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.
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.
Perched on a hilltop above the Old Town, Ljubljana Castle is the biggest of the city’s several castles and one of Ljubljana’s most popular tourist attractions. Dating back to the 15th century, the impressively preserved medieval fortress is much more than just a city landmark – the castle is a hub of activity with hundreds of tourists climbing the lookout tower to enjoy the unbeatable views of the city.
Although there’s a fee for climbing the tower, the castle courtyard is free to enter and the castle chambers often host temporary art exhibitions and handicrafts markets. Other highlights include the castle chapel, an increasingly popular wedding venue; the Museum of Slovene History, which offers a fascinating introduction to the small eastern European nation; and the Virtual Museum, which presents a 3D film of the city’s history.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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