My holiday last June was punctuated with wide-eyed road tripping along the Adriatic. From Croatia’s red tiled Dubrovnik to Plitvice into Rovinj and finally the tongue twister across the border, loob-leah-nah (Ljubljana). By then I was fascinated by stories of Slovenian wines and the lush green landscape, but at first glance this capital city felt crazy familiar. Unusually pretty like its name, I caught an artist’s paradise here.
NEO-CLASSIC. VERY LJUBLJANA
That’s the best way to describe the eyeful I got. When you walk along the Ljubljanica river and lose yourself in an accidental turn to the left or right, you discover its quirks with tiny and big sculptures. Even installations. The old town is a generous mix of its Austro-Hungarian history and these unusual expressions in metal.
My hotel (Hotel Cubo) was close to the city centre and getting there meant walking through the Congress Square, which gave me my first glimpse of the love for design. Even the castle atop the hill looking down at the city, seemed enveloped in a bouquet of green. Slovene architect Jože Plečnik is responsible for bringing to life the artistic look & feel of Ljubljana. He is credited with many beautiful pieces that make the city the visual treat it is.
I think a week’s stay would be good but even if you’re visiting for just 3 days, here are 15 of my favorite things in Ljubljana. If you do stay longer, few of my experiences beyond the city shared at the end will give you a feel of Slovenia.
#1 STREET ART / CREATED WITH A TWIST
I caught this from the time I reached the Robba Fountain in the middle of the Old Town. All around me were Baroque facades done in the most tasteful way. With curves and statues and symbols of nature and life, created with elegance. It felt like the hand of the artist had kick started a conversation on the aesthetic vocabulary, that every passerby had to see. This extended to the walls painted in floral or geometric patterns. And sometimes was seen in a little trick played by some of the structures, secretly known only to the architect/sculptor and the creation.
(National University Library is considered one of the great works of Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik. As you can see on the façade there is a twist on the windows, giving an impression of open books placed in reverse.)
(Mestni Trg or Town Square houses the Robba Fountain and the Town Hall that is prettiest in its courtyard area. You see here a perfect example of wall art made famous in Italy called Sgraffito, where scraping the top material reveals an underlying layer with a pattern.
Here you can also see the Narcisov Vodnjak (Narcis fountain), with Narcissus staring at himself in the water. Created by Francesco Robba, a Venetian and Baroque sculptor. Err! I did a peek of myself too. Go on, call me a narcissist )
(Called Hauptman House and renovated to create an Art Nouveau façade by architect Ciril Metod Koch, it reminded me of some of the houses I saw in Tibet. Ljubljana has such an eclectic mix of art styles)
And then suddenly just like that at a turn, I was surprised by an installation that someone had to help me decode. I still don’t know who did it or what it means but it is mad alright.
(The fascinating National Assembly Hall (seat of the Parliament) with statues of men, women and children, showing the inter dependent way of life of the Slovenian people. Representing work, prosperity, peace & joy as themes.
I saw this on my way back from Tivoli Park and was stunned by its simplicity and use of naked sculptures. I was told this is in the spirit of the old times. As people were. Honest & transparent.)
(Wettach Villa that now houses the US Embassy, is a neo-Renaissance creation by 19th Century Viennese architect Alfred Bayer. Done for the painter Heinrich Wettach its vivid and intricate look comes from the Sgraffito technique which you see even in the Town Hall)
(Prešernov trg or Prešeren Square took this form after the 1895 Ljubljana earthquake and was designed by architect Max Fabiani. The monument off centre is that of Slovenia’s favorite national poet, France Prešeren and it was opened to the public in 1905. Above his statue is one of his muse. Incidentally his poems have been translated into many languages including Bengali spoken by many in India & Bangladesh
What I found interesting is that the monument is diagonally facing a building, in which is a small mural of the poet’s unrequited love Julija Primic. She apparently lived there. I found the mural below first before I saw the monument & heard the story)
(The Co-operative Business Bank built in 1922 by architect Ivan Vurnik carries the theme forward with a striking color and geometric patterns. I saw this a few steps behind the Franciscan Church)
(Don’t miss the sculptures when you start walking towards the bridges. Most installations on Butcher’s Bridge are by Jakov Brdar who loves to reinterpret stories & characters. Here he has given a modern take to figures from Greek mythology.
Like Satyr, half man, half beast closely associated with Greek God Dionysus known as the God of wine and ecstasy)
(Here is Prometheus who in the Greek religion is said to have given fire to mankind & is also seen as a trickster in his negotiations with Zeus.
Below is Jakov’s rendition of Adam & Eve)
All of Ljubljana’s art forms but especially ones that bordered between absurd & real, fascinated me. Beyond the visual artistry, they felt very visceral to me.
#2 METELKOVA / REBELLIOUS NOTES FROM A CITY WITHIN
As the first to claim their sovereignty from Yugoslavia, one would have thought this country would want to stay far away from war and its symbols. But they embraced it alright. Formerly military barracks from the Austro-Hungarian empire of the 1800s, it became the home ground of squatters and then artists and a hangout-cum-stay place. Metelkova urges you to stare wide eyed as you walk through it. Just so you can take in the motley of colors & stories and also stay careful if you are there as a solo female traveler.
I have more on this in a post dedicated to the Art of Lubljana, but I must add that a visit in the mornings to capture the beauty and in the evenings to feel the vibe is a must.
#3 MUSEUMS / MIGRATION, CULTURE, CONTEMPORARY ART IN ABUNDANCE
I didn’t know too much about Slovenia when I decided to visit the land. On many read-ups I gathered the role of the Habsburg Empire, which had got me to visit Vienna twice. So while I did see some amazing impressions of that in the buildings and the niches, the museums kept me hooked all day
If you have atleast a week in Ljubljana do spend a day or two savoring all the museums that give this tiny land its texture. If you are in Metelkova, there are 3 museums right next to it. The Slovenian Ethnographic Museum, the National Museum of Slovenia and the Museum of Contemporary Art that hosts over 2000 International artists.
This piece is so intricately woven into the tales and visible on the bridges and streets. Ljubljana introduced to me its eclectic mix of legends and myths told in puppets & sculptures and an unfettered love for the modern seen in its fests and events.
Here is my capture of all I enjoyed discovering while I was traveling through stories knitted seamlessly in.
#4 / DRAGON BRIDGE
The bridges of Ljubljana esp. the Triple Bridge adjacent to Preseren Square are for the photo crazies. But it’s the Dragon Bridge with 4 big statutes that always attracts attention. Two stories are quoted to explain the dragon as a city emblem.
One from the Greek legend of Jason & the Argonauts and the other refers to the patron saint of the chapel in the castle, St. George. He is said to have tamed the dragon and it became the most recognizable symbol of Ljubljana thereon. It is also rumored to be Pre-Christian.
#5 / ROBBA FOUNTAIN
Fountain of the 3 Carniolan Rivers is modeled on the many Roman Fountains that Francesco Robba grew up amongst. It represents the lifeline of Slovenia, that is the Ljubljanica, Sava & Krka waterways.
What you can see here is the re-creation, as the original is kept in the National Gallery so it stays protected from the elements.
#6 / PUPPET THEATER & EXHIBITION
Krek Square from where the funicular to the Castle begins has the city’s oldest puppet theatre. It’s a popular one attracting children, youth and adults alike. For a history of puppetry as an art in Slovenia, get to the Castle which houses a puppet exhibit of sort
NOTE: You need to buy a separate ticket for admission here
#7 LJUBLJANSKI GRAD / LJUBLJANA CASTLE
The castle atop Castle Hill borders the Old Town on one side and the Ljubljanica River is on the other side. Though its present structure is from the 15th Century, it dates back several decades. Once atop, visit the Museum of Puppetry, Slovenian History Exhibition, Castle Chapel of St. George and the viewing tower. There are some really nice restaurants too for a quick meal.
(Dance of the Dead, a replica of the fresco from the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje village is seen above. It shows us how in death we are all equal, be it man, woman, commoner or nobleman)
#8 FESTIVALS / MUSIC FEST
This city has over 10 festivals in music, movies, art and dance that can be seen from spring to fall. I was there during one of the music fests and also happened to catch a glimpse of some folk processions on my visit.
A pity I didn’t do justice to the food here. But I’ve heard there is a Food Street that comes to life on Fridays, called Open Kitchen. And a few Michelin Star restaurants, local cuisine served by waiters in their traditional clothing (I visited one) and good vegetarian halts too. There are tons of coffee shops and bars along the river to pick from, so you can enjoy the wine, beer and experimental cookouts.
My favorite dessert was some freshly made krofi (Slovenian doughnuts) with powdered sugar sprinkled on a warm crusty brown pastry. I had that though on my day trip to Predjama Castle, where a few locals were serving up some yum sugar treats.
While the museums also told me stories of a land Pre-Christianity there are no traces of it in the capital city. Instead you can visit the many churches created with all the colors, substrates and designs that perhaps the architect found accessible. I happened to also walk into a church during a music performance and enjoyed the energy. More than soothing and calm I actually felt a rush of blood. I think it’s all in the vibe that gets to you eventually.
#9 / CHURCH OF ST. NICHOLAS
Built on an older Romanesque church that had burned down in the 14th Century, the new Church of St Nicholas is from the 18th Century. This after 2 more ‘razed to the ground by fire’ stories. It’s amazing how God finds a way to stay relevant always.
The main door brings to life the story of Christianity in Slovenia. What will catch your attention though are the side gates with the figures of Slovenian bishops.
#10 / FRANCISCAN CHURCH OF THE ANNUNCIATION
This church stands out in pinkish-red right at the Prešeren Square. Eye-catching from the outside and beautiful ornamentation on the inside too.
#11 / URSULINE MONASTERY & CHURCH OF THE HOLY TRINITY
This was the first time I had seen a church façade look a bit like a Greek Temple. With such high plinths it reminded me of some ancient structures. It is the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Ursuline Monastery, the 1st in Slovenia. I gathered that the Ursuline order was the 1st of its kind started in Brescia, Italy way back in the 16th Century and was dedicated to the education of girls.
#12 / ST. JAMES CHURCH
St. James Parish Church at first glimpse from the outside is full of sculptures and bathed in yellow. I stepped in at a time when the entourage of the bride and groom were expected hence made a hurried exit. Yes, there was a wedding and preparations were on when I walked in disturbing the pace of the activities.
It has a rich history dating back to the 12th Century. In the 15th Century the Augustinians used the walls at the back as a hiding place against the Turks. Then came the Jesuits. The building was then a public school for girls. A fire and earthquake later, it became the Parish you see today. Phew!
(As you walk down Gornji Trg, which is a dead-end and take the inevitable right you see the arch leading to Karlovška Cesta (Street). Look to the right and you cannot miss the Column of Mary Immaculate. Erected in the 1600s in front of what is now the St. James Parish Church, it was built to celebrate the victory over the Turks
Re-erected in the late 1800s on a stronger foundation, it withstood the earthquake that followed in 1895)
I also found tons of joy in doing what the locals do. Like taking a morning walk. And finding the oldest street that didn’t feel that old at all. Not to forget the search for the Emona ruins that gives a very rustic glimpse of the Roman settlement from many millennia ago. I don’t know if I should call them my OFFBEAT FINDS, but here are my glee moments on my final day there.
Finding them literally made my day because I got to see and experience things I least expected. From the fun medieval procession to the impromptu gig of musicians that I swayed to for over 20 mins, there is that sprinkling of some ‘mystery dust’ for most visitors.
#13 / STARI TRG & GORNJI TRG
Stari trg & Gornji trg, the oldest streets in Ljubljana were a surprise find and very pretty despite its partly colorful, partly deserted look. Walking up Gornji trg I saw coffee shops, artists’ nooks, restaurants lining the street, which were largely full up with locals and older folks. The distinct feel of a once bustling lane was palpable & I was happy it was quieter and away from the crowds.
I was told that every Sunday it comes to life as there is a medieval fair which takes you back in time. I gathered that the façade of the houses were Baroque but apparently on the inside they are medieval. Now that that’s an interesting creation. In the middle of the street on the left is St Florian’s Church created in memory of the great fire. Lost in a fire again in the 18th Century it was renovated by architect Jože Plečnik in the early 1900s.
#14 / EN ROUTE TO THE EMONA RUINS
Did you know in 175 BC the Romans occupied the land and called it Emona. While it perished by 5th Century one can still walk up to see the remains in the Emona Archeological Park. This street was en route to the ruins which honestly was left to your imagination. So I stayed with this more modern image of every day Ljubljana. Not fair I know.
#15 TAKE A WALK / TIVOLI PARK
Tivoli Park is simply a huge breath of fresh air. All of Slovenia is that, but Tivoli is a walkers delight. The Jakopič Promenade gives you the first glimpse of Tivoli Castle that is very classic in appearance and now an International Centre of Graphic Arts. For a quick refuel with nature drive down (25 mins) to Šmarna Gora which gives you great views of the Julian Alps and is a hike point too.
(This is a bronze beauty called Balet (Ballet) by Slovenian sculptor Stojan Batič, seen in front of the Tivoli castle and unveiled in 1957)
There are some inspiring souls you have grown up with and then there are some you discover accidentally. Ljubljana is a land where painters, sculptors, poets, architects came from across borders too, simply to express & whet their artistic appetite. There is just all of it, not just in the museums but also in the streets and on façades. Soaking in the many Impressionist, Modernist, Art Nouveau, Gothic, Baroque and other unheard of styles, taught me a whole new chapter in visual storytelling.
Many travelers do a quick visit to Slovenia and a quicker one to Ljubljana. I too was on my final leg from Croatia hence could spend just a week there. But I have known much more from this visit, enough to mark this country for an encore. In that 1 week I did a few day trips too, but the vineyards, castles and caves can be reached by hiring a car or driving. Sharing in terse what the land has to offer outside Ljubljana. The delightful details will be in the soon to follow post, about Exploring the Slovenian countryside.
I hope despite all the copious writing my tryst with Ljubljana was short and sweet. Much like the wine that I love. I have found the routes to travel using local buses and even day long cab hires, which has worked great for me. All ears if you need any assistance with finding booking sites/sources. Slovenia, all of it, deserves at least 3 wholesome weeks. But start with Ljubljana. It’s eclectic, surprising and much of the city itself is like a museum of fine, fun and quirky art.
(If you enjoyed much of what you saw, do buzz me if I can help. Do hop on to many more journeys into new destinations, little villages and towns on my Instagram page)