One of the great pleasures of exploring a hilly city is a constantly changing, often surprising, landscape. One minute you are trudging along a crowded sidewalk, huffing and puffing up a big hill, and suddenly you glimpse it between buildings: the Bosphorus. The Acropolis. The Prague Castle. Today’s Photo of the Day from San Francisco reminded me of the moment of magic. From out of the shadows of Russian Hill, Flickr user Nan Palmero shows us the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge and the city spread out before you. It’s a good chance to stop, catch your breath, take a photo and keep on trucking until the next overlook – hopefully with a refreshing beverage nearby too.
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.
Castles originated in Europe over a thousand years ago. These fortresses were one of the original defense systems, and erecting the structures on hills or just beyond moats was a functional choice. Castles were built to house rulers, impose power, and above all, spurn would be attackers. Conforming to these basic principles of utilitarian design, the strongholds now appear solitary, majestic, and frozen in time. The attackers are long gone, and now a steady stream of camera clutching invaders breach the castles daily, ready to inspect the epic grandeur of the past.
While Europe has hundreds of excellent castles, these ten all have design, character, and history that sets them apart. Some occupy the center of bustling cities, while others lurk in forgotten countrysides. Spanning eight countries across Europe, each of these castles has a story to tell.
Prague Castle (above)
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Nearest airport: Prague Airport
Year originally built: 870
Inhabitants: Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of the Czech Republic
Interesting fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague castle is the largest castle complex in the world.
Bran “Dracula’s” Castle
Location: Bran, Romania
Nearest airport: Henri Coandă International Airport in Otopeni, Romania near Bucharest
Year originally built: 1212
Inhabitants: Teutonic Knights, Mircea the Elder, Vlad III, and Romanian royalty
Interesting fact: In 2007, the castle was put up for sale for $78 million. It has since been taken off the market.
Location: Schwangau, Germany
Nearest airport: Munich International Airport
Year originally built: construction began in 1869
Inhabitants: King Ludwig II
Interesting fact: This castle has been visited by over 60 million people and is the template for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.
Location: Maidstone, Kent, England
Nearest airport: Kent International Airport
Year originally built: 1119
Inhabitants: King Edward I, Henry VIII, and other notable British royalty
Interesting fact: Leeds Castle hosts a large garden maze and a dog collar museum.
Location: Windsor, Berkshire, England
Nearest airport: Heathrow Airport
Year originally built: 11th century
Inhabitants: William the Conqueror, Henry I, Edward III, and many other British rulers
Interesting fact: Windsor Castle is the longest-occupied palace in Europe.
Location: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Nearest airport: Rennes Britanny Airport
Year originally built: 10th century, though the earliest abbeys in the fort date to the 6th century
Inhabitants: Currently 41 people call the Mont Saint-Michel home, and the structure has been home to monks to over a thousand years.
Interesting fact: The tides around Mont Saint-Michel vary by almost 50 feet, and many people have drowned approaching across the sands.
Château de Chambord
Location: Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France
Nearest airport: Paris Charles de Gaulle
Year originally built: 1526
Inhabitants: King François I, Louis XIV, and the Ducal family
Interesting fact: Though the original designer of the châteaux is widely disputed, some insist it was Leonardo Da Vinci.
Location: South of Salzburg, Austria
Nearest airport: Salzburg Airport
Year originally built: 1078
Inhabitants: Salzburg rulers and prisoners
Interesting fact: The misty castle served as a prison for hundreds of years.
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Nearest airport: Budapest Airport
Year originally built: 1265
Inhabitants: Hungarian Kings
Interesting fact: You can visit a portion of the 6 mile subterranean labyrinth under Buda Castle.
Location: Granada, Spain
Nearest airport: Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport
Year originally built: 14th century
Inhabitants: Muslim Emirs from the Nasrid Dynasty and Charles V
Interesting fact: It was in the Alhambra’s Hall of Ambassadors that Columbus made his pitch to sail to the orient by heading west from Spain.
For hundreds of years, Czech Republic was the land of knights and castles, royalty and moats, and drawbridges. Though the country boasts hundreds of castles and palaces across its hills and mountains, several impressive castles are close enough to Prague to be seen within one vacation. Still depicting the spirit of their peak days as royal medieval fortresses, these five castles are worth a closer look.
Founded in the 9th century, the Prague Castle is one of the oldest castles in the region. During its long history, the Castle housed Bohemian Kings, Holy Roman Emperors, and Presidents of Czech Republic. Today, the Prague Castle is said to be the biggest ancient castle, and gleams as the jewel glistening above the Vltava River as the centerpiece of Prague.
What to do: Plan to spend a day to tour the soaring Cathedral, extensive gardens, and regal palaces within the Prague Castle.
Founded in 1348 by Czech King and Roman Emporer Charles IV, this castle sits high on a hill overlooking the sleepy Vltava Moldau River. The town below advances up the hill with quaint shops and Czech-style restaurants, making the trek up toward the Karlštein Castle an experience in itself.
What to do: Plan to take the horse-drawn carriage up the steep grade road, from the only parking at the bottom, and enjoy the old-world feel of the village and castle to the sound of the horses’ clip-clop over cobblestones.
Approaching Křivoklát Castle from the surrounding hills creates a breathtaking experience, every time. Křivoklát looks like the castles born of fairy tales, built in the 12th century and washed a majestic white. Inside, find a Gothic chapel, an extensive library, and a memorable collection of Gothic-era art.
What to do: Take the tour, and see firsthand the notorious dungeons and prison torture instruments.
This middle ages castle of the 12th century sits near the Czech-German border, and was once thought to be the key to the kingdom of Bohemia. Perched high above a dramatic promontory overlooking the Ohře River, the Loket Castle is a sight worth beholding, especially notable for its complete reconstruction by the townspeople of the village of Loket after its ruins during Communism.
What to do: Visit the charming town of Loket during one of their Festivals, and participate in the glimpse into medieval life.
Česky Krumlov Castle
One of the best preserved medieval towns in the world, ranked Number Two by the UNESCO World Heritage list, second only to Venice, Italy. Česky Krumlov, near the Czech-Austrian border, is the second largest castle in the Czech Republic, after the Prague Castle.
What to do: Tour the extensive gardens above the Castle, see a theater production hosted in the gardens amphitheater, or raft down the moat-like Vltava River below.
Czech Republic, home to hundreds of castles and palaces, is truly a fairy tale world to discover.
Jennifer Lyn King, a native of Texas, lives in the Czech Republic, where she writes from her home near Prague. She is the author of The One Year Mini for Busy Women. Read her blog on Red Room. All the photos above are copyright Jennifer Lyn King.