If you’ve never been to Ljubljana you better have a good excuse. In the centre of Slovenia, it’s a clean, forward-thinking city with architecture has an Italian inflection. Ljubljana owes some of its beauty to a catastrophe: An earthquake in 1895 reduced whole neighbourhoods to ruins. But this only gave free rein to visionaries like Jože Plečnik to build Art Nouveau masterpieces from the rubble.
Ljubljana is young, very hip and green as can be: In 2016 it was the European Green Capital, in a part of Europe not always known for environmental friendliness. The city centre is now mostly car-free, public transport is low-emissions and there’s a new cycling network. The squat-turned-cultural zone Metelkova is the go-to for hipsters and live music, and has nightspots, bars and public art installations in an old barracks.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ljubljana:
1. Prešeren Square
Right by the Ljubljanica, Prešeren Square is the place where the city meets up and celebrate.
If there’s an event going on in Ljubljana there’s a good chance it will happen in this space.
With a rough triangular outline, the square is at the convergence of a number of major arteries, and gained its current opulent appearance after the earthquake in 1895. This was when regal halls replaced the medieval houses that had been here before, joining the Baroque Church of the Anunciation, which dates to 1795. The square takes its name from the 19th-century poet France Prešeren whose work “Zdravljica”, “A Toast”, became Slovenia’s national anthem.
You can find his statue next to the Central Pharmacy, across the square from his unrequited love and muse Julija Primic.
2. Triple Bridge
Ushering you off Prešeren Square is a group of three bridges decorated with stone balustrades and lanterns.
The central bridge of the three is much older than the two that flank it, and dates to 1842. This was intended for road traffic, while the two alongside were added for pedestrians at the start of the 1930 and were the work of Jože Plečnik, Ljubljana’s most revered architect.
Also dating from this project are the riverside terraces lined with poplars, and the temple-like flower shop that connects with the colonnade of the Central Market on the right bank.
3. Ljubljana Castle
When you’re looking up from Ljubljana’s squares, the castle seems dauntingly high.
If you’ve got the mettle you can try to get up there on foot, but there’s also a tourist train and a funicular railway.
The castle has changed a lot since it first came together 900 years ago.
The early stone wood and stone fortress was succeeded by more practical military buildings, becoming an Arsenal in the 16th century as a regional bulwark against an Ottoman invasion.
The main courtyard is free to enter, and has a cafe, nightclub, galleries and a restaurant.
You have to pay to ascend the watchtower to look over Ljubljana, and included in this is a “Time Machine” tour.
This recounts Ljubljana’s key historical events with 3D animations and guides in period costume.
Suggested tour: Ljubljana and Ljubljana Castle Sightseeing Tour
4. Dragon Bridge
The four intimidating dragons that stand sentinel on each corner of this bridge are an emblem for Ljubljana and show up all over the city.
Taken from the coat of arms they’re strikingly lifelike (supposing dragons existed!), were rendered in sheet copper in the A. M. Beschorner factory in Vienna, and designed by the bridge’s architect Jurij Zaninović.
The bridge was opened in 1901 and is in the Viennese Secessionist style, an offshoot of Art Nouveau.
At the time it was also a technical achievement as one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Europe.
5. Tivoli Park
Within just a few streets of the Ljubljanica you can be in a green space that pushes out for more than two kilometres.
This begins with the elegant gardens and avenues landscaped in 1813 and extends up the slope onto the wilder Rožnik Hill, which is crisscrossed by nature trails.
In the lower reaches there are dignified properties like the Baroque Cekin Mansion, which houses the Contemporary History Museum.
Tivoli Park also hosts a tropical greenhouse managed by the city’s Botanical Gardens and sits beside a pond.
But if there’s one reason to come it’s to walk the Jakopič Promenade, an arrow-straight avenue that runs from the eastern entrance up to the Neoclassical Tivoli Castle.
6. Ljubljana Cathedral
This monument has had a few different forms since the 13th century because of fires and war.
The current Baroque design though has survived since the beginning of the 18th century, while the splendid dome came later, in the 1840s.
It’s an awe-inspiring building replete with art by a number of Italian Baroque masters.
The likes of Francesco Robba, the Groppelli brothers, Angelo Putti and Giulio Quaglio the Younger contributed the interior’s frescoes, paintings and sculpture in the 18th century.
More recent works are the astounding dome fresco, painted by the Slovenian Matevž Langus in 1844 and the 20th-century artist Tone Demšar’s main portal door, which sports a relief presenting the history of Slovenia.
7. Central Market
Jože Plečnik also designed this market in the early 1930s as part of his beautiful set piece that included the Triple Bridge.
It hugs the riverside between this bridge and the Dragon Bridge and is on the site of an old diocesan college for girls that collapsed during the earthquake in 1895. That handsome colonnade on the fringe of Prešeren Square shelters stalls selling herbs, spices and handicrafts, while further along are bakery stalls, cured meat, dried fruit and nuts, dairy products, fresh fruit and veg and fish.
The market is open every day except Sunday, while the covered sections have slightly shorter opening times to the open air stalls.
8. Franciscan Church of the Annunciation
A solemn presence on Prešeren Square, this church is in an early Baroque style from the middle of the 17th century.
The facade is painted a pastel red, which holds meaning for the Franciscan order.
It’s one of the sights to behold on the square, and has pinnacles, pilasters with Ionic capitals, niches and a statue of the Virgin with Child on the pediment.
The inside is lavishly furnished, although the Baroque frescoes were destroyed by cracks after he earthquake.
If there’s one unmissable work it’s Francesco Robba’s 18th-century altarpiece, but it’s worth poking around to see a stone cross by Jože Plečnik in a side chapel, while the new ceiling frescoes were provided by the Impressionist Matej Sternen in the 1930s.
9. National Gallery of Slovenia
Fronting Tivoli Park is Slovenia’s premier historical art museum, displaying works from medieval times to the 1900s.
It’s in a Revivalist palace from the end of the 19th century and has modern extensions built in the early 90s and 2001. There are more than 600 works to peruse in here, from Gothic liturgical art to pieces by the Italian Baroque painters and sculptors who received many commissions in Ljubljana in the 1700s.
You can also delve into the Slovenian Impressionist movement via pieces by Rihard Jakopič, Ivan Grohar and Matija Jama.
But if there’s one standout it’s the Francesco Robba’s Fountain of Three Carniolan Rivers.
This is the original sculpture for Ljubljana’s most celebrated fountain, brought to the modern glass extension to protect it from the elements.
10. Metelkova Mesto
Soon after independence, a disused army barracks from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was occupied by squatters to stop it from being torn down.
This large space in the centre of Ljubljana has gone on to become an autonomous urban enclave, not unlike the famous Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen.
It’s an alternative haven where almost every wall is covered in graffiti and imaginative murals.
Come for photos during the day, and return at night when it’s full of life.
After dark the bars and clubs book live bands and DJs, and there are outdoor concerts in summer.
11. National Museum of Slovenia
This museum, devoted to Slovenia’s history and culture is based in two buildings in Ljubljana.
The main exhibition is on Prešernova Street, while there’s a new building for the applied arts department on Metelkova.
In the former there are some amazing artefacts to checkout going back deep into prehistory.
One is what is believed to be a fragment of a Neanderthal flute (Divje Babe Flute), whittled from a bear femur 60,000 years ago.
Ljubljana’s Roman origins as the city of Emona is laid bare with models, animated films and excavated items like a hoard of coins.
The most exciting of these is the lapidarium, where 200 inscribed stones are on the ground floor and in a glass pavilion.
12. Republic Square
This stern Communist-era plaza is without the sumptuous architecture of Prešeren Square, and was instead laid out as the modern centre of the city in the 1960s.
During that time, many of the Roman artefacts in the National Museum were found by accident when a shopping arcade and car park were being built beneath the square.
The Monument to Revolution from 1975, the Slovenian Parliament and the monolithic TR3 and Ljubljanska Banak office buildings give the square an almost oppressive feel.
But it’s also a place of real meaning, as the spot where Slovenian Independence was declared in 1991. In mid-winter there’s a big skating rink on the square, large enough to host ice hockey matches.
13. National Museum of Contemporary History
The 20th century in Slovenia was anything if not an interesting phase of the country’s history.
And this slick museum in the noble confines of the Cekin Mansion lays it all out for you.
You’ll start with the First World War, move into the fractious interwar period , onto the Second World War, through Tito’s regime and end with Slovene independence in 1991. Each period is backed up with authentic artefacts and documents, including uniforms, costumes, furniture, weapons, medals, archive photography, farming implements like a vintage tractor and a whole lot more.
14. Congress Square
This cultured central square has played host to some momentous occasions in Slovenian history.
Independence from Austria-Hungary was announced here in 1918, while Josip Broz Tito addressed the crowds from the balcony of the university building in 1945. Later, the first free protest took place here in 1988, in a movement that would end with Slovene independence in 1991. Finally in 1999 Bill Clinton read the first line of the Slovenian National Anthem to a crowd on this square.
Dating to1821, it’s a formidable space that has civic buildings and palaces on all sides and the Zvezda park at the centre.
A couple of sights to note are the resplendent Slovenian Philharmonic and the copy of a Roman gilded bronze statue excavated on this site in 1836.
15. Town Hall
The municipal seat has been at this location on Town Square since the 15th century.
In the early 18th century that first Gothic building was reworked in the Venetian Baroque style with plans drawn up by the Italian architect Carlo Martinuzzi.
In the vestibule you can find a plaque from the Gothic predecessor with the city’s coat of arms, as well as a sculpture of Hercules and the Nemean lion from a lost fountain dating to the 1600s.
The Town Hall is open for exhibitions, and you can also put your name down for a tour of rooms normally closed to the public.
A highlight in the main courtyard is a glorious fountain depicting Narcissus by the sculptor Francesco Robba.
16. Robba Fountain
Even if you’ve seen the original sculpture in the National Gallery, you still have to spare a moment for this fountain in front of the Town Hall as it’s a symbol of Ljubljana.
What you see is a replica, replacing the original which was removed in 2006 for safekeeping.
As the name tells you it’s another work by the prolific Francesco Robba, and depicts three male figures pouring water from jugs.
These represent the three rivers of the Carniola region: The Ljubljanica, the Sava and the Krka.
The design, right down to the obelisk above the fountain, is borrowed from Rome’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) at Piazza Navona.
17. Museum of Illusions
In a townhouse on Congress Square is an offbeat museum that draws you into the world of illusions and makes you question your own eyes.
Kids might get the most out of this attraction, but grownups could also spend a fun hour or so here.
You’ll move from room to room, each with something strange going on: There’s an Anti-Gravity Room, where everything seems to float, or the dizzying Vortex Tunnel, which seems to spin around you, making it a challenge to keep your balance.
There’s are 40 exhibits in all, with a light-hearted and stealthily educational theme.
18. The Skyscraper (Nebotičnik)
When this 13-storey tower was topped off in 1933 it became the tallest building in the Balkans and was in the top ten for Europe.
At the time it was equipped with all the latest conveniences, like air-conditioning, speedy elevators and a central heating system.
Even now the Skyscraper gives you the most complete view of Ljubljana, encompassing the castle and the mountains like Šmarna Gora to the north.
There’s a restaurant at the viewing terrace on the 12th floor, below a cafe/nightclub, and if you have the legs you can take on the Art Deco spiral stairway to the top.
19. Art Nouveau Architecture
In addition to the Dragon Bridge there are a dozen Art Nouveau buildings around Ljubljana’s centre.
Most are from that phase of intensive construction after the earthquake, and while none are tourist attractions in their own right they can be combined into a 12-stop tour of the city for architecture lovers.
The People’s Loan Bank building at no. 4 Miklošičeva Ulica is sublime, with a delicate wrought iron balcony and two large classical statues of female figures on its roof.
From 1921 is the Vurnik House, which is impossible to miss for its red walls and bright patterns in the Slovenian national style around its windows.
More conventional, but no less lovely is Urbanc House on the corner of Prešeren Square, dating to 1902 and admired for the metal and glass canopy above the entrance.
20. Plečnik House
Also on an architectural theme you can get inside the mind of Jože Plečnik the man who revamped Ljubljana in the interwar period.
Plečnik’s impact on this city is compared to Antoni Gaudí’s in Barcelona, and his dream was to turn Ljubljana into a modern version of Ancient Athens.
Plečnik’s house and studio complex is on Karunova Ulica and is almost exactly how he left it when he passed away in 1957. There are two houses side by side and a garden with a lapidary collection, and the architect’s furniture, tools and sketches and other possessions are still in place.
The exhibition goes into detail on the buildings Plečnik contributed to Ljubljana, and reveals some plans that never came to fruition.
21. Ljubljanica River Trip
At the Breg embankment on the left bank of the river you can hop aboard a cruise boat for a jaunt along the Ljubljanica.
It’s probably the best way to appreciate Jože Plečnik’s majestic urban design, including the Triple Bridge and the arcade and colonnade on the revitalised waterfront beside it.
On Ljubljana’s website you can sign up for a cruise aboard the “Ljubljanica”, a traditional boat made of larch and oak, or on one of the more modern glass-covered vessels.
Trips last an hour and include a commentary of the sights.
If you’re really up for trying something different this is a journey you can also make on a canoe or stand-up paddleboard.
22. Ljubljana Zoo
From Tivoli Park you can continue to the lower slopes of Rožnik Hill to get to the city’s zoo.
The attraction is wrapped in hill’s forest and meadows, and despite its small size the animals have large, healthy environments.
There are animals from around the world, and an emphasis on conserving Slovenia’s wildlife in a unique region where the Alps meet the Pannonian Plain and the Mediterranean.
The zoo has 119 species in all, totalling more than 500 individual animals.
The crowd-pleasers are the cheetahs, sea lions, Asian elephant and pair of Siberian tigers, new to the zoo in August 2017. You can watch the sea lions and pelicans being fed throughout at set times each day, and get to know the animals at a typical Slovenian farm.
23. Hire a Bike
Going through the tourist office It costs next to nothing to get your hands on a bike for two hours €2.00 or a full day €8.00. And if you get the Ljubljana Card (a multi-pass scheme for museums and attractions) you’ll be able to hire a bike for up to four hours for free.
And there’s a good reason to hire one, as Ljubljana is becoming one of Europe’s best cities to see on two wheels.
A lot of the centre is green and traffic-free, but on top of that the city has invested in cycling infrastructure akin to Copenhagen.
This is all part of a drive to make Ljubljana as environmentally friendly as possible.
Book online: Central Ljubljana Bike Rental
24. Šmarna Gora
If you need to break out into the countryside, this park is only ten kilometres north of Ljubljana and brings the wilderness to the suburbs.
Unmistakable for its twin humps, Šmarna Gora is more than 660 metres above sea level, but has been made hospitable by 15 well-tended hiking trails, all serving the summits.
When you make it to the top of the eastern peak you’ll be met by a restaurant and a Baroque church from the early 1700s.
There’s also a Marian column up here from the same century to mark an outbreak of plague that took place in the 1600s.
But the greatest sight is Ljubljana in the distance scattered around at the bottom of Rožnik and Castle hill.
25. Eat Like a Local
If you’re hungry enough to eat a horse, there’s Hot Horse with a horsemeat menu in the Tivoli Park.
Joking aside, this isn’t a dining experience for vegetarians, but if you’re wondering what a horse burger, steak, hot dog or wrap might taste like you’ll get your answer at this stylish, fast-food style eatery.
That isn’t necessarily authentic Slovenian food of course, and if you want to immerse yourself in the city’s cuisine you can book food and beer tours at the Ljubljana’s tourist office.
For something off the cuff, grab some Štruklji, which is a kind of dough, rolled up and filled with sweet fillings like apple, or savoury ones like walnuts or cheese.