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Vladimir Putin was ruining all of our carefully laid plans. Bloody typical. You co-ordinate 3 busy women from across 2 continents to visit a city for just 3 days and the goddamn president of Russia just had to turn up on the one day we had planned to visit Lake Bled. What an arse. Now, we were stood in the Ljubljana tourist info centre, with no feasible way to get ourselves to Lake Bled, and no spare time to push our plans forward by a day. Putin’s visit had guaranteed the highways would be closed, meaning our ideal day-trip was on the brink of ruin, before it had even begun.
But Putin had never met with pure Hulls-lady stubbornness before. My mum, sister and I were determined to experience the best of Slovenia in the short time we had together, and a small inconvenience like all highways and transport shutting down was not going to stop us.
Here’s how we made the most of our girl’s weekend in Ljubljana (the tips to defying the President of Russia are included in the ‘Getting There’ section below!)
How to spend a Weekend in Ljubljana
Ljubljana isn’t the first city Australians think to visit when they plan a short trip to Europe. It might not even be the sixth, tenth or seventeenth city on their list. In fact, I’m pretty sure my mum had to google the exact location to be sure we could take a train there from Vienna. But there lies the joy of our weekend getaway to Slovenia – we had no idea what to expect, and no pre-conceived ideas of ‘must-do’ activities.
For starters, it’s close to Vienna, just a 5 hour train ride. It had the right amount of old world European charm (cobbled streets! Castles! Countryside surrounds!) and was possible to explore in just 3 days. Mum was visiting from Melbourne and Sammy from Edinburgh, which meant our main priorities for the weekend were, in ascending order; chatting, eating good food and sipping wine in the sun. Ljubljana definitely delivered.
We found an adorable AirBnB just a short stroll from the old town centre. There are some chain hotels available and a large amount of accommodation options, but seen as we were travelling as a family, an AirBnB seemed the more comfortable option.
You can sign up for AirBnb here to get €31 credit to your first booking.
Staying in an apartment definitely helped us feel a touch more local – we could hear the church bells ring from our windows, which had a view to castle hill. The neighbours greeted us in the early morning while listening to local radio on their porch. That kind of experience just doesn’t happen in the Marriot.
Although you need to take the good with the bad – lugging suitcases up a skinny staircase in 32 degree weather is the price you pay for the local touches! Being in an apartment also meant we could buy our own breakfast and snacks to enjoy back at the room, instead of standard issue continental breakfast. I recommend it over a hotel any day – just make sure you select ‘superhosts’ to stay with to be assured of a high quality experience.
Hostel alternative: Many people rave about the chance to stay in the unique former prison turned hostel, Hostel Prison Celica. Budget friendly, clean, comfortable and definitely unique, if you are travelling with a group of friends this would definitely be my top pick! Diana from D Travels Around gives a fantastic review of her experience if you want to know more.
Our best meal of the trip was conveniently just over the road from our AirBnB. 5 – 6 Kg had an outdoor terrace looking down the cobbled street, with tables in the shade and served up some of the best salad I’ve seen in Europe. Expecting the standard eastern European fare of pork and potatoes, I was happily shocked to get a hearty salad of fresh veggies and crisp local wine after our train journey from Vienna to Ljubljana.
If you want something cheap and lively, there is a stretch beside the river with hostel bars and pubs where meals are basic, but the vibe is buzzing. We were lucky enough to visit during a food festival on the Friday evening and enjoyed locally made gins and cocktails from the food markets. The farmers markets open at 7am each day and are a fantastic option if you want to pack a picnic lunch for your day exploring.
For brunch, head to locals favourite Cajna Hisa – a tea house and cafe in the old town. There are many tea houses, but this one has the best reputation with locals and extensive seating outside, perfect for people watching and sipping on tea and coffee for hours. We had our final Sunday brunch here and it was the ideal end to the weekend.
The countryside surrounding Ljubljana and Lake Bled is dotted with vineyards, which meant naturally, we had to try the local white wines throughout our weekend away. While visiting the castle of Lake Bled, we were recommended the Vindoba ‘green’ wine by a monk in the wine cellar. There was no way we could resist the recommendations of a monk and brought 3 bottles (just to be sure) that were deliciously enjoyed on a porch. The wine was light and well, wine-y (I’m no wine expert, so let’s just say easily drinkable!). Also popular for sipping while in Ljubljana were the aperol spritzer cocktails, available in most cafe’s and restaurants.
Interestingly though, the one thing I recommend everyone try while in town is the fresh raw milk available in the farmers markets area of the city. It’s a really excellent setup where you can pay €1 for half a litre of fresh milk to be poured into a flask – completely unpasteurized and really, really delicious. If you caught my Snapchats that day you would have seen me pouring milk everywhere!
Ljubljana castle is worth the trip up the hill, we went via the funicular and then walked the path back down. To be honest, the castle seems to be having an identity crises – it can’t decide if it’s an events venue or an historical museum castle, so the result is, you wander into big open spaces and get a bit lost strolling through the historical areas of the castle. It’s still well worth the trip to make up your own mind, but for us history geeks and castle obsessives, it was a touch lacking. The views from the top were incredible though!
Old Town is really very easily navigable, if you are staying within walking distance I definitely recommend ditching the map and getting lost in the cobbled alleys and waterside streets. Ljubljana was recently voted the ‘green City’ of Europe and you can see why with the amount of outdoor activities available and brilliant initiatives for most citizens to ride bikes or walk and not driving.
If, like my Austrian mister and slightly anal sister, you must have a map to explore, there is one in particular that will direct you to the coolest creative haunts of Ljubljana. We got our hands on an extremely useful one by use-it travel – it’s a ‘made by locals’ map that had fantastic tips for discovering the hidden areas of the city and tips for using Slovenian words when chatting to locals.
Markets. We were lucky enough to arrive on a Friday evening when a pop up food market was being held in the old town – this was a perfect opportunity to try all sorts of local cuisine and feel a bit like a resident strolling the city after work on a Friday night. The central market area is just beyond the tourist information centre, between the Dragon bridge and triple bridge beside the water.
You’ll find ample sitting areas and plenty of distractions to while away an afternoon in the sunshine. Every Sunday you can also find a gorgeous antique market along the riverbank between the Triple Bridge and Cobblers bridge. This, for me, was super interesting as the antique treasures you find in old European cities are always incredible – there was a full size functioning 1900’s gramophone that I was *this* close to purchasing! Definitely worth a stroll after your morning coffee. Be wary though, it normally wraps up by 2pm.
Vienna to Ljubljana
From Vienna, train connections to Slovenia are frequent and well priced. We were able to get a ‘Sparscheine’ (reduced price ticket) for our return journey. This meant for €50 per person, we had reserved seats and got to enjoy the countryside views travelling through Steiermark in Austria and on into the lush countryside of Slovenia. There’s an 8am departure from Vienna that will get you into Ljubljana by 2pm, which is still plenty of time in summer to explore the old town and enjoy a late lunch in the sunshine.
Return train departures from Ljubljana to Vienna are at 12:30pm & 3:30pm and will get you back into Vienna by the evening. I cannot recommend train travel enough in terms of comfort, flexibility, freedom to move – I would take a train over a flight any day of the week. Best of all, on these longer journeys there are restaurant cars so you can enjoy a comfortable meal on your way, and pretend to be Hapsburg royalty while looking out over the scenery. Is that just me who does that?
To Lake Bled from Ljubljana
On a regular day, there are multiple pre-organised day trips out to Lake Bled that can be booked in advance online or directly with the Tourist Info Centre in Ljubljana. Prices range from €60-€110 depending on what you want to see and include for the day.
If you are unlucky enough to visit Slovenia at the same time as Vladimir Putin, you will have to get creative and make your own way by public transport before 9am while the highways are still open.
Here’s how we did it:
From the Ljubljana central train station there are 2 local buses that visit Lake Bled. Head to Bus bay #6 at the station and you can buy your ticket on board for €6.60 per person. The bus trip takes about 90 minutes and your driver will announce when you arrive in Lake Bled – most of the bus passengers will probably get off at the same spot!
There is also a local train that will get you from Ljubljana to a Lesce-Bled station, which is still 4km from Lake Bled – from there a local bus can connect through to the lake. You may also be lucky and nab a tour package bus passing through Lesce. The public transport option gives you more flexibility to dally at Lake Bled than a pre-arranged tour, and in the end, the road closures didn’t impact us as we were up so early – meaning we could truly enjoy a full day by the water in Lake Bled.
Ljubljana is a fantastic city – for exactly this kind of laid back, family trip. I don’t know that I would recommend it for a wild hens do, or party weekend. But for relaxed exploring with your mum or family, it was perfect. Nothing felt too rushed, there was enough to see to keep us busy, but nothing too challenging or difficult about the destination.
Most people spoke some degree of English and prices were very, very reasonable. Ljubljana is an adorable destination and one I would love to return to in Autumn to experience the different energy of the place outside of peak summer time. I do think it is a city that shines in the summer, with everyone outside, street festivals and outdoor activities galore.
Here’s some further reading on things to do in Ljubljana that I found useful in the lead to the trip:
Have you visited this gorgeous town in Slovenia? Share your stories in the comments. and if you’re planning to go, feel free to ask me anything!