A local’s guide to Ljubljana, Slovenia: top 10 tips

In one of Europe’s greenest cities, visitors stroll pedestrianised streets or hop into electric taxis to discover modernist and medieval architecture, fantastic food and microbreweries

Toast the Alps

Though it’s modest by modern standards (13 storeys and 70 metres tall), Nebotičnik was the first “skyscraper” in Yugoslavia, and the ninth-tallest building in Europe when it opened in 1933. Architect Vladimir Šubic was inspired by the art deco skyscrapers of New York, though more conservative residents dismissed it as a “freak”. Today, the wraparound rooftop terrace cafe offers impressive views of the Alps to the north and Ljubljana Castle, just a few blocks away. Access is via a lobby clad in black marble and a spiral staircase. At the top, you can enjoy Slovenian wines – try Rebula, a buttery white, still or sparkling.

Hipster heaven

Ljubljana is no stranger to topiaried beards and artful tattoos, and you can explore its alternative side by strolling down Trubarjeva ulica, where Trubarjeva Antikvariat sells pieces of Yugo-nostalgia, such as busts and portraits of Tito, or industrial-design classics like the sleek, Lamborghini-red ETA 85 rotary telephone designed in 1979 by Davorin Savnik and made by Iskra. Reminiscent of a race car, this phone was produced in the millions and was a staple on the walls of Yugoslav homes – today one is on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Countercultural haven

For clubbing, the Metelkova district is graffiti-laden but entirely safe and welcoming. Once a complex of barracks for the Austro-Hungarian and, later, Yugoslav armies, it is now home to bars, nightclubs and a former prison-turned-hostel. Its new life began as a squatters’ settlement on 25 June 1991, the day Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. In 2005, Metelkova became part of a national cultural heritage list, but it remains on the edge of the law – raising its own funds, largely through concerts – and is the best place to go for friendly, alternative nightlife.

World-class cuisine

JB, a restaurant on the ground floor of a Plečnik building (see below) that resembles a modernised Greek temple, has been the epitome of fine dining in the region since the 1990s. World renowned chef Janez Bratovž was the first to introduce dishes such as fish carpaccio and rare steak to a culinary culture that was used to well-done cutlets in cream sauce. Not long ago, he served his signature ravioli with pistachio, chestnut, pear and foie gras to Ferran Adrià and the pope (though not at the same event). Michelin does not yet have a guide to Slovenia, though it’s rumoured to be in the pipeline – and JB will surely be up for a star. It is reasonably priced for a restaurant of that level: the six-course fish or meat menu is €60 and the vegetarian version €50; the 12-course tasting menu is €95.

Street food

On Fridays from March until the end of October, the central market features a huge outdoor food fair called Odprta Kuhna (Open Kitchen), which can draw as many as 25,000 people. Founded by Israeli expat Lior Kochavy, it is the best way to sample a wide variety of specialities, as dozens of restaurants, from fancy to down-home, set up stands and offer food truck-style dishes. This is where you can try JB’s take on a burger made with dry-aged brisket (€6); a pulled duck and red cabbage sandwich – a street twist on a popular St Martin’s Day meal; and šmorn, an Austro-Hungarian shredded pancake topped with compôte (€3). For the most Slovenian of snacks, try Klobasarna, behind the cathedral, which offers only Carniolian sausage, a geographically protected local pork sausage served with a pot of mustard and a warm roll (half €3.50, whole €5.90). This is probably the only speciality sausage to have been consumed in space, as an American astronaut with Slovenian roots, Sunita Williams, took some to the International Space Station.

A Kanye-inspired tour

In November 2018, Kanye West tweeted to his 29 million followers about a rather obscure Slovenian modernist architect called Jože Plečnik (1872-1957). Kanye and architectural historians agree on Plečnik’s brilliance, and Ljubljana is the place to see his work. In the decades following a devastating earthquake in 1895, Plečnik was commissioned to rebuild most of the important structures and spaces in the city. These included the National and University Library, the central market, the embankment of the Ljubljanica River, the main outdoor concert venue, the city cemetery, several parks and the football stadium, which he modelled on ancient Greek amphitheatres, lined with Doric columns and sunk into the earth, so fans step down into a roiling cauldron of cheers to find their seats. Take a guided tour or do one yourself, beginning at his ivy-clad home, which is now a museum, Plečnikova Hiša. A stroll past Plečnik buildings will take you through the most interesting spots in the city, crisscrossing the river via its many bridges, from the Cobblers’ Bridge, lined with columns that support nothing, to the Triple Bridge, based on Venice’s Rialto but with three separate bridges at slight angles to one another (one for pedestrians, one for cyclists, one for cars, and with one of the first public toilets in Europe hidden underneath). And on to the Dragon Bridge, the most photographed site in the city, with plinths on its four corners crowned with bronze, bat-winged dragons.

Surreal shopping

A stroll through Tržnice, the central market, designed by Plečnik, should begin at Marjetka’s sauerkraut stand. She’s the only sauerkraut seller with a queue, and locals will tell you that it’s because her family is among the last in the country to cultivate indigenous Ljubljana cabbage, which makes the best sauerkraut. You can also pick up a bottle of – wait for it –sauerkraut juice, which is good for stomach complaints, and is also surprisingly refreshing. Follow the gently curved colonnade to visit stalls featuring pumpkinseed oil, made from an indigenous pumpkin type, Styriaca, that’s good in salads and even vanilla ice-cream. A section of the market is dedicated to slippers, which Slovenians wear at all times indoors (and pupils do at school) – these make for a good, lightweight souvenir. The most surreal detail of the market may be the vending machines selling grave candles in jewel-coloured plastic candle holders that are traditionally placed on tombs.

Green capital

Ljubljana was crowned Green Capital of Europe in 2016, and the city prides itself on its “zero waste” recycling programme and the highest percentage of pedestrianised streets of any capital in Europe. Enjoy this by strolling the cobbled, medieval Stari Trg and Gornji Trg, in the shadow of the castle, and looping along the riverbank, unencumbered by traffic. If you need a ride in the centre, what looks like a green golf cart, the Kavalir electric taxi, will shuttle you about for free. There is also Urban, a miniature electric train on wheels that snakes through the streets with zero emissions.

Coffee and cakes

Ljubljana has joined the speciality coffee revolution, with the best cup in town served by a Colombian expat architect named Alex. His pocket-sized cafe, Črno Zrno, is less than two metres wide, a corridor leading to an elevated bar lined with arabesque tiles, where Alex greets guests and prepares each coffee himself. The best cakes I’ve ever had are from Zvezda, a sweetshop with several locations and a window full of baked goods that sparkle like gemstones. The Slovenian specialities include kremšnita (millefeuille) and gibanica (layer cake with poppy seeds, walnut, curd cheese and apples), but my favourite is the čokoladne sanje, or “chocolate dream” (€4).

Beery day trip

My adopted hometown of Kamnik, just 30 minutes north and a gateway to the Alps, boasts three castles and, according to Atlas Obscura, is “a candidate for microbrew capital of the world”. Brewers are drawn to the town by its pristine water. The local pub, Pod Skalo, with old tin Yugoslav signs and a motorcycle mounted on the wall, has them all: Mali Grad, Maister, Barut, Meninc, Mister and Lampelj. Beside Kamnik is an elaborate botanical garden, Arboretum, once the grounds of a Versailles-inspired mansion destroyed by the partisans after the second world war. It’s a particular hit with children, with a playground area featuring lifesize moving dinosaur statues, an enormous maze and an array of ziplines, slides and trampolines. A few minutes beyond is the otherworldly Velika Planina, a mountain plateau that visitors describe as something out of Lord of the Rings, and where you can taste a local speciality, the pear-shaped trnič cheese.

Where to stay
Ljubljana abounds with boutique hotels, but the classic is the Secessionist-style Grand Hotel Union in the centre (doubles from£83). For backpackers or younger travellers there’s the uber-hip Celica Hostel (beds from €24), a converted prison in Metelkova. Or Samostan Mekinje, a medieval monastery in Kamnik, is a 40-minute train ride from Ljubljana centre and has beds from €15.

When to visit
In recent years Ljubljana has become overcrowded in the summer, so aim for any time other than high season – May and September are particularly lovely.

Average prices
A half-litre glass of beer costs around €2; an espresso coffee is around €1.20; a three-course meal is €20 to €30.

Getting there
London to Ljubljana by train takes 18 to 23 hours. See The Man in Seat 61 website for details.

Noah Charney is the author of Slovenology: Living and Travelling in the World’s Best Country. Learn more at Slovenology.co.uk and by listening to Slovenology the Podcast.

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

Noah Charney

The GuardianTramp

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