Europe’s Come-As-You-Are Capital

A man walks his dog on Castle Hill in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
A man walks his dog on Castle Hill in Ljubljana, Slovenia.Richard I'Anson / Getty Images

Between weekend camping trips and spa excursions to the Julian Alps, the 280,000 citizens of Slovenia’s lifestyle-forward, vowel-backward capital Ljubljana are all about having a glass of wine, a cigarette, and a good time. The lively procession of outdoor restaurants and cafes on both sides of the Ljubljanica River dish out Texas-style portions of sea bass to packed houses. As it turns out, an excellent local red pairs well with a stroll down one of city’s pedestrian-only riverbanks and into the surprisingly cosmopolitan heart of one of Europe’s most accessible and affordable cities.

Servers around town are well versed in Slovenian vines, but the sommeliers at Dvorni Bar take a poetic pride in their encyclopedic knowledge of native vintners. Opened in 2012, the swanky bar’s spiral-bound menu is part textbook, part census – each varietal is categorized by nose, notes, and notoriety. Good thing the waiters are bi- and tri-lingual (because Slovenia is hemmed in by Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, and Croatian speakers, most locals rely on English), otherwise this bounty would be impossible to navigate. We recommend grabbing a sivi pinot from Goriška Brda, the country’s most notable wine region.

Across the river in Old Town’s Mestni “trg” (square), six-month-old Güjžina is an intimate wine café and shop walled in by bottles from noted brands like Marof. Two doors down and spilling out onto the cobblestone streets, its corresponding restaurant serves a noteworthy goulash and other hearty dishes from Prekmurje, a province in the northeast near the Hungarian border.

Eating here and elsewhere in Ljubljana requires restraint, as the memo on portion control got torn up after Slovenia broke from the old, socialist Republic of Yugoslavia back in 1991. The exception is at a small number of establishments imparting an innovative take on traditional Slovenian food. Valvas’or and Julija are among those at the top of every local’s list for a special night on the town. They sit side by side in Stari trg, one block off the river and serve variations of house-rolled pasta (called štruklji) stuffed with fresh sheep’s milk cheese and rich ravioli topped by meaty morels. All are – of course – served with wine.

Adding to the city’s hip flavor are its proliferating boutique hotels. Additions within the last 18 months range from the charming, family-owned Adora Hotel to the design-conscious Hotel Nox and G Design Hotel to the historical Antiq Palace Hotel. The best of this current generation of accommodations is the 16-room Vander Urbani Resort, which is masked by the Italian baroque architecture of Ljubljana’s Old Town. Once a series of four bourgeois townhouses, the hotel has been transformed into an über-modern escape with a small rooftop pool and terrace.

Not bad for a place that, even six years ago, had no tourism infrastructure worth shouting about. “Somebody had to start the trend,” explains Vander Manager Siniša Rešek. “Now it’s a destination.”

Cheers to that.

More information: Air France operates frequent flights to Ljubljana from Charles de Gaulle Airport.

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