By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana (pronounced lyoob-lyee-AH-nah) — with a lazy old town clustered around a castle-topped mountain — is often compared to Salzburg. It's an apt comparison, but only if you inject a healthy dose of breezy Adriatic culture, add a Slavic accent, and replace Mozart with local architect Jože Plečnik. Ljubljana feels much smaller than its population of 265,000. While big-league museums are in short supply, the town itself is an idyllic place that sometimes feel too good to be true. Festivals fill the summer, and people enjoy a Sunday stroll any day of the week. Fashion boutiques and cafés jockey for control of the Old Town, while the leafy riverside promenade crawls with stylishly dressed students sipping kava and polishing their near-perfect English.
Napoleon put Ljubljana on the map when he made it the capital of his Illyrian Provinces, a realm that stretched from the Danube to Dubrovnik, from Austria to Albania (for only four years, 1809–1813). A half-century later, the railway connecting Vienna to the Adriatic (Trieste) was built through town — and Ljubljana boomed. But soon after, much of the city was destroyed by an 1895 earthquake. It was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style so popular in Vienna, its capital at the time. A generation later, architect Jože Plečnik bathed the city in his distinctive artsy-but-sensible, classical-meets-modern style.
Ljubljana's biggest attraction is its ambience. The Ljubljanica River, lined with cafés, restaurants, and a buzzing outdoor market, bisects the city, making a 90-degree turn around the base of the castle-topped mountain. Most sights are either on or just a short walk from the river. Visitors enjoy the distinctive bridges that span the Ljubljanica, including the landmark Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) and pillared Cobblers' Bridge (Cevljarski Most) — both designed by Joze Plecnik. Between them is a very plain wooden bridge dubbed "the Ugly Duckling."
At the center is lively Preseren Square, with a hulking statue of the Slovene national poet France Preseren presiding. The streets around this square are an architecture-lover's paradise, starting with Hauptmann House, the only building in town that survived the devastating 1895 earthquake. A few years later, the owner renovated it anyway, to match all the buildings reconstructed after the earthquake. The Jože Plečnik House, home to the famed architect from 1920 until his death in 1957, offers you an intimate portrait of an artist. Inspecting his drawings and equipment close-up, you'll feel like Plečnik invited you over for dinner. This museum is a hit even with people who know nothing about the architect. Plečnik's masterpiece, the National University Library, is just a block off the river. The facade has blocks of odd sizes and shapes, representing a complex numerological pattern that suggests barriers on the path to enlightenment. Many other fine works by Plečnik surround nearby French Revolution Square.
Across the river is the city's most colorful and historic quarter, infused with an Old World atmosphere. The riverside market is worth an amble anytime, and best on Saturday mornings, when the locals take their time wandering the stalls. In this tiny capital of a tiny country, you may even see the president searching for the perfect produce. Hovering above it all is Ljubljana Castle. Stop at the Gothic chapel and offer your respects to St. George — Ljubljana's patron saint, the dragon-slayer. Then climb the 92 steps to the top of the tower for a prime vista of the pretty city he protected.
The Karst Region, an arid limestone plateau about an hour south of Ljubljana, is fertile ground for a day trip. Since limestone is easily dissolved by water, karstic regions are punctuated with remarkable networks of caves and underground rivers. Choose between Slovenia's two best caves, Skocjan or Postojna. If you prefer a more touristy, less active experience (on a Disney World-type people mover), visit Postojna. But for a hike, head for Skocjan. You'll walk through one of the world's most impressive caverns, complete with a raging underground river. To visit either cave, bring a sweater — or you'll wish you did.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia.