Ljubljana: The Real-Life Town From Shrek That’s Better Than Prague

I’m a sucker for fairy tales. Call me old-fashioned, but there is something inherently reassuring about the beauty, the beast, and the prince who saves the day. Growing up I was enamored with castles and the princesses who (I imagined) lived in them, wearing long flowing dresses and those tall, cone-shaped hats topped with ribbon and sparkles. 

When I first told friends I was planning a trip to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, I got a lot of raised eyebrows. Huh? Where? Why? And I’d politely grin, guarded in how much to reveal so as not to let the secret get out too far ahead of me. The truth is, Ljubljana is everything those childhood dreams are made of. Crown-wearing princesses may no longer roam the castle (which sits on a peak, overlooking the main square below), but there’s an unmatched charm here you can no longer find in many of Europe’s more recognizable cities. 

Embodying childlike wonder, whimsical imagination, and containing some of the warmest, most welcoming locals you could hope to meet, here’s how to spend a perfect day in your soon-to-be new favorite city.

In The Morning

Ljubljana proper is actually very walkable. From the main train station (Ljubljana zelezniska postaja) to the Triple Bridge in the center of town takes about 20 minutes on foot. Arrive at night and check-in to any one of the many hotels or bed and breakfasts (ranging from 35-250EUR/night) tucked along the cobblestone streets that wind toward the Ljubljanica river.

Awake at dawn to catch the sky while it’s still in that magical ombré of pink-purpleish-blue. Grab a coffee and a croissant with the mix of students, professionals, and dog-walkers (so many dogs here!) who are ready to seize the day and make your way over to the Central Market, where vendors start setting up as early as 6 a.m. (except Sundays).  

As you meander stalls of fresh fruit, homemade oil tinctures, and wooden toys on your way to the Ljubljana Castle funicular, you’ll pass the Butchers’ Bridge and Dragon Bridge to the left. Though counterintuitive, the Butchers’ Bridge is perfect for couples; you’ll notice the many locks fastened in love along the railings.

The Dragon Bridge, with its four ornately carved dragon statues, evokes the true essence of Ljubljana. There are several legends surrounding it, but the most well-known claims Greek hero Jason—of Argonauts fame—battled a dragon here that lived in the river. Since the dragon is the town’s mascot, you’ll see reincarnations of green dragons everywhere (from gift shop stuffed animals to the castle tower’s coat of arms) adding to the Shrek-like vibe you’re sure to have picked up on—and it’s not even noon yet.

Visit Ljubljana Castle before 11 a.m., when it’s the least crowded. Be sure to head to the very top of the tower (5EUR) for a 360-degree view of Ljubljana that sprawls out like a map in a storybook. See if you can spot the pink church hidden in Tivoli Park, where you might hike later this afternoon. Though the castle has been modernized, take your time to imagine what’s occurred within its walls since its beginning in the 15th-century. The puppet museum, also housed here, is more fascinating and less creepy than it sounds. It’s worth a stop on your way out.

In The Afternoon

If you have one afternoon to spend in Ljubljana, you’ll only be disappointed by the fact you don’t have more afternoons. Weather permitting, one of the best places to soak up city life is to spend a few hours exploring Tivoli Park. There’s a botanic garden (free), children’s museum, fine art museum (5EUR), modern art museum (5EUR), and even a contemporary history museum (3,50EUR) that’s housed in a pale pink mansion reminiscent of a Wes Anderson treatment.

In addition to hiking trails, swimming pools, tennis courts, a fish pond and sports complex, Tivoli Park offers a plethora of ways to kill time before sunset. Even a picnic lunch here will have you feeling like royalty.

If you’re up for something more adventurous, head an hour outside of Ljubljana to the town of Bled (buses leave every hour outside the main train station). There is perhaps no better fairy-tale moment than when you first set eyes on the majestic Church of the Assumption arising from the center of Lake Bled. Rain or shine, in fog or snow, Lake Bled transfixes. Walk or bike around its perimeter, or even rent a rowboat to explore the turquoise waters more closely. Who knows what magical figments you might see when no one’s looking!

In The Evening

Make your way back to town by nightfall to sip a glass of local wine along the river. Slovenia might be a lesser known wine region, but don’t let that fool you in its quality; a majority here come from premium vines. The country is even home to the world’s oldest continually producing vine that still bears grapes after 400 years!

And order a pizza if you can. Locals will tell you Slovenes do pizza better than their Italian neighbors. Have a slice and judge for yourself.

Lastly, wind down window shopping along Mestni Trg. Its square dates back to the 12th century, with buildings in both Renaissance and Baroque styles that have survived since the 17th. You might even stop in Robba for some dessert and interior design inspiration.

A day in Ljubljana is like a day spent in your happiest memory. Ever after, on repeat. So, when someone asks you why you’re planning a trip there, simply tell them you’re in pursuit of your own once upon a time.

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