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Ljubljana- The Cutest European Capital You Can’t Pronounce

Ljubljana is completely unreal.  As in, it literally does not seem like a real place. It’s too clean, too pastel and too nice- kind of like if Disney decided to build a European capital and give it a whimsical unpronounceable name. Except that unlike Disney, there’s actual character lying behind the sparkling façade.

Even the train ride into town was surreal. After the hot June air of Belgrade, the soft greenness of Slovenia was a refreshing splash of water. For the past few weeks in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro I’d been struggling to process the harsh contrast between beautiful people and wrenching destruction. Right away I could tell Slovenia was different. While it was also a part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia managed to untangle itself from the genocidal mess with barely any violence at all. It was, and still is, the wealthiest of those states, and the only one that is a part of the EU.

After a sweltering 12 hour train ride, I spent my first 24 hours In Ljubljana wandering in aimless, disoriented awe, blueberry gelato in hand. It’s a tiny place (less than 300,000 people) but it’s also a microcosm of everything you would expect an old world European city to be.

Here are a few things that make Ljubljana such a tiny gem:

 

Gorgeous Architecture


I’m not a building buff, but I know beauty when I see it, and the old town of Ljubljana was full of it It’s a distinct mix of Baroque and Art nouveau architecture with intricate details, all in a palette of pastels. You would never ever guess this country used to be communist- none of those Eastern block style apartment buildings squat here. The centerpiece of the old town is the elegant Triple Bridge designed by Jože Plečnik, which seems to be a meeting place for beautiful young Slovenians.

Café culture

One of my favorite things about Europe, and the Balkans in particular is the enjoyable activity of doing nothing. A slew of pleasant little cafes lie along the banks of the peaceful green Ljubljanica river (bonus fact: Ljubljanica literally means “loved nicely”). You could sit in the shade all day with a coffee or a beer and watch the covered boats drift down the river.

Romance


I don’t just mean for couples (although it was the perfect spot to reunite with my boyfriend after three weeks apart). Whether exploring the back alleys, stumbling upon the weekly flower market or strolling along the river at night with the buildings lit up around you, there is a certain level of enchantment to the city, which is enervating.

 

Ljubljana Castle


Like Ljubljana itself the castle is small, tidy and pretty. It’s a true medieval castle dating back to the twelfth century (with older ruins scattered around). Perched on top of a large hill in the center of town, it’s visible from basically anywhere. It’s a hike up the hill but there are great views of the orange roofed city.

 

The Ljubljana Dragon

Every good fairytale city needs it’s own dragon. According to legend Jason and the Argonauts passed nearby on their way to the Adriatic. Near the city Jason fought and killed a monster- the dragon that is now the symbol of the city. Representations can be spotted all around the city: on the coat of arms, on t-shirts and on the famous Dragon Bridge.

While beautiful, Ljubljana is a tiny city, and it only took a few days before restlessness started to creep in. I spent a week total in Slovenia and was continually amazed by the sharp contrast between it and the rest of the former Yugoslavia.

(And for the record it’s pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah.)

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85 Responses to Ljubljana- The Cutest European Capital You Can’t Pronounce

  1. Keith March 14, 2010 at 12:47 PM #

    Sounds (and looks) as beautiful as I thought it would. It’s on my list for my next European trip.
    .-= Keith´s last blog ..A Tale of Two Travel Archetypes: Breadth and Depth =-.

  2. Adam March 14, 2010 at 2:44 PM #

    “One of my favorite things about Europe, and the Balkans in particular is the enjoyable activity of doing nothing.”

    That sounds pretty awesome to me, too! I noticed a bit of that in Poland, though I was in some pretty touristy areas.
    .-= Adam´s last blog ..Inside Vermont: Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour =-.

    • Steph March 15, 2010 at 10:09 AM #

      Cafe culture is one of Europe’s best selling points for me. It’s great to sit with a coffee or a beer and watch the world go by.

  3. Bobbi Lee Hitchon March 14, 2010 at 5:03 PM #

    This is so cute. Wish I had stopped here when I was in the neighborhood. Next time.

  4. katie March 15, 2010 at 2:32 AM #

    LOVED this city. After living in spain for 6 months studying, my friend and I swept through eastern Europe and ended up spending extra days in Ljubljana to visit the Potsdam Caves and visited Lake Bled which was one of the most beautiful and magical places ever. theres a tiny island with a church at top of the hill in the middle of the island and tradition says that if the husband can carry his brand new bride up all the stairs they will have good luck.

    • Steph March 15, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

      Yup, the article on Bled is coming up next week 🙂

    • Katarina May 7, 2012 at 11:42 PM #

      Did you mean Postojna Caves? 😉
      Love reading such beautiful posts and comments about my country! 🙂

    • Nina May 14, 2012 at 1:32 PM #

      It is Postojna cave, Potsdam is in Germany 🙂

  5. Shannon OD March 15, 2010 at 9:28 AM #

    You have hit this SPOT on. I went to Ljublijana for a couple of days and stayed for a week! All of these points are just perfect, the city has an undeniable charm 🙂
    .-= Shannon OD´s last blog ..A Little Confusion…The LP and a Confusing Belize Border Crossing =-.

    • Steph March 15, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

      I could have stayed longer for sure. So charming!

  6. Cyprus Girl March 15, 2010 at 10:10 AM #

    Great information. Thank you!

  7. travel montenegro March 15, 2010 at 10:21 AM #

    I was in Ljubljana, a business, and the city I really liked. It seems to me quite as peaceful. The streets are beautiful and architecture fascinates.

  8. Matt March 15, 2010 at 3:28 PM #

    Ljubljana was one place I hoped to see when I was doing the inter rail thing, but I didn’t manage to fit in. Terrific post – your pictures make me regret my decision!
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Monday Escape: Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand =-.

    • Steph March 15, 2010 at 7:02 PM #

      yeah central europe is an area I’d like to see more of!

  9. Jon Ridge March 15, 2010 at 3:46 PM #

    Metelkova is the gem of the city, and one of my favourite places on Earth. An old communist-era barracks taken over and now run by the people pretty much autonomously as an arty-cultural city within the city.
    It’s amazing. Go there.

    • Steph March 15, 2010 at 7:03 PM #

      Such a neat idea!

    • Luka May 16, 2012 at 8:38 AM #

      former baracks on Metelkova are far older than communist-era. They are from the time of Austro – Hungarian Empire.

  10. ehalvey March 15, 2010 at 7:52 PM #

    I really want to go there! I’m half Slovenian so I want to see where my family came from. It just looks so idyllic. I agree about the joys of cafe culture. I loved sitting and doing nothing by Lake Zurich, lingering over a glass of wine by the Pantheon, or spending 4 hours in a pub without a server trying to rush me out if my pint’s empty. Sigh.
    .-= ehalvey´s last blog ..Aran Islands =-.

  11. Sofia - As We Travel March 17, 2010 at 4:44 PM #

    Looks gorgeous! I love baroque style! and pastel colors!

  12. Katie March 18, 2010 at 4:00 PM #

    I was in Slovenia last April and didn’t make it to Ljubljana at all. We actually stayed in Kobarid, in the Alps for two nights. Such a wonderful place with amazing people. The Soca river that runs through the area was the most amazing turquoise color. I can’t wait to go back and explore Lake Bled and Ljubljana.

  13. Michael October 8, 2010 at 8:53 PM #

    I wish that I had read this before I went to the Balkans in May…. I really wanted to make it to Ljubljiana, but ran out of time. We did hit Croatia and Montenegro though. I love the region and definitely want to return someday!

    • Steph October 10, 2010 at 9:17 PM #

      Now you have a definite exuse to go back!

  14. Barbara January 3, 2011 at 8:36 AM #

    I stumbled your article and I am still laughing! The title is killing me. 🙂 I am from Slovenia!
    The word Ljubljana is believed to be derived from a word “ljubljena”, which means “loved, beloved (woman)”; it is an adjective.
    I am glad you liked visiting Ljubljana, it is really a beautiful city and it truly has its charm!

    • Steph January 7, 2011 at 10:18 AM #

      thanks for sharing!

    • Urban May 15, 2012 at 5:50 PM #

      Well it’s always nice to pass the romantic version of the name around. Ljubljena = Beloved 🙂 But sadly macaroni are not MacAroni and do not come from Scotland, and Ljubljana comes from a simple latin word “Aluvium” = flood, for the river used to flood frequently till 1784 when they completed the canal around the hill, thus making an island in the middle of the city. Also the river Ljubljanica has no meaning to it, sorry. Loved nicely?!? Somebody sold you that with parmesan to mask it’s untrue taste. It’s just named after the town, a common occurence in Slovenia 🙂
      Look me up next time you’re here. I work as a local guide here and I’d be glad to objectivise (not too much though) the whole experience.
      Cheers

  15. Sandra March 13, 2011 at 5:45 PM #

    Nice to hear that you people like my country. You are all very welcome:)) and if i may, i do recommend you go and see town Piran on the seaside, lake and city Bled in the Alps, Postojnska jama or Postojna Cave, there you will also see Proteus, ofcourse Ljubljana, the capital, river Soča is also something you have to see, colors will fascinate you and many many more places, but those are really nice to see if you decide to visit Slovenia. And for chilling time or nice partying, yes i agree you have to visit Metelkova city and catch a little bit of various night life in Ljubljana in one place, at the same spot there is nice hostel called Celica, rooms are actually renewed from prison, so every room is prison cell and each is different. Little bit from me to you and I hope you will enyoj staying in my country. Greetings from Ljubljana and hope see you soon in one of the cafes near Ljubljanica:)) Sandra

  16. Nino March 14, 2011 at 6:23 AM #

    Great article and I’m very happy you liked the capital of my home country. Sorry to correct you and another person, as a linguist I need to say that although ljub- usually has something to do with love in Slovenian, in this case Ljubljana and Ljubljanica have nothing to do with it. The word is much older and has other meanings.:)

    Last year I brought my Taiwanese girlfriend to see Ljubljana and we took some awesome pics, I posted them on my blog, if you’re interested.

    Hope to see you again in Slovenia 🙂

  17. Vesna March 16, 2011 at 9:15 AM #

    Hey! I live in Ljubljana and must admit that I sometimes take things for granted and it is great to read a reminder of the town’s actual beauty from an impartial observer. 🙂 Nice article!

  18. Illuminatus March 20, 2011 at 3:43 PM #

    Nice article, but please be “gentle” with using the word “Balkans”, and not limiting historical references to just one of the former countries/regimes, because it’s not really “politically correct”. 😉 Slovenia is in central Europe (by which the people with knowledge usually mean “Germany and most of the surrounding countries and regions”, and not exclusively ex-communist countries as the general lamestream-media and politics today refer to), and not in the Balkans. Even Croatia, by certain definitions, is not in the Balkans — neither culturally nor geographically. Kind of like saying the USA and Canada are in the Caribbean…
    The communist/Balkan era only lasted a few decades (around 40-70 years, depending on the exact part of the country), as opposed to centuries of being part of either Austrian empire, German Bund, French empire, Holy Roman Empire, the first independent Slovenian state of Carantania, the old Roman empire etc. Hence, also the “clean and nice” part, which you mention. Really nothing special in “this part of the world”. 😉

    As for the name of the city — despite it’s generally taught otherwise, most of the (for the lack of a better word) “real” Slovenians pronounce the name of the capital “loo-BLAH-nah”. It was once spelled Lublana, but the Slovenian grammar (along with quite a few place names) was changed hardly in the 19th century, to fit the “illyrists” who saw the future together with the south Slavic people and trying to change the language as well.
    The pronunciation you mention is (unfortunately) “official”, but again — you can mostly hear it in the media and on the train announcing the station, or from tourists who have no other choice. As a rule of thumb — whenever you see the “LJ” or “NJ” combination of letters in Slovenian place names, you can be sure those were artificially changed so in the 19th century (mostly, it would simply revert back to just “L” or “N”). Certain people today are lobbying to get the original place names back, though. I’m pretty sure it would be easier for everyone to have Lublana instead of Ljubljana (or, at least, if they allow to use both, just like certain places in the Netherlands: e.g. the Hague is both Den Haag and ‘s-Gravenhage).
    Thus, as Nino already mentioned, Ljubljana (Lublana) have nothing in common with “love”, or “beloved”; this too is again just the contemporary media/marketing/mainstream thingie…

    • Betka May 11, 2012 at 4:10 AM #

      Though I understand the sensitivity involved with referring to Slovenia as part of the Balkans, you are wrong in the geographical sense. Since the northern border of the Balkan Peninsula is the Sava River, a small portion of Slovenia technically is located on the Balkan Peninsula, as is most of Croatia.

    • Lala May 15, 2012 at 5:21 PM #

      Half of Slovenia is under the Balkans, that’s general knowledge.

  19. Michael Hodson August 20, 2011 at 6:04 AM #

    those are some great pics, you should think about doing some of them up in bigger sizes.

  20. Gašper Pernek May 7, 2012 at 2:19 PM #

    Ljubljana is my home and I’m very glad when I see foreigners like it 🙂 You’ll be always welcomed 🙂

  21. zilly girl May 10, 2012 at 3:43 PM #

    I enjoyed the article. I met the love of my life and he is from Ljubljana.. He is the most romantic man I have ever met ( not to mention gorgeous). So not only is the country beautiful but so are the people. I am still working on pronouncing Ljubljana correctly, not to mention so many other words in his language :(.

  22. Jan May 10, 2012 at 7:16 PM #

    Please post your secret gelato technique – mine never last 24 hours.

    Good read 🙂

  23. Ana Colja May 11, 2012 at 12:59 AM #

    omg! my eyes just teared up 🙂 this is where i grew up.. and everything you wrote plus the pictures.. you did a marvelous job! well done! i go back once a year now and i always visit Bled and Bohinj (which is another lake just passed Bled) .. gorgeous scenery :))
    thank you again for this!!!

  24. Granpa Duck May 14, 2012 at 2:06 PM #

    As a Ljubljanian abroad it always warms my heart to read my city is gaining popularity worldwide, even if in tiny icrements. Very glad you enjoyed your stay.

    But like Illuminatus above, whose explanation I agree with, I am also always a bit hurt that the half a century we’ve been part of the unfortunate experiment alled Yugoslavia, has so firmly established Slovenia as “part of the Balkans” in the minds of our western visitors. Had WW1 not happened, we might have remained part of the Austrian Empire which we’ve been part of for hundreds of years and then you’d not automatically think of calling the country Balkans.

    Check this article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkans for some explanations why Slovenia is associated with the Balkans by some, but do consider also that its citizens do rather resent being forced there, when our heritage is so obviously Central-European. If nothing else, you’re likely to be greeted with a much warmer reception if you do not tick off the natives from the start 😉

    • Steph May 15, 2012 at 1:38 AM #

      Thank you for sharing!

    • Lala May 15, 2012 at 5:23 PM #

      Just for the record, don’t listen to what “Grandpa Duck” said. Most Slovenians look back fondly to the days of Yugoslavia and have no problems with associating themselves with the Balkans. The problem is in “purists” like Grandpa Duck who really want to see Slovenia as part of Austria, which Slovenia never was and never will be. We are Slavic, not German, dear Grandpa Duck.

    • Žare May 18, 2012 at 4:55 AM #

      Why don’t you for the sake of argument tell also that we ended up as the part of your beloved Austrian empire by force, but were a part of Yugoslavian federation voluntarily… Unless you have another duckish theory about this as well.

  25. Greg May 15, 2012 at 3:02 AM #

    WOW you made my eyes wet :)- Great article and even more beautiful picture. I grew up there, worked at one of those cafes while going to school- even up in the castle :). It is such a beautiful country; if anyone needs any tips feel free to ask. If you guys visit Slovenia just a few MUST see things: Planica- the largest NATURAL ski jumping unit, rafting on river SOCA, Postonjska Jama(natural cave with castle),
    while there if you have a chance go thru KRAS, Bled, Bohinj and i could go on and on.
    THANK YOU AGAIN for great article that brought back great memories and great pictures :)) Cheers

  26. anze May 15, 2012 at 7:28 AM #

    if someone needs any information ,just ask,i live here and its amaizing :)…have a great day every1 🙂

  27. Cazza May 15, 2012 at 8:01 AM #

    After living there for 10 years I can say without any reservations that Ljubljana is use most magical place in Europe

  28. Lana May 15, 2012 at 8:42 AM #

    Ok about the being/not being part of Balkans- someone mentioned borders of Balkan peninsula etc.- Balkan peninsula geographically DOES NOT EXIST. It’s culturo- historical expression. So…

  29. ORDLJU May 15, 2012 at 3:50 PM #

    I live in Ljubljana and I must say this is a very nice article! I love my city and it makes me happy to see visitors do too 🙂
    RE The Balkans, Prof. Svetlana Slapšak, a renowned specialist in the anthropology of the Balkans, said that when asked where the Balkans are, the best answer is “between Finland and Africa”. It’s a construct, not a geographical unit, like Europe. So saying Slovenia is part of the Balkans isn’t like saying the US is part of the Carribean; it’s like saying the US is part of Europe, which is pretty much true (although not in the geographic sense, of course).

  30. storm May 15, 2012 at 5:14 PM #

    Ljubljana is nice little town. Not like Zagreb (Croatia) but very nice. I always enjoying go there. Girls are also very beatiful there. Must see

  31. Ina May 15, 2012 at 6:42 PM #

    welcome to our beatiful
    Slovenia 🙂

  32. LOVELJUBLJANA May 15, 2012 at 6:53 PM #

    its realy nice to do nothing try it ist true that 🙂

  33. Saso May 15, 2012 at 8:14 PM #

    who cares already about the balkans and austrians,,,we were probably here before either came along…steph wrote a really lovely article about our town and you’ve got nothing better to do but talk about something that only has any relevance if you want it to be important…

  34. Della Skul May 15, 2012 at 10:30 PM #

    I’ve been there and it is all true. So beautiful, very very beautiful….

  35. Neža May 16, 2012 at 2:58 AM #

    a legend said that when a virgin pass a dragon on the dragon bridge it will hit her with its tail 🙂
    Cheers from Ljubljana

  36. drek May 16, 2012 at 5:20 AM #

    only people who are not from ljubljana pronounce it lyoo-BLYAH-nah. For natives it’s loob-lana

  37. Luka May 16, 2012 at 8:29 AM #

    In which language exactly Ljubljanica literally means “Loved nicely”?

    quote: “(bonus fact: Ljubljanica literally means “loved nicely”). ”

    Regards,

    Luka

  38. Andrej May 16, 2012 at 10:24 AM #

    Nice to see so great articles about my country. You are welcome to visit also the other parts of country not only Ljubljana and Bled. Also eastern part with 17 spa’s, with Maribor as European capital of culture and city where is the oldest wine tree in the world (more than 400 years old) growing, with nice Pohorje hill with mountain wellness and good point for adrenalin addicted people and not to forget Ptuj the oldest Slovenian town…so then you can imagine how is to live in country where you can in 240 km come from sea over Ljubljana, wine growing regions to Panonic basin and taste good food and very good wine in slovenian wineyard regions. Welcome!

  39. Nick Taylor May 16, 2012 at 3:44 PM #

    Great post! I think you hit the head on the nail. Ljubljana is a uniquely gorgeous and vibrant city. My mother is Slovene, so I had the fortune to live and work there for five years and had some pretty unforgettable times.

    Ljubljana has become quite international and diverse since achieving its well deserved independence in 1991. What you may not know is that Slovenia represented only 10% of Yugoslavia’s population, yet produced over a third of revenues for the entire Federation. Slovenians are well known in the States and elsewhere around the world for being smart, hardworking and innovative.

    I put together a Best of Slovenia photo collage on my Two Halves blog: http://thetwohalves.com/2011/09/best-of-slovenia-photo-collage/ that includes photos of Ljubljana, have a look. Glad you had a great time!

  40. Marika May 18, 2012 at 9:01 AM #

    A lovely read. Ir really made me long for my hometown as I’ve been away for quite some time now… The only thing I would like to add here is that while the article is beautifully written, words and photos can never quite do Ljubljana justice enough. Its unique beauty and charm simply have to be seen and experienced. Just make sure you visit during late spring, summer or early autumn as this is when it’s at its most captivating. 🙂

  41. Dan June 28, 2012 at 11:39 AM #

    Great post. Interesting comments too – they illustrate perfectly the cultural melting pot that is Slovenia. \

  42. Mike October 13, 2012 at 7:02 PM #

    Hah, I live there.

    (Jaz tam bivam)

  43. Sam Walmsley April 27, 2013 at 4:48 PM #

    I move to Ljubljana in September as part of a year exchange studying graphics/illustration at your university!! words cannot describe how much i am looking forward to living here. It looks utterly break taking.

  44. Jo May 14, 2015 at 4:41 AM #

    Hello Steph,

    First of all, I love your blog! It’s lovely. My question is one of a sensitive nature. I was hoping to visit Ljubljana this month because I heard that it’s so very beautiful. However, I read a review about a girl who suffered a terrible ordeal at the train station where a neo-nazi spat in her face. As a woman of colour, that terrified me. I was just wondering if you know much about how accepting Slovenians are and if it is indeed a racist country. thanks so much!

    • Vrbanvs May 14, 2015 at 4:58 AM #

      Worry not hon. As far as I know this is an isolated example, only proving that stupid people exist around the globe. I myself have once suffered under the boots of these “people”, so if you’re looking for a risk-free place, scratch this planet altogether. As far as the rest of us go (and I’ve been around for quite a while), I’m pretty sure that the rule has been confirmed by this exception. Enjoy your stay, and let me know how it was. Should you so desire you can contact me for additional info or (since I work as a guide) a lookaround.
      Cheers

    • Steph May 15, 2015 at 5:30 AM #

      Yikes! I’m afraid I don’t know much about that (I’m extremely pale and blonde) but I have read that neo-nazism is on the rise in Europe generally. I would guess it’s not an issue specific to Slovenia. Even so I’m confident that this sort of thing is extremely rare. Slovenia is a pretty cosmopolitan Central European country and I’m sure that lots of people of color travel and live there. Sorry I can’t be more help!

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