26 Aug Not just another city guide to Ljubljana, Slovenia
Think of Ljubljana as Vienna’s laid-back cousin, lazing in the Mediterranean sunshine next to the fast-flowing, emerald waters of the Ljubljanica river. This vibrant and undeniably charming compact capital is perfect for a summer city break – and there’s much more to explore than most travel guides hint at.
We arrived in Ljubljana in the dark, after a late flight.
It’s not the way we usually travel, but sometimes the best flights aren’t always at the most convenient times.
But it meant we didn’t get a glimpse of the city outside until first light next morning, which is never a bad time to explore. In fact, I think it might be one of the best times to stumble head first into a new city and find your bearings over a morning cup of coffee.
Ljubljana was worth the wait. It’s one of those cities that you just can’t help falling for. An irresistible mix of centuries old architecture and modern cafe culture, with a freshness and vibrancy that comes from the fast flowing river and it’s leafy banks that anchor the old town to it’s ancient hilltop castle. Ljubljana feels young, but has lovingly preserved the most beautiful (and some of the most authentic) parts of its past.
I deliberated long and hard about what to call this post. I read a lot of guides to the city before I came, but for me few of them captured exactly why Ljubljana felt so charismatic. And most of them didn’t suggest exploring beyond the handful of interesting – but nonetheless very close together – bridges in the old town.
So here’s my guide to Ljubljana – more history, food and drink – and fewer bridges.
Before I begin: Why you’ll love Ljubljana
Before I get on with sharing more our our stay in Ljubljana, I want to explain why I immediately liked this city. There are a few things that make Ljubljana stand out amongst it’s European neighbours.
First, despite the adversity that the people of this small country have endured through the last century, the structure of the city has largely remained unscathed. This makes it an architecture enthusiasts dream: the elegant townhouses and churches of this city are authentic and original, and not overly restored. The city streets are neither reconstructions or reimaginations – they’re real Ljubljana.
And if they look a little familiar – that’s because they are. Vienna’s most noted architect of the 20th century was Joze Plecnik. Who just happened to be Slovenian, and the chief architect of many of Ljubljana’s most striking buildings. Think of Ljubljana as Vienna’s charming but laid-back cousin.
Secondly, the old town has been sympathetically pedestrianised over the last ten years. And it feels very people friendly. It’s a city where cafes and restaurants sprawl onto pavements, which I love.
Lastly, Ljubljana is delightfully green. Whether you’re exploring Tivoli park or strolling along the tree-lined riverbanks, it’s easy to forget you’re in a capital city. Instead it’s easy to imagine you’re in the lush Slovenian countryside, that’s just a stone’s throw away.
A quick introduction to the history of Ljubljana
A little background first. Ljubljana is the capital city of Slovenia, a beautiful little country that borders Italy, Austria and Croatia amongst others. Tucked away between the Alps and the Mediterranean, it’s a lush green land of rivers, mountains and farmland – packed with pretty little towns and friendly people.
Located on the broad plains that border the Ljubljanica river, there’s been a community where this city stands since prehistoric times. The nearby Roman town of Emona (now part of the modern city) helped to cement Ljubljana’s place on the map. The town grew from strength to strength during the medieval period. Since then, Slovenia has experienced a somewhat complex political history, with the city at various points being a part of the Hapsburg, Napoleonic, and Austrian empires as well as the former Yugoslavia – and each period in time has left its mark. It means that Ljubljana manages to feel distinctly Slovenian, but also very European.
Aside from the busy old town along the water’s edge, today there are huge areas of green space within the city limits as well as residential and commercial districts stretching into the distance. It’s not a huge city, but it feels both cosy and alive.
How to get to Ljubljana
Once you arrive, you’ve got three easy options for travelling the 17 miles to the city centre.
By local bus. Alpetours operate services throughout the day (keep an eye on the timetables though as these change regularly). It’s a comfortable coach service that whisks you to the central bus station (just outside the rail station), where a 10 minute walk will take you to the centre of the old town. Tickets cost a very reasonable €3,90 for a single journey, and can be brought on the bus. We chose this option as the timings worked well, and found it easy as pie.
By shuttle. If you want to travel straight to your accommodation without any fuss, shuttle services seem to be a popular choice at the airport. Some can be booked in advance online, others can be booked on the day at a counter in arrivals. You’ll share your shuttle (most were Mercedes people carriers) with other travellers, but it seemed a reasonably priced option with transfers advertised from €9 per person to the city centre.
By taxi. As with the shuttle services, these are easy to book at the airport – and plentiful. However be prepared to pay a considerable amount more than a shuttle.
What to do in Ljubljana
There is so much more to do in the centre of Ljubljana than checking out the churches and bridges every tourist guide will recommend (although, don’t dismiss them entirely!). Here’s our favourites;
Explore the old town
The city centre of Ljubljana is made for meandering on a sunny morning, or an early evening as the sun starts to sink.
There’s a few popular sights to catch, if you’re keen to check off the city’s landmarks. It’s impossible to miss the many (and admitedly rather beautiful) bridges that span the river – the Dragon bridge (adored with very Game of Thrones-esque bronze dragons) and Triple bridge (at the heart of the city) amongst the most iconic. The vibrant pink church immediately opposite the Triple bridge makes for a rather stunning exclamation mark in the centre of the city.
But most of all, it’s a city to soak up tha atmosphere in. Most of the historic core, plus the banks of both sides of the river, are pedestrianised. Enjoy the pretty little streets and passageways, stumble across squares, dip into pastel-coloured churches – and make time to stop for coffee on a terrace and watch the world go by.
Head up to the castle – Ljubljana Grad
Wander around Ljubljana and you’ll come across views of the castle from all angles. But head to Castle Hill itself, and you can enjoy views of every angle of Ljubljana.
It’s a cracker of a castle for a capital city. Perched on a rocky hillside above a curve in the river, it’s clear that this would have been a fantastic defensive position in the past. The castle itself has medieval roots and can be explored for €7,50, but I’d recommend everything you can do here without paying an entrance free. You can stroll around all of the defensive walls free of charge, explore the beech woodlands that top the hill, search for the castle vineyards (it took us two attempts to find this hidden gem) and check out the numerous other viewpoints that face in all directions across the city below you.
There are several paths (as well as a funicular that runs from time to time) to the hilltop. We followed the path that starts at Gornju Trg as it was quietest. It turned out to be an excellent plan. Not only did the climb only take ten minutes, but the views that unfolded on the way were astonishingly good.
Discover the city’s museums
For a small city, Ljubljana is home to a surprising number of museums. If you’ve only got a few days here, like us, I’d recommend starting with the City Museum of Ljubljana. The museum’s expansive first floor gives you a whistle-stop tour of the city’s past from pre-history through to the late 20th century. It’s an insightful, enjoyable and easily digestible way to find out more about Ljubljana and the history of Slovenia – not too heavy, and with translations into several languages (which, I’d admit, helps).
Head down the basement, and you’ll find exposed Roman structures right under your feet. And on the top floor, you’ll find an ever-changing exhibition space. For summer 2018, this is dedicated to Slovenian playwright Ivan Cankar. I’d not heard of him before, but an hour’s enjoyable stroll around the exhibition was captivating – he was quite the Victor Hugo of this part of the world.
You can find out more about all the museums in Ljubljana on the Museums & Galleries of Ljubljana website.
Uncover Roman Emona
If you’ve dipped into the city’s history at the City Museum, go one step further and explore the Roman remains of Emona hidden in plain sight amongst the city streets.
Stretches of Roman city walls are easy to find (and helpfully signposted) – although they’re been ‘re-shaped’ a little by enthusiastic architects early in the 20th century. But best of all, keep hold of your museum ticket. The reception staff at the museum will be able to point you in the direction of two Roman villas tucked away behind modern houses just a few minutes walk away. Follow the signs, dip into what looks like someone’s driveway, and unlock the large gate using your ticket. Hey presto! You’ve got a whole Roman villa to explore.
The villas are remarkably well-preserved and the remains are as well-signposted, protected and complete as any I’ve seen elsewhere in Europe. But best of all, you get the whole place to yourself to explore at your leisure. It’s absolutely fascinating.
Enjoy the city’s green spaces
For a capital city, Ljubljana is astonishingly green. From the tree-tops crowning Castle Hill to the weeping willow along the riverside, you’re never far from a leafy view. But step beyond the old town and there’s even more.
Make your way to Tivoli park to make the most of what the city has to offer.
It’s nothing like its namesake in Copenhagen (no candy floss I’m afraid). But this vast swathe of green is home to everything you could hope for in the heat of the city. Neat formal gardens, perfect for strolling. Wide expanses of grassy meadow that becon you to bring a picnic. And best of all, acres of shady woodland, criss-crossed with trails and paths. We happily spent an entire afternoon exploring this green space.
Keen to escape the heat of the mid-afternoon sun (not that I was wishing it wasn’t there, I’ve just got a terrible reputation for sunburn), we followed one of the most popular walking routes to the top of Rožnik hill. Here, a perfect pastel pink church pops out from the canopy, and a little Gostalina serves cold drinks and sweet treats on a shady terrace, with a view over the city rooftops. For somewhere you can reach on foot from the city centre, it’s pretty special.
Unwind by the river
You’d be hard pushed not to enjoy exploring the riverside in Ljubljana’s old town. But take a few steps beyond this part of town, and the riverside takes on a new character.
Head beyond Sentjakobski bridge, where the bars and cafes peter out, and follow the river further south. Here, the buildings take a step back from the water and instead greenery pervades. There’s a wide stepped seating area where locals come with friends or the paper, to sit in the shade and escape the heat. Low hung willow trees make you feel far from the city centre location, and footpaths let you follow the river downstream. It’s a peaceful place – so close to the old town and yet so far from the hustle and bustle of a capital. It’s just you and the locals – and a great place to escape.
Check out street art in Metalkova
Street art is a little like marmite, you either love it or hate it.
If you’re not a fan, feel free to pass this by – but if you fancy side-stepping away from the city centre for a while, it’s worth heading over to Metalkova. Not far from the station, Metalkova is a former barracks with shades of Christiania in Copenhagen, another abandoned area taken over by artists. It’s relatively small but there are some really creative and interesting murals by local artists, alongside the more ubiquitous graffiti you might expect to see. The sea life mural below I really fell for, and made it worth the walk.
It’s worth bearing in mind that there isn’t much to do here, but it’s an interesting stroll if you want to get a feel for another city district.
Indulge at the incredible market
Ljubljana’s central market is truly excellent.
Aside from the striking riverside architecture that marks its location, there’s a lot to really love here. The market is held every day from 7am (or at least this was the earliest I saw the stalls in action) in the open air, until at least noon. It’s largely dedicated to fruit and veg – with meat, seafood and dairy stalls located on the ground floor of a nearby building. We stopped by every morning after breakfast to buy fruit.
In recent years, I’ve noticed more and more European markets capitalising on the trend for street food (more so in larger cities than more rural areas to be fair). And whilst I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this from time to time, in some places – like Barcelona’s famous La Boqueria market – it’s squeezing out to traditional stalls and sellers in favour of a sanitised version for tourists. And it all starts to lack a little authenticity for me. But this isn’t the case here, and it made me love this city all the more. Ljubljana central market is the real deal and full of local producers and suppliers selling the freshest Mediterranean produce, and long may it continue.
Where to eat and drink in Ljubljana
Ljubljana is packed with places to eat, and has a thriving cafe scene – which is partly why I fell head over heels for the place. Head to the old town and you’ll find the riverside lined with bars and restaurants, but there’s plenty more to explore along the main pedestrianised streets too. We arrived in July, and found that almost every venue had a terrace or had claimed a small patch of pavement to spill out onto, making it an enjoyably atmospheric place to meander from cafe to bar to restaurant.
A quick note on Slovenian food – Ljubljana is a pretty cosmopolitan place, and most places serve largely Mediterranean food. You’ll find a lot of Italian style pasta and gnochhi dishes here, along with seafood from the coast and more alpine inspired dishes such a goulash and strudel. It’s also not hard to find places offering local produce.
Petkovškovo nabrežje 65, 1000 Ljubljana | A five minute walk from the Dragon bridge | For the best breakfast in town
We found this little gem was just a few doors down from our hostel. Being an extra five minutes from the centre of the old town means it’s a little off the beaten path, and all the better for it.
EK Bistro serves fancy brunch more than breakfast – which was perfect for our last day in Ljubljana when we were traveling later. We indulged in french toast with grilled apricots and pomegranate, and a creamy rice pudding with dulce de leche and fresh fruit, sitting on their riverside terrace. It’s not traditional, but it is delicious and ridiculous reasonable for such a lovely location.
Stari trg 21, 1000 Ljubljana | For fantastic value at lunchtime
Pounding the city streets exploring means I’ve often got a huge appetite by lunchtime. The best place we found to fill up at noon was the astonishingly good value Druga Violina, where a main course of gnochhi in a tomato and basil sauce as well as a huge side salad set me back €5,50. It’s not fancy food, but it’s filling and homemade. And with the pretty terrace outside you’d be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere considerably more upmarket.
Stari trg 19, 1000 Ljubljana | For beautifully presented local produce
My favourite place we ate in Ljubljana.
A little smarter than our usual picks, we treated ourselves to something a bit special for our last night in Ljubljana as we were self-catering for most of the rest of our trip.
Altroké is just around the corner from Druga Violina, and whilst it has a beautiful interior (great if you’re visiting the rest of the year round) we couldn’t resist a table on the cobbled street outside. We had locally produced steak with griddled potatoes, mediterranean veg and an aioli dressing that was unbelievably good. Great location, very high quality food, friendly service – and very generous portions of strudel for desert.
Pogačarjev trg 1, 1000 Ljubljana | Just off the market square | For drinks like a local
We stumbled across this place by chance as it’s almost invisible by day. This little bar is perfect if you’re looking for somewhere a little more relaxed and authentic than the riverside restaurants and bars nearby. A clutch of tables sit outside the door, but mostly customers sit on the terraced steps (don’t worry, there are cushions on hand). Sitting by the light of candles you can choose from a wide range of Slovenian craft beers and wines, and we were slightly astonished to notice that for the first time we were the only people not speaking Slovenian.
It’s incredibly reasonable (a glass of wine cost me an extravagant €1,50), atmospheric and a step away from where other tourists will be.
Other notable mentions
I’ll spare you a full-blown review of every place we ate and drank (no-one’s got time for that!). But here are a few other places we found that we are worth a punt. For a delicious cup of coffee and great terraces, try Cafe Čokl near the market or Cafetino on Stari Trg. Ask for a kava z melkom. I don’t even drink milky coffee at home but for some reason it is delightful good here.
If you’re a little peckish, Osem is a disarmingly charming bakery that thinks it’s in Copenhagen rather than Ljubljana. Their croissants were seriously some of the best I’ve had in a long time.
Lastly, for an alternative (and budget-friendly) dinner suggestion, we really enjoyed Robba on Mestri Trg. The food was typical Slovenian fare, but everything we ate was delicious and the restaurant interior looked really smart.
Where to stay in Ljubljana
As with most capital cities, you’ll find plenty of choices when it comes to accommodation.
We opted for H2O hostel, just a stone’s throw from the Dragon bridge in the centre of the old town.
Smart, clean and immaculately renovated there’s not much not to like about this place. With a view over the river from our room and restricted access to the street outside (for vehicles), it was a surprisingly peaceful spot for a city centre. We booked a private room that was small, but offered great value considering the location. After all, we weren’t planning to spend much time indoors – we wanted to get out and explore.
Would I stay here again? Absolutely. Great location, all the facilities we needed, and a clean, comfortable space. Everything we needed for the right price.
Charming might be an overused word, but there are few words that better describe Ljubljana. Our stay here was as springboard to more adventures up in the Slovenia Alps (more posts to come soon!), but it was a real highlight of our trip.
Not only is the city undeniably beautiful, it’s easy to get around and compact enough to feel like you’ve got know it well in just a few days. But there’s also an authenticity and vibrancy to the atmosphere that’s immediately likeable, and makes you want to stay.
I’ll admit that mid-summer isn’t the best time for a city break, speaking from experience. I’ve sweltered in Paris and melted in Warsaw. But if you want to get away at this time of year, Ljubljana delights and surprises in equal measures. Down by the fast-flowing waters of the Ljubljanica, it feels cool even when it’s not. The luscious woodland shade of Castle Hill and Tivoli is delicious on a hot day. And it’s such a laid back city, it seems impossible to get hot and bothered – even when it’s roasting. I’m going throw all caution to wind and say that it’s a city that’s at its best this time of year.
Would I come back? In a flash.
We spent almost two weeks in Slovenia this summer. If you want to find out more about our adventures, check out my posts about Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, or read more about planning your own itinerary for Slovenia.