Slovenia / Travel

Ljubljana: Old Europe in a Small, Elegant Package

Fancy yourself an orthographer? Try spelling the name of the capital of Slovenia: Ljubljana. Like Reykjavik and Yogyakarta, it’s charming to visit, but impossible to spell.

It’s pronounced “Loob-lee-ana,” but what’s the story on the silent “j” at the beginning, and the “j” with the long “e” sound a few letters later? Without fail, I have to look this word up whenever I type it. Luckily, this delightful city is easier to visit than spell, and is definitely worth the effort.

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Located at the extreme northern end of what was formerly the communist stronghold Yugoslavia, Ljubljana will impress you in different ways depending on the path chosen to enter. It’s only 25 miles from Austria’s southern border, and if you travel in this way, it will seem like another attractive, picturesque European city. But, if you arrive the way we did – flying in from the south after a few weeks in Bosnia and Croatia, it will feel completely different.

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Slovenia and its capital Ljubljana, like Yugoslavia’s other member countries, became independent in the early 90s. But this shared independence is where the similarities stop.

Missing are the bullet-pocked, bombed-out buildings, and the other all-too-obvious signs of the horrific Balkan war. Mosques and their melodic call to prayers are few, and the Turkish influenced architecture so common farther south, is rare.

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Known as “Yugoslavia’s well-to-do sibling,” Slovenia isn’t war-torn and is much more prosperous than other Balkan countries. Like many Western European capitals, Ljubljana has an active cafe culture that loves to socialize. Its old town is fairy-tale scenic, and strolling the meandering, tree-lined embankment of the lovely Ljubljanica River is popular with locals and tourists alike. And of course, how could it be a proper fairy tale without a hilltop castle and a fierce-looking dragon standing watch?

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We have a test of how well we like a place. First, would we come back, and second, could we spend a month there? In the case of Ljubljana, the answer to each of these questions is an enthusiastic yes. Slovenia shares borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and Ljubljana would be the perfect base for exploring the area.

Happy Trails,
James & TerriIMG_2462

Photo Credits: 1. Wojgniew

42 thoughts on “Ljubljana: Old Europe in a Small, Elegant Package

  1. I don’t really know much about this area, so your post is very enlightening. Certanly a place I would love to visit. Did you visit the castle? The dragon does look fierce 😄

    • Gilda, it’s funny that Slovenia is so close to Italy and Austria and it doesn’t get much publicity. And in fact, when we visited there were very few tourists. And no, we didn’t make it to the castle. We spent most of our time just wandering the city, and we attended a weekend flea market which was wonderful (lots of fun communist-era mementos.) ~James

  2. Certainly looks like a delightful place to visit and spend some time. That is a great test of how much you like a city and we tend to agree with that determination and always ask each other, “but could you live here?” not forever, but for a while…

    This region is as yet still unknown to us but would love to get there at some point, so thanks….

    Peta

    • Peta, in our travels we’ve discovered that for us, a month is a good amount of time to get a good fell for a place. As for “living” somewhere, it’s interesting to know what qualifies. We spent a few years overseas as long-term expats, but as travelers, our barometer for “living” somewhere is 3 months. We’ve done this a few times and found that this amount of time enables us to really settle in without committing to the massive changes required to really become a “resident.” ~James

    • Laura, Europeans know how to do flowers that’s for sure. In addition to big markets, I love to see the small, street-corner kiosks that are stocked with a beautiful variety of carefully arranged flowers to attract the eye. It’s truly an artform, and sadly, it’s missing in much of the US. ~James

  3. I liked Ljubljana so much in 2004 I did go back in 2014. Less of a post-Communist feel, new, nice development along the river. Would be happy to go back again. BTW, the only reason to go up to the castle is for the views, the building is better at a distance.

    The first time I arrived by train from Italy, and I did notice a difference at the border – more rural and an Alpine feel.

    • Kathy, we didn’t get out into the surburbs, where the big, Soviet-style apartment buildings usually are, but in the center, we didn’t really see any indication of the post-Communist hangover. It really is a delightful, small-feeling city, and all the folks we interacted with were totally Europeans. ~James

  4. I didn’t know that Yogyakarta was hard to pronounce until I watched one episode of the Amazing Race which was filmed in the Indonesian city. One contestant in particular was struggling to pronounce it. So now I understand why you include it in the list! 🙂 Speaking of Ljubljana, and Slovenia in general, so far I’ve only heard good things about it. I know that of all former Yugoslav republics it is the most prosperous today and also the least turbulent. The next time I visit Europe I really hope I’ll have enough time to stop by Slovenia as well.

    • Bama, we’ve visited Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia and haven’t seen any real signs of the “turbulence” you talk about. Of course, a bitter war between ethnic groups that lasted as long as it did will certainly leave tension and animosity for decades. However, as outsiders, we saw none of this. But, as we said in the post, Slovenia really is very different than all the other countries that were in Yugoslavia. ~James

      • Glad to know that, James. It reminds me of the city of Ambon in eastern Indonesia which was the epicenter of a sectarian conflict in the late 1990s/early 2000s. When I visited in 2015 it was such a beautiful and peaceful place. But for sure the wounds inside people’s hearts will take much longer time to heal.

  5. One of my faves! I knew after my first visit with my daughter that I had to go back (and convince everyone in my family that they needed to go, too). I succeeded in getting one son to go, and I managed to get my husband there also on my second trip! Love that wonderful little city!

    • Lexie, as you say, it really is a wonderful small-feeling city. We rented a small apartment for a week and really enjoyed ourselves. On one of the weekends we strolled around a small flea market by the river and it was a hoot. Every other booth was selling communist military paraphernalia (those Soviets really believed in metals). I think that it’s still relatively unknown, but it doesn’t surprise me that a traveler like you has been there – more than once. ~James

    • Leslie, as we said in the post, it is lovely and may look like the rest of Europe, but we flew in from Sarajevo, and believe me, it’s different than many other places in what was Yugoslavia. ~James

  6. I have heard many good things about this city. Everyone who visits it seems to just fall in love with it. Your post confirms it. Great photos! I love the dragon!!

    • Darlene, if you get over to this part of Europe, definitely stop in. It’s easy to get there from Italy, and you’ll love the feel of the place. And BTW, you’ll see this dragon all over the place in Ljubljana. As dragons go, it’s got the full package. 🙂 ~James

    • Alison, Slovenia isn’t unknown to tourists, but it definitely isn’t overrun. So the locals react well to visitors and go out of their way to be helpful. Also, there’s lots of English, especially in the younger generation, so that helps. Make it if you can. ~James

    • Joe, I assume that when you do one of your one month trips you establish a “base camp.” Well, Ljubljana would be a good one because it’s close to so many other places. As I’ve said to others, it has a small city feel that very pleasant. ~James

  7. We loved our time in Slovenia. It was on arrival to Ljubljana that I lost my passport, credit cards,iPad and my sanity. Within 30 minutes all items were hand delivered back to me. It was the beginning of two glorious weeks of the cleanest, safest and friendliest European travel we have experienced. Enthusiastic yes from us as well.

    • Sue, your experience is at or very near the top of every traveler’s nightmare list. I’m so glad that you recovered everything and ended up having a good experience. We’ve had some close calls, but luckily, we’ve never had a major loss or theft on the road. I like to think that some of this is planning, but I suspect that a good deal of it is just luck.

      As for Ljubljana, I think it’s strange that it doesn’t show up on more “Top 10” lists. The city has such a pleasant feel and it’s central to so many other areas. ~James

      • The ‘loss’ was some very hard learning. It was the worst of our forgetfulness but I will say cameras have been left laying on occasion. We are very fortunate as every time through the kindness of strangers all has been returned. Now we are relentless about triple checking so we have gone some time without a scare.

  8. It looks like a lovely city. We hope to visit Eastern Europe in the not too distant future. Yours is the quintessential blog for travel tips in that part of the world.

    • LuAnn, a few years ago we noticed that Eastern Europe was a big hole in our travel map so we’ve made a number of trips to take care of that. In fact, we just returned to the US from a trip to Romania, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Of course, you’ll hear all about it on the blog. In the meantime, we can wholeheartedly recommend travel to this part of the world, and if you have any questions or need info just let us know. ~James

  9. James & Terri, I agree that Ljubljana is such a lovely and accessible capital city, and one certainly worth returning to. I first went there on a long-weekend solo adventure just over a decade ago. I loved the architecture as well as the outdoor market and its local honey and knitted wares. Shawn and I also spent New Year’s Eve in Ljubljana two years ago. We’d just left Malta (where we’d been living in sunshine and warmth for about a year), so Ljubljana felt freezing! However, the city’s holiday lights and NYE fireworks over the castle were magnificent. All in all, it was a wonderful stopping point as we journeyed from Croatia to Germany.

    • Tricia, it’s good to hear from you and we hope that you and Shawn are well. We visited Ljubljana after a couple of weeks in Bosnia, so we were ready for a change, and it delivered. After cities like Sarajevo, we really enjoyed its small, relaxed feel, and as you know, it’s much less intense. Slovenia dodged a bullet (literally) in the conflict, and it shows in the unmarred beauty of the city. We would definitely go back, and probably will at some point. But, we’re back at home now after a few weeks in Romania, Czechia, and the Alsace, and looking forward to some cozy time for the upcoming holidays. The holidays are a great time to be OFF the road, and we’re looking forward to it. All the best to you both for the upcoming holiday season. ~James

      • James, we are doing well — thanks 🙂 We spent the earlier part of this year in Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We’re now in Germany.

        I look forward to hearing more about your most recent trips! I used to live in Heidelberg, just across the border from Alsace. Being about an hour away from France, I liked to make regular day-trips there. The area is especially pretty during the fall months when the vineyards are dressed in autumn hues.

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