Ljubljana is a mid-sized European city with a small town feel and friendliness. If you are looking for a quaint, charming, walkable city that exudes European charm, then you must visit Ljubljana. Ljubljana is the capital and largest city in Slovenia, but unlike other European capitals, Ljubljana does not suffer from over tourism. From the Middle Ages until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Ljubljana was part of the Habsburg Monarchy. After World War II and until 1991, Ljubljana became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Therefore, Ljubljana is full of beautiful architecture and history. However, there is so much more to discover in Ljubljana than just history and old buildings. There is also lots of culture and many culinary delights to enjoy.
Most of Ljubljana is discoverable on foot because Ljubljana is compact, pedestrian-friendly and it’s easy to navigate its cobblestone streets. Ljubljana is also a green city. We saw almost no plastic water bottles anywhere. For transportation, the focus is on public transportation and pedestrian and cycling networks. Since the city center is completely pedestrian, the city offers rides on electric-powered vehicles referred to as Kavalirs meaning Gentle Helpers to assist the elderly, people with suitcases, or the mobility-impaired.
Below are some of the best things to see and do in Ljubljana.
The best way to get the most out a visit to Ljubljana is with a private guided tour. Keith and I toured Ljubljana on foot with Barbara from Ride Around Tours. You probably know by now how much we appreciate private tours. Ride Around Tours offers some great packages but also will customize anything for you. The guides at Ride Around Tours love Slovenia and love the environment. They are enthusiastic about sharing the beauty and hidden treasures of their country. Best of all they are friendly; we felt like one our friends showed us around Ljubljana.
We spent 2 days with Ride Around Tours that you can read about in our other blog posts. First, we started our Ljubljana visit with a city tour. It began with a cappuccino al fresco in the heart of Ljubljana. Afterward, we walked the entire city while learning about Ljubljana today and past. Let me tell you the central historic district with its bridges and colorful architecture, riverside cafes, shops and markets, and friendly people is adorable. The different period buildings coupled with the architectural styles in Ljubljana tell the history and stories of those who lived there. These building and shops along with the many outdoor cafes and bistros create such beautiful streetscapes. Barbara with Ride Around Tours really knows Ljubljana and all she has to offer.
You could spend more than a day visiting the unique shops of Ljubljana. And, speaking of interesting shops, we visited a shop called Dobrote Dolenjske. Dobrote Dolenjske sells locally made food products from in and around Ljubljana, mostly the Dolenjska region. They sell marmalades, honey, cookies, oils, spirits, liqueurs and wines. They make all of their products with care for the environment as a top priority. Tasting local culinary treats is a great way to experience a new place.
Something very interesting that they sell is a unique brandy made by local monks with a whole pear inside the bottle. The bottle is placed over a pear as soon as the blossoming has finished. The pear then grows inside the bottle. Once the fruit ripens inside the bottle, they pick it along with the bottle and clean it. Then they pour organic pear brandy that is distilled four times into the bottle resulting in a fruity, warm and aromatic brandy. In this shop, we also tasted dried pears, a local cheese, honey liquor, and cookies. Everything was fabulous.
They also sell some local crafts such as hand-knitted dolls, stained glass products, and jewelry. This is a great shop if you are looking for real Slovenian experience, gifts or just something delicious to sample and take back home. Best of all they are open seven days a week.
Around late afternoon, we stopped for a glass of wine and ordered a couple of small bites at Gostilna Pri Kolovratu. Gostilna Pri Kolovratu is a café in the heart of Ljubljana. The restaurant offers traditional Ljubljana food since its opening in 1836. Their food includes slow-cooked dishes from the first Slovenian cookbook published in 1799. We paired our bites with a great Malvazija wine. Our waiter explained that Malvazija is a fabulous local white wine. The food and wine were great but eating on the street in Ljubljana while people watching made it perfect!
Preseren Square the Main Gathering Place of Ljubljana
Our guide told us that as long as she can remember Ljubljana’s main gathering place has been Preseren Square. The square named for the 19th-century poet France Preseren whose work Zdravljica (A Toast) became Slovenia’s national anthem. There is a statue of him next to the Central Pharmacy. But what will probably fist grab your attention when you arrive at the square is the Baroque style, Franciscan Church Of The Annunciation. The pastel reddish color is symbolic of the Franciscan order.
Preseren Square is part of the old town’s pedestrian zone and its where festivals, Ljubljana carnival, concerts, sports, and even protests take place. The square formed after the city walls were pulled down in the middle of the 19th century. The first decade of the 20th century saw Art Nouveau architectural gems appear.
The Robba Fountain sits in front of the Town Hall and is a symbol of Ljubljana. This 1751 fountain named for its creator, Italian Baroque sculptor Francesco Robba is lovely. Incorporating inspiration from the grand fountains of Rome, the fountain features three male figures with jugs. The men are thought to be the three river gods, supposedly representing the Krka, Ljubljanica and Sava rivers. Steps that lead up to the fountain represent the Carniolan Mountains. These mountains, which were part of Carniola, are a historical region that comprises parts of present-day Slovenia. Today the monument you see standing in Mestni square is a replica; the original is inside the lobby of the National Gallery of Slovenia to protect it from the elements and preserve it for eternity.
With its beautiful gardens, shaded woods and tranquil walkways, you won’t want to miss visiting Tivoli Park. There is much to see and do in the park all year round. This magnificent park is the city’s most popular green space. Established as a park in 1813 this 5 square kilometer park is an easy walk from the city center. There are many walking and cycling trails, a mini-golf course and a small botanical garden with a glasshouse in the park,. The glasshouse displays many tropical plants, such as pineapple, black pepper, coffee, and orchids. Also on display are bromeliads, some of which have exceptionally attractive flowers. We enjoyed walking the park, but you can also enjoy the park by bike. Bicycles are available for rent at various places throughout the park during the summer.
The Romantic Ljubljana Castle
Ljubljana is picturesque, fairy-tale like and romantic all at once and much of that is due to the 16th-century Ljubljana Castle that overlooks the city. The castle’s Outlook Tower and ramparts offer spectacular views of the city. The castle houses a museum exhibition on 200,000 years of Slovenian history and a puppet museum. We had no idea that Slovenia is a country with a rich tradition of puppeteering. The emerald-green Ljubljanica River, which flows through the city’s heart and transversed with lovely bridges, adds to the charm. The castle is open for touring but check their hours as they change throughout the year.
Vurnik House and the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation
Some buildings such as the Vurnik House, which now houses the Cooperative Business Bank, are beautiful on their own. They consider the Vurnik House to be one of the finest examples of Slovenian national style architecture. Built in 1921, the Vurnik House is a brightly colored Art Nouveau building. The building’s facade frescoes painted in the colors of Slovenia, which are a bright red, white and blue are photo worthy. The Vurnik House is not open for touring.
Then there is the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. Franciscan’s first built the church in the 1600s and later rebuilt it in the baroque style in the 1800s. An earthquake in 1896 damaged the interior of the church, and they painted new frescos in 1936, by Slovenian painter Matej Sternen. The largest statue of St Mary in Ljubljana is made of copper and sits on top of the church’s roof. If you want to do more than experience the churches architecture, the church has daily mass services.
A visit to Ljubljana would not be complete without visiting the Art Nouveau, Dragon Bridge. The Dragon Bridge crosses the Ljubljanica River. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, when Ljubljana was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, each end of the bridge has two of the famous dragon statues. The almost terrifying statues of the dragons are iconic Ljubljana. Dragon bridge built at the turn of the twentieth century was quite a marvel since it was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Europe.
If you love architecture both the dragons and the bridge are fantastic examples of Art Nouveau architecture. Also, you might be interested to know that the Dragon Bridge replaced an old wooden bridge called Butchers’ Bridge. The Butcher’s Bridge had stood on the site from 1819. The city authorities decided a modern design of reinforced concrete was more practical and economical as construction in reinforced concrete was far less expensive than construction in the more common stone.
According to Barbara, our guide from Ride Around Tours, visitors of Ljubljana must have their photo taken next to a Dragon Bridge dragon, to claim that you have visited Ljubljana.
An Amazing Dining Experience
If you ask anyone in Ljubljana where can I go for the best dining experience in town? Most likely the answer will be AS Aperitivo. The owner, a Serbian gentleman, who goes by the name Pope is a celebrity in Ljubljana. Originally Pope’s restaurant was in the Karst countryside region of Slovenia. Because his restaurant was very popular with the people from Ljubljana who ventured to the countryside on the weekend, the restaurant moved to the historic city center of Ljubljana. Pope has been in business for over 30 years. A’s serves simple dishes with high-quality ingredients. There is lots of fresh Adriatic fish and of course, wine. Pope’s house wine is a macerated and aged Malvasia Amphora from his private vineyard in Karst. Popes ancestors made some of the wine served on the Titanic. Keith and I had dinner with Pope in his rooftop al fresco dining area.
Everything Green, Even Hotels
Remember I said that Ljubljana is a green city. Well, there is a fantastic green hotel by B&B Hotels called Ljubljana Park Hotel. Keith and I stayed there while visiting Ljubljana. Located in a quiet part of town the hotel is surrounded by trees. It is a great place to stay and to explore the city. It’s in walking distance of everything. The hotel’s motto is: reduce, reuse and recycle. The rooftop of the hotel is home to an herb garden and bee-hive with over 100,000 bees. Besides the fantastic breakfast buffet each morning, there’s a very nice restaurant with outdoor seating next door.
Ljubljana is a True Gem of Europe
Ljubljana is tiny for a capital city, but that is part of its charm. History and culture are overflowing in Ljubljana. Culinary treats from delicious light bites, wine or coffee to a world-class dining experience await. The curving Ljubljanica River, lined in outdoor cafes, separates the city’s old town from its commercial hub. Did I mention the architecture, it is some of the best in Europe. And, the best way to see Ljubljana is on a private tour with Ride Around Tours.