Having been settled by the Romans, destroyed by Attila the Hun and raided by the Magyars, Ljubljana has more recently emerged from the former Yugoslavia to become a cosmopolitan city with a thriving cultural scene. Find out how to spend 24 hours in one of Europe's smaller capital cities.
The bustling Central Market in Ljubljana’s Old Town is at its best in the early hours, when the displays remain untouched by eager customers and the urge to quell the need for breakfast is at its most potent.
On the inside of the sweeping meander that separates the Old Town core from Ljubljana’s more modern neighborhoods, the marketplace designed by acclaimed Slovene architect Jože Plečnik is a buzzing early morning mix of vendors in traditional costume, locals on their way to work and bleary-eyed tourists.
It’s a great place to peruse, with jars of tiny wild strawberries and pots of golden honey neatly laid out beneath green-and-white-striped canopies. Sit down with a coffee and pastry at one of the cafés skirting the market or try some delicious locally made ice cream from one of the stalls – it’s never too early for ice cream.
Begin the day at Tivoli Gardens, an oasis of calm where red squirrels go about their business unperturbed by local joggers. Sit on a bench and take in the morning air, join a yoga class or wander along the various tree-lined trails.
After a leisurely stroll, head towards the National Museum of Contemporary History (Celovška cesta 23) for opening time at 10am. This museum provides an in-depth account of Slovenia’s more recent history and its emergence as one of Europe’s smallest and newest nations.
Take the modern glass-sided funicular from Krek Square to Ljubljana Castle, which stands proudly over the city as though it’s watching out for the return of the dragon – the city’s symbol that legend says Jason of the Argonauts once slay.
The castle has been restored with new additions incorporated into original stonework, a mishmash of architectural styles that either works or doesn’t depending on your taste. Whatever your view, make sure to head right to the rooftop via a heady spiral staircase – a third of Slovenia can be seen from here on a good day.
Stay within the castle complex for lunch at Gostlina na Gradu (Grajska planota 1), a vaulted eatery in the castle’s courtyard. Here, rich appetisers such as skuta (cottage cheese), ocvirki (crispy pork fat) and zaseka (pork lard) are followed by hearty Slovenian fare including bučni njoki (pumpkin gnocchi) or kranjska klobasa (sausages).
Hop on one of the Bicike bicycles (register in advance: www.bicikelj.si). These are free to use for up to an hour, which gives you enough time to ride to Krakovo district. This pretty former fishermen’s settlement is characterised by its small, neatly packed houses straddling narrow alleyways. Today, it is home to sprawling market gardens, the produce of which is wheeled in to the central market on carts by the resident farmers every morning.
Head back into the centre to the unique three-pronged Triple Bridge for some refreshment at Lolita café (Cankarjevo Nabrežje 1). Nominated as being one of the best designed ice cream parlours in the world, this place does more than ice cream, with fabulous cakes and macarons of all colours served in a funky setting overlooking the river.
The Ljubljanica River runs through the heart of this picturesque city, with the waterside embankments fringed by cafés and bars – a setting that goes some way to explaining why café culture is central to everyday life here.
For a better orientation of the city, take a boat tour from the jetty next to Triple Bridge. The short trip passes colourful baroque buildings partly hidden by weeping willows that rest gently on the river’s edge. Locals can be found relaxing on waterside steps or socialising in busy floating bars near the botanic gardens.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Ljubljana during December, the Breg embankment is one of the main locations for the Festive Fair, with its food and drink stalls sitting alongside stands selling woolen items and Christmas gifts.
As a candidate for UNESCO’s City of Literature for 2013 and a previous World Book Capital in 2010, there is unsurprisingly a host of literary attractions in Ljubljana.
The annual Library Under The Treetops project, which runs from May to September, encourages locals and visitors alike to spend some time relaxing on the river bank reading. Small bookcases are dotted around the streets in various city centre spots, meaning those without a book are not left out.
Ljubljana is also home to many bookshops that are crammed full of international classics and Slovenian works. Sit down and lose yourself for a few hours alongside the river or in the open spaces of Congress Square as the locals do.
The arts are central to Ljubljana’s evening entertainment. The Slovene Philharmonic Orchestra’s imposing Philharmonic Hall on Congress Square hosts classical music throughout the year; while in the summer months, open-air theatre performances abound in the Square of French Revolution, concerts take place in Congress Square, and everything from street opera to poetry is performed in Prešeren Square.
Down a small side street off Prešeren Square is Gostlina AS (Čopova ulica 5), a locals’ favourite for Italian-influenced dishes such as wild boar ragu tagliatelle. This intimate eatery also houses a large selection of Slovenian wines, while its terrace provides a good spot for candlelit pre- or post-dinner cocktails.
After dinner at the intimate Pri Vitezu (Breg 18-20) and a few post-dinner drinks at one of the many riverside bars on Petkovškovo embankment, take a short walk northeastwards to the Metelkova district.
While seemingly forbidding at first sight with its stark architecture and graffiti, Metelkova is a thriving bohemian centre of street art and music that has sprung up from a cultural commune and squat set up in the early nineties.
The district’s lively nightlife is centred on a clutch of music bars and clubs, which include Orto Bar (Grablovičeva 1), the oldest rock venue in Ljubljana. Here, covers of Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Van Halen are lapped up by long-haired, leather-wearing locals who are more than happy to indulge the odd tourist.