Ljubljana, Slovenia, a (not so) Hidden Gem
Back in May, we took a little weekend getaway to Ljubljana, Slovenia. As it turns out, a long weekend is a perfect amount of time to thoroughly experience this southern European city. Relatively speaking, it’s small, but for what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm. Normally, I’m not one to talk about the “character” or “charm” of different places. However, Ljubljana is a different story. There was something indescribably attractive about the city that still sticks with me today, several months later. Okay, yes, the mountains are breathtaking and the architecture is fascinating. Still, there is something I can’t quite put my finger on that colors my memories of the city in a pleasant light.
The reason I’ve titled this post the “not so hidden gem” is to highlight the city’s ascendant popularity among travelers around Europe. Sure, it’s not Paris, London, or Barcelona, but tourism to the city has been growing and travel blogs have been posting “hidden gem” articles for years using that exact phrase. So yeah, it’s not that well known to the people back home, but Ljubljana, and Slovenia generally, are certainly known to those familiar with this corner of Europe.
A Perfect City Trip
Because of its small size, Ljubljana is great for this sort of short city trip. The trip by train from Munich only had one transfer each way, in the Austrian border town of Villach. If I recall correctly, the trip was roughly 6 hours total. Once arriving in Ljubljana, we were able to walk to our Airbnb in about 15 minutes from the train station. Our Airbnb was north of the train station, which is already the northern boundary of the city proper. Normally, I like to stay in or near the hearts of cities when traveling, but we got a great deal somewhat last-minute from the host.
We didn’t have any specific goal or motivation to visit Slovenia instead we just wanted a quick change of scenery. And what beautiful scenery Slovenia provided. From the train ride through the Julian Alps to the hilltop castle overlooking Ljubljana, there was quite a lot to take in.
Once settled into the Airbnb, we went back out to explore the city and get the lay of the land. The sun was already hanging low in the sky by then, so we decided to not venture too far. We navigated our way around the central part of the city and found a nice restaurant to eat at. It was a nice change from Germany to have very helpful and courteous service again. It’s not that German restaurant service is unfriendly, it’s just efficient and intended to not pester the customer. In any case, after a couple of glasses of wine and a filling meal, we made our way back to the Airbnb for the night. Sometimes it’s nice to take it easy.
Exploring Ljubljana’s City Center
On the second day, we were ready to really explore the city, after first seeking out the obligatory coffee of course. Our first destination was the famous Triple Bridge and the old city area. The Triple Bridge is one of the symbols of the city, and it’s close to the hearts of Slovenia.
Famous Slovenia architect Jože Plečnik created it by expanding the original 1842 stone bridge by adding the two flanking footpaths in a similar style. There is apparently evidence of a bridge on this spot since the late 1200’s, though there is stronger evidence of a bridge on this spot in late 14th century. The Central Square and Triple Bridge area is your portal into the old city of Ljubljana.
The Open Market
Plečnik also designed the open market of Ljubljana, one if it’s most well-known landmarks. In addition to being a point of interest, the market is a bustling daily market with fresh produce and goods. The market was modeled after the appearance of ancient Roman forums. It was intended to recreate the open public scene in Ljubljana, as a place for the public to find and patronize local grocers and suppliers. To me, it seemed like a great mixture of Viktuanielmarkt in Munich, the Naschmarkt in Vienna, and the Green Market in Split, Croatia.
The Open Kitchen
The market area has more to offer. On Fridays from mid-March to mid-October, tons of food stalls from local restaurants pop up to create a weekly foodie paradise. It reminded me of the numerous food trucks circling around the Loop in Chicago at lunchtime. International, as well as local specialties, are served in small portions on the cheap. The Open Kitchen (Odprta Kuhna) hosts both locals and tourists together in a great atmosphere paired with the amazing food selection. It’s a must-visit if you’re in Ljubljana when it’s on.
Congress Square and Star Park
Just a short walk from the market is a large, open, and green park called Star (Zvezda) Park within Congress Square. The square has a couple of nice sights to see and is a generally nice place to be. We found a nice sunny spot to sit, relax, and sip coffees while reading for a while. Surrounding the park is Congress Square, which holds several of the famous and notable buildings in Ljubljana. Among them is the University of Ljubljana, the Ljubljana Philharmonic Concert Hall, and the Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity. All three of these sites are major centers of culture and society in Slovenia.
Ljubljana Castle literally towers over the city below. It’s a symbol of the city and probably its main tourist attraction. The castle has stood in its current form since the late 1400’s. It has lasted through Turkish invasions, countless rebellions, Napoleon’s invasions, and the World Wars to boot. However, the real magic of the castle is that it can be seen from nearly anywhere in the city and the hill provides the most amazing views of the city.
The castle grounds themselves are only about 10 minutes up the hillside to the top and they’re free to the public. The castle also offers tours of the interior, but we did not partake. It was certainly plenty to explore the grounds and the spectacular views of the city below. It may not be the biggest or most impressive castle in Europe, but its location adjacent to and directly above the old city makes it one of the most photogenic.
Returning to Slovenia
Below is a shareable Google map of all the locations I mentioned in this article, plus a few more. We also made a quick visit to the Tivoli Park. This vast green park lies on the opposite side of Ljubljana from the castle. It’s green, relaxing, and as with everything in Ljubljana, easy to get to. The map should also help you get a feel for how walkable the city is.
There is plenty more to tell about our trip to Ljubljana, but I’ll leave it at that. For us, it was a great introduction into Slovenia, having never been there before. I hope that you’ve learned a little about the city yourself. But, even more than that, I hope that you’ll stop over in Ljubljana in your travels. While it’s gathering more attention, it’s still an underrated city. In the new year, we hope to head back to northern Slovenia for some cheap and hopefully sunny alpine skiing. I’ll be sure to let you know if that experience is just as positive, because that would be pretty damn welcome.