Last week I made an overnight visit to Ljubljana, the small and delightful capital of Slovenia. An easy 2.5-hour train ride away from Zagreb, my base at the moment, it offered a nice city break. My reasons for the trip were of personal nature but I managed to have a glimpse of Ljubljana as a first-time visitor (even though I’ve been to Ljubljana at least ten times). In fact, I try to do this with all the cities I visit regularly.
Lying between the Alps and the Adriatic, with a vibrant culture and art scene, great shopping and sightseeing aplenty, Ljubljana is an ideal destination for lovers of Central European flair. And Europe it is indeed. It’s the first and so far the only one of the ex-Yugoslav republics-turned-independent countries to have joined the European Union, in 2004.
Ljubljana’s rich history spans five thousand years. Imagine what happens in and to a city during such a long period of time! In its old town, medieval structures and ancient Roman monuments blend with Baroque and Art Nouveau masterpieces. Ljubljana Castle on a hill above town, inhabited as early as the 12th century BC, is the city’s definite landmark. It doubles as a sight not to miss and a venue for concerts, performances, and exhibitions. Check out www.ljubljanafestival.si.
If you like to browse through random bric-a-brac and hunt for old treasures, check out the antique flea market. Held on Sundays between 8am and 2pm at the Cankarjevo Nabrežje embankment, it features stalls and stalls of decorative items, collectibles, art pieces, and nostalgic miscellania. It was Monday when I visited Ljubljana so I sadly missed the flea market.
Sunny skies and warm temperatures were a perfect accompaniment to my one day in the city. The streets and squares were jam-packed with people soaking up the sun rays, taking in the last breaths of summer. We took a couple of tea breaks in alfresco cafes and strolled along the tree-shaded Ljubljanica riverside with its numerous bridges and stone terraces lined with weeping willows.
There was something I just had to do – stop by Lola, a lovely gift shop on the riverfront (Gallusovo Nabrežje 1) where a couple of years ago I bought a colorful pair of slippers handmade by a local designer. I’ve worn them so much in my Brooklyn apartment that they fell apart last winter. I had been pining for another pair since. Mission accomplished – now I have another pair of funky slippers to bring back to Brooklyn.
With the shopping done, we had a snack on the riverfront terrace of what many claim is Ljubljana’s best pizzeria, Ljubljanski Dvor (Dvorni Trg 1). A couple of hours later, there was time for lunch so we headed to Cantina Mexicana (Wolfova Ulica 4) in a charming passage off the riverside, where the Mexican food is surprisingly tasty and the portions huge.
As for lodging in Ljubljana… If you’re traveling on a budget, the best place to stay is Hostel Celica, a former military prison converted into a hip and happening hostel and cultural center. Each of the twenty prison cells (starting at €18 per night, with breakfast) is designed by a different local artist; there are also regular doubles and dorms. Celica features a bar and restaurant, as well as a gallery. I went a different route and booked my one-night stay through City Breaks Europe, short-stay apartment specialists with furnished apartments in 14 cities around Europe. I had a fantastic experience: the apartment owners waited for us at the train station at midnight, drove us to the apartment (small, pleasant, clean and close to the center; see Ljubljana Apartments), we had a good rest and left the following morning. A breeze.
Ljubljana is a bike-friendly city – on warm days, just about everyone seems to be on their bikes, riding along the many bike paths. It’s a great way to get around the compact city, especially on warm days (winters tend to be bitingly cold in Slovenia). Bike hire is easy, cheap and available at several locations around the city; read up on bicycle hire.
To go further afield and explore Slovenia off the beaten trail, Be Alive Ecotours is a terrific option. This small operator offers trips to undiscovered regions of the country. They promote sustainable tourism by partnering with small farms that offer comfortable lodgings and home-cooked meals of locally grown organic ingredients. On their excursions (lasting between two and seven days), you can roam around national parks, enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides under the full moon, and hike through fields of alpine wild flowers.