For most of its history, Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana has been something of an unheralded European metropolis. Even after Slovenia emerged from the ashes of the U.S.S.R. as an independent state in the early ‘90s, it still took a couple of decades for it to become a destination point on the tourist trail. But in the last few years, more and more people are discovering its perfect combination of metropolitan chic and medieval architecture and history.
Then there's the Ljubljana that visitors have yet to discover. Look beyond the beautiful canals, old churches, and castles of the city's Old Town, and you’ll find a treasure trove of activities. Below we list some of the most fun, rewarding and delicious options that will help you get the most out of your visit to Ljubljana.
See the River Ljubljanica—On a Paddle Board
Why walk alongside Ljubljana's famous river, the Ljubljanica, when you can travel down it on a stand-up paddle-boarding excursion? It's a quick tour (just a couple hours) ideal for all experience levels. Even if you've never hopped on a board before, you'll learn everything you need to know in 10 minutes during a brief lesson before embarking. Then it's time to hit the water.
The tour begins on the willow-lined riverbanks just outside the city. As you paddle into the metropolitan area, you'll enter historic Old Town and continue down the arterial waterway. You'll pass under historic bridges and enjoy epic views of the 11th-century Ljubljana Castle, which sits on a hill of the same name and overlooks the city. You'll be accompanied on this excursion by a local guide who will point out the most unique and historic sites on the riverbanks as well as reveal fascinating insight about the city.
And if you enjoy paddle-boarding as well as other physical activities, check out this brisk 4-day itinerary that combines paddle-boarding with hiking/mountain-biking excursions throughout the country.
Ride Bikes Beyond Old Town
Many of the walking/cycling tours of Ljubljana focus on the city’s historic Old Town. While this is a great neighborhood to discover for its medieval architecture and old-world European charm, to really get to know the city you need to venture to the outskirts.
These are small-group tours that go beyond the metropolitan areas. This includes a stop at the shimmering fountains and chestnut-lined promenades of Ljubljana’s expansive Tivoli Park, located on the western outskirts of the city. Along these lines, you’ll also visit the cultural heritage market gardens in the Krakovo district, the outer riverbanks, and more. There will even be pit stops to enjoy refreshments like local ice cream.
If the tour begins in the historic city center and also visits the major highlights while following the river around Castle Hill.
Communist-Era Tour of Ljubljana
With a bike tour, you can see the beauty that defines Ljubljana today. But it wasn’t so long ago that Slovenia was under the purview of Soviet-era Yugoslavia, and a communist-era tour of the city transports visitors back in time. On this visit to various historic sites, you’ll learn about the rise of communism in the country, which began during WWII. This saw the rise of the Yugoslavian Partisan movement and famous leader Marshal Tito and continued through the fall of communism in the early ‘90s.
This is a well-rounded tour in which you’ll not only visit city locales central to communist Slovenia, like Congress Square, but also secret-police headquarters and interrogation cells that were the sites of mass killings. Adding color and perspective is the inclusion of personal testimony, memorabilia, and photographs.
Food Crawl in the Capital City
The best way to get to the heart of any culture is through its food. This is a different kind of gastronomic odyssey in that it combines a walking tour of the city’s historic center with a tasting of many traditional foods of Slovenia. The tour typically lasts around four hours, covers a mile or two (with frequent stops) and includes not only traditional foods and desserts but craft beer, wine, and espresso.
A local guide will lead you and a small group to the best eateries, marketplaces, bakeries, and pubs in the city. Highlight dishes include things like struklj, a rolled dumpling, and the traditional Slovenian dessert of kremšnita, a whipped-cream and custard cake. It’s an immersive tour where you’ll meet and converse with local chefs and also visit a farmers market to sample fresh produce. On top of indulging in all the delicious food, you’ll also pair it with a few of Slovenia’s world-famous wines.
Counterculture at Metelkova
Travelers would be remiss in thinking that the area of Old Town Ljubljana around the iconic hilltop Castle is the bohemian hub of the city. No; to truly get to the heart of the counter culture here you need to leave the gastropubs and faux-Asian bistros near the river and head to Metelkova. This, as they say, is where it all kicks off.
Squatters found this former military base abandoned in the early ‘90s and took it over. The government soon recognized their autonomy and ever since, this complex of seven buildings has operated under the purview of the residents and organizations that live/work there. Groups including a chapter of Slovenia’s LGBT community and an organization advocating for disabled-persons rights have offices at Metelkova, but mostly it serves as an alternative-culture center and artist collective.
Ever since the occupation of the space, the creative locals who call it home have been painting buildings and building art installations on the grounds. But it goes beyond visual art. Of course, there are galleries featuring showings by local artists, but there are bars and cafés that host live music concerts, poetry readings, and even stand-up comedy.
Metalkova is located a mere two blocks east of the Ljubljana railway station—the perfect jumping off point for other unique experiences in Slovenia.
"Wicked" Ljubljana Tour
No medieval European capital is without its bloody, gothic history. On this alternative walking tour, you'll get exactly that as a historian recounts the macabre past of Slovenia's capital. It begins at the stone fountain outside the Academy of Music near the heart of Old Town. Before the 20th century, this was one of the only sources of clean drinking water in the city. The lack of potable water meant that most folks in Ljubljana drank wine, which resulted in a populace that was perpetually buzzed and outright drunk.
The tour continues to the site of one of the first-ever pubs in the city, which was run by a female proprietor that also trafficked in prostitutes. A walk down the promenade reveals history about local officials on the hunt for witches, and you'll also visit historic Congress Square, which at one time was cleaned by prisoner slaves in chains. More local lore includes stories about wizards and even mescaline use. It's thus an understatement to say that this tour offers a unique take on an already unique city.
The above are all activities best enjoyed with a few days or even a week to enjoy the city. But even if you have only have a day to spare, there are some other great ways to pass 24 hours in Ljubljana.