Ljubljana is described as “a small capital with a green soul”, which means there’s plenty more to visually feast on than the gorgeous old town architecture. Central Slovenia is a blanket of nature filled with lakes, hills and mountains, and since 70% of Slovenian’s live in the countryside, the cities simply slot into this nature haven.
Like most city trips I take, I combine my time with exploration outside of it, taking in the best of urban sightseeing and active rural exploration for alternative feels and views of this region. With plenty of tempting outdoor adventure activities in Ljubljana right on its doorstep, it wasn’t hard not to get a taste of wider Slovenian landscape and culture.
Day trip activities in Ljubljana – Velika Planina Shepherd Settlement
Velika Planina is the oldest and largest shepherd settlement in Europe nestled in the Slovenian Alps. It’s said that some of the structures date back to the 16th century and today it is still home to the shepherds that return here in the summer and keep old traditions alive. One of the most notable things here is the unique architecture of the huts, which you can wander around freely in the seasons where the shepherds have departed.
It’s a real taste of rural life not far from Ljubljana. It takes around one hour to get to the town of Kamnik from the city, and from here to take a cable car up into the Kamnik Alps (or hike!).
Pristine, picture perfect scenes await as you walk towards the settlement. Look out for the golden roof amongst the architecturally vivid silvery grey structures.
Stopping for tea and cake (as in the Slovenian way), we were able to learn about the tradition of Trnič hard cheese that is made only on Velika Planina. This long-standing tradition is a symbol of love, and there’s a story as to why the cheese is shaped to represent a woman’s breasts. The herdsmen would make the cheese while working on the high plains, made from a mixture of cottage cheese, cream and salt and kneaded together.
The pair of cheeses would be engraved with symbols and patterns and left to dry and harden, and upon their return in the autumn at the end of grazing season where they would have worked for months, the shepherd would give one to their beloved as a proof of their love and fidelity. The other they would keep for themselves. If the woman accepted the cheese, it meant they were officially together. Note to self if a Slovenian man offers me cheese.
Seeing that the tradition of this very unique place was dying out, the Taste Kamnik project decided to revive it and preserve it, training new generations on how to make (and decorate) the cheese, which is still used in traditional restaurants today, even where a modern cuisine twist is served.
If driving to the area, the bottom cable car station is located in the Kamniška Bistrica Valley, next to the Kamp Alpe campsite. If you want to take on longer hiking routes and stay over night, there is the Zeleni Rob guesthouse next to the upper cable car station. Local guides can also accompany you here.
Climbing activities in Ljubljana – Šmarna Gora Peak
What glorious feeling to know there is a small mountain nearby to climb, a stand-alone giant mound in the region known as Gorenjska. Šmarna Gora sits 664m above sea level in the north easternmost part of Ljubljana and was less than a half an hour drive to its base to start the ascent. Legend has it that it is nothing more than a pile of rocks made by a giant called Hrust, and when the local people didn’t like it he got mad and stamped on it, making the two ‘humps’ we see today.
It takes a round one-hour to climb at a moderate pace, and a little fatigued from city wandering and six hours of biking the day before, I was a little slower. Plus, clambering on tree roots and through a forest of high-topped trees meant lots of temptation to stop and take in the untouched nature, from floor to ceiling.
While not just a religious pilgrimage, the climb leads to the ‘summit’ where you’ll find one of the countries most important churches. Šmarna Gora is named after Virgin Mary (Šmaren meaning ‘Feast of the Assumption’). It is said she chose the hill as the place of worship and the Christian Church (said to date back to the 13th or 14th century) was built in her memory. Even if you are not a frequent church visitor for the cultural aspect, it’s worth a visit just for the frescos – a colourful palate and impressive display of artistry depicting the life of Mary and her Assumption. It has been decorated and restored since the 1800s after a new church built in the early 1700s due to the number of pilgrims over the years.
In the 15th century, a defence wall was built around the church to defend it from Turkish raids, where locals sought shelter. You’ll find the bells in the church tower, converted from a watchtower.
A traditional lunch at Gostilna Ledinek set to a panoramic view is the ultimate reward for the climb, joining other avid hikers who come here for the Slovenian tea, and dishes like ‘žganci’ (boiled lumps of buckwheat flour served with little cubes of fat and a bowl of sour milk).
It tasted much better than it looks and it’s a rite of passage to dig into this carb-load when you arrive (honestly). Leave room for the melt-in-the-mouth blueberry strudel. I think it may be the best strudel I’ve had (sorry, Austria!).
Šmarna Gora is not a complex hike and is easy to tackle solo. Get a taxi from the city to its base.
However, there are local guides who can accompany you on hikes such as those to Šmarna Gora. All can be booked from the Tourism Office in the heart of Ljubljana Old Town at Adamič-Lundrovo nabrežje.
Cycling activities in Ljubljana – The Marshes and Lake Podpeč
I met cycle guide master, Tine who runs various half and full day biking tours from cultural, culinary and high adventure. He’s sparky, fun and full of facts to accompany the natural sights. I went to the Iški Vintgar Gorge tour, extending it to a full day in a 20km+ round-trip, through Slovenian countryside, typical villages, and stopping off at gorges, lakes, national parks and waterfalls.
Continuing things in true Ljubljana design style, the very first stop was to the Church of St. Michael in the marshes, designed by none other than the father of all remarkable design here – Jože Plečnik. The stairs on its façade look like a puzzle, but actually lead up to the belfry and the interior, made entirely of wood, has elements of Japanese temple design. Out in the marshes, it certainly makes a stand and remains as one of Plečnik’s early and original architectural creations.
From marshes to woodland, we cycled to the Iški Morost Nature Reserve, through the traditional village of Brest towards the Iški Vintgar gorge on the River Iška. Both a good reprieve from the sun and a short break from the biking, this stop was an introduction to the conservation practices in Slovenia, and the preserved environments surrounding the rural habitation. If you have time there is a 1.3-kilometre nature trail where you can learn more about its biodiversity.
The third part of the trip was the highlight – arriving at Podpeč Lake. Slovenia is known for it’s late and while Bled dominates, the smaller ones are still stunning.
Podpeč Lake is one of the deepest natural lakes in all of Slovenia and against the green and underneath a piercing blue sky, it sparkles and calls for you to take some precious moments to sit, relax, contemplate, or jump onto its inviting waters (just as you’ll see the locals do in rejuvenation).
Alas, after relaxation and lunch at the lake, refuelling called for more adventure and it was time to hike up the 25km path of St. Ana Hill for panoramic views over the wetlands and looking out towards Ljubljana. On a clear day you can even spot the Alps!
Guide: Tine Zupančič from LB&T Vegov hram (www.vegovhram)
Hiking tours run from from 15 April to 30 October. Hiking tours take place throughout the year, weather permitting. All tours require a minimum of two persons to operate and work to all difficulty levels.
Prices, which start from €36, include bike and equipment, lunch and return transfer from Ljubljana. I took the Iški Vintgar gorge tour and extended it to an all day trip (which is possible).
Ljubljana, surrounded by nature, is the perfect base from which to springboard into wider, countryside-laden Slovenia. Slovenia is so small it is said you can visit any point of the country in a day, so why not get a taste for the different landscapes using the capital as a base?
Things to Know:
How to Get to Ljubljana and Around
- Well connected by rail, European buses like Flix and by plane, the Slovenian company GoOpti also operates car transfers between neighbouring cities and neighbouring country airports in Germany, Austria, Croatia and Italy. We took the GoOpti transfer from Graz to Ljubljana and I also took it back to Vienna from Ljubljana, where you share a car with other travellers booked on the same journey or route. You are reminded about your journey via text both 24 hours before and when your vehicle has arrived.
Where to Stay in Ljubljana as a Base
- I stayed in Hotel Galleria, a part of the Old Town and on its quiet fringes. It sits on the corner of some restaurants and coffee shops (which are open until late!), and is a five minute walk to the very centre of the old town where the action is.
- The former prison turned design hostel in the alternative area of Metlekova is called Celica Art Hostel, with 20 unique cell rooms to choose from. It’s five minutes walk from the main train station and 10 to the very heart of town.
- For those looking for luxury, the 4 star Grand Union Hotel, just metres from Prešeren Square and the Triple Bridge. From the early 20th century, it is the oldest in the city, built during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. It is considered to be one of the most significant Art Nouveau architectural structures in central Europe.
What time of the Year is Best to Visit Ljubljana?
- Ljubljana is considered to have a ‘continental climate’ making it both a winter haven, given the rolling green that surrounds it, and with beautiful Mediterranean climate in the summer months.
For further information:
- To plan your day trips and excursions from Ljubljana, visit the Ljubljana tourism website for further information and temptation.
My trip to Ljubljana was a combination of a #EuroCityTrip project to highlight the city as a ‘cool neighbour’ to Austria’s second largest city of Graz in partnership with both city tourism offices.