Ljubljana: Capital idea for a spring break

In this week's Lonely Planet 'Great Escape', discover lovely Ljubljana, the small-scale Slovenian city with culture and gourmet delights at its heart

As Slovenia's largest city and its political, economic and cultural capital, Ljubljana is where virtually everything of national importance begins, ends or is taking place. Of course that might not be immediately apparent in spring and summer, when café tables spill into the narrow streets of the Old Town and street musicians and actors entertain passers-by in Preseren Square and on the little bridges spanning the Ljubljanica River.

Since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 after a 10-day war, Slovenia has revelled in its position at the heart of Europe. The country's second largest city, Maribor, was the 2012 European Capital of Culture and Ljubljana's cultural scene is thriving, with fashion designers such as the city's own Marjeta Groselj, open-air gigs and performances, and galleries including the pioneering Equrna (named after the goddess of the Ljubljanica River) all finding a place among the city's Baroque boulevards and backstreets.

The city itself is a living museum of the work of the renowned architect Joze Plecnik (1872–1957). Stroll the embankments of the Ljubljanica River to explore his finely detailed, temple-like market halls and the vibrant Central Market plaza. Plecnik's redesign of Ljubljana's largest park, the 510-hectare Tivoli, created a long promenade through this eclectic cultural garden.

The centrepiece of Plecnik's Ljubljana is the National and University Library of Slovenia, a short walk south of Preseren Square. The monumental form is a deftly woven mass of brick and reclaimed stone, modelled on an Italian palazzo. Inside, a colonnaded black marble staircase rises up to the light of the main reading room.

All the while, Ljubljana Castle hovers quietly above. Established in the 12th century, this hilltop fortification is part of Roman and Habsburg history. Take the daring steel-and-glass funicular railway up for an overview of the city.

The perfect getaway

To begin your encounter with Ljubljana, take a seat on the steps that circle the statue of the poet France Preseren – composer of the Slovenian national anthem – in the main square. A collection of handsome Art Nouveau buildings from the early 20th century provides a colourful backdrop to the theatre of the square, with the 17th-century salmon-pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation as a centrepiece. For actual drama and music, head 10 minutes west to the Slovenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre; a recent restoration of the neo-Renaissance building brought fresh colour to its pink façade and the cheeks of its cherubs.

Head south from Preseren Square, across the intriguing Triple Bridge, to find the Old Town. Between the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge, the market halls, created by architect Plecnik in the 1940s, curve along the eastern side of the riverbank.

Strolling in the opposite direction from the square, you will find one of the city's best-known buildings, the Cooperative Bank. Architect Ivan Vurnik designed this strikingly decorative example of the Slovenian national style in the 1920s. The city's army barracks, a 15-minute walk north-east, are now an exciting museum quarter, housing the white-clad Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova since 2011. As the country straddles East and West, so the museum reaches out to avant-garde Eastern European art in a West-leaning nation.

Famished flâneurs should end the day by taking the funicular up to Ljubljana Castle – not only to drink in the views over the city, but also to savour a fresh take on traditional Slovenian cuisine by three of the city's top chefs at Gostilna Na Gradu, where they bring harmony to Slovenia's varied ingredients.

Plan it

By air you will arrive at Ljubljana's Joze Pucnik Airport, 26km from the city centre. Bus services and taxis connect the airport to the city. From Venice or Vienna, a scenic train journey will bring you to Ljubljana railway station, walking distance from the city's cobbled centre. Stay in a hotel on one of the city's pedestrian-friendly streets. The Vander Urbani Resort in the Old Town has serious design credentials. Book early: Ljubljana is a small capital.

Detour

For 10 days every September, the city of Maribor, 130km north-east of Ljubljana on the Austrian border and in the heartland of Slovenian winemaking, celebrates the birthday of the single oldest grape-growing vine in the world. Now more than 400 years old, the Zametovka vine has survived war and disease to be rewarded with its own Old Vine Festival, marking the annual grape harvest. Fancy a taste of its fruit? Unless you're a visiting dignitary, you're out of luck. Console yourself with sampling wines from local vineyards at the festival. µ

This is an extract from 'Great Escapes', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). To order a copy, go to shop.lonelyplanet.com

What to see

* Cruising the Ljubljanica River – a picturesque and inexpensive way to see the city.

* Joining a walking tour of Joze Plecnik's work in the Old Town and taking a guided tour of his house in the suburb of Trnovo, a museum of the architect's life and work.

* Wandering through the open-air Central Market and the market halls, observing the theatre of daily life in the city.

* Travelling by foot or funicular to Ljubljana Castle, to climb the soaring spiral stairs in the viewing tower and look out over the city and its surrounds.

Travel essentials

Location: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Best time of year: March to October; spring, to have the city to yourself

Ideal time commitment: A long weekend

Essential tip: There's no rush: you won't need a checklist of sights to tick off

Pack: Walking shoes; you'll do all your exploring on foot

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