In mountainous Upper Carniola, the diminutive city of Kranj is at the confluence of the Sava and Kokra rivers. Although Kranj is an industrial city, you’ll be won over by the Old Town, which has an odd layout, clinging to a slender limestone ridge above the two rivers.
Some famous Slovenians settled here, like the fabled national poet France Prešeren who composed the national anthem. Kranj is young, hip and arty, and its cultural centre and music venues have loads going on in summer. History buffs will also like what they find, and will be ushered beneath the streets to explore the Second World War tunnels or an underground medieval ossuary.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kranj:
1. Kranj Town Hall
One of the top cultural monuments in all of Slovenia, the Town Hall is on Glavni Trg and is a compound of two historic buildings.
The oldest is the Columned Hall from the 1500s and the newer dates to the 1600s and was a home for nobility in the Renaissance style.
You’re free to take a look inside, and there’s quite a lot to see: In the gallery is a collection of more than 50 works by the 20th-century sculptor Lojze Dolinar.
There’s also a department of the Gorenjska Museum (for the Upper Carniola Region), displaying folk artefacts like costumes, utensils and furniture, as well as an archaeology exhibition.
2. Tunnels under the Old Town
There’s a warren of tunnels under the streets of Kranj, going back hundreds of years.
But the most recent system, and the one open to visitors, was dug by the Germans in the Second World War.
You can ask about a guided visit at the tourist office.
These passages go on for 1,300 metres and have been reclaimed by subterranean wildlife like bats and cave spiders.
There’s an exhibition down here about how the system was made, along with a small display of minerals and fossils discovered in the rock.
You can also get the full war-time experience during an air raid simulation.
3. Church of St Cantianus and Companions
Kranj’s parish church is prized as one of Slovenia’s finest Gothic monuments.
This monument dates to the end of the 1300s and became a model for churches built across the country.
The facade is mostly unadorned except for the relief of the Mount of Olives in the tympanum above the portal, sculpted in 1440. The interior has three naves, and during restorations in 2004 medieval frescoes were uncovered in the star vaults.
These are from roughly 1461 and show angels with trumpets.
The church is also loved for its exceptional acoustics, and if you’re lucky you can hear them in action at concerts.
4. Kieselstein Castle
This castle was built in the 13th century and high over the Sava River to guard its pier and bridge.
Over the next few centuries it passed from dukes to the Counts of Celje to the Habsburg Kings.
And then in the 17th century it was bought by the baron Janž Khiessl who won permission to give the castle his name.
He also changed the layout into the current L shape.
The last major changes happened in the 1950s when the famous architect Jože Plečnik reworked the design.
Now more of a palace, the castle houses municipal offices and a branch of the Gorenjska Museum, while there are concerts in the courtyard in summer.
5. Kranj Archaeological Site
Also known as the Ossuary, this site is on the north side of the parish church.
There’s a glass structure with a spiral staircase leading down to a burial site that goes back to Slavic times in the early middle ages.
The site was rediscovered during excavations in the 1980s and as you go underground you’ll see the foundations of a medieval baptistery and the cemetery chapel where you’ll find the tomb of the noble Eghk family dating to the 1400s.
There are two ossuaries down here, the oldest from the 1200s and a newer one created after the 20th century excavations, with neatly-stacked skulls and bones.
6. France Prešeren House
One reason Kranj is seen as a cultural capital is its relation to France Prešeren, who most agree is Slovenia’s national poet.
He wrote the country’s national anthem, which was adopted in 1989, and appeared on the 1000 Tolar banknote before the switch to the Euro.
Prešeren spent the last few years of his life in Kranj, passing away in 1848. And there are few sights and attractions if you’d like to get to know him a little better.
One is the late-Gothic house in which he died, which has memorabilia from each stage of his life, as well as his personal archive and a manuscript for a collection of his works titled, ‘Poezije’, dating to 1847.
7. Pungert Kranj
At the very southern tip of the old town there’s a vestige of the city’s fortifications on a promontory above where Kokra-Sava confluence.
This space is on the edge of the park that envelops most of the Kokra riverside and is a popular meeting place in summer.
Towards the end of August there’s a ten-day jazz festival at this spot, and you can also catch weekly concerts on Fridays during the rest of the season.
If you come by during the day you could also grab a coffee at the stylish, friendly cafe beside the church.
A few steps away an observation point has been built on the cliff-top over the Kokra with a view of the river gorge and the industrial zone beside the Sava.
8. Kokra Canyon
There aren’t many cities that can claim to have a river canyon coursing through them, but that’s the case for Kranj.
The riverbanks are a designated park and it’s right beside the old town.
So one moment you can be perusing artefacts in the Town Hall and the next you can be in virtual wilderness on a trail etched from the face of a cliff.
This brings nature to the city’s doorstep, and the high treeline, murmur of cascading water and high walls of the canyon might make you forget you’re in Slovenia’s fourth-largest city.
9. Layer House
Set up in 2011, Layer House is a contemporary cultural centre organising exhibitions and concerts.
Located in the oldest part of Kranj a few doors up from Kieselstein Castle, the centre is named after Leopold Layer, the illustrious Slovenian painter who was born in the city in 1752. Layer House is run by an NGO, and over three floors there’s gallery and performance space, studios, a friendly cafe with a bookshop and a garden outside.
Most evenings , particularly around the weekend there’s live music at this venue, and if you drop by during the day you can check out a permanent exhibition for the 19th-century artist Johann Pucher who invented a technique for capturing photographs on glass slides.
10. Plečnik Staircase and Arcades
Slovenia’s most revered 20th-century architect Jože Plečnik was hired to rework the western approach to the city.
Winding up from the Sava is a long stairway delivering you at last to a small square beside Cankarjeva Ulica.
This space is in Plečnik inimitable style, which married classical elements with modern sensibilities.
On the west side is an arcade with Doric columns and overlapping arches, and beneath the final flight of steps is a fountain with an obelisk crested by a rooster above four tiers of square water tanks.
11. Sveti Jošt nad Kranjem
From the suburb of Stražišče ten minutes from the centre of Kranj you can hike to the summit of this hill.
It takes around an hour to get to the top and the trail weaves up through mixed forest, and at the top sensational panoramas of the Upper Carniolan landscape are your reward.
At the top is a tiny hamlet with a church and a restaurant.
The current church is from 1600, although this was a pilgrimage site for centuries before that.
One neat piece of trivia is that the church’s bell was cast from the wreckage of Ottoman ships sunk during the Battle of Navarino.
12. Šmarjetna Gora
Closer to town, west of the Sava, is another abrupt hill, wrapped in forest and with an exhilarating view from its crest.
There’s also a church on this hill, dedicated to St Margaret.
At the bottom of the slope is the manor house, Schrottenturn, which goes back to 1537 and in those times was a place where Lutherans would congregate.
The chapel beside it has a wooden coffered ceiling and a painting of the Holy Sepulchre from 1615. You’ll need about 30 minutes to get to the peak, where there’s another cafe so you can reward yourself with a hot or cold drink.
13. Brdo Castle
When an important diplomatic summit happens in Slovenia, it goes down at Brdo Castle, hardly five kilometres out of Kranj.
George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin convened at this building in 2001 and a host of diplomatic meetings took place in 2008 during Slovenia’s EU presidency.
The castle dates to the start of the 1500s and was built by the nobleman Jurij Egkh, an official in the Duchy of Carniola, and was later home for a succession of aristocratic families and princes.
Most of the time the castle is closed to visitors but there are occasional tours.
If you can’t get in you can pay a small fee to enter the 500-hectare park around the estate, which has forest, tended gardens and ponds.
14. Jazz Kamp Kranj
The Layer House, Kieselstein Castle and Pungert all team up to stage Kranj’s big annual music event, which normally happens in the third week of August.
As the “kamp” in the title tells you, budding musicians can meet up with seasoned professional artists, joining in workshops and jam sessions and listen to talks.
Those artists will also put on concerts in the evenings: There are gigs of all descriptions at the main venues, as well as more intimate performances in bars around Kranj’s old town.
Out and about in Kranj you may spot the Kranjsko Pivo label on glasses and bottles.
This beer is brewed right in the city, and there’s also a microbrewery/pub if you want to go to the source.
The perfect partner is Kranjska sausage, which has a rich tradition in the city going back to the days of the annual pig slaughter in winter.
And you can’t spend any time in Slovenia without indulging in štruklji at least once.
These are dough rolled up with sweet or savoury fillings like cheese, poppy seeds, walnut, tarragon or apple.
They’ll come fried, cooked in stock, steamed or baked.