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Monday 3 November 2014

A beginners' guide to Ljubljana: one of Europe's most fascinating capitals

I'm sitting at one of several dozen riverside cafes sipping on a large, cold glass of Human Fish, one of the very tasty local boutique beers. I'm surrounded by a young, laid back crowd, many enjoying white wine made from local pinela or zelen grapes, or taking advantage of the city-wide free wi-fi.

They are a friendly crowd, and happy to offer some tips to a visitor. No one seems in a hurry.

It may be hard to spell and even more difficult to pronounce, but Ljubljana is one of Europe's prettiest and most accessible cities. Home to just under 300,000 people, nearly all of its major attractions are found in an easily traversed pedestrianised zone on the banks of the delightful Ljubljanica River.

Slovenia's urbane capital, which is this year celebrating its 2000th birthday, reminds one of Prague before the crowds descended, or perhaps Vienna. That's no coincidence as all three cities bear the imprint of the Slovenian architect and urban planner Joze Plecnik.

This historic and lively city (there are more than 50,000 student residents) is dotted with cafes, riverside eateries and markets and has long been a trade crossroads of Central Europe.
Founded in Roman times as the settlement of Emona, Ljubljana is today one of the most progressive cities in the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia has been independent since 1991) and was recently named as European Green Capital for 2016 by the European Commission.

It could also be a contender for hippest capital thanks to innovations like Metelkova, a notorious former squat that is now an alternative nightlife venue in the style of Berlin, the award-winning new Vander Urbani Hotel with a rooftop plunge pool overlooking the rooftops of the old city, and Hostel Celica, budget accommodation in what was previously a military prison, bars on the doors and all.

What hits first-timers to Ljubljana is how easy it is to get to – and how relaxed the vibe is. Nearly everyone seems to speak English and have time for a coffee or a beer in this old city full of vibrant young people (the average age is just 30).

Many of those sitting at the cafes this sunny afternoon are heading off to a free open-air classical music performance (one of many held during summer). Most have arrived on foot or by bike, this being a very environmentally friendly city.

Ljubljana is easy to get around - and the old city is mercifully quiet with all motor vehicles banned; except for motorised golf carts that transport the old and infirm. It also feels very safe and that free wi-fi is invaluable for those who wish to Tweet, Facebook and Instagram their experiences.

The iconic Ljubljana Castle, with elements dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries, towers over the city and is most easily reached via a funicular railway with its base in Krek's Square. The castle offers spectacular views for those willing to climb a few stairs to the belvedere tower.

The National Museum of Slovenia was founded in 1821 and is also worth a visit, but Ljubljana, with its mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, is also a city that rewards the casual stroller or cyclists, who can get around on a bike using the Bicikelj bike-sharing system.

Walk or cycle along the banks of the Ljubljanica River and admire arts and crafts that local artists sell from makeshift stalls. I picked up some delightful pottery figures by Igor Spreizer, who describes himself as an “outsider artist”.

Visit the outdoor and indoor parts of the central market to buy some local gourmet treats, or pick up a boat at the Breg Riverbank in the city and enjoy a relaxing river cruise past many of the city’s major sites (make sure to see the historic Dragon Bridge and the Triple bridges, the centre-point of the old city).

Regular guided tours featuring all the city's highlights depart from in front of the Town Hall and are conducted in Slovenian and English. Also make time to visit Tivoli Park, which extends right into the city and is home to several museums and galleries.

One thing is certain: visitors will eat heartily in Ljubljana. The locals are fond of sausages, schnitzels and other warming Central European dishes, while breads, cakes, soups and dumplings all play major roles on local menus.

Try the historic restaurant Spajza (eat inside in one of several small rooms, or outside in a delightful garden) for dishes including an appetiser of cheek of young colt (maybe not for everyone but horse is a staple in Slovenia, along with boiled beef tongue and frog legs).

More mainstream choices are smoked trout with horseradish terrine and veal medallions with local mushrooms (another staple). Also make time for some struklji, local dumplings made in over 80 different styles, both sweet and savoury, but typically using cottage cheese or baked apples.
If time is tight, a range of Slovenian dishes and drinks can be enjoyed at the “Open Kitchen” Market (left), an al fresco market held every Friday at Pogańćarjev trg next to the river.

Wine lovers will enjoy the Vinoteka Movia wine bar and the Dvorni, both ideal places to sample a range of local wines (there are three separate wine regions in Slovenia, while other good eating options include TODZ Cafe, Compa, AS Aperitivno, JB, Taverna Tatjana and the quite touristy but very welcoming Julija.

For suggestions, grab hold of a copy of the English language booklet Taste Ljubljana, which traces the history of cuisine in the city and surrounding areas, with stories behind individual dishes, and their recipes, or join a visit to several foodie spots organised by Ljubljana Food Tour ( for E35.

Each year the city hosts over 10,000 cultural events and Ljubljana is home to 14 museums, 45 galleries, 10 theatres and four professional orchestras but is far from staid. There is a lively ambiance just about everywhere you go and you are just as likely to find a Deep Purple or rap concert as an opera performance. Ljubljana has been accurately described as “a small city with the facilities of a metropolis”.

Ljubljana is within a few hours drive of major cities including Venice, Munich, Vienna and Zagreb, making it a short side trip for anyone visiting neighbouring Italy, Croatia, Austria or Hungary, while the surrounding countryside ranges from snow-capped peaks to wild green-blue rivers, with a short coastline on the Adriatic sea. Something for everyone.

How to get there

Emirates flies from Australia to Dubai 84 times per week, with daily onward connections to 35 European destinations. 1300 303 777 or
Where to stay

Probably the funkiest address is the Vander Urbani Resort in the heart of the old town (pictured below) A good budget option outside the city centre is the modern Plaza Hotel

Essential reading

Head to or for up-to-date local info.

# The author was assisted by Visit Slovenia and the Plaza Hotel. This is a version of a story that originally appeared in Sunday Life magazine. 

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