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Barely 300,000 people live here and it’s small enough to explore in a day, yet most visitors see barely a fraction of what they should.
Ljubljana has one of the great European riversides, more architectural gear changes than even Prague can muster, and since its centre was pedestrianised, cyclists and strollers have colonised the city’s peaceful cobbles. But it’s how you see it that matters.
Whether on foot, by water or on two wheels, there’s more than one way to explore the city, and each lets you experience a completely different side to the capital.
It was around a decade ago that Ljubljana expelled motorists from its centre. Now, gazing around the facades of its Secessionist, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, cleansed of a century of exhaust fumes, you wonder why they were ever allowed in the first place. These days Ljubljana’s old centre lends itself well to flâneurs. The city is small but dense, and historic walking tours of its medieval cobbles and castle cram a lot into a short meander. But then, that’s how it was designed.
Architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957), often dubbed the father of the city, merged his ideas for the capital with the styles he inherited. Whether incorporating Baroque influences into his National Library or flanking a 19th-century stone bridge with two identical walkways to create the impossibly elegant Triple Bridge, his legacy is still keenly felt on guided walks. But it’s only on the funicular ride up to the 12th-century castle, gazing down on chocolate-box squares, Italianate churches and the riverside below, that you truly appreciate the capital’s unique design: while its buildings and townhouses may echo larger, more worldly cities, nowhere is quite so strollable.
In the evening, visitors adopt a slightly more mannered clip to their step as the beer and wine walking tours take over. Vineyards cover much of Slovenia, but it’s the capital’s brewing heritage that is rather unique. Beer barrels dating back 3,900 years have been excavated from the nearby marshes, and visits to the iconic Union brewery along with the lesser known micro-brew pubs that have sprung up in recent years are a treat.
But why walk when you can pedal? Renting the BicikeLJ city bikes is practically free (just €1 per week) and commuters tootle along at a friendly speed – none of the lycra-clad showing off of many capitals. Given most locals own a bike, the city has been built with them in mind, making it easy to enjoy the sights of the pedestrianised centre, follow the riverside or explore beyond as the suburbs give way to peaceful meadows and bike-friendly wetlands.
In the city, cycle tours of the centre loop out as far as Tivoli Park and Metelkova, a former army barracks turned street-art and cultural centre that’s well worth a visit. But it’s also just as fun to pedal freely. The Trail of Remembrance and Comradeship (known as PST) is a great independent route, encircling the entire city in just three hours – especially if you skip the forested climb up Golovec, which requires the odd gear or two.
The PST follows the old fortifications that used to ring the capital during its occupation in the Second World War, with signs marking the way as you pedal past the shrugging willows of Koseze Pond, the Fužine design museum (set inside a Renaissance-era castle) and the grand Žale Cemetary. War relics and memorial pillars dot the route, but as well as revealing a fascinating and little-known history, it’s also a great way to see the city fringes that most visitors forget.
Of course, if you want to find the heart of Ljubljana, head to the riverside. Ribbed by stone bridges and edged by cafes, markets, craft beer bars and red-faced joggers, this busy artery bisects the entire city, making for an easy snapshot of local life. Again, it was the brainchild of architect Jože Plečnik, who set it aside for ‘public good’. But while idling the banks of the Ljubljanica is one way to explore, taking to its waters under your own steam puts the city in a whole other light.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is the easiest way to get around. Tours teach the basics first, but there’s not much to learn (just keep your balance and don’t fall in). These typically lead you under the Triple Bridge and Dragon Bridge – an Art Nouveau delight daubed with sheet-copper dragons oxidised a fierce blue-green – as you rubberneck at landmarks like the Nebotičnik, a gloriously eccentric 1930s skyscraper at odds with this largely low-rise capital, and which never looks more impressive than when seen from the water.
The more adventurous might wish to head out of town and kayak back into the centre along the Ižica river, which branches off from the Ljubljanica. Here, the city turns to wilderness in the blink of an eye, and as you drift the elegant riverscape back, passing stately-looking heron and beaver-like nutria fossicking on the banks, it’s yet another reason to fall in love with this wild, cultured and historic puzzle of a capital.
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