Warning, within five minutes of stepping into Ljubljana’s historic city center, you will be completely under its charm. Its colorful, Baroque buildings radiating from the Ljubljanica River create a picturesque, fairytale city that whisks you to another time. And it’s that time machine feel that is the main attraction of Ljubljana.
A city of dragons, Ljubljana is said to be founded by Jason (of golden fleece fame), who came upon a dragon in a nearby lake and slaughtered it. Since then, the dragon has been intricately linked to the city. Now, the dragon stands as a proud protector of the city and its people. You’re never far from a dragon when exploring Ljubljana. A fun game to play is seeing how many dragons you can find.
As Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana is a city that’s safe to walk around. And Slovenians are very friendly people. Named the European Green Capital in 2016, Ljubljana is ahead of many European cities in its sustainability initiatives. It’s easy to find recycle receptacles in town. Don’t forget to bring your reusable water bottle to Ljubljana. There are drinking fountains throughout, too and that water tastes good! Though vehicle traffic has been greatly limited within the historic city center, you still need to watch out as many locals bike to work.
Top Sights in Ljubljana
One of the most wonderful things about Ljubljana is that you don’t need a map to get around. It’s compact that just by strolling around, you will find all the major attractions. The city is so inviting, that you’ll find yourself wondering down every street anyways. So, enjoy the thrill of stumbling upon something rather than planning the day. Here are some of the highlights of Ljubljana that you can look forward to experiencing.
One sight you can’t miss is Ljubljana Castle. It stands above the historic city center, a symbol of Ljubljana. This medieval fortress goes back to the 11th century, when it was the main defense of the city. Now it’s a museum showcasing Ljubljana through the ages as well as history of the castle.
There are two ways to get to the castle, walking or taking the funicular. If walking, there are several trails up the hill. They do get a little steep, but in less than 10 minutes you’ll be enjoying the views from the top. You can also take the funicular up for an additional cost to the admission to the castle. The ride is less than two minutes.
The heart of the city center is Prešeren Square. Its star attractions are the Baroque Church of the Anunciation (also known as the Pink Church) and the Triple Bridge. You can sum up the character and beauty of Ljubljana in this one square. It gets crowded as the day progresses.
This stunning building originates from the 15th century. The best way to see the inside of the Town Hall is via a free guided tour that must be booked in advance at the Ljubljana Tourist Center (just opposite the Triple Bridge).
In front stands the Robba Fountain, which is reminiscent of the Four Rivers Fountain in Rome. But for this fountain, it’s three men pouring water from jugs, each representing a river of the region.
Flanked by four dragons, it’s easy to see how Dragon Bridge got its name.These dragons are synonymous with Ljubljana, making it the city’s most iconic site. This delicate bridge was built in the early 1900s.
Every European city has at least one good market and Central Market in Ljubljana cannot be missed. It sprawls between several buildings and a square. On the weekends, the square is full of pop up stands offering freshly made food from every region in the world. The building lining the river features small cafes and souvenir stands. The lower level of the building opposite has fresh meats and dried nuts and fruits vendors. If you’re looking for some fresh food to take on a day trip, this is the place to be.
Another market is found near St. Nicholas’ Church. This market features some of the most beautiful and massive looking fruits and vegetables. The smell from the fresh produce overloads your senses and may make your mouth water.
St. Nicholas’s Church
Squeezed into the heart of the city, St. Nicholas’s Church (also known as Ljubljana Cathedral), with its burnt yellow towers, cannot be missed. A church has stood on this sight since the 13th century. Though the church is small, it’s still worth a visit inside to see the Baroque architecture.
Another popular meeting space is Congress Square. Surrounded by stunning buildings including the Ursuline Church of the Holy Trinity and the Slovenian Philharmonic (one of my favorite buildings), the square also features a small park. You can also see fragments of the ruins of a monastery that once stood on the site.
As I said, Ljubljana oozes incredible buildings. Some are complete works of art. Popular buildings to admire are the Parliament Building, with its sculptured entrance located across the Republic Square, and the exterior of the National University Library. A special shout out goes to the Art Nouveau buildings on Miklošičeva cesta near the Pink Church.
All around Ljubljana, with most close to the river, are bronze sculptures. Honestly, they are a bit weird, but they do make you pause and have a think. Most of these sculptures are the creative work of Jakov Brdar, a Slovenian sculpture. While wandering around town, keep a look out. Some are quite small and others are tucked in alleys.
Tivoli City Park
Less than a 10-minute stroll from the river is the sprawling and lovely Tivoli City Park, the largest park in Ljubljana. You can spend hours exploring this beautiful green space. Inside the park, you will also find the Tivoli Castle (a mansion), the Cekin Mansion which houses the Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia, a large pond, rose garden, and countless sculptures.
After the classic beauty of the city center, Metelkova Mesto may be a shock. Full of graffiti and street art, this offbeat haven is a must visit. Walking around in daylight, you can appreciate all the different art (and some of it is truly stunning). In the evening, it’s a hopping joint. It may not be for everyone, but it’s still a place that should be seen.
Take Time to Just Walk Around Ljubljana
The best way to truly appreciate Ljubljana is walking around town. As the historical center is compact, you can cover a lot of ground quickly. However, you don’t end up covering much ground because every building begs inspection. Each new curve in the river provides a different perspective that must be admired.
Strolling along the cobblestone streets, you can appreciate the atmosphere of the city. There are tons of unique and quirky shops that are fun to either window shop or browse. It’s something you don’t expect from a town that feels of the past, but it’s just another reminder of how modern the city is too.
Don’t forget to take in the different view points of the river and city from the many bridges. Not only is each view different, but each bridge is unique too.
Where to Eat in Ljubljana
There are countless cafes and restaurant options in Ljubljana. Many of them are found along the river banks providing you with lovely views as a backdrop to your meal. Price ranges vary. My personal favorite was Ljubljanski Dvor, right on the banks of the river near the university. They have an extensive selection of handmade pizza and it is delicious! Even better, it’s one of the cheapest meals you’ll have (the small pizza is still pretty big, so come with an appetite). Next door, dessert awaits at the Romantika Gelateria. And who doesn’t love gelato?
If your lodging comes with a kitchen, there’s a small, but good grocery store located next to the Intercontinental Hotel near the train/bus station.
Day Trips from Ljubljana
Ljubljana makes for the perfect base for exploring other destinations in Slovenia. If you don’t want to do a road trip of your own, Slovenia has a great bus system that takes you to much of the highlights of the country. The fairytale beauty of Lake Bled is only a 1.5 hour bus ride away with Lake Bohinj just 20 minutes past Lake Bled. Both are fantastic day trips from Ljubljana.
You can also visit one or more of the many caves around Slovenia. My personal favorite is the Škocjan Caves with its other worldly Murmuring Water Cave. There are also the popular Postojna Caves, and in summer Predjama Castle, which is built into the mouth of a cave. Taking a break from nature, there’s the popular seaside city of Piran with its Italian influence.
If you do take the bus, regardless if you’re purchasing the ticket at the ticket booth at the bus station or on board the bus, tickets are cash only.
Getting to Ljubljana
If you’re already in Europe, the easiest way to Ljubljana is via bus or train. The train and bus stations (right next to each other) are an easy walking distance to the center of town (roughly 15 minutes to the Pink Church). So, you can either walk to your accommodation or take a short taxi ride.
If arriving by plane, the Joze Pucnik Airport is 25km from Ljubljana. There is a bus service to the city center that runs every hour. Or, a taxi will run you about €35.
Ljubljana completely took me by surprise in the best possible way. It’s now one of my favorite cities in Europe, and one I cannot wait to go back and visit. Give yourself one to two days to leisurely explore the city because once you’re under its charm, you won’t want to leave.