After spending a week and a half in Slovenia, I have concluded that the country is horribly underrated. The Venetian, coastal village of Piran is truly a gem (see my post here to confirm this), Lake Bed is one as well (right here, buddy), the Julian Alps are gorgeous and day-trippable accessible, and the Vipava Valley and its wines deserve much more attention than I was able to give them.
Its little-known capital, Ljubljana, is the type of place that has everything, just in limited quantities. Ljubljana is a pretty city, but not very dramatic. It has wonderful architecture and design, but it won’t blow you away. It’s large enough to be the capital of a small country and that’s it. It feels provincial. If Slovenia was still joined to some other Yugo countries, few would pay much attention to it. It’s charming and all, and worth a visit, just limited.
You won’t find much negative about Ljubljana. It’s a small city (300,000 people) in a small country (two million). Guidebook guru Rick Steves puts it up, together with a few other cities like Budapest, as “the next Prague”. I’ve written before about the Next Prague idea, where the travel industry tries to guess the next hot destination to where the masses will flock.
Pronunciation: people disagree on the pronunciation of Ljubljana. For English speakers, think of the j’s in the word as y’s, as glides, and say: lyub-lya-na. Some people make it four syllables, more like lyub-li-ah-nah
This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Ljubljana mentioned that way. You will find lots of stag and hen parties there (they’ll be roaming the streets), which in Europe is a large measure of how Prague-like people find Ljubljana. Bloggers write endless posts of how wonderful it all is and you will certainly like it fine, but it will have to work to become the next Prague. Prague became Prague because of cheap flophouses and beer combined with an undiscovered gem of a city that also has some edginess. Ljubljana tries for those things and comes with striking distance, but it’s not a sure thing.
The recipe for Ljubljana looks good: a city built along the bend of a small river, the banks of which are lined with cafés. The center of the city is a castle perched on a hill, because that’s how cities should be.
Getting in and out
Despite having only one airport in the entire country, Slovenia has a national carrier, Adria Airlines. I flew them from Frankfurt to the very small Ljubljana airport, where there are no taxis or buses waiting outside. It seems like the only way to get into town is through shared-ride vans, which is fine with me. You walk out the one exit from the airport, cross the unbusy street, and look for a sign saying “shuttle”. Tell them your crashpad and they’ll get you as close as they can, once enough people fill up the van. Nine euros.
If you’re staying near the center of the city, the van won’t get very close. They’ll drop you somewhere on the non-castle side of the river and you’d better have a map of where your crashpad is. Me, I had to cross a few blocks, then cross the river, then figure out where I was, schlepping my bag the whole time. To get back to the airport, just ask at your hotel desk. They’ll arrange a ride.
Arriving by train, the central station is a bit north of the city center, not terribly convenient. A taxi down to the river area won’t be too much.
The symbol of the city is a dragon, not a cute one. I utterly approve.
What to see
Ljubljana, like all decent cities, is defined by the river. And by the castle, and the castle hill. The river Ljubljanica makes an L-shape through the place, coming from the east and then turning sharply south, like the Greek letter gamma: Γ. The area inside the crook is the castle, sitting neatly on a hill above it all. Perfect, just the way you want your city defined. The river is very narrow, and most of the river bend is lined with cafes, especially near the bend, which is the center of the city.
The city isn’t packed with sights besides the castle, some museums, and neat architecture. It’s a city built on ambiance rather than attractions. The Thing to Do here is walk softly around the city, enjoying the place, and occasionally stopping at some destination. Think of it as a nice town to visit, rather than containing any must-sees.
One beef I had when researching things to do before my trip was that the standard blog clickbait article of “8 things you need to go to Ljubljana and do right bloody now OMG now!” always includes the dictum “hang out by the river”. Any city in Europe that has a river running through the middle, yes, you will hang out there, especially since you won’t help but notice how many cafés and such cluster there. No one needs to tell you that.
If you see any other articles about must-dos in Ljubljana, just ignore them. Other things that people tell you to do are have a drink in a café, take an evening stroll, and do some people-watching, activities I’m sure you never thought of before in your life.
My caustic comments aside, those articles have a point. The sights here in Ljubers are that castle on the hill, which isn’t much, a handful of small museums, and that’s about it. The rest of the appeal simply comes from Ljubljana being an awfully nice place full of good architecture.
Not just architecture, but also public art adorns the streets
Ljubljana has a famous son architect, Jože Plečnik, responsible for the distinctive look of the city, such as the central bridge. The city already had plenty of Art Nouveau and Prague-inspired romantic buildings, but Plečnik (1872-1957) probably transformed the city more than any one architect had any other city. Although he started his work in Prague, he returned to his native Ljubljana and designed buildings, squares, parks, and bridges, trying to incorporate all aspects of Slovenia into the works.
If you read anything about visiting the city, you’ll come across Plečnik’s name. His most famous creation is the Triple Bridge right in the center of town, built right on the bend of the L-shaped river. He also built the riverside colonnade next to it. His most notorious creation is the University and National Library, and his house is now a museum. Whether designed by Plečnik or not, the city is an architectural mish-mash, as if most buildings were designed as an experiment. Pay attention as you walk around. One reason Prague became so popular in modern times was that people suddenly realized it was such a lovely city. Ljubljana has that going for it, though it’s not quite so dramatic.
One neat building worth a climb is simply called The Skyscraper (Nebotičnik). The 13-story 1933 Art Deco construction was for a time the tallest building in Central Europe. Not so impressive now when your office building back home has more stories, but you can head to the top for the best view in town. There’s a pricey restaurant (not worth it), a nightclub (not sure), and a café (yes) on the top floors, with the café having the best view and reasonably-priced drinks. Head up around sunset and it’s grand. Check out the spiral staircase that goes all the way down.
Heading down from “The Skyscaper”
As for that castle on the hill, eh. It’s mostly a reconstruction from the 1940s, and there are no tales of great leaders who ruled there. Not much history or story to it. It truly needed a sad princess story or a great battle in its past. At least a ghost running around. You can ride a funicular or hike to the top for the view, but inside (€7,5) is only a history museum, a film, a penitentiary exhibit, and to fill space, a museum of puppetry. Still, the views are grand and castles in general are fun.
As for the city’s museums, let me say that I often like smaller museums in smaller venues, as they often can be wildly charming. Still, Slovenia is so small that even having a National Gallery of art seems to be pushing it. It doesn’t stop there at all; it also has a National Museum, a Contemporary History Museum, an Ethnographic Museum, a Natural History Museum, a City Museum, a Museum of Contemporary Art and another one for Modern Art.
Let’s applaud here—that’s aces for a nation of only two million people, yet that’s like Hamburg, Germany having art, history, and ethnographic museums, but just on itself. Okay, but visitors have to mentally buy into the importance of Hamburg before they make sense. The museums in Ljubljana are clustered into two areas in the city and only cost €3-4 each.
This brings us back to the original advice on what to do: hang out by the river, cafés, people-watch, etc.
The riverbank and the castle (up top, of course) at night
Hanging out in Ljubljana
Ljubljana culture is more Austrian than Mediterranean. People hang out in coffeehouse-type places, and they tend to eat goulash-type of stews, though the Mediterranean elements are very present in the foods, especially since visitors like them better. People rave about the nightclubs and the bars there in Ljubers. I found the bars lacking. One that everyone writes up is called Todz, just down the riverside street from my own hotel’s lackluster café. Besides being small, it was just not exciting. My hotel, called Maček, also had supposedly a great hang-out spot on the bottom floor. Ljubljana Life magazine says, “everyone goes to Maček because everyone goes to Maček”. No.
(Maček is also not a good flophouse. I was forced to choose them after my original flophouse, called “Hostel 24” sent me an email five days before my trip saying they made a reservation mistake and sorry they have no room for me. I’m calling them out here as wankers.)
The river is quite narrow, you truly could throw a stone across it, and there are oodles of bridges so it sets the scene more than divides the city. Along the castle side of the north part of the L-bend is the market, which simply should be a bit more picturesque than it is. Along the colonnade, vendors are selling more tourist-based wares, but there are some good food stands.
Nota bene: Many things in Ljubljana are closed on Sundays, including the market and nearly every shop. Not a good day to visit.
Under the colonnade, accessible by stairs near the Triple Bridge, you can find the hidden restaurant Ribca (some declension of “Fish”), where you can sit by the water and order from their menu that changes every week. The city’s fish market is right next door. This is a cheap option for riverside dinning. The other side of the river holds a huge stretch of cafés, all with massive outdoor seating and all fairly interchangeable. It’s a bustling area at night. There’s no point recommending one place; they all run together like it’s one large beer garden, and so just go wherever a decent seat appears.
Grilled squid and polenta at Ribca
The south bend of the river is less beer garden and more like cafés, coffee houses, and even some lounges. A bit more formal and intimate. This is the place for a cocktail, especially on the non-castle side.
For food, you could try the first narrow pedestrian street (alleyway, really) just inside the river promenade, castle-side, called Stari Trg. The entire length is interesting, but the south bend has several good eating spots, including Julija, where the waiter spent time swearing to me that the perfect penne-shaped pasta dishes were yes yes really handmade. They like their pasta fresh in these parts. The nearby restaurants look brilliant as well, some with tables in the middle of the alleyway.
My favorite cheap eats here is called Vino Ribe (“Wine Fish”, which should be the name of every restaurant everywhere), an ultra-casual place where the menu, just listing the fish, is written on the outside window. The wine list (glass, half-liter, or liter?) is written there as well. You have a choice of about five fish and just a few sides, each involving potatoes, but here, and everywhere around, go for the local favorite of potatoes mixed with Swiss chard. You order at the counter inside, involving some wine with your fish, and sit outside at their tables in the alleyway.
For a thumping night spot, head across the Triple Bridge, non-castle side, and angle to your very first left onto Wolfova Ulica. Go about a third of a block and look for the passage on your right that has “Cutty Shark Pub” written over it. Down this dark alleyway is that pub, on your left, a real pub without pretention. I was there the night that the local football (soccer) team called Olimpija won the national championship, and the singing went on all night. Beware: people will bump into you and spill your beer, then just shrug and grin.
For an utterly distinctive experience, head up north near one of the museum districts, to an area beyond that called Metelkova. This abandoned army barracks has become one of Europe’s most successful squatter areas. Its illegally-occupied buildings host dozens of bars and nightspots, all decorated wildly. This place, and an old Rog bicycle factory also filled with squatters, is the edgy part of the city and will deserve its own blog post here later.
The hen party scores another victim
The area around the Triple Bridge, the center of the city, is filled with life until quite late. One can tell Ljubljana is becoming a party spot by the number of stag and hen parties roaming about. A hen party accosted me late one night, the bride-to-be carrying a cardboard box in which she was accepting donations to pay for her wedding. They asked me to kick in, and in return offered me one of their cookies baked into the shape of either a woman’s bosom or her crotch. I accepted a bosom and munched it, a better man.
Ljubljana is an awfully pleasant city. I could retire there. But by day three for a visitor, you’ll wonder what else to do beside try yet another café or visit one of the many small museums you decided to skip earlier. I have trouble thinking of it as the Next Prague. Ljubljana is not quite as cheap as Prague, perhaps because Slovenia was never really poor, but it’s way cheaper than next-door Italy and the rest of Western Europe. Sleeping all around Slovenia is a bargain, and hostels abound in the popular places. Beer isn’t as cheap as Prague and is nowhere near as good, not even close. Slovenian wine, though, is fantastic and should be tried. The food is far, far better than most of Eastern Europe and is quite reasonable, though not cheap.
So go there. Do some serious hanging for a day or two, and move on. Slovenia has lots to see.