The capital of Slovenia is still seen as a hidden gem in Europe. The country itself, nestled between Italy, Austria, Croatia and the sea, is not the most popular tourist destination (even though in summers, downtown Ljubljana is packed with tourists). It’s a small town, and for the most part, you can get by walking or using buses and bikes. I have come to Slovenia often and now have lived here (for what will be a total of one year), so I’m sharing some tips for those who might visit.
Caveats: I am not a tour guide. I have not tried every restaurant in town. The list focuses on things that are within walking distance form the center. I only list things I generally like or recommend – I avoid listing things I did not enjoy. My target is mid to low end expenses (up to EUR15 main dish for one, generally lower). I stake no claim to being even a moderate expert in the history and nuance of local culture.
This is just a simple list of suggestions that I keep more my memory and as something I can send to friends who will visit, like my coffee listings. Comments are welcome.
Visit Ljubljana and Slovenia- I highly recommend it.
Slovenians love to go out for drinks, and you will see many places that look like restaurants that serve only drinks and (maybe) a sandwich (toast; usually ham and cheese – it is called classic – and it is everywhere). Nearly all of these places have an espresso machine, in spite of the fact that Turkish style coffee is the most traditional in the region. Most of the coffee is bad; and most people are drinking coffee for the location or the company. In this regards, it is like coffee in every other city in the world – you have to know where to go if you really want coffee.
Your priority should be Stow, a coffee roaster and coffee shop under the city museum. You don’t have to pay museum entry (though you should go too) to enter the coffee shop. Ignore other recommendations, and just understand this is the best coffee place in town (the whole deal, coffee, environment, location, service). They have a downtown location called Stow to Go, equally good, but ‘to go’.
Crno Zrno is a very small, Colombian-owned coffee shop/roaster with great coffee. It’s downtown, but with very odd hours. You can find the same crew at the awesome Cukrarna museum. It’s called Rafinerjia Cukrarna, and though it might look far on the map, its a 15 minute walk from downtown. If you want to be in the middle of the people, get a table outside in Maribor-original Hikofi, which recently opened its doors smack downtown Ljubjlana. It’s a new operation and they’re getting organized. Take some time to explore the inside market (buy some bread, cheese and other delicious things). Tri Marije Coffee Trailer is just next door, uses Stow coffee, but since I don’t drink coffee ‘to go’, I assume it’s good, but I have not tried it. Finally, you can go to Cafe Čokl, close the also fantastic puppet theater (if there is anything puppet going on, get a ticket – you won’t regret it). It’s small, looks a little run down, but has great coffee and outdoor sitting.
For a good cup and a very cool place to sit and read a book, go to Kavarna Moderna (under the Museum of Modern Art, which as with the national gallery, or Narodna Galerjia across the street, are worth a visit). It has a sister operation in Neu Bar (inside the hotel) which is nice, but not as cool, but works as a good late night alternative for coffee (or drinks).
Beyond these you can always go downtown to R&B Café – open Mondays (unlike most others); it has an American coffee shop feeling (but the owner is not) with many popular food offerings. On the other side of downtown, Mala Pražarna is a family-run operation that is cozy and a safe bet. If you see something about a place called Todz, it was quite fun (not quite great espresso), but it is now closed.
If you’re going for location only, two more suggestions:
Dvor Tacen – in the northern part of town – has very nice outdoor seating right next to the Sava river (and close to the entry to one of the trails up to Šmarna Gora (hill), a popular weekend hiking destination. Closer to downtown, and next door to the botanical gardens (small, but nice), Špica Caffe (map) is also next to the river – very picturesque – and has a playground.
The first experience you will have is likely an introduction to Balkan food. (Žižek has a funny explanation of what the “Balkans” are). Though massive amounts of meet are most definitely not traditional food (as I’ve learned, stews and the like would be more common home made fare), it now is very common and very tasty.
Meat typically involves čevapčiči (little rolls of minced lamb meat usually in 5 or 10 pieces) or pleskavica (a big flat disk of minced meat) – both can include cheese (s sirom – a non-kosher alternative that is, sadly, delicious) and are usually served with bread – Iepinja (it is similar to a a fluffy pita bread, but quite unique). As a side, there is an ubiquitous ajvar (a think sauce made from red peppers in combination with varying ingredients which also vary in regions and countries, all very good) and kajmak (a fresh, spreadable creamy cheese). Additionally, and perhaps my favorite is prebranec (a baked dish of beans which can contain sausage, or not).
If you want to walk a bit (or better yet, take the bus) my best recommendation is to go to Deset v Pol (the name plays with the number of čevapčiči: 10 or half); it’s also the best prebranec I have had in town. Second to that, Das ist Valter is well know and has two locations in Ljubjana; the best one, with nice outdoor seating is farther out (map) but still walking distance from downtown. The other branch is very close to the center. If you feel lazy, Sarajevo 84 is just downtown (and underground – if it is a rainy or cold day) and has great service and good (but not as good) traditional offerings. On the other hand their chicken soup (begova čorba) is just delicious. There are many other fancier places I have not yet tried (Gostilna Čad is usually referenced as the best); and there are fast food versions everywhere. Avoid fast food if you can: the price difference to the ones mentioned above is not significant and they are far better.
Beyond these, burek is everywhere (in Slovenia and in a 2000km radius). I won’t waste much time here, and just say that there seems to consensus that Burek Olympia is the best. I agree. Get cheese (sirov burek). It’s 24 hours and I would recommend you go downtown.
Any number of gosiltna (guest houses) will offer you a wide variety of other Slovenian (or Serbian, Bosnian) delicacies. I won’t review them for now, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of the more well known places. You usually eat quite well (in taste and portions). An easy choice is Slovenka Hiša (Figovec, not the one by the river). You can try kranjska klobasa (traditional sausage) with mustard and horseradish; and my favorite bograč goulash.
Of course you must try štruklji, a very traditional (and quite unique) pastry filled with, well, almost anything. There is a guide here: that’s how important it is. I confess I haven’t had too many štruklji that I have feel live up to the hype; and I need to try more of them because I really quite like it. Partially, as I have learned from many colleagues, is that it is a delicate dish and not simple to make, like potica. I like the štruklji at Figovec the best so far. Many recommend Moji štruklji (a štruklji only restaurant) downtown, and it’s not at all bad, but has a bit of a fast food vibe. Here I particularly recommend buckwheat – a traditional crop and element in Slovenian cuisine which is making a comeback – as well as the traditional tarragon version.
On a lighter note, schnitzel is a thing here too, and this will sound weird, but I encourage you to go to the very photogenic and quirky One66 hotel (close to the Aleja shopping mall) that has an under-priced, gigantic (do share) schnitzel in their restaurant: Loft. You’ll be taking pictures.
For vegetarian/vegan as a focus, Veganika has great offerings – I particularly like their daily soup. Bazilika, is a popular destination for locals and tourists. It has simple offerings (sandwiches, quiches, cake) and a very nice soup,mostly veggie), daily that is worth checking out.
For sheer location/price/value ratio, Plečnikov Hram in Križanke (next to the city museum) offers many daily dishes that are simple and generally quite tasty (for no more than EUR7). I often go back for their nice service and pasulj s koblaso, a soup of beans with (or without) sausage.
Ljubljana is not, comparably, a foodie town, but it does offer variety. By far the easiest thing to find is Italian, with some incredible options; Neapolitan style pizza is as good as the country next door; on wood-fired ovens (most common) or not.
Verace (photo) is the best; not quite downtown, but within walking distance from the puppet theater. I just is best, so go. Downtown, Pop’s Pizza Place (yes, the name doesn’t match the location), is excellent and a bit more expensive than the average. For a bit of a different experience, Picolla offers roman-style pizza in a cool location (try their nduja, spicy). With a funny name, Gostilnica 5-6kg, offers a less favorite, but often recommended pizza. I put it here, because it is a nice place, in a part of town you should visit and hang outside. Plus it’s one of the few places that I’ve seen that offer my favorite local beer so far: Social1st.
A bit farther out in the Vič neighborhood (bus #1), is a place that has a name that doesn’t hint at the quality of the wood-fired pizza. It is the family-friendly, neighborhood restaurant, Hombre. A bit farther out, continuing on bus #1, you can reach Trappa, which from outside looks like a rundown mall but inside offers big and very nice and casual dining (with great pizza). It has a ‘sister’ shop, which is more of a takeaway place, downtown called PicaBoj.
For a wider menu variety in Italian fare, I really enjoy Mirje, not far at all from downtown (make a reservation). Great selection of wine, good pizza and excellent pasta (carbonara is delicious). Another good for good pasta, pizza and other dishes, with reasonable prices, nice ambience, and great portions is Azur (bus #14).
For a simple and decent ramen (without 60 toppings) you can get Ramen by Maru downtown (there is an associated Japanese restaurant – Maru – that I have not tried)
Notably, I have tried a number of Korean restaurants (there are more, these are just some). I would recommend the quirky takeaway JamJam (map), right next to Kinodvor – a great cinema (get a beer from their selection and wait outside for your movie to start). At JamJam you get takeaway but there are two tables outside if you want to ‘eat in’. The pork bulgogi is spicy and plenty good. A bit farther out north is Suwon, a small subterranean restaurant (it has tables upstairs too) in a strip-mall like area. Inside, it’s cozy. The tokpoki is quite nice (a bit sweat), the japchae is better, and the kimchi is excellent. Downtown, in a very ugly and rundown building (but a nice place upstairs) is Ogam, which is not as good as the other two, but has a reasonably good and well priced bibimbap if you don’t want to walk far.
For Indian food that doesn’t taste generic, Zaika (close to the dragon bridge), is a one man-operation with unique dishes. It is take away, but with a few tables inside to sit and watch your food being prepared.
Mexican food exists, and I was surprised to have good tortillas (corn!) and tasty carnitas at the downtown El Patron (avoid the chicken, a bit dry). I felt like I needed to go back and try more from the menu.
There are some Middle-eastern restaurants in town (not too specific) and I have found them wanting. My best bet is Fari’s Delice, a fast food joint close to the bus station/downtown that actually makes a pretty good falafel. Don’t order to “pita”. It’s nice, but really it’s a lepinjia and way too fluffy. For a good burger, Pops (yes, same name, different place) is downtown, always crowded, and quite good.
For sweets: if you don’t mind splurging (you should not mind) – Fetiche is almost on a league of its own (the coffee they serve, from Stow, is also not bad but more expensive). Lolita has excellent deserts (cakes, mostly). Be sure to go to the Eipprova location, which has a spectacular interior design and a nice outdoors area.
There are many pekarna you can get good bread all around town (you usually get really decent burek as well). But the city has a few specialty bakeries that you should try. Fetiche (mentioned above) has marvelous croissants – savory and sweet. Pekarna Ana (from the famous chef Ana Roš) has an amazing selection of breads next door to the post office downtown. A bit farther out but still close is Brot, which has a nice offer of artisanal breads.
I’m still exploring this a lot more, so this is quite limited for now.
San Francisko Independent Bar has a varied selection of beers from Slovenia and around, on tap. It’s not ‘happening’ place: it focuses on beer. They cater the taps at the Rafinerjia Cukrarna, which has a smaller selection but is way cooler to hang out in.
I’ll start with a comment which I think is controversial but necessary. The castle is nice to visit, mostly if you’re going to an event or a concert. It has a nice view, but otherwise, it’s not a place I would list on my top 5 places to visit in Ljubljana. I’ll list below the places I think you should not miss, if a good concert or event is happening.
Museums, theater and art
The city has a nice offer of museums. The focus is generally on Slovenian art and history, as you might expect. The National Gallery always has nice temporary exhibitions as does the the Museum of Modern Art (both downtown). For more varied exhibitions, The Cukrarna Gallery and The Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MSUM) are my favorites, both for the buildings themselves but also for the exhibitions.
The puppet theater (Lutkovno gledališče) is unmissable. There are shows for children (of any age) but for adults as well, and they go well beyond traditional expectations – they have Macbeth performed inside an old tunnel – not your usual puppet show. Puppetry is a tradition in Slovenia and in the region. During festivals, you get innovative shows from all over the world.
For a very local experience (as well as music and just getting a generic beer and hanging out) Metelkova is an area of town you should not miss. It’s funky, dark and unique and has a number of bars and dance clubs. Check the show schedule for a show. Kino Šiška is iconic and always has a diverse lineup (and a nice selection of beers on tap).