As capital of one of Europe’s most forested countries, it’s perhaps fitting that Ljubljana is this year’s European Green Capital. A city of just 300,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana has often been ahead of the game when it comes to green initiatives – from the introduction of a sophisticated waste management system (Ljubljana was the first EU capital to adopt a zero-waste programme) and the creation of new green spaces from degraded urban land, to electrically powered golf buggy-type vehicles (kavalirs) offering free transport around the old town, which is otherwise closed to traffic. Official Green Capital celebrationskicked off last month, but there are numerous events taking place throughout the year.
The city oozes charm, a delightful confection of Baroque and Habsburg inspired-architecture, richly painted churches, abundant greenery and engaging riverside cafes. Moreover, its location, at the heart of this tiny, but astonishingly diverse country, means it’s no more than a couple of hours away from anywhere, be it the imperious limestone mountains and glacial lakes of the Julian Alps, the magical subterranean world of the Karst region, historic coastal towns or the lush vineyards in its hinterland.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
The old town
Ljubljana’s most obvious point of reference is its gorgeous old town, buffered on one side by a neat castle-topped hill and on the other by the languorous Ljubljanica river, its willow-fringed banks sprinkled with easy-going restaurants, cafes and bars. It is an attractive lattice of cobbled streets, arched alleys and fine cultural monuments, many of which were bequeathed to the city by Jože Plečnik (1872–1957), Slovenia’s most celebrated urban planner. From the brilliantly conceived and much-photographed Triple bridge (he contributed the two angled footbridges in the 1930s), to the graceful market colonnade, the city is run through with his unique designs. Two-hour Plečnik tours can be arranged through the tourist office (€50 for a group of up to five people or €60 for up to 10), which also operates other excellent themed tours.
Otherwise, the best and most original of the city’s many guiding companies isCurioCity, whose tours include From Ljubljana With Love, which takes visitors to local social enterprises including restaurants and shops, and Lazy Sundays, which includes a park stroll, brunch, coffee and beer pitstops, but otherwise does not very much at all – in the best possible sense.
Lording it over the huddle of orange- and red-roofed townhouses below is the 16th-century Ljubljana Castle, whose grounds have been given over to a cluster of first-rate museums: Virtual Castle, a clever 3D multi-visual illustrating the castle’s development; an engrossing exhibition on Slovene history, with particularly illuminating sections on socialist Yugoslavia through to the Ten-Day War (or Slovenian Independence War) in 1991; and the sweet Museum of Puppetry, a long-cherished art form in Slovenia. The stocky Clock Tower, meanwhile, affords peerless views of the old town, and, in the distance, the serrated, snow-dusted Kamniške Alps. If you don’t fancy the stiff 15-minute climb to the top, a funicular goes right into the heart of the complex.
•Tickets €7.50 adult, €5.20 child, €19 family, or €10/€7/€26 including the funicular, ljubljanskigrad.si
Krakovo and Trnovo
Ljubljana is replete with genteel, village-like suburbs, but few are as appealing as Krakovo, within a 10-minute walk of the old town. An erstwhile haunt of Slovenian artists, today Krakovo is characterised by thickset medieval houses and neatly tended allotments, the produce of which sustains the huge open-air market on Vodnikov trg (Vodnik Square) as well as numerous city restaurants. In neighbouring Trnovo, there are more examples of Plečnik’s work, notably Trnovo bridge, on one side of which is the architect’s surprisingly modest house (€6,guided tours only, on the hour, 10am-5pm, mgml.si). Most of it has been left as it was, notably his studio, complete with equipment, books and plans.
On Sunday mornings, the banks of the Ljubljanica are taken over by a terrific little flea market, selling everything from antique sofas and vintage stamps to ex-Yugoslav military uniforms. While outdoorsy types love nothing better than hiking up 669m Šmarna Gora, five miles north of the city. At the top, you can grab a warming cup of tea.
This convivial canalside street is Ljubljana’s main entertainment hub and boasts a colourful ensemble of cafes and pubs.
WHERE TO EAT
Spring sees the reopening of the city’s ever-popular Odprto Kuhna (Open Kitchen) on picturesque Pogačarjev trg, which is bound on one side by Plečnik’s elegant market colonnade, itself a great spot to pick up picnicky snacks. Every Friday, hungry punters flock to this buzzing open-air food market, where some of the city’s very best establishments (including Strelec and Gostilna AS) serve sample (and cheap) portions of their restaurant dishes. There are also stalls selling many cuisines that you might not otherwise find in the city. A phalanx of beer and wine stalls adds to the convivial atmosphere.
•Pogačarjev trg, odprtakuhna.si
The idea behind this warm, bustling little daytime restaurant is to help those from disadvantaged groups assimilate into mainstream society, in a similar vein to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. The daily menu is short, typically consisting of one soup, one meat (roast veal with carrot mash, say) and one fish dish (maybe sea bream on barley risotto), and a dessert, but that matters little when the food tastes this good; each dish goes for around €7 a pop.
•Poljanska cesta 7, +386 599 25446, on Facebook
Dining out in Ljubljana doesn’t get much more exciting than at this refined establishment, secreted in the castle’s Archer’s Tower. Climbing the elegant spiral staircase, you emerge into an artfully designed room whose rust-red stone walls are painted with scenes of medieval battle. Chef Igor Jagodic – a rising star in Slovenian gastronomic circles – conjures up beautifully crafted and technically accomplished dishes such as veal tongue with smoked eel and horseradish mayonnaise, and buckwheat croquettes stuffed with duck liver, black walnuts and fir tree foam. The space is perfect for assignations of a romantic nature.
•€30 for a three-course lunch, Grajska planota 1, +386 31 687 648, kaval-group.si
A comely neighbourhood restaurant in Krakovo, Pri Škofu has been quietly going about its business for years. Fabulous home-style cooking is the order of the day, most of which is prepared using hand-picked produce from the nearby allotments. Visitors choose from whatever’s chalked up on the board, which might be pork tenderloin in a fig sauce, or a black truffle risotto (€10), then take a seat inside the unadorned but snug interior, or outside on the sunny pavement terrace.
•Rečna ulica 17, +386 1 426 4508, on Facebook
WHERE TO DRINK
Slovenian wine is little known outside the country but it is outstanding, and this seasoned wine bar down by the Ljubljanica is just the place to begin your education. Start with a drop of Rebula, a sumptuous dry white from the picturesque Goriška Brda region abutting the Italian border, before moving on to a glass of full-bodied, blood-red Teran from the Karst – best sampled with a plate or two of tapas (€3-€5 a glass). When you’re done here, pop next door to the excellent shop and stock up on a bottle or two to impress friends back home.
•Dvorni trg 2, dvornibar.net
Once a Yugoslav army barracks, Metelkova was squatted in 1993 and is now a rag-bag of alternative venues in the centre of Ljubljana. The autonomous social centre and legendary night spot features all kinds of live music: everything from jazz and rockabilly to dub and techno.
The good folk at Ziferblat do things somewhat differently. Put simply, the longer you stay, the more you pay (€0.5c per minute, or €3 per hour; a daily ticket is capped at €7), for which you get unlimited beverages (alas no alcohol) and cookies, and general all-round use of the facilities, including the kitchen. Indeed, guests are encouraged to use the cafe’s not inconsiderable space – amply filled with recycled and vintage furnishings – as they wish, be it to read, paint or play an instrument. There’s even a hammock if you fancy a kip.
•Vegova ulica 8, ljubljana.ziferblat.net
Occupying the cavernous former worker’s canteen of the Union brewery (one of Slovenia’s two major breweries; the other is Laško), this rocking venue showcases the very best in both warehouse chic design and Slovenian beer. On offer is a prodigious array of pale, dark and amber ales, including numerous unfiltered versions (from €2.50-€4). Naturally, the beer has to be soaked up somehow, so grab a plate of grilled beer sausages while you’re at it.
•Celovška cesta 22, pivnica-union.si
Named after its personable owner, this cosy, happily careworn cafe is the place for caffeine connoisseurs. Fairtrade coffee beans are sourced from single estates, which are then roasted by Tine himself, with each one chalked up on a board indicating the date the beans were picked and when they were roasted. On a warm day, park yourself outside on the sociable little terrace and treat yourself to a cup of deliciously refreshing cold-pressed coffee.
•Krekov trg 8, cafecokl.si
WHERE TO STAY
The city’s slickest hotel is housed in a stunningly refurbished, white 1930s residential building, and the 26 bedrooms are decorated in discerning shades of grey, complete with all mod cons and abstract art on the walls, alongside glassed-in bathrooms featuring enormous walk-in showers and L’Occitane toiletries. Around half the rooms have unencumbered views of the castle. It’s impeccably serviced too.
•Doubles from €115 B&B, +386 1 425 6000, hotelcubo.com
B&Bs are few and far between in Ljubljana, so this is a most welcome find. The understated rooms come in two categories: those in the main building boast high ceilings with panelled walls and waxed wooden floors; another six, more contemporary rooms are just across the way. Breakfast is taken in the quaint in-house cafe – worth a visit even if you’re not staying here – or on the rooftop terrace in warmer weather.
•Doubles from €95, +386 1 433 8233, slamic.si
In a sleepy little corner of the old town, this exquisite, family-run hotel – a fine conversion of a bourgeois townhouse – conceals 10 rooms of considerable charm and style: parquet flooring, polished teak furnishings including fabulously chunky bedsteads, and brass-fitted taps and showers alongside some thoughtful touches like 1930s-style telephones and side-lamps, and framed watercolours of old Ljubljana. The pocket-sized courtyard, with its trim lawn, is the perfect spot for a sundowner.
•Twins/doubles €115 B&B, +386 82 057 241, adorahotel.si
It’s not often you get the chance to sleep in a bank, but this buzzy hostel gives you the opportunity to do just that. A stone’s throw from the Triple bridge, it is set around a high, central atrium, with spacious, spotlessly clean dorms – each sporting the name of a currency – sleeping between four and 12 people. Many of the bank’s original fixtures and fittings, such as the lockers, have been cleverly incorporated as design features, while the old vaults now function as a common area and kitchen. And there’s a pint-sized bar for a cheeky nightcap.
•Dorm beds from €13.30, breakfast from €2, Čopova 38, 386 1 200 9060, hostel-tresor.si
Several airlines, including Adria, easyJet and Wizz Air fly direct from several London airports to Ljubljana.