Ljubljana City Guide
Consider what you know of European capital cities. Crowded, expensive, dirty, full of tourists, intimidating? In comparison Ljubljana is a breath of fresh air. A capital city that is tourist friendly yet lacking hordes of tourists; a city that’s full of things to do and places to explore yet can be navigated on foot and even condensed into a long weekend; a city that’s modern and cosmopolitan yet retains its own individual charm and character. Though it’s often described as ‘Prague in miniature’ such comparisons don’t do justice to Slovenia’s capital; few stag groups come this way and those that do tend to come to enjoy a mixture of the outdoors life and the relaxed friendly atmosphere of Ljubljana’s old town rather than strip clubs and drinks promotions.
If there was an exam for a capital city Ljubljana would pass with flying colours. But then lots of capital cities have history, culture, good food and great hotels in abundance, so what makes Ljubljana so distinctive? Partly it’s the youthful vitality of the city: during term times the population of Ljubljana swells by ten per cent as thirty thousand students come to study at the city’s university. Young entrepreneurs are starting to make their mark on the city with new start ups in all sectors but especially in new media, design and hospitality.
Metelkova Mesto is an ‘alternative culture centre’ housed in a former barracks. In 1993 a group of young activists campaigned to stop the buildings from being torn down and persuaded the municipal authorities to allow them to use the complex for cultural purposes. Today the district contains bars and night clubs, concert venues and rehearsal rooms, artists’ studios and exhibition space, as well as Celica, a youth hostel in a building that was formerly a prison. Described as a ‘centre for free thinking’, Metelkova Mesto is worth a look if only for the weird and wonderful art that adorns the buildings.
A strong sense of historical heritage and tradition also sets Ljubljana apart: a series of cultural, gastronomic and sporting festivals and events punctuate the year and these are observed and enjoyed as much by the city’s older inhabitants as the young. In November the country comes to the city as Martinovanje is celebrated: this is when the must – the first pressing of the grapes – can officially be called wine. More generally this is a time to give thanks for the produce of the autumn but the biggest buzz is when the new wine arrives in the city’s bars and restaurants. At home families get together to eat a meal of roast goose, red cabbage and mlinci, a kind of thin, dried flat bread which is cut into strips and cooked in broth. It’s becoming more popular now to eat out on St. Martin’s Day and there are lots of restaurants in Ljubljana where tourists can join in the celebrations.
February 8th is Prešeren Day: Franc Prešeren was a nineteenth century Romantic poet, widely acknowledged as the greatest ever Slovene writer. A square in central Ljubljana is named in his honour and on 8th February there are concerts and theatrical performances across the city to commemorate the man who wrote what would become the country’s national anthem. It’s a particularly good day for tourists because admission to all museums and galleries is free. In early March comes ‘the Welcoming of Spring’ when artisans launch wooden clogs containing burning candles onto the Ljubljanica river to gave thanks for no longer having to work by candlelight.
The summer is packed with a varied calendar of events, many of them taking place in the open air; with so many handsome city squares and parks, Ljubljana is the perfect city for such events. The Ljubljana Festival is the summer’s chief event and it has been going for over 60 years. Between the end of June and the beginning of September there are theatrical performances, art exhibitions and musical concerts in venues throughout the city. If this event has a somewhat highbrow feel, then August’s Trnfest might be more appealing; this free of charge arts festival takes place on the streets of Trnovo, a bohemian district on the north bank of the Ljubljanica River and has a relaxed, alternative vibe.
They might have culture by the bucketful but Ljubljana’s active population likes to play hard too and for many that means cycling, hiking or running. The city holds a traditional running marathon as well as a similar event for cyclists. To the north of the city centre Tivoli Park is the green lungs of the city, and every Sunday you’ll see plenty of walkers there tackling the twin hills of Cankar Peak and Siška Hill which together are known as Rožnik. Just forty minutes away by road, Krvavec is the closest ski resort to the capital; it’s also only quarter of an hour from Ljubljana’s Brnik International Airport which means keen skiers can be on the slopes almost as soon as they arrive. Spectator sports are popular and September 2013 saw Ljubljana’s brand new Stožice stadium play host to the final stages of the European Basketball Championships.
With such a high student population it’s only natural that Ljubljana has plenty of places to grab cheap eats but the city’s restaurant scene is buzzing with new restaurants opening all the time. There are increasingly more international cuisines represented but some of the best restaurants are serving traditional Slovenian fare, often re-interpreted with a contemporary twist. Vegetarians, who would once struggle, restricted to a diet of pizza or deep fried cheese, now have lots of choice with several completely meat free eateries in the city. Slovenian ingredients are highlighted in seasonal menus and a number of gastronomic festivals take place annually.
Ljubljana is a city of cafes and in the summer months the whole of the old town becomes one giant pavement cafe as the owners bring out the chairs, tables and sunshades. Slovenians love to stop for a coffee, a wine spritzer or even a beer and to catch up on the gossip; it’s a way of life that’s easy to get used to. On Sunday mornings in summer it feels like the whole town has come out for a walk along the Ljubljanica; after a stroll round the flea-market it’s time to stop for a coffee and an ice cream.
Comparisons with other European cities are easy to make. A wealth of elegant secessionist and baroque buildings gives Ljubljana much in common with other central European cities but Ljubljana has one thing the others don’t have: Jože Plečnik. Born in Ljubljana in 1872, Plečnik studied architecture in Vienna and worked initially in Prague where, among his commissions, he re-modelled the city’s castle. It’s said that the Czechs didn’t take too kindly to this Slovene upstart who came and landed all the best jobs. On his return to Ljubljana in 1921 he was made Professor of Architecture at the university, and set about re-designing the city: as well as some completely new buildings, he oversaw the re-design and renovation of some existing ones, most notably the famous Triple Bridge. Plečnik used the elements of classical architecture such as columns and balustrades and interpreted them in a new way: after only a short time in the city, visitors can usually identify his distinctive style. Highlights of Plečnik’s body of work include the former national stadium at Bežigrad, the magnificent Žale cemetery and the Križanke Summer Theatre, the latter being a former monastery and seat of the Teutonic Knights, and today the headquarters of the Ljubljana Festival. Plečnik’s house, in the Trnovo district, has been preserved as a museum and provides a fascinating insight into the man and his work.
In Ljubljana the old sits comfortably with the new. Building conversions are largely successful and sympathetic, nowhere more so than in the old town. A modern glass funicular links the old town with the castle while a glass footbridge connects Petkovskovo Nabrezje with the market halls, something Plečnik always had in mind but failed to accomplish because of the Second World War. The charm of this little city lies in this peaceful co-existence of the old and new: modernisation continues apace but the old traditions are still important.
Increasing numbers of foreigners live in Slovenia; the university hosts several hundred international Erasmus students each year and the British School of Ljubljana, which teaches all classes in English, has pupils from thirty-eight countries on its roll. English is widely spoken but there are lots of opportunities for foreigners to learn Slovene if they wish, including intensive courses run by the University of Ljubljana. Daily flights between Ljubljana and the United Kingdom make the city a realistic option for re-location or for those thinking about buying a property for holidays. There are also connections to many other major European cities. The city is increasingly popular as a venue for international scientific and academic conferences and international trade fairs meaning that rental potential for investment properties is good. Properties available include classical old town apartments, renovated villas and modern family homes. There are also opportunities to purchase land for building.
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