We had a brilliant city break in Ljubljana, Slovenia in autumn time. I’m not sure if it was the amazing food, the riverside café culture or the fairytale beauty of the whole city swathed in autumn light that made us fall in love with it, but we’ll definitely be back. On the way home, we declared it was our new favourite European capital city, which is high praise indeed.
We visited Ljubljana as part of a multi-destination holiday: three days in Ljubljana and three days in Zagreb, Croatia – with a brilliant train journey between them (posts on that coming soon).
So here’s a bit of an introduction to the fairytale city of Ljubljana, Slovenia and things to do there…
The green (and gold) capital of Europe
The first thing that appealed to us about Ljubljana was how green it is, both in leafiness and eco-friendliness.
To make a change from Scandi countries always hogging the title, Ljubljana did itself proud to be 2016’s European Green Capital. They’ve always nailed the green stuff though. Ljubljana was the first EU capital to do a zero-waste strategy and they also love making new green spaces from wasteland. The whole city was spotless, too.
When you’re wandering round the city, you’re always bumping into little electric golf buggy things known as ‘kavalirs’. These bad boys are free to use around the old town, which is pedestrianised otherwise. There’s also a real feeling of the city being at one with nature, as naff as that sounds. The way it’s set along the river with the mountains and trees rising up behind makes it feel like you’re not in a capital city at all.
Exploring Ljubljana’s fairytale old town and the free tour
Ljubljana is really charming. I hate using that word but it is. The old town sees to that.
The gorgeous, cobbled part of the city is sandwiched between the imposing hill-top castle and the Ljubljanica river. It’s like someone decided it’d look nice as a backdrop to a city and so built it. There are loads of restaurants, cafés and bars along the riverbanks, where you can sit and do some people watching. There’s nothing better than sitting with a beer doing nothing on a sunny day.
Away from the river, inviting side streets lead to a big open square and tree-lined avenues. It was all very, very photogenic.
Ljubljana’s main man, responsible for a lot of the great architecture, is Jože Plečnik. He urban planned the shit out of it. His designs are everywhere, most notably in the form of the Triple Bridge (more on that later). He also features heavily in the brilliant free walking tour, which is a good way to kick off your explorations. All the architecture is an appealing pastel mix of Art Nouveau and Baroque buildings. We really liked the library in particular – Plečnik again – with a really interesting facade. I’ve deliberately not included our photographs of it because it’s one of those things that looks much better in real life.
The pink Franciscan church
This is the main eye-catcher when you’re exploring the old town. It’s a pretty Baroque church. And it’s pink. What more do you want?
It also looks beautiful at night.
The bridges – including the Triple Bridge
Ljubljana is strong on its bridge game. In front of the Franciscan church, there’s not one, not two, but three bridges. Together, they’re known as the Triple Bridge (how did they think of that name?!). We have our mate Plečnik to thank for this, naturally. It was originally one main bridge and he was asked to widen it to allow for more traffic without it collapsing. But instead, he added on two pedestrian bridges either side and a heap of pillars, which looks much better than just one boring wide bridge.
Another famous bridge is the Dragon Bridge. Legend has it that Jason and his Argonauts passed Ljubljana on their way to the Adriatic. Jason, momentarily distracted from his fleecey goal, decided to stop off at Ljubljana, probably based on TripAdvisor recommendations, and ended up fighting a dragon. Standard. Said dragon is now the symbol of the city. He has his own bridge and there are dragony things all over the old town.
There are plenty of other bridges over the river – and of course those bloody love locks have crept onto one. There are mixed feelings on these aren’t there? I fall firmly on the side of ‘tack’. But the bridge they’re on in Ljubljana is a good’un – the Butchers’ Bridge – another one Plečnik was involved in (obvs). It’s a very modern-looking one this time with glass flooring on both sides. It leads over to the central market.
Ljubljana central market
The market is mostly open air, but it has a stretch of covered halls lined by more pillars. Unsurprisingly, this was designed by, you guessed it, Plečnik. Never has someone been so obsessed with pillars.
As well as loads of local fruit and veg, the market also has fresh milk on offer. You get this from an udderly unbelievable milk vending machine. It’s like a normal vending machine but with milk. Actual milk. Chris is lactose intolerant so this was a treat only for me. You can bring your own bottle and fulfil all your milk-based dreams.
Cow juice aside, the market is well worth a wander round.
Inside Ljubljana cathedral (or Church of St Nicholas)
Another little Baroque number here for you. The cathedral isn’t massive but is worth a look inside. If you’re on the aforementioned free tour, you’ll get a chance to do this and hear some history about it. I immediately forgot the history but enjoyed the interior. White and gold. Or is it blue and black? #dressgate #outofdateculturalreference
Watching over the city from a hilltop, you’ll find Ljubljana Grad (Castle). To get there, you can enjoy a
relaxing stroll sweaty climb up the hill as you realise the autumn sun is actually quite warm and you’re wearing far too many layers.
It’s worth the effort for the castle though. It isn’t a particularly fairytale-looking castle up close, but it had probably the best city views I’ve ever seen from its clock tower. I really like the view from the top of the church in Reykjavik, but this was more up my street: golden rooftops, trees and river. You can even see the Kamniške Alps in the distance with a bit of snow on them. Perfect.
Aside from the view, you can walk round the castle and its grounds. There are plenty of museums and exhibitions inside, but as the weather was so good, we didn’t spend too long indoors.
You can get the funicular back down into the city. FUNicular.
Metelkova: alternative Ljubljana
Metelkova was reminiscent of Christiania in Copenhagen: an autonomous, alternative area.
It used to be a Yugoslav army barracks, then people squatted in it in the 90s. These days, it’s a place for all forms of art, live music and Bohemian nightlife. Our favourite bit of art was actually the pigeon graffiti pictured below: ‘take a shit on gentrification’.
Being horrendously uncool, we didn’t go at night but in the afternoon when it was quite quiet. The buildings are all absolutely covered in street art and you can wander into some that are art galleries. There was definitely an arty vibe over a touristy/druggy one, so I actually preferred it to Christiania.
If you just want to walk round it in the day, it won’t take long. Half an hour would do.
What to do on a rainy evening in Ljubljana: the Museum of Illusions
You know that bit of the day on holiday where the sun starts to go down and shops/tourist things start shutting, but it’s too early to eat? Usually between 4 and 6 pm? We call it The Difficult Period and usually end up going for drinks if we’re not going back to the hotel to get changed for the evening. But often, the best way to fill it isn’t with local craft ale (disputable) but with museums. Loads of them tend to be open until 6pm, or even later. This was the case in Ljubljana too.
We scouted out the Museum of Illusions for one of these evening slots, and as an added bonus it was pouring down with rain so we definitely wanted to do an indoor activity.
I bloody love this kind of thing so really enjoyed the museum. The whole thing took about half an hour and is spread over three floors. It was 9.5 euro each. Money well spent to briefly become a floating head on a plate.
Where to eat in Ljubljana
We ate really well and really cheaply in Ljubljana. But we ate a lot. So much so that I think it deserves an entire post dedicated to it. Splitting it off into a separate post will also help stop me from turning this blog post into War & Peace.
So I’ve done a ‘where to eat (and drink) in Ljubljana’ blog post separately. It includes Slovenian tapas, pizza, craft beer, orange (yes orange!) wine, homemade pasta and vegan cake.
Shopping in Ljubljana
If the eating wasn’t enough to keep us busy, then the shopping deffo was. I honestly could have filled an entire extra suitcase with all the stuff I wanted to buy, but alas EasyJet’s baggage allowance wouldn’t have been very impressed.
Some of the best little concept/design/trinket shops were on Stari Trg. Walking around there, you’ll stumble across some absolute gems. A lot of them sell local Slovenian products – handmade jewellery and homewares all with a bit of a Scandi look to them. Everything feels rustic and warm but effortlessly stylish.
These were some of my favourites that I remembered to note the names of:
- GUD shop – one of the most gorgeous shops I’ve ever been in. Pastel-coloured homewares, geometric jewellery, Etsy-like accessories. I wanted it all. We bought one of our favourite souvenirs ever from here: a Ljubljana tote bag with a print of the city in pastel pink and blue. We both fight over it and it hangs on the back of the door of our spare room as a decoration when not in use.
- SMILE concept store – they had so many gorgeous things, including unicorn necklaces and a stationery selection of dreams.
- Formadoma – If we lived in Ljubljana (I wish we did), this is where we’d buy our furniture. It has some gorgeous stools, tables, lamps, etc. Sadly all too big for the suitcase.
- Foxboutique – This was the first shop to catch my eye. We got a little haul of amusing and/or pretty postcards.
- Babushka Boutique – They sold plates with cat faces on. I have serious regret over not buying some, even though they wouldn’t have fared well in our suitcase given that we had an onward journey to Zagreb. But they were so lovely.
- Beer Shop Primožu – I had to pop this in. We bought some cans of local craft beer from here and they had a fantastic selection.
There’s also the slightly grittier but no less interesting Trubarjeva Cesta. We didn’t have time to fully explore there, but seemed to have a lot of independent boutiques like the Agent Panda Concept Store. That’s the only one I can remember looking in, but we’d have nosed round more if we’d not been rushing to our river cruise…
How to round off a city break in Ljubljana, Slovenia: a river cruise
If a walking tour starts a city break, then surely a boat trip closes it? You’ve pounded the streets, got your bearings and feel like you’ve begun to really get to know the place. And if it’s Ljubljana and you have good taste, you probably don’t want to leave.
Seeing the city from a different angle is a nice way to finish your visit. We chose Barka Ljubljanica because out of all the river cruise boats, theirs was the only wooden one, which made it much cuter. We got a free drink too, by showing a ticket from the aforementioned free walking tour.
Unlike most city boat trips we’ve been on, when we end up with INSTANT regret as you’re wearing normal clothes and then you get on a boat on freezing cold, open, windy waters and want to curl up and die, this one was warm enough. Maybe we were well wrapped up after so many city breaks that ended in the instant regret of a boat trip. Or maybe the beer helped.
The cruise was 8 euro each and lasted 45 minutes. It starts out towards Špica where the Ljubljanica River splits into two, then loops back round to the old town so you can see the main sights from the river.
If the prospect of a nice 45-minute river cruise seems too calm and relaxing for you, go on it 55 minutes before your taxi is due to arrive to take you to the train station. Enjoy the rising sense of panic as it seems to be lasting forever.
How to pronounce Ljubljana and thoughts overall…
Lub-liana. But it’s loob-lana to the locals.
Overall, we had such a good time on our city break in Ljubljana. It’s compact enough to see plenty in just a city break, but varied and interesting enough to leave you wanting more. I still can’t get over how pretty and how clean it was. Visiting in autumn only added to the magic – the best season, of course, but I felt like it really suited the city.
It’s no secret that we’re both Scandiphiles. We talk about living in Sweden one day and we’re always longing for our next trip to the area. But Ljubljana is 100% up there with the Scandi cities for us now. It shares many of the qualities we love about them: green, clean, pretty, everything being good quality, a general feeling of calmness. And Slovenia as a country is definitely one we need to explore further. As an added bonus, as much as we adore our Scandinavian holidays, they do have a painful impact on our bank balance. We’re now really keen to see more of Slovenia and I know it won’t bring quite the same bankruptcy.
A city break in Ljubljana, Slovenia: useful information
How to get there (and away)
The only downside to Ljubljana is that you can’t fly to it direct from Manchester or Liverpool or anywhere useful. You have to go all the way to bloody London, which is a pain. But if you can get through that horror, it’s totally worth it. The flight took just over 2 hours. We didn’t fly home from Ljubljana, but went on to Zagreb via train.
Where to stay
We stayed in Apartment House Trta. It was clean, had a good shower and was perfectly located on the banks of the river just a little walk into town. It was also above one of the best pizza places in the city (which was shut every night we were there – oops). We don’t really do hotels much any more because it’s more relaxing being in your own little apartment (and you don’t have to get up for breakfast) but there seemed to be plenty of hotels nearby too.
How to get around
Everywhere is walkable. It’s very compact. Ljubljana also has a well-connected train station, so is ideal for a multi-destination holiday – for example, we went on to explore Zagreb.
When to go
We went in early October, when it was beautifully golden everywhere and a nice temperature for walking round most days. So I’d definitely recommend autumn. Spring would be nice too, but it sounds like it gets busier in summer, so maybe avoid it then if you can.
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