Eight months ago, Ljubljana was a brand new place to us. We arrived in the midst of a downpour, dragging our luggage through puddles. Eyeing the graffiti-plastered walls of cold, industrial buildings, we wondered if moving to a city we hadn't been to was in fact a terrible mistake. But the next day, charming Ljubljana unraveled for us as we caught our first glimpses of its classical buildings, pastel facades, and quaint spires. Katja, our first Slovenian friend and owner of the room we had sublet, was leading us through her town. We traversed the city's gently curving canal, crossed its wide pedestrian bridges, and allowed the architecture to lead us to the hilltop castle that presides over town.
A month later, I found myself writing about the city from my own apartment with a view of Ljubljana's famous castle and Dragon Bridge through the window. While our Slovene hasn’t improved as much we’d hoped, we now have this charming and culture-filled town mapped.
Here is a comprehensive guide of tourist hot-spots, must-sees, and local haunts!
Official pronunciation — lyoo-blyah-nuh
Locals call it — loo-blah-nuh
Visitors call it — loo-bya-nuh
This medieval hilltop castle dates back as far as 1125. Today, it is now a viewing platform, restaurant, and home to three museums. It also hosts many local events such as Film Under the Stars. Though a funicular offers visitors a lift to the top, I assure it's a fairly painless stroll.
Trace the remaining walls of Emona, a Roman castrum that thrived from the late 4th century to the late 6th. Present-day Ljubljana sits atop the former site, but crumbling ruins of Emona can still be found throughout the city. A subterranean section of preserved wall can be found near the Emonia Statue inside Congress Square (enclosed by glass beneath the Slovenska Cesta underpass). A model of the Roman settlement is also displayed there.
Arguably the architectural focal point of Ljubljana, this square lies at a crossroads between the pink Franciscan Church, Prešeren Monument, and Plecnik's Triple Bridge. Located at the apex of the curving Ljubljanica river, it offers a unique panoramic view crowned by Town Hall's gabled spires and the clock tower of Ljubljana Castle.
Across the river and on the other side of Ljubljana Cathedral, a market square sprawls beneath the castle where the Dragon Bridge crosses the Ljubljanica. Here, local vendors sell fruits, vegetables, and hand-crafted goods daily. Early morning is the best time to see locals shopping with their dogs and bicycles in tow. The patio of a small cafe called Magda offers the best vantage point for soaking in morning market bustle.
BUILDINGS & BRIDGES
The art noevau bridge constructed from 1900 - 1901 was the first structure in Slovenia to be paved in asphalt. It was designed by engineer Josef Melan and architect Jurij Zaninović. The four fierce dragons posted up on each corner of the bridge may stem from the legend that Jason, who killed a dragon alongside his Argonauts, was the founder of Ljubljana.
The Butcher's bridge
This love lock-laden bridge is Ljubljana's version of Paris' Pont des Arts. Thousands of padlocks adorn its rails, their keys symbolically thrown into the Ljubljanica by swooning lovers.
This architectural icon crosses the Ljubljanica where a medieval wooden bridge once connected north-western Europe with south-eastern Europe and the Balkans. In 1842, the wooden bridge was replaced by the central of the present-day stone bridges. In 1929, Jože Plečnik added the side bridges for pedestrians and decorated it with balustrades, lamps, and planted trees. Today, only pedestrians and cyclists may cross this once historical route that offers a direct view of Town Hall and the castle.
The Cooperative Business Bank on Milošicčeva cesta (pictured above) is perhaps the quirkiest building in all of Ljubljana. It was designed in 1921 by Ivan Vurnik and its Slovenian nature motifs were painted by his wife Helena.
Take a free tour of architect Jože Plečnik's house, which is not only a museum showcasing his life and work (everything from photographs and models to personal letters and sketches) but also one of several Library Under the Treetops reading nooks.
Located on on the riverfront promenade beneath the castle, Slovenska Hisa exclusively serves Slovenian food and beverages. Grab breakfast and a coffee made with local flavours and ingredients for just €5.50.
Arguably has the best patio view of the castle, Ljubljanica, and my favourite pastel buildings in all the old town. In addition to retro fittings and friendly staff, they also have decently priced local beer on tap (and an adventure store next door).
Sax is a canal-side haunt that plays jazz while offering patio beers and euro glasses of wine. It's got a grungy, psychedelic exterior but is located in a family-oriented neighbourhood alongside several other noteworthy cafes.
€1 Coffee under the bridge
Klub Rečnih Kapitanov serves €1 coffee between 10am-12pm and treats visitors to patio seating level with the Ljubljanica. A bridge shields from sun while willows adorn the scenery in verdant hues.
CAFES & BARS
Unlike North America, cafes and bars are somewhat synonymous in this neck of the woods. Having a glass of wine or beer in the early afternoon is not unusual so if you visit, do as the locals do!
You’ll find this joint in the bustling heart of Ljubljana, right beside city hall. By day, it is a plant-filled coffee shop with window reading nooks and a back room that looks into a large art gallery space. With consistent wifi and accessible plug outlets, it’s also a good work/meeting space. Come evening, you can count on a shift in music reminding you to put your lap top away and order a beer — Pritličje is best known for good music, live DJ’s, and local events.
Nestled below the city castle, this grotto with floor-to-ceiling book shelves, bean bags, and bpiano. Its craft tap selection and casual living room vibe have made it one of my favourite bars in Ljubljana. Plus they serve pretzels and crackers generously.
Steps away from the Butcher’s Bridge (which is ironically covered in love locks), this little joint can be found right between the outdoor market and covered market. Inside, it’s cavernous walls are plastered in wheat paste designs. Lush plants populate deep window sills. When the weather’s nice, the cafe sprawls out onto its terraced patio and attracts a hip crowd.
Tivoli City Park
Stretching 5 square kilometres right into the city centre, Tivoli is Ljubljana's largest and most celebrated park. It was designed in 1813 by Jean Blanchard, who connected the green spaces around Podturn and Cekin Mansions with the forested slopes of Rozžnik Hill. Today, the park is not only a recreational space but art and monument gallery. It is also adjacent to the National Gallery of Slovenia and neighbouring Museum of Modern Art.
The botanical garden is home to over 4,500 species and sub-species of flora (a third of which are endemic to Slovenia). Established in 1810, the botanical gardens are one of Ljubljana's oldest running cultural institutions. It's a great place to stroll and find some shade from the summer sun.
Formerly the ruins of a medieval Capuchin monastery, the square was built in 1821 and originally used by the Congress of Ljubljana. It was transformed into a park, acquiring the name Park Zvezda or 'Star Park' due to its design. It was renamed Revolution Square (Trg revolucije) during the communist period, and later Liberation Square (Trg osvoboditve). It is a historically significant place—it housed the first free mass demonstration that started the Slovenian Spring (June 22, 1988), and was the fist place the declaration of Slovenia's Independence was read on May 8, 1989.
Library Under the Treetops
This local project sets up cozy red beach chairs in quiet outdoor spaces, loaning a collection of books to all passers-by. Locations include the city's most popular visitor destinations including Tivoli Park, Congress Square, Plečnik House (locations and timings here).
This Jazz club spills out onto the streets of Ljubljana as it hosts live music every Thursday night. It is located amidst a row of my favourite pastel facades in the old town, just beneath castle hill.
This bar and adjacent outdoor space holds some of the city's best music events (a local producer took me to my first Slovenian rock concert, Elvis Jackson #networking).
LJUBLJANA's BRIDGES & STREETS
In the summertime, the Cobbler's Bridge often doubles as a venue for Ljubljana's many street musicians. The castle side of Triple Bridge, Robba Fountain, and hipster Trubajeva street are also go-to spots for catching free live music by local artists.
Don’t miss the Ljubljana Free Tour that runs daily, 365 days a year.
The Slovenia Tourist Board also provides tons of helpful information.