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Why go now?
Slovenia's compact capital is an ideal weekend destination, with plenty to see and explore. The city is especially attractive in early autumn as the deciduous woods draping the hills around it begin to mellow. Meanwhile the al fresco bars and restaurants along the Ljubljanica river are still packed with locals, students and visitors.
Ljubljana's Joze Plecnik airport ( lju-airport.si) is 27km north-west of the capital. Buses to the city leave hourly, on the hour, Monday to Friday, and every two hours (from 10am) at weekends. Buy a ticket (€4.10) from the driver for the 45-minute journey to the railway and bus stations (1). Private minibuses from the airport charge between €5 and €8 per person and serve major hotels. A taxi costs around €40.
Get your bearings
Ljubljana is dominated by its medieval castle (2), on a hill in the south of the city. At its base is the Old Town, arranged along three interlinked, cobbled squares: Mestni trg, Stari trg and Gornji trg. The commercial and administrative heart of the city, as well as the main museums, is on the other side of the Ljubljanica river.
Just across the eccentric Triple Bridge (3) is the city's main square, Presernov trg (4). From there, Miklosiceva cesta, lined with striking early 20th-century buildings, runs north for 500m to the railway and bus stations (1). The parallel avenue, Slovenska cesta, is the city's main artery and shopping street.
It's easy to explore the heart of the city on foot, although Ljubljana is also bike-friendly. Bicycles can be rented from the national tourist office at 10 Krekov trg (5); it opens 8am-9pm daily (00 386 13 06 45 80; slovenia.si).
The city's main tourist office (6), by the Triple Bridge at 2 Adamic-Lundrovo nabrezje, opens 8am-9pm daily (00 386 13 06 12 15; ljubljana.si), as does the office at the railway station (1). These bureaux sell, for €12.52, a 72-hour Ljubljana card which gives free entry to a number of museums, unlimited public transport and discounts on taxis, restaurants and other services.
At the top end of the market, the Grand Union Executive (7) is centrally placed at Miklosiceva 1 (00 386 13 08 12 70; gh-union.si). Doubles with breakfast start at €140. The Old Town's Gornji trg has a number of boutique hotels. The newest, at number 7, is the Lesar Hotel Angel (8) (00 386 14 25 50 89; angelhotel.si). Doubles with breakfast from €150.
Mid-price, central accommodation is in short supply although the lively Macek Café (9) at 5 Krojaška ulica (00 386 14 25 3791; sobe-macek.si) has six doubles overlooking the river, from €96.
In the budget bracket, the Celica Youth Hostel (10), close to the station at 8 Metelkova ulica (00 386 12 30 97 00; hostelcelica.com), is a former prison from the Communist era. The cells have been given an impressive makeover. Dorm beds start at €17 excluding breakfast, with private rooms also available.
Take a hike
Start in Presernov trg (4) with its striking pink and red Franciscan church. Cross the river by the Triple Bridge (3), one of the many works of the architect Joze Plecnik. In front of you is the grey and white façade of the Town Hall (11); art exhibitions are often held in its Baroque inner courtyard.
Turn right and continue along the cobbled streets of Mestni trg and Stari trg, flanked by boutiques and restaurants, before returning to the river bank.
Cross the Ljubljanica by the Cobblers' Bridge (12), where shoemakers in the 17th century could trade free of tax. Just beyond Novi trg you'll find a striking Plecnik building: the National Library (13). Go inside to experience the change from darkness to light, his metaphor for acquiring knowledge. It's open 8am-8pm Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm on Saturday and closed on Sunday.
Then turn right along Gosposka ulica, passing on your left the Baroque Kongresni trg (14), which will be lovely again when the underground car park is completed. Mooch around the Knafljev prehod (15), an oasis of bars and restaurants beside a little park.
Finally, take a short stroll south for an insight into the genius of the architect Joze Plecnik. Visit his home at 4 Karunova ulica (16); he lived here until his death in 1957. Book ahead by phone (00 386 12 80 16 00) or email ( email@example.com). Tours run hourly 9am-3pm on Saturday, and 10am-6pm from Tuesday to Thursday, admission €4.
Lunch on the run
The classic Balkan snack is the burek, a pasty of filo pastry, stuffed with cheese, meat or apple. The Olimpija (17) at 2 Prazakova ulica provides a fine, non-greasy version for €2 and a counter to lean on while you eat it; open 24 hours. Another Ljubljana favourite, the pizza, can be bought by the slice for a similar price at the popular city-centre takeaway the Delikatesa Ljubljanski Dvor (18) at 11 Kongresni trg (00 386 14 26 93 27); open 9am-midnight daily except Sunday.
Stroll through the streets of the Old Town to find small shops specialising in porcelain, designer clothing, jewellery, etc.
Among the more unusual is Piranske Soline (19), at 19 Mestni trg, which sells products based on sea salt, including an interesting salt-flavoured chocolate. A more conventional chocolate shop, Cukrcek, is nearby at number 11.
Across the river, Medex (20) has gift items based on honey, a traditional Slovenian product. Look for the appropriately golden-yellow shop front at 30 Miklosiceva cesta.
The local beer, Union, will cost around €2 for a large glass, while among the wide range of Slovenian wines, the dry and refreshing rosé known as Cvicek is worth trying (€1.70 for a small glass). On the Old Town side of the Ljubljanica, the focal point is the boisterous Macek Café (9) at 5 Krojaska ulica (00 386 14 25 37 91; sobe-macek.si). Open 9am-12.30am (Sundays to 11pm).
On the opposite bank, at 19 Hribarjevo nabrezje, is the cool Makalonca (21). Descend a spiral staircase to find its waterside terrace; open 9am-12.30am daily (Sundays 9am-11pm).
Dining with the locals
The classiest meal in town is to be had at Restavracija JB (22) at 17 Miklosiceva cesta (00 386 14 33 13 58; jb-slo.com). It is located on the ground floor of yet another Plecnik creation, the Vzajemna insurance building. Expect to pay €50 (£41) for dinner with wine from a constantly changing menu of international and Slovenian dishes, based on seasonal ingredients; closed Sundays.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Catholic 18th-century Cathedral of St Nicholas (23), with its imposing green dome and twin bell towers, is at 1 Dolnicarjeva ulica. The vivid ceiling frescos by Giulo Quaglio are a treat for the eye, as are the beautiful bronze doors, added in 1996 to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul II. It opens 10am-noon and 3pm-6pm daily.
Take a view
Start with a 20-minute walk up the shady path which starts at St Florian's Church in Gornji trg and zig-zags towards the heavily fortified walls of the castle; the funicular railway from Krekov trg (24) will get you there quicker for €1.50. The castle (2) is generously open 9am-11pm daily; admission is free but it costs €5 to climb the 100 steps of the Watchtower.
From the top, enjoy a panorama across the red roofs of the city and, on a clear day, as far as the peak of Mount Triglav, Slovenia's highest mountain.
Out to brunch
On a corner of leafy Trg Francoske ("French Revolution Square") at the appropriately named Petit Café (25) enjoy a leisurely al fresco English or continental breakfast with coffee for €5 – or try an omelette. It opens 7.30am to midnight daily (00 386 1251 25 75).
A walk in the park
Tivoli Park is Ljubljana's largest green space, with a mix of formal gardens, woods and chestnut-shaded avenues. Access to the park from the city centre is via a pedestrian subway (26) at the end of Cankarjeva cesta. An added attraction is the Art Café Tivoli (27) at 3 Pod turnom.
Tivoli Park contains the informative Contemporary History Museum (28) in a fabulous building at 23 Celovska (00 386 1 300 96 10; muzej-nz.si). Open 10am-6pm from Thursday to Sunday, admission €7.
Ljubljana's other main museums are grouped near the Tivoli Park, a 10-minute walk from Presernov trg (4). If you have time for only one, the National Gallery of Slovenia (29) at 24 Presernova cesta (00 386 1 241 54 18; ng-slo.si) is the one to choose. The collection of art from the 13th century to the early 20th includes striking landscapes by the Slovenian Impressionist, Rihard Jakopic. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday, €7, and is free on the first Sunday of the month.
The National Museum of Slovenia (30) with its collection of Roman artefacts, and the Gallery of Modern Art (31), complete Ljubljana's main cultural offerings.
Take a ride
Get a different perspective on the city with a boat tour along the Ljubljanica, ideally as the early evening sun picks out the colours of the Old Town. Tours (with English-speaking guides) leave from Ribji trg pier (32) and cost €10 (00 386 13 06 12 15). Keep an eye out for the dragon on Dragon Bridge (33) which, allegedly, wags its tail when a virgin crosses.
The icing on the cake
End your visit with dinner in the pleasant suburb of Trnovo in Pri Skofu (34) at 8 Recnu. Sit outside under trees and choose from the day's dishes written on a blackboard. Soups and salads cost around €3, mains such as black risotto from €10.