— Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana (pronounced lyoob-lyonna)—with a lazy old town clustered around a castle-topped mountain—is often compared to Salzburg.
It's an apt comparison, but only if you add some breezy Adriatic culture, throw in a Slavic accent, and sub in local architect Joze Plecnik for Mozart.
Ljubljana feels much smaller than its population of 300,000. Festivals fill the summer, and people enjoy a Sunday stroll any day of the week. Fashion boutiques and cafés jockey for control of the old town, and the leafy riverside promenade crawls with stylishly dressed students sipping kava and polishing their near-perfect English.
Centuries-old Ljubljana first made it on the map when Napoleon dubbed it the capital of his Illyrian Provinces (1809-1813). A half-century later, the railway connecting Vienna to the Adriatic (Trieste) was built through town—and Ljubljana boomed. But soon after, much of the city was destroyed by an 1895 earthquake. It was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style so popular in Vienna, its capital at the time. A generation later, architect Joze Plecnik bathed the city in his distinctive artsy-but-sensible, classical-meets-modern style.
Ljubljana's biggest attraction is its ambience. The Ljubljanica River, lined with cafés, restaurants, and a buzzing outdoor market, divides the city in half. Most sights are either on or just a short walk from the river, which is crossed by several interesting bridges, the most famous being Plecnik's Triple Bridge.
At the center is lively Preseren Square, with a hulking statue of the Slovene national poet France Preseren presiding. The streets around this square are an architecture-lover's paradise, starting with Hauptmann House, the only building in town that survived the devastating 1895 earthquake. A few years later, the owner renovated it anyway, to match all the buildings reconstructed after the earthquake.
The Joze Plecnik House, home to the famed architect from 1920 until his death in 1957, offers you an intimate portrait of an artist. Inspecting his drawings and equipment close-up, you'll feel like Plecnik invited you over for dinner. This museum, open Tuesdays and Thursdays only, is a hit even with people who know nothing about the architect.
Plecnik's masterpiece, the National University Library, is just a block off the river. The facade has blocks of odd sizes and shapes, representing a complex numerological pattern that suggests barriers on the path to enlightenment. Many other fine works by Plecnik surround nearby French Revolution Square.
Across the river is the city's most colorful and historic quarter, infused with an Old World atmosphere. The riverside market is worth an amble anytime, and best on Saturday mornings, when the locals take their time wandering the stalls. In this tiny capital of a tiny country, you may even see the president searching for the perfect produce.
Hovering above it all is Ljubljana Castle. Stop at the Gothic chapel and offer your respects to St. George—Ljubljana's patron saint, the dragon-slayer. Then climb the 92 steps to the top of the tower for a prime vista of the pretty city he protected.
The Karst Region, an arid limestone plateau about an hour south of Ljubljana, is fertile ground for a day trip. Since limestone is easily dissolved by water, karstic regions are punctuated with remarkable networks of caves and underground rivers. Choose between Slovenia's two best caves, skocjan or Postojna. If you prefer a more touristy, less active experience (on a Disney World-type people mover), visit Postojna. But for a hike, head for skocjan. You'll walk through one of the world's most impressive caverns, complete with a raging underground river. To visit either cave, bring a sweater—or you'll wish you did.