Ljubljana is at the level of Vienna and Prague when it comes to enjoying the winter holidays and the Christmas markets, with more nature excursions and way fewer tourists.
For Christmas spirit lovers, people who do not fear a bit of cold and those who want to avoid the busy crowds of the summer season, Ljubljana is the place to be in winter. Slovenia’s capital city has been working hard in the past few years to become more attractive all year long thanks to its sweetly buzzing, people-friendly city centre and the proximity of nature. For Christmas and the end-of-the-year celebrations, Ljubljana lights up in every corner for some original atmosphere!
“Convergence”: the universe at the heart of the Christmas lights display
The theme for the decorations is “the universe”. The lights are made every year by Ljubljana-based artist Zmago Modic. This year you get some hard science, some dreamy planet system and even a very telling “creation of human life” display. According to Ljubljana’s tourism bureau: “This year’s theme, convergence, symbolizes the eternal desire for existence and convergence and was inspired by the famous touch depicted in Michelangelo’s fresco Creation of Adam”.
I especially enjoyed the meteor shower on Slovenska Cesta! I spent a few hours simply walking around, looking at people looking at the lights and at the many cute Christmas windows. Preseren square, the main square in front of the triple bridge, is so lively! At the end of the day, groups of friends and families meet there to enjoy the atmosphere, walk along the river and grab a bite.
You like the lights or not (I spent some time debating them with my friends) but it’s hard not to be contaminated by the happy atmosphere. People here love this period of the year and go out every evening to enjoy it! Shops are also part of the winter ambience, some with beautiful but classical displays, others with sassy-funny comments.
Christmas market: small is beautiful
If you are looking for a change after trying the Christmas markets in Strasbourg, Prague and Vienna, Ljubljana will not only ravish you but also give you a mixed taste of Central Europe and Balkan festivities. The centre is relatively small and extremely walkable. It’s also quite accessible for wheelchairs (I have seen many)! The city has worked since 2007 to turn the area into 10 hectares of pedestrian streets with many bridges connecting the two banks of the Ljubljanica river. It’s a perfect spot to plant a cute Christmas market where everybody can hang out without being bothered by cars and city noises.
Wooden huts are scattered over the whole city centre and on the riversides so you can wander around for a while, trying the food and mulled wine (red or white!). There is music everywhere, be it blasting from the radio, from Christmas chorals or live bands. In the evening there might even be a gipsy band playing some old Yugoslav rock tunes like Bijelo Dugme’s unavoidable Djurdjevdan.
As long as the weather allows it, terraces remain open so you can sit and do some people-watching while enjoying the delicious burgers at Pop’s Place or some local beer. The area of the green market is particularly nice, slightly less crowded but with a mix of drinks, food and souvenirs and a stage with live music. I love how old couples would just get up and dance in front of the stage with no shyness. Sweet!
Hungry in Ljubljana
For local Slovenian food, head out to Druga Violina and Slovenska Hisa-Figovec. I tried the first one last summer. They both serve delicious traditional Slovenian cuisine. Druga Violina is also a socially responsible restaurant employing people with disabilities. I tried dumplings and salads there and was very satisfied with the food and the service.
I went to Figovec this December, the waiter was nice and helpful and the food delicious. Nothing like a good pumpkin soup to comfort you after a whole day on your feet working for French TV! Especially if it is followed by a glass of rakia, the Balkan brandy (wink wink). We also tried the gulash, the Istrian pasta with spinach and the schnitzel. Portions are big so come hungry!
If you’d rather stay outside to enjoy the Christmas market, you can buy “fast food” pretty much everywhere, from sausage with mustard to Balkan pljeskavica (grilled mixed meat in the shape of a steak served in bread).
Slovenia has this magical charm thanks to its small size and geography. Wherever you look, mountains are never far away. The view is especially spectacular from “Neboticnik”, the skyscraper on Slovenska Cesta. You can go all the way up to the café with a panoramic terrace and sip a “Christmas coffee” (latte with cinnamon) while enjoying the sweet warmth of the winter sun and the view over the Alps. Prices were surprisingly good for the location. There is also a restaurant underneath the café for the ones who arrive very hungry.
Ljubljana’s castle is also a beautiful spot to see the city and the surroundings and for sunset-catching. Night falls early in this region so I hurried up the old pedestrian path to get the red, pink and orange hues on time. It was worth being out of breath and slightly sweaty! You can also get there using a funicular but I figured I could use the opportunity to work out. The castle is open until late and there are a café and a restaurant inside if you feel like staying and getting cosy! If you walk up there, you can use different paths from the city centre with different views on the way.
I decided to go back to town for a last stroll around with Ljubljana’s Christmas spirit before catching my bus back to Belgrade. And what better to end a day in the city than by sitting at Cacao on the riverside with a hot pot of black tea, a slice of chocolate-and-nuts cake and a book?
There is more to do in Ljubljana! Check out my 6 favourite activities in winter!