“Where is that again?”
This is the question Tara and I faced at least a half dozen times before setting off to Ljubljana, Slovenia (seconded only by, “How the heck do you pronounce that?”).
To be completely honest, we were a little uncertain ourselves.
Yes, we could point to Slovenia on a map, but we knew nothing about what was contained within its borders, only that it was a convenient stopping point on our trek around the Adriatic, from Rome to Dubrovnik.
As it turns out, Slovenia has a bit of a reputation for being exactly that – a pathway between destinations. Its location on the “sunny side of the Alps” (one of the more cheerful advertising slogans I’ve seen) creates the perfect avenue for conquering armies, whether Napoleonic, Austro-Hungarian or Turkish in origin. Being stuck in the middle meant that Slovenia did not enjoy autonomy throughout most of history.
That doesn’t mean the country — or its capital city of Ljubljana — is worth dismissing, though. Not by any stretch. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Ljubljana (it’s pronounced loob-lee-ah-nuh, by the way) should be near the top of any traveler’s list. Why?
1. It’s gorgeous
Let’s not skimp on the obvious. Ljubljana is adorable. Small, quaint, and with a big castle looming over it, the city could not be more picturesque. The city itself is nestled in old swamplands, surrounded by the Alps. It does not get much more beautiful than this.
Everything about Ljubljana reminded us of the quintessential European town. The cobblestone streets, the Saturday market, the funicular, the gelato stands and coffee shops.
Even better, unlike some other European cities (I’m looking at you, Venice), Ljubljana was not overrun with tourists.
Certainly there were plenty of travelers, but these were of the more transient, backpacker variety. We didn’t feel as overwhelmed by the crowds, and most of the visitors were following a similar path as us. Even better, during our entire stay in Ljubljana we ran into exactly one other American traveler.
The result? Everything just felt that much more authentic.
2. Literature prevails over war.
Almost every major city in Europe has at least one major city centre. Inevitably, these areas tend to be decorated with a big honkin’ statue of some general on a war-horse, leading the charge into battle.
Slovenia, being a country of only 20-some years, spent most of its history being occupied by other Empires. This is evident in the Austro-Hungarian food they eat, the Turkish slippers they wear, and the curious absence of statues honoring soldiers on horses. With no country of their own to defend and fight for, Slovenians were united by the one thing they did have.
This is why, when you visit one of the city’s central squares you will find a statue to their national poet, France Prešeren. A 19th century Slovene poet, Prešeren provided one of the pillars of Slovenian identity, which is recognized and embraced to this day.
For literature nerds like us, this gives Ljubljana some major brownie points.
3. Art is everywhere. Literally.
The architecture of Ljubljana is as celebrated as its literature, with the highest accolades going to Jože Plečnik, who had a hand in many of the construction projects of the early 20th century. That iconic triple bridge across the river? That’s Plečnik.
The buildings themselves run the gamut from Baroque to Vienna Secession, depending on when it was built (or rebuilt, as many of the buildings were damaged in an 1895 earthquake).
This style of architecture is common in Ljubljana, especially in the buildings that were remodeled following a catastrophic earthquake at the end of the 19th century.
It isn’t all architecture, though. Amidst the statues and balconies a much grittier form of art runs rampant through Ljubljana.
This was honestly one of the most jarring realities of Ljubljana for us, especially when we first arrived and were convinced we had stumbled upon a war zone. It seemed so incredibly strange that the fairy-tale-esque beauty of the city was juxtaposed so starkly against graffiti. And, somehow, it works.
Some of the artwork was creative, some was cute. Tara immediately gravitated towards the dinosaurs, of course.
More than a few of the pieces were politically charged, but no attempt had been made to remove them.
Despite the proliferation of street art, the city is amazingly clean. Residents have special passes that let them access rubbish bins, and they’re only allowed to throw out a certain amount of trash each month. The rest must be recycled. And, as with many European cities, bikes are the leading form of transportation here. In fact, the city centre has been completely closed off to motor traffic, an ongoing process that will eventually give Ljubljana the largest pedestrian city centre in Europe.
4. Metelkova provides a unique look into the country’s past…and present.
Follow the line of street art to its most dense spot and you will inevitably stumble upon Metelkova.
Slovenia, is a young country, having only been formally established in 1991, and you don’t have to look back far to find its tumultuous past. This is particularly true in Metelkova, an autonomous cultural center that was squatted in 1993.
This area sits on the site of former military barracks and is a testament to the changing landscape of Slovenia. The space is now the home of bars, art galleries, studios and concert space. And, of course, more street art.
5. …and you can sleep in a jail while you’re there.
A discussion of Ljubljana and Metelkova wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Hostel Celica, former military prison turned youth hostel.
After operating as a military prison for over 100 years, the site of Hostel Celica is part of the Metelkova’s effort to rejuvinate the area and embrace its future. We had the opportunity to stay in this former prison, and can attest to the fact that the transformation here is profound. Sure, you can spend a night in a jail cell — which has been reimagined by local artists. It is a bright, airy hostel with an emphasis on art and community.
Our experience at Hostel Celica was probably one of the most interesting of our trip. We did not stay in a jail cell (though next time we definitely will!) and instead opted for one of the larger dorm rooms. Even though we were skipping out on the most iconic part of a Celica stay, we still felt as though we were able to have an experience that was truly unique to Ljubljana. We took part in a community dinner, explored the hip common area, and read up on the building’s tumultuous history.
Today, portions of the hostel (such as the stairway pictured above) serve as museum space, and the hostel gives historical tours of its space, in addition to hosting a wide variety of activities that encourage community and the free exchange of art, literature and ideas.
6. Here be dragons.
I would be remiss to discuss Ljubljana without mentioning dragons.
The Ljubljana Dragon is the symbol of the city, and it graces the city’s flag, its bridges, its castle…even the sewer covers are emblazoned with the scaly, winged beast.
There are a few different stories behind why the dragon became the figurehead of Ljubljana, most prevalent of which is the Greek myth Jason and the Argonauts. In the myth, Jason must track down the mystical golden fleece, which was protected by a terrible monster. It is believed that the monster in question was the Ljubljana dragon, lurking in the swamplands of the region.
Nowadays, the dragon protects the citizens of Ljubljana. Nevermind that the dragon died in the myth. That’s besides the point.
7. Central location = ideal for day trips.
Okay, admittedly it is difficult not to be centrally located in Slovenia. The entire country takes about a few hours to get from furthest point to furthest point. Ljubljana is conveniently situated right in the middle of its diverse terrain. An hour north and you’re in the Alps. An hour south and you’re hitting Adriatic beaches.
And the scenery is some of the best in Europe.
It’s easy to get around Slovenia, and tours roll out of Ljubljana daily, taking people to glacial lakes and underground caves. With Ljubljana as a home base, you can experience the Austrian influence of the north or the Italian influences of the south without much difficulty. We chose to visit Lake Bled (pictured above) with Roundabout Tours and managed to see a good chunk of the country just in one day!
Going into our trip, Tara and I knew next to nothing about Slovenia. Several times we even wavered, wondering if perhaps we should stick to a more well-trodden path(especially when trying to figure out the best route to Ljubljana from Venice — easier said than done!).
Boy am I glad we stuck to our guns.
Ljubljana and the surrounding country of Slovenia is beautiful, fascinating, and altogether deserving of a dedicated trip. If it isn’t on your bucket list, write it in, because this is not a location to be missed.