The ninth‐century Bled Castle is the oldest in Slovenia, perched precariously 130 meters (426.5 feet) up on a rocky precipice overlooking the lake of the same name among the peaks of the breathtaking Julian Alps. Built as a stronghold for the aristocratic bishops of the Brixen dynasty to defend their territories from attack, its fortified Romanesque walls and ramparts today hide a largely 16th‐century Renaissance castle built after a devastating earthquake in 1511 destroyed the previous building. It is centered around a pair of courtyards, constructed in an enticing jumble of red‐roofed wine cellars, forges, servants’ quarters, mansion, a stately knight’s hall and a chapel swathed in frescoes. Today, an historical museum occupies the Baroque suites of the main house, which exhibits jewelry discovered at pagan Slavic burial pits in nearby Pristava and a noted collection of weaponry.
Marooned in the middle of its eponymous lake in the fairy-tale Julian Alps of northwest Slovenia, Bled Island is a minuscule rocky islet clad in tall beech trees and accessed by the brightly painted, two‐oared wooden pletna ferries that are peculiar to the region. The island was formed after the retreat of the last Ice Age left behind limestone moraine and today its tiny length is virtually covered with a small hermitage, a gallery and souvenir store in the former Provost’s House, and a cafe selling delicious local cream cakes, but its stellar attraction is undoubtedly the lovely Baroque Church of the Assumption, with an ornate spire peeking above all the greenery. The church is reached by an elegant flight of 99 stone steps built in 1655, but it is known that human habitation of Bled Island started long before then, with remains of pagan temples excavated there that date back to the 11th century BC.
Presided over by its ancient hilltop castle and linked to the new town by the iconic Triple Bridge and Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana’s picturesque Old Town is a warren of streets, clustered with popular sights. At the heart of the Old Town, the 15th century Ljubljana Castle steals the limelight, offering an unbeatable panorama from its viewing tower, but it’s the lively street-side cafes and open-air markets below that make up the soul of the historic quarter.
Daily food and flower markets brighten up the riverbanks between Pogačarjev and Vodnikov squares and a medley of exquisite architecture provides a picturesque backdrop for a walking tour. Much of the riverside, bridges and walkways circling the Old Town are the work of renowned architect, Jože Plečnik, the visionary credited with the 20th-century remodeling of the city and his influence is apparent in the striking riverside marketplace, the column-lined Cobbler's Bridge and the tree-lined Levstikov Square.
Located in the New Town at the foot of the iconic Triple Bridge, Preseren Square is one of Ljubljana’s most famous public spaces and a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists. Perched by the riverside on the cusp of the Old Town and feeding many of the city’s main thoroughfares, Preseren Square makes the perfect spot from which to explore the city.
This is the busy heart of Ljubljana, lined with elegant shopping boutiques and atmospheric cafés, and ringing with the sounds of street musicians and entertainers. Although laid out in the late 19th century by architect Maks Fabiani, many of Preseren’s buildings underwent a makeover in the 20th century, bestowing an array of impressive Art Nouveau façades on the square. Additional architectural highlights include the 16th century Franciscan Church of the Annunciation; the Secessionist Hauptmann House, designed by Ciril Metod Koch; and the exquisite Urbanc House (Centromerkur).
At each entrance to Ljubljana’s dramatic Dragon Bridge, a pair of menacing green dragons stand watch, their stone-sculpted wings poised for flight and fire-breathing tongues darting out of their mouths. Erected in 1901, the striking quartet of dragons have become one of the city’s most memorable landmarks, but the statues are more than just aesthetic monuments. The mythical creatures are not only symbolic of the city’s founding (allegedly settled by Jason and the Argonauts after valiantly defeating a dragon) but local legend dictates that the dragons will swish their tails when the bridge is crossed by a virgin.
Crossing the Ljubljanica River just east of the equally impressive Triple Bridge, the Dragon Bridge is now one of the city’s most important bridges, connecting the modern city with the Old Town.
Ljubljana’s main church is also its biggest and the grand Cathedral of St Nicholas towers over Pogačarjev trg in the historic Old Town. Despite a history dating back to the 13th century, the present day cathedral dates back to an 18th century design by architect Andrea Pozzo, an elegant baroque structure, featuring twin towers and an enormous central dome.
It’s the opulent interiors that draw the most attention – an expanse of pink marble, white stucco and gilt, lavishly decorated by many of the city’s most prominent artists. Highlights include the baroque-style frescos by artists Giulio Quaglio and Matevž Langus; a pair of bronze walls erected in honor of the late Pope John Paul II; and the magnificent carvings decorating the choir stalls, organ and altar – the handiwork of Italian sculptor Francesco Robba.
Ljubljana’s funky, graffiti-strewn enclave of Metelkova is the alternative epicenter of the city, an area stuffed full of grungy clubs and bars that lies north of the Ljubljanica River. Whether they’re into rock, punk or folk, gay bars or beery dives, this is the place of choice for party animals amid the harsh military architecture of Metelkova’s former army barracks. These were abandoned by the defunct Yugoslav army in 1990 and were on line for demolition when a band of squatters moved in to save them; now they are run as an autonomous cultural center, along similar lines to Christiania in Copenhagen. In addition to being a mecca for late-night revelers, Metelkova is the destination for flea-market fans, pop-up street entertainment and edgy art exhibitions; the streets are packed most days of the week but the action really kicks off over the weekend, when kids flock in from all over Central Europe.
While the romantic position of the lovely Baroque Church of the Assumption on a minuscule mound in the middle of Lake Bled is enough to attract thousands of visitors to it each year – it is one of Slovenia’s most popular wedding venues – it is also feted thanks to its internal ornamentation, 177‐foot (54‐meter) tower and dedication to the Virgin Mary. Starting out as a pagan temple many years before the advent of Christianity, the church has at various times been a small, wooden structure and a single‐aisle Gothic church, which was consecrated by the Bishop of Ljubljana in 1465. The freestanding bell tower appeared later in the same century and the church was reconstructed yet again in 1685 in its present Baroque style, with a deliciously OTT gilt‐encrusted altar and black marble and wood‐carved pulpits contrasting keenly with its serene white and cream aisles.
The Ljubljanica River has indelibly shaped the city of Ljubljana from its origins in prehistory as it wound its twisting course, acting as a trading route and bringing wealth to the early settlement. Today Ljubljana is often nicknamed "City of Bridges," and one of its most spectacular river crossings is the Art Nouveau Dragon Bridge, completed in 1901 by Dalmatian architect Jurij Zaninovic; it is guarded by an intimidating pair of bronze dragons – symbol of the city – at either end and connects the modern, working city with the Baroque charms of the Old Town across the Ljubljanica.
Although the river was first spanned by bridge in Roman times, the oldest crossing still in existence today is the 13th-century Cobblers’ Bridge; originally this was a simple wooden construction but it was replaced by a striking ballustraded affair in 1931 by Jože Plečnik.
The mid-20th-century Slovene architect Jože Plečnik was responsible for much of Ljubljana’s rebirth as a cultured, elegant city; he built bridges over the Ljubljanica River as well as pathways along it and in the 1950s was also given the remit to design the Križanke Summer Theatre. It is located in the former Monastery of the Holy Cross, which dated right back to medieval times but was sacked by Yugoslav Communist leaders in the aftermath of World War II.
Plečnik set about creating a Renaissance-style entertainment venue with a vast entrance courtyard, paved with patterned cobbles and surrounded by arcaded walls etched with sgrafitto; his bust is also found here as a memorial to his designs, while some artifacts from the monastery are on display in a small museum next to the church.