In many ways a fairy-tale city, replete with castle, the capital city has as its defining motif a dragon, which you will see on flags that flutter from bridges and buildings, in intriguing architectural embellishments throughout the city, and on marketing materials everywhere. The historic center is imbued with striking monuments and generous squares that suggest good urban planning. Graffiti artists mark these public spaces, often branding historic edifices with such unironic one-liners as “Ljubljana is a beautiful city.” And it is. Graffiti aside, Ljubljana has a low-key buzz and an air of exuberance that extends to the artfulness of its buildings, its statuary, and its fountains.

According to legend, Argonauts may have laid the foundations of Ljubljana as they fled along the Ljubljanica River from the Black Sea to the Adriatic with the Golden Fleece 3.000 years ago; certainly the Romans established a city, Emona, here by the turn of the 1st century A.D. With Emona destroyed by the Huns, Slavic immigrants chose to build a city at the foot of what is now Ljubljana Castle Hill; it grew to become what was known 500 years later as Leibach and in 1144 as Luwigana. When the Habsburgs took over, this became their administrative center until they were expelled during World War I. In the mid-19th century the city’s economic pull was enhanced when the railroad linking Vienna and Trieste was built through Ljubljana, and much of the city’s prosperity came from its tobacco factory.

A university town, with cutting-edge ambitions, Ljubljana percolates with charm. It’s long been a cultural center, home to one of Europe’s oldest philharmonic societies, and now also to a swinging alternative youth and student culture, drawing international artists from all spheres. It’s also the birthplace of celebrated architect, Joze Plecnik, who almost single-handedly reshaped the city, erecting many of its lovely buildings and developing its squares and bridges. Best of all, the city is small and compact, so you’ll see plenty of it with little effort.

If you don’t dally in the art galleries, you could see the whole of the city in a single day, starting at Ljubljana’s Castle, which overlooks the entire city. The best buildings are in and around the finely preserved Old Town, a fine mixture of baroque, Secessionist, and neoclassical buildings around a curve in the River Ljubljanica, and heavily beefed up by the city’s designer laureate, Joze Plecnik. Life proceeds at a gentle, lively pace along and around the Lubljanica, defined by its cafe and bar culture, and the bridges linking the two banks.

A good place to find your bearings is Presernov Square, centered on the statue of France Preseren (1800-49), considered the “Father of the Nation,” and the poet whose words are now the national anthem (“A Toast”). Take a seat under the eye-catching statue of Preseren, and you could spend hours watching the constant ebb and flow of people. Also here is Centromerkur, marked by an Art Nouveau awning over the entrance; this is Ljubljana’s oldest department store, in a gorgeous Secessionist building, Urbanc House, dating from 1903. This is roughly the heart of the Old Town, where young people meet to start their day (often on the steps of the looming Franciscan Church), or the night, often heading one way or another across Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) to get to their favorite riverside drinking spot. Across Triple Bridge you can take a left turn (at the Tourist Information Center) to reach the colonnaded covered promenade of the daily crafts market; alternatively, after crossing the bridge, continue on Stritarjeva, marked by the beautifully remodeled Robba’s Fountain (Robbov Vodnjak), originally completed in 1751 and celebrating the confluence of the three Carniolan rivers (the Ljubljanica, the Sava and the Krka). The fountain is just in front of the Town Hall (Magistrat), which you can visit for free; exhibitions are occasionally held in the interior courtyard. Medieval Mestni trg is a defining part of Old Town, as is Old Square (Stari trg) at its southern, narrowing end. Together, Mestni, and Stari squares form a lively pedestrian cobblestone avenue lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes and culminating with the massive early-17th-century St. James’ Church.

As Mestni trg curves east, you’ll notice the looming Cathedral of St. Nicholas, an important religious building in the baroque style, defined by its high dome and massive bell towers. Started in 1701, the cathedral was designed by Andrea Pozzo; its interiors are famous for frescoes by Quaglio, depicting miraculous moments in the life of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of all seafaring people. Worth a look are the bronze sculpted church doors, added for the 1996 visit of Pope John Paul II (whose image can be seen looking over the history of Slovene Christianity on the main doors).

Adjacent the cathedral is the Market, another of Plecnik’s designs. Just north of the market, is Dragon’s Bridge (Zmajski Most); designed by Jurij Zaninovich and completed in 1901, four fabulously sculpted dragons adorn each corner of the bridge. Legend states that the dragons wag their tails in the unlikely event of an old virgin crossing the bridge. Just beyond the bridge, if you head east along Trubarjeva cesta, you’ll encounter a distinctive student culture, with a succession of cheap cafes, adventure companies and New Age shops such as the hemp-based cosmetics outfit, Extravaganja.

The performing arts are very much alive in the capital, and in summer there is likely to be street theater, especially in and around Old Town, keep eyes and ears pealed. For cutting-edge productions look out for shows conceived by Draga Zivadinov, the native Ljubljaniker responsible for staging the world’s first theatrical production in a weightless environment, somewhere far above Russia. During the famous Ljubljana Summer Festival, performances of all kinds, film, theater, jazz, chamber music, opera, ballet, symphony concerts, theater, puppetry, are held in venues around the city. Main venues are Ljubljana Castle and the Krizanke Summer Theater. Krizanke is also the venue for Druga Godba, literally “the Other Music,” an alternative music festival held in late May; and in late June, it hosts the Ljubljana Jazz Festival.

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