A city that has no river always seems to be lacking something. There are, of course, some perfectly fine cities without a natural waterway, but there is a lot to be said for strolling through a capital city by the banks of a river. Ljubljana makes sure nobody misses this pleasure by having three.
The Ljubljanica, Gruberjev and Gadaščica all run through the central areas of the city. The centre is based around the Ljubljanica and there are cafes, bars and restaurants alongside it, perfect places to stop for coffee, beer or home made iced tea on a hot summer day.
There are many things to like about Ljubljana. It’s a small capital city in a small country, but both country and city manage to pack a lot in. Ljubljana is neat, tidy, stylish, has plenty of green space and just looks nice. It’s a mere two hours from Gatwick and while prices may be a little higher than countries further east, it is cheaper than neighbouring Italy.
Ljubljana is, not surprising, Italianate in parts, though it has a wonderful mixture of styles and influences, most of which are good ones. Baroque and Art Nouveau dominate and the hand of the remarkable Jože Plečnik is everywhere. Plečnik was a Slovene architect who had grand plans for his city and not only dreamed them, but implemented them as well. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere in the central part of the city without seeing a Plečnik building or walking across a Plečnik bridge.
One of Plečnik’s masterpieces is the Central Market, a magnificent colonnaded affair beside the Ljubljanica. There are permanent shops in the covered area and also open-air stalls. It’s fascinating to simply stroll around, but difficult not to buy something, as there’s too much tempting fruit on offer, most of it from local allotments and as fresh as it’s possible to get.
The castle dominates the city and can be seen from everywhere. There is a choice of walking or taking a funicular to the top of the hill. Walking is probably a better option outside of the summer months. In summer, you’ll probably find yourself sweating enough without climbing hills, though there is a café at the castle where you can cool off under bursts of dry ice, though mercifully without having to listen to prog-rock as you do. There is also a delightful park that offers both shaded, tree-lined walks and wonderful views across the city.
For a small city, Ljubljana has an impressive number of bookshops, which always seems reassuringly civilised. There is no shortage of museums and galleries; the Museum of Modern History and the National Gallery are particularly impressive. For something a bit different, try the Railway Museum, a charmingly ramshackle affair that nonetheless holds a fine array of mighty engines from the Austro-Hungarian era. Even non-rail buffs should find something interesting and there is a little amusement to be had in the challenge of finding the entrance to the museum.
One oddity to look out for is Trg Francoske Revolucije (French Revolution Square), where you’ll find the only statue of Napoleon outside France. This, almost inevitably, is another work of the ubiquitous Plečnik. Ljubljana was the capital of Napoleon’s Illyrian Provinces, briefly under French control in the early 19th century, before returning to the Austrian Empire.
Like other aspects of Slovenia, food shows a mixture of influences. There is a distinct Italian and Mediterranean feel to many restaurants, while cafés betray a sense of the Viennese with tempting strudels and rich cakes. While Slovenes might like to distance themselves from the other former Yugoslav states, the omnipresence of the quintessentially Slavic burek suggests otherwise.
On the short stroll to the railway station from our hotel, we encountered Kratochwill, a combined restaurant, bar and brewery. This kind of thing demands immediate attention and several hours later, the verdict was one of conclusive satisfaction. The svetlo (light) and temno (dark) beers are both 4.2%, which is low enough to give them a good test. You can also have a mešano (mixed), half light and half dark, which produces a more pleasing result than you’d imagine. The bar caters for all options. If you just want a drink, that’s no problem. At the other end of the scale, you can have a full meal. If you fancy a snack, a suggestion is garlic bread, which is Italian-style thin pizza bread covered in garlic and is guaranteed to help the beer go down very well.
Where do the dragons come in? Pretty much everywhere, actually. A dragon features on the city’s coat of arms and the oldest bridge on the Ljubljanica is Zmaski Most (Dragon Bridge), guarded by four large green dragons. There are various stories of equally variable believability associated with the dragon. However, as the patron saint of the chapel at the castle is St George, this rather prosaic link appears the most likely.
One thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that Ljubljana is a delightful place to visit at any time of year. In the summer, strolling by the river – any of them – and stopping for an iced tea or ice cream is pure pleasure. Slightly later in the year, the days are still warm without the heat or humidity of mid-summer. Even in winter, though it might be cold, there are bright, sunny days when the snow gleams in the sunshine and a glass of mulled wine will help to dispel the chill. Ljubljana may be one of Europe’s smaller capital cities, but it is assuredly one of the most attractive.