The best things to see and do in Ljubljana, from castles to flea markets
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
The bijou Slovenian capital sings a greatest hits of European architecture, with baroque, medieval, art nouveau and even socialist-era realism all gloriously chiming together on its chocolate box-pretty streets. Thanks to impressively enlightened civic management, clean and green Ljubljana is also heavily pedestrianised, making it a joy to wander around its core, with a swathe of museums, parks and other attractions easily accessible on foot. The river is never far away and you’ll spend your time criss-crossing the Ljublanica, with omnipresent Ljubljana Castle another bedrock landmark handy for navigation. The public transport system is cheap and efficient, but you really won’t need it.
Cruise with Jason and his Argonauts
Legend has it that Ljubljana was founded when Jason and the Argonauts sailed up the Ljubljanica River and slew a dragon here (the dragon symbol appears everywhere, from bridges to lampposts). The best way to get acquainted with Ljubljana is by cruising on this lifeblood river, a charming experience as its Alpine waters are dappled with swaying willows, while some of the city’s finest architecture graces the riverbanks.
Insider tip: Myriad vessels now ply the Ljubljanica. The classiest is Barka, a solid wooden beauty lovingly sculpted for the task. Polished to within an inch of her sleek life, you’ll draw envious looks from passengers on other ramshackle vessels as you ease along.
No need these days to battle up the rugged ramparts of the capital’s hilltop fortress. Instead, take the little tourist train, hop on the funky funicular or – best of all – stroll up through the greenery while watching Ljubljana’s natural mountain amphitheatre setting unfold. The reward at the top is a fairytale castle that sports the best views of all. It also boasts a museum with artefacts and artworks from the city’s medieval past.
Insider tip: Don’t have lunch or dinner before you come up the castle, not when a brace of excellent restaurants await. Gostilna na Gradu offers immaculately authentic Slovenian dishes in a courtyard setting, while Strelec stars with tables sprinkled out on the ramparts, where the epic food is accompanied by equally epic views.
Ljubljana’s Old Town draws comparisons with Prague for its sweep of postcard-pretty baroque and medieval buildings. The finest are sprinkled along a trio of ‘squares’. Trg is loosely translated as ‘square’ in English, but these are more sinewy streets. Hansel and Gretel-style gems rise up on both sides of the cobbles on Mestni Trg, Stari Trg and Gornji Trg, which today are alive with shops, cafés, bars and restaurants.
Insider tip: If you really want to appreciate the historical charm of the Old Town, take a walk in the late hours amongst the street cleaners and closing up bar staff. The Old Town is most magical when hardly anyone else is around. Ditto early morning.
The Slovenian capital is home to some of the most impressive German art nouveau, or Jugendstil, architecture that you will find anywhere. Its epicentre is along Miklosiceva. Here, make sure to take in what lies at street level, but look upwards to catch the devil in the detail of the ornate façades and rooftops. Perhaps most striking of all is the dazzling Co-operative Bank building.
Insider tip: However independent a traveller you are, a guided tour of Ljubljana’s art nouveau architecture really brings it out in a way you just would not find on your own. Enquire at the tourist office on the Old Town side of Triple Bridge.
Contact: 00 386 01 306 1215; visitljubljana.com Price: Free, for bespoke guided tours see tourist office
Local luminary Joze Plecnik is to Ljubljana what Haussmann is to Paris. If anything, the seminal architect’s re-imagining of the Slovenian capital was even more comprehensive. Take a Plecnik-themed stroll along his revamped river banks, cross his dramatically reworked Triple Bridge and, best of all, savour his extraordinary functional modern style at the National University Library (NUK).
Insider’s tip:Tourists can usually only visit the National University Library’s café and its lobby, but on Saturdays between 2.30pm and 6pm you can take in the full drama of its interior, with the highlight the Reading Room.
Did you know that Ljubljana was once the Roman city of Emona? Or that the Italians occupied it in the Second World War and built a fence around the city whose route is now a cycle and walkway? You can find out more about all this and more at this fascinating and fun City Museum of Ljubljana, where you can even see sections of the old Roman settlement.
Insider tip: If you really want to get under the skin of this beguiling, multi-faceted city then arrange a guided tour of the museum – call ahead to arrange duration and price.
Right up until 1991 Ljubljana spent decades as a regional capital in the socialist state of Yugoslavia. Never part of the Soviet Union, Marshal Tito’s non-aligned country still sported its fair share of socialist-style architecture. Think classical grandeur mashed with brutalism and topped off with a liberal dash of concrete. The heart of the old socialist Ljubljana is on Trg Republike. It’s a strangely compelling world away from the Old Town.
Insider tip:If you want to pick up your very own socialist memorabilia head to the banks of the Ljubljanica on Sunday mornings when a flea market offers all sorts of weird and wonderful communist-era items.
The National Gallery is a striking, neoclassical building that art lovers will absolutely want to check out. The collection mainly focuses on domestic luminaries, particularly following the recent addition of a permanent exhibition on Slovenian Art from the 1870s onwards, which is well worth a visit. There is also an ever-changing array of temporary exhibitions.
Somehow this counter cultural oasis – and old miltary barracks – still survives on the fringes of what is a rapidly evolving modern city. Defying all attempts to close it down Metelkova still blossoms, and if anything the locals are starting to appreciate what it brings to Ljubljana. Its raffish bars and clubs are an antidote to the glossy tourist areas.
Insider’s tip:You can stay on the edge of Metelkova in an old prison. The Celica Hostel (which means ‘cell’ in Slovene) has been brilliantly fashioned by artists from all over the world with no two of the bedrooms alike.
Tivoli Park is a manicured city park set at an easily walkable distance from the centre. It offers a sweep of walkways, gardens and benches, with a welcome café on hand that sits prettily by a little pond. There are sometimes cultural events at the 17th-century mansion house too. If you want a break from the city this is it.
Insider’s tip: The hill (Roznik) that rises to the rear of Tivoli is a much less manicured getaway. Its forested slopes also have trails and fitness stations so it’s a great place if you fancy a life affirming stroll in the woods or a lung-bursting jog.
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