Let’s be honest, if I asked you about cities that you most want to visit in Europe, it’s very unlikely that Ljubljana was one that came to mind. In and around central Europe it has the likes of Prague, Budapest, and Vienna to compete with, so there is no surprise that this picturesque city is missed by many travellers.
Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, one of the least populous mainland countries in Europe. Ljubljana itself only has a population of just under 300,000 making it one of the smallest capital cities. Its small size has let it slip under the radar of backpackers and other tourists for years, but in this in depth guide I will show you some of the reasons why Ljubljana has to be on your list of European cities to visit.
Things to note before going:
- Slovenia is one of the Schengen countries. This means that if you are travelling from the UK or countries requiring a Schengen Visa, any days spent in Ljubljana will count towards your 90 day limit.
- They use the Euro (€). Unlike its neighbour Croatia, Slovenia is part of the EU and has adopted the Euro. This however does not mean that prices are very high. Compared to other European countries, Slovenia is still one of the cheapest.
- Slovenia is in the Central European Time Zone (CET), two hours ahead of GMT.
- There is a real mix of cultures and histories throughout Slovenia and also Ljubljana itself. You will see the Austrian influence from the years under the Holy Roman Empire, the Italian architecture that can be found from the start of the 20th century and of course the impact of the period under communist rule as part of Yugoslavia.
- They offer a Ljubljana Card. This can be bought for periods of 24, 48 or 72 hours and offers benefits throughout the city. Some of these include free rides on all city buses; a free guided city tour; a free boat cruise on the Ljubljanica river and free entry to some of the most popular attractions.
My Visit to Ljubljana
During the summer of 2019, I went on an interrailing trip around Europe. I had heard lots of people talking about the beautiful scenery in Slovenia and thought what better way to experience the country than base myself in the capital, Ljubljana. I had started my trip in Amsterdam and travelled the whole way along the European railways, with the one exception of a bus from Frankfurt over to Prague.
As I mentioned, I visited Ljubljana after Budapest. I was able to book myself onto an overnight train connecting the two cities and despite not getting much sleep, I had somehow forgotten to book the carriage with beds, I reached the city of Ljubljana very early the next morning and would spend the next 2 and a half days exploring what it had to offer.
Where to stay in Ljubljana
The city of Ljubljana has a range of interesting and affordable accommodation to choose from. Most rooms are between 15 and 20 Euros for a shared dorm, up to 45 for a private room.
- Hostel Celica
This is the award winning hostel that I chose to stay in during my time in Ljubljana. The hostel is truly one of a kind, it has been transformed from an old military prison into a funky hostel. It is the winner of countless awards including No.1 hippest hostel in the world by Lonely Planet and ranked in the 25 ultimate places to stay in the world by Rough Guides.
If you have always wanted to experience what it is like to stay in a prison cell, then this is the place for you! Don’t let the prison experience put you off though. This is a modern hostel with all of the amenities that you could want, including plenty of activities and meals offered for reasonable prices.
It is very close to the train and bus stations but about a 1km walk from the centre of the old town. I personally don’t think that the walk was a problem at all, and I found the walk through the Ljubljana streets to be very enjoyable each day.
- Tresor Hostel
If the 1km walk from Hostel Celica to the city centre sounds too far for you, then look no further than Tresor Hostel. This is another interesting hostel built in a former bank just next to one of the busiest squares in the city.
The hostel offers a host of different activities including an in house hairdresser on weekdays! The bar is lively and the perfect place to meet fellow backpackers.
- Hostel Vrba
For a more chilled out and smaller hostel, check out Hostel Vrba. Just a short walk from the centre of the city, this hostel gets a lot of positive reviews for the friendliness of its staff and their willingness to help you find all of the best parts of Ljubljana during your stay.
What to do in Ljubljana
- Visit the castle
Ljubljana castle really dominates the skyline of the central part of the city. Situated on the top of a hill, the walk up can be quite tiring but luckily there is a funicular, it boasts the best views of the city and surrounding areas.
The courtyard itself is free to enter and from there you have access to shops and a café. If you want to get the best possible view, then it does cost to go up the watch tower. However, this is included for free in the cost of the Ljubljana Card.
When you go up, don’t miss out on the beautiful Grajski grič which is the park area around the castle. It is the perfect place for a stroll or in my case to watch the sunrise.
- Go on a walking tour of the city
In my opinion, a walking tour is the best way to get to grips with a new city. Not only does it let you get you bearings, but you will have an incredibly knowledgeable tour guide willing to give you some of the best places to visit in the city.
There is a guided tour available with the Ljubljana Card, but I joined a free walking tour that started in Prešeren Square. If you are staying at a hostel in Ljubljana, ask at the reception which tour they would recommend. You might find that some hostels offer their own walking tours.
The idea of a walking tour is that it is free for you to go on, but that you tip the guide at the end if you thought that they were good. The amount that you tip is totally up to you but when travelling on a budget, I usually tip between 5€ and 10€ per person depending on how much I enjoyed the tour.
- Take a boat ride down the river
Ljubljana straddles the Ljubljanica in the centre of the old town and many of the bridges are big tourist attractions. One of the best ways to get a real sense of the city and to see the architecture and urban planning of Jože Plečnik.
This is also included for free with the Ljubljana card and the trip has commentary from a guide so that you know what you are seeing at all times. If you are feeling really adventurous, there are places where you can rent your own canoe so that you can paddle down the river yourself.
- Go on a day trip to Lake Bled
Over the last few years, Lake Bled has begun to make its way onto the bucketlists of many keen travellers. It is only about 90 minutes away from Ljubljana, so the perfect distance to visit in a day. There are loads of organised trips that take you there, but I chose to make the trip by myself on public transport.
There are two easy ways to get there, either by bus or train. I took the bus. They start early in the morning, about 5am, and leave Ljubljana bus station every 20 to 30 minutes at a cost of 12€ for a return ticket. Alternatively, you can take the train which is a little faster but still around the same cost. However, the key difference is that the train station is 4km away from the lake itself so unless you are willing to walk, it will be an expensive taxi. In comparison, the bus station is a very short walk away from the lake, so there are no hidden costs.
Lake Bled itself is absolutely stunning and has a lot on offer. If you are into hiking, history, water sports or just beautiful scenery then this is somewhere that you need to visit.
I started my visit with a hike up to Bled Castle perched on the hill above the lake. From here you can get some of the best views of the whole lake. The castle itself dates back to the 12th century and you can enter for 9€. From there I went for a walk all the way around the lake, about 6km in total, and stopped off to swim at one of the designated swimming spots and hike into the woods for even more stunning views. There is a path around most of the lake which can be easily walked or cycled around in an afternoon and plenty of signposted hikes for the more adventurous visitors.
One of the most famous parts of the lake is the church that is on the island in the middle. This can be visited in a variety of ways. There are boat rides to the centre that cost 12€ per person which take you right up to the steps of the Assumption of Mary Church. If you have a bit more energy, then you can hire a rowing boat or, like me, a paddleboard and make your own way to the centre of the lake. These can be rented from a variety of places at a cost of between 10€ and 20€ for an hour, which is plenty of time to get to the island and back. It is important to note that you can only go in the church itself if you are properly dressed, swim shorts and no t-shirt is not allowed.
- Go shopping at the central market
Right in the heart of Ljubljana is the central market. It is open every day of the week, except Sundays, and is home to dozens of stalls selling everything from handicrafts to fish. The building is one of the most iconic in the city with colonnades running along the bank of the river.
It runs right between the two most famous bridges in Ljubljana, the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge and houses some of the best places to grab a lunchtime bite to eat. There are also open air stalls in the square nearby and look out there for the only ever milk vending machine that I have seen!
- Check out the museums and galleries
As the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana is home to many of the country’s premier museums and galleries. There are loads to choose from, but the two highlights are probably the National Museum of Contemporary History, for history buffs like myself, and the Museum of Illusions.
The National Museum of Contemporary History teaches you all about the complex and incredibly interesting history of Slovenia during the 20th century, right from WW1 through to the independence of Slovenia in 1991. If history is not so much your thing, then the Museum of Illusions is a fun way to spend an hour or two in Ljubljana. There are 40 exhibits in all, and you are sure to come out with your head hurting a bit.
How to get there
The city has an airport, Ljubljana Joze Pucnik, which is situated 24km northwest of the city itself, but it is just as easily accessible by train or bus. The train and bus station are in the same location, about a 10 minute walk away from the centre of the city. I myself was able to get there via an overnight train from Budapest. There are direct bus and train routes from all of the major cities in the region to Ljubljana. This makes it a destination that is easily accessible no matter where in Europe you are travelling from.
Flixbus has many different bus services to Ljubljana from all over Europe so if you are looking to get there then be sure to check them out.
Where to go next
As I mentioned, I arrived in Ljubljana via an overnight train from Budapest, so if you are looking to move further north in Europe and are looking for somewhere that is known for its big party scene, then Budapest is the obvious next stop on your trip.
I actually went to Zagreb, Croatia after my stop in Ljubljana. The two cities are very close to one another, just over two hours by train or bus, and Zagreb is the gateway to the rest of Croatia and its stunning coastline.
Many people that I met in Ljubljana were continuing their journey by heading west to the city of Venice. It is only about 5 hours on the train, or faster on the road, so if you wanted even more of the bridges and boat tours that Ljubljana had on offer, then this is the best place to head to.
There are countless beautiful cities across the whole of Europe, so it is difficult to go very wrong. However, if you want to avoid some of the biggest crowds and get your money to go even further, then Ljubljana should be somewhere to visit soon.