Ljubljana may be difficult to spell, but Slovenia’s charming capital is oh so easy to love says Lauren Razavi.
Despite being one of Europe’s smaller cities, the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana is fast emerging as the cultural heart of the former Soviet East. Maintaining a distinctive and mesmerising old world charm but still attracting a considerable number of bohemian young things, Ljubljana is gaining attention as one of Europe’s must-visit destinations for 2013. Whether you’re looking for a short weekend break or a longer holiday experience, you’re sure to fall in love with Slovenia’s political and cultural core.
The city centre is concentrated around the Ljubljanica River, making boat tours a wonderful way to get a feel for its layout. Tours depart from the Triple Bridge’s riverside area each day: expect spectacular architecture and breathtaking scenery, from the historic buildings to the many different types of bird and tree that can be found dotted around the banks of the Ljubljanica. Cycling is encouraged through the Bicike scheme though; a network of public bicycles available for use by anyone including visitors, and free for up to one hour. However, streets in Ljubljana are mainly pedestrianised, and much of the city is best explored on foot. Whichever method of transport you choose, there’s plenty to see and it’s possible to cover most of it in a day – though you’ll find yourself wanting to spend much longer than that getting to know the place.
Ljubljana Castle, which is accessible by funicular from Krek Square, is one of the finest attractions on offer here. The medieval dwelling looms stoically from Castle Hill, boasting excellent views over the Old Town. Depicted atop the castle’s turret is the Ljubljana Dragon, a symbol of the city and the subject of much mythological debate amongst locals; from the Christian Saint George who was associated with the fiery creature, to tales of Argonauts leader Jason slaying a dragon on Slovenian land, its exact origin is unknown but its historical significance to Slovenia’s capital is clear.
The Central Market in Ljubljana’s Old Town is one of many highlights. Regional produce such as wild strawberries and delicious local jams and conserves will whet your appetite, while handmade crafts such as painted glassware make excellent keepsakes. The market site is lined with sidewalk cafes including plenty of outside seating that overlooks the market; sit back with a coffee and watch everyday Slovenian life in action. Another fine feature comes in the form of Tivoli City Park which incorporates several halls and mansions, as well as a clay-bottom pond, a glasshouse and a rose garden. Whether it’s daytime or evening, Slovenia’s largest garden is a perfect for relaxation and reflection.
When the sightseeing adventures come to a close, there’s still plenty to fill your time in Ljubljana. The city boasts an astounding 10,000 cultural events each year and an admirable 10 international festivals. A myriad of museums, galleries, theatres, music venues and street performance offer almost too many possibilities for those looking to explore Ljubljana’s arts scene. A favourite among tourists is the fascinating National Museum of Contemporary History; it’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in tales of Slovenia’s past for an afternoon there, and the museum offers a poignant reminder of what Slovenia’s people have overcome to create the burgeoning young nation that exists today.
Ljubljana’s 50,000 strong population of students are an important part of the Slovenian capital, demonstrating its role as an innovative centre for education, science and technology. Street fairs take the form of celebrations of science and knowledge as well as more artistic pursuits here, marking the city as a unique gem and showing how its dedication to study and progress offers benefits as a whole – to both residents and visitors alike.
Literature makes up a huge part of Ljubljana’s heritage, and it is because of this that Slovenia has been recognised internationally for its contributions to the world of reading. 2010 saw Ljubljana awarded the UNESCO title of World Book Capital, and this year sees it as a strong contender for UNESCO City of Literature. Even during a short stay, it’s easy to see why: the city’s bookshops make up a substantial portion of its character, each varying in look and feel but still encompassing something of Ljubljana’s spirit.
From spacious, modern and downright trendy coffee and book spots to longstanding backstreet haunts full of dusty old volumes and timeworn classics, Ljubljana’s book culture is enchanting. Ljubljana’s most important literary project, however, is the yearly ‘Library under the Treetops’ scheme. Running from May through to September, its sole purpose is to encourage locals and visitors alike to sit down with a book next to the river. During these months, random bookcases appear on many city streets, offering any passer-by the opportunity to grab a book and get involved with the project.
Many will be surprised to learn that Slovenia is also a notable location for gastronomy. Historically a wine-trading hub of the Eastern European region, Ljubljana is known to Slovenians and their neighbours as ‘the city of wine and vine’, and for good reason. Restaurants on every street boast exceptional homegrown wines and other produce, and all at a reasonable price. 2012 saw Ljubljana host the fifteenth annual Slovenian Wine Festival and the fifth national Culinary Festival, while 2013 sees a huge range of gastronomy-fuelled events on offer).
The origin of the name ‘Ljubljana’ has been subject to much speculation amongst historians and locals, but a favoured theory is that the name originates from an old word meaning ‘beloved’. Full of history and culture, you’ll certainly look upon the city as a beloved treasure after spending some time there. Ljubljana is the flourishing capital of a vibrant, attractive and genuinely impressive new nation: you’ll be sure to find yourself planning your next visit on the flight home.