There’s a good chance this is the first time you are considering how you might find a great meal or glass of wine in Ljubljana, Slovenia. In fact, this may be the first time you’re thinking about Ljubljana at all- or Slovenia, for that matter. Nestled among Italy, Austria, and Croatia, Slovenia doesn’t benefit from the same popularity its neighbors tend to enjoy. When you’re looking at a European map, you might miss it at first. Don’t make that mistake again. The country has a rich and colorful past and is full of incredible spots to relax and unwind or find your next adventure.
It’s also a great place to eat.
After deciding we would split our day trip to Slovenia between Lake Bled in the north and Ljubljana, the capital, planning what to do at the lake was pretty easy: we would visit the lake. (Granted, our planned four-hour visit stretched into an eight-hour day, but that’s another story.) Ljubljana, though, required some thought. We didn’t know much about the city or what to do. All I knew is we would probably be hungry when we got there.
Free time and a need to eat? We decided we would explore the city through food.
We’ve done a number of food tours through our travels, and they have become tried-and-true ways to get to know a city and its people. Food can unite us. It’s an integral part of who we are and the culture of a place, a city, or a country. And food walks have become the perfect answer to the question that so often trips us up as we travel: what should we eat tonight?
One of the biggest challenges Adam and I encounter when we travel is food. It’s so easy to pick a place with an English menu; by doing so, though, we might as well print up shirts that say, “Not From Here” and walk around with our wallets open. We’ve had plenty of disappointing meals because we weren’t knowledgeable enough about the local restaurant landscape to find something authentic. Getting local advice is always great, but when you’re short on time it’s not easy to find someone who can connect you with the insight you want. So we settled on a food walk to spend our afternoon.
A quick search brought up a couple of tasty food walk opportunities, and we picked Ljubljananjam to teach us what it meant to enjoy Slovenian cuisine. Run by a native Ljubljanan, Iva, we were excited to get a true local take on what people actually eat in restaurants that don’t feature a tourist menu.
By the time our food walk was scheduled to start, I was more than ready for something delicious. I had been awake for 33 hours by the time we arrived in Ljubljana. We awoke at 6 AM the morning before, and thanks to a full day of sightseeing and travel and an entirely sleepless night due to a poorly selected hotel, we were surviving only on the fumes of our Bled cream cake sugar high, and those fumes were rapidly running out. We met Iva’s business partner Alenka, our host for the afternoon, and it wasn’t long before we were mastering the local foodie scene.
Food walks tend to work as progressive dinners; you enjoy a course in one place before moving along to a second place for another one. As our first course was placed in front of us, we knew instantly we had hit the jackpot with Ljubljananjam. Creamy kohlrabi soup and fresh bread nourished our sleep-deprived selves as we got to know Alenka, a Ljubljana native and world traveller with a passion for her hometown. As I seriously considered licking the soup bowl as our first taste of the city ended (and for the record, I resisted the urge- but it was hard!), we were whisked away to our second location to dine on Piran sea bass with lemon mashed potatoes. We eat a lot of fish both at home and on the road, and this was among the best we have had- although I must admit the potatoes somehow upstaged it. How have I never thought to make lemon mashed potatoes at home? They were perfect in their flavor and creaminess.
The food just kept coming over the four hours we spent with Alenka: Carniola sausage served with mustard and fresh bread reminded us of Polish kielbasa, but its perfect balance of smoky, crunchy, and juicy made us wonder what we have ever seen in other sausages. Having devoured everything we had been served and convinced we couldn’t manage another bite to eat, we inhaled local salami and cheese when they were presented to us to accompany our first taste of Slovenian wine: a refreshing sauvignon blanc and a Blaufrankisch that was full of cherries and just a bit of oak. We also discovered one of our new favorite beers, Human Fish pale ale, which was bright and citrusy and light enough to enjoy without feeling full at the end. Our tour continued to a fun coffee shop to sample some organic coffee and tea (and, yes, a couple of cookies). We enjoyed cups of the creamiest, most decadent gelato I have ever had at a local gelateria with some of the best flavor combinations we have experienced- chocolate with sea flower, chocolate with chili, kiwi banana, and a lychee flavor that was incredible!).
As our fourth hour of eating and drinking our way through Ljubljana concluded, we sampled two unique orange wines (which really do have a distinct amber color!) that are made from local grapes using ancient production methods. The Goriška Brda wine region of western Slovenia is one of the original producers of orange wine. Orange wines are a bit stylish these days, but they don’t taste much like any white or rosé you might have tried before! The process for making orange wine is similar to how red wine is made, but it uses white grapes. When the white grapes are crushed, they're left to macerate with their skins, seeds and stems for longer than usual. This gives the wine the distinctive orange color and flavor that is known for.
We left our wine tasting cursing the fact airlines charge for overweight baggage, which kept us from buying a few bottles to enjoy at home. We ended our tour with a trip back to a location we had visited in between food stops a few hours earlier; Alenka took us to a shop to sample pumpkin seed oil (think olive oil, but with roasted pumpkin seeds and a much richer taste) and a few different liqueurs, and we weren’t leaving Ljubljana without a couple of bottles to enjoy at home! In addition to the pumpkin seed oil, which will dress every salad I make from now on, we also bought a liqueur made from spruce needles that tastes like Christmas in the best possible way.
Our tour was completely focused on introducing us to the food and drinks that Ljubljana residents enjoy every day, but Alenka did not ignore the city’s history and local charm that make it such a great place. I was captivated by the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas’s Slovene Door, which tells the history of Slovenia.
My life was changed when Alenka showed us a milk vending machine where, for incredibly reasonable prices, you can fill up a jug with the freshest milk you can find (and no, she told us with a smile, the cows are not actually hooked up to the machine on the inside- which made me worry about just how many tourists might think that’s the case).
We also passed by the famous Dragon Bridge. Dragons are an important symbol for the city. They can be seen on the Dragon Bridge, on top of the castle tower on Ljubljana’s coat of arms, and on items all around the city. There are a lot of interesting stories about the Ljubljana dragons. Many people know of the local legend that claims the dragons will wag their tails if a virgin crosses the bridge (and that they have not yet wagged their tails to date, to the great disappointment of many parents I’m sure!), but fewer know of the legend related to Jason, a Greek hero, and the Argonauts. Jason stole a golden fleece, the coat of a golden ram, from the King of Colchis on the Black Sea. Jason and the Argonauts fled their pursuers and found themselves at the mouth of the River Danube instead of going south towards their Greek homeland. With no way back, they went up the river until they eventually reached the source of the Ljubljanica. On their arrival between what is now Vrhnika and Ljubljana, the Argonauts came across a large lake and marsh. This was the home of a monstrous dragon that Jason killed in a heroic struggle. To this day, many consider Jason to be the first real Ljubljana citizen.
The city's drinking fountains were an unexpected surprise for us as travelers who are used to avoiding local water at all costs; the water that flows is not only safe to drink, it is tested frequently as it comes from the city's central water supply. Alenka pointed out one fountain in particular that was both useful and artistic; when turned on, water flows down a historic street with over 700 unique bronze faces. We also learned that Ljubljana has been named European Green Capital for 2016. The city was awarded the title for successfully promoting initiatives that focus on sustainable tourism, public transportation, waste treatment, green spaces, cycling, and high quality drinking water.
These little connections to the traditions, the history, and the daily life of Ljubljana’s people made what otherwise would have still been a perfect tour much more personal and relatable. It was easy to love Ljubljana as we came to understand what makes the city work.
Our trip to Ljubljana landed right in the middle of our whirlwind tour of Europe; we had seen (and eaten) incredible things before we arrived there, and we saw (and ate) incredible things as we moved through the second half of the trip. When we got home, friends and family who were curious about our experience asked what we loved the most about our time away from home. It speaks volumes about our day in Slovenia that our food walk, combined with our morning at Lake Bled, stood out as the best day we had out of almost two weeks of great days. We told everyone we talked to that they needed to book a trip to Slovenia- and a food walk with Ljubljananjam- right away.
And now we’re telling you to do the same. If Ljubljana isn’t on your travel radar, it should be. If you haven’t thought about enjoying a day of Slovenian cuisine, now is the time to do that. We didn’t know much about Ljubljana, its history, or it’s food before we arrived, and now as we think about how much we loved it there we’re sorry we waited so long to visit. How had we missed it before?
We won’t make that mistake again.
Still need some convincing that now is the time to visit Ljubljana? Here are a few of our favorite photos from our food walk.
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a food walk with Ljubljananjam, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Ljubljananjam based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.