If you are looking for a slice of Europe that has the charm of yesteryear yet boasts a modern, green forward walkable capital, great restaurants, and friendly locals without the massive crowds plaguing the rest of the continent, you’ll want to put Ljubljana and environs high on your list.
Straddling Italy, Central Europe, and the Balkans, Ljubljana is easy to get to; either by flying directly there with a 20-minute drive to the city center, from nearby Trieste, with a one-hour drive, or from Venice, with a two-hour drive. Pronouncing the capital however is a bit trickier – its pronounced Lyoo-blyee-ah-nuh.
Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia became independent in 1991, and in 1992 became a NATO member. Ljubljana’s Old Town has a winding river running through it, marvelous architecture, is dog friendly, and extremely safe. There are also trees seemingly everywhere and the large, central Park Tivoli houses several museums. In 2016 Ljubljana was the recipient of the European Green Capital Award, and in 2022 awarded European Best Destination.
In essence, Ljubljana is a blessed marriage of intelligent urban planning and beautiful architecture. It’s also one of the few cities so thoroughly identified by one architect, here the eccentric genius of Jože Plečnik. By redesigning riverbanks and bridges, and thoughtfully installing green areas as important focal features, Plečnik gave Ljubljana a Mediterranean flair. A student of classical antiquity, Plečnik was without doubt, far ahead of his time in relation to sustainability, greenery, and recycling, thereby reworking classical architectural elements while creating an architectural language all his own.
The Intercontinental Ljubljana is a modern hotel perfectly situated at the top of pedestrian Slovenska Ceska, a leisurely stroll to Old Town’s heart, Park Tivoli, and key museums. In juxtaposition to Old Town, the Intercontinental is the city’s tallest hotel, delivering incomparable views. The lobby’s crisp and clean hip design with black-and-white granite reception is punctuated by the lobby’s chic Bloom Lounge.
Starting at 400-square feet, Intercontinental’s 165-rooms are spacious. Created in cool, minimalistic design, its calming, neutral color palette with modernist gray, gold, and ecru carpets is pleasing. My room had a chaise lounge, additional club-style chair, Nespresso machine, tea pot, and mini-fridge. The undeniably comfortable king-size bed donned high-count cotton sheets promoting seriously deep sleep. Large floor-to-ceiling windows made concentrating at the working desk challenging. No boring pillow chocolates here. Instead, the hotel sends up a quartet of house-made truffles.
The oversized bathroom had chocolate-and-vanilla granite countertops, large travertine marble tiles, towel warmer, delightful deep-soaking tub, and a walk-in shower with both an oversized 14-inch rain head and traditional European shower head. Furthering Ljubljana’s environmental consciousness, large-size Bal d’Afrique amenities were in place of disposable plastics.
Intercontinental also has a light and airy state-of-the-art fitness center on the 18th floor with Matrix equipment and free weights. Panoramic views from floor-to-ceiling windows makes exercise almost joyful. There’s also an indoor pool, jacuzzi, steam, and three saunas: infrared, Finnish, and Turkish. The Serenity Wellness Spa has a full menu of services. Make an appointment with Olga for a deep-tissue massage. You can thank me later.
Intercontinental’s breakfast buffet was excellent with everything one would possibly want, including tropical fruits, yogurts, muesli, meats, eggs, cheeses, and all manner of breads and pastries, along with a made-to-order menu making lunch unnecessary. Try the avocado and brie toast topped with poached egg.
At dinner, Intercontinental’s B-Restaurant infuses supper club-style music in a modern, yet warmly inviting atmosphere. The open kitchen vies for attention against outstanding views of Ljubljana and the Kamniško Savinjske Alps encompassing the city’s northwest. Cauliflower amuse bouche hummus purée with pumpkin seed oil was divine, the foie gras on a hazelnut biscuit with slivered cornichons tickled my French ancestry, and the Istrian handmade pasta with truffles, arugula, and pine nuts went perfectly with excellent Slovenian Vipava wine from single variety Zelen grape.
If you’re in Ljubljana on a Friday between March and September, head to Central Market’s Open Kitchen. The brainchild of Israeli-born Lior Kochavi, local eateries are joined by visiting top chefs along with music for a deliciously festive atmosphere.
For vegans and vegetarians, family-owned Bistro Maha, serves creative plant-based dishes with daily changing menus. At Sarrbing (Korean Binsu), a charming Korean couple prepares fantastic ramen bowls and fruity desserts at this dog-friendly restaurant.
For Ljubljana’s culinary pièce de resistance – high atop the city with intoxicating views, is Strelec Restaurant. Located within the 900-year-old cultural landmark Ljubljana Castle – accessible by foot, car, or funicular – Strelec is under the direction of wunderkind Chef Igor Jagodic. During nine, wine-paired courses, Chef Jagodic creates symphonic symmetry in the kitchen, harmonizing the freshest ingredients making even die-hard Foodies swoon.
Dishes like venison tartar with hazelnuts, foie gras and shiso, young mushroom with sea bass mousse and herb oil, and turbot hinting of lemongrass manifest culinary harmonious creativity. All of which were served with the best local wines from Slovenia’s three distinct wine regions. The rhubarb, elderberry, and Chantilly savarin dessert followed by the chocolate gianduja delight reminded me why diets should be illegal. No small wonder Strelec is both in Michelin’s 2022 and Gault&Millau 2023 guides.
Simply put, Ljubljana’s Old Town a gem. Prešeran Square is named after Slovenia’s greatest poet, France Prešeran. His poem, “The toast,” is part of the national anthem and Prešeran’s statue rests with his topless muse “covered” by trees, at least during summer. This insured originally that no one at the nearby pastel-colored, ornamental Art Nouveau façade 17th-century Franciscan Annunciation Church would be offended. Adjacent is the famed Triple Bridge, comprised of an 1842 stone bridge and two added by Plečnik in 1931. Nearby, the beautiful Dragon Bridge with four large dragons on each pedestal is an elegant example of Viennese Secession-style. For some retail therapy just opposite Dragon Bridge, the Textile House offering great vintage buys.
Completed during WWII, the Central Market, also called Plečnik’s Covered Market, has both an open-air and covered section with quaint eateries. The Butchers’ Bridge fulfilled Plečnik’s desire to connect the riverbanks near the old butcher stalls with a unique roofed bridge inspired by a classical temple. A lifelong bachelor, Plečnik’s would have been amused that lovers decided to add hundreds of love locks, co-naming it “Lover’s Bridge.”
In the square a “Milkomat” sells farmer’s natural milk from a vending machine, next to both an “Eggomat” and “Pharmamat” selling eggs and drug store necessities. Near St. Nicholas Cathedral is Plečnik’s 1932 Cobblers’ Bridge with both Ionic and Corinthian columns. At Bakery Le Potica, Slovenian traditional mini bundt cakes with walnut, poppy seed, tarragon, or chocolate provide some energy to then stroll by the National & University Library, another form of Plečnik's genius, where the upper floors appear like open books luring you in to read.
Standing regally near the Park Tivoli’s entrance, nearly every inch of St. Cyril Serbian Orthodox Church’s interior is dramatically painted and possesses an impressive, massive brass chandelier. The nation’s largest art collection from the late medieval period to 20th-century is at the National Gallery, with a permanent exhibition of Zoran Mušič, a leading European modernist painter. My favorite, the National Museum of Contemporary History, houses collections from WWI through independence. Keep your eyes down as the creative stairwells contain key historical dates.
Needing a bit more Plečnik, I strolled 15-minutes to his 1920’s house and 1925 annex next to Trnovo Church. Originally built for him and his siblings, Plečnik ended up living there alone with his dog and housekeeper who would greet guests as Plečnik didn’t tolerate them. This was crystal clear – the foyer had incredibly uncomfortable seating and open ceilings subjecting guests to inclement weather with the hope they wouldn’t stay. Or return.
An afternoon excursion brought me to Lake Bled, 35-miles from Ljubljana. Stunningly beautiful, this glacial alpine lake is three miles around, pleasurably walkable, and is nirvana for outdoor enthusiasts. Lake Bled also contains Slovenia’s only island and houses an ornate church accessible by 30-minute ride on a pletna wooden boat. Lake Bled is punctuated by the breathtaking medieval Bled Castle situated high atop a 400-foot precipice. Inside the castle, a fascinating museum and retrospective of Arnold Rikkli, the 19th-century Swiss naturopath responsible for turning Bled into a health destination.
The Lessons Learned
There is so much to love about Ljubljana and surrounds that you’ll want to stay more than a few days. Besides, how do you not profoundly love a city when its name means beloved? Happy travels!
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
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