Hard to pronounce but easy to fall in love with, Slovenia’s tiny capital means ‘beloved’ in the local lingo. Find out what’s so special about this exotic sounding Central European beauty.
On my mini-tour of Slovenia, I fell head over heels in love with the chicken-shaped country’s mountains, lakes and rivers. The natural wonders are so drop-dead gorgeous you might forget how perfect charming Ljubljana is, with its baroque architecture, cobbled streets and riverside setting.With a population of 275,000 – about the same as Walsall – Ljubljana is one of the smaller capital cities you will find. It’s also one of the greenest in both senses of the word. Most of the centre is car-free, while there are plenty of trees and grassy areas alongside the emerald green Ljubljanica River, which meanders through the centre.
It’s the only place I’ve been to where I’ve not ran around like a blue-arsed fly, trying to see the sights as quickly as possible. I got infected by the city’s laid-back vibe and was happy to make the most of the café-culture.
As a result, I didn’t see anything of Tivoli park and zoo, the Metelkova alternative area or the quirky attractions you might expect from abitofculture. I didn’t even realise there was a nice town hall and cathedral until I read about them when I’d got home.
Instead, I enjoyed the al fresco life, spending three days sitting outside pavement and riverside bars and coffee shops, as well as seeing Ljubljana’s big three:
Like many Central and Eastern European cities, Ljubljana is dominated by a castle on a hill. This particular hill is very steep and very green – we walked there and back, but probably would have taken the glass-cubed funicular if we’d have been able to find it.
There are fabulous views from the viewing platform at the top of the castle’s tower, but the best view in the city is of the castle itself lit up at night from a riverside bar.
I do like a good bridge – if you do too, you’re in the right town with three of Europe’s more characterful crossings within a half-mile stroll of each other.
i. Cobbler Bridge
In medieval times, shoemakers made this bridge their home, living and working here to exploit the passing trade and to avoid paying city taxes. With its tall columns and balustrades, this elegant footbridge crosses the river at one of its narrowest points.
ii. Triple Bridge
Just as Antoni Gaudí shaped Barcelona, local architect Jože Plečnik’s work dominates Ljubljana, and the Triple Bridge is his most celebrated creation. Crossing the river into Prešeren trg, the city’s focal point and most beautiful square, Plečnik put two side footbridges next to an existing road-bridge and decorated all three with ornate stone balustrades. Nowadays, the whole bridge is for pedestrians only, and rivals Prague’s Charles Bridge for being one of the busiest and most photographed bridges in Europe.
iii. Dragon Bridge
This road-bridge opened in 1901 and is a little way out of the centre, but doesn’t take long to find and is well worth seeing. According to legend, Jason and his Argonauts slayed a dragon on the banks of the Ljubljanica after stealing the Golden Fleece, and the dragon is now the symbol of Ljubljana. There are four scary looking green dragons on the bridge’s corners to mark this myth.
3. River cruise
In a city without many ‘must do’ attractions, a boat cruise up and down the Ljubljanica River stands out as a way to get your bearings, see the sleepy suburbs and appreciate just how tiny the place is. Barely a river, it looks more like an Amsterdam canal – you could almost jump across it at times. Glass covered boats are moored downstream from Triple Bridge, and for a few euros you’ll get a relaxing multi-lingual guided tour.
So what of that café culture? Although my trip was in 2009, two places stood out enough for me to remember them.
Cacao (Petkovškovo nabrežje 3; http://cacao.si/en) has seats by the water’s edge directly facing the castle, and specialises in scrumptious chocolate cakes and drinks. And being married to a cat-lover, I was never going to be allowed to avoid Maček (Krojaška ulica 5; http://sobe-macek.si/en/macek) – a popular café bar with a massive outdoor area in the best location in town. Maček is Slovenian for cat, so the walls are decorated with paintings of felines in various poses, while our wine glasses had cute cat logos emblazoned on them.
There are direct flights to Ljubljana from Stansted (easyJet) and Luton (Wizzair). Alternatively, do what we did – fly into Trieste in northern Italy and take the two-hour bus ride over the border (timetable here). If it wasn’t such a chore to get to for non-Londoners, I’d go every weekend.
Ljubljana is located inland and is a good base from which to see the rest of Slovenia. Don’t pass on the chance to see Lake Bled, the single most gorgeous place on the planet – an eighty minute bus ride away (timetable here), the amazing Vintgar Gorge (the Grand Canyon of Slovenia) or the country’s 46km stretch of Adriatic coastline.