Before I landed in Ljubljana, if asked what I expected, I would have said a generic old town, some grey Soviet architecture, a good selection of watering holes, uninteresting restaurants serving stodgy food and sweeping but clinical roads. I was shamefully mistaken, not least because Slovenia was never part of the Soviet Union. Although I would only realise it several hours after my arrival since I got there at 4am after a night coach from Vienna and walked for a good hour in the darkness to reach my hotel. It definitely was an interesting welcome to the city – dark, deserted and eerily quiet.
Even though Ljubljana is quite spread out for a city that has under 300,000 people (my walk from the bus station to the hotel was an hour) the town centre is small enough to be navigated on foot. Owing to the forward-thinking agenda and determination of the city’s mayor and his 2025 sustainability vision, the central core is completely pedestrianised. The narrow Ljubljanica River quietly winding through the city adds an extra air of calm. Street life is that much more picturesque with the riverside cafes, hip restaurants and outdoor vendors. That combined with the masterful, almost lyrical beauty of local 20th century architect Jože Plečnik’s legendary bridges, pillars, sweeping balustrades, tree-lined embankments and his masterpiece National & University Library makes walking through Ljubljana seem like you’re in a large but cozy street party.
A glimpse into Slovenia’s past
This small nation of 2 million people that borders Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, spent a majority of its history under the Austrian Habsburg Empire. It then fell under communist rule as a part of the former Yugoslavia, post WWII. The deterioration of the Yugoslav economy coupled with friction arising from cultural differences between Slovenes and the other Yugoslav people, caused Slovenia to split off and become an independent nation in 1991.
From the balmy Mediterranean Coast, to the refreshing Julian Alps to Karst landscapes and Danubian lowlands, there’s an unexpected diversity in tiny Slovenia. Its relative prosperity in the region meant that it’s attracted several thousand migrants from other Balkan nations. So once a predominantly Catholic country, it has become more varied after communist rule and the arrival of Muslims and Orthodox Christians from surrounding regions.
“Despite linguistic kinship with people from the Balkan Peninsula, the Slovenes are culturally an Alpine folk who have more in common with northern Italians, southern Germans, and the Swiss.”
Sustainability and the environment – Slovenia’s salutary obsessions
I never anticipated sustainability to be as high up on the agenda in Slovenia as it is. Ljubljana has almost every imaginable type of recycling bin – to allow for maximum separation and efficiency with the recycling process. It all ties into the capital’s goal of recycling over 75% of its waste by 2025. Remarkable. Even its streets are cleaned with rainwater and biodegradable detergent.
I was impressed to see that around the city, not only are there designated ‘zero waste stores’, but there are packaging-free vending machines like a ‘milkomat’ where you can buy on-demand fresh milk (from local farms) using your own bottle, or basic household items, like liquid soap. I am in awe, Slovenia.
The green lungs of the city
As I began my hour-long walk into the town centre from my hotel, I gleefully realised my journey would take me through Tivoli Park – Ljubljana’s green lung. Stretching all the way into the city centre, I found it most peaceful in the early hours of the morning. I sat on a bench with a burek in hand from a neighbourhood bakery that had just opened, to see tree-lined walkways, manicured lawns, fish ponds, wooded areas and many residents (and dogs) stretching their legs.
Knowledge brings light
While weaving my way through the Old Town I walked past massive doors with horse head doorknobs, not a usual occurrence where I live. That was the entrance to Plečnik’s National & University Library. The architect’s philosophy is for you to enter and feel darkness, created by the extensive use of black marble. Then as you ascend the steps, you’ll enter into a light-filled colonnade, symbolising the enlightenment that knowledge brings.
Who knew Slovenia had a long history of puppet theatre?
The Ljubljana Puppet Theatre carries on the long and historic tradition of puppetry (which stems from the 15th century) in Slovenia, staging several productions and organising puppet festivals that have troupes from around the world in attendance.
After refuelling and getting my caffeine fix while people watching at the Magda Cafe, I was drawn by the colour and buzz of chattering locals at the Central Market. With the usual menagerie of fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish and meat, it’s a heaven for fresh products. The figs looked especially tempting, so I yielded and bought a few to graze on. I then found out that the place transforms into a food mecca on Fridays during the summer, where vendors from up and down Slovenia set up shop in a street food market – a magnet for locals and visitors alike. As luck would have it I wasn’t going to be in the capital on Friday, but it definitely is a motivation for me to return one day.
The City of Dragons
While the mind easily wanders, imagining that parts of the city feel like a regional Italian or French town, you’re soon brought back to your senses when you confront the Dragon Bridge. Perhaps one of the city’s most renowned sights, the Dragon Bridge is adorned with four terrifying green beasts that stand guard on each corner. According to legend, the city was founded by Jason – a Greek mythical hero, who had stolen the golden fleece from the King and fled with his friends across the rivers and seas until he reached Ljubljana. When they approached a lake near the city, Jason came across a dragon which he then slayed. And there continued the association of this city with the mythical dragon which now takes on a role as protector of the city – symbolising power, courage and wisdom.
Standing tall on a 375 metre hill east of Old Town is Ljubljana Castle. Stemming from the 11th century, this castle has gone through different phases over the years – from being used as a barracks, a military hospital, a prison and even a home for poor families, its walls could tell stories to last several lifetimes. During the Habsburg Rule in the 15th century, the castle underwent a complete overhaul. It’s free to enter and walk around the castle grounds – I even had a nap on the grass, but you need to pay to visit the tower or chapel. Even if you don’t enter the watch tower, the views of Old Town from the grounds make the 20 minute uphill hike to reach the castle worth it (and if your legs are too tired, there’s always the funicular to haul you up and down). Fun fact: the castle has its own native vegetable – the Fleischemann’s parsnip. I didn’t quite believe it but apparently the castle is its only confirmed natural habitat!
Contrasting with most of Ljubljana’s lyrical minimalist style, walking a few hundred metres to the neighbourhood of Metelkova Mesto felt like entering a different town. Originally the site of 19th century Austro-Hungarian army barracks, abandoned after Slovenia’s independence in 1991, the artistic community urged the government to allow the site to be used for creative purposes, instead of redeveloping it for commercial use. When there was no sign of that happening after a few years, artists and activists made a bold move. They illegally occupied the area, self-declaring it an autonomous zone – becoming a ‘squat’ in the city. While the authorities aren’t necessarily pleased, they now accept the current status. This commune is a hotspot for students and artists alike, with its loud colours, free-living and street art splashed all over the buildings.
Being the old soul that I am, I visited during the day when it was eerily empty but managed to soak up all the bright and contrasting colours around me. Apparently the true vibes of Metelkova are felt on weekend nights, where it becomes a focal point for various (underground and alternative) music, acts and performances, lasting into the wee hours. If you walk in expecting some kind of surreal orgy, you’ll be disappointed. Metelkova has and continues to represent respect, tolerance and diversity – whether that be in age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or background.
Eating in Ljubljana
My sweet tooth led me on a mission to find gibanica – Slovenia’s answer to strudel. The rich, layered pastry often with poppy seeds, made with fillings such as fruit compote, cottage cheese and walnuts is warm and heavy, but delicious. In Ljubljana’s Old Town, I found Gostilna Sokol which did a very decent version (€5.5). My soft spot for gelato resulted in me finding myself at Cafe Cacao (pistachio and white chocolate definitely tickled the tastebuds) and Gelateria Romantika – renowned for its unexpected flavours. This was the first time I saw cucumber and pumpkin seed oil on a gelato menu (you’ll probably have to queue for about 15 minutes – they’re extremely popular, but it’s worth the wait).
Magda Cafe made a good brew for €1.50. I sat alfresco and watched life go by, particularly in the Central Market which is just outside. They have a breakfast menu (until 1pm) where you can tick different items (yoghurt, boiled eggs, olives, honey) – each for €1 and you need a minimum of 4. You can top this up with a fresh orange juice and coffee for an extra €2.50.
The day before I left, I was craving vegetarian food and found the vegan Organic Garden. Tried the ‘Red Vegan Dog’ for €6: red durum baguette with black sesame, tofu wiener sausage, chilli sauce, homemade BBQ & mustard sauce, dijon mustard, red onion and rucola. Who knew vegan hot dogs could be that appetising?
Vino & Ribe – looks like a tiny, cramped diner at first glance but does great value, cheap seafood dishes: grilled fish, fried fish, sardines and potatoes roasted al forno feature on the menu. I of course, went for the grilled calamari which I guzzled down while standing at their window sill.
Enthusiastic to try out at least one stew during my time in Ljubljana, I went into Antiko – a cafe/pub serving a limited menu of Slovenian specialities. Perhaps not the most renowned place to try one, but the chicken stew here was decent and combined with an orange juice, it set me back €10.
As part of my effort to travel on a budget, I ventured from Bratislava to Ljubljana via Vienna by coach. It obviously takes longer than flying, but the coaches are clean, comfortable and good value. There are a few companies in operation – I chose Nomago (decent reviews, reliable service), via a platform called BusBud. I departed Bratislava station at 21:55, changed coaches in Vienna Airport and arrived in Ljubljana at 04:00am the next day. This also meant I saved on one night of accommodation. On my return, I left Ljubljana Bus Station at 13:44, connected in Vienna Erdberg station at 20:15 and arrived in Bratislava at 21:30.
Side note – the change in Vienna had a tight transfer time and online reviews indicated the bus is often late to depart Bratislava. True to form, my bus was late and I missed my connection in Vienna. However, Nomago had a fantastic customer representative at Bratislava Bus Station who took care of all of us, and rebooked me on an alternative connection from Vienna Airport an hour later.
On my return, I had about an hour between buses at Vienna Erdberg station – not the most salubrious of places in an otherwise pristine city. However, I had the great luck of catching up with Holly – a good friend from college who lives in Vienna. Given it was Sunday evening and most places in the city were shut, and since I didn’t want to venture too far, Holly, being the wonderful soul that she is, brought a thermos full of hot tea and some food to the bus station instead! I would have never imagined drinking tea and gobbling up a delicious shawarma while sat on a wall near the station catching up with a friend, as shady characters indulged in what was presumably some drug-related activity about 10 metres away. Experiences like these are ones you can’t plan for, and ones I treasure the most from my travels.