Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
The seventh stop on our nine week summer vacation across Europe brought us to Ljubljana, Slovenia. If you’ve never heard of Ljubljana or Slovenia, then you are missing out on a hidden gem of Europe. We randomly stumbled on this country while looking at pictures of Europe and decided it was a must-see destination. It did not disappoint.
While in Ljubljana, we explored the city for several days and visited the castle atop the central hill in town. We took a few day trips to two caves and a castle. In addition to the sightseeing, this was our first opportunity to take it easy since we had a full week in Ljubljana (after six previous stops on our trip with only two to five days stay in each city). We embraced the slow travel lifestyle and spent a couple of days “doing nothing” and relaxing.
Ljubljana is a mouthful. It’s pronounced LOOB-LEE-ANNA and rhymes with the performer Rihanna. Now you can tell all your friends about LOOB-LEE-ANNA!
Fun facts: Slovenia used to be a part of Yugoslavia. It was a communist country for several decades. Slovenia tops the ranks of the Gini index, a measure of income equality. It only has two million people, about the same population as the state of New Mexico. It’s tiny. If it were a US State, it would be the fourth smallest in size, falling between New Jersey and Connecticut. Our First Lady Melania Trump is from Slovenia (though her name at birth was Melanija – the “j” sounds like a “y” in Slovenian).
We didn’t see Melania or visit her home village, but we did see a bunch of friendly, laid back people in Ljubljana and the rest of Slovenia!
Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far. We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain. After Granada we visited Seville, Spain. From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice. Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where our story picks up today.
Getting Around Town
After a 4.5 hour bus ride from Venice, we arrived at the main bus station which is adjacent to the main train station. Most of the local buses traversing Ljubljana connect at the main bus/train station, so it was easy to hop on the right bus to take us the 1.5 miles to our Airbnb. Bus fares are collected electronically so a €2 Urbana transit card is required (for sale at kiosks around town and at the main bus station). Rides are €1.20 each and five year olds ride free. As it turns out, a taxi probably would have cost about the same as the bus fare times four plus the €2 Urbana card purchase.
We didn’t take the bus any more after that first bus trip because we booked a rental car for the remaining 10 days of our stay in Slovenia (4 days of which we stayed in the village of Podkoren in the northern part of Slovenia – more on that in the next article!).
A rental car isn’t a requirement to see all of Slovenia, but it’s a huge convenience. Otherwise we would have to rely on guided tours or somewhat infrequent intercity buses to the more far-flung destinations we visited.
If we only visited Ljubljana itself, a rental car wouldn’t be necessary at all as the buses are comprehensive and the taxis cheap. Slovenia didn’t have Uber when we visited but they did have some kind of taxi app that I didn’t try. The central tourist section of town is easily walkable if you’re staying in the center. We stayed on the edge of downtown and could walk to everything within 5-20 minutes. Some streets are pedestrian only, so we left the car in the driveway when venturing down the cobblestone streets of downtown Ljubljana. There was a small grocery store and a playground two blocks from our Airbnb house.
On the morning of our first full day in Ljubljana, Sixt dropped off the rental at our Airbnb at the scheduled time of 10:00 am without much delay. We declined the extra car rental insurance because our credit card provided full coverage. Sixt required us to put a $4,000 hold on our credit card to cover any damage or losses to the car. The rental car attendant told me it was 15% of the car value, which would make it a $26,000 car. It was a brand new Audi compact car, so the small price tag surprised me. The total rental price for 10 days was €151 or about USD$170. We could have saved quite a bit by booking a manual transmission car, however I’m no good at the stick shift so I went the easy route of automatic transmission and paid a premium.
This was our first rental car in Europe and it turned out to be an okay experience but there were some bumps in the road (more on that in the next article on northern Slovenia). It wasn’t a matter of extra unexpected charges or problems with the car, but rather miscommunications with Sixt staff.
This little Audi sipped the diesel very carefully even up and down winding mountain roads. It only cost about $20 to fill up the tank which we did a couple times while in Slovenia.
The stereotype of tiny compact cars in Europe was confirmed with our little Audi. It was a tight squeeze to fit our five bookbags (all we traveled with for nine weeks) in the hatchback trunk area, and adding a few bags of groceries on top really stretched the cargo limits to the max. The kids complained of being “literally crushed to DEATH” in the back seat though none of our children were injured or died on this particular sojourn in Slovenia, whines and complaints notwithstanding.
Driving was easy once I figured out the European road signs. Everyone drives on the right hand side of the road (as all continental European countries do). The one weird difference I noticed was country-wide prohibition of “right turn on red” at traffic signals. I violated this particular law without thinking, then luckily bumped into a fellow American at the grocery store who informed me of this nuance of Slovenian road rules.
Navigating the countryside was simple with offline Google Maps and GPS on my phone. We didn’t get lost on small backcountry roads nor on the winding narrow alleyways in ancient villages. Though there were a few times when we questioned whether we were driving on a footpath or a real road. I think we messed up just once or twice.
The national language is Slovenian but almost everyone speaks English to some degree. The one notable exception was the cashiers at the grocery stores. Many were older ladies that graduated high school before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and as a result were less likely to learn English in school. So if you ever need to find a proficient English speaker in Slovenia, just look for someone under 40.
Lodging for a week with Airbnb
We stayed in a centrally located house on the edge of the historic downtown area of Ljubljana for USD$86 per night. There were cheaper Airbnb’s available, but we decided to live it up a bit in a three bedroom apartment that occupied the entire second floor of a large house. The house had two other apartments – one above and one below us. The owner lived in the first floor apartment and was always available if we had any questions or issues. Since we had a car, the fenced in parking area was convenient though it was an extremely tight squeeze.
The Airbnb offered plenty of space to relax in the large living room and dining room. The kitchen was larger than ours at home in Raleigh, and almost as well furnished. The bathroom situation was a bit weird as it was advertised as two bathrooms though it was more like two half baths. The main bathroom was huge and came with a large bathtub/shower, bidet, vanity area and laundry area but no toilet. The second bathroom was possibly a former coat closet refurbished by squeezing in a toilet and small sink. The apartment was perfect for our one week stay.
If you want to give Airbnb a shot, click here to take $40 off your stay.
Food in Ljubljana
We cooked several meals in Ljubljana and packed sandwiches and snacks for picnics around the countryside. A Mercator grocery store two blocks from our apartment provided all the staples at very reasonable prices. Once we got our rental car on day two, we made a big grocery run to the Hofer grocery store a mile away. Hofer is the trade name used in Austria and Slovenia by Aldi grocery stores. Store layout and product offerings were surprisingly similar to the products on shelves in the US version of Aldi. Prices and quality were great, too.
Restaurants and bars were incredibly cheap in Slovenia. Like Mexico cheap. We found one of the nicer restaurants in town and stopped in for lunch. Druga Violina, or Second Violin, offers a rotating menu of two or three course meals for €4.50-5.00 (USD$5.00-5.60 at the time) that includes a salad, a main course, and sometimes a dessert. We tried a couple of those meals. We also got several stews and desserts to try plus some fries for the kids (so they won’t “literally starve to death”). The bill came to USD$29 and none of us left hungry. The restaurant also does a good deed by hiring special needs young adults to bus tables and serve food. The special needs staff struggled with the details a little when bringing out our order, but you have to applaud a restaurant that makes a difference AND serves a good meal in a nice atmosphere for less than the cost of a fast food combo back in the US.
In the center of downtown Ljubljana there’s an open air market with a couple dozen food vendors. Perfect for a family with varying tastes (including kids who count french fries among their favorite foods). Mrs. Root of Good indulged her desire for seafood with fried squid ($8). I ordered “one of everything” at a different food truck and ended up with cevapcicis with ajvar sauce, fried cheese, french fries, and stuffed Slovenian pizza.
The Slovenian pizza has a fairly normal yeasty doughy thick crust filled with cheese, meat, and sauce. Cevapcicis are little beef sticks served on big, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside rolls (like huge English muffins but way better). Ajvar (remember the j sounds like a y) is mashed up roasted peppers (and it’s also delicious!).
Fun story on grocery shopping while abroad. We accidentally bought ajvar at the grocery store thinking it was Slovenian for “pasta sauce”. Nope. But it does taste delicious on pasta when mixed with tomato sauce or “real” pasta sauce. I also found that you can buy frozen cevapcici meat sticks at the grocery store and they are delicious. I guess it’s the US equivalent of frozen meatballs or hamburger patties.
Downtown Ljubljana is a fun place to visit, and we did so on several days. There’s always a strange mix of public performances going on. Live bands giving impromptu concerts. Mimes or actors in costumes looking for tips. Gymnasts and jugglers showing off their extraordinary coordination. One guy used the expanse of a large open square around a fountain to practice his bullwhip cracking skills. And in a rare deviation from the typical European experience, the downtown area felt like it was designed to encourage visitors to linger with free drinking water fountains and free public restrooms (most places in Europe charged $0.50 to $1.50 to answer the call of nature).
On the stroll back to our Airbnb after an afternoon of exploring downtown, we stopped by the Cat Caffe Ljubljana to watch the cats inside. Cats and coffee! How can you not love that combo? I didn’t risk going in with the kids since one of the girls has a bad cat allergy.
We visited a castle in almost every city we visited in Europe. Ljubljana was no different. The Ljubljana Castle is perched atop a hill that forms the western border for the downtown historic district. Given the high vantage point, I can clearly see why the original castle builders decided to put a defensive fortress up there 1,000 years ago (and why new rulers continually upgraded the castle throughout the centuries). You can see half way across the country in every direction. Invaders would have had a terrible uphill climb to get to the outer walls. Fortunately we had a rental car to take us up the hill to the castle entrance. Another alternative is the funicular that runs from the from downtown center up the hillside to the castle.
There is a small admission fee to see all the parts of the interior of the castle including a museum. We didn’t pay anything and managed to see the most interesting parts of the castle for free. I’m not sure if we broke the rules by walking in for free but there was no one taking tickets at the main gate, and individual areas specifically asked for certain tickets available for purchase (which we didn’t buy).
The castle was very interesting and certainly worth a visit if you’re in Ljubljana, if for nothing more than the view of the surrounding country. I think we were starting to suffer from castle fatigue at this point in the trip since we had seen at least a half dozen impressive castles leading up to this one.
This castle held prisoners of war during World War I, including US POW’s. At the time, much of today’s Slovenia was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an enemy of the US and Allied powers during WWI. I’m kind of a history nerd, and WWI/II are of particular interest so this was way cool to see. Scattered elsewhere throughout Slovenia we saw plenty of places of significance during WWI including battle sites, memorials, and graveyards.
Caves of Slovenia
Slovenia is a small country which makes it perfect for day trips out of the centrally located capital of Ljubljana. We took day trips on two occasions to see the huge caves near Ljubljana. The Skocjan Cave is more rustic and raw and feels like you’re exploring it yourself instead of being led on a guided tour. The Postojna Cave feels a little Disney-fied with the train that leads you into the most impressive part of the cave. Our Airbnb host tried to deter us from even visiting the latter cave, however we ignored that advice and are very glad we toured both caves.
The two caves offered very different scenic opportunities. The Skocjan cave was massively impressive in size and scale. Like incomprehensively massive – my brain couldn’t really process how big it was or the fact that a 50 story skyscraper could fit within some of the underground chambers. And an underground river runs through the bottom of these massive chambers. I’ve never seen anything else like this in the world. The Postojna cave (the Disney-fied one) was impressive not due to its size, but because of the stalactite and stalagmite formations and mineral pools packed into the dozens of cave chambers we passed through.
Each cave tour cost just under USD$100 for family admission which is quite a steep price given how cheap everything else was in Slovenia. It’s well worth the cost of admission. These two caves were probably the most impressive sights in the entirety of our Europe trip. A must see if you’re in this part of Europe. The Postojna cave was rather crowded, however the Skocjan cave wasn’t that packed with tourists in spite of us being there in July in the middle of peak tourist season.
The caves were both a short 30 to 45 minute drive and not too far off the main freeway connecting Ljubljana with Trieste, Italy. Both caves are in the same general direction, so it’s certainly possible to see both cave complexes in one day. However I’d allow at least four hours, possibly six, to explore all of the accessible areas of the Skocjan cave which would have you rushing to see the Postojna cave. To see both main parts of the Skocjan cave, expect to walk or hike for 3-4 miles, some of which will be on uneven steps and steep, rough terrain. It’s not rock climbing but it’s a lot harder than a leisurely stroll.
If you’re not in top physical shape or traveling with children, definitely plan on doing one cave per day. Postojna Cave is much less physically demanding as you ride a train into and out of the cave, and are only walking on foot for about 40 minutes to one hour.
Near the Postojna Cave is the Predjama Castle. It’s neat to see a castle built into a cliffside but not worth a separate day trip if you aren’t planning on visiting the Postojna Cave at the same time.
Video from our train ride into the Postojna Cave
Thoughts on Ljubljana and Slovenia
We all loved Slovenia in case you can’t tell already. It’s a beautiful country in a beautiful part of the world. Full of mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, caves, castles, and history but without a big price tag usually attached to these luxuries. In other words, it’s a perfect destination for this frugal travel blogger/early retiree.
Unlike many other tourist destinations in Europe, Slovenia isn’t swamped with tourists. Even in the capital city Ljubljana it seemed to be a largely local crowd with some tourists from nearby Italy and Austria (which are both within an hour’s drive from Ljubljana). Slovenia is relatively undiscovered today however I’m afraid articles like the one you’re currently reading will bring waves of tourists that will jam pack the streets and take up all the seating at the quaint sidewalk cafes. I’m conflicted as I want to jealously guard this secret gem from everyone and keep it for myself. However, I feel compelled to share it’s beauty with all of you so that you can enjoy it before future crowds wreck its splendor.
Of all the fourteen cities and eight countries we visited in Europe last summer, Slovenia stands out as a favorite for the whole family. It has a slower pace of life that we could embrace. Everything works. It’s clean and convenient. The people are friendly. It’s a bit like many other cities and countries we visited in Europe except without the crowds, commercialism, and higher prices usually associated with tourist destinations.
We have Ljubljana and Slovenia on our list to re-visit for a longer period of time whenever we make it back to Europe. I wouldn’t mind spending a whole summer there in fact.
Admit it, this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Slovenia and Ljubljana, right? 🙂 What do you think? Should the Slovene Tourist Bureau hire me?
Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
- Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
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