Zagreb or Ljubljana: Which city should you visit?

Since the fall of Yugoslavia, these capitals’ historic streets have become re-energised. But which one is best for you?

5 mins

Zagreb essential travel information

Population: 806,000 approx
Average max July temperature: 29°C
Famous for: Baroque and medieval Gornji Grad (Upper Town), grand 19th-century Donji Grad (Lower Town), café culture.

Ljubljana essential travel information

Population: 280,000 approx
Average max July temperature: 28°C
Famous for: Germanic art nouveau and Plecnik’s Secessionist architecture, fairy-tale cobbled Old Town, café culture.

Ljubljana river canal (Shutterstock)

Ljubljana river canal (Shutterstock)

History of Zagreb

Zagreb’s medieval roots wrap around the twin hills of Gradec and Kaptol (once separate settlements), the latter now the site of the city’s vaulting cathedral. Zagreb prospered during the Austro-Hapsburg days, but suffered during German occupation in World War Two. Croatia’s eventual independence from Yugoslavia was hard-won in the 1990s as Zagreb came under attack. Today it is a city where the past and the confident present constantly interplay across the Upper and Lower Towns.

History of Ljubljana

The Romans knew Ljubljana as Emona, the Austro-Hapsburgs as a provincial capital and Napoleon – you’ll find a rare (outside of France) statue of the emperor – as a bulwark in the Balkans. During the Yugoslav years (1945-1992) Ljubljana emerged as a hub, a role it continues as capital of the independent EU-member Slovenia. Ljubljana wears its history on its architectural sleeve with baroque medieval lanes and cathedrals, swirling around a swathe of nouveau and socialist retro chic. 

St Mark's church in Zagreb (Shutterstock)

St Mark's church in Zagreb (Shutterstock)

Places to see in Zagreb

The Upper Town is chocolate box beauty Zagreb, awash with cobbles and church spires and home to St Mark’s Church, with its brightly coloured roof, plus the more modern Museum of Broken Relationships, which elicits both laughter and tears. Take the funicular down to the Lower Town and into the 19th-century. Grandiose museums and cultural institutions lead towards the main railway station, where a statue of King Tomislav asserts that this is very much now the capital of the Croatian nation.

Places to see in Ljubljana

Mayor Zoran Jankovic has revolutionised Ljubljana through massive pedestrianisation. After a funicular ride to Ljubljana Castle reveals a mountain setting and storybook beauty, head to the Old Town to a collage of baroque and medieval, including the hulking cathedral. Across the café-strewn Ljubljanica, the New Town breathes art nouveau, galleries, Italianate drama, Roman remnants at the City Museum and Yugoslav Socialism in Republic Square. 

Zagreb cathedral’s landmark spires dominate the city skyline (Shutterstock)

Zagreb cathedral’s landmark spires dominate the city skyline (Shutterstock)

Zagreb's surrounding nature

Hike just north of the Upper Town and you’re soon into parkland. Further afield the big draw is Mount Medvednica. This bucolic playground peers down over Zagreb. In summer hiking and cycling tempt; in winter the skiing is so good that Croatia’s Olympic champion Janica Kostelic cut her Alpine teeth here. A poignant site is the Altar of the Homeland, which pays tribute to those who lost their lives fighting to secure Croatian independence in the 1990s.

Ljubljana's surrounding nature

Ljubljana is a gloriously green city, named a ‘European Green Capital’. A cruise on the willow-strewn Ljubljanica River reveals a city at one with nature. The most famous green lung is Tivoli Park, with its walkways and thick forests. Get up early for a sunrise hike up Smarna Gora on the outskirts to appreciate how wild and wildly beautiful the region is. Tour buses zoom out to Lake Bled, arguably the finest glacial lake in Europe. Enjoy a hike around it, or escape the crowds at nearby Lake Bohinj.

Dolac market in Zagreb (Shutterstock)

Dolac market in Zagreb (Shutterstock)

Zagreb's food and drink

Zagreb has one culinary foot – more pig’s trotter – immersed in the creamy sauces and hearty fare of Croatia’s hinterland; the other breezing through olive oil-dappled seafood from the sinewy coast. Tuck into the Zagreb schnitzel, or savour boat-fresh seafood. Café culture bustles around Ban Jelacic Square and cobbled Tkalciceva. Dolac market offers a taste of the city’s surrounds. The local beer, hoppy Ozujsko, goes well with the meat dishes, while a Dalmatian white wine pairs with your seafood.

Ljubljana's food and drink

Ljubljana is like a greatest hits of European food and drink: paprika-spiced goulash sweeps in from the Prekmurje region by Hungary, Balkan grills from further south, seafood from Slovenia’s bijou littoral and cakes that would pass muster in Vienna, while there’s enough pizza and gelato to please a Neapolitan. Michelin have even recently sprinkled stars on top. The local hoppy Union beer tempts in the riverside cafés, as does the white wine from the Vipava Valley and sturdy reds from Goriska Brda. 

Zagreb’s Esplanade hotel was built in 1925 (Shutterstock)

Zagreb’s Esplanade hotel was built in 1925 (Shutterstock)

Where to stay in Zagreb

The grand five-star Esplanade Hotel Zagreb dates to 1925 and retains the dignity and grandeur from the years when it hosted Orient Express passengers. It is, of course, handily located next to the main railway station in the Lower Town at the fulcrum of myriad tram routes; also handy is its superb Zinfandel’s restaurant. Doubles from £81.

Where to stay in Ljubljana 

Gloriously art nouveau, the best rooms at the lavish four-star Grand Union Hotel peer out across the flourishes of Miklosiceva, and towards the Ljubljana Castle. All the sights lie within walking distance, as does the main railway station, with a swimming pool for rainy days. Doubles from £104.

Panorama of Ljubljana (Shutterstock)

Panorama of Ljubljana (Shutterstock)

How to visit both Zagreb and Ljubljana

A direct train between Zagreb and Ljubljana takes around 2.5 hours on a scenic line that snakes through forest-clad hills weaving along the banks of the Sava River.

How to get there

Direct flights from London to Zagreb take just over two hours with British Airways offering return fares from £101. Flight time from London to Ljubljana is slightly shorter – easyJet has return fares from £95. 

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