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Is Ljubljana the best little city in Europe?

June 13, 2012 | Slovenia, Travel | 17 Comments
Ljubljana from the castle

I had high expectations of Ljubljana before I turned up, despite knowing little about the city except the difficulty of spelling or pronouncing it (hint: the j’s are silent and always end up in the wrong place when you’re typing).

Anybody I knew who had been there raved about the capital of Slovenia – the baroque architecture, the compact old town, the views from the castle.  Formerly part of Yugoslavia but avoiding most of the horrific civil war that tore it apart, I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of language, food or anything else.  And so I went.

Given the short distance it is surprisingly difficult to get to Slovenia overland from much of Italy, but I had found the world’s shadiest looking website promising a once-daily bus service from Venice to Ljubljana for 25 euro.  I was far from certain that it actually existed, but options were limited and hey, who doesn’t love an adventure?  Emerging onto a back street behind Mestre train station, I lingered over a mediocre kebab and waited for my imaginary bus to show up.

About ten minutes before the supposed departure time, a small minivan drove past with the same Microsoft Paint-style logo as the website.  Success!  It turns out there at least two different companies that run that route at similar times.  Yes, I was shocked too.

Ljubljana river view

After several days in Ljubljana I realised that there was something special about the place.  It’s not a single factor that entranced me, but rather a combination of many.

1.  It’s small.  Fewer than 300,000 people live there, and it doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to walk from one end of the old town to the other.  There’s buses if you want them, but as a visitor you really don’t need them.  I like that a lot.

2.  It’s gorgeous.  Amazingly, incredibly stunning.  It’s almost certainly the most attractive city I’ve ever been to, in a way that is hard to put into words.  It looks like something out of a fairytale, cleaned up and beautiful but (somehow) still retaining its soul.  I had no idea such places existed.  In Slovenia, at least, they do.

3.  It’s easy.  Residents and visitors mingle in the bars along the river and stretching out either side.  English is widely spoken, and a friendly efficiency permeates every encounter.  Even though adopting the euro doubled prices overnight, it’s not an expensive city by European standards.  I have no idea why the place isn’t completely over-run by tourists.  Long may it remain so.

4.  It’s relaxed.  A progressive new mayor closed the centre to traffic a few years ago, and it was the smartest thing he could have done. Buskers strum guitars beside the famous Triple Bridges, entertaining tourists enjoying a gelato in the late afternoon sunshine.  Walking down another gorgeous cobbled boulevard one evening, I passed a dozen restaurants satisfying the outdoor diners.  Glasses clinked, plates scraped, people laughed.  Life was good.

Beer in Ljubljana

5.  It embraces its culture.  This city loves the arts.  An orchestra launched show tunes from the steps of the Town Hall to an appreciative crowd.  A hundred paces further down the street a Barvarian band struck up a brass-filled chorus.  An odd dance routine played out on a stage in a city square one afternoon, while an outdoor ballet was performed in the same place a few days later.  There always seemed to be something happening that was worth stopping for – remarkable in a city this size.

6.  It’s a healthy place.  I read a statistic recently that said that one in three Slovenians regularly participate in outdoor activities, and it shows.  Young and old, people seem to take advantage of the widespread cycle lanes.  With two large parks and forests right on the edge of the old city, I joined dozens of others out for a run along the trails one morning.  The famous Saturday market serves up locally grown produce to the hungry and discerning, from the President down.

7. It’s a crossroads.  I like diverse places – homogeneousness doesn’t excite me much.  Give me a melting pot any day.  Ljubljana feels.like a product of its central European location, looking westwards but with an undeniable eastern influence permeating daily life.

And that’s just the beginning.  Ljubljana is a hard place not to fall in love with, and I didn’t even try to resist.  It was with genuine regret that I handed back the keys for our stylish apartment and headed to the train station.  I had no desire to leave.

The lovely owners had offered us a lift, and we swapped stories during the short ride.  They were toying with the idea of living somewhere else for a while, they told me.  “We’re thinking about moving to New Zealand.”

“Isn’t that funny?”, I replied.

“We’re thinking above moving to Slovenia.”

The Friday Photo #114 – Preseren Square, Ljubljana
Soaring above Lake Bled
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17 Comments

  1. Reply

    Chrystal McKay

    June 13, 2012

    Ljubljana IS the cutest city in Europe by FAR! In fact - the entire COUNTRY is adorable. So tiny and beautiful. I was there at the same time you were actually! My post about it will come up in a few weeks - nothing but love for that city! :D

  2. Reply

    Gigi

    June 13, 2012

    Wow. You make me want to add it to my already way-too-long itinerary!

    1, 2, 4, and 5 are also shared by Edinburgh (it's 500,000, but still feels very petite and relaxed), and are some of the reasons I've fallen in love with it here. But I'm guessing Slovenia has slightly better weather. :)

  3. Reply

    I'm convinced!

  4. Reply

    Amanda

    June 13, 2012

    I can't WAIT to spend some time here next month!! I've only heard great things, and I have no doubt I'll fall in love with it, too.

  5. Reply

    Candice

    June 14, 2012

    I'm in.

    Now please provide detailed video instructions on how to pronounce the name.

  6. Reply

    Barbara

    June 15, 2012

    I'll be going June 27th and am looking forward to it! Especially now that I have read your description! It sounds wonderful!

  7. Reply

    KLM

    June 15, 2012

    Candice, the pronounciation goes something like:

    LUB-LAH-NA as if using LUBricate and a girls name LANA. :)
    If this isn't colorful enough check this series of videos:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzRoZWrpj24&list=PLEF5D79DAAC9728ED&index=1&feature=plpp_video

    The guy is saying it all the time, so you can learn.

  8. Reply

    Christine

    June 16, 2012

    Next time I go to Europe I NEED to get to Slovenia!

  9. Reply

    Sunee

    June 16, 2012

    The place looks simply stunning! Slovenia, or even Eastern Europe in general, has never featured in my travel plans, but I'm slowly being swayed...

  10. Reply

    Lisa

    June 17, 2012

    Thanks for sharing, Dave! My travel focus has always been in SE Asia, but I've starting researching into other corners of the world that grabs my interest, and Ljubljana looks like it hits the spot! (And you're right, it's a bugger on the keyboard!!)

  11. Reply

    Uros

    June 18, 2012

    Ok but Slovenia isn't just Ljubljana, Bled, Bohinj. WE have even more beautifull places as Kostanjevica na Krki http://adrenalin.si/files/field_slikce_body/kostanjevica_naKrki.jpg , it small town in SE near Croatian border, its stunnig with his beauties, but have like big art gallery called Forma Viva, u have big spa, and whats most important is nature and its people, nice vineyards on hills.........

  12. Reply

    Christina

    June 20, 2012

    Had never even heard of it until your post! How odd. Goes to show you there must be so much more off the beaten path, and more than what every single website and guidebooks recommends!

  13. Reply

    Kieu

    October 31, 2012

    I'm ready to see this for myself.. in a month!

    • Reply

      Dave

      October 31, 2012

      You'll love it!


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