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We arrived in Slovenia with big expectations for spectacular Lake Bled, some tentative anticipation for coastal Piran and pretty much no thought for their biggest city, Ljubljana. Other than how many tries it was going to take to memorize that spelling, of course.
Surprisingly, though, we loved our Ljubljana visit. It truly is one of the nicest capital cities in Europe, and almost certainly the nicest in the Balkans (yes, I know most of Slovenia is not technically part of the Balkan Peninsula but it is generally included due to its historic and political ties).
Beautiful, relaxed, walkable and chock-full of classic architecture, it is hard to argue with Ljubljana’s myriad charms. It is certainly deserving of its spot on our list of 15 Best Places to Visit in Slovenia.
How many days do you need in Ljubljana?
In terms of European capitals, Ljubljana is quite small (less than 300,000 people) and very manageable. It is certainly possible to hit the main highlights and wander the Old Town area in a single day but in order to enjoy it fully we would suggest 3 to 4 days. There are easily enough activities to keep you busy that long (or longer, should you have even more time on your hands). We spent 3 nights there and could have stayed a little longer.
Ljubljana Things to Do
Looming over the Old Town like an overprotective parent, Ljubljana Castle is impossible to miss. The views of it are impressive from every angle, but the real highlights are the city views you can get from the castle itself.
A lot of people simply visit the grounds and enjoy the views for free but there is plenty to see and do inside as well (€13/9 adults/children), including a time travel tour and an escape game. We walked up to the castle but if the climb looks daunting you can also use the 70m-long funicular that leaves from the Old Town not far from the market on Vodnikov trg.
Tour the Ljubljana Old Town
Typically our favourite pastime in any European city, the Ljubljana Old Town has all the usual features – narrow, cobblestoned streets, old buildings, a thriving café culture. It also has the beautiful Ljubljanica River (known as the Sava in medieval times) snaking scenically through the centre as well.
Every Ljubljana sightseeing itinerary will mainly focus on exploring the Old Town. We have gotten in the habit of adding all the things we want to see onto our Google maps and make a walking tour out of connecting them. This means we see all the highlights and also find some hidden gems along the way.
See the Triple Bridge and Preseren Square
The bustling heart of the Old Town, on busy days there can be a queue for a chance to get photos taken on/near/under/next to the picturesque Triple Bridge, all while the crowds mingle in equally pretty Preseren Square (at least in a non-COVID year).
Not actually a thoroughfare for commuting dragons, like I originally hoped, the Dragon Bridge is still a pretty notable attraction. Named for the intricate dragon carvings at each end, it is yet another terrific Ljubljana photo op.
Ljubljana Central Market
Located on Vodnik Square right next to the river and between the iconic Triple and Dragon Bridges, this cool, partially outdoor market is a must-see. Built on the site of a former monastery that was destroyed by an earthquake, this traditional market is actually more popular with locals than tourists, featuring sections for everything from flowers to fruit to fish to herbs, spices and classic Slovenian pastries.
Leading across the Ljubljanica from the Central Market to the Petkovsek Embankment, this quaint little pedestrian bridge is famous for the thousands of locks secured along its sides. These “love padlocks” are placed by smitten visitors to symbolize the eternity of their love, similar to the Pont des Arts in Paris. We didn’t add one ourselves but from the looks of it plenty of others have during their Ljubljana visit.
Even in the nicest city it can be a real breath of fresh air to get off the street and into a green space. Well, this enormous, perfectly manicured park stretching out from the very centre of Ljubljana certainly fits the bill, riddled with trails for walking and biking, and with another nice viewpoint around every tree. We spent a couple afternoons trying out the various paths through the forest.
Ljubljanica River Boat Tour
While it is practically mandatory to criss-cross this famous river constantly while wandering the Old Town, it is well worth getting onto the water itself to enjoy a completely different perspective. A large variety of different tours are available starting as low as €10 per person and reaching up into the hundreds for luxury tours that include food, drinks and guides.
Actually an autonomous region within the city that is home to several clubs and bars, Metelkova was formerly the military headquarters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the departure of the Yugoslavian army in 1991, a collection of alternative youth groups were granted partial autonomy within the Network of Metelkova and have turned it into a fascinating neighbourhood full of art exhibits and graffiti displays.
Ever since, it has endured a rather ambiguous and quite complex relationship with the city of Ljubljana, a subject that would definitely require its own post to explain in sufficient detail. Whether or not you understand it politically, though, it is a captivating area to visit to see the street art and installations. It didn’t feel particularly friendly when we wandered through but no one seemed to have any problems with us taking pictures.
Slovenian Food Tour
Slovenian food is incredibly diverse and, at times, intricate. Local specialties from all over the country are on offer throughout the capital, making it easy to enjoy a dozen regions in a day if you choose (and if your stomach is up to the challenge). You can join a food tour group or design your own personal food tour like Laynni did for us.
Museum of Modern Art
Providing stunning works of art from both Slovenia and around the world, this classic museum has been around since just after World War II. Located right next to Tivoli Park, the two make for a perfectly complementary pairing.
Sunset from Nebotičnik Skyscraper
Ok, maybe don’t get too caught up in the name “skyscraper”, as the building only stands a modest 70 metres high. But the 360-degree views from the lounge terrace on the top floor are still spectacular, especially at sunset. And, hey, when the Nebotičnik was originally built in 1933 it was actually one of the 10 tallest buildings in the world. They just haven’t really kept up over the years.
We were also pretty surprised that the drinks were a reasonable price with this view. Try to get up before sunset to get a seat on the side with the best view over Ljubljana Castle.
Day trips from Ljubljana
One of the best things about Slovenia is that its manageable size makes most of the country’s highlights very accessible on day trips from the capital. Obviously, if you have the time it would be great to treat each of these as a destination in itself but, if not, you can still see a lot in a short period of time.
The gem of Slovenia (and the entire Balkan region in our opinion), extraordinary Lake Bled is truly a must-see destination. The scenery, the hiking, the food and the surrounding natural attractions make Lake Bled worthy of a much longer stay. If you’re pressed for time, however, it is only about an hour from Ljubljana, so it is easy enough to make a quick stop to whet your appetite for a more extensive future visit. We spent 5 days there and recommend you at least stay overnight if possible.
Located right next to Lake Bled, wonderful Vintgar Gorge can easily be combined with a visit to its more famous neighbour. A visit to this fascinating narrow, shaded canyon with its rushing river and excellent network of little boardwalks crisscrossing the canyon is a perfect way to spend a hot summer afternoon. Make sure to go within an hour of opening or closing to avoid the crowds. We went in the late afternoon and got to have the gorge almost to ourselves.
Locals and experienced Slovenian visitors often compare Lake Bohinj to the much more popular Lake Bled, some arguing it is just as picturesque, others simply explaining that the smaller crowds offer a somewhat more enjoyable experience. The only way to know for sure is to see both for yourself.
Perched at the end of a tiny peninsula like a perfect ode to Venetian history and architecture, visitors are inevitably captivated by the immaculate Old Town and tremendous viewpoints of this gorgeous red-roofed fishing village. I made a point of climbing to each and every viewpoint including the old city walls and multiple towers. Our favourite activity in Piran, though, was enjoying the sunset from the promenade, followed by a fresh seafood dinner.
With one stretch which is over 24 km long, this amazing, gigantic underwater cave network is the second-largest in the country, although if you combined the two main caverns it would actually be one of the longest in all of Europe. Besides all the usual cave highlights such as stalagmites, stalactites and an underground river (the Pivka), the Postojna Cave is also the endemic home to the “olm”, the largest troglodytic amphibian in the world, which you can see at the in-house aquarium.
If you happen to like your castles built into the mouth of the cave on the side of a massive cliff, well, Predjama Castle should be just your thing. Although originally built in the 13th century, it later become the notorious home of legendary robber baron, Erasmus of Lueg.
Where to Stay in Ljubljana
Like most European capitals, Ljubljana has a wide range of accommodation possibilities. Unlike most European capitals, hotels in Ljubljana are extremely affordable, offering outstanding value for your euros. It is best to stay in the city centre if possible, close to most of the things to do in Ljubljana and in the middle of great restaurant options. Here are a few good choices in and around the Old Town:
The AdHoc Hostel has an amazing location right in the middle of the Old Town along the river. You can get a private room with shared bathroom if you don’t like dorms. They have very friendly staff and new facilities.
Galeria River Hotel is on the vibrant Breg promenade with great views from most rooms. This midrange choice has some rooms with a simple kitchenette.
The Hotel Galleria is a good higher end option with an excellent location. This boutique hotel has a great breakfast and some rooms have a view from the balcony.
Where to Eat in Ljubljana
In addition to its many other virtues, Ljubljana is also a culinary delight. There are dozens of top restaurants with outdoor terraces lining the pretty streets of the Old Town.
Slovenska Hiša Figovec – serves traditional Slovenian food with large portion sizes for a good price. Try the Bograč goulash, sausages or the chicken pate with a fig jam. It is conveniently located in the town centre.
Klobasarna – for a quick and easy meal, try Klobasarna. It is a stop on food tours in Ljubljana – we saw a couple food tour groups come by while we were there. It focuses on sausages so isn’t for vegetarians and has a very small menu. The sausages and mustard are locally made and standing at one of the tables in the street is a great experience.
Sarajevo 84 – an unpretentious but atmospheric choice for experiencing hearty Balkan classics. It is actually a chain restaurant but was recommended to us by locals. We had the cevapci and burek and they were very similar to the same dishes we had later in Sarajevo, Bosnia so it seems to be an authentic choice.
El Patrón Tacos & Store – we were in the mood for Mexican food one day and found this impressively authentic restaurant. While the tacos and guacamole weren’t quite as good as in Mexico, they came surprisingly close.
Pizza by the slice – there are many different choices for this easy lunch option, some with tables and some with takeaway only. We tried a couple and were never disappointed.
How expensive is Ljubljana?
Not very, at least not in comparison to most of Western Europe. Hotels in the €40-50 range are common and it is quite easy to find meals for under €10. There are many free things to do in Ljubljana and most of the attractions that aren’t free fall into that same €10 and under range. All in all, it is a very affordable place to visit. Of course, there are very expensive options as well, but if money’s no object than you’re probably not asking that question, are you?
Is Ljubljana worth visiting?
Absolutely. While most European capitals have some highlights and plenty of other attractions to make a visit worthwhile, they often come with big crowds, high prices and complicated transportation issues. Ljubljana, on the other hand, offers great value and a very centralized list of sites. And, although it can see its share of tourists in the summer, anything outside of July or August and you should find it a very manageable place to visit. It is definitely one of the best capital cities in Europe and was one of our favourite stops on our Balkan holiday.
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