OK, I’ll grant you that picking the “most” anything is pretty subjective, but Ljubljana (pronounced Lyoo-bli-AH-na) is easily in the top ten. This, the capital of Slovenia, has cultural influences from Slavic, Germanic and Italian neighbors that have created a beautiful, yet relaxed atmosphere that make you both want to sit on a bench near the river, and walk down the next street to see what you might find. Pretty and peaceful, I spent hours just enjoying how it felt to be there. For those of you worried about travel in Eastern Europe, Slovenia is as modern as any Western European City. The people are helpful and go out of their way to get you what you need.
The first thing you want to do is find the river. It’s big, you can do it. Along the river you’ll find cafes, restaurants and a fabulous outdoor market. Shop here for your fruits and vegetables, and find toys and treats in the covered shops. The Dragon Bridge is east of the market, don’t miss the symbol of Ljubljana atop the four pedestals on the corners of the bridge.
Near the river, on the East side, is the castle. Ljubljana Castle has a complex history, having first been built in the 12th century, then added on to through the years until it fell into disrepair during the 17th century. The current castle was rebuilt in the 1940’s and renovated about 40 years ago. The grounds are free, and if you walked up the hill to get here you’ll appreciate the benches to sit on and catch your breath. The other option for getting here is a tourist train if you want an easy lift up the hill. Have a look in the gift shop if you’re a souvenir hunter. Climb the 92 steps of the tower (for a small fee) to get an amazing view of the town, or head straight for the guided tour (daily during the summer, in English).
Wander back down the hill to the Town Square. This is the “old town”, the original part of Ljubljana, and it is very fun walk through this promenade of little shops and old buildings. If you’re with children, keep them occupied by having them find the many dragons tucked into decorations and architecture everywhere.
Once you cross the bridge, heading away from the castle, you’re in the “new town”. Here, the center is Prešeren Square, dominated by the large statue of France Prešeren, Slovenia’s greatest poet. Listen to the Slovenian National Anthem if you’d like to hear one of his poems. Oh, that lady right behind him? That’s one of the muses, giving him inspiration. The bridge that approaches this square from the castle is the “Triple Bridge”, and if reminds you of Venice, you got it right. Joze Plecnik, the architect who designed the bridge (and many other things including the river banks) wanted to honor Ljubljana’s cultural and physical midpoint between Vienna and Venice.
Without leaving the square, you can have a quick vision of Ljubljana. The picture of the woman on the yellow house is Prešeren’s love interest, but he was 25 years older than she, and she married someone of wealth and status instead. Just to the right of Julia is the Hauptmann house, the only building that survived the 1895 earthquake. It was redone in the Viennese Art Nouveau style some time later, and remains thusly decorated. Keep turning right, you’ll see a giant replica of the city center, and a little farther around you’ll see the big, pink Franciscan Church of St Mary. One more spin and you’re looking at the glass-domed Centromerkur, the first big department store after the 1895 quake.
Wander through the streets and parks enjoying the Art Nouveau style as you make your way south to the Joze Plecnik house. It’s past the National and University Library, which is another Plecnik design. Fun to circle it and try to understand the theme “overcoming obstacles to attain knowledge”. When the building was damaged in World War II, hundreds of Slovenians formed a human chain to save their beloved books from a fiery death. My kind of people.
Joze Plecnik house is a marvelous place filled with toys, clever furniture and other delightful things that Plecnik designed. The house can only be toured with a guide, but you get to go in the rooms and see his models and designs up close. This is the highlight of Ljubljana, and I'm not even that excited by architecture. Really, it's worth the walk.
There are plenty of other smaller sites throughout the very walkable center of town including churches, museums, and plenty of interesting architecture. Tivoli Park is a great place to take a break and enjoy the day when you have seen all the buildings you can handle.
If you have time, and really want a break from streets, I highly recommend going to see one or both of the nearby caves:
Skocjanske Jame is more rugged, requires some walking (especially from the bus stop, if that's how you got there) and stairs. It's really more of a wild cave experience, as well as a bit of a hike.
Another fun side trip (which I missed because I didn't have a car) is the Lipica stud farm. This is where they breed Lipizzaner stallions, bred to be the perfect horse. If you are a fan of these beautiful animals, plan ahead and either rent a car or arrange a tour.