Ljubljana — the capital of Slovenia — is my favorite city in Europe.
There, I said it.
Yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. And yes, I really do mean that I like it better than Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, or Rome. Not that it's objectively "better" than any of those places — just that I like it better. (For the record, London, Budapest, and Sarajevo are also on my personal "favorite cities" list.)
One of Europe's smallest capitals, Ljubljana feels even cozier than its population of 280,000. Everyone here knows each other. I have a handful of friends here, and I usually bump into them before I have a chance to look them up.
In town to update my Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia guidebook, I'm finished with the day's work and ready to meet up with my friend Marijan. I'm standing by the vivid-pink church that crowns the cozy main square, scrolling through my phone's contacts to find Marijan's number. Just then, I feel a bicycle pull to a stop next to me. Sure enough, it's Marijan. "Dobrodošli!" Marijan says. "Welcome back to Ljubljana."
We begin strolling together through the cobbled streets. Marijan — who leads tours all over Europe for Rick Steves — knows more than anybody about Ljubljana, and Slovenia, and the Balkans, and Europe...and, basically, everything. When I'm working on a guidebook, I can barely scribble fast enough to capture all of the insights that tumble out of Marijan's mouth. But this afternoon I'm taking a break from all that, and just enjoying Ljubljana.
Wandering through the mellow hubbub of Prešeren Square, I comment on how serene this space has become. I remember — just a few years ago — watching motorcycles rip through the middle of the square. But today, students lounge, loiter, and flirt furiously at the base of the statue of national poet France Prešeren. Street performers blow big bubbles, gyrating the vivid colors: the fluorescent-pink church, the green treetops, and the deep-blue sky. Even the commuters don't seem in a hurry. "Yes, so much of the center is traffic-free now," Marijan says. "Mayor Janković has really remade the whole city."
Zoran Janković, a former supermarket magnate, has been mayor of Ljubljana since 2006. Picture starting with the most people-friendly city you can imagine...and then aggressively pursuing an agenda to make it even better. In his decade in office, Janković has pedestrianized much of the urban core, realized long-delayed urban beautification plans, and connected formerly dilapidated exurbs into the city's grid, all while keeping the budget under control.
"Yes," I say. "As an outsider who drops in every year or two, I see so many improvements under Janković, and basically zero downside. But he must have his critics. "
"Sure, a few," Marijan says. "For example, some older folks who live in the city center became upset because the pedestrian zones made it impossible to drive to their homes. So Janković created a free shuttle system." Just then, a bright-green golf cart, like a clown car packed with senior citizens, silently rolls past us. "Anyone can just call and tell them where you are, and where you want to go, and in a few minutes one of those carts pulls up."
Despite his over 80% approval rating as mayor, Janković was narrowly edged out when he ran for prime minister a few years back. So he returned to his niche, winning a landslide re-election as mayor. And today, he just keeps on making his improvements to the city.
We cross the river on the Triple Bridge, hang a left, and walk along the colonnaded embankment to the outdoor market. The bridge, the embankment, the market, and much of Ljubljana were designed in the early 20th century by Jože Plečnik. This prodigiously talented architect-slash-urban planner is as revered by his fellow Slovenes as he is unknown to everyone else. When you ask locals why Plečnik is so important to them, tears appear in the corners of their eyes as they struggle to find the words.
After a successful career in Vienna, Prague, and Belgrade, Plečnik returned to his hometown. He lived at one end of Ljubljana, and worked at the other, so every day he strolled along this very riverbank. If anyone knew how to make this city more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, it was Plečnik — and that's exactly what he did.
At the edge of the market, Marijan points out an eight-foot-tall, cone-shaped monument. "This commemorates Plečnik's unrealized vision for a Slovenian acropolis. He wanted to build a cone-shaped parliament on top of the hill, where the castle is now. But his plan was just too ambitious. Do you have a €0.10 coin, minted in Slovenia?" Digging in my pocket, I find one. "See, there," he says, flipping to the back of the coin. "That's Plečnik's never-built parliament."
"I just love this place," I say, to nobody in particular. "What other country puts an imaginary building on their money?"
Deeper in the open-air market, rustic stands tidily display today's produce. Marijan points out that a few of the stands are actually carts, with wheels. "Some garden patches are well within the city center," he says. "People pick their veggies, pile them into the cart, and hand-push them directly to the market."
By the meat hall, we pass the "Mlekomat" — a vending machine with a big cartoon of a cow. Just drop in a couple of coins, and the machine fills and seals a glass bottle of farm-fresh, organic milk.
Pausing in the middle of the market, Marijan points in one direction, to the funicular that trundles up the hill to the castle, and then in the opposite direction, to a modern footbridge. "Two more projects that Mayor Janković finally brought about." I remember hearing about both ideas, many years ago. Each time I visited, people swore the funicular would be up and running by next year...and it never was. But once Janković took over, it actually happened.
Done with our shopping, Marijan and I walk along another once-traffic-clogged, newly pedestrianized street to a row of riverbank cafés. Shaded by wispy willows and pointy poplars, crammed with tipsy high tables, and populated by easy-to-get-to-know Slovenes, this is my favorite spot in Europe...and maybe on earth. I've never quite put my finger on why I love this embankment so much. Maybe it's because when I travel, I tend to get caught up in my "to do" list. These café tables demand that I slow down for a few minutes and take it all in.
Marijan and I grab a table at my preferred hangout, Café Maček, and order two bela kavas ("white coffee," as they call lattes here). The pastel colors of Ljubljana's townhouses pop against the hazy blue-and-white sky. The tables around us are filled with students turning a cheap cup of coffee into an opportunity to master the art of conversation. Flowing past us is a steady stream of young families, tourists, and urbanites commuting by foot.
Marijan's wife Barbara arrives. She tells me about the Rick Steves tour that she just finished guiding (she arrived home from Dubrovnik just last night). And they catch me up on their progress renovating the house Marijan inherited from his grandmother — a years-long project that has been continually delayed by red tape and corrupt contractors. (Apparently Mayor Janković can't fix everything.)
It's dinnertime. "Do you like burgers?" they ask me. Next thing I know, we pile into their car and drive to Hood Burger, one of my favorite budget-foodie finds of this trip. On our way back to my apartment, Marijan turns off onto a side-street that he thinks is a shortcut, only to find it's been made one-way in the opposite direction. "Mayor Janković again," they tell me. "He's been re-routing streets to improve traffic flow. It can be...difficult to keep track of." It's the first time I've ever heard either of them breathe a less-than-enthusiastic word about their mayor. Barbara shakes her fist in mock fury. "Damn you, Janković!”
From Marijan and Barbara, to Jože Plečnik and, yes, Mayor Janković, Ljubljana is a city of people whose life's mission is making their own little corner of the world a better place. This is a city where a two-buck coffee comes with a million-dollar view. Where imaginary buildings and farm-fresh milk are at your fingertips. Where golf carts shuttle old timers to wherever they're going, and where most people seem to be going nowhere in particular...and loving every minute of it. That's why I'll be coming back to this underrated, wonderful little city for the rest of my life.