Ljubljana – or Lyoo-blee-ah-na, if that makes it any easier – may not be the first destination on people’s lips this summer, but amongst young travellers it is quickly becoming a hotspot, and for good reason.
Catching a flight or train into Ljubljana, you’d be right to feel a little underwhelmed. No bigger than a small British city, Slovenia’s capital hardly competes with other European heavyweights on size. But for everything else – the culture, the aesthetic, the vibe, the commerce, the people – Ljubljana is a gem. Maybe size doesn’t matter, after all.
From its picturesque Preseren Square and the many pavement bars lining the Ljubljanica river to its historic Old Town and renovated castle, Ljubljana’s core is enchantingly beautiful.
Within minutes it’s possible to sight many of Ljubljana’s monuments. The three bridges, the university, cathedral and castle (lit up in green at night to honour the fabled ‘Ljubljana Dragon’) are all within a stone’s throw. Nevertheless, there are plenty of tours, bars, shops and museums to keep the keen explorer going for days.
An especially unique feature of Ljubljana is that many attractions are free, or exceedingly cheap. For absolutely nothing, you can stroll up into the Castle courtyard and take in stunning views of the city and surrounding countryside. The modernised castle interior also provides a niche space for displaying art, and holds a variety of exhibitions at any one time, whilst there are free walking tours through the town centre twice daily in high season, providing a perfect introduction to the city.
Nightlife and dining in Ljubljana is on the up. An increasingly modern capital described as the ‘most Western city in Eastern Europe’, hospitality is stylish, fast and friendly. A liberal student population means that there are bars of all niches, and a large central club for the staggering masses. Lining the river and cobbled streets across the city, a variety of restaurants offer delicious European and Slovenian cuisine, best washed down with a local craft beer or Slovenian lager.
The infamous district of Metelkova is where Ljubljana comes into its own. The city is peppered with top-notch graffiti and offers hints of a liberal, artistic tendency, but in Metelkova this all smacks you in the face. In a good way. Abandoned housing has been transformed by vibrant graffiti and a group of resident artists into a bohemian hub. A bar is run from an old front room, a recycled metal climbing frame provides a refreshingly different space for socialising and music, from drum’n’bass to reggae, is always on offer. For its ‘pinch me’ factor and the opportunity to mingle with students, travellers and liberal-minded residents, Metelkova must not be missed.
If all this isnt enough, Ljubljana sits centrally in Slovenia and therefore offers easy access to the southern Alps and mountainous rural terrain. The Skocjan and Postojna Caves to the south-east are a must-see. With mighty underground canyons, rivers, waterfalls and jaw-dropping views the whole way round, these cave networks are up there with the very best natural phenomena. Lake Bled to the north, with its atmospheric hills and castle and deep blue water, is also worth a see if you have the time, although its popularity as a summer-holiday destination continues to grow.
Ljubljana is the perfect introduction to Eastern Europe. With Slovenia’s civil reputation and strong economy, it is easy to visit without feeling completely out of place. The language, despite being clearly Slavic in origin, is softly pronounced and borrows from neighbouring Italy. The people are exceptionally easy-going and friendly, and so benign tour guides practically endorse night-time walkabouts. Though many buildings further out resemble the dull communism of Yugoslavia, these are coloured with tasteful graffiti and give way to the traditional architecture and open spaces of the city centre.
Ljubljana is perhaps the greatest example of a unified, highly educated and emerging nation in the post-Soviet era. For anyone interested in European culture, vibrant and alternative night-life and quaint gardens, vibrant street art and city architecture, this is the place to be.