Your best day in Ljubljana
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is like a chocolate truffle. It’s not large, but it delivers a great deal of flavor and delight in a small bite. You can see most of the main sights in a single day, about as long as it takes to learn how to say its name correctly (j’s are pronounced as i’s so it sounds like lee-oo-bee-yana or lewb-lyana or, well, just ask a local).
Slovenia itself nears the top of European destinations that will surprise most travelers who a) have no idea where it is, b) confuse it with Slovakia, or c) never realize how beautiful and charming this country is. However, for those who do visit, they leave realizing they should have allowed more time there.
Located at the north end of the former Yugoslavia back in the days of Tito and Communism, Slovenia borders Italy on the west and Austria to the north. Drive through its gorgeous Julian Alps and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Switzerland. And when it comes to its capital, from certain viewpoints, Ljubljana (got that pronunciation down yet?) may remind you of Salzburg, Austria with its architecture and castle on the hill.
But Ljubljana is its own city with its own personality. And its one you can get to know, in a speed-dating sort of way, on a short visit. Here’s how to get the best of Ljubljana in one day. (Just be sure to use the Google Translate function if you follow the links I’ve provided since many go to the local websites in Slovenian).
Most of the sights are all within walking distance and lie along or near the Ljubljanica River that divides the old city to the east from the new city to the west. The river’s banks are lined with willow trees and cafes. Strolling or lingering here will provide you with the main highlights of the city. As you get further from the river, the appeal factor of Ljubljana drops. As an Eastern European city that spent a generation or two under communism, to get to the old town, you’ll pass through several industrial or very utilitarian areas filled with apartment blocks. But that’s not unique to Ljubljana. Just stay close to the river and you’ll be happy (unless mid-century Soviet is your thing).
To cover the popular and some surprising, lesser-known features of Ljubljana in a day, start off at the heart of the city, Preseren Square (Preservnov Trg, named for Slovenia’s famed 19th century poet, France Preseren).
You can’t miss the bright salmon-colored Franciscan Church of the Annunciation that sits at the twelve o’clock position (with north at the top) on the round square (and yes, I too wonder why they just don’t call it a circle).
At about the two o’clock position, you’ll see the city’s oldest department store, Galerija Emporium with its interesting Art Nouveau facade and interior. At the five to seven o’clock positions, you’ll find the city’s famous Triple Bridge. The center bridge, based on one in Venice, was built in 1842. In the 1920’s, Joze Plecnik, the city’s most well-known and prolific architect (it seems as if he designed half the city) added two similar bridges to create a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that defines this central meeting place in Ljubljana.
If you want to start early with amazing pastries, bread and coffee, get going by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. Most of the shops and even the Central Riverside Market area will still be closed, but that gives you the area to wander without crowds. You’ll do a little backtracking this way, but it is worth it. If you prefer to sleep in, you can still get your baked goods and coffee later as a late-morning snack and skip to the Riverside Market section below.
For you larks, your breakfast destination lies on probably the most beautiful street in Ljubljana, Stari trg. From Preseren Square, cross the Triple Bridge, go straight into the square before you where you’ll see the Fountain of Three Rivers Sculpture, then turn right (you can’t go straight). You’ll quickly pass Town Hall, currently (as of October 2018) closed for renovation. Keep heading down this street which here is called Mestni trg, but it changes names shortly to Stari trg. This is one of those amazing streets that work perfectly if want to learn how to pay better attention by noticing the right details of a place.
You’re looking for the Perkana Osem bakery at 17 Stari trg. It will be on your left and you’ll likely smell it before you arrive. Once there, you can observe the bakers at work in the back.
Pick out some delicacies and retrace your steps to #5 Stari trg, Cafetino. With over twenty styles of coffee and an intimate interior, it’s considered the best place for coffee in the city. Later, on a sunny day, you can sip your coffee at one of their outdoor tables. For now, once you’ve had your carbs and caffeine, head back to the Triple Bridge.
The Riverside Market, Dragon Bridge and the Castle
If you got a later start and didn’t do the bakery and coffee house, no problem. Just start here at the Triple Bridge. Orient yourself by facing the castle (on the hill before you), then turn left (east).
Along the porticoes that parallel the river, you’ll find some decent souvenir shopping by merchants who set up their wares each morning around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m.
Keep going, and you’ll arrive at the Riverside Market (aka the Central Market), a daily affair where farmers bring in produce, honey and other items to sell to the city folk. You can grab picnic supplies or snacks here, or just wander.
If you want, dart back over to the river from the Riverside Market for a quick look at the Butcher’s Bridge.
It’s filled with some interesting sculptures (not to everyone’s taste, apparently) and loaded with locks fastened there by couples, a now familiar sight on bridges throughout Europe.
You’ll also find some rare public restrooms beneath the market side’s entrance to the bridge. Go back to the Central Market then turn left and proceed to the next bridge at the end of the market, Ljubljana’s Dragon Bridge with its namesake sculptures at each end.
Get your selfie with the dragons, then turn around and head uphill, looking for signs for the castle that you can see looming above you on the hill. You can do a somewhat strenuous walk to the top or take the funicular. Once you’re at the castle, you can visit the museum and shops or just take in the view of Ljubljana below you (though as of this writing, the Viewing Terrace is closed for renovations).
Cathedral and Seminary Library
Retrace your journey back down the hill back to the Riverside Market. On the west end of the market area there’s a small street you want to go down. On the right, you’ll see a fascinating doorway framed by two titans with the phrase “Veriti & Musis” (Truth and Muses) over the entry. This leads into the Seminary Library, the country’s first public library (established in the 18th century).
It’s a fascinating space of old leather-bound books, ornate wooden bookshelves and a beautiful fresco that fills the ceiling and upper walls. It’s only available by private tour that you have to arrange in advance (you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation).
It’s definitely worth the small effort and donation to visit this exquisite space.
From the library, pop into the nearby St. Nicolas Cathedral (you can’t miss it: Just look for the towers). Note the intriguing bronze doors on the front and especially, the one on the side depicting portraits of 20th century bishops of the cathedral.
Shop and eat
For you early risers, you’ll be repeating your morning journey down Mestni/Stari trg. But this time, you get to shop. The street is lined with boutiques and shops filled with local Slovenian products such as honey and other bee items, salts from the local salt pans on the coast, a book store, several chocolate stores, a place specializing in woolen goods (Madal Bal) and a wealth of others.
If you want some higher end Slovenian souvenirs, on the small stretch that connects the Triple Bridge with Mestni/Stari trg, look for Gallerija Rustika.
You’ll also find that Stari trg is filled with numerous restaurants and cafes. This is a good place to grab lunch if you’re there around this time.
Once you’ve completed your shopping and dining, head to the southern end of Stari trg and you’ll arrive in Gornji trg.
Look up the street that runs uphill and you’ll see some of the oldest buildings in Ljubljana.
This whole Mestni/Stari/Gornji trg area is filled with a combination of Medieval and Baroque buildings that visually charm and make this one of the most delightful areas in Ljubljana. Take your time and simply enjoy it.
Crossing the river
So far, you’ve spent the day in the old city. Now it’s time to go to the new city. After coming to the end of Gornji trg, turn right and cross the river. If you stop and look up the river, the next bridge up is the Cobbler’s Bridge, also designed by Plecnik. You’ll have time to explore the river more later, but for now, keep heading straight into the quaint area known as Krakovo.
Your destination is located at Karunova 4 and 6, the former home of Joze Plecnik. Even if you’re not a big architecture fan, the home where Plecnik resided for years is fascinating. It’s exactly as it was when he died in 1957. This is one of those rare museums where nothing is behind glass.
You get right up close seeing the items on his desk or the books on his shelf. It’s a great introduction to the man and also, to Ljubljana since the two are so integrally linked.
If you have an extra day, spend it exploring this area or the area’s many other museums. You can also venture over to Tivoli Park. But for now, you still have several hours left on your one great day in Ljubljana tour. So head back to the Ljubljianica River (you’ll see another smaller one near Plecnik’s house that flows into the main river).
National University Library
If you’re in Ljubljana on a Saturday, you have a once-a-week opportunity to pop into one of Plecnik’s most famous buildings, the National University Library. As you head north along the river, you’ll cut over after a couple blocks. Your goals is to find a brick and stone building with windows projecting out from the walls that resemble open books. This is the National University Library. You can visit the library’s small bookstore, stairway entrance and a small exhibition space any day. But only on Saturday afternoons do they let the public into the main reading room. As with the Seminary Library, this will mostly be interesting to lovers of books, art and architecture. But the unique spaces can make it intriguing for just about anyone.
On the south side of the National University Library you’ll find the former monastery known as Krizanke. Joze Plecnik (but, of course!) renovated it and it now serves as one of the primary concert venues in the city (show on the right in the photo below).
Check out the schedule for a possible concert while you’re in town, or just admire the space itself.
More food and exploration
From Krizanke and the National University Library, either return to the river or just meander north through the side streets.
You’ll soon get to the University District and the large tree-lined square, Kongresni trg. But mostly your goal now is to enjoy the town at your own pace, looking along the cafes that line the river for a great dinner location. Or, if you want yet another snack, here are three great places to try gelato in Ljubljana.
Near the university is Gelateria Romantik. You’ll spot it next to two impressive bronze doors. Here, they use something like 40% less sugar and only natural ingredients. Further along (hey, gelato is worth the walk) and back between Triple Bridge and the Fountain of Three Rivers is Vigo (which gets the number one slot on Trip Advisor) closely followed by Cacao, across the river from Vigo. You can’t go wrong at any of these three ice cream spots. But at Cacao, you can sit in their riverside cafe to enjoy the views and the passing crowds.
The best of Ljubljana
And that, just watching the people and the beauty of the city, may be the best way to spend a day in Ljubljana. Sure, you’ll want to explore many or all of the sights noted above. But allow time to relax, have a great meal or a drink or — gelato! — along the river and observe the locals doing much the same thing. You get all the vibrant energy, stylish fashion and beautiful architecture of a European capital city but on a more manageable scale. In Ljubljana, you can take it all in and enjoy it, even if you only have one day there.