This is the fourth in an eleven-part series covering my June/July 2019 trip to Slovenia and Venice. You can read my last post, covering my stay at the Intercontinental Ljubljana, here.
Ljubljana is a city I hadn’t heard much about before planning my trip. As a former Yugoslav capital, I expected a lot of post-Modern utilitarianism. Boy, was I wrong, as the city far more resembles Vienna or Budapest, which it was united with for centuries from the Habsburgs through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Though not the most exciting of cities, Ljubljana was gorgeous, and a great place to spend two days. And although there definitely were a lot of tourists, it wasn’t uncomfortably packed like other places I went on this trip. Two days in the center of the city was just the right amount of time for me. You could probably spend a little longer, or stay in town and day trip and return at night. I decided to base myself for day tripping at the cheaper Four Points in the suburbs, but either way would work.
One thing about Ljubljana compared to other European cities I’ve visited is how little of the actual city life I seemed to encounter. Part of that was that I was there on a weekend, and the places I was were not very residential. The Intercontinental, where I stayed, was in more of a business district, which was very quiet, and otherwise I spent most of the time in the Old Town, which is car-free and very touristy – but gorgeous.
On Saturday morning, after checking into my hotel, I walked over to Old Town. The picturesque Old Town is largely centered around the Ljubljanica River, with Habsburg Era bridges and buildings along its banks. There are bars and restaurants all along the river, and either side makes for great walks at any time of day or night. I started with a visit to the Central Market, which was teeming with fresh produce stands and other vendors.
From there, I went to the famous Triple Bridge—three spans next to one another and the Selfie Capital of Ljubljana.
The main tourist sight in Ljubljana is the Ljubljana Castle, which is a huge complex built as a defense structure for 12th century Carniola, and subsequently restored and re-imagined over time. The Castle sits atop the wildly named “Castle Hill.” Although you can walk, I took the relatively new funicular to the top. A 15 EUR ticket included the funicular ride round-trip, entry to the various museums at the castle, and a “Time Machine” tour.
The Time Machine tour is incredibly campy and ridiculous and I highly recommend it. Basically, you’re guided around the complex by a tour guide, and then at several stops along the way, different configurations of three actors come out in costume playing different roles from different time periods. The dialogue, combined with the accents and the acting quality, is…. a lot. You’re not allowed to video record—which they strictly enforce—but use your imagination from the still photographs.
You can easily spend hours exploring all the small museums at the Castle. I was tired, though, so just did a few stops after the tour, mainly to take in the great views of the city below and mountains beyond. After lunch on the river and wandering around the Old Town some more, I headed back to my hotel for a nap.
On my way back, I ran into a traditional chorus singing outside Ljubljana Town Hall:
The Intercontinental Concierge recommended a great restaurant in the Old Town to me for dinner my first night, Gostilna Pri kolovratu. Although I didn’t have a reservation, I was able to get the last empty table in the cobblestone street out front. Compared to other places in Western Europe, prices were quite reasonable, and I spent 27 Euros for my entire meal, including starter, main, two glasses of wine, and a bottle of mineral water. Slovenian food is definitely heavy, and despite it being summer, I felt like everything was very seasonally fall, if that makes sense. That meal started with a good chicken soup, followed by delicious duck with lingonberries and blueberries and polenta cakes.
After dinner, I wandered around Old Town a bit. I imagine that somewhere in Ljubljana there was nightlife to be had on a Saturday night, but I just went to bed.
Slovenia is a predominantly Catholic country, and thus it was little surprise how dead everything was on Sunday, with most things besides tourist attractions and restaurants closed. It was a great day for wandering though, and I got to take in a lot of smaller details, like the protected bike lanes on nearly every street, and the ubiquity of bikeshare, scooters, and carshare. There also were few large international chains in Ljubljana, though there were plenty of coffee shops and local places. In the Old Town, there are golf carts, “trains” (chains of golf carts, essentially) and minibuses you can call for free rides, since there are no cars allowed.
I found myself at a flea market along the river, which was quirky, before running into some sort of Jewish exhibit outside. I have no idea what it was, since it was all in Slovenian, but context was clear. Slovenia actually never had a huge Jewish population – even before World War II, only numbering about 2,000. But things didn’t end well for that population.
I wandered about more, passing the unfortunately closed National and University Library, which is designed by Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik in the 1930s and is a cool building. I went into the small city museum next door, Mestni muzej Ljubljana, which was a little bit disappointing for 6 EUR. There was only one small room that covered all of 1945 to the present, which is the period I find most interesting.
The restaurants on the water were all packed with late breakfast eaters, lots of tourists and some hungover. So, I just stopped at a recommended gelato place, Gelato Romantika, which was quite good, and had my first gelato of the day. From there I figured I’d walk, and ended up stopping at Foculus Pizza, which was not particularly good, but had pleasant outdoor seating. I made the mistake of getting the seafood pizza even though we weren’t near the ocean, and I have no idea how I was supposed to eat the shell-on prawns that were on top.
After lunch, I headed west to one of the jewels of Ljubljana, Park Tivoli, the largest park in the city, which has a variety of recreational areas. For the summer, there were refreshment stands, as well as reading areas sponsored by the library. There were free chairs to sit in, so I sat and read for a bit, before a strange encounter with a cat on a leash.
I wandered through the park more, past Tivoli Castle, and ending up at the Museum of Contemporary Slovenian History, Muzej novejše zgodovine Slovenije, in an 18th century mansion in the north end of the park. It was a really good museum with a lot of interesting exhibits, focusing on the 20th century, including a photography exhibit about the Tito era, displays about the wars of the 1990s, and an exhibit on borders that has a particular resonance. There was plenty of English signage. From there, it was a short 12-minute walk back to the Intercontinental for a nap at around 3pm.
For my second dinner, I had a reservation at Gujzina. There, I also sat outside in the street in the Old Town which was lovely. The restaurant serves food from the Prekmurje region in the northeast corner of the country, which has its own distinct culture. My first course was one of the best dishes I ate on the trip, a cold cucumber soup, which was almost like eating a bowl of tzatziki. It was too rich for me to finish. For my main, I had a pork with plums dish, which was a bit bland, and served along with the traditional dodoli- potato dumplings. Another 27 EUR meal, including wine.
After dinner, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodnight. I went to Slovenian chain Cacao and had a coffee and gelato on the river, taking in the great views and people watching before heading to bed before my travels to Lake Bled in the morning.
Ljubljana was a beautiful city and a great welcome to Slovenia. It definitely was a calm way to start off vacation and I highly recommend it; I’m sure in a few years it will be overrun by tourists more than it is already.
Up next: my explorations to Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, and Skocjan Caves