Ljubljana and Zagreb: provincial capitals now destinations in their own right

Colonade and bridge in Ljubljana.

Colonade and bridge in Ljubljana.

Looking at the photo above, you might think we were approaching the Rialto bridge in Venice. But this view of a mini-Rialto is from one of the tour boats which travel along the river in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. It is among the several downtown bridges and dozens of buildings designed by Joze Plecnik, whose mark on Ljubljana –

Ljubljana city center.

Ljubljana city center.

and whose contributions in Prague, Vienna and other Central European capitals – are a real point of pride in this beautiful little city.

Pat and I are spending three days in Ljubljana as part of our guided tour through the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia is our last stop on the tour, before a few days on our own in Budapest. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the old provincial capitals of Ljubljana and Zagreb, Croatia.

Here, as in the other stops on our journey, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia is a

Ljubljana's castle overlooking the town.

Ljubljana’s castle overlooking the town.

persistent topic. Slovenia was the first to leave the federation. As the closest of the six nations to Austria and Germany, and furthest from Serbia, there was no resistance. It is tiny – only 2 million. And the capital is a small city of 280,000. It’s proximity also made it the most highly industrialized and most prosperous of the Balkan countries. Also, it never was bombed during World War II and was maintained mostly as a Nazi concentration camp.

The result is a beautiful and elegant town. Walking along the river, especially at night, looks like a small Paris. The many art nouveau buildings could have been moved here from Vienna. The town is spotless, with workers constantly picking up scraps here and there. There are no cars in the downtown area, although you have to be on the lookout for bicycles whizzing by. However, there’s a free electric bus for older people or people with packages. It’s also cheap by Western European standards. We thoroughly enjoyed three days here. Our tour group did a day trip one day, which Pat and I skipped to spend more time downtown.

Earlier, we’d visited Zagreb, Croatia, which shares the Austro-Hungarian heritage and has some grand architecture as well. It is a much bigger city – 800,000 – and is busier.

This square, in Zagreb, outside the historic church and parliament, is where independence was declared, and where popes and presidents speak.

This square, in Zagreb, outside the historic church and parliament, is where independence was declared, and where popes and presidents speak.

But it, too, has a great medieval upper town and many museums, galleries, restaurants, parks, farmer’s markets, outdoor cafes.

In both places, the tour company, Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT), supplied local guides for an initial walking tour, in addition to the guide who is assigned permanently to accompany us. These orientation tours were essential, but I don’t think you have to be on a big tour to enjoy them. There appear to be plenty of opportunities to go on city tours.

In Zagreb, we were not yet savvy enough to know when to stay with the group and when to go off our own. We went with our group on a day tour of the Croatian countryside, including a visit to Tito’s birthplace. Yawn. I would much rather have spent another day in Zagreb seeing another museum or two and hanging out in the cafes. Our three days there, as a result, left me wanting to come back.

Austro-Hungarian grandeur in Zagreb.

Austro-Hungarian grandeur in Zagreb.

We enjoyed both of these cities. They are not going to replace Vienna or Paris in size or scope, but they are great places to visit. And I would not hesitate to go to either of them on my own, book a hotel in the old city center, and stay for several days. English is almost universal. Food is cheap. Pat said that if she were still working, she’d be shopping for clothes because the fashion here is so attractive.

We are off tomorrow for Budapest for four days, then we return home. We’ll plan to do a post about Budapest, although it has been visited enough by others that I am not sure we will provide any new insights. And, finally, we’ll try to make a good recommendation of tours versus independent travel.

One thought on “Ljubljana and Zagreb: provincial capitals now destinations in their own right

  1. We were in Ljubljana on our own (probably while you were there) in an airbnb right in the center of old town. Loved it. Loved the cosmopolitan food. Loved the cafes and outdoor dining. Loved the river and bridges. Took way too many pictures of the Roman re-enactors. Very easy place to get around. Wait staff often spoke better English than I do.

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