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. Perfect as part of a multi-country city hopping trip, you’ll be surprised how much they have in common being so close to one another.
Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana is all the pretty things you hear about.
Except Ljubljana is more than the sum of its charming Old Town status that many do not look beyond, thereby setting a course in time for overcrowding as well as missing out on the young, artistic minds that have come to also shape the city.
Ljubljana is a mix of the old and charming, dominated by the architectural visions of the father of design, Plečnik; the hip cultural and art scene alive in alternative neighbourhoods and the student influence; and with access to relaxation and adventure in the surrounding countryside, where 70% of Slovenia’s population reside.
It’s a small capital city combining all means of exploration and interests in one. Being located in the centre of Slovenia means having a pivotal point to explore all corners of the country easily, which can be easily done via day trips. And that’s before you start thinking of your ‘Euro City Trip’ further, and how you are easily connected and in good distance to neighbouring Italy and Croatia, as well as Austria and Ljubljana’s ‘sister city’ and cool neighbour of Graz (which was the city hopping route I took).
Ljubljana has a ‘small town feel’ but with big European capital vibes, which is what you can expect from a capital that is nestled between central Europe and the Mediterranean.
My four days there was a perfect introduction to the variation of European capitals in central Europe and to my first foray into Slovenia. Here’s my guide to Ljubljana and its multi-faceted layers for all kinds of curious traveller. Living in Austria, I certainly have no excuses to not return…
Ljubljana Charm: The Old Town
Like any visitor, the Old Town was top of my list to explore. Like most former medieval strongholds, it’s compact yet full of a long, historical timeline of architectural styles and charms. In Ljubljana, this means endless cobblestone conveyor belts of streets that present numerous bridges, intricate townhouse facades, palaces, fountains, statues, monuments, churches and squares (of which Trg Republike next to the Slovenian parliament building is the largest).
Place all of that within the Mediterranean atmosphere of streets lined with tables, humming outdoor markets, a slew of coffee shops and those revelling in wine tasting and locals casually wheeling past pastel boulevards on their bicycles, and you’ve got yourself a very attractive city.
A city that has preserved a huge timelines of historical changes, which is what cultural geeks like me get really excited about.
There are still remains of the Roman city of Emona in the serene, green-filled outer city suburb of Trnovo – one of the oldest areas of the city, built outside of the city medieval walls, that used to be home to the fisherman.
Then you have the remnants of the medieval days including the 15th century old town hall on Mestni trg and when you stroll Vegova Ulica Street to follow the course of the former medieval town wall, where a tower still stands at the end of the street.
Renaissance era and Baroque (the latter designs found mostly in Stari trg, the oldest part of the city) fill the town, as they do in most European cities, providing the kind of charming city campus we all love to experience in variation across the continent. In Ljubljana, the more quirky Art Nouveau structures from the early 20th century can be found in the area between the old city and railway station.
The Dragon’s Bridge, adorned with giant emerald green dragon figures is the city’s first Art Nouveau creation made in 1901.
Then of course, there is the design works of Plečnik – Ljubljana’s famous architect and urban designer.
Ljubljana’s Modern Architectural Legacy: Jože Plečnik’s Urban Design
In Vienna, I live just minutes from some structures designed by the Slovenian father of design. He left his visionary marks in many parts of Europe (having studied in Graz, Vienna and later becoming the Chief Architect in charge of Prague castle renovation), but he transformed his hometown of Ljubljana in the period between the two world wars (the era referred to as ‘Plečnik’s Ljubljana’).
All his works in Ljubljana were created in less than 20 years and his constructions here are rated some of the most prominent works of European art of the 20th Century. You likely stumble or stroll upon them without realising but the main design works include:
The Cobbler’s Bridge (connecting Mestini trg to Stari trg) designed to be a ‘square’ above the water.
The Triple Bridge (where two bridges were added to an original stone bridge) and the Butcher’s bridge (to create more space in the central market’s colonnade for trading) which you can spot by the love locks and opaque floor.
There’s also the Žale Cemetery, the promenade in Tivoli Park (Ljubljana’s largest) and the National and University Library.
I visited the NUK Café in the library to take part in an honourary Plečnik tradition – for tea, just as it was made for him by his housekeeper, in a strainer cup just like the one he used, and served with a honey biscuit (Plečnik loved honey) – before heading to his house (Karunova 4-6) in Trnovo that is now a permanent exhibition and has been left the exact same way since his death in 1957.
You can grab a map of Plečnik’s 39 works in Ljubljana from the Tourism Information centre and go on a self-guided walk.
Modern Slovenian Cuisine in Old Ljubljana. Reinventing Tradition
Not only is it about the architecture, but Ljubljana thrives on the atmosphere that comes from the food and drink scene that mixes traditional with the modern in a city where young local chefs and international kitchen wizards are the force behind the reinvention.
We had lunch in Atelje, cooked up by one of Ljubljana’s award-winning chefs. Other recommendations include healthy menu of Mala Terasa Bistro in the Skyscraper Nebotičnik for food with a view, and to sample the international influence of Slovenian cuisine check out the Japanese chef influence at Bazilika and the middle-eastern feasts at Abi Falafel.
However, to get a real taste for how vast the option are in Ljubljana, the Open Kitchen Market should be top of your list. Every Friday the best chefs and city eateries come together, each with their own stall for locals and visitors to enjoy dishes on the spot. All washed down with fines wines, a good crowd and some music pumping in the background. It’s crowded, but for good reason.
Ljubljana Castle: The Symbol of the City
If there was ever a breakfast so wonderfully presented 376 metres on the hill, it is at the restaurant Gostilna na Gradu at Ljubljana castle and a great way to begin the exploration up here. In showcasing traditional eats and local ingredients, this breakfast serving is a part of a project established in 2015 giving hoteliers and restaurants the chance to bring farm to table.
The site of a former fortress, military warehouse, army barracks, prison and even apartments is worth strolling, especially for the panorama views and walks along the old ramparts and towers.
It’s a complex catalogue of Ljubljana’s past – whose early beginnings in the early 1100’s are recorded before being turned into a stone fortress in the 13th century, where it came under the estate of the Habsburgs in 1335 who demolished it and rebuilt it as new. It was ‘repurchased’ in 1905 by the then major of Ljubljana from Austro-Hungarian authorities.
The castle is now the core symbol of the city and the most visited tourist attraction, complete with interactive exhibitions on Slovene and Ljubljana history. There’s even stones with fossils dating back 310 million years! So take the one-minute funicular ride up, whether for breakfast, the city views or to enjoy one of the many social and cultural events like theatre shows, open-air cinema screenings, ‘Castle Summer Nights’ concerts and major annual events, including the Pink Week Ball that I attended.
Modern, Gritty Ljubljana – The Alternative Arts Scene
I’m always seeking out the ‘other side’ to these pretty pastel old cities, and of course in Ljubljana, artists have found their space for expression.
While small murals can be found in the old town, like the images above, you’ll know when you’ve crossed into the more gritty neighbourhoods.These corners of the city are home to street art, sculpture art, and artist galleries and studios that are home to an underground music scene of alternative bars and clubs at night. I couldn’t imagine Ljubljana without this contrast, since it’s such a striking and fascinating difference to the Old Town.
Metelkova (which is a site of an abandoned barracks, turned urban squat, turned artists studios) is therefore the place to be to experience new Ljubljana, whose injection of cool partly comes from its 60,000 students.
In the day time, I loved photographing the eclectic mix of art, from wall mosaics to giant sculptures (including a horror-house looking façade of giant sperm), and at night I ventured out to revel with the cool kids and students of the city as they party in these clubs and gather in droves on these very streets. I got a good feel for the real Ljubljana as it stands today – young, vibrant and outrageously artistic.
The hostel on site, should you want to base yourself here, is a former prison where all rooms are former cells and made to still look like them (but with more comfortable touches!).
I was told there wasn’t a lot to see at the Rog Factory, which is a short walk away from Metelkova, but I disagree. Should the door to the site be open, it’s well worth a wander. One room was an ariel silk practice area, others artists were working away in their small studios and the courtyard was filled with junk art, murals and even a robot sculpture made of metal. It’s a fascinating, reformed space where anything goes.
Green Ljubljana – Adventures in City Nature
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. Look out for my next post where I will be exploring all the hiking, biking and countryside fun in and around Ljubljana, which you can easily combine with a trip to the city.
The heart of Slovenia and a lesser-known darling of central Europe, Ljubljana will charm you with its old town, but surprise you with how much more it has to offer. It might just be time to re-think your European city-hopping route.
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.
Attractions in Ljubljana
- The Ljubljana card is an all-inclusive card giving you access to over 20 major attractions and museums, travel on the city buses, a guided city tour and 24-hour Internet access. You can save 10% by booking online.
- 24 hours: €27
- 48 hours: €34
- 72 hours: €39
Where to Stay in Ljubljana
- 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.
Getting Around Ljubljana
- In the Old Town, which is a vehicle free zone, a free shuttle bus/buggy system called Kavalir (gentle helper) exists where you can get from one end of the Old Town to another quickly. It’s super handy at times, although the joy is in walking.
- If you want to use the bus (without a Ljubljana card), you will need to purchase an ‘Urbana’ card from a newspaper stand. It costs €2. Each bus tickets cost €1.20 and is valid for 90 minutes.
- Bikes are everywhere in Ljubljana, to the point where you’ll feel like you are in Amsterdam. Should you wish to join the city cyclists, bicycles can be hired in summer and autumn from the Slovenian Tourist Information Centre on Krekov trg 10, for €2 for 2 hours and €8 for two hours or more. You can also use the Bicike(LJ) hire network with 36 docking stations around the city. The first hour is free and every additional hour is €1. You have to register online first.
Ljubljana City Tours and Excursions in Slovenia
- There’s a whole host of city tours and day excursions, from culinary and cultural walks, to beer and bicycle tours, as well as day trips to many parts of Slovenia and neighbouring countries such as Italy. All can be booked from the Tourism Office in the heart of the Old Town on Adamič-Lundrovo nabrežje. Slovenia is so small, it is said you can visit any point of the country in a day.
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