What's in a name?
Repeat after me: lyoo-BLYAH-nah. This is how you pronounce Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, according to city’s very own website. And while it may be one of Europe's hardest-to-pronounce capital cities, it's also one of its most charming.
Since somebody mentioned Ljubljana to me a few years ago I’ve wanted to go. I was so intrigued: why hadn’t I heard of it before and where on earth did that unusual name come from? The spoiler is…nobody really knows exactly where the name Ljubljana came from (but you can read some educated guesses here).
Ljubljana in a nutshell
With a mix of Italian, Austrian and Hungarian influences, Ljubljana is arguably one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities.
Despite being pretty tiny by capital city standards with a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana is full of life. When you walk around the old town, you'll find al fresco restaurants full to the brim with diners, fountains, statues, Baroque churches, and cobbled lanes all surrounding the river Ljubljanica that winds through its centre.
Due to its small size, Ljubljana can easily be explored in a day, so below are a few things worth seeing on your visit to this gorgeous city.
Things to do in Ljubljana:
There are two ways to get to Ljubljana Castle: by funicular or by foot. To me there’s something magical about walking up to a vantage point and seeing a new city slowing unfurl below me, so we walked. A ticket to the castle is 10 EUR per person and includes the funicular so I suggest catching it back down.
The castle was originally a medieval fortress built around the 11th century. The spot where the castle is, however, was settled as far back as 1200BC, so there’s plenty to see and lots to learn about. Although it’s a tad daggy, I definitely suggest making time to watch the Virtual Castle tour included in the ticket price, which explains the full history, from prehistoric times until today.
The viewing tower is also a must, to get sweeping views of Ljubljana and apparently a third of Slovenia on a clear day.
Eat (potentially) the world's best ice-cream at Cacao Cafe
I’ve eaten a lot of ice-cream in my life and for me Cacao Cafe is right up there with the best. My partner in crime went a step further, however, proclaiming it to be the best he’s ever eaten. So I suggest giving it a go!
Cacao is just a couple of steps away from the hustle and bustle of the main square, so it’s easy to swing by as you wander around the old town. If the weather is good, get a takeaway and keep walking along the river up to Butcher’s Bridge, which, despite the name, is Ljubljana’s answer to Paris’s famous Pont des Arts (love lock bridge).
Butcher’s Bridge is not Ljubljana’s most famous bridge (I’m looking at you, Triple Bridge) but it’s my favourite in the city. It gets its odd name because it occupies the spot where several butchers’ booths once were.
The bridge was first planned in the 1930s by much-loved local architect, Jože Plečnik. However, due to the Second World War, it was never built. In the 1990s, a modern version was finally constructed in the original spot that had been saved for Plečnik's design.
Creepy statues, including a disembowelled Prometheus, Satyr the Serpent and Adam and Eve, after they've been banished from Paradise, surround the bridge. Weirdly, it’s also a spot where lovers come to padlock their love and drop the keys into the river Ljubljanica below.
It’s such a paradox, but somehow, or perhaps because of that, it works. I love it.
The Triple Bridge
The Triple Bridge is one of the city’s best-known landmarks and one you can’t miss due to its central location.
Designed by none other than Jože Plečnik, (remember the Butcher’s Bridge architect from above?), it’s a group of three bridges crossing the river Ljubljanica. It connects the old town and new town and is a great spot for photos.
Try the unfiltered beer at Union Brewery
If you’re a beer lover (or even liker, which is the category I’d put myself in), I suggest finding time to visit the Union Brewery in Ljubljana. While it’s outside the old city, it’s an easy walk through the beautiful Tivoli gardens.
As well as copious amounts of freshly brewed beer (don’t leave without trying the unfiltered brew), the food is delicious (traditional Slovenian cheese and cured meats, sausages, burgers etc.) and fellow tourists few. Perfect.
Try Slovenia’s answer to Coke
What do you do if Coca Cola isn’t sold in your country? Create your own, of course. Cockta was invented in Slovenia in the 1950s while it was part of Yugoslavia, where Coke wasn’t available. It became so popular that today it’s rated as Slovenia’s 6th most recognised brand. The dark bubbly drink (yes it looks just like Coke) is made of 11 different herbs mixed with lemon and orange.
It has an unusual but refreshing flavour and is definitely a must try if you want to fit in with the locals.
If you are in Ljubljana there is absolutely no way you should leave Slovenia without visiting the jewel in its crown: Lake Bled. Honestly, it should be illegal to visit Ljubljana without making the short trip up north to see it. This spectacular aquamarine lake with a fairy tale castle in the middle has to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It will take your breath away.
We drove, but you’ll be there in 45 minutes on a train from Ljubljana. That said I would absolutely recommend a car in Slovenia as it’s so small you can see a lot of it in only a day or two with a hire car.
Ljubljana and Slovenia in general is the perfect place to visit for the same beautiful and fairy tale architecture and cobbled lanes you get in better-known places like Germany and the Czech Republic, but without as many fellow tourists and a more relaxed vibe.
Over the years, Slovenia has been conquered and/or heavily influenced by many other countries and empires around it. It’s also a tiny nation where, no matter which way you drive, you’ll most likely be in another country in less than an hour.
In my opinion, these factors have left it with a national identity that isn’t as clear-cut as many of its neighbours. And this is what makes Slovenia such a delight: it’s a melting pot of all the best things about Europe, a country that has inspired my sense of adventure, and one I know I'll return to again and again.