Ljubljana, Easygoing Capital of Slovenia
The laid-back capital of this engaging country is fun to explore, especially its riverfront promenade and farmers market. Hometown architect Jože Plečnik gave Ljubljana its playful architecture. His bridges — like the Triple Bridge — are popular hangouts, and his house is now a museum on his work and life.
Complete Video Script
Tiny Slovenia — with just two million people — is one of Europe's most unexpectedly delightful destinations. Located where the Germanic, Mediterranean, and Slavic worlds come together, Slovenia has a unique appeal.
We'll enjoy the playful architecture and lively café culture of its capital city, row to a church-capped island, explore the Julian Alps, descend into a grand, underground canyon, and sunbathe with Slavs on the tiny but inviting Slovenian coast.
During most of the 20th century, Yugoslavia was on the other side of what was called the "Iron Curtain." As Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries in the 1990s, Slovenia became independent after a 11-day war. We begin in the capital city, Ljubljana. After relaxing at Lake Bled, we loop through the Julian Alps and the historic Soča River Valley. We end at the Adriatic resort of Piran.
Ljubljana feels small. It is, with only about a quarter-million people. But it's by far the country's largest city, cultural capital, and a charming place to kick off any Slovenian trip.
A fortress has capped Ljubljana's hill since Roman times. As if turning its back on its hard-fought history, the city playfully straddles its sleepy river. Ljubljana is laid back — the kind of place where crumbling buildings seem elegantly atmospheric, rather than shoddy. In its relaxed pedestrian center, it seems all roads lead to the main square. Fancy facades and whimsical bridges ornament daily life with a Slovenian twist.
Centuries of rule from Vienna under the German-speaking Habsburgs seems to have both inspired an appreciation of the good life and strengthened the local spirit. The statue of France Prešeren, Slovenia's greatest poet, reminds locals that their language and culture are both distinct and worthy of pride.
The Triple Bridge — where the town square joins the river — is both a popular meeting place and a beloved symbol of the city.
The bridge seems almost Venetian. That's because the architect recognized that Ljubljana is located midway between Venice and Vienna, and the city itself was — and still is — a bridge between the Italian and Germanic worlds.
The riverfront market is a hive of activity, where big-city Slovenes enjoy buying directly from the farmer. Over time, shoppers develop friendships with their favorite producers. In this tiny country, it seems like everybody knows each other. Some farmers still use wooden carts to bring veggies in from their garden patches. Then they flip over the cart to turn it into a sales stand. The market is a perfect opportunity to connect with the locals.
Rick: Dober dan.
Vendor: Dober dan.
Rick: Half kilo. How do you say "half-kilo"?
Vendor: Pol kilo.
Rick: Pol kilo.
Vendor: Pol kilo.
Rick: Pol kilo… This is your farm?
Vendor: Our farm, yes. They are fresh.
Rick: Yes, they look good.
These scales allow buyers to immediately double-check the arithmetic…just in case.
The Habsburg days left locals with the old saying, "Trust is good; control is better." Half a kilo — it's just right.
The market's picturesque colonnade is designed to link the town and the river. It feels made-to-order for conviviality — enjoying a drink or observing the market action. Nearby, market vintners proudly share their wines. These wines, from the northeast, are considered some of the country's best.
Ljubljana's single best activity is simply strolling the riverfront promenade and sitting in an outdoor café watching the stylish Slovenes strut their stuff. As home of the country's main university, youthful Ljubljana is busy with students.
An earthquake leveled the city in 1895. It was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles so popular in Vienna, the empire's capital at the time. Ljubljana remains a treasure trove of engaging architecture. This striking bank building was designed by an ambitious local architect, hoping to forge a uniquely Slovenian style.
But the big name in local architecture and urban planning is Jože Plečnik. Like Gaudí shaped Barcelona and Bernini shaped Rome, Plečnik shaped Ljubljana. He lived in the early 20th century, studied in Vienna, made his name in Prague, and had the greatest impact right here, in his hometown.
Prolific Plečnik essentially remodeled his hometown with his distinctive classical-meets-modern style. Along with the Triple Bridge and market colonnade, Plečnik's brilliance for urban design — the ability to connect Ljubljanans to their city and river — is evident in his Cobbler's Bridge. Because he loved his town, walked to work each day, and had to live with what he designed, Plečnik was particularly thoughtful about incorporating aesthetics, nature, and people's needs into his work.
The house of Ljubljana's favorite son is on an unassuming street. But behind the gate, in his garden, the creative world of Plečnik opens up. Guides, passionate about his work, give meaning to his home.
Natalija: So, this is Plečnik's room, where he worked, and he slept here.
Rick: So his bed right next to his work table.
Natalija: Yes, absolutely.
Rick: And a single bed — was he never married?
Natalija: No, he was married to the architecture. But on the other hand, you have here a gilded sculpture on the top of the ceiling. Some kind of a muse, you know. But if you look all around, you will see there are many, many personal objects…his glasses, or — for example — his hat. He was famous by that hat. He was always wearing it and always dressed in black.
Rick: So, Plečnik is very important to the Slovenian people.
Natalija: Absolutely. He left such a strong mark, not only in Vienna and Prague, but definitely in Ljubljana, because all the land accesses and river accesses are designed by Plečnik.
Rick: And his heritage lives on today as the people enjoy his city.
Natalija: That is the most important. All the bridges are crowded, you know. Architecture really lives, even nowadays.
If this city works for its people and fits their character, it's at least in part thanks to Jože Plečnik.