June 25 is fast approaching. Though National Catfish Day deserves plans of its own, you may want to put those plans on hold until next year, and spend the 25th in Ljubljana, Europe’s best kept secret instead. Ljubljana has the architecture of Spain, wine of Italy, politeness of Germany, and food of Greece while being affordable and still relatively uncrowded from tourists. This little gem of Slovenia deserves your time.
In 1991, Yugoslavia fell apart. Though nowhere near as messy as the dissolution of Bosnia, Serbia, or even surprisingly Croatia, Slovenia also declared independence in 1991, on June 25. Due to the easily defensible mountainous terrain, a very well organized military that essentially took over overnight, and proximity to the NATO countries, Slovenia escaped from the larger horrors inflicted upon the other Baltic states, but not without its own difficulties. Now, June 25 is a national day of celebration, and nowhere more so than Ljubljana. What other country can you stand ten feet away from the president and get handed a flag to wave without speaking a word of the language? Ok well, I learned “pivo” (beer), so maybe two words.
Spend the day of the 25th exploring the town. The castle on the summit of the hill is a good place to start. Not only does it have views of the entire rest of the city, it also forms a focal point for the evening’s ceremonies. Head up early in the morning to beat the crowds. Also explore around the full castle grounds to get a full 360 degree view of the city. The castle hasn’t been used for much since the 15th century, perhaps because it cuts such an imposing figure in the sky. Most recently it served as a prison. The views from the castle ramparts are also quite arresting.
The best way to live like a Ljubljaner is to while away an afternoon on the Ljubljanica river at a cafe. Tzod may just be the most serene one, toward the southern end of the pedestrian area on the east side of the river. Inside is a hipster coffee shop, but you’ll want to sit in one of the big wicker chairs along the promenade with a liter bottle of local craft beer and watch the locals walk by. Pelicon, the highest rated craft beer in Slovenia can be found here as can the excellent “Human Fish”, an oddly named brew made right outside of the city. Apparently it’s named for the colorless fish that dwells in caves in Slovenia. Creepy. The beer is a nice citrusy take on a hop forward IPA.
Tour the city on foot or bike. Like many world cities, Ljubljana has rental bikes available at kiosks throughout the city, especially the tourist areas. It’s also small enough to walk around most of the town too. If you are willing to take a little bit of a hike, head over to the massive Tivoli Park – Ljubljana’s version of Central Park. There are acres of green space here including a scenic lily pad covered pond.
Nearby is the large but still high-quality Union Brewery (Pivinica). Union is Slovenia’s largest beer retailer but unlike other national beers like Corona or Heineken, it’s actually pretty good. At the brewery, there are many styles you won’t find in stores either like wheat and dark brews with lots of malty flavors. The inside is very modern and hip, but the front patio is the place to be when the sun is out. It’s the perfect place to soak up some local flavor.
After the suds, you may need some soaking up of a different variety. Head down to Olympia for the best handheld snack the city has to offer, burek. Every culture has their take on a sandwich variety that fortifies. There are gyros, kebabs, burgers, and I suppose tacos or perhaps even chalupas. Slovenia has the burek; a flaky crispy perfectly oily confection stuffed with minced meat of an undeterminable origin. Don’t ask questions, just grab one. If they were good enough for feeding the marching armies of the Ottoman empire, they can sustain you through a tour of the city.
Ready for dinner? Though there are plenty of good, if somewhat touristy options in the main town, the best is just past the end of the pedestrian area, Pri Skofu. Here you can find more local beer and wine and some of the best service in the whole city. The restaurant isn’t massive, but the small area makes it feel more personal and intimate. The menu changes constantly but everything is delicious. The roasted mushrooms are excellent, and I normally don’t like mushrooms. Pair it with the house salad of mixed greens and you almost won’t want an entree, though you’d be mistaken not to go for one.
The homemade gnocchi is delicious and not overly truffle flavored like so many truffle dishes. It is much more of a subtle flavor within a larger flavor profile than overwhelming. The gnocchi is also chewy and delicious. The pork medallions with cheese blintz and figs are outstanding. The pork is moist and perfectly cooked with a delicious glaze that paired well with the figs. The cheese blintz are soft and perfect. They melt right into the meat and complement it well. The waiter is adamant that they have the best mousse and though you may be stuffed, you have to try it. He isn’t exaggerating. The mousse is creamy, sweet, and chocolatey without being overly sweet. Even the house wine is incredible.
By now the festivities should be about ready to kick off back at Kongresni Trg (Congress Square). A huge bandshell is setup and seating is open. Without really knowing what you are doing or asking anyone, you may be seated and handed Slovenian flags to wave. As the celebration starts, the band picks up patriotic songs as an honor guard from the army and veterans takes up position. Next, the president of Slovenia marches in with his family and takes the stage. Under the lights of the illuminated castle, he delivers a speech that you don’t understand, but seems passionate and moving.
He takes back off, probably in the Slovenian Air Force One to his Slovenian Presidential palace while the band then starts to play and a combination opera and musical begins. It’s hard to keep up, but if the imagery on screen is any indication, it’s about the history of Slovenia from the ice age to present. Either that or this is the most intense screening of Game of Thrones ever shown.
After five or so songs, you may get the itch to move around a bit. Beat the crowd – or at least some of it as many locals seem to prefer hitting the hotspots to sitting for the festivities – and cross the square to Dvoni bar, the best wine bar and best outdoor spot in the city. The square is likely already packed but just grab a cushion and sit anywhere. Waiters will find you and deliver the immense wine list to you. This is the best way to explore the country; by the grapes. Most wine in Slovenia is white, but some tasty varieties from the coast near Croatia and Italy can be found, typically from the Primoska region. Posavje and Podravje are crisp and tasty white regions. Not that it really matters here, just tell the waiter what you like and they will find you something perfect. Enjoy it under the glow of the castle lights and with the echoes of the next two hours of patriotic music behind you.
As the night fades with the concert, you begin to notice a distinct flow of foot traffic around the corner. Everyone coming from that side appears to be carrying what looks like pizza but is just too big to possibly be a slice. It is however just a massive slice that is super popular with the locals. Nothing says Slovenian pride like a slice of pizza and some wine. Go grab a slice, but ask first about the toppings, or you might end up with what you think is chicken, but turns out to be tuna. Yes, tuna fish is apparently a popular pizza topping in Slovenia. It’s like I always say, you can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish!
Slovenian Statehood Day is the perfect way to experience this small but amazing gem of a nation that you may not have heard of. You still have time, so get there now. And if you time it right, you can even get down into Croatia for their Statehood Day, also on June 25. Get to Ljubljana before Game of Thrones starts filming there too!