European travel and lifestyle
Ljubljana was on a list of cities I’d heard of as up and coming over the past few years. However, even though Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, I’m ashamed to say I knew little to nothing about the city or country. For every person who sung its praises, I was slightly disconcerted by what made it so special.
But, if you’re going to achieve anything as a traveller, it should be the chance to learn from your own mistakes. Whilst interrailing, I had the opportunity to stop in Ljubljana for a few days and finally discover what makes it stand out.
Give me multi-coloured facades and cobbled streets and you’ve pretty much won me over. Situated in the middle of a trade route between the northern Adriatic Sea and the Danube region, it was the historical capital of Carniola, a Slovene-inhabited part of the Habsburg Monarchy. Being a meeting point for several cultures, the city doesn’t have one defined style. Baroque and gothic mix with Austro-Hungarian influences, giving each building its own individuality.
The architect that most contributed to Ljubljana’s infrastructure was Jože Plečnik (1872-1957), who previously worked in Vienna and Prague and tried to model Ljubljana on ancient Athens. His numerous creations in the city, referred to as a whole as “Plečnik’s Ljubljana”, include the National and University Library building, the Ljubljanica river embankments and bridges (the most notable among the latter being the Triple Bridge and the Cobblers’ Bridge), the Central Market, the Križanke Summer Theatre, the Bežigrad Stadium, the funeral home at the Žale cemetery, and the Church of St. Michael in the Marshes. That’s one busy man!
Although the city’s origins are still debated, the initial settlement almost certainly formed due to the intersections of several larger rivers. The main watercourses in Ljubljana are the Ljubljanica, the Sava, the Gradaščica, the Mali Graben, the Iška and the Iščica Rivers. The city is also equidistant to several major cities, making it ideal for other European pit stops:
The city centre, located along the Ljubljanica River, is overlooked by Ljubljana Castle, which sits atop Castle Hill (Grajski grič). The castle is accessible by foot, but you can also use the funicular if you don’t fancy the hike. The city’s proximity to the Alps ensures that you’ll get some spectacular views once you reach the top.
Having addressed architecture and setting, this would be a horrible guide if I failed to mention the amazing street art dotted around the city. Although Plečnik may have designed the city’s landmarks, Ljubljana’s street art injects the character that brings it into the 21st century.
If you want to see the best street art examples, head to Metelkova in the city centre. A former military barrack, it consists of seven buildings that have served as an open canvas since the 1990s. While Metelkova became a squat in 1993, it’s also currently home to an art gallery, bars, artist studios, designer studios and cultural organisations that host live music and other outdoor events.
The area is relatively quiet during the day, with tourists and art enthusiasts touring the area. At night, the many bars and clubs come alive, giving the squats a new lease of life.
Meaning you can easily get the most out of the city with a short city break. Thanks to largely pedestrianised areas, Ljubljana is incredibly easy to walk around. It’s also why the city is so easy to cycle around, rated as one of the most cyclist-friendly in Europe.
Although it joined the Eurozone, prices have remained relatively low when compared to other parts of Europe. The city’s influx of student culture is also responsible in part for making the city so budget-friendly: with 280,607 inhabitants, students (almost 50,000) make up a fifth of the city’s entire population.
Of all the reasons I’ve written about, this is one of my personal favourites. There’s nothing quite like walking towards the Central Market and finding a whole area dedicated to showcasing the best cuisine from different Slovenian restaurants.
The most famous food market is Open Kitchen (or Odprta Kuhna), which runs from mid-March to October. Treat yourself to a pivo at one of the square’s surrounding bars and take your time wandering through the stalls: you’ll need to choose wisely to not fill yourself up straight away. Seeing how much I was enjoying meat during my trip around Eastern Europe, I decided to indulge with some pork from the Restavracija Argentino stall and finish with Raffaelo crepes from Café Romeo.
Staying central meant being able to take advantage of the many cafes and restaurants that were set along the Ljubljanica and Sava rivers. To my delight, being riverside didn’t mean digging endlessly into my wallet, with prices staying the same despite the idyllic location. One of my favourites had to be Cacao, a dessert-centred restaurant that also put together some amazing continental platters and cocktails.
I’ve left my favourite reason to stay in Ljubljana until last: this beautiful city is only a short trip away from Lake Bled, one of the most breathtaking views in Slovenia.
Located in the small town of Bled within the Julian Alps, the lake is situated in a picturesque environment, surrounded by mountains and forests. The medieval-era Bled Castle stands above the lake on the north shore, with the Zaka Valley lying at the west end.
Lake Bled is also known for the small island that occupies its centre. The island’s most important building is a Gothic-style church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, which is still a popular pilgrimage destination. You can easily wander around the lake, watching the views whilst taking breaks along one of the smaller cafes or pub-style restaurants Bled has on offer.
Has this inspired you to finally book your own trip to Ljubljana? Would you recommend any other sites? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @sideroutes.
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