Exploring Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana River
Ljubljana River

Ljubljana is the capital and the largest city in Slovenia, a former Yugoslavian country bordering Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Italy. It is easily reachable from many destinations in Europe (and abroad) and good for visiting both in summer and in winter (there is great skiing as nearby as 20 minutes away in Kranj). As a city, it has a rich cultural scene and a notable University. The Old City Center is completely pedestrian and centered around the castle and the river—both banks are filled with charming cafes, restaurants and shops. We were really impressed with the city when we visited last month—the people are friendly and open-minded, the cuisine is excellent and the city is clean, buzzing and accessible. Where to Stay:

Antiq Palace
Antiq Palace

Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa: This property is a hidden find right within the pedestrian limits of the Old Town. It dates back to the 16th century when it was a residence for nobility, and today has been converted into 13 individually designed suites and apartments.  Even our “standard” room at a nightly rate of 100 euro was bigger than our apartment, with a full kitchen, cozy living room and grand bedroom. The beds are super comfy, with giant white plush comfortors and pillows. Breakfast, served in a cozy common room with couches and a fireplace, costs 10 additional euro but includes a full buffet of fresh breads, cheeses, jams, fruits and more, plus unlimited champagne. In the evening, you can relax in the lounge where a wide selection of newspapers, magazines and even liquers are available for all guests. There is also a fitness center and a full Spa. You can reserve the Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room area for your private use at no extra cost, and the Deep Relaxation massage I splurged on (60 euro, 1 hour) was one of the best I’ve ever had. A bonus about this hotel is that immediately when you step out the front doors, you are in the heart of the Old Town and near all the best action.

Vander Urbani Resort: This stylish boutique hotel also has a superb location in the Old Town—pretty much just across the river from the Antiq Palace.  It boasts 16 rooms of various sizes and with different views, a rooftop swimming pool, yoga classes and free bike rental. The restaurant is also supposed to be excellent and was buzzing every time we walked by.

What To Do:

Fresh Produce Market
Fresh Produce Market

Peruse the Central Market: On our first day in the city, we decided to explore this famous market that runs along the river embankment from the Dragon Bridge to the Triple Bridge. Part of the market is open-air, part in an indoor complex with Renaissance-arcades and parts are even found in several underground areas. Vendors sell everything you can think of: fresh fruits (including papaya and mangoes!), vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, breads, herbs, spices and foods of all kinds; local arts and crafts, blankets, baskets, souvenirs and plants. Go hungry because you can sample most of the produce and there are also stands selling delicious fresh-baked goods and coffee (I had a vegetarian 'pizza' on thick whole wheat bread straight out of a wood oven). It was interesting to see that Slovenians are very into health products—there were so many offerings made with whole grains, agave and other natural sweeteners and the words “eco” and “organic” were everywhere.

Take the glass elevator up to the Ljubljana Castle: This ancient medieval complex is hard to miss, as it sits on a hilltop directly in the Old City Center and is lit up beautifully at night. In the past, it served as both a Hapsburg royal residence and quarters for Napoleon’s army, and today boasts a tower with the ultimate panoramic views of the city and also several restaurants. It is surrounded by beautiful wooded grounds and is just a fun place to explore in general.

Sara Tivoli Park
Sara Tivoli Park

Walk to Tivoli Park: This big, green park is within the city limits and a nice stroll from the Old Town. While you’re there you can visit the National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia (Celovska Cesta 23; 386-1300-9610), located in a beautiful old baroque mansion dating from the 17th century.  The exhibits do a good job of explaining the highlights of this country’s very interesting history and relationship to the other nearby Balkan countries that all used to be part of Yugoslavia.

Where to Eat:

Gostilna Na Gradu: This restaurant is located within the castle walls, and you can either take the elevator up or walk up a path nearby to work up an appetite. This unassuming but cozy place is surrounded by glass and even has a glass-enclosed terrace warmed by heat lamps in winter where you can take in views of the inside of the castle complex. It is run by three of the city’s top chefs (although you wouldn’t know it from the extremely reasonable prices!), and could be classified as “Slovenian comfort food”. Right after you sit down, a big basket of fresh, delicious bread arrives accompanied by a plate of fresh, sweet cheese drizzled in olive oil and dusted with a thick salt—a stellar start to the meal! We also tried the toasts with deer tartar and candied red peppers, a cold “fondue” quiche made with local cheese and tomato, pumpkin dumplings with smoked cottage cheese and sage, a Slovenian sausage served in a pot of hot water with roasted potatoes and fresh horseradish, and a mouth-watering cabbage salad with beans and pumpkin oil. There is also a great local wine list with choices mostly under 25 euro. For dessert we split a delectable and delicate mille feuille with custard cream and cream chantilly.

Tony Arctic Char
Tony Arctic Char

Valentin (Vodnikov Trg 5; 386-5904-1111): We stumbled upon this place as we were wandering around the Central Market. The front of the restaurant is a fish emporium filled with the most incredible selection of fresh seafood on ice. But we were intrigued with the chalkboards out front stating that you could pick out any produce and have it cooked any way you like—turns out there is a full restaurant in back filled with wooden tables, an arched brick ceiling and bright décor. We arrived early and there was only one table that was not reserved for lunch already! We started with fresh giant oysters, a buffalo mozzarella salad, and then I picked out eight giant Argentinian prawns from the cases out front and Tony chose a whole Arctic Char. Both arrived minutes later perfectly grilled with olive oil and herbs, and served with the freshest and most delicious cabbage salad I’ve ever had. We recommend you try a bottle of Kabaj, a bright and light white Slovenian wine that paired perfectly with the meal. The menu is extensive, interactive and very reasonably priced—a “must do”.

Sara #1 Cake
Sara #1 Cake

Gujzina: This little hole-in-the-wall in the Old Town specializes in cuisine from Prekmurje, a region bordering Hungary. We were first drawn to it as we admired the baked goods on display in the front window, most specifically a giant cake that turned out to be called Gibanica (or more appropriately just #1, as in the best dessert in Ljubljana). It is over 3 inches tall and made up of apple, poppy seed, raisin and walnut layers. We decided to stop in and split one along with some coffee and were not disappointed. We also saw everyone around us digging into delicious smelling steaming stews and soups—apparently the place is also famous for its spiced beef goulash and other hearty soups.

Where to Drink:

Vinoteka Movia: This is the ultimate cozy and romantic wine bar, located in a section of the baroque Town Hall and featuring a large selection of wines from the 192-year-old Movia winery. We sat at a communal wooden table and sampled several deep reds, including a standout combination of Cab, Merlot and Pinot. A couple nearby ordered a delicious looking cheese plate accompanied by jams and spreads, and another group got a giant platter of prosciutto and olives. We made a mental note to do the same the next time we go!

Sara Movia Winery
Sara Movia Winery

Konoba Katakombe: This authentic medieval tavern is just down the street from Movia on the same side of the river, and is different in that it features unique Slovenian beers on draft instead of wine. During the winter, hot wine, grog and pineapple tequila are also on the menu. The staff is super-friendly and it’s just a good place to hit up on a pub crawl or before or after dinner.