The Best Ljubljana – what to do, where to go, what to see?
The quaint capital of Slovenia
The tongue twisting capital of Slovenia is the figurative and (almost) literal centre of the ountry, with nearly three times more inhabitants than any other Slovene city and an even arger share of its commercial, administrative, cultural and educational activity. In 2014, Ljubljana notably celebrated the 2000th anniversary of the founding of the Roman settlement of Emona, whose ruins lie underneath the present day city. However, according to the local legend the origins of Ljubljana go back even further, namely, to the turn of the first millennium BC, when Jason and Argonauts stopped for a time. Regardless of the legend’s historical accuracy, it continues to live on through the dragons adorning its bridges, flags and more.
What are the best things to do in Ljubljana?
Nowadays, Ljubljana combines a quaint and well-kept medieval old town at its centre with more modern districts radiating out in all directions. While some 280,000 residents officially call the city home, it is said that its size swells to well over half a million on any given weekday, with large numbers of workers and students making daily migrations. Thanks in part to this massive influx, Ljubljana has a vibrancy and youthful air that would be the envy of much larger cities, with countless cultural events taking place on a daily basis. And at the same time it manages to be one of the safest and cleanest cities of its size anywhere in Europe, even being named the European Green Capital for 2016. Add all this to the fact that the city is only a 20-minute drive from ski resorts in the Alps and 45 minutes from Mediterranean beaches, and it’s easy to see why Ljubljana has garnered such high praise in recent years.
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LJUBLJANA CATHEDRAL (STOLNICA SV. NIKOLAJA)
With its classic twin towers and trademark single, weather-worn green dome, the city’s cathedral, more properly known as St Nicholas’ Church, encapsulates everything that is Ljubljana. Small and interesting, but not too exciting at first glance, a longer look at its history and finer details reveals its hidden charm and beauty. Built on the site of a much earlier church, the cathedral’s main structure and appearance dates from the first half of the 18th century. Inside the Baroque masterpiece is a cavalcade of classic creams and golds, littered with extraordinarily detailed frescoes and possessing that calming feeling that only a great church can bring.
Since it opened in 1901, Zmajski Most has been locked in a fierce competition with the castle and the conspicuously pink Franciscan Church for the title of Most Photographed Sight in Ljubljana. At any given moment during daylight hours (and only slightly less frequently at night) there is sure to be at least a person or two clicking away at one of the four large dragons guarding either side of the bridge or the smaller griffins that adorn the bottom of its eight lamp posts. Of course we’re no exception, as we still remember the fog shrouded photo we snapped on our first trip to the city way back in the forgotten days of analogue film. More recently some amateur artist apparently felt that the mythical beasts were lacking a certain je ne sais quoi and took it upon himself to add a smattering of red paint to their mouths and claws. The jury is still out on whether or not this is an improvement but it does amuse us whenever we walk past.
Built in an instantly recognisable, mildly swirly Baroque fashion, Ljubljana’s mid-16th-century Franciscan Church dominates Prešernov Trg like a big pink birthday cake. Part of a larger complex with an additional Franciscan monastery, if you’re lucky enough to find the doors unlocked expect a few treats inside including Robba’s 18th-century altar, some charming frescoes dating from 100 years or so later and a chapel notable for containing a cross designed by none other than Jože Plečnik. For those who don’t appreciate the finer points of ecclesiastic architecture, the front steps do at least provide a nice place to sit and watch the world go by on a gloriously sunny day.
FRANCE PREŠEREN MONUMENT
Slovenia’s national poet France Prešeren (1800-1849) stands in the square named in his honour at the foot of the Triple Bridge. As well as offering an interesting visual treat, the monument also serves as a focal point for people meeting in the city. Erected in 1905, the large monolith is the work of the architect Maks Fabiani and sculptor Ivan Zajc and features the Muse of poetry holding a small laurel of bay leaves over his head as well as extracts from his writing around the base.
Formally a meeting place for several roads in front of one of the old entrance gates to the city, and a public square since Ljubljana’s original defensive walls were torn down in the middle of the 19th century, this is one of the city’s most important landmarks. Named after Slovenia’s national poet France Prešeren (German, Franz Prescheren, 1800-1849), it’s both a popular meeting place (notably under the large statue of the man after whom the square is named) and a site for concerts and events during the summer. The charming little public space is ringed by a number of interesting sights including the magnificent Art Nouveau façade of the Urbanc House, an extraordinary piece of early 20th-century flamboyance and site of the soon to be reopened Centromerkur department store.
Perched on top of Castle Hill and dominating the city skyline to the south, Ljubljana’s magnificent castle stands on the site of several former defensive buildings in a hilly area of land stretching away to the south of the old town. The current ensemble of buildings originates from necessary 16th-century reconstruction work following the earthquake of 1511, with several later additions. Not unlike Kraków’s Wawel Castle in Poland, Ljubljana Castle has served as both a royal residence and a military barracks over the centuries. The current main points of interest for the visitor are the Outlook Tower, built in the 19th century and raised a further 1.2m by the government in 1982. The tower’s Virtual Castle screens a 12-minute film translated in English, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Croatian and Slovene showing an interesting and informative history of the castle. On the same floor find a small door that takes you to the top of the tower up some 100 red cast-iron steps, each individually decorated with an image of the tower and the city’s dragon.
A door at the top leads to a small viewing platform (not for the faint hearted) with wonderful views of the city. Underneath the tower and located down a small flight of stairs tucked away through a doorway in the corner of the courtyard is the diminutive St George’s Chapel. The Chapel is one of the oldest parts of the Castle. By the order of Cesar’s document from 1489 it was dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of Ljubljana. It was renovated in Baroque style and in 1747 decorated with the coats-of-arms of over 60 rulers, including Herman and Ulrich of Celje, Henrik of Gorizia County, and Krištof Rauber, a bishop of Ljubljana. A beautifully presented permanent Exhibition on Slovene History is now also open for visitors, and the castle also has a small art gallery featuring temporary exhibitions, a café, restaurant and souvenir shop. It’s also a popular place for local weddings, and during the summer puts on concerts and, in July, hosts a popular outdoor cinema. To reach it, several small paths lead up from the old town, or take the funicular next to the Puppet Theatre and open market.
Grajska Planota 1, +386 (0)1 306 42 93, info-center@ljubljanskigrad. si, www.ljubljanskigrad.si.
Tivoli is where the people of Ljubljana who don’t leave the city spend the weekend. Laid out in 1813 as a place for the general health and recreation of the city’s population, at some five square kilometres, Ljubljana’s gargantuan bucolic lung – literally two streets west of the city centre – is so packed with good things to see and do that it’s almost worth visiting the Slovenian capital just to come here. Set amidst rolling hills, Tivoli Park is a pleasant mixture of lawns (picnics encouraged: something of a shock in this part of the world), pastures, wooded areas and fun adventure playgrounds for the kids (who will love the mini-golf best of all). The best way to enjoy the park is by bike, and bicycles are available for rent from various points throughout the park during the summer.
You will need to leave ID as a guarantee you will bring the bike back. As well as its reputation as the top nature spot in the area, Tivoli Park also houses a number of cultural sights including the International Centre of Graphic Arts in the glorious 17th century Tivolski Grad (Tivoli Mansion), the Museum of Modern History and, in the park’s far is southwestern reaches, in an area designated as a nature reserve, the city’s half-decent zoo. Also look out for the monument to Primož Trubar at the entrance to the park. Trubar was an early force in Slovene literature and the creation of a Slovene national identity.
PATH OF REMEMBRANCE AND COMRADESHIP
Also known as the Green Ring or just POT (‘path’ in Slovenian), the Path of Remembrance and Comradeship circles the city, covering some 33km. During World War Two Ljubljana was occupied by the fascist Italian army, and in order to prevent communication between then underground activists in Ljubljana and partisans in the surrounding countryside, a barbed wire fence was erected where the path now stands. Work on the path started immediately following the war, but it wasn’t completed until 1985. Some 7,400 trees now surrounded the gravel-paved route, which is perfect for jogging, walking or cycling. Memorial pillars along it mark the locations of bunkers from the war, and information broads keep the walker informed about what happened here. The closest weekend to May 9th, the date of Ljubljana’s liberation in World War Two, is commemorated with a march along the route, with thousands taking part.
Perhaps Ljubljana’s most characteristic structure(s), the triple bridge is a curious merger of a 19th century road bridge (itself replacing a medieval wooden bridge), with two 1930s pedestrian bridges designed by Plečnik, who took the opportunity to do up the whole ensemble with lamps and stone balustrades.
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Built on the site of a much earlier cemetery attached to the neighbouring (and still standing) Holy Cross Church, what’s arguably Plečnik’s Ljubljana masterpiece was completed in 1940. The grand arched entrance complete with stark white colonnades supposedly represents the gateway between the lands of the living and the dead. Between them and the cemetery itself are a series of peculiar buildings, chapels and monuments including the Žale funeral home. Architectural styles abound, reflecting Plečnik’s vision of equality among religions. The cemetery itself, once you get there, is a pleasure to behold and is worthy of a good hour’s stroll. The final resting place of many Slovenian greats including Plečnik himself, also find a small area given over to the Jewish population of the city.
Med Hmeljniki 2, +386 (0)1 420 17 00, email@example.com, www.zale.si.
In 14 AD Jesus was in the middle of his awkward teenage years,Tiberius became the 2nd emperor of the Roman Empire upon the death of his stepfather Augustus, widespread famine hit China forc- ing many people to turn to cannibalism, and the Romans founded a permanent civilian settlement along a picturesque river in the shadow of the Alps called Emona, which of course would later grow into a quaint little world capital called Ljubljana. In addition to lending its name to various 21st century establish- ments (see hotel Emonec, restaurant Emonska Klet and the Emona train to Vienna), this early Roman settlement left its mark on – or rather under – modern Ljubljana in the form of well-preserved ruins located within the city’s original 435m by 523m ground plan. Of all the remnants that this early civilisation left behind, three separate sites have been extensively excavated and opened to the public: the Emonan House, an early Christian centre and the Roman walls – all of which are comprise the City Museum of Ljubljana’s archeological parks.
A magnificent museum run by a team of historians who know how to show people a good time, showcasing Ljubljana in all its good and bad colours throughout history. Featuring both permanent and temporary exhibitions, this is the best place in town for a crash-course in city history. Find scale models of unfulfilled Plečnik creations, elaborate costumes, old photographs and much more besides. Check out the fabulous little website for upcoming exhibitions.
Gosposka 15, +386 (0)1241 25 00, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.mgml.si.
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Along with the Slovene Ethnographic Museum and a branch of the National Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art rounds out Ljubljana’s newly christened Museum Quarter located between Metelkova and Tabor in the centre of the city. Nearly two years of renovations has transformed the former administrative building into the city’s most dynamic arts space, with rooms of all shapes and sizes situated around a vaulting central atrium. The museum is focussed on works from the 1960s to the present day, and boasts a permanent collection devoted to Eastern Europe’s postwar avant garde movement, as well as a selection of works from its sister institution, the Museum of Modern Art. Definitely a must-see for art fans.
Maistrova 3, email@example.com, www.mg-lj.si.
Inside Czech architect František Edmund Škabrout’s fabulous late 19th-century neo-Renaissance masterpiece with an additional modern wing thrown on for good measure, this above-average gallery features the very best in Slovenian art from the 13th century up to the first half of the 20th century, including paintings by such notable artists as Ivan Grohar (1867-1911), Richard Jakopič (1869-1943) and Ivana Kobilca (1861-1926). The other permanent exhibition in the building focuses on European painting, and includes some really fine examples of the Renaissance-period Italian painting through to the more modernist work of the early 20th century. The gallery also contains a small gift shop, which has several good books and postcards.
Prešernova 24, +386 (0)1 241 54 18, firstname.lastname@example.org, www. ng-slo.si.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY HISTORY
If you needed a reason to visit Tivoli Park, it’s here. This fascinating museum inside a wonderful 18th-century mansion presents the history of Slovenia from the period around the start of WWI until the Slovenian Presidency of the EU in 2008. Using a combination of well-presented exhibits including old photographs, clothing and household items the museum charts the often wobbly path of the nation through and between the two world wars and the difficult and truly fascinating post-war communist years. The building itself is worth seeing alone, being a marvellous combination of original Baroque and the interesting modernist work of the Slovenian architect Jurij Kobe, dating from 1991.
Celovška 23, +386 (0)1 300 96 10, email@example.com, www.muzej-nz.si.
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Built over a five-year period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cankarjev Dom (Cankar Hall) is the largest Slovenian convention, congress and cultural centre. Named after the Slovene writer and politician Ivan Cankar, its four main halls are all named after Slovene artists (Gallus, Linhart, Kosovel and Štih). It’s just a short walk from the main city square and hosts over 250 events annually, among them concerts, theatre, dance, film, exhibitions, congresses and more.
Prešernova 10, +386 (0)12 41 71 00, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.cd-cc.si.
After nearly a year of renovation, one the city’s most iconic cinemas reopened its doors in 2009 as an urban cultural centre featuring several state-of-the-art performance halls and exhibition spaces. Dedicated to promoting contemporary music, theatre, dance and experimental events, it already attracts big-name regional and international artists, and is scheduled to hosts around 200 events per year. Most concerts are held in its largest multi-purpose hall, dubbed ‘the Cathedral’, which can fit over 932 people. Check out their English language website for more info and a full schedule of events.
Trg Prekomorskih Brigad 3, +386 (0)30 310 100, info@kinosiska. si, www.kinosiska.si.
In a city full of Jože Plečnik’s fine architecture, his last major contribution to Ljubljana is certainly one of his finest. Created in the 1950s especially for the Ljubljana festival, it is located in the courtyard of what was previously the Monastery of the Holy Cross. Križanke is home to numerous venues but it is the amphitheatre-like open-air theatre that drops jaws to the floor. There simply isn’t a better setting for summer entertainment in the entire city, neither for setting or sound.
Trg Francoske Revolucije 1, +386 (0)12 41 60 26.
Ljubljana’s famous artists’ colony hosts a number of clubs, most of which play thrash style music to a dreadlocked black-clad audience of all ages. Unfortunately little of the website is in English so it would be a case of try it and see, but what we can say for sure is that it provides a refreshing and alternative alternative to the dance music found in most other clubs and attracts a crowd who probably care more that you’re ‘cool’ as in non-judgmental than ‘cool’ as in what you’re wearing and how you sip your drink. Well worth checking-out both for itself and for the philosophy behind the whole set-up.
Masarykova 24, www. metelkovamesto.org.
OPERA & BALLET LJUBLJANA
The history of opera in Slovenia dates all the way back to 1732, but the current headquarters of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre were constructed in the late 19th century. Designed in the neo-renaissance style by Czech architects, it may be located between the Slovene parliament and national museum and national gallery but this hasn’t stopped it becoming one of the most recognisable structures in the country. An extensive program of classics and modern operas, as well as ballets and concerts works can be found on its stage.Župančičeva 1, +386 (0)1 24 11 766, email@example.com, www.opera.si.
Ljubljana has a proud history as a town of music, and the Slovenian Philharmonic is its beating heart and soul. This delightful building was built in 1891 on the foundations of the former state theatre, which was destroyed by fire just four years earlier. The entire building was renovated in 2001, the 300th anniversary of the original philharmonic, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the world. The live music program features a frequent variety of world-class performances, so be sure to catch one if possible.
Kongresni Trg 10, +386 (0)1 241 08 00, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.filharmonija.si.
TOURIST INFORMATION CENTRE
A small but extremely well equipped resource with plenty of maps, brochures galore in English, information about what’s on in the city and a range of information on what to see and do in the region. They also organise tours, can help with accommodation, and should be one of your first ports of call when you arrive. Their website is one of the best we’ve seen in Central Europe and is well worth further investigation. Friendly, informative staff too.
Adamič-Lundrovo Nabrežje 2, +386 (0)13 06 12 15, email@example.com, www.visitljubljana.com.