A city guide to Ljubljana, Slovenia's compact capital

You’re never far from the green and serene in Slovenia’s castle-topped capital. At its heart is a leafy river, around which bike paths, food markets and arts festivals unfold.

By Jessica Vincent
photographs by Ciril Jazbec
Published 24 Apr 2021, 08:05 BST, Updated 20 Sept 2021, 17:33 BST
The Ljubljanica river is key to life here; a central artery where students come to drink craft ...

The Ljubljanica river is key to life here; a central artery where students come to drink craft beer, where artists and antique sellers peddle their wares, and where musicians come to entertain tourists.

Photograph by Ciril Jazbec

My kayak cuts through the Ljubljanica’s bottle-green waters. On its right bank, the Central Market is in full swing: vats bubble with fermenting sauerkraut, ice-filled buckets shine with Adriatic sea bass; sourdough ovens puff woodsmoke around stone colonnades. On its left bank, cyclists wheel under the watchful gaze of dragons crouching, mouth agape, on Zmajski Bridge, poised for battle.

The Ljubljanica is key to life here; a central artery where students come to drink craft beer, where artists and antique sellers peddle their wares, and where musicians come to entertain tourists. To feel the pulse of Ljubljana’s watery heart, I decided to kayak the length of the city, paddling past the cobbled streets and clayroofed buildings of the city centre, where restaurants such as Monstera Bistro and Atelje are revolutionising Slovenian cooking. Their creative spins on local, sustainably sourced produce so impressed Michelin that it published its first-ever culinary guide to Slovenia in 2020. But it’s street food that reigns supreme. One of the most popular al fresco snacks is kranjska klobasa, a pork sausage that’s doused in a spicy mustard and horseradish topping — I catch a whiff as I paddle close to Klobasarna, its most famous purveyor. It’s best eaten kerbside, as are strukli (tarragon-laced cottage cheese dumplings) and burek (a cheese-filled pastry), the city’s other street food staples.

Local farmer Janez Cetin feeds Nande, his American rhea, who accompanies him into town from their home, Cetin Farm.

Photograph by Ciril Jazbec

Further downriver, having passed sherbet-coloured churches and pillared bridges, I reach an embankment, terraced with stone steps and lined with weeping willows. Like the market, Trnovo Pier (or ‘the beach’, as it’s known locally) is one of homegrown architect Jože Plečnik’s masterpieces; today, people come here to walk, read, and contemplate life. I paddle on — townhouses soon giving way to wooden summerhouses, the city fast dissolving into dense forest.

I look back towards the city for the first time and see Slovenia’s capital in all its glory: its castle perched on a mushroom of foliage, red rooftops and turquoise spires neatly circling its base; the Julian Alps, razor-sharp and dusted with snow. And, through the heart of it all, the Ljubljanica’s quiet green pulse.

Things to see and do

Ljubljana Castle
Watching over the city since the early Middle Ages, Ljubljana Castle is the capital’s most recognisable landmark. Climb the watchtower for 360-degree views of the city and surrounding peaks, and learn about the castle’s place in Slovenia’s turbulent history at myriad museum spaces, where recent temporary exhibitions have included Once Upon a Time, a journey through Slovenia’s rich history of folk traditions. Don’t miss the newly renovated wine bar, with wine from the castle’s vines, and Strelec Restaurant — recently awarded a Michelin Plate. 

Jože Plečnik's architecture
Ljubljana owes much of its beauty to Jože Plečnik, the Slovenian architect who redesigned the city after an earthquake in 1895 destroyed or damaged many of its buildings. Visit Ljubljana organises Plečnik-themed walking tours that visit the architect’s masterpieces, including Plečnik House, his former home, now an architecture museum

Ljubljana Puppet Theatre
Housed in a 19th-century building at the foot of the hill on which Ljubljana Castle stands, the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre continues Slovenia’s centuries-old puppetry tradition with weekly performances and biannual marionette festivals. Its award-winning shows are for both children and adults, with classics like Pinocchio and Doctor Faustus staged regularly.

Central Market
The Plečnik-designed market is a must for sampling Slovenia’s best produce. After stocking up on donkey sausages and sauerkraut juice in Vodnik Square, follow the riverside colonnade for kiosks selling crackling-topped buckwheat ‘porridge’, cottage cheese-filled dumplings and sour turnip stew. 

Tivoli Park is a green oasis of cycle paths and manicured lawns for picnicking, slacklining and outdoor workouts.

Photograph by Ciril Jazbec

Tivoli Park
Offering a peaceful escape in the heart of the city, Tivoli Park is a green oasis of cycle paths and manicured lawns for picnicking, slacklining and outdoor workouts. The International Centre of Graphic Arts, housed inside a former 17th-century castle near the entrance of the park, hosts the world’s oldest contemporary graphic arts event, dating back to 1955.

Explore by bike
With a cycling network that spans over 143 miles, Ljubljana is one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities. The capital has four self-guided routes, one of which explores the forested trails of Tivoli Park and another that follows a Plečnik-themed route through the city’s Old Town. Bikes can be rented from Ljubljana’s self-service system, BicikeLJ, for just €1 (90p) a week.

Even though Ljubljana isn’t part of a major wine-growing area, its central location means you’re never more than an hour from Slovenia’s best vineyards. Guided tasting tours from Ljubljana to winegrowing hubs such as Vipava Valley, Maribor and Nova Gorica can be organised through Visit Ljubljana

Where to go shopping

For Slovenian produce
The Old Town’s Ciril Metodov street is a great place to shop for Slovenian produce: local olive oil from Oliviers & Co, prized Linden honey from Honey House, and Piran salt from the ancient pans of Secovlje Salina Nature Park.

For antiques and oddities
Every Sunday morning, dozens of stands pitch up along the Ljubljanica, south of the Triple Bridge, for the city’s largest flea market. You’ll find everything from collectable stamps and vintage bicycles to furniture. Arrive early for the best finds.

For arts & crafts
Idrija lace, Rogaška Slatina glass and Prekmurje pottery have been at the heart of Slovenian craftsmanship for centuries. A handful of independent workshops in the Old Town still produce and sell traditional handicrafts; they include Galerija Idrijske Cipke, Galerija Rustika and Skrina.

Where to stay

The Fuzzy Log
Opened in summer 2020, this unique new addition to Ljubljana’s hostel scene offers an eclectic mix of urban rooftop glamping, ‘log cabins’ and futuristic sleeping pods, making it a fun choice for travellers on a budget.

Lesar Hotel Angel
This sleek boutique hotel is located at the foot of Ljubljana Castle in the Old Town. The building’s classic facade remains unchanged since the 1800s, while inside the rooms are stylishly decorated with antique furniture and Picasso-inspired artwork. 

Intercontinental Ljubljana
Ljubljana’s only five-star comes with sky-high views of the city, an 18th-floor indoor pool and a Michelin Plate rooftop restaurant. The minimalist, ultra-modern decor is orientated towards the business traveller, but the spa facilities and fabulous breakfasts tick the leisure boxes, too.

A salad of burrata, radicchio, almonds and beetroot molasses at Atelje.

Photograph by Ciril Jazbec

Where to eat

It doesn’t get more Slovenian than stopping by Klobasarna for kranjska klobasa (pork sausage) with mustard, horseradish and a warm kaiser roll. The struklji and ričet (barley and smoked pork stew) are also delicious here. 

Monstera Bistro
Awarded the Michelin Plate in early 2020, Bistro Monstera represents affordable, zero-waste gourmet cooking. The €21 (£19) three-course lunch menu changes regularly to ensure ingredients like veal, clams and foraged mushrooms are always at their freshest.

At the forefront of Slovenia’s culinary revolution is Atlje, Ljubljana’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant. Chef Zorg Zupan gives local ingredients a creative twist in dishes such as pulled beef cheek doughnuts, and stale bread ice cream served with infused oils, foams and crumbs. For the full experience, opt for the nine-course evening taster menu.

Exploring Ljubljana like a local

Hike Šmarna Gora
When the sun shines, Ljubljana’s outdoor-loving locals flock to nearby Šmarna Gora, a 2,218ft hill that’s home to 15 forested hiking and biking trails. The summit rewards hikers with views of the Julian Alps and the Ljubljana Basin, plus sugar-dusted doughnuts and thick barley stews, served at hilltop restaurant, Gostilna Ledinek.

Feast on burek after hours
This crisp, golden pastry is Ljubljana’s answer to the early-morning kebab. Open 24 hours, burek institutions like Burek Olimpija and Nobel Burek serve their minced meat- and cheesefilled filo snacks to queuing locals around the clock. For the ultimate hangover cure, opt for the Italian-inspired ‘burek pizza’.

Kayak on the Ljubljanica
You can rent kayaks from any of the boating clubs along the river. For a guided kayaking, book a tour with Iškadventure.

A woman walks with an armful of flowers purchased at the Ljubljana Central Market, Slovenia.

Photograph by Ciril Jazbec

Where to go after hours

Metelkova Mesto
Visit during the day, and graffiti-covered Metelkova Mesto — one of Europe’s largest urban squats — can feel abandoned. But come nightfall, this former army base transforms into Slovenia’s go-to underground music venue. Hardcore punk concerts, alternative theatre and immersive exhibitions are just some of the events on offer. 

Wine bars
Only 15% of the 90 million litres of Slovenian wine produced each year is exported. So, now’s your chance to find out what you’ve been missing. Popular Ljubljana vinotekas (wine bars) include Wine Bar Šuklje and Vinoteka Movia, both with romantic riverside seating in the heart of the Old Town. 

For Ljubljana’s most luxurious cocktails, head to retro-style Kolibri on Židovska steza street, where patrons can ask the mixologist to shake them a personalised cocktail. On Fridays and Saturdays, there’s live piano music.

Getting there and around

Travelling by train is simple, setting off from London in the morning and arriving the following afternoon, with a night spent in Munich. eurostar.com raileurope.com EasyJet has daily flights from Stansted to Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport; British Airways flies there from Heathrow twice a week in summer. easyjet.com ba.com Average flight time: 2h. Ljubljana is best explored on foot or by bike. A free electric taxi service operates in the city centre.

When to go

Summer — festival season — is the city’s busiest period, witnessing highs of 27C. For fewer crowds and temperate weather, visit in spring or autumn. Winter sees sub-zero temperatures and good snow in the surrounding ski resorts.

How to do it

Citrus Holidays has three nights in Hotel Lev from £159 per person, B&B, including return flights from Stansted.

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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