The vibrant Slovene capital Ljubljana gracefully fans out from its castle-topped hill, the old centre marooned in the shapeless modernity that stretches out across the plain. It’s a dynamic and fast-growing capital packed with compelling sights, but they are only part of the picture; above all Ljubljana is a place to meet people and enjoy the nightlife.
Ljubljana’s main point of reference is Slovenska cesta, a busy north–south thoroughfare that slices the city down the middle. Most of the sights are within easy walking distance of here, with the Old Town straddling the River Ljubljanica to the south and east and the nineteenth-century quarter situated to the west, where the principal museums and galleries are.
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The majority of Ljubljana’s
are patronized by business people, and with prices that reflect this. Most establishments are pretty central and can be easily reached on foot from the train and bus stations. The city now has an excellent clutch of
, most of which have internet and kitchen facilities – where breakfast is not included in the price, expect to pay around €5. If you can’t bag a bed at any of these, there are four clean and well-run
), with beds available between mid-June and August. P
is another option – if this is your preferred choice, head to the tourist office on Stritarjeva, who should be able to arrange something close to the centre.
Opposite the market, Študentovska ulica winds up the thickly wooded hillside to the castle, originally constructed in the twelfth century, its present appearance dates from the sixteenth century, following an earthquake in 1511. Climb the clock tower for a superlative view of the Old Town below and the magnificent Kamniške Alps to the north. A funicular railway provides a more sedate route up and down the castle hill.
The streets of Ljubljana’s Old Town are packed with restaurants to suit all budgets. The best choice for bargain snacks are the many kiosks and stands near the stations and scattered elsewhere throughout town, selling burek, hot dogs and the local gorenjska sausages. There’s a lively food market on Vodnikov trg (closed Sun) where you can pick up tasty seasonal produce. On summer evenings the cafés and bars that line the Ljubljanica spill out onto the riverbanks.
Ljubljana has a busy cultural calendar of dance, music and theatre at its purpose-built venues, as well as some exciting annual festivals.
Prešernova cesta 10 01/241-7100, www.cd-cc.si.The city’s cultural headquarters, hosting major orchestral and theatrical events, art exhibitions, and folk and jazz concerts.
01/4308-260, www.drugagodba.si.This annual world music festival in May features concerts at atmospheric venues throughout the city.
01/241-6026, www.ljubljanafestival.si.A programme of orchestral concerts at major venues. July to mid-Sept.
Župančičeva 1 01/241-1740, www.opera.si.An impressive nineteenth-century Neoclassical theatre staging ballet and opera.
The alternative face of Ljubljana, Metelkova, situated a five-minute walk east of both the bus and train stations, is the city’s grungiest quarter. Concentrated in its graffitied streets are a collection of underground clubs, bars and galleries, alongside a couple of more mainstream cultural attractions. The Ethnographic Museum, located in a grand building at Metelkova 2 houses an impressive collection of anthropological artefacts. Close by at Metelkova 22, the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibits modern art from the 1960s onwards.
The town’s leafy cultural quarter boasts several impressive museums and galleries. The grand National Museum, at Muzejska ul. 1, displays archeological finds and artefacts relevant to Slovene history. The building also houses the Natural History Museum, whose star exhibit is the only complete mammoth skeleton found in Europe. The National Gallery at Prešernova cesta 24 is rich in local medieval Gothic work, although most visitors gravitate towards the halls devoted to the Slovene Impressionists, and in particular the outstanding paintings by Ivan Grohar. Diagonally across from here the Museum of Modern Art at Tomšičeva 14 showcases more experimental work from the twentieth century onwards.
While Ljubljana’s nightlife cannot match the vibrancy or diversity of larger cities, a drink on a warm summer’s evening in one of the many convivial cafés and bars strung along the banks of the Ljubljanica is one of the joys of being in this city. Alternatively, a wander up and down Mestni trg and Stari trg will yield an interesting locale every fifty yards or so, while the clutch of energetic bars in Knafljev prehod (the courtyard area between Wolfova ulica and Slovenska cesta) are usually packed to the rafters. Ljubljana’s few, but eclectic, clubs – some of which double up as multicultural, arts-type centres – are more widely dispersed throughout town, although all are within walking distance of the centre.
From the bus and train stations stroll south down Miklošičeva cesta for ten minutes and you’ll reach Prešernov trg, the hub around which everything in Ljubljana’s charming Old Town revolves. Overlooking the bustling square and the River Ljubljanica, the Baroque seventeenth-century Church of the Annunciation, blushes a sandy red; it’s worth a look inside for Francesco Robba’s marble high-altar, richly adorned with spiral columns and plastic figurines. Robba, an Italian architect and sculptor, was brought in to remodel the city in its eighteenth-century heyday. His best piece, a beautifully sculpted fountain that symbolizes the meeting of the rivers Sava, Krka and Ljubljanica, lies across the river, in front of the town hall on Mestni trg. To get there cross the elegant Tromostovje (Triple Bridge), one of many innovative creations by celebrated Slovene architect Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana, his birthplace. Plečnik made his mark on the city between the two world wars with his classically inspired designs.
On bustling Slovenska cesta in western Ljubljana, the expanse of Kongresni trg slopes away from the early eighteenth-century Ursuline Church, whose pillared Baroque exterior is one of the city’s grandest. Vegova Ulica leads south from Kongresni trg towards Trg Francoske revolucije, passing the chequered pink, green and grey brickwork of the National University Library, arguably Plečnik’s greatest work. The Illyrian Monument on Trg Francoske revolucije was erected in 1929 in belated recognition of Napoleon’s short-lived attempt to create a fiefdom of the same name centred on Ljubljana. Virtually next door is the seventeenth-century monastery complex of Križanke, originally the seat of a thirteenth-century order of Teutonic Knights, now an atmospheric concert venue.
A little east of Mestni trg, on Ciril-Metodov trg, St Nicholas’ Cathedral is the most sumptuous and overblown of Ljubljana’s Baroque statements. Decorated with fabulous frescoes, this is the best preserved of the city’s ecclesiastical buildings. Along the riverside, you can’t fail to miss Plečnik’s bustling colonnaded market. Just beyond the market is the striking Art Noveau Dragon Bridge, each corner plinth guarded by a copper dragon – the city’s symbol.
Beyond the galleries lies elegant Tivoli Park, an expanse of lawns and tree-lined walkways leading to dense woodland. It’s a lovely retreat from the busy city centre. A Baroque villa at the edge of the park contains the National Museum of Contemporary History with interactive displays and carefully presented artefacts creating an evocative journey through Slovenia’s conflict-riddled twentieth-century history.