While you could easily spend a few days happily wandering through Ljubljana’s charming streets and parks, taking in the best of cafe culture and discovering the city’s fascinating history, 24 hours in the Slovenian capital is enough to get a taste of one of Europe’s often overlooked gems.
First off, you’re going to need some coffee to prepare for a day filled with walking. But fret not: Ljubljana is a compact city, making exploring on foot a breeze and a pleasure. For your first caffeine fix of the day you might try a fairtrade brew from Cafetino in the old town or opt for a more substantial breakfast at Kavarna Rog, a riverside cafe next to the iconic Rog bicycle factory. Top tip: the brownies are incredible and, frankly, who’s to say what is or isn’t a breakfast food.
Now you’re ready for exploring, why not get an initial feel for the city from above by making your way up to the medieval castle. Either make the climb yourself or rise effortlessly above the rooftops on the funicular, then spend a while taking in the view of the colourful cityscape and across to the somewhat forbidding mountains. This is a good place to get a sense of the city’s diverse architecture: from this medieval heart, look immediately below to the old town where Viennese Secession-style structures stand cheek by jowl with earlier Baroque style buildings, then further out to the more functional modern architecture of the 20th century.
Once you’ve made the descent back, you’ll be well placed to explore the old town. At this point, maybe it’s best not to have too much of an agenda and just enjoy taking a stroll through the enchanting streets and alleyways. This might be the perfect moment for a touch of retail therapy — take some traditional potica (nut roll pastry) home from Le Potica or bring back some stylish locally designed homeware from Gud. If you’re passing, pop into the courtyard of the town hall, where you’ll find a flock of metal birds flying above you courtesy of sculptor Edina Selešković's public art project Think Freedom, sending a message of peace and unity.
For a taste of the unique classicisim-inspired style of Slovenia's most important architect Jože Plečnik, head across the Ljubljanica river over the Triple Bridge
It’s about time you took in some of the work of (arguably) the most important Slovenian architect. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Jože Plečnik on this city; for a taste of his unique classicism-inspired style you need only head across the Ljubljanica river over the Triple Bridge, a group of three bridges that cross over to Prešeren Square. Here you will find the delightfully pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and a statue of the national poet France Prešeren.
By now you’ll probably be ready for a spot of lunch. Experience another side of Ljubljana at Skuhna, a restaurant and social venture aiming to help the city’s diverse migrant community to integrate, where you can sample authentic cuisine from a range of countries. Alternatively, try the highly acclaimed lunch menu at the intimate Monstera Bistro, the perfect spot for the culinarily adventurous.
If the weather is on your side, work off your lunch with a walk along the riverbank and through Congress Square or explore the manicured gardens at Tivoli City Park. Those wanting to get a bit closer to nature can spend hours getting lost in the woodland behind the park (as, indeed, I unintentionally did… pay attention to the signs!). Also highly recommended is the University of Ljubljana Botanical Garden, to the southeast of Castle Hill. The colourful riverside marketplace is also a must-visit for a sunny day, but this usually closes at 4pm so be sure to get there in time.
Rainy day? No fear, Ljubljana has a host of museums and galleries to keep you both dry and entertained. Among the coolest places to check out are the Slovene Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and International Centre of Graphic Arts, which are all in easy walking distance of the city centre. On the other hand, you could get your post-lunch exercise by climbing up the spiral staircase to the top of Nebotičnik (meaning the Skyscraper), an iconic Ljubljana landmark dating from 1933 that boasts impressive views. For those of us less keen to get our hearts racing, the building is also equipped with a lift.
For something a little out of the ordinary, head to the alternative cultural community of Metelkova — Ljubljana’s answer to Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania
For an afternoon break take the weight off your feet at Pritličje, a great café-cum-cultural centre with its very own comic book shop and gallery, before heading out for some adventures in contemporary culture. The Šiška Cultural Quarter is home to various art groups and organisations devoted to contemporary and avant-garde arts, including a centre for urban culture that hosts indie, rock and punk gigs. For something a little out of the ordinary, head to the alternative cultural community of Metelkova — Ljubljana’s answer to Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania. Here you’ll find a number of bars and galleries, along with some vibrant graffiti.
Because it must have been at least three hours since your last meal, you’re probably thinking about dinner by now. To experience some stellar local cuisine, head to Gostilna na gradu or Gostilna Dela or, if it’s summer and it’s Friday, go to Pogačarjev trg, where Odprta kuhna (Open Kitchen) takes over the market stalls to deliver an array of gastronomic delights.
During the summer months the riverbank is full of people enjoying the evening air with a drink – the perfect place to unwind after a busy day exploring. If the weather has other plans, head to Daktari, a cosy cafe that turns into a bar hosting a diverse programme of live music, literary readings and a range of other social events. Two bars to look out for are the characterful graffiti-clad Žmauc, a small but buzzing bar that will have you wondering if you’ve stepped into the pages of a comic book, along with minimalist Magda — a former dive bar near the covered market which has effortless cool down to a tee. For something a little more lively, it’s always worth checking what club night or unusual performance is going on at Gala Hala back in Metelkova. While the night away at one of these spots or simply enjoy a nighttime stroll — you’re in one of the world’s safest capital cities.
Now take a hard-earned rest, and start planning your next trip back to Ljubljana.