Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, is so proud of the quality of its water that 17 drinking fountains have been installed. Restaurants are encouraged to serve locally sourced organic produce... and we should also mention the free electric taxis and public bicycles. The city is officially the 2016 European Green Capital and it’s done so much more than pay lip-service to the environment to win this eco gong.
Far from being the kind of sterile, charmless city that might have been bestowed with such an honour, Ljubljana is – by any measure – an absolutely beautiful place to be. It has escaped any major war damage over the past 100 years (even the ‘ten-day war’ during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 left few scars), and the city centre, a latticework of arched alleys and cultural monuments, is both compact and perfectly formed. The cobbled streets are lined by Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, and these in turn border the graceful, willow-fringed Ljubljanica River that runs right through the heart of the city. There’s even a castle – an imposing-looking, 16th-century one at that – sat atop its rocky hill, and a multitude of richly painted, atmospheric churches.
In tune with its green credentials, Ljubljana is a city that is made for walking. The grounds of the castle have been given over to a cluster of first-rate museums, and although it’s a stiff 15-minute jaunt to the top of Castle Hill, there’s a swish (and unobtrusively designed) funicular railway to take the strain out of the journey, and scintillating views of the snow-dusted Kamniške Alps once you get there. Ljubljana is also great for cyclists, and the city’s bike-hire scheme, 'BicikeLJ', provides 300 bikes across 32 stations, 300 to 500 metres apart. You can hire bikes for an hour for free (it’s easy to register online) and thereafter pay a nominal hourly rate.
During its bid for the European Green Capital crown, Ljubljana set up a dedicated 'Green Ljubljana' website, a fine reference point for its many environmentally friendly initiatives. With the aim of leaving a longer-term legacy, a different environmental issue is promoted around the city each month. Indeed, there are 542 square metres of public green space per inhabitant in the Slovene capital, and the highest share of sorted rubbish in Europe at a whopping 63%! Furthermore, no fewer than 93 large infrastructural projects have been earmarked to improve the environment and quality of living by 2025.
So how did it come to win? Well, from a total of 12 nominated cities, Ljubljana was short-listed alongside Germany's Essen and Nijmegen in The Netherlands for this year's Green Capital award. The jury was impressed not just by its current environmental commitment, but also by the transformation in sustainability made over the previous 10 to 15 years – including local transport initiatives, priority cycle lanes and an almost total pedestrianisation of the city centre. They were also taken by Ljubljana’s efforts to preserve and protect the city’s green spaces – such an important aspect of its character – and the revitalisation of ‘brown field’ sites.
In addition to the very substantial environmental steps it has taken, Ljubljana feels fresh, open, inviting and very much in tune with its natural surroundings. During summer, there’s some form of cultural entertainment on offer seemingly every day of the week, and all events held in public areas are free of charge. The city is bustling with open-air café gardens and food markets; and you should look out, too, for dishes promoted under the ‘Taste Ljubljana’ brand, prepared according to traditional recipes but using more modern and innovative methods. Ljubljana has also been called ‘the city of wine and vine’, and ever since Roman times (when the city was called Emona), vines have been grown in its benign summer climate, making this a regional centre for the wine trade over many generations. In fact, while you’re here, we strongly recommend paying a visit to Movia wine bar, right next door to Ljubljana’s City Hall, were you can sample a variety of the excellent local wines, and perhaps buy a few bottles to take home from the adjoining shop.
In short, we cannot recommend Ljubljana highly enough. It’s undoubtedly a fine place to live (even the suburbs are leafily genteel with a village-like appeal), and it’s a wonderful city in which to spend a few days or a long weekend. This most charming and diminutive of European capitals has a fresh-faced love of life in general, and, when it comes to being green, it doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks the walk – and does so with pride.
10 ways to make the most of Ljubljana
1) Stroll along the banks of the Ljubljanica River. By day or by night, this stretch of the city centre, designed by architect Jože Plečnik (Slovenia’s most celebrated urban planner) is an absolute delight.
2) Cycle, cycle everywhere... take advantage of the excellent bike hire scheme and one of the most pedal-friendly city cycle networks in Europe.
3) Take the funicular railway up to the top of Castle Hill for cafés, museums and endless views.
4) Enjoy a floodlit evening boat ride along the river.
5) Visit the Sunday morning flea market that takes over the banks of the Ljubljanica.
6) Take a photograph (or a selfie, if you must!) of the famous and remarkably beautiful ‘Triple Bridge’ in the heart of the pedestrianised Old Town.
7) Try štruklji (traditional Slovene filled dumplings), perhaps with a glass of Laško or Union beer, or a tot of local brandy.
8) Take a day trip: Ljubljana is within easy reach of the country’s tiny, 47-kilometre coastline (glorious Piran is a marvel), as well as mountains and ski resorts to the north.
9) Visit Metelkova Mesto, which began life in 1882 as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army. The buildings have been turned into art galleries and artists’ studios, intermingled with music venues that offer an alternative and slightly subversive vibe.
10) Sample a glass of Rebula, a refreshingly dry white wine. If red’s more your thing, try full-bodied Teran – best enjoyed with a plate or two of Slovenian ‘tapas’.
More about our city add-on in Ljubljana, which can be added to a walking holiday in Slovenia >