With a population of only around 300,000 people, Ljubljana is by no stretch of imagination a metropolis – but it is working hard to shed its reputation for sleepiness.
Most visitors still come to Ljubljana for easy access to Slovenia’s fantastic interior, including the amazingly beautiful Bled and Bohinj lakes and the Julian Alps – and rarely venture far from its picturesque Habsburg-era old town, dominated by a fairy-tale castle.
But this small gem of a city warrants a couple of days of exploring on its own. Although Slovenians themselves often spend their free time enjoying the gorgeous landscape of the interior, Ljubljana’s stylish cafés, restaurants and clubs are not short of locals lounging about – while the city’s fine architecture and busy art scene have more than enough to satisfy culture vultures.
The key to Ljubljana’s charm is that it perfectly mixes its pristine Central European look with the laid-back attitude found elsewhere across former Yugoslavia. Indeed, many “Yugo-nostalgics” see Ljubljana as a model of what the other Yugoslav cities could have aspired to, had it not been for the wars of the 1990s.
The Yugo-vibe in Ljubljana, evidenced by a number of Bosnian, Albanian and Serbian fast-food joints, is also kept alive by a significant number of ex-Yugoslavs, who were drawn to Slovenia’s relative prosperity and tolerance of various ethnicities.
From Plecnik to squats
While Ljubljana’s most distinctive feature is its medieval castle, perched above the old town, the city’s picturesque beauty is in a significant part due to the ingenuity of Joze Plecnik, a Ljubljana local whose distinctive style was built on the Vienna Secession style of his mentor, Otto Wagner.
After a successful career in Prague and Vienna, Plecnik re-designed swathes of his hometown in the 1930s. His best-known work in Ljubljana is the embankment along the Ljubljanica, including the elegant open market and the city’s main square, which stretches over three small bridges, called Tromostje.
His penchant for monumentalism is obvious in the city’s iconic buildings, such as the stern brick-and-stone National and University Library of Slovenia and the scenic Zale Cemetery, where he was interred in 1957.
While Plecnik’s romanticism fell out of favour after the communist takeover, his student Eduard Ravnikar regaled Ljubljana with many sumptuous Modernist buildings. His masterpiece in Ljubljana was the complex of buildings around Republic Square. Including two hulking skyscrapers and the grand Cankar cultural and conference centre, it recently prominently featured as an emblem of post-war Yugoslav architecture at an exhibition at New York’s MoMA.
Ravnikar also designed the city’s wonderful Modern Gallery, which showcases works of the most famous Slovenian artists of 20th century, from the sculptor Lojze Dolinar to the art collective “Neue Slowenische Kunst”, who are also associated with the most famous Slovenian band, Laibach.
Ljubljana’s fondness for good design continues to this day, evidenced not only by a plethora of good quality design shops dotted around the city, but also new projects, such as the distinctive square mosque designed by Bevk Perovic architects and the Stozice Sports Hall, designed by Sadar Vuga studio in 2009.
Unusually for a city of its size, Ljubljana also has a strong history of alternative art communities. The most famous is Metelkova, an autonomous social and cultural centre, which has been squatting (and partying) in the former army barracks in the city centre since 1993. Another squatting art community took over the old Rog bicycle factory in 2006, which is also open for visitors.
Burgeoning culinary culture
Besides boasting great architecture, Ljubljana is increasingly celebrated for its culinary scene. Slovenian cuisine, which blends Alpine and Mediterranean tastes, came into the foodie spotlight thanks to Netflix series, Chef’s Table, which featured Ana Ros, a talented chef from the Hisa Franko restaurant in the village of Kobarid, close to Slovenia’s border with Italy.
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Prav poseben obisk smo dobili pred kratkim – drežniške koze so prišle z Gorenjske! Ana bo sir iz njihovega mleka vključila tudi v svoje jedi, veselimo se novih zgodb. • We got a very special visit the other day – Drežnica goats came to visit us all the way from Gorenjska! Get ready for new cheese stories from Slovenia. 💚
However, before Hisa Franko became famous, Ljubljana’s JB Restaurant, run by Janez Bratovzk, was included on the prestigious San Pellegrino list of world’s top restaurants in 2010, and still reliably offers a delightful if stilted haute-cuisine experience. As you can taste at JB, much of the new Slovenian cuisine relies on quality ingredients, such as prosciutto, olive oil and truffles sourced from the Slovenian part of Istria, or mushrooms grown in the forests.
However, you do not need to go far or pay much for a great meal in Ljubljana. For about 25 euros per person, you can have a meal with a glass of wine in city-centre restaurants like Robba, As, Julija, Spajza or Altroke, all of which offer great food, despite mostly catering to tourists.
Finally, budget-conscious street food enthusiasts can also enjoy the “Open Market” events, which run on Fridays from mid-March to October at Ljubljana’s main market.
Bars and cafés galore
Ljubljana also delivers for those who prefer liquid meals. Beer-lovers will be satisfied both by the decent local lagers, Union and Lasko, and the burgeoning craft beer scene. Bevog and Lobik breweries are the ones to watch out for, but you can try other brews at new craft beer-focused pubs like Lajbah. Wine lovers can enjoy superb local whites and reds around town at bars like Movia, which is run by one of the more prominent wine makers.
When you’re tired of wining and dining and touring, you can relax in cosy cafés. The cosiest and most stylish of them all is Moderna, inside the Modern Art Museum, while Pritlicje and Bazilika Bistro are favourites among Ljubljana’s stylish, hipster crowd.
To start the night, you can have a chilled drink at Daktari or Centralna Postaja. If you are looking for something more stylish, shead to CinCin, inside a refurbished tobacco factory, or enjoy the view over the whole city from B Bar, which is on top of Ljubljana’s InterContinental.
Clubbing in Ljubljana starts from around 1am, and the popular places are the legendary Klub K4, which has been around since 1989, and Cirkus, which is located inside an old cinema. While the clubbing scene is less varied and intense than in Belgrade, the vibe is more casual and attracts diverse sets, all of which are readier to dance.
In the unlikely case that the partying (or the hangovers) in Ljubljana become too much, you can always escape to the huge Tivoli park in the city centre– or go on a bracing climb to the castle to enjoy some peace and quiet and admire the pristine beauty of this great, green capital.