“Sorry, could you say that again please?”
“Right. How do you spell it?”
“L, J, U, B, L, J–“
“–woah woah woah. Sorry what? ‘Ler–jub–li–jana’?”
That was three years ago. THREE YEARS. At 22, I’d never even bothered to learn the name of Slovenia’s capital, and there I was thoroughly embarrassing myself by not being able to pronounce it, in front of five Slovenian teenagers to whom I was teaching English at the time. They found it amusing at least.
I probed them for more information, and it turned out that Slovenia sounded like my idea of awesome.
“It’s cheap, friendly, maintains a mild climate all year round and is a pretty much as epic an adventure playground as you’re ever likely to find”
Well perhaps it wasn’t put quite like that. Credit where credit is due though – they did speak exceptionally good English for a bunch of fifteen year olds.
“All the young people speak English in Slovenia; it’s cool”.
I was intrigued. Not because of the prospect of merely using my native tongue and suddenly have Slovene girls (not teenagers might I add) come flocking – it was the Mother Nature side of it that grabbed me: snowboarding, climbing, hiking, kayaking and all the rest of it. I wanted all that. Why was I only just finding out about this place?
After some further Google image steered research I was irretrievably sold on the idea; Slovenia had just leapfrogged its way to the top of my increasingly long places-to-go list.
Sadly, I wasn’t actually able to go until last summer. I allotted myself one week in Ljubljana – which I am pleased to say I had managed to pronounce correctly before I arrived – and planned to make day trips to other nearby places of interest while I was there. Given Slovenia’s diminutive size as a country, this isn’t exactly a difficult thing to accomplish – though ten days would’ve probably been preferable. However, if you’re operating on a shorter timescale, cramming all the best bits into about 4-5 days is just about doable.
Ljubljana is at the heart of the country, and is an ideal place to base yourself for all the obvious reasons:
- It is the capital, and thus presents visitors with more things to see and do.
- It is well linked by bus and train and has an international airport served by both Easyjet and Wizzair.
- You are within day-tripping distance of all the eminent lakes to the north, the enormous caves to the east and vast areas of verdant, hiking-friendly countryside to the west.
All roads in Ljubljana lead to Preseren Square, the city’s enchanting and figurative heart. Here, buskers and various other entertainers divert clapping tourists and goggley-eyed children, as the statue of France Preseren, the famous Slovene poet, watches over. From here one can saunter off absent-mindedly in just about any direction and probably wind up back in the square before long – day itineraries are somewhat redundant in Ljubljana.
That said, tourists generally stick to the same path: cross the drawbridge and into the half-moon shopping/tourism centered district where if you gaze upwards and you’ll find the city’s baroque, medieval castle perched on its tree-shrouded hilltop. Bear left and you’ll pass the cathedral and – depending on the time and day – a large, open market where fresh meats, fruits and vegetables are sold for next to nothing. A little further on is the ticket office for the cable cart that, for a small fee, will run you up to the castle. If, like me, you resent such things, then there are several steep walkways nearby that will take you directly there.
The best time of day to go is an hour or so before dusk, so that the city can be viewed during the day and after dark.
Also worth visiting is the famous Zmajski Most, or ‘The Dragon Bridge’ as it is translated to in English. It’s just a bridge mind, but it has a got a dragon on it. Instead of crossing the drawbridge turn right at the square and you’ll soon come across it.
Elsewhere, Tivoli Park, found to the west of the city centre, offers respite from the crowds, tree-lined walkways and short hikes into the nearby woods.
Of the six nights I spent in Ljubljana, I seem to recall being drunk on every single one of them.
There is certainly no shortage of bars and nightclubs. Most of the year the city abounds with students, who make up around a quarter of the city’s population. Many bars and cafés can be found along the river, where it can be difficult to find a seat outside during the summer months (or at least it was when I was there), but the ambience is such that standing around for half an hour is well worth the aggro.
Curiously, I was led to the same bar by different people on three separate occasions. The bar was called ‘Pr’Skelet’ and served alarmingly strong, 2-4-1 cocktails that were all – as a rule – called ‘skeleton’ something or something ‘skeleton’. In fact, the theme was pretty conclusively skeletal(?); skeleton portraits hung from skeleton adorned walls, skeleton ornaments collected dust on shelves and there were even full length (and presumably artificial) skeletons hiding beneath glass panels in the floor. It was a bit full on, but an interesting conception nonetheless – and a bargain!
Where to stay
I stayed at Hostel Tabor – a huge, daunting domicile ordinarily used as student halls during the rest of the year – and immediately felt welcome, comfortable and secure. The hostel was conveniently located within walking distance of the train station too. It cost €18 per night for a mixed, 4-bed dorm, though I didn’t actually have to share. In fact, I’m fairly sure there was just one other person on my floor, though there were always plenty of people drinking Slovene rum in the common room. Overall, it was excellent value. Click here for reviews.
Buses are the best medium of transport if arriving from neighbouring cities/countries; trains are generally slower and far less frequent, though there is a train station with direct links to Zagreb, Rijeka, Graz, Salzburg, Munich, Vienna, Belgrade and Zurich.
Given how small Ljubljana is, getting around on foot is neither trying nor tiring. It is fairly easy to find your way around and people in the street are more than happy to help if you get lost – they like to show off their English!
Local buses are handy and very cheap if you want to explore further afield, though to use them you’ll first need to purchase an ‘Urbana Card’, which works in the same way as an Oyster card. These are available from larger bus stops and the bus station, which is right next to the train station.
Slovenian cuisine is unsurprisingly very meaty and easy to stomach if you’re already accustomed to that sort of thing (i.e. if you’re British). Take the tasty snack ‘Burek’ for instance, a doughy, mince meat, cheese or vegetable filled pie, especially appreciated after a night out for about €2. Nobel Burek on Miklosiceva is considered the go-to place for this. And for something traditional with all the trimmings, try restaurant Gostlina Sokol, where all the staff dress in traditional garb and the food is served very liberally indeed.
Nowhere in Slovenia is more than three hours away from Ljubljana, meaning all of its treasures can be visited in just one day, and that you don’t have to lug around your backpack with you when you go. Here are four areas not be missed:
- Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj
- Julian Alps
- Skocjan Caves
When To Go
Ljubljana is at its busiest from Autumn to late Spring, when the students who characterise the city’s youthful charm cram the canal’s bars and comfy cafés by day and night. Summer is more tourist-friendly, and temperatures are agreeable. Winter gets very cold, although the twinkling Christmas Market is quite the spectacle during December.
A free 2 hour-long, walking tour takes place at 11.00am and 15.00pm every day during the summer, beginning at Preseren Square’s pink church. No bookings are required – just turn up on time and follow your guide around the city while marveling at some of Europe’s most brilliant architecture.