Do you love Europe, but are searching for a great new destination that’s not crawling with tourists? Look no further than Slovenia & its lovely capital Ljubljana. Europe guru Rick Steves puts it this way: “Tiny, overlooked Slovenia is one of Europe’s most unexpectedly charming destinations.”
And I wholeheartedly agree! Slovenia’s beautiful landscape and warm personality of its people feels more like Austria than the former Yugoslavia, from which it gained its independence in 1991. So, yes, you will definitely be hearing more about Slovenia & Ljubljana as hot new travel destinations.
In fact, Slovenia is part of the European Union, which it joined in 2004. And the Slovenes are known for being laid-back, easygoing, stylish and fun – which means they are very welcoming hosts.
I recently visited Slovenia for the first time on a “Crossroads of the Adriatic” tour with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) in October. We visited 4 former Yugoslavia countries and ended our tour in Ljubljana. We spent 3 nights & 2 delightful days there – during which time the town stole all of our hearts.
So, what makes Ljubljana so special? That is, besides having a name that is difficult to spell and a bit daunting to pronounce. But I promise it doesn’t take too long to master. This is how you say Ljubljana: Lyoob-lyee-AH-nah.
As Slovenia’s capital and largest city, Ljubljana has a population of just under 300,000. Plus, it’s a thriving university town (with 40-50K students in the City University), so it has youthful & hip vibe!
Its charming Old Town area is small & compact – complete with cobblestone pedestrian streets lined by cafes, restaurants and boutique shops. It is filled with a wide variety of beautiful buildings in many different architectural styles.
Adding to the city’s laid-back ambiance, the tranquil Ljubljanica River runs through the heart of the old city and there are many unique bridges crisscrossing it. Plus, a restored medieval castle sits majestically atop a hill just above town.
Ljubljana is on the cutting edge when it comes to architecture, public art, fashion and trendy pubs. Plus, the city is very eco-friendly, with current recycle rates at 65% and a lofty goal of 90%. The town is also quite bike friendly with many traffic-free zones. You’ll certainly see lots of locals speeding by you on bikes and scooters. So, be aware & careful not to “get biked”!
How To Make the Best of Your Time in Ljubljana
In this blog post, I want to share some highlights for visiting Ljubljana. I’ve listed 13 things to see & do. All of them are ones that my friends & I did – and we all really enjoyed. In planning your time in Ljubljana, hopefully, you’ll have a minimum of one full day in the old town to explore – and ideally even more!
1) Take a Guided Walking Tour of the Old Town
Soon after we arrived, we took a 2-hour walking tour with Robert, an excellent local guide. As I’m sure you’ll agree, a guided walking tour is a great way to get oriented to a new town or city. You learn historical facts and gain current insights into the place and its people. Plus, you can get trusted, local recommendations – like where to go for the best ice cream (my usual request!).
We met up with our guide at Prešeren Square (a common meeting place) and walked through the Old Town’s main pedestrian streets on both sides of the river. He showed us the main sights, including many of the bridges, the Cathedral, Town Hall and the market area.
My Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook mentions that Ljubljana’s Tourist Information (TI) office offers excellent 2-hour guided town walks in English, so you might want to check that out if you’re traveling independently.
2) Hang Out & People Watch in Prešeren Square
Prešeren Square is located right in the heart of the old city, where the Triple Bridge crosses the Ljubljanica River (photo above). You can’t miss one of its two major landmarks – the very pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.
The other one is a large statue of France Prešeren, Slovenia’s greatest poet (1800-1849). Notably, he wrote the lyrics to the Slovenian national anthem. The statue shows him being inspired from above by a Muse. And, yes, the Prešeren statue is the city’s main meeting place.
Prešeren Square is always buzzing with activity and filled with countless visitors & locals – along with a few street performers. Plus, passing by one day, I witnessed an actual CPR class being done open air out in the square. Gosh, that sure beats being cooped up inside a windowless Red Cross classroom!
3) Gawk at the Cathedral & Town Hall’s Beautiful Architecture
Ljubljana’s 18th century Cathedral may have a beautiful Italian Baroque interior. But, it’s particularly noteworthy for its intricate bronze doors with very symbolic carvings. They were created for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1996. Being from Poland, he was the first Slavic pontiff, including the pope who oversaw the fall of communism.
The nearby Town Hall (photo below) has operated for almost 500 years as the seat of the municipality. It’s housed in a lovely Baroque palace with Venetian influences, including the pretty clock tower. Be sure to actually go inside and check out its beautiful Renaissance courtyard.
You’ll find there are exhibit areas inside the Town Hall, plus paintings, artifacts and a map of late 17th century Ljubljana. I really enjoyed their special exhibit on Slovenia’s Olympic gymnastics champion for the 1964 & 1968 games.
4) Walk Along the River & Check Out the Many Distinctive Bridges
When visiting Ljubljana, you will soon learn about famed Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik (1872-1957). He greatly shaped Ljubljana, designing many of the city’s most important landmarks. In fact, the buildings and bridges he designed are considered as much a work of art as a successful effort in urban planning.
Some have said that Jože Plečnik is to Ljubljana what Antoni Gaudi is to Barcelona. High praise indeed! His designs include a few of the town’s beautiful bridges – including the landmark Triple Bridge (near Prešeren square) and the pillared Cobbler’s Bridge. This bridge was named for actual cobblers (shoemakers) who set up shop along the river in olden times.
You’ll also want to visit the modern Butcher’s Bridge (above) with its various unusual sculptures. However, this footbridge is best known for its love locks – a sea of padlocks covering the bridge’s railings to commemorate couples’ enduring love.
A little further down the river is the Dragon Bridge (above), built in 1900-1901 when Ljubljana was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This photogenic Art Nouveau-style road bridge is adorned by four dragon statues standing on pedestals at its four corners. That’s because the dragon has been the symbol of Ljubljana for centuries.
5) Take A Boat Cruise on the Ljubljanica River
We enjoyed a 45-minute cruise on the river – and it was a real highlight for everyone! After walking the riverside lanes & crossing the bridges from above, it was fun getting onto a boat for a different perspective of the town from the water.
Our cruise was taken on the town’s only wooden boat, complete with a charming Italian captain and friendly steward who took our drink orders. It was so peaceful & picturesque as we passed slowly by lush riverbanks, lined by weeping willows and other trees decked out in their finest fall foliage. There were even several swans to complete the idyllic scene.
As we neared the end of our cruise, the captain called up our adorable OAT tour leader Martina to the front of the boat. And there, with the music of Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” playing, they assumed the classic pose from the movie’s famous scene – to both our group’s delight & the amused people on the bridge right above us!
6) Wander Ljubljana’s Charming Old Town Streets
Ljubljana is truly a pedestrian’s paradise. Plus, with the river as a landmark, it’s hard to get lost. One of your greatest joys – I know it was mine! – will be strolling the Old Town’s cobbled streets on your own and seeing what wonderful things will catch your fancy along the way.
You can explore Ljubljana’s many interesting squares and architectural gems and then take a coffee, tea or wine break at one of the many sidewalk cafes along the river. Shopping is also great there, with many cute shops and boutiques to tempt you. I loved one jewelry store’s tag line – “Life is too short to wear boring jewelry!”
7) Browse the Riverside Central Market
Ljubljana’s Central Market is more than just a place to shop. Traditionally, it has also been a place for locals to meet and socialize. It consists of an open-air market, a covered market (located in between the two squares), and a series of small food shops along the river in a colonnade designed by Jože Plečnik himself!
I enjoyed walking through the main outdoor market, which was packed with fresh produce and clothing stands. There was also a colorful flower market close by. Apparently, the “big city” Slovenes really enjoy buying directly from the producers. One trusted source said that the market, although good anytime, is best on Saturday mornings. And, do note the markets are all closed on Sunday.
8) Pay A Visit to the Hilltop Medieval Castle
There has probably been a settlement on this hilltop site since prehistoric times, although the first true fortress was Roman. The 12th century version of the castle was expanded over the centuries, but it fell into disrepair in the 17th century. Luckily, Ljubljana Castle was rebuilt in the 1940s and renovated in the 1970s.
My friend Peter & I visited the well-preserved medieval castle during our tour’s free time and we both found it worthwhile. The grounds are free to visit, plus you can enter the castle without paying. However, there is a cost if you want to enjoy some of the castle’s sights – like the history exhibit, castle tower, a film, and the puppetry museum.
As you can see by the aerial photo above, the outer shell of the medieval castle has now been filled in with modern amenities, including some worthwhile attractions, and reputable cafes & restaurants. Plus, the castle itself offers panoramic views back down over the town. Depending on your interests, you could easily spend a couple hours at the Castle exploring & eating.
Peter & I did buy the entrance ticket, which included being able to go up the Viewing Tower (ie, Clock Tower) for some really great views. However, you first need to climb 92 spiral metal steps (which are relatively open!). So, with my fear of heights, I happily stayed behind while Peter made the climb.
9) Walk up to the Castle & Take the Funicular Down
So, you might wonder how you actually get yourself up that big hill to the Castle? Well, good news, you have choices! There is a beautiful new funicular that can take you up and back down for a small fee. It runs every 10 minutes and the ride, which offers pretty views along the way, lasts just one minute.
Or you can go to the castle by your own two feet, which is what Peter & I did on the way up. We were in need of some good exercise, to help work off all the delicious food we’d been eating on the trip. However, we did take the funicular down to save time. And most of our friends took the funicular both ways.
Apparently, there are some different trails that lead up to the Castle. We used the GPS on Peter’s phone to find our way, but I would imagine the TI has maps. We really enjoyed the walk which took us through some different Old Town neighborhoods before we started the climb up to the park surrounding the castle. Plus, there were pretty views along the way.
10) Take Part in their Friday Food Festival – “Open Kitchen”
We got incredibly lucky because our one free day in Ljubljana fell on a Friday. That happened to be the day of Ljubljana’s weekly “Open Kitchen” (aka Odprta Kuhna). And, this sprawling al fresco food court was just amazing!
Every Friday from mid-March until the end of October, the city hosts a unique food market where the city & country’s best chefs gather to prepare various dishes from all over the world & showcase their culinary creations. It’s held in an outdoor market area between the Cathedral and the river. Not surprisingly, it attracts a mix of both locals & visitors.
To all you Foodies: Rejoice & hop on the next plane (during the festival season, of course!). I’ve never seen such an incredible array of delectable & interesting looking food in such a fun, atmospheric setting. It was really hard to choose my meal, but I opted for a wonderful salmon poke bowl at the Tink Super Food Café.
To give you a “flavor” of the wide variety of offerings: There was lemonade, beer, Slovenian wines & coffees to drink. There were lots of meat dishes, gourmet burgers, Japanese crepes, Asian dumplings, Vietnamese & Thai food, Kenyan samosas, Italian dishes & pizzas, Spanish paella, Middle Eastern falafels, an Argentine steak house, plus Indian, Persian and Croatian food. For dessert, there was ice cream and Belgian waffles. Apparently, no dieting is allowed on Fridays!
11) Order Onion Soup at the Historic Gostilna Sokol Restaurant
Our savvy Tour Leader Martina took our group to one of her favorite restaurants in Ljubljana – Gostilna Sokol. The historic building & restaurant hails from 1870. It’s located near the Cathedral. One of their specialties is onion soup served in a bread bowl – which of course, I had to have. It was delicious! (photo below)
Also at the restaurant, a few of us shared a Gibanica, one of Slovenia’s famed desserts. It’s a delicious, and most rich & decadent layer cake.
12) Have a Drink at “Café Skyscraper” for Great City Views
One of our evenings, our group visited “The Skyscraper” (Neboticnik in Slovenian) for a mini-farewell party. This 12-story building, built in 1933 in an Art Deco style, was the first skyscraper in Slovenia. And, it happened to be located just one convenient block from our hotel.
The top floor of Neboticnik hosts a restaurant, café and observation deck – offering arguably the best view in town of the Ljubljana skyline. Of course, the castle is the other solid contender! So, if you’ve got the time, do consider a visit. Just take the elevator up to the top where you can grab a drink or snack on the outdoor terrace, as you enjoy the view.
13) Enjoy A Traditional Slovenian Evening at Restaurant Sestica
We had our tour’s Farewell Dinner at the Sestica restaurant, which features authentic Slovenian cuisine. We started with an appetizer of cold cuts & bread. The main course was fried chicken and pork with peasant style sauce and potatoes. The salad included buckwheat kasha with pumpkin seed oil dressing. Local wines were served and dessert was a pear in red wine (teran) sauce.
Three couples, in various traditional dress, performed a variety of Slovenian folk dances. And, there was even a few opportunities for audience participation, which many of our group did & was quite fun.
This “authentic” folkloric evening was a lovely way to end our stay in Slovenia. However, we were all quite sad to say goodbye to this beautiful country & loveliest of cities!
Final Remarks About Ljubljana & Slovenia
I hope that you will have the opportunity to visit Slovenia and Ljubljana one day soon. When planning your visit, keep in mind that Slovenia’s magical Lake Bled is just 1 ¼ hours drive away (near the Austrian border). It would make a great day trip or overnight visit from Ljubljana. You can check out my Lake Bled blog post for more info.
Want to Know A Little More About Slovenia?
- See map to note that Slovenia is bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia.
- The country only has two million people, with half the population living in rural villages.
- Nearly one in five Slovenes live in the two largest cities – Ljubljana and Maribor.
- The language is Slovenian, but many people speak English – especially the younger ones.
- 83% are ethnic Slovenes, with a smattering of Serbs, Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks.
- Slovenia is a prosperous country. It was not really touched by war, like most of the others that were part of Yugoslavia.
- It gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
- Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2007.
- Melania Trump is from Slovenia. She was born Melanija Knavs in the Slovenian city of Novo Mesto.
- And, no Slovenia is NOT the same as Slovakia. These two countries are often confused. In fact, Slovakia was formerly part of Czechoslovakia. In 1993, it separated into two countries – Slovakia & the Czech Republic.
- Gosh, don’t you feel smarter now??
COMMENTS: Have you visited Slovenia and/or Ljubljana? What were your impressions? Are you looking for a new off-the-beaten-path destination in Europe? Does Ljubljana have appeal for you?