana’s best ice cream. Its enormous terrace is the best people-watching spot in the city.
Ljubljaners eat late, then stay out partying even later. Gostilna As (Čopova ulica 5; gostilnaas.si) is the city’s best restaurant (probably), offering up a contemporary twist on classic seafood. Choose the cellar in winter, or the courtyard in summer. The food is great year-round. Less extravagant but equally tasty is Kuhna (Trubarjeva 56; skuhna.si) established by a Slovenian NGO to help integrate the country’s migrant community. It serves fantastic food from around the world for next to nothing. For drinks, Kolibri (Židovska 2; kolibri-bar.com) is a cracking cocktail bar so well-hidden it might just as well be a speakeasy. There’s live music at the weekend. Klub K4 (Kersnikova 4; klub-k4.si) is central Ljubljana’s liveliest club.
Joggers, bikers, strollers and just about everyone in Ljubljana makes a beeline for Tivoli Park when the weather is remotely good. It’s a glorious mix of lawns, landscaped gardens, nature reserve and forests, all set across a whopping site just two blocks from the heart of the Old Town. Bring a packed lunch and picnic on the grass or head for the Hot Horse stand and grab one of their infamous horseburgers. Yes, they are made of precisely what the name suggests. On the park’s eastern fringes is the Slovenian National Gallery (Prešernova 24; ng-slo.si), a fabulous neo-Renaissance palace now complemented by a striking glass and steel modern wing. The main exhibition focuses on Slovene art from medieval times to the present day and is well worth the modest entrance fee. Slovenia’s rather good Museum of Contemporary History (muzej-nz.si) is also found within the park.
Reinventing the Wheel
Those of who are suckers for quirky bits and pieces should head for the Museum of Ljubljana (Gosposka 15; mgml.si), where – amongst much else – you can get your eyes on what is claimed to be the oldest wooden wheel in the world. Head next for the squatters’ district of Metelkova, a former Yugoslav army barracks which since 1993 has been occupied by artists, musicians and bohemians of all colours and stripes. Its street art is legendary. More or less opposite is the newest section of the Slovenian National Museum (Maistrova 1; nms.si), opened in 2008: the National Gallery of Contemporary Art is found inside.
Shopping in Ljubljana is a pleasure, not least as the unearthly malls have all been banished the city’s outskirts, leaving the city centre free for small, independent retailers. Pick up wine at Dekanter (Gornji Trg 10), local handicrafts at Slovenika (Gornji Trg 4) and Slovenian delicacies such as Kranjska sausages at Krasevka (Vodnikov Trg 4).
The Last Supper
Bazilika (Prešernova 15; bazilika.si) opposite the Presidential Palace offers modern European food in an elegant 19th century setting, making use of local, organic ingredients. Druga Violina (Stari Trg 21) has a similar to policy, serving seasonal Slovenian cuisine in a classic Old Town setting complete with small terrace out on the street.
Ljubljana in One Paragraph
You’ll need a head for heights but the views from the top of the castle’s Outlook Tower are worth the effort. On your way down, grab a Slovenian craft beer at Daktari, next to the castle funicular station. Peek inside Europe’s most successful urban squat at Metelkova, take a leisurely stroll around Tivoli and – if you have the stomach for it – feast on a horseburger from Hot Horse.