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10 September 2019

A Long Weekend in Ljubljana: Bex’s Guide

For my fortieth country, I decided to pay a long-overdue visit to Slovenia, spending three nights in the capital, Ljubljana. With a population of just under 300,000, Ljubljana is the largest city in Slovenia, but its compact, mainly pedestrianised city centre makes it an ideal long-weekend destination. It's also very pretty, with pastel-coloured buildings located alongside a vibrant green river, and a plethora of parks. I arrived late on Friday night and flew home late on Monday night, giving me almost exactly 72 hours in the city. I usually avoid travelling during July and August, but BA’s limited flight schedule led me to select the last weekend in August for my visit. This turned out well as the weather was glorious but it wasn’t too busy.


THINGS TO DO
Exploring the Old Town. My first day in Ljubljana was beautifully sunny. I had been planning to follow a self-guided walking tour that directed me to start at the tourist information centre by the Triple Bridge and it turned out that they had a two-hour city walking tour starting in 10 minutes. There are free walking tours too, but the former tourist information employee in me always prefers to take an official tour if it’s reasonably priced. 


This tour was €17, including a Slovenian food tasting and a return ticket for the funicular to the castle (although not the castle itself), and covered most of the city centre sights, including many of architect Jože Plečnik’s works, from the famous Triple Bridge (only two-thirds of which was open while I was there), to the National and University Library, and the covered market buildings along the river. Our guide, Urban, was one of the most entertaining and informative tour guides I’ve ever had and I will certainly never forget that Slovenia is shaped like a chicken (look at a map).



Ljubljana Castle. As our tour finished at the funicular that runs up to the castle (you can also walk up, but it takes rather longer), I decided to go up right away. There are some nice views of the city from the top, although to ascend the tower and enter most of the exhibits at the top, you’ll need to pay €10 for a ticket. 


Art and culture. I didn’t have time to visit the Ljubljana City Museum or the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday and they are closed on Mondays (stop for coffee at Stow Coffee Roasters if you do visit the former, and Kavarna Moderna if you visit the latter). I did explore some of the city’s free art and culture, however, from the Metelkova Mesto, an alternative culture centre not unlike a small version of Copenhagen’s Christiania. In the summer, there are many free outdoor music events and I stopped to listen to some of these in the evenings. Meanwhile, there are also several ‘library under the trees’ locations, where small book shelves are set up next to chairs, with reading and discussion of books encouraged.



Day trip to Lake Bled. Much as I enjoyed Ljubljana, I’m really glad I spent a whole day at Lake Bled, a stunning, turquoise lake in the Julian Alps, some 35 miles northwest of Ljubljana. It’s certainly not the only lake in the area or even the most beautiful, necessarily, but it is easily accessible by public transport. I had originally planned to take a small-group tour (€99) but Slovenia Explorer, oddly the only operator I could find, could only offer a half-day tour to a solo traveller. With hindsight, I was glad I went alone as it was much cheaper and gave me far more flexibility. The bus from the main bus station (which was busy but not full) took 1h20, and as the weather was perfect, I spent two hours walking around the lake, stopping to swim, sunbathe, take photos and admire the fairytale castle perched high above, and the small island in the centre.


I then hiked up to the 11th century castle (€10 )to learn about its history and admire the panoramic views across the lake. It’s only 15 minutes or so but the path is very steep (there are shuttle buses too), I picked up a small picnic from a grocery store in the unremarkable Bled town, which I ate while waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to the Vintgar Gorge. During summer, two shuttle bus routes (€1 per trip) run between various locations in the area. Their erratic schedule was one of the reasons I had considered a tour. However, I timed it well and only had to wait a few minutes for the 15-minute ride to the gorge. 



Once I had paid my €10 entrance fee, I made my way onto the mile-long route of wooden walkways through the gorge. The water was clear and vibrantly turquoise, but swimming isn’t allowed. It was trying to rain by then, anyway, with thunder rumbling atmospherically through the gorge, but I still enjoyed the walk. At the end, there was a sign advertising hourly shuttles back to Bled, but I calculated that if I retraced my steps, I could enjoy the gorge scenery again and catch the original shuttle back instead. This worked well and I was soon back at the lake.



I thought about taking a gondola trip out to the island (€15), but it was still warm and I decided to go for another refreshing swim in the water. There is some geothermal activity in the area so although not warm, the lake was a very pleasant temperature. To cap off a lovely day, I bought a kremšnita — a Bled cream cake — from the Hotel Park on the lakefront. The hotel claims primacy of this decadent cake, which involves thick layers of custard and cream between flaky pastry. It was huge but absolutely delicious. The 4:30 pm bus back to Ljubljana was running late and there were a lot of people waiting to board, but luckily, I got a seat.




FOOD & DRINKI’ve already published my guide to Ljubljana’s speciality coffee scene, but here are some of the other food and drink spots I enjoyed during my stay.

Monstera. This casual fine-dining spot came highly recommended, and I was pleased I managed to book a spot at the high, sharing-table in the window, as it was fully booked (as the wait staff patiently explained to the many walk-ins, they only have one sitting). I opted for the seven-course tasting menu, which was only €55. With diverse Slovenian ingredients immaculately cooked and beautifully presented, the whole meal was fantastic. My favourite elements were the deer tartare with quail’s egg; roasted broccoli; and the pancetta ice cream and maple. They do a paired wine menu, although sadly there were no cocktails on offer.


Kolibri. I wasn’t too disappointed by the lack of cocktails at Monstera because I had already had a very fine cocktail at Kolibri, a prohibition-style cocktail bar just next door. The summer specials list all sounded great but I ordered the Mar Adentro, with Gin Mare, vermouth, rosemary, thyme bitters, salt, and orange liqueur foam. It was served alongside an oyster and was tart, sweet, salty and delicious.


Pop’s Place. After a long day in Bled, a casual dinner at Pop’s Place, a popular burger bar by the river — and just a few minutes’ walk from my hotel — was just what the doctor needed. I started with a G&T with Slovenian Broken Bones gin, and then had a huge and messy but delicious burger with crispy onions, cheddar, Slovenian bacon and BBQ sauce.

Ek Bistro. For brunch on my first day, I walked along the river to Ek Bistro, taking advantage of the petite eatery’s outdoor seating next to the river. I had a homemade ice tea and a local twist on the eggs Benedict — which came with pulled beef and the famous local pumpkin oil, which tasted great.

Trappica. There is a lot of Italian influence in Ljubljana but Neapolitan pizzas can be hard to come by. But at Trappica they serve small pizzas that make for a perfect quick and cheap lunch.


Street food and sweet treats. We sampled some of Ljubljana’s famous garlicky sausage on the walking tour I took, and I liked it enough to return for more to Klobasarna, where a ‘half’ (though really a whole sausage) with bread and mustard was €3.50. There was also lots of fruit, meat, honey and other produce for sale at the Central Market. If you are in Ljubljana on a Friday, don’t miss Open Kitchen (Odprta kuhna) — a street food market where chefs from many of the town’s restaurants run stalls selling diverse dishes. Sadly, I arrived at 9 pm, when it was winding down…


SHOPPINGI didn’t do a lot of shopping in Ljubljana — other than coffee beans from Stow, a dragon fridge magnet was my only souvenir. I did do some window shopping, however. tipoRenesansa, a letterpress studio and stationery store, was easily my favourite place. They sell beautiful notebooks with various designs letterpressed on top. Other shops I found, which were good for gifts, homewares and accessories, included: Gud Shop; Trgovina IKA; Slovenika; and Extraordinary.



PRACTICAL INFORMATIONAccommodation: I stayed at the Vander Urbani Resort, a small design hotel that occupies several houses in a quiet side street near the river. Its biggest appeal is the rooftop bar that boasts a small swimming pool with stunning views over the river and the city’s colourful architecture. My room was small but cosy, comfortable and quiet, with minimalist décor. The breakfast (including an omelette or pancakes) was very good and the staff were very helpful. Booking some months in advance, my room was about £120 per night.


Arriving and getting around: Buses go to and from the airport (€4.10) every hour until the evening, with the journey taking about 50 minutes. Unfortunately, I arrived after the last bus, so instead booked a taxi, which cost €30 and took about 25 minutes. There are also various shared shuttles, that cost about €10. While in Ljubljana, I walked everywhere, but there are buses if you need to travel further afield. Buses run about every hour to Lake Bled, which takes about 1h20 and costs about €13 return. If you're staying in Trieste, Venice or Zagreb, Ljubljana would make a great day trip.


Money: Slovenia uses the Euro, and although most places accept credit cards, I did need cash in several places, including at the bus station and a couple of the cafes I visited. When you ask for the bill in an eatery, you will probably be asked ‘cash or card’ right away.



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