10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe – While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English – Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport – This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country – While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

Authentic New York City souvenirs under $20

new york city souvenirsTrying to find authentic souvenirs amid all the mass-produced merchandise can be tough. Here are five affordable New York City souvenirs that make great gifts for foodies — and any traveler who wants to keep a taste of the Big Apple close at hand.

Shake Shack
Danny Meyer’s New York City-based burger empire makes adorable Small Fry onesies for infants and Shake Shack T-shirts for adults — the silhouettes are a nod to the hour-long waits at the original Madison Square Park location, which even has a Shack Cam webcam to help people figure out when to go.
Cost: $18 each
Where to Buy: At any of the five Shake Shack locations (Madison Square Park, Times Square, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, or Citi Field)

Gimme! Coffee
Ithaca, N.Y.-based Gimme! Coffee has a Manhattan location and an outpost in Brooklyn. Perfect for espresso lovers, this 3-ounce porcelain cup’s message is loud and clear.
Cost: $9.95 for a cup and matching saucer
Where to Buy: www.gimmecoffee.com

Broadway gear
You’ve already paid for expensive Broadway show tickets and hate the idea of paying $20 for a souvenir program. Luckily, you don’t have to go home with just the Playbill. Stop at one of the bars in the theater, where you can buy a drink and keep the reusable plastic cup. For example, a Coke in this Wicked commemorative cup costs $5, while a Wicked mug at the souvenir kiosk is $15 (and doesn’t include a drink).
Cost: $5 for soda in a souvenir cup
Where to Buy: Broadway theaters, such as Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre (222 W. 51st St.) or The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre (1515 Broadway)

Magnolia Bakery
Though the cupcake craze seems to ebb and flow, Magnolia Bakery (made famous by Sex and the City) offers a cute alternative to the regular I Heart New York T-shirts. Plus, the shirt will last long after the sugar rush subsides.
Cost: $20 for adults; $15 for teens, toddlers, and infants
Where to Buy: www.magnoliabakery.com

Jacques Torres
Warm up with this deliciously sinful Wicked Hot Chocolate — it’s spiked with cinnamon, allspice, sweet ancho chile peppers, and smoked ground chipotle chile peppers. If you can’t resist sampling the hot chocolate at the store, expect to pay $3.25 for a small 8-ounce cup and $4.25 for a large 12-ounce cup.
Cost: $18 per souvenir tin, which makes 8-10 cups each
Where to Buy: At any of the four NYC locations or www.mrchocolate.com

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5 best lightweight travel bags for under $40

When it comes to traveling with a lightweight bag, not all bags are created equal. Canvas totes that many people use for grocery shopping are often too bulky to pack as a spare travel bag, and many don’t have zippers to keep your valuables secure.

Consider packing one of these lightweight bags on your next trip — each bag costs much less than LeSportsac’s $98 classic Travel Tote, and all of these nylon bags are compact enough to fold up until you need them. Let the souvenir shopping begin.

The Reisenthel Mini Maxi Carryall ($15.95, www.reuseit.com) is the most stylish — and affordable — of the bunch. To close the bag, use the zipper or the drawstring. Best of all, the bag folds flat into a zippered pouch for tidy storage.

Timbuk2‘s Hidden Messenger ($30, www.timbuk2.com) is much lighter than the company’s signature ballistic-nylon messenger bags. This version, which launched in July, is mostly made with materials from recycled plastic bottles. Stylish, rugged, and good for the environment — imagine that.

Sea to Summit’s Ultra-Sil Sling Bag ($29.95, www.seatosummit.com) debuted this month. The bag (also with a zippered top) has a strap that’s long enough to wear diagonally across your body like a messenger bag. When not in use, the bag balls up into its own pouch and can be attached to a key chain or tossed in your suitcase to help corral those last-minute purchases.

The RuMe ALL ($26.96, www.rumebags.com) has simple yet thoughtful touches — a zip-top closure, outer pockets for a water bottle or an umbrella, and an exterior zippered pocket for stashing a cell phone or subway card. Whether you’re putting your bag on the conveyor belt to go through airport security or you’re sliding the bag under an airplane seat, the zipper helps ensure that your stuff doesn’t go flying.

The North Face‘s Flyweight Map Bag ($39, www.thenorthface.com), which can also fold up into its own pocket, has an adjustable shoulder strap and its coated nylon fabric can withstand light rain. Perfect for sightseeing, the bag will be available until February, when it will be replaced by the new Flyweight Shoulder Bag ($25).

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New York City: 5 best restaurants for affordable brunch

Brunch in New York City is a classic weekend experience, but ordering $20 eggs benedict at Jean-Georges’ Nougatine or $18 brioche French toast at Pastis doesn’t fit into everyone’s travel budget. Here are five affordable brunch alternatives to help start your day off right.

1. Le Pain Quotidien, Central Park

I know Le Pain Quotidien is a chain, but it’s not like its Belgian Waffle dusted with powdered sugar ($4.95) is settling for an Egg McMuffin. There’s even a Waffle Window at the Central Park location, which opened in May near Sheep Meadow. The Central Park location will be open until November and then re-open in the spring.

2. Cafeteria (Chelsea)

An oldie but goodie, Cafeteria delivers solid brunch options at reasonable prices. The Silver Dollar Pancakes ($10) come with fresh berries and sweet Chantilly cream. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this Chelsea favorite also draws a late-night crowd.3. Mile End Delicatessen (Boerum Hill, Brooklyn)

Communal tables are part of the fun at Mile End, a tiny restaurant that opened in January. Located just a few blocks from an A/C subway stop, there’s a take-out window for people who don’t have the patience to wait or for those who just want to pick up an iced Stumptown Coffee ($2.50). Be warned: the restaurant often runs out of its signature smoked meat by 3 p.m., but that’s also when the place tends to clear out and you can easily grab a seat at the counter. The Breakfast Sandwich ($6) looks deceptively simple, but the bread, egg, and cheese are just an excuse to devour a slab of the Meat Hook Canadian bacon. The restaurant switches to a dinner menu at 5:30 p.m.

4.
Alice’s Tea Cup (Manhattan)

Alice’s Tea Cup is as much about experiencing the over-the-top girlie vibe as the food. Expect lots of little girls having tea with their mothers (fairy wings are standard), gaggles of bridal showers, and the like. Even with two locations on the Upper East Side and one on the Upper West Side, prepare to put your name down on a waiting list (or leave your phone number and come back). At Alice’s Tea Cup Chapter II location, choose from pancakes ($7), crepes (from $8), and more. Other decadent options include finger sandwiches, gigantic scones, and cookies served on a three-tiered stand. You can also skip the line and order the scones ($3) to go. Pumpkin, chocolate chip, blueberry — it’s tough to pick just one.

5. Aurora Ristorante (SoHo & Williamsburg, Brooklyn)

The prix-fixe brunch menu at Aurora has great value. For $15, you can get coffee, a brunch entree (normally $10), and either a bellini, mimosa, Bloody Mary (regularly $8 for breakfast cocktails) or fresh orange juice. I’m a fan of the apple compote-stuffed brioche French toast with candied walnuts and mascarpone.

Got any other budget-friendly brunch spots in New York City? Feel free to share.

[Photos by Amy Chen]

Weekending: Prague


While I’m living in Istanbul, I try to take advantage of all the amazing destinations a few hours’ flight away and travel there as often as possible. I like to focus on destinations that are harder to access from the US for just a few days (such as Turkey’s beach town Bodrum) and places best explored while I’m still relatively young and unencumbered (to wit: Beirut). Traveling as an expat takes on a different flavor as well, seeking culture and cuisine not found in my new city.

The place: Prague, Czech Republic

I really had no intention of going to Prague. Not that it doesn’t interest me, I’ve heard it is enchanting and a must-see city, but this particular weekend we were all set to go to Kosovo, one of the world’s youngest countries (by self-declared independence as well as population). A series of minor events caused us to miss our flight by minutes, but as we were already at the airport and ready to travel, we asked to be re-booked on the next international flight somewhere, which turned out to be Prague. We arrived in the Czech Republic with no reservations, research, or plans and through the magic of social media (and the Prague Airport’s free wifi), I was greatly assisted and reassured by the great advice and insight from travel writers and friends Evan Rail, Alexander Basek, and Gadling’s own David Farley. Turns out it’s not an overrated country and I can now say, “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.”

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  • Two words: pork and beer. Ask any meat-eating expat in a Muslim country what they miss most about home and they will invariably say pork. While it’s available in Turkey, it’s scarce and pricey. Alcohol is easier to come by, but anything imported will cost you and while Turkey’s national Efes satisfies, it tastes like watered down Bud Light after drinking Czech beer. Arriving in a city thronged with sausage carts and beer halls was like visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The beer isn’t just tasty and cheap, it’s available anywhere, pretty much anytime. For tips on the best pubs to drink at, trust anything by Evan Rail – Tony Bourdain did earlier this year. My last night in Prague was spent at the lovely Meduza Cafe, a near-perfect spot to have a coffee or glass of wine, write in your journal, and revel in Bohemia.
  • The city’s beauty is well-known, and one of the greatest pleasures is just strolling the streets and bridges and soaking up the atmosphere. It’s interesting to contrast the romantic castle and ornate Old Town Square architecture with some of the old Soviet buildings, like the modern art Veletzni Palace museum, and the wacky sculptures of David Cerny. Small but worthwhile attractions include the Museum of Communism (if only for the darkly funny posters such as “Like their sisters in the West, they would’ve burnt their bras – if there were any in the shops”) and the Museum of Decorative Arts, featuring a fascinating collection of costumes, design, and knick-knacks – as well as a great view of the always-crowded Jewish Cemetery from the bathrooms (a tip from Evan, thanks!).

Downgrades

  • Even after seeing Paris, London, and New York, Prague is the most touristed city I’ve been to yet. Long after being discovered as a “budget” European destination (it’s still cheap by Europe standards, but not quite the bargain it was in the ’90s), the streets are packed with package tourists from all over the world, backpackers, and worst of all – pub-crawling college students. True story: one night a shirtless American kid walked in a mini-market, talking on his cell phone about how drunk he was and how he tried to hook up with some other girls in his hostel. He hung up and told his friends he was talking to his MOM. By day in the areas around Old Town Square and Prague Castle, you’d be hard pressed to hear anyone speak Czech and it’s difficult to find a spot not mobbed with tourists, which all takes a bit away from the city’s authenticity.
  • Not quite a downgrade but perhaps due to the aforementioned tourists, service at restaurants can be brusque and some less scrupulous taxi drivers have been known to take passengers for a ride. If possible, let your hotel book taxis to ensure you get a fair price and find out what approximate prices are around town. Other than a few waiters having a bad day, I’d hardly condemn the Czech people as being anything other than friendly and helpful. The bigger deterrent is the disrespectful, entitled, and obnoxious tourists.

Getting there

Delta flies direct from New York to Prague Airport, and British and American Airlines fly via London Heathrow. Budget carriers bmiBaby, German Wings, easyJet, and WizzAir service Prague from Europe. It’s an easy and cheap bus and metro ride into the city center from the airport.

Make it a week

Prague is surrounded by beautiful countryside (remember the sunflower fields in Everything is Illuminated? Filmed outside Prague) and the city is well connected to towns and cities around the Czech Republic. Spend a few days in the capital and then get out and explore Bohemia.