When we planned on coming to Europe, Slovenia was firmly on the list of places we didn’t want to miss out on. But seven months, several impromptu trips away from the continent and a few visa woes later, we had just three weeks left of our 16-month adventure and still had not set foot in this gorgeous country.
After making a last-minute decision to join the Nomads Bus on their road trip through Italy and coming within a stones throw of the border, we decided we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cross it. And so, after a mad booking frenzy, we found ourselves the following morning with no plan whatsoever on the bus to Ljubljana.
Our bus navigated the streets of the well-developed and buzzing Italian coastline. Then, we crossed the border and found ourselves between the trees. Rolling hills blushing in shades of red and orange passed by our windows. The clouds tinged yellow as the sun dipped lower and majestic peaks frosted in white loomed in the distance.
With a welcome like this, it’s safe to say we fell pretty hard for Slovenia.
And then we arrived in Ljubljana.
Our days were spent aimlessly wandering the tiny cobbled streets of the old town between cyclists and yellowing trees, our breath turning white as it hit the chilly autumn air. There were daily visits to the market to sample figs or cherries and that bacon pizza we just couldn’t get enough of. We lay in the park bathed in sunshine and lounged in cafes by the river watching the world pass us by.
It seems most travellers stop in at Ljubljana for just the one night, and without the major attractions of other European hubs to tick off their list they never failed to question how on earth we could ever manage to stay here for five.
But even after all those days, it still felt like we left too soon.
You see, Ljubljana is not a place to just rush around just to tick off your list. Rather, it is a place to experience and take in slowly.
So many European capitals feel over-crowded and bustling with inescapable traffic and locals in a rush to get wherever they are going. Ljubljana on the other-hand feels like a small laid-back town that runs at its own pace. With a pedestrian only centre, a thriving outdoor eating culture, a wealth of historic and cultural museums and festivals and so many green spaces that you often forget you’re even in a city, it’s a wonder this isn’t one of the most popular places in Europe. It definitely should be.
But for now, we’ll just keep this our little secret.
So, are you heading to Eastern Europe? Don’t make Ljubljana just a one-night stand – it deserves so much more than that. Here’s everything you need to know for your time there!
If you don’t know much about Ljubljana’s history or culture (which, considering people struggle to even pronounce its name, is probably most of us) the free walking tour gives an excellent introduction to the city. The route takes in many of the main attractions accompanied by informative tales, free food samples (always a bonus) and great recommendations for further eating spots and city explorations.
If you are short on time in the city this is the best way to get a taste of the highlights with some interesting stories to take with you.
The tour lasts around 2 hours and leaves from Prešernov Square everyday at 11AM with a second tour at 3PM during the high season. The tour is free but guides live off the tips so, if you enjoyed the experience, give generously.
The Ljubljanica River is the pulsing heart of the city with a lively open-air cafe and restaurant scene taking over the boulevard either side of it.
Pull up a seat and while away the afternoon with a steaming hot drink and one of the beautiful sweat treats on offer. Come evening settle into one of the many dimly lit riverside bars and have a cocktail or three amongst the lively student population.
The city also has several iconic bridges that criss-cross the river between the plentiful dining options. Stroll around town enough and no doubt you’ll hit the main ones – Dragon’s Bridge embellished with 20 dragons, Butcher’s Bridge neatly lined with the locks of everlasting love and Triple Bridge that leads directly off the main square.
The castle perched on the hill above town is one of the most popular tourist attractions. The expansive views take in the sprinkling of changing autumn trees between the red roofs of the old town and, on a clear day, the snow-dusted mountains beyond.
It is free to enter the castle complex and visit the viewing terrace and some of the smaller exhibits on the grounds. However, to climb the tower and get full access to the site you must purchase the entrance ticket. Prices and opening hours can be found here.
The beautiful park right behind the castle is also well worth a visit. Don’t pass up a ride on the swing hanging from the large central tree.
This collection of buildings takes the refined feel of the old town and turns it on its head. The walls of this alternative space are covered head to toe in all things kooky, including quirky and colourful mural designs, metal sculptures and some slightly disturbing figurines that look like Gollum and Dobby got together and had some seriously freakish offspring.
At anytime of the day locals with brightly coloured hair and dressed in a whole lot of leather can be found sprawled in the central tower playing tunes and, from the look of things, having a pretty great time.
Nighttime though is when this place really comes to life. The individual buildings covered in street art are actually a mix of galleries and bars and, come midnight, are an alternative place to dance the night away.
Did you know Slovenia is the greenest country in Europe? With a large park taking up a decent chunk of Ljubljana’s centre, it’s easy to see why.
In the throes of autumn, Tivoli Park was painted in shades of warm crimson and rusty brown, oranges that melted into yellow. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful and peaceful place to spend a chilly October afternoon. Groups met in meditation circles, dogs ran excitedly through the fields and mothers pushed prams down the spacious boulevards draped in curling foliage.
If you need somewhere to walk off all that food you will be eating (see next point) or simply a place to relax in nature with a good book, Tivoli is the place to come.
With so many amazing dining options in Ljubljana it’s hard not to plan your entire visit around where you want to eat. From melt-in-your-mouth pastries to hearty Slovenian specialties, refined international fare to flavour-packed organic street food, you’ll easily find something for every appetite, whether it be an afternoon treat or to fill up after a long day exploring the town.
Then there are the markets. Whether you’re after fresh produce, art or a novelty antique, if you spend a week in Ljubljana you’ll be able to see it all.
There are few things we love more than street food in the sun accompanied by excellent live music and a glass of local wine. Ljubljana’s Open Kitchen takes all those things and rolls them together into one glorious Friday afternoon. Bringing a selection of chefs together to cook all things delicious from both Slovenian and International cuisines, this is one of those quintessential Ljubljana experiences you should not miss out on.
Unfortunately the event was cancelled twice during our stay due to bad weather and we still haven’t quite got over missing out!
Open Kitchen is on every Friday from May to October in the central market space. Check out the website if you are in town.
The open-air central market is the go-to place for every kind of fresh produce imaginable, all sourced from local farmers who come in daily to sell their goods. Prices may not be as competitive as the supermarket chains in town but buying here means you’ll probably get fresher produce and will really help out the local economy. On weekends cooked food is also on offer – the pizza is particularly delicious. In the underground area you will find a huge selection of sweet treats, fruit and nuts, cheese and meat.
When you’ve had enough of food sampling at the market place and are ready to actually sit down and eat, the city is bursting with excellent and inexpensive dining options as well.
If you’re after something sweet go no further than Lolita by the river. They serve a beautiful selection of cakes and desserts that had us gazing longingly through the window as we walked past everyday. When our stomachs eventually won the battle and we did finally pop in, we were delighted to find that all treats are under €4.
For a quick and tasty snack, try the local delicacy Carniolian sausage at the aptly named Klobasarna, located on the main street through the old town.
For more hearty meals there are several excellent options serving Slovenian fare along the main drag through the old town or fresh seafood dishes alongside the river.
The city also puts on a variety of other food-related activities including the chocolate festival (need we say more!) as well as art and flea markets, so check what’s happening during your visit.
If the walking tour inspired you to delve even deeper into the history and culture of Ljubljana, there are plenty of museums scattered around the city to help you do just that. So, between all the people watching, cake eating and park wandering that will most likely take up the majority of your stay, it is well worth stopping in to learn more about the city’s history and art.
Given Ljubljana’s central location, if you’re transiting anywhere in Slovenia, chances are you will have to stop here. The main bus station is a short walk from the old town and once you’re here it is entirely navigable on foot.
Within Slovenia it is also the perfect jumping off point for numerous day trips if you aren’t keen on lugging your over-sized backpack to a new hostel every other day – hostel prices are also far cheaper here than elsewhere in the country. Sleepy little Piran on the coast can be reached in about 2.5 hours by bus, while the perennially popular Bled is just over an hour away. The famous caves and the Predjama Castle are also easily reached within the day.
International services run regularly to all neighbouring countries.