The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, rose from the rubble of a tragic earthquake at the end of the 19th century to create a stunning city that’s teeming with baroque masterpieces and ample Austro-Hungarian and Italian influences.
And I love this city so much. When I first started travelling, back in 2011, Ljubljana was the very first destination that I truly fell in love with — I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was and I immediately declared it my favourite place in the world.
I adored Ljubljana so much that I returned several years later with my boyfriend in tow, insisting that we had to spend my birthday in the city. And a couple of years ago, when my parents weren’t sure where to spend their annual summer vacation, I insisted they visit Ljubljana — and not just so that I had an excuse to return and show them around, although I did so with glee.
I’ve sent so many of you guys to this city, too. I’ve written so passionately about Ljubljana over the past decade that I now receive a steady stream of emails from readers, thanking me for inspiring them to visit.
What I love about Ljubljana is that it has many personalities, from the charming old town, which harbors an envious collection of riverside cafes, to the eclectic Metelkova, an autonomous art commune with so much to see. Alongside architectural marvels, you’ll find a city that’s always forward-thinking — it was a European Green City in 2016. The quiet central streets are a delight to walk along — there’ll undoubtedly be several buskers filling your ears with music along the way — and it makes it a fun adventure to get from A to B.
If you’re ready to explore the wonderful city of Ljubljana, then I’m ready to tell you everything you need to do while you’re there.
Cross the Dragon Bridge (And Take Plenty of Photos While You’re There)
Chasing the Dragon takes on a whole new meaning in Ljubljana, which is even known by some as the City of Dragons; it has a long affiliation with this mythical creature.
The founder of Ljubljana — at least if you listen to the legends — was Jason, a hero of Greek Mythology, and the Argonauts. After stealing the golden fleece, they made their way across Europe to Ljubljana, where they came across a dragon. Together, they successfully killed the dragon, and it now remains a huge part of Ljubljana’s identity: you’ll find a dragon on the city’s flag, you’ll see sculptures of dragons scattered across the city, and you’ll find yourself walking over Dragon Bridge several times a day. It’s a beautiful one.
At either end of Dragon Bridge, you’ll find two powerful dragon statues. The designs provide some of the best photography around Ljubljana, but the bridge itself is an incredible feat of engineering. Built in 1900, Dragon Bridge was actually one of the first concrete bridges in Europe.
Cross the bridge in either direction to appreciate the beautiful Ljubljanica River, with the lush banks and historic buildings providing the perfect backdrop. It’s a great place to take photos.
You Must Climb Up to Ljubljana Castle
One of the highlights from my many visits to Ljubljana has been taking in the views from the city’s wonderful castle. Towering over the city, Ljubljana Castle — built in the 11th century — can be spotted from almost anywhere in town. Fortunately, the castle is open to the public, and I recommend making it one of your first stops in the city.
I always make the hike to the top to get some exercise in, but there’s also a funicular (€4 each way) if you prefer to spend your vacations doing anything but building up a sweat. The path to the castle is paved and well-maintained, and not too steep, but will take you continuously uphill with little that is flat. Still, it only takes ten minutes to walk to the top, so you wont be panting for too long.
One of my favourite photos from my ten years of travel is actually a shot that I took from Ljubljana Castle at sunset. I loved sitting up there from late-afternoon, watching the sun fall below the horizon and the city lighting up in response. Here’s that photo:
After arriving, you’ll have the chance to view the Ljubljana Castle up close and see how it has changed throughout the years. From the prior use of stone wood to the current design, which dates back to the 1600s. The castle has a spacious courtyard, now befitted with a cafe, restaurant and the Puppet Museum. But for the best views, head to the Outlook Tower, where you can admire the cityscape and even see as far as the Slovenian Alps.
Gawk at the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation
A burst of blood orange, you’ll see the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation long before you stand alongside its vibrant facade. Near the iconic Triple Bridge, the church was built in the mid-1600s, but modified through the centuries, especially after sustaining damage during the earthquake of 1895.
It will take time to fully appreciate the sheer magnitude of its colorful and enormous baroque facade. Fittingly, the church’s interior comes along for the ride with an equally lavish design, including a stunning 18th century altarpiece, with fresh ceiling frescoes from the 1930s. The combination of its outside (including the two bell towers) and its gorgeous and delicate interior makes the Franciscan Church one of the highlights of Ljubljana. From there you can further explore the Preseren Square, then wander over Triple Bridge and stroll along the Ljubljanica River.
Visit Triple Bridge
Creating a “W” shape (or an M depending on your viewpoint) over the Ljubljanica River, Triple Bridge is a trio of overpasses that connect the Preseren Square with Ljubljana’s impeccable Old Town. Designed by the beloved Joze Plecnik, who played a giant role in the architectural styles found within the city, the original design featured just a single bridge.
The center and biggest bridge was used to carry traffic from one side of the river to the other. In the 1930s, the two extra bridges were added for foot traffic until motor transport was eliminated altogether. The gorgeous stone balustrades are a sight to behold, but go to another level at night when they are illuminated by the lampposts placed along the bridge.
Kick Back in Tivoli Park
As the largest park in Ljubljana, Tivoli Park is the place to go for some time in nature. Westward of the city center, the park has large open spaces primed for family gatherings, with room to run around, play games or just set up a large picnic. Meandering through the park are a series of trails that guide you through landscaped gardens and Tivoli Parks’ pristine Botanical Garden, where you’ll find a tropical greenhouse alongside a calming pond.
Tivoli Park is also home to several historic buildings that add a point of different to the urban space. As you explore the Jakopic Promenade, you’ll stumble across the Cekin Mansion, home to the popular Contemporary History Museum along with the alluring Tivoli Castle. The castle was built in the 17th century on the grounds where the ruins of a Renaissance castle laid.
People Watch in Preseren Square
Outside of the historic Old Town, Preseren Square is the pulsating heart of Ljubljana. With action all around you, complemented by the flowing river, ornate bridges and baroque architecture, it’s the perfect place to sit back and watch the world go by.
After taking some time to walk across Triple Bridge and explore the Franciscan Monastery, grab a comfy spot within the square and watch the city locals converge upon the vibrant space. As the center point for several major streets in Ljubljana, Preseren Square is always a hive of activity. In the summer months, sprinklers are set up for people to run through and cool off. While many of the city’s public festivals and events are also held here.
Aside from the two aforementioned attractions, take some time to check out the ancient (but still in business) Central Pharmacy before admiring the stature of France Preseren, a poet who wrote the Slovenian national anthem.
Discover the Old Town
Preseren Square may be the center of town, but Ljubljana’s Old Town is where you’ll really get to know this amazing city. Densely packed alongside the Ljubljanica River, the Old Town harbors an abundance of exquisite architecture, beautiful town squares and a cafe culture that may wonderfully surprise the espresso lovers among us.
Beginning at one of the many bridges, cross the river into Old Town, passing the lush river banks that make way for ancient stone walls and then sunlit terraces. In the summer, this part of town plays host to festival after festival. But when nothing “official” is going on, it’s still the hospitality center of Ljubljana, and the place to be when you want to catch up with friends.
Beyond coffee and sweet treats, the tightly packed Old Town is full of things to do. It’s pedestrian-friendly and a breeze to get around. Visit some of the most popular squares in town, including Mestni, Gornji and Novi, plus the stunning St. Nicholas Cathedral.
Take a Trip to Lake Bled
Although you came to Ljubljana to see well, Ljubljana it would be remiss of you not to discover the unforgettable Lake Bled. Spellbinding in every sense of the word, Lake Bled is backed by the snow-capped Slovenian Alps with a gorgeous church sitting on an island in the middle.
There’s something truly spectacular about watching the mist rise over the icy cold alpine lake as it floats towards the cadet blue sky. You can take the mesmerizing walk around the lake, which varies between open meadows and dense forests. The trail covers 3.7 miles (6km) and you can also row out to the remote Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria.
We are merely scratching the surface of things to do in Lake Bled, which includes the local castle and the Mala Osojnica Viewpoint. But with this day trip to Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, you can see the best of the lakes, along with the beautiful Tirglov National Park.
Explore the Central Market
Open every day except Sunday, the Central Market is a vibrant part of town where the city’s residents can shop for the fresh local produce or peruse the handicrafts and artisanal offerings. The Central Market location between Dragon and Butcher’s Bridge makes it easy to get to and you’ll likely hear the noise of the marketgoers long before you see the shelves.
The bustling hub of activity goes back to the 1930s where Joze Plecnik yet again left his indelible mark on the city by designing the Central Market. He redeveloped an old diocesan college which was destroyed during the 1895 earthquake. Now surrounded by early 20th century designs, wander the open stalls slinging fresh fruit and vegetables, unique gifts and mementos. Continue along until you reach the indoor section where you’ll find everything else you need for a picnic, including cheese and homemade bakery items.
Go for a Bike Ride
Back in 2016, Ljubljana won the coveted award of Europe’s Green City on the back of an incredible amount of long-term sustainable measures that were put in place. The inner-city, including the Old Town, sees very little motorized traffic with many local commuters using Ljubljana ring road for the morning and afternoon commute. So what does this all mean? Well, the downtown core that we’ve been exploring is a dream to ride around and it will cost you next to nothing.
By going through the Ljubljana tourist office, you can get your hands on a bike for as little as 2 euros for two hours and 8 euros for a whole day. Better yet, if you get your hands on the Ljubljana Card, then you will receive a free 4-hour bike hire. That alongside free admission to over 20 attractions and free travel on public transport. What a steal!
As you ride around, it won’t take you long to realize how much Ljubljana has invested in its cycling infrastructure and, along with much of the city center being free of traffic, you’ll have a memorable day exploring the city on two wheels.
Have a Drink at the Top of the Skyscraper
With insane skyscrapers showing up all over the world, it’s hard to imagine that Ljubljana Neboticnik (The Skyscraper) at 13 stories high was the tallest building in the Balkans when construction finished in 1933. Today it’s only 9 stories shorter than Crystal Palace, the tallest in town.
Despite its relatively diminutive stature, The Skyscraper is one of the best places to go in town to see Ljubljana from above. On the 12th floor you’ll find a viewing terrace that will let you gaze upon the city streets along with the Ljubljana Castle and the mountains of Smarna Gore in the distance.
Behind the viewing area is a bar where you can order your favorite beverage and take in the scenery. For an elevated experience, arrive at sunset to watch the warm colors dance over the Terra-cotta roofs. If you’re up for it, you can walk to the very top of the building for even better views.
Uncover the Weird and Wonderful Metelkova Mesto
In the years after Slovenia gained their independence, the army barracks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lay empty and were quickly filled with squatters. Their inhabitance led to the barracks staying put and eventually led to it becoming an autonomous urban dominion in the vein of Copenhagen’s Christiania.
Metelkova Mesto is now one big artists’ space, with murals and eclectic creations around every corner. The neighborhood is predictably grungy, with each wall a statement of independence and alternative lifestyle. Walking through during the day is one of the coolest experiences you’ll have in Ljubljana. Seemingly far removed from the intricate baroque architecture of downtown, yet only 10 minutes away on foot.
At night, stick around as the bars light up and local DJs spin tracks in Metelkova Mesto’s several pumping nightclubs.
Spend the Night in Celica Hostel
If day turns to night in Metelkova and you don’t feel like returning to your regular accommodation, take your night in a rather strange direction by sleeping in an old Yugoslavian Prison. The old jail cells which once held some infamous characters have been transformed into a comparably cozy living space. Only the narrow cells and jail bars remain.
Upon arriving in your cell for the evening, you will have the chance to admire the artwork of your new enclave. Each cell has a unique design by a different artist. Some of whom were former prisoners!
After a day roaming Metelkova Mesto, it’s probably the exact hostel experience you would expect from such a district. But the one-of-a-kind night will stick around in your memory for a long time.
Tour the Union Brewery
After a night in jail, you may need an ice-cold pint. If you’re ready to shake off the heebie-jeebies, then make your way to the Union Brewery. The most conservative estimates suggest that Ljubljana residents have been enjoying local beer since at least the 1500s. But it’s a relative newcomer to the scene that has stolen their hearts.
Union Brewery opened in 1864 and is just a short walk from the center of town. You can learn all about the breweries fascinating history along with the production process on the Union Experience. Begin by visiting the small on-site museum that shows off the brewery’s humble beginnings and its journey to becoming one of the top beers brands in Slovenia.
After catching a short and enlightening film, you’ll be guided through the brewery itself to observe the magic and learn how your new favorite beer comes to life. Afterwards, sit down and enjoy a flight of their delicious creations.
Walk the Ljubljanica River
Splicing the center of the city in half, the beautiful Ljubljanica River is one of the highlights of the cityscape. Enveloped by cobblestone walls and adorable old buildings with symmetric windows, the river is where all sightseeing begins. There are many starting points for your walk along the river. After all, the river continues to the south and north well beyond the city’s boundaries.
But to keep things purely scenic with the greatest density of highlights, historic buildings and riverfront cafes, begin at St James’ Bridge and head north. The bridge marks the starting point of the Old Town. With the calm waters to your left, wander along the paved Gallus embankment, where trees rise out of stone and boats float on beside you. Continue on for just over half a mile (900m) where you’ll pass the Philip Mansion and arrive at Dragon Bridge.
By now we’ve covered some of the top sights in Ljubljana, with barely a mention of the city’s food scene. Let’s make up for lost time. The Balkan region is home to a number of delicious bakery eats, with burek being the top dog. You’ll find plenty of opportunities to try the sweet treat around town. But for the best of the best, then head straight to Olimpija Burek.
Burek is a crispy dough stuffed with ingredients like cheese and apples, along with some savory choices like spinach, chicken, and beef. While recipes and styles will change wherever you go, you know exactly what you’re going to get at Olimpija, who has been using the same recipe for over 40 years.
Just a brief walk from the Ljubljana Train Station, taste the best burek in town. If you love it, the doughy delicacy makes for the perfect snack when you’re on the go.
Go on a Walking Food Tour
With one popular food item covered, why not explore the best of the Ljubljana food scene on a walking food tour? While architecture and museums tell part of the story, there’s no better way to experience a local culture-and fall in love with it-than by eating your way around town.
With an array of culinary influences, including German, Hungarian, the Mediterranean and Yugoslavia, eating in Slovenia is full of surprises. Try all the best local dishes on this Ljubljana Food and Wine Tour with nine stops in total and plenty of autochthonous wines to go around.
Your guide will lead you through the city’s medieval streets with the aim of covering the local cuisine along with regional food from all around Slovenia. All the while telling some fascinating stories about life in Ljubljana.
Be Confused at the Museum of Illusions
In Ljubljana’s congress square is an out-of-the-box museum that is sure to make you look twice and question your own vision. The Museum of Illusions is one of the best things to do in Ljubljana with kids. The space is compact but packs a punch and is the perfect rainy day activity.
The museum has various rooms that present a myriad of confusing illusions from the Anti-Gravity Room full of supposedly floating objects, and the Vortex Room that will have your world feel like it’s spinning. These exhibits and the other 40 on offer combine to make for hilarious family photos as you try to work out exactly what is happening.
Admire the Church of St. Nicholas
Also known as the Ljubljana Cathedral, the Church of St Nicholas is a standout in a city already full to the brim of stunning buildings. The church has seen many eras since construction began at the turn of the 18th century. In fact, the hallowed church was built on the site of a three-nave Romanic church which dates back as far as the 13th century.
The current baroque designs remain much the same, with the jade-green dome having been added over a hundred years later. After spending some time admiring the facade, the real eye-popping sights begin as you enter the church. As you wander the interior, you’ll come across several amazing works of art by Italian Baroque masters, including such luminaries like Angelo Putto, the Groppelli Brothers and Francesco Robba. The highlight however, is the enchanting dome fresco painted by Matevz Langus in 1844.
Visit the National Museum of Slovenia
Upon entering the Church of St Nicholas, you may have noticed a relief on the main door depicting the history of Slovenia. If this piqued your interest, then take the next step on your journey with a trip to the National Museum of Slovenia. Surrounded by manicured grounds and shady trees, the museum showcases the history and culture of the country across two buildings.
The main building is along Presernove Street and takes you on an astounding journey into the past. Highlights include a fragment of a Neanderthal flute that had been carved down from the femur of a bear some 60,000 years ago. You can also explore the city’s Roman origins when Ljubljana was known as Emona through multi-media exhibits and historical artifacts, including currency.
The other building in the National Museum of Slovenia is placed in Metelkova and explores the history of arts and culture in Ljubljana.
Have a Picnic in Congress Square
Over the years, Congress Square has been the center of major historical and political events. It was here in 1918, that crowds celebrated independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 27 years later, communist leader Josip Broz Tito took to the balconies of Congress Square’s university building as he took power. Further down the line, it was home to the first free protest as Slovenia marched towards true independence.
Congress Square has an aura of importance about it. Surrounded by so much history, and buildings that have stood the test of time (and seen so much). In the center of the square is Zvezda Park, with ample shade and lush lawns. After loading up on goods from the Central Market, set up camp here for a lavish picnic with the historic square providing a poignant backdrop.
See the Robba Fountain
Inspired by the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome’s Piazza Navona, the Robba Fountain is as much a symbol of Ljubljana as the dragons placed around the city. The original sculpture was moved to the National Gallery in 2006 and was replaced by an exact replica.
Just as beautiful, the intricate piece by the impressive Francesco Robba shows three men pouring water from a jug. Each water jug represents the three rivers of the surrounding Carniola Region. That being the Sava, Krka and Ljubljanica rivers. You can find the fountain in Mestni Square in Ljubljana’s Old Town.
Cruise Down the River
If a walk along the scenic Ljubljanica River wasn’t enough, then jump on a boat cruise to see the city from a whole new perspective. Taking just under an hour, the river cruise will guide you by all your favorite highlights packed tightly against the banks. But it will also give you the chance to see beyond the historic city center into more residential areas where the skyline makes way for nature.
Beginning at Triple Bridge, you will journey onboard the “Ljubljanica”. The traditional boat comprises oak and larch and is a cozy way to appreciate the stunning cityscape as your guide adds extra layers of insight through the tour’s commentary.
Take a Break in Smarna Gora
After spending plenty of time in the city, trade the cobblestone streets and ancient bridges for the lush countryside just out of Ljubljana. You will have seen the twin peaks of Smarna Gora from the city and the mountain comes with over a dozen well-maintained hiking trails to choose from.
Whichever trail you choose to embark on, make sure you reach the summit of the eastern peak where you’ll find a restaurant with splendid views and a charming 18th century church. Stop here for a quick tour and a feed before venturing onto the second peak.
From 2200ft (670m) above sea level, you’ll have exceptional views of Ljubljana in the valley flanked by Castle Hill and Roznik. If you want to capture an amazing sunrise while in Ljubljana, head to either of the peaks and watch the enchanting natural display from above.
Explore the Plecnik House
The footprints of Joze Plecnik can be seen all over Ljubljana, from the Central Market to the stone cross in the Franciscan Church and Triple Bridge. After the 1895 earthquake, much of the city lay in rubble. But because of his vision and skill, much of the city’s stunning designs can be traced back to Plecnik.
The best way to explore his life and discover the true impact he had on Ljubljana is to pay a visit to the Plecnik House. On Karunova Ulica, the house remains essentially untouched from when he passed away in the 1950s. Wander between the two buildings, with a charming garden in the middle, and learn about Plecnik’s vision to turn Ljubljana into a modern example of ancient Athens.
Throughout the house, you’ll discover the tools and sketches as they were, which provides an amazing insight into how he worked and how his ideas came to life.
Arrive in Time for the Open Kitchen
Between June and October each year, Ljubljana’s delectable street food festival is held in Pogacarjev Square within the Old Town. Just across from Triple Bridge, the festival is a delight for the taste buds and is a great way to sample some of the best eats in the city in one place.
But it’s not just Ljubljana that is represented. Some of the best restaurants from around Slovenia make the journey, including regional wineries and breweries. If you’re arriving in time for Open Kitchen, then be sure to add it to your bursting itinerary.
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