Untethered from Soviet Yugoslavia, Slovenia has flourished as an individual in new Europe, here are ten top tips for your stay
The panorama from Ljubljana Castle may be impressive, but the medieval fortress itself is missing from the picture. For the best viewpoint head to Nama department store and keep your eyes peeled for the lift – it’s outside the building – that takes you up to the Global nightclub and café. From Global’s terrace you will be rewarded with sweeping views of the Old Town.
For many Ljubljancani, Metelkova Mesto (a squat-cum-club-cum-artistic centre), on the site of the pre-independence Yugoslav Army barracks, is deeply symbolic. When the army moved out, a hotchpotch of squatters and creative types moved in. This sense of getting one over on the communist regime may explain its survival in the face of recent threats to tear it down. Today, colourful graffiti adorns the walls and weird and wonderful bars and clubs greet an alternative clientele.
The National & University Library (NUK) is a masterpiece by an influential Slovene architect Joze Plecnik, with its unmistakable red-brick façade. It is officially closed to non-members, but don’t let this put you off – casual visitors are allowed through the magnificent doors (check out the horse-head handles) and up the black marble stairway backed by imposing columns. If you can’t wangle membership and entrance into Plecnik’s reading rooms, stop for a drink in the basement café, which is open to everyone.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, don’t miss the sugary treats on sale at Kavarna Zvezda. This stylish café overlooking Kongresni trg (Congress Square) is popular with everyone from shoppers to students, who flock here to gorge on enormous cakes and pastries – and the biggest kremna rezinas (traditional cream cakes) in the city – washed down with fresh coffee. This is also the place to head for gorgeous Italian-style ice cream.
In a city crammed with bars and cafés, it can be hard to choose a watering hole. Firmly turn your back on the growing band of Irish and English theme pubs and head for Café Mac (the Cat). Whether you sup Slovenian beer in the bohemian interior or pull up a bar stool on the riverbank as the city buzzes by, this is the place to see and be seen.
Communist-era monuments have been all but wiped out across the city, replaced instead by classic statues or funky bronze sculptures. However, retro socialist style still can be found on the façade of the Dravni Zabor (Slovene Parliament). This otherwise uninspiring 1950s concrete building boasts a striking doorway whose sculptures – the work of Karel Putrih and Zdenko Kalin – represent prosperity and happiness in all areas of life.
Many visitors leave Ljubljana without ever uncovering its Roman past. In the suburb of Trnovo, though, you can still see remnants of the Roman city of Emona. The highlight is a well-preserved stretch of ancient wall. It may look a little out of place, but the 6m-high pyramid at the eastern end of the fortification (another Plecnik innovation) illustrates its original height. Another notable leftover is the ruin of an old Roman house on the same street.
For the ultimate sightseeing experience, and to see Ljubljana really differently, book a hot-air balloon flight. As you soar above the landmark castle you’ll be the envy of every other visitor. Toast your achievement with a complimentary post-flight glass of wine. Trips last 60-90 minutes and can be booked at both the main Tourist Information Centre (Adamic-Lundrovo nabreje 2) and the Slovenian Tourist Information Centre (Krekov trg 10).
It’s not only the NUK and the parliament that have striking entrances. On the south side of the Cathedral of St Nicholas is the City Door – a bulky bronze portal complete with protruding busts of the bishops of the city throughout the ages. Appearing quite alien in comparison, Mirsad Begic’s sculptures look like something for Sigourney Weaver to tackle. The cathedral’s main (Slovenian) door commemorates the 1996 Papal visit, while its western portal illustrates 1,250 years of Christianity.
For somewhere truly unique to stay, there is nowhere more distinctive than the colourful Celica hostel. The 20 renovated former prison cells are the highlight. Still complete with cell bars and doors, the individual designs of each room – incorporating everything from photographs of Slovenia to floor-to-ceiling blue murals – compensate for the lack of ensuite facilities. Just a 15-minute walk from the Old Town, this is a great budget option.
Robin and Jenny McKelvie are the authors of the city guide to Ljubljana (Bradt, 2007)