, , ,

Ljubljana, Slovenia has to be the most charming city I had never heard of before last summer. When we were planning a few weeks in the Balkans, I kept running into references to this hip little college town and decided it had to be added to the itinerary. After four days there, we were sold. We kind of don’t want to tell too many people about our find, but …

Balkans & E Europe 2013 881

Ljubljana is a gem. It is the capital of Slovenia, the headquarters of the University of Ljubljana, and home to one of the biggest collections of bicycles in Europe (by my own unofficial count!).

Balkans & E Europe 2013 561

This colorful city sits on the banks of the willow-shaded Ljubljanica River and houses a medieval castle, a panoply of bridges, excellent restaurants with good local wines, reasonable accommodations, fashionable boutiques, cultural events galore, and a quirky dragon theme.

Balkans & E Europe 2013 625

More intimate and less crowded than Italian and other Mediterranean cities, Ljubljana offers all the best of those places and none of the hassles. Cafés are buzzing, yet there is rarely a wait for a table. Fine dining and good local wine abound, at much lower prices. Often likened to Prague for its architecture, much-tinier Ljubljana is more accessible without the throngs of tourists that its more famous Baroque cousin attracts.

Balkans & E Europe 2013 557

The entire city is walkable, and traffic is mostly on two wheels in the Old Town (but do watch out for the hundreds of those bikes whizzing past at all hours of the day and night). The locals are friendly and helpful, and the geographic location between the sea and the mountains makes the climate ideal and the countryside a delight.

Balkans & E Europe 2013 438

The medieval Ljubljana Castle on top of a hill overlooking the red-roofed city is nearly 1000 years old; it’s worth the walk up for the history, the view, and a luscious dark Laško beer on the patio. Balkans & E Europe 2013 447

There must be 15 to 20 unique bridges spanning the Ljubljanica River, with the Cobblers’ Bridge, Triple Bridge, and Dragon Bridge being just a few of these beauties. We spent several days just meandering the cobblestone streets, from the trendy back alley shops, to the riverside cafes, to the lively university square (where we stumbled upon free outdoor concerts two nights in a row), to the Botanical Gardens a short walk out of town. As a final exclamation point, there are dragons everywhere, from the Ljubljana coat-of-arms to the sculptures on the city bridge stanchions.

Balkans & E Europe 2013 550

Rounding out all these attributes is the fact that Ljubljana is simple to reach from many European cities (we took an easy train in from Zagreb, Croatia, and out to Vienna) and is a gateway to the Slovenian Alps and a day trip to the stunning Lake Bled. Just turn all those “J”s into “Y”s or “I”s (Lyoo-blee-AN-ah) and you’ll find our lovely Ljubli as easy to pronounce as it is to enjoy!

Balkans & E Europe 2013 458