10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

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.


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.

My night with the Balkans’s beloved Rakia

Aaron’s post on the Czech alcohol Becherovka had me thinking about the Balkans’s beloved drink, Rakia, which I had the displeasure of tasting on my recent travels in Slovenia. Rakia (?ganje), you see, must be the complete opposite of Becherovka (of which I’ve never tried), at least in terms of Aaron’s “gingerbread and Christmas” description.

Long ago I stopped taking shots of hard alcohol because I couldn’t handle it. Beer is my friend, but one too many Jagers or Rumplemintz has turned me off the bottle entirely. But one evening while knocking back a few Union beers in Bled, Slovenia’s only Irish pub and hostel combination, George Best’s, I was confronted by an old man carrying a tray of shot glasses filled with clear liquid. “Rakia,” he mumbled. “For you!”

I suppose I should back up a bit. A few minutes before this, I had set my beer down on a table to grab something out of my back pocket. When I looked back down at the table a few seconds later, my beer was gone. I knew it couldn’t have gone far, and sure enough, the older Slovenian gentleman with whom I had just been sharing a drunken conversation, was holding it in his hand. “Hey,” I said, getting his attention. “You’ve got my beer!”
I expected a confrontation. I spoke absolutely no Slovenian, the man barely any English, and our prior communication didn’t amount to much in the way of actual conversation. It took 15 minutes, for instance, for him to explain to me what he did for a living which, as far as I could tell, involved replacing o-rings on toilets. Instead of confrontation, I got the most heartfelt apology I’d ever received. It was obvious that the man had no intentions of swiping my beer, he was just too drunk to know that it wasn’t his. He apologized profusely, handed my beer back, and disappeared into the crowd.

This is when, only a few moments later, I saw him heading back in my general direction with a tray full of shots. “No, no — really, it’s OK!” I pleaded. I really didn’t want the shot, but in line with typical Slovenian hospitality, he insisted. And in the interest of maintaining diplomatic relations, I obliged.

The taste of Rakia could be described as a mix between brandy and rubbing alcohol, or “lighter fluid and Halloween,” if forced to link it with a holiday as Aaron did. The subtle hints of fruit promised by the labels on popular brands were nowhere to be found, probably because what I was drinking was distilled in a dirty bathtub somewhere. “Gee thanks!” I said, downing the first one. I put my hand up in protest for the second. The way I saw it, there was absolutely no chance I’d be drinking another shot of Rakia without ultimately ending up face down in the bathroom. Luckily, a friend with a higher tolerance and more hair on his chest stepped in and took the last one for the team — a selfless act I will never forget.

And that was my one and only night with the Balkans’s beloved Rakia.

Where on Earth? Week 34: Vintgar Gorge – Bled, Slovenia

Nobody correctly guessed this week’s Where on Earth, but that’s OK — it was a tough one. Tom G. guessed Slovenia, but that “G” stands for “Glow” — sorry Dad, but family members are ineligible. Where the hell is the Corvath river anyway?

Vintgar Gorge is located just a few kilometers outside of the lovely town of Bled in Slovenia. The water is known as Radovna river, a tributary of the Sava, which is a tributary of the Danube. It cuts through the gorge with tremendous force, and made for a spectacular hike you should definitely take the next time you’re in Bled. And be sure to stay at Traveller’s Haven!

See you next week!