We’ve found it: a hidden European gem.
Few people can spell it. Even fewer can pronounce it. But we’re about to become much more familiar with Ljubljana, the capital of landlocked Slovenia. (Pro tip: it’s lub-lee-arna.)
Yes, Ljubljana’s time has come. When so much of Europe has “been done”, Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic that regained statehood in 1991, remains a mystery. Why, exactly, is a mystery, too, because its capital ticks off all the necessary attributes of a tourist destination.
Bisected by the Ljubljanica River, the city is blessed with cobblestoned streets and architecture from the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – not to mention a castle looming overhead, cementing the almost overwhelming old-world beauty.
But Ljubljana is no stuffy time capsule. This university town has a cosmopolitan feel and buzzing night-life. With just under 300,000 residents, it benefits from its status as one of Europe’s smallest capital cities. The Old Town, where cars are largely forbidden, is eminently manageable on foot or by bike – the locals’ preferred mode of transport.
Outsiders are starting to discover this Central European patch of paradise and accommodation options have grown to meet the demand. A 15-minute drive out of the city, in the shadow of imposing Šmarna Gora hill, the boutique Hotel Nox showcases modern Slovenian design with 24 rooms created by local designers. If it’s the city centre you’re after, Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa is a 16th- century residence turned into a character-filled luxury space.
Any itinerary has to include the short yet steep walk along several winding pathways up to the castle (although the exercise- averse can opt for the funicular). Not only does Ljubljana Castle give you a bird’s-eye view of the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town, it also hosts exhibitions and cultural events, as well as live jazz. The Archers’ Tower houses Strelec Restaurant, where classic Slovenian cuisine gets a modern spin.
Food of the truly customary ilk, you’ll quickly discover, is hearty, meaty and recklessly heavy. Go full Slovenian with deer medallions in sour-cherry sauce – served by waiters in national costume – at rustic inn Sokol.
Looking for night-life with a countercultural buzz? Head to Metelkova City, a former military base taken over by an informal alliance of artists and musicians. It’s Ljubljana’s answer to Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania and the thriving home of several clubs, bars and performance spaces that hold festivals and workshops.
Above all, Ljubljana is a city perfectly designed for map-free wandering. The graphic street art of Metelkova is a popular attraction and the vivid façade of Vurnik House can’t be missed.
But make sure you also take time out at a café in the central square, Prešernov Trg. Stairways from the elegant Triple Bridge lead to poplar- lined terraces along the banks of the Ljubljanica River, where bars and cafés throw open their doors and roll out the alfresco furniture in summer.
The next European hotspot is just as lovely in the cold, when fairy lights twinkle in the trees and the streets are perfumed with the aroma of roasting chestnuts.