Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by Slovenia's recent popularity - it's one of Europe's most fought-over countries, after all. The country was once part of the Roman Empire, then the German Holy Roman Empire, then under the rule of the Habsburgs of Austria, and even Napoleon for a brief period. It became part of Yugoslavia in the 1920s, until 1991, when it finally achieved independence. Although Lake Bled currently ranks as the country's most popular spot for tourists, growing numbers of visitors are taking time to explore Slovenia's beautiful capital, so we've put together a guide to Ljubljana so you can make the most of this enthralling city.
Ljubljana is one of Europe's smallest cities - two million people live in Slovenia, and just 292,000 in the capital. It's a place which feels surprisingly ahead of its time, thanks to a recently pedestrianised centre and a fleet of electric jeeps which will whisk you around for free – simply dial the number on the side of the vehicles. No wonder it was voted the European Commission's Green Capital of Europe in 2016.
The residents have architect Jože Plečnik to thank for the city's elegant, orderly layout. Regarded as a master of modern architecture, Plečnik designed large parts of Ljubljana's centre in the early 20th century, shaping its embankments and designing its cemetery, market buildings, library, famous Triple Bridge and the Križanke Summer Theatre, converted from a former monastery of the Teutonic Order. Don't be fooled by the name – a sliding roof means performances can take place on rainy days.
The city is home to some great restaurants and fascinating museums and there's plenty of history to discover. There's also a great range of bars and clubs (the 50,000-strong student population can take some of the credit for this). In a nutshell, Ljubljana a destination with endless appeal, but which has somehow remained blissfully crowd-free and wonderfully affordable – for now, at least.
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Prešeren Square is the logical (and spectacular) starting point for all explorations of Ljubljana. It's surrounded by several colourful mansions, like the Mayerjeva palača (Mayor's Palace), an impossibly grand building which now houses a pharmacy. Head to Urbanc palace on the square, regarded as the city's finest example of Art Nouveau architecture, to find the city's original (and still operating) department store, Galerija Emporium. The square was created as a tribute to the late France Prešeren, considered one of Europe's finest romantic poets. One of Prešeren's sonnets was used as the basis for the country's national anthem and his statue stands proudly in the square's centre.
Another architectural gem is the Triple Bridge –a cluster of three bridges spanning the Ljubljanica River and connecting modern Ljubljana with the historic centre. The bridge was designed in 1929 by Jože Plečnik. You can learn more about the architect at Plečnik House. His former home is stuffed with tools, models and drawings, including sketches of a building which never came to fruition – the Cathedral of Freedom, which would have housed the Slovenian Parliament had his designs not been rejected.
One building Plečnik can't lay claim to is the fifteenth-century Ljubljana Castle, which towers over the city. The building has a long history – it was built as a defence against Ottoman invasions before being used as a military hospital and prison in the 1800s. During WWII, quarantined prisoners of war were sent here, and later still it was used to house the city's poorest families – albeit in horrendous conditions. A major renovation in the 1970s turned it into Ljubljana's biggest tourist attraction, reached via a short, steep funicular which starts at the base of Castle Hill. There are daily tours of the castle, which has a wonderful Museum of Puppetry within its grounds – reflecting the city's love for one of its oldest art forms.
Another surprising fact about Ljubljana? It's got one of Europe's largest shopping malls - the BTC City Ljubljana, a sprawling complex with a water park, multiplex cinema and hundreds of stores. Which is all well and good, but if you're on the hunt for souvenirs, the city centre is the place to be.
Mestni Trg and Stari Trg (Trg means "square" in Slovenian, but also refers to streets), at the base of Castle Hill, are where you'll find the highest density of souvenir shops. Items to look out for include hand-painted ceramic plates and bowls and Slovenian salt. For the best salt, head to Mestni Trg's Piranske Soline, where you'll also find the brand's legendary, salt-dusted chocolate bars and beeswax candles – Slovenia's Carniolan bee is a protected species, and the country has 90,000 beekeepers. Fancy splashing out? Treat yourself to something colourful at Ciril-Metodov Trg's Porcelain Catbriyur, a high-end porcelain brand founded by Slovenian designers Katja and Jure Bricman.
The brilliant thing about Slovenia is that its small size means it's relatively easy to get from the capital to other highlights. Lake Bled is a 50-minute drive away, the country has plenty of lesser-known gems, such as stunning Jezersko – a postcard-perfect valley framed by soaring, snow-capped mountains. Jezersko a destination with sustainability at its heart – spend the night at the beautiful Vila Planinka (this Condé Nast-worthy hotel, surrounded by a pretty, alpine plant-filled garden, opened in early 2019) and staff will happily organise guided hikes and visits to local farms. Don't forget to quench your thirst at Jezersko's spring, although you'll have to get in line behind the locals who come to fill old wine bottles with this magnesium-rich water.
Another great option for a day trip is the Postojna Cave, 53 kilometres from Ljubljana. Getting to the heart of this underground cavern, which is Europe's largest show cave, is half the fun – the visit starts with a two-kilometre train ride, pootling past house-sized stalagmites and through caverns transformed into dance halls and lit with Murano glass chandeliers.
Top image: Ljubljana Castle © Matic Stojs Lomovsek/Shutterstock