WHAT TO DO
Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-blyah-nuh ) is the capital of Slovenia and one of Europe's greenest and most livable cities. It was the European Commission's Green Capital of Europe in 2016. Car traffic is restricted in the city center, leaving the leafy banks of the emerald green Ljubljanica River, which flows through the city's heart, free for pedestrians and cyclists. In summer, cafes set up terrace seating along the river and it feels like a nightly street party. Slovenia's master of modern design, Joze Plecnik, graced the city with beautiful bridges and buildings as well as dozens of urban design elements such as pillars, pyramids and lamp posts. Ljubljana was under Habsburg rule from the Middle Ages until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. After World War II, it became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It retained this status until Slovenia became independent in 1991 and Ljubljana became the capital of the newly formed state. The symbol of the city is the Ljubljana Dragon, which you will see all over town. With wonderful architecture, excellent museums and fantastic restaurants, Ljubljana is sure to please.
The city is best explored on foot and the first spot to start your adventure is in the heart of the Old Town at Stari Trg. This square is lined with 19th century wooden shopfronts, quiet courtyards and cobblestone passageways. From behind the medieval houses on the eastern side, paths once led to Castle Hill, which was a source of water. The buildings fronting the river had large passageways built to allow drainage in case of flooding. From there, head across the river to the splendid Presernov Trg. The highlight of Ljubljana's wonderful architectural aesthetic is this marvelous square, a public space of understated elegance that serves not only as the link between the Center district and the Old Town but also as the city's favorite meeting point. Taking pride of place is the Preseren monument - erected in honor of Slovenia’s greatest poet, France Preseren. Note: on the base of the statue are motifs from his poems. Running south from Presernov Trg to the Old Town is the much celebrated Triple Bridge, originally called Spital (Hospital) Bridge. When it was built as a single span in 1842 it was nothing spectacular, but between 1929 and 1932 superstar architect Joze Plecnik added the two pedestrian side bridges, furnished all three with stone balustrades and lamps, and forced a name change. Stairways on each of the side bridges lead down to the tree lined terraces along the Ljubljanica River. Nearby is the excellent Central Market. Go first to the vast open air market (Trznica na Prostem) just across Triple Bridge to the southeast of Presernov Trg on Vodnikov Trg. Here you'll find a daily (except Sunday) farmers market. In the neighboring square - Pogacarjev Trg - there are always stalls selling everything from foraged wild mushrooms and forest berries to honey and homemade cheeses. Be sure to score some of the delicious local cherries. Pogacarjev Trg also hosts an organic market on Wednesdays and Sundays, and on Fridays from March to October it's the venue for Odprta Kuhna 'Open Kitchen' - a weekly food fair with local and international specialties cooked on site from restaurants around the city and beyond. The covered market nearby also sells meats and cheeses, and there's a fish market below the Plecnik Colonnade.
Next, make your way up to the majestic Ljubljana Castle. The easiest way to access the castle is to take the 230 foot long funicular that leaves from the Old Town not far from Vodnikov Trg. Cable cars leave at regular intervals throughout the day and you can buy tickets on site - ticket options include castle entry or funicular only. Crowning a 1230 foot high hill east of the Old Town, this castle is an architectural mishmash, with most of it dating from the early 16th century when it was largely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake. Note: it’s free to ramble around the castle grounds, but you’ll have to pay to enter the Watchtower, the Chapel of Saint George and the worthwhile Slovenian History Exhibition. The castle's 19th century Watchtower is located on the southwestern side of the castle courtyard. The climb to the top, via a double wrought iron staircase (95 steps from the museum level) and a walk along the ramparts, is worth the effort for the commanding views down into the Old Town and across the river. Within the Watchtower, there is a brief video tour of Ljubljana and its history in several languages. Situated below the Watchtower, down a small flight of stairs, the remarkable Chapel of Saint George (Kapela Sv Jurija) is one of the oldest surviving remnants of the castle, dating from 1489. It is covered in frescoes and the coats of arms of the Dukes of Carniola. The interesting and well presented Slovenian History Exhibition (Razstava Slovenska Zgodovina) looks at the country through the ages - running from the very earliest Roman times, through the Middle Ages, the 19th century, both World Wars, and ending with socialist Yugoslavia and independence. Take the funicular from the upper station back down the hill and head to Novi Trg (New Square). South of the pedestrian Cobblers' Bridge, this was a walled settlement of fishermen outside the town administration in the Middle Ages. Remnants include the very narrow street to the north called Zidovska ulica and its offshoot Zidovska steza (Jewish Lane), once the site of a medieval synagogue. The Ljubljana National & University Library is architect Joze Plecnik’s masterpiece, completed in 1941. To appreciate this great man’s philosophy, enter through the main door (note the horse head doorknobs) at Turjaska ulica 1 - you’ll find yourself in near darkness, entombed in black marble. As you ascend the steps, you will emerge into a gallery bathed in light - the light of knowledge, according to the architect’s plans. The Main Reading Room (Velika Citalnica), open to non students only by group tour in July and August, has huge glass walls and some stunning lamps - also designed by Plecnik. After appreciating this architectural delight, stop off at the close by Park Tivoli. Laid out in 1813, this 1200 acre park is the city's leafy playground and the perfect spot for a stroll or some down time. One of the highlights of this green space is yet another Plecnik treasure, the monumental Jakopic Promenade. It runs through the park and creates a linear visual axis from Tivoli Castle through Presernov Trg, over the Triple Bridge and ends at Ljubljana Castle. Also known as the Plecnik Promenade, it hosts various art exhibitions throughout the year.
Ljubljana Town Hall is located at Mestni Trg 1. The seat of the city government and sometimes referred to as the Magistrat or Rotovz, the town hall was erected in the late 15th century and rebuilt in 1718. The Gothic courtyard inside, arcaded on three levels, is where theatrical performances once took place. Note: one hour guided tours are offered in English on Saturdays at 1p. Not far away is the much loved (and photographed) Dragon Bridge. Topped with four scary looking dragons on each corner, it stands northeast of the Old Town - just beyond Vodnikov Trg. The bridge was built in Viennese secession (art nouveau) style and dates from 1900. Ljubljana has a number of wonderful museums and I would like to share some of my favorites. The Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia is located at Celovska cesta 23. Housed in the 18th century Cekin Mansion (Grad Cekinov), it traces the history of Slovenia in the 20th century through multimedia and artifacts. Notice the contrast between the sober earnestness of the communist era rooms and the exuberant commercialism of the industrial exhibits. The sections focusing on Ljubljana under occupation during World War II are very effective. The gloriously baroque Ceremonial Hall (Viteska Dvorana) on the 1st floor is how the entire mansion once looked. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. The National Gallery of Slovenia can be found at Presernova cesta 24. Founded in 1918, it is home to the country's finest works of art. Housed over two floors in an old building (1896) and a modern wing, it exhibits copies of medieval frescoes and wonderful Gothic statuary as well as Slovenian landscapes from the 17th to 19th centuries (check out works by Romantic painters Pavel Kunl and Marko Pernhart). Other highlights include: impressionists Jurij Subic (Before the Hunt) and Rihard Jakopic (Birches in Autumn), the pointillist Ivan Grohar (Larch) and Slovenia’s most celebrated female painter, Ivana Kobilca (Summer). The bronzes by Franc Berneker and Alojz Gangl are exceptional. In the entrance vestibule stands the original Robba Fountain, which was moved here from Mestni Trg in the Old Town in 2008. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. The Museum of Modern Art is at Cankarjeva cesta 15 and it houses the very best in modern Slovenian art. Keep an eye out for works by painters Tone Kralj (Family), the expressionist France Mihelic (The Quintet) and the surrealist Stane Kregar (Hunter at Daybreak) - as well as sculptors including Jakob Savinsek (Protest). The museum also owns works by the influential 1980s and 1990s multimedia group Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK; Suitcase for Spiritual Use: Baptism under Triglav) and the artists’ cooperative Irwin (Capital). Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday. The excellent City Museum of Ljubljana, established in 1935, focuses on the town's history and culture via imaginative multimedia and interactive displays. The reconstructed street that once linked the eastern gates of the Roman colony of Emona (today’s Ljubljana) to the Ljubljanica River and the collection of well preserved classical artifacts in the basement treasury are worth a visit in themselves. So too are the models of buildings that the celebrated architect Joze Plecnik never got around to constructing. The museum is located at Gosposka ulica 15 and is open from 10a-6p, closed Monday.
Ljubljana Cathedral, officially named Saint Nicholas's Church or Cathedral of Saint Nicholas can be found at Dolnicarjeva ulica 1. A church has stood here since the 13th century, but the existing twin towered building dates from the start of the 18th century. Inside it’s a vision of pink marble, white stucco and gilt and contains a collection of baroque frescoes. Have a look at the magnificent carved choir stalls, the grand organ and the angels on the main altar. Two stunning bronze doors, now blackened, were added in 1996 to commemorate a visit by Pope John Paul II. The (main) west door facing the Bishop’s Palace recounts the history of 1250 years of Christianity in Slovenia. The six bishops on the south door fronting Ciril Metodov Trg depict the history of the Ljubljana diocese. The 17th century, red colored (symbolic of the Franciscan monastic order) Franciscan Church of the Annunciation stands on the northern side of Presernov Trg. The interior has six side altars and an enormous choir stall. The main altar was designed by the Italian sculptor Francesco Robba, and to the left of the main altar is a glass fronted coffin with the remains of Saint Deodatus. After taking in some holy sites, do enjoy a few more architectural achievements. Miklosiceva Cesta is a half mile long thoroughfare that links Presernov Trg with the train and bus stations - the southern end boasts a splendid array of secessionist buildings. Noteworthy structures along the stretch include the People’s Loan Bank at No 4, the one time Cooperative Bank at No 8, and, just opposite, the Grand Hotel Union - the grande dame of Ljubljana hotels, built in 1905. A few blocks to the north is Miklosicev Park, laid out by Slovenian urban planner Maks Fabiani in 1902. Note: many of the buildings facing the park are art nouveau masterpieces. Conclude your architecture tour with a visit to the Plecnik House Museum, located at Karunova ulica 4 in the Trnovo neighborhood. This small house is where local architect Joze Plecnik lived and worked for almost 40 years. There's an excellent introduction by hourly guided tour to this almost ascetically religious man's life, inspiration and work. Note: the museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday.
Finally, one cannot leave Ljubljana without making a trip up to Lake Bled. Located northwest of the city center (one hour by car), the spectacular Lake Bled is picture perfection. With its blue green lake, picture postcard church on a small island, a medieval castle clinging to a rocky cliff and some of the highest peaks of the Julian Alps - Bled is Slovenia's most popular resort. Be sure to take a ride on a pletna (gondola) out to tiny Bled Island. It will set you down on the south side of the island at the monumental South Staircase (Juzno Stopnisce), built in 1655. Climb the 99 steps to the top and visit the Church of the Assumption. This baroque church dates from the 17th century, though there’s been a church here since the 9th century. Go inside to see some fresco fragments from the 15th century, a large gold altar and part of the apse of a pre Romanesque chapel. The 15th century belfry contains a 'wishing bell' you can ring to ask a special favor. Note: the admission charge for the church includes entry to the Bell Tower with pendulum clock. Also worth noting, the cafe next to the church is famous for its specialty cakes.
WHERE TO EAT
Ljubljana has plenty of great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Kavarna Zvezda, located at Wolfova ulica 14. Perhaps the best old world cafe in town, it has several varieties of tea and coffee, but is celebrated for its house made cakes, particularly its skutina pecena - similar to cheesecake. For excellent espresso, head to Magda at Pogacarjev Trg 1. It does a unique 'tapas style' breakfast menu, where you choose from local meats and cheeses. A nice touch is the craft gins and homemade brandies on offer - a great way to start your day. Ljubljana's top spot for brunch is Ek Bistro, found at Petkovskovo nabrezje 65. Go with the avocado toast on homemade bread or the eggs Benedict on fresh baked English muffins and wash it down with a glass of freshly squeezed something. Krasevka is a fantastic delicatessen with more than 300 products from local farms. Located at Vodnikov Trg 4, it stocks all kinds of meats and cheeses - as well as wines and spirits, oils and vinegars, and honeys and marmalades.
For a pleasant lunch, try Monstera Bistro at Gosposka ulica 9. Chef Bine Volcic delivers top quality, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. The three course (starter, main, dessert) menu is the way to go, and make sure you book in advance. Just opposite the Academy of Music at Stari Trg 21, Druga Violina is an extremely pleasant and affordable place for a meal in the Old Town. There are lots of Slovenian dishes, including ajdova kasa z jurcki (buckwheat grains with porcini mushrooms) and obara (a thick stew of chicken and vegetables), on the menu. Note: it's a social enterprise designed to help those with disabilities. Another such place is Gostilna Dela, found at Poljanska cesta 7. This delightful bistro serves tasty homestyle cuisine, only much better. From the soups and the meat and vegetarian main courses to the housemade struklji (dumplings), it's all memorable. Dela (work) is helping to create job opportunities for local youth otherwise excluded from the working world. If you're in the mood for pork, oink your way to Gostilna Jakob Franc at Trnovski pristan 4 in the Trnovo neighborhood. Jakob Franc is a Slovenian wunderkind who's taken concepts such as farm fresh and whole animal and applied them to local pig varieties. The results are satisfying dishes including the smoked pork neck on buckwheat porridge with mushrooms.
A very popular spot is Pop's Place, located at Cankarjevo nabrezje 3. This centrally located craft beer and burger bar has evolved into a must visit. The burgers, with locally sourced beef and brioche style buns, are excellent - as are the beers and cocktails. The dining area feels festive, with an open kitchen behind the bar and communal tables out front for diners to rub elbows and compare burgers. An additional awesome joint is Klobasarna at Ciril Metodov Trg 15. This hole in the wall eatery in the Old Town specializes in the most Slovenian of dishes, Kranjska klobasa - an EU protected fatty sausage. I devoured mine with a bit of bread, mustard and horseradish. If you’re really hungry, add jota (a hearty soup of beans and pickled turnip) or ricet (a thick barley stew). For more street food, Burek Olimpija can be found at Slovenska cesta 58 and it's open around the clock - particularly helpful if you've had one too many adult beverages. Snag one of the greasy (but delicious) filo dough pies, stuffed with meat or cheese, for takeaway. For some serious ice cream, head to Gelateria Romantika at Dvorni Trg 1. Some might say this isn't just Ljubljana's best ice cream, but some of the best in the world. The diverse flavor combinations (pumpkin seed oil, potica cake, cucumber) are a welcome change from the traditional chocolate and pistachio. Note: the lines are usually long every day of the week.
For dinner, try Taverna Tatjana. This charming little tavern on the far end of Gornji Trg (No 38) specializes in fish and seafood. It's housed in several vaulted rooms of an atmospheric old townhouse with wooden ceiling beams, and the fish is fresher than a spring shower. Go for something you wouldn’t normally find elsewhere such as brodet (Croatian fish stew with polenta) or cuttlefish black risotto. In warmer weather, try to score a table in the lovely back courtyard. Manna is located at Eipprova ulica 1. Splashed across the front of this canalside restaurant in the Trnovo neighborhood is the slogan ‘Manna: Bozanske Jedi na Zemlji’ (Manna: Heavenly Dishes on Earth). Its divine contemporary Slovenian cuisine includes delicacies such as cold smoked trout and tiny traditional dumplings (zlikrofi) of bear meat from Kocevje, Slovenia. For mains there's plenty of fish from the Adriatic Sea and a scrumptious roast lamb dish. Manna has a wonderful covered inner terrace for dining almost al fresco. One of the top restaurants in town is JB Restavracija, found at Miklosiceva cesta 17. This stately eatery occupies a 1920s Plecnik designed building with vaulted ceilings. Old World charm, a hybrid menu featuring Slovenian, French and Mediterranean dishes, a top notch wine list and very stylish decor have made this restaurant one of the most popular in town for a memorable meal. Feast your way through chef Janez Bratovz' epic six course tasting menu. Highlights included Adriatic tuna stuffed with seaweed and ginger cream and young fried green onions, along with Slovenian Mangalitsa Pork Crackling with egg yolk and two creams.
In Ljubljana, the finest restaurants offer unique experiences - none more so than Strelec and Gostilna na Gradu, both of which are situated inside Ljubljana Castle. Strelec is haute cuisine from on high - the Archer's Tower of Ljubljana Castle, no less - with a menu that traces the city's history chosen by ethnologist Janez Bogataj and prepared by Igor Jagodic, recognized as one of the top chefs in Slovenia. Tasting menus range between three and nine courses - be sure to try chef's 'poor man's bread', a potato stuffed with egg yolk, potato foam and truffles in red wine; the scrumptious local sulec freshwater trout (or Danube salmon) with Jerusalem artichokes prepared several ways; and his signature apple strudel. The wine list is impressive and the sommelier even more so. Note: reservations are highly recommended. Gostilna na Gradu is much too stylish to be just a gostilna (inn like restaurant). The award winning chefs use only Slovenian sourced breads, cheeses and meats, and age old recipes to prepare a meal to remember. If you really want to taste your way across the country, try the five course gourmet tasting menu - it is so choice. Note: book in advance.
End your evening in Ljubljana with a drink or two. Located along the Ljubljanica River at Cankarjevo nabrezje 13 is Slovenska Hisa. Choose from artisanal coffees, wines, lemonades, cocktails and spirits - featuring ingredients sourced only in Slovenia. Order one of the inventive meat and cheese plates to soak up the booze. Found at Krekov Trg 7 is the cool Klub Daktari. This rabbit warren of a watering hole at the foot of the funicular to Ljubljana Castle is super chill. The decor is retro distressed, with shelves full of old books and a piano in the corner. More a cultural center than a club, it hosts live music and an eclectic mix of other cultural events. Another rad spot is Postaja Centralna at Trubarjeva cesta 23. This classy place is a cocktail bar, with street art tags on the walls and lots of dazzling neon, a club with DJs on weekends (open til 3a), and a cafe with its own homemade fruit teas. It's also a gallery where anyone can exhibit and an information center with a surplus of brochures and two computers for plotting your next move in Slovenia. My favorite watering hole in town is Kolibri Cocktail Bar, located on a hidden corner at Zidovska steza 2. The environment is intimate and the bartenders are friendly and cultured. The drinks are exquisitely crafted - do try the Clever Club (tequila, fresh lemon juice, egg white, raspberry puree). Note: the bar is open from 7p-1a and is closed on Sunday. For wine aficionados, visit Wine Bar Suklje at Breg 10. This upscale tasting room is the perfect choice for sampling wines from around Slovenia. The owner is a winemaker and has a knowledgeable palate for assembling tasting flights plus meat and cheese plates to space the tastings. It also sells bottles from the family winery in the southeastern region of Bela Krajina and from select wineries around the country. Note: the bar is open every day from 9a-11p, 4p on Sunday.
WHERE TO STAY
Ljubljana offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Vander Urbani, located at Krojaska ulica 6. This trendy boutique hotel is nestled under Ljubljana Castle on the leafy banks of the Ljubljanica River. The 20 exceptionally designed rooms with light color schemes offer smart TVs, iPod/iPhone docks and complimentary WiFi. There's a modern Mediterranean restaurant and a wine cellar with top quality wines from Slovenia and abroad. Other amenities include a rooftop terrace with an infinity pool and a sleek yoga studio.
A second option is Hotel Cubo, located at Slovenska cesta 15. It is a short distance from Ljubljana Cathedral and the Triple Bridge. This contemporary boutique hotel offers 26 rooms decorated in a sleek modern design. Featuring stylish decor and furnishings, the hip rooms offer flat screen TVs, minibars, and tea and coffeemakers. All also provide free WiFi and designer toiletries. Complimentary breakfast is served in a refined restaurant which also offers a lunch menu specializing in seafood dishes. Additional perks include a bar, a gym and a business center.
Ljubljana has fantastic architecture, wonderful museums and excellent restaurants. This beautiful city is without doubt one of Europe's best kept secrets. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.