Just a two-hour (cheap) flight from London, the city of dragons might just be the perfect weekend getaway.
It could be argued that the description ‘undiscovered/hidden gem’ is one of the most jaded clichés in the world when it comes to travel writing. But it could also be argued that Ljubljana really is one of the most overlooked jewels of the world when it comes to capital cities.
It’s tiny. Just 164 km2 (63 mi2) and with a population of under 300,000, it’s the tenth-smallest capital city in Europe (facing tough competition in the small-city stakes from capitals such as the Vatican, population 800, and Vaduz in Liechtenstein, population 5,000). That is certainly part of its charm. Just about everything that matters is within walking distance – easy walking distance. But that aspect, one of convenience, is but a modicum of what makes this city one of the most beautiful, I think, in the world.
It’s very name (pronounced lyoob-lee-yahna) speaks of its loveliness. Linguist Tijmen Pronk believes that the name stems from the Slavic word ljubljana, meaning to love or to like. Other theories claim that the city is named after the remarkably aqua-coloured Ljubljanica River that flows through the heart of the city, which gets its own name from a Slavic male name Ljubovid, meaning ‘one of a lovely appearance’. Either way, it’s fitting. That the symbol of the city is a fire-breathing dragon is perhaps less immediately obvious! Particularly because it is probably one of the most peaceful, tranquil cities one could hope to experience. The Ljubljana dragons, four magnificent verdigris beasts designed by Zaninović, proudly stand guard over the city on the Zmajski Most (the Dragon Bridge), itself considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of bridges built by the Vienna Secession art movement. They symbolise courage, power and greatness – big words for such a small, gentle place. But, after my second visit to Ljubljana, I stoutly defend its greatness.
Ljubljana is steeped in history, from its roots in antiquity as the Roman city Emona, to its important role on the trade route between the North Adriatic Sea and the Danube. It became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia (one of the six republics making up Yugoslavia) after the Second World War. From Romans to Ottomans, Venetians to Hapsburgs, communists to modern-day Europe, the city has acquired nuanced layers of culture and complexity.
The historical heart of the city, clustered around the river, is remarkably beautiful. Surrounded, visibly, by low mountains and forest on almost all sides. Elegant cream, ochre, blue and pink buildings in baroque, Venetian and Vienna Secession styles line wide cobbled streets so clean you could almost eat off them. Despite its size, there is a sense of space and spaciousness throughout. And the colours… Ljubljana is vivid! The city is filled with big, leafy trees; vibrant flowers tumble out of window boxes; the turquoise Ljubljanica lazily winds past pavement cafés and wine bars, copper- and red-leaved creepers tumbling down the steep stone banks. From one square, the sound of a fountain, from another the sound of a local orchestra providing an impromptu performance.
Even the weather is kind – or at least it was when we were there recently. Summer is hot but not sticky. Winter is cold, but not miserable. Autumn and spring are balmy but fresh. Arrive on a Friday evening, leave on Monday morning, and herewith is your perfect autumn (or winter) itinerary.
Dump your bags, and head straight to Dvorni Bar – if you’re staying in the old part of the city (which I recommend) it will be three to 10 minutes’ walk. This lively, friendly wine bar has great Slovenian wines and beers and provides generous platters of simple but delicious tapas-type food (tapas with a Slovenian accent).
In the morning, take a slow meander upriver, past the Dragon Bridge (#selfieopp), and find a place called EK Bistro. If the weather is good, you can sit outside with a view of the river but the inside looks pretty nice too. They do very good coffee, delicious brunch (hard to choose from the options, but I can recommend the goat’s cheese spinach omelette, and the pulled-beef eggs benedict) and decent cheeky brunch cocktails, great local beer and wine. I can vouch for the beer and cocktails – we were eating brunch at 12:30! In our defence, we did get to bed at 2 am from Dvorni, which we blame squarely on the English friends we have who moved their family and lives lock, stock and two smoking barrels to Slovenia in 2018 and are adamant that it is the best place in the world to live … enough said. Eat late enough and you won’t need lunch.
Cross the bridge and take a long walk back along the south bank of the river and through the Central Market that stretches from the Dragon Bridge to the beautiful Triple Bridge at the heart of the city. The market (open every day except Sunday) is a glorious, mouth-watering, spectacularly colourful riot of fresh, seasonal, local fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheeses, breads, honeys and jams, charcuterie and meat, nuts and seeds. Complementing the food is an eclectic mix of tiny stalls selling tourist tat and the most exquisitely hand-made crafts, from knitwear to jewellery, pottery to lacework, art to wood-turning, traditional basket-weaving and carving.
Stop by the Fabrica stall for handmade jewellery by the very shy but tender-hearted Slovenian artist Anamari Hrup. She upcycles vintage textiles originating from old Yugoslavia: authentic hand-stitched embroidery done by Balkan women, silk men’s ties, old aprons, blouses and corsets. It’s a homage, she told me, to the care and devotion of the people who made modern-day life in Slovenia possible. Every piece is beautiful. Every piece has a story.
Halfway along your market meander, you’ll come to the Butchers’ Bridge (Mesarski Most). You can’t miss it. Designed by Jurij Kobe, it is commandeered by the striking sculptures of Jakov Brdar, representing ancient Greek, Christian and Jewish mythology.
It could possibly be called the Bridge of Love – the steel wires on the two sides of the bridge are riddled with love locks of all shapes and sizes.
Keep looking, wherever you go. The city is filled with sculpture and art, often hidden in plain sight.
And, we’re convinced, there is a Black Cat Banksy…
You’ve now worked off that breakfast and up an appetite. Make your way to Vinoteka Movia. Owned by Movia winery in Goriška Brda (winemaker Aleš Kristančič), this atmospheric little wine bar offers a fantastic selection of wines from Slovenia as well as the wider world. They specialise in natural and skin-contact wines and most are available by the glass, bottle or in tasting flights. They offer very good cheese and charcuterie platters.
Now’s the time to make the most of that afternoon sunshine and soporific mellowness. It’s touristy, but you’re a tourist. You’re allowed to be naff. Book a boat ride. There are various people offering trips up and down the river, but one of the nicest is in a traditional larch-wooden barge called the Ljubljanica, which starts from the Breg embankment. Climb on board for €10 per person and sit back for a dreamily tranquil putter up and down the river. For a couple of euros, you can also have a tiny glass of spritzer, unbelievably horrible prosecco, or a somewhat serviceable-but-at-least-cold Union beer. Within what feels like minutes, you’re out of the city (making you realise how very small it is) and the scenery is so lovely that you won’t notice what that spritzer tastes like.
I would then highly recommend a visit to Honey House (honey, med, is a speciality of Slovenia, and as a honey lover, I genuinely think it’s some of the best-tasting honey I’ve had) or one of the chocolate shops along the very pretty, cobbled, pedestrianised Mestni trg – a haven for shoppers. Walking up Mestni, surrounded by handsome architecture, takes you to the town square, dominated by the Robba Fountain, the imposing town hall and the cathedral. There are also plenty of little art galleries around here. If shopping is not your thing, the City Museum is a wealth of information about Ljubljana.
Head back to your accommodation, freshen up into something a little smart, and make your way to Atelje (you’ll need to book, of course). I’m not going to say more about this right now, because I’ll be reviewing Atelje and Hiša Franko in more detail, but it’s an experience worth having.
Sunday: you’ll need a good strong coffee and because you’re in Slovenia, it should be Turkish. This is what everyone drinks. Great Turkish coffee and a superb traditional Slovenian breakfast in Ljubljana can be found at Slovenska Hiša. They also offer a really pretty pavement terrace of outdoor tables, but inside looks good too. I could have basked for hours in the sunshine here, and spent far too much time coveting all the different breakfasts that were being carried out to tables, which seemed to be mostly occupied by Slovenians.
Time to work off that bread! Get your walking boots on, turn east, look for the castle and head through the cobbled streets up the hill. It’s a 10- to 20-minute walk, depending on your puff. You could take the funicular, but honestly, it’s such a pretty walk/climb that if you’re able to, don’t bother. The views of the city from the castle are spectacular. The castle itself is free to visit, but it really is worth paying €10 to get access to the highest tower, from which you can look out over the whole city and way beyond. The ticket also gives you access to the museums. The castle has several options for eating and drinking, from simple café and coffee fare to the apparently rather posh Strelec – we didn’t try out any of them, but they looked good.
Walk back down from the castle, and now you’re thirsty. Cross the river. Luckily you’ve booked a noon table at Bar Šuklje. Look for the two ‘grape trees’, as Brad called them. I’m trusting that the weather is clement and you can sit outside on their lovely wide, tree-shaded, flower-filled terrace, watch the bustle of the Sunday flea market (every Sunday, 8 am to 2 pm) taking place along the river bank, watch the cyclists (often entire families, duckling-like, from tall dad to three-year-old on trainer wheels) and the boats drift by. I’m also hoping that here you’ll get to meet Jonatan and Simona who work there. Two people with a knowledge and passion for Slovenian wine, as well as exemplary customer-service skills, that was only matched by sommelier Tina, at Atelje.
This wine bar belongs to the Šuklje family winery (who make excellent wine thanks to their Bordelais son-in-law winemaker) but they offer a superb selection of Slovenian wine from all over the country as well as very good international wines. They’ve also got a wine shop, so it’s a great place to pick up a bottle or two to take home. We tried several of their very cleverly conceived wine flights – four 50-ml pours with various themes, from ‘Slovenia vs the world’ to ‘discover Slovenia’. Their wine list is also clever, categorising wines by music themes. Pop, for simple fun wines. Jazz, for emotional wines. Beethoven masterpieces for iconic wines. And so on. Each wine on the wine list gets a little symbol to guide you through your choices. The food here is simple but delicious. Just charcuterie and cheese platters (although they very kindly added some extra veg for us!).
You might need an afternoon nap now … or perhaps go and sit in the sunshine and listen to the orchestra play in the square. Or hire a canoe and go punting down the river. But when the light fades and you are, unbelievably, hungry again, it’s Spajza. They’re proudly Slovenian. No pretensions. Traditional, almost home-cooking! The maître d’ will turn you away at the door if you haven’t booked and he’s seriously bossy. Blunt. But also charming.
The decor is whimsical. The restaurant is a maze of nooks and crannies, little snugs, with a truly beautiful secret garden out back. For starters order the Tris morskih jedi (no, not a Star Wars special: it’s mixed cold fish plate with tasters of octopus salad, bacala with truffle, tuna tartare, marinated anchovies) and the žlikrofi z jurčki – a traditional Slovenian dish of made from potato-flour ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms. For mains, the rabbit fillet wrapped in bacon and the slow-cooked beef cheeks. You’re not going to want to eat again for a week, but boy, it’s worth it. They’ve got a good (if not stellar) Slovenian wine list and the maître d’ will tell you what to order (and you’ll obey, believe me). You’ll also pretty much have to have a glass of penina (sparkling wine) when you arrive, because he’ll tell you to.
Finish, either there, or passing some buzzing little pavement wine bar anywhere in the city en route home, with a glass of dolenjski sadjevec, fruit brandy (more like schnapps or eau de vie than brandy). Slovenians seem to do this particularly well, whether it’s plum, pear, cherry, walnut or juniper. If you like it dry, go for brkinski slivovec (plum) or kraški brinjevec (juniper). But my little vice is the deep red, sweet cherry schnapps.
And raise a glass to the most beautiful little city in the world.
- It is much, much cheaper than a taxi, and just as easy, to get a shuttle bus from the airport to the city centre.
- We stayed at an Airbnb basement apartment called The Room Without A View. The location was absolutely perfect, five minutes’ walk from practically everywhere and just off the main pedestrian zone. It had everything we needed, was rather charming and atmospheric (tucked behind the inner courtyard of one of the old buildings) and is owned by the very efficient Damjana who speaks English, French and Italian. I recommend it.
- Public toilets tend to be spotlessly clean (as with the rest of Ljubljana) and restaurants will let you use their loo if desperate.
- Ljubljana is PCR-tastic. Everywhere you go, there are signs outside saying that you have to provide proof that you been double-vaccinated, recently tested negative, or recovered. Most places ask for proof. Masks are worn indoors unless you’re sitting at a table. Bring your vaccine certificate – it makes life a lot easier. Nearly everywhere has hand sanitisers and tables are well cleaned between sittings.
- The Slovenians in Ljubljana are pretty good with their English (as well as German and Italian). Sometimes it may be basic, but communication is not difficult and no one gets difficult because you can’t speak the language. What we found, however, was that any attempt we made to speak Slovenian, however small and badly pronounced, was warmly received and encouraged. So, a few words to get you going:
- Dober dan – good day
- Dobro jutro – good morning
- Dober večer – good evening
- Hvala – thank you (hvala lepa, thank you very much)
- Okusno – delicious
- Račun, prosim – the bill, please
- Kozarec vina, prosim – a glass of wine, please
- Dva kozarca vine, prosim – two glasses of wine, please
- Rdeče vino – red wine
- Belo vino – white wine
- Penina – sparkling wine
- Kava – coffee
- Mleko – milk
- Kruh – bread
- Vodo – water
- Jaz tudi – me too
- Govoriš angleško? – do you speak English?
- Ne govorim slovensko – I don’t speak Slovenian
- Na zdravje! – cheers! (Think NA-STRA-VYA)
- Quick pronunciation guide: Slovenian is largely phonetic, but they have three caron-diacritic letters (the little inverted hat on top of the letter that the Slovenians call strešica, meaning roof in Slovenian): č, š and ž. The effect of the caron is basically to add an invisible ‘h’ to each letter. So č become ch as in cheap, š becomes sh as in sheep and ž becomes zhuh as in pleasure. Two other important things to bear in mind is that j is pronounced y as in year, and c is pronounced ts as in its. They will helpfully (and kindly) correct your accent if you ask them to.
- Top tip for wine lovers: every year, in both June and November, they celebrate the Ljubljana Wine Route. Stritarjeva street becomes a festive promenade of wine-pouring, glass-raising, wine-sipping wine producers and wine lovers. You basically rent a wine glass, buy coupons and go from stall to stall tasting whatever takes your fancy.