48 Hours In: Ljubljana

It's got parks, woodland, castles and art, and as Europe's smallest capital, is best explored on foot, says Anthony Lambert


WHY GO NOW?

The deciduous woods covering the hills around the Slovenian capital will be wearing the colours of autumn. The 11th Ljubljana Marathon takes place on 29 October, and the traditional St Nicholas Fair with its many stalls is held in the first week of December, when the city centre is specially illuminated. Cleaning and restoration of the murals on the cathedral ceiling have just been completed after six years' work. Avoid the midweek public holidays on 31 October and 1 November as nearly everything will be closed.

TOUCH DOWN

Adria Airways (020-7734 4630; www.adria-airways.com) flies to Ljubljana from Gatwick from £133 return and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies once daily from Stansted from £41 return. Buses from Ljubljana airport run every hour to the railway station (1), cost 1,200 Slovenian tolars (expressed as "sit") (£3.50) and take about 40 minutes.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Ljubljana is one of Europe's smallest capitals, with a population of 280,000. So the centre is easily explored on foot. The city is bisected by the Ljubljanica River, with the Old Town clustered around Castle Hill on the right bank. The heart of the city is Presernov trg (2), overlooked by the classical façade of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation and leading on to the landmark Triple Bridge (3). At its south end is the tourist information centre (4) (00 386 1 306 12 15; www.ljubljana-tourism.si) which has a large selection of printed information in English and sells the three-day Ljubljana Card for 3,000sit (£8.50). This gives free bus transport and free or discounted admission to museums. The largely pedestrian city centre really hums at night, with cafés and bars along the river packed with locals, students and visitors.

CHECK IN

Grand Hotel Union Executive (5) at Miklosiceva 1 (00 386 1 308 12 70; www.gh-union.si) occupies an eye-catching 1905 art nouveau building. Generous use of wood is made in the well-equipped and updated bedrooms. For a lovely view over the castle and the old city, ask for an even-numbered room on the 7th, 8th or 9th floor, which start at €142 (£101), including breakfast. Don't be deterred by the unprepossessing exterior of Hotel Emonec (6) at Wolfova 12 (00 386 1 200 15 20; www.hotel-emonec.com); its rooms have been stylishly modernised and it is in a quiet location despite being close to Presernov trg. Doubles start at 17,000sit (£50), including breakfast. The former jail (7) at Metelkova 8 has been magnificently converted to the Celica Youth Hostel (00 386 1 230 9700; www.souhostel.com). "Hostel" is a misnomer, since it is the closest Ljubljana has to a boutique hotel, and also doubles as an art gallery. You can stay in a dorm for 3,500sit (£10), while a former cell converted to an exquisite split-level double room is €24 (£17), including breakfast. Lower prices are available for under-35s.

TAKE A VIEW

A shaded footpath begins off Studentovska Ulica opposite the market (8) and leads to the castle (9), which dates from the 15th century and opens 10am-9pm daily from October-April and until 10pm during summer; admission 1,100sit (£3.10). From the viewing tower, you can see that the city is built around a series of low hills with mountains in the distance. Don't miss the curious serpentine pews in the chapel, its walls covered in coats of arms.

TAKE A HIKE

Starting at the tourist information centre (4), turn right along the classical arcade that stands on the site of the city walls towards the market (8). Before entering the square, look out for the spiral staircase that leads down to a fine fish market. Walk through it to reach the market square, full of impressive local produce and stalls of wooden rakes, scythe handles, superbly woven baskets and candles for religious use.

Cross the Dragon Bridge (10), decorated with copper dragons and stonework in Secessionist style, and turn left along the river to appreciate the market colonnade and Triple Bridge (3). Both were designed by Joze Plecnik who studied under Otto Wagner and had a major impact on the city's appearance. In Presernov trg (2) is a statue to France Preseren, the Slovenian poet who wrote the national anthem and duly had the main square named after him.

Also overlooking the square is the outstanding art nouveau Centromerkur, the city's first department store which retains its period interior and extraordinary staircase, like a triumphal arch. On the other side is the only building on the square to survive the 1895 earthquake unscathed, the Hauptmann House of 1873, clad in bright ceramic tiles.

Continue along the river past the Cobblers' Bridge (11) and cross over at the next bridge. Take the second left along Levstikov trg to enter the old town's most historic street, lined with baroque houses and the Town Hall (12), parts of which date from the late 15th century. Free tours of the hall are given at noon on Saturdays. In front of its classical facade is the city's most beautiful fountain, the Three Rivers, completed in 1751 by the Venetian sculptor Francesco Robba.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Cajna Hisa (13) at Stari trg 3 (00 386 1 421 24 44) specialises in dozens of different teas, Illy coffee and cakes, but also serves delicious salads and sandwiches. Try a rocket and prosciutto salad for 1,400sit (£4), and pumpernickel with rocket, capers, tomatoes, egg and parmesan cheese for 550sit (£1.50). It has a cosy vaulted mezzanine level.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Vigée le Brun is probably the best-known painter represented in the National Gallery of Slovenia (14) (00 386 1 241 5418; www.ng-slo.si), which opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday, admission 1,000sit (£3), but its landscapes and bourgeois portraits offer a good insight into the country's past. A painting by Frans Schams (1824-83) entitled A Curious Watchman shows two men with an early plate camera and wooden box of plates - one of the earliest depictions in art of a camera.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The contiguous streets of Mestni and Stari trg are lined with elegantly windowed shops. The jewellery shop of Frey Wille (15) at Mestni trg 8 (00 386 1 421 03 15) sells jewellery inspired by Gustav Klimt. A few doors along at number 17 Mestni trg is the Idrian Lace Sales Gallery (00 386 1 425 00 51) which sells lace tablecloths, napkins and panels from the Idrian Lace School.

AN APERITIF

Enoteca (16) at Nazopjeva 12 (00 386 1 423 71 06) has a brick-vaulted ceiling and stone walls and a large selection of wines. Union is the local beer, Tivoli being the pale lager style and Crni Baron the darker ale.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

Ljubljana's market (8) tells you a lot about the city's restaurants, which serve food made with excellent ingredients. One of the best is Gostilna As (17) at Copova 5a (00 386 1 425 88 22; www.gostilnaas.si) where a series of small rooms gives the restaurant an intimate feel, and in clement weather tables are laid on a terrace under an immense 120-year-old acacia tree. There is no menu, the dishes of the day being determined by whatever ingredients meet the exacting standards of the chef. Fish is to the fore, and a five-course dinner with wine will set you back 15,500sit (£45).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Work on the current Cathedral (18) began in 1701 but was not finished until the mid-19th century. Pause before entering to admire the new bronze main door, created in 1996 in honour of the Pope's visit, which is an allegory of Christianity in Slovenia, reading from the ancient past at the bottom to the present at the top.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Brunch is uncommon in Ljubljana, but the Abecedarium Café (19) at Ribji trg 2, with tables in a cobbled courtyard close to the river, offers breakfast with muesli at 650sit (£2) and eggs florentine at 1,100sit (£3). You can check your e-mails over coffee.

TAKE A RIDE

The journey to one of Slovenia's scenic highlights, Lake Bled and its crag-top castle, takes a little over an hour from the bus station outside the railway station (1) for 1,400sit (£4) one way. The castle museum is open from 8am-8pm until the end of October, then until 5pm. Alternatively, bikes can be hired from the tourist information office at Krekov trg 10 (20) between April and October, from 200sit (60p) per hour to 1,000sit (£3) for a day. Ljubljana Card-holders are entitled to four free hours. An English-language leaflet describes six routes that take you out of the city.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Rising up the flank of a hill, the well-wooded Krajinski Park Tivoli provides the lungs of the city. The park has a swimming pool, tennis courts, playground, and the baroque Tivoli Manor (21), once owned by Field Marshall Radetsky to whom Strauss dedicated the eponymous march. It now houses the International Centre of Graphic Arts (daily except Monday, 10am-6pm; admission 800sit/£2.50). The mid 18th-century Cekin Manor (22) with T72 tank outside now houses the National Museum of Contemporary History (daily 10am-6pm; admission 800sit/£2.50).

WRITE A POSTCARD

Café Antico at Stari trg 27 (23) serves excellent coffee in a warm atmosphere with staff in long aprons.

ICING ON THE CAKE

Pick up a bargain at the Sunday flea market between the Triple Bridge (3) and the Cobblers' Bridge (11); it operates 7am-2pm and offers an astonishing variety of bygones, from busts of Tito to old postcards.

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