Ljubljana is a dreamboat of a European capital. Compact yet bursting with character, Slovenia‘s premier city pairs livable ease and friendly locals with an impressive cultural scene, all wrapped into a stunningly pretty package that draws comparisons to cousins like Budapest and Prague. Although it still flies under the radar, that won’t last — now is the time to plan a family getaway before everyone else is in on the secret.
Strolling Ljubljana’s pedestrian-only city center is a joy. It’s anchored by Preseren Square, home to the pink-curlicued Franciscan Church and a statue of Slovene national poet France Preseren; nearby, the forked Triple Bridge links the medieval Old Town to the newer districts. Slim, tile-roofed rowhouses contain craft shops and traditional restaurants, while other buildings bear the marks of Art Nouveau and postwar modernism. Although this enchanting mix might be lost on little ones, they’ll have fun chasing pigeons and scudding along the cobblestones while you gaze upward.
TIP: You can’t visit Ljubljana without hearing the name of Joze Plecnik, the early-20th-century architect who remade the city in his own distinctive fashion. His fingerprint is all over town, from the classical balustrades of the Triple Bridge to his masterful National and University Library. If you have older kids, it’s worth joining a walking tour to get a grasp on his vast influence.
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As enticing as the streetscapes are, Ljubljana’s greatest charm lies in its rich cafe culture and convivial spirit. In nice weather, it feels as though everyone in the city is gathered at the alfresco tables and cushioned benches that line the river, sipping a cappuccino or a glass of wine as they catch up with friends. Pick one that looks inviting and settle in for an afternoon of people-watching, perhaps with a slice of Slovenia’s ubiquitous kremnitsa (cream cake) or apple strudel.
Outdoor markets fascinate most kids, and you could easily pass half a day in Ljubljana’s venerable Central Market. Located right by the Triple Bridge, it offers row after row of stalls piled with local wares, from intricately carved wooden ornaments to the region’s signature honey-infused liqueur. Farmers, cheesemakers and fishmongers hold out tidbits, urging shoppers to taste; if Slovenia’s famed cherries are in season, be sure to take the vendors up on a sample. On Fridays from spring through fall, the market hosts Open Kitchen, with some 30 chefs preparing dishes from all over the globe — a perfect spot for lunch.
Dragons are the symbol of Ljubljana, thanks to a local legend that centers around the beasts, and their snarling faces appear everywhere. You’ll notice them emblazoned on the city’s coat of arms, entwined into iron railings, etched on manhole covers and, most notably, perched at the four corners of the landmark Dragon Bridge in the old town. Challenge the kids to see how many they can find!
On a sunny day, gliding along the Ljubljanica River in an open-air watercraft is a beautiful way to take in the town. Signs along the riverbank denote embarkation points for half a dozen different boats, each offering 30-minute and 1-hour tours (some guided, some not) that meander south from central Ljubljana. The tours are all fairly similar, so choose based on convenience rather than content. No reservations are needed; just pay the small fee and wait for the next sailing.
In this pint-size city, you’re never far from a green space. The largest is Tivoli Park, a lovely, tree-shaded expanse in the middle of town and a hub of the Ljubljana social scene. Wide pathways beckon for a leisurely promenade; kids can work out wiggles on the playground, toss a few morsels to ducks in the pond or play a round of mini golf. On summer Thursdays through Sundays, Tivoli Park is also home to the outdoor Library Under the Treetops, an inviting stretch of grass strewn with lounge chairs and surrounded with shelves full of books. Other locations, including one with English reading material, are scattered throughout town; check the website for updates.
It’s impossible to miss the 15th-century Ljubljana Castle, crowning the city center atop a forested hill. Its tumultuous history includes turns as a fortress, an arsenal, a prison and a poorhouse; today, the interior is fully refurbished and contains a handful of artifacts, though the views over town toward the Julian Alps are the main reason to visit. Guided tours with costumed actors, including tours in English, take place daily in late spring, summer and early fall (weekends only during the rest of the year). There’s also a cafe as well as a small puppetry museum onsite. You can reach the castle on foot, about 10 minutes’ hike up the hill, or spare your feet and take a funicular for a few euros.
Ljubljana’s museums, while not destinations in and of themselves, are surprisingly varied for such a small city. The Slovene Ethnographic Museum, dedicated to preserving Slovene customs and culture, offers hands-on children’s workshops as well as demonstrations of crafts like weaving, beehive painting and pottery. Budding history buffs will enjoy the City Museum, which includes a reconstructed Roman thoroughfare, and the National Museum of Slovenia, filled with archaeological treasures from ancient times. There are also a handful of kid-focused museums that are worth a peek on a rainy day, like the House of Experiments and the Museum of Illusions.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Lisa Frederick.
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