Many myths surround this lesser-known European capital, which has won awards for its eco-credentials. Peter Ellegard heads east to discover its true nature
It’s conspicuously absent from lists of top city break destinations, yet the compact Slovenian capital of Ljubljana is an undiscovered gem that ticks all the boxes for travellers.
A 900-year-old castle on a hill towers over its historic heart and the city is crammed full of ornate baroque and early 20th-century architecture. There are flights from several UK airports, it’s easy to walk around and has excellent public transport and cheap taxis galore. A river runs through it, lined by cobbled pedestrian-only streets where you can drink and dine alfresco at friendly pavement cafes, bars and restaurants, and on which you can take day cruises and sunset wine trips. Visitors can also discover hidden little eateries popular with locals.
Lofty mountains, exquisite lakes, crystal-clear rivers, spa towns, an Adriatic coastline and yet more ancient castles are all within easy reach on day trips. And to cap it all, the local currency is the euro and it’s great value for money.
Ljubljana is dubbed “The Dragon City”, and the origins of the nickname are the stuff of legend. One claims it comes from Jason and the Argonauts after they fled from the Mediterranean up the Danube to camp by the Ljubljanica river, where Jason fought and killed a dragon living in a swamp. Another attributes it to the St George and the Dragon legend, as St George is the patron saint of the castle chapel.
Either way, the dragon is Ljubljana’s mascot and can be seen everywhere, from the four majestic statues guarding Dragon Bridge to manhole covers and the plush green dragon toys on market stalls and in souvenir shops.
Exploring Ljubljana is a delight by day and night, and can easily be done on foot from hotels dotted in and around the city centre. With a population of less than 300,000 out of Slovenia’s two million inhabitants, it’s uncrowded, and its main sights are all within a 10-minute stroll.
A good option is to buy a Ljubljana Card (see Cost It Up, below), which includes travel on city buses, a guided city walking tour, a circular ride on the Urban electric tourist train, river cruises, four-hour bike rental, return airport coach transfers, 24-hour free city-centre internet access instead of the 60-minute access available to all visitors, and entry to 20 top attractions.
Much of the city as it is today is the work of home-grown architect Joze Plecnik, who also left his stamp on Vienna and Prague. On his return to Ljubljana in 1921 he set about redesigning it and renovating existing buildings. Among his notable works are key structures such as the Central Market, Congress Square, the castle promenade and the Ljubljanica river embankment and bridges, including the Triple Bridge that forms the entrance to the Old Town and the colonnaded Cobblers’ Bridge.
After a pleasant walk alongside the tree-lined river one balmy evening, I sit outside at a restaurant by the Cobblers’ Bridge. I savour not only local specialities – the Taste Ljubljana project involves selected traditional dishes being served at a number of restaurants – but also the spectacular view up to the floodlit castle. A busking violinist plays on the opposite bank while couples and families saunter past. For something livelier, bars with live music include the Cutty Sark pub.
How much can your clients expect to pay in Ljubljana?
Pint of beer in a pub/bar: €2.70
Bottle of good local wine: €3.50
Cup of coffee: €1.10
Single bus ride: €1.20
Taxi across the city: €5
Ljubljana card: €16.70/35.10/40.50 (24/48/72 hours)
There are plenty of places to get away from it all, too. Ljubljana is said to have the highest area of green space per capita of any European capital city and it was named European Green Capital in 2016. Clients can relax amidst nature in the vast Tivoli Park on the slopes of Castle Hill and in the 200-year-old Botanical Garden, regarded as the city’s green soul.
They can browse the stalls of fresh produce, handicrafts and souvenirs at the open Central Market on Saturday mornings. On Fridays the market transforms into Open Kitchen, with local chefs serving up local and international foods, washed down with Slovenian wine.
Besides exploring Ljubljana, it’s worth adding a day or two to see other Slovenian highlights.
Lake Bled is 45 minutes away and can be visited on an excursion or, as I do, by renting a car. After hiking up to the fairy-tale clifftop castle and soaking up the view over the lake with coffee and cake, I take a traditional wooden pletna boat out to the island in the centre, crowned by its historic church. Returning at dusk with the oarsman rowing from the stern like a gondolier and the pink-tinged Julian Alps framing the view is a truly magical experience.
Stay a night or two in Bled and you can visit nearby Lake Bohinj, clear alpine rivers and Kranj, known as the capital of Slovenia’s Alps.
At Otocec castle, set on an island 45 minutes south-east of Ljubljana and now a luxury boutique hotel, I feast like a king at dinner and visit nearby spa town Dolenjske Toplice with its wellness hotels. Other spa towns include Portoroz, on the Adriatic, with salt pans and outdoor thalassotherapy treatments, and Moravske Toplice in rural eastern Slovenia.
Also in this region is Slovenia’s oldest town, Ptuj, while Maribor is the country’s wine centre. Small wineries abound, and I try the vintages produced by family-run winery and restaurant Turisticna kmetija Puhan in their vaulted cellar as well as enjoying regional fare for dinner along with pumpkin seed oil – another Slovenian speciality.
For a break from the usual suspects, the Dragon City is well worth recommending to your clients, but encourage them to branch out and explore some of Slovenia’s other destinations too – they won’t regret it.
Book it: Regent Holidays offers three-night Ljubljana city breaks from £595pp and a Ljubljana/Lake Bled twin centre from £825pp. Both are based on B&B accommodation and Gatwick or Stansted flights, with the twin-centre option including private transfers between Ljubljana and Bled.
How is tourism to Slovenia faring from the UK?
There were more than 154,000 UK arrivals in 2018 and nearly 460,000 overnight stays. Between 2017 and 2018 we’ve seen an estimated 19.38% growth in UK visitors.
What are you promoting for visitors in 2019?
In 2018-19 we are promoting our cultural sights in a broader sense. The following two years will see us focusing heavily on gastronomy.
Are there any new experiences visitors can enjoy?
In recent years we’ve seen many great new projects that reflect our aim of becoming a boutique destination. Along with new hotels such as Vila Planinka in Zgornje Jezersko, the tourism board has also launched the Slovenia Unique Experiences Project – a selection of the finest tourism experiences the country has to offer, ranging from a “moustache tour” of capital Ljubljana and a vintage gourmet tour to kayaking through mines and treehouse accommodation in the middle of a forest.