I’m an fan of getting to know a city through not only its food, but its purveyors and delicious small businesses. On a recent trip to Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, I signed up for a tour with Ljubljananjam Food Walks, created and led by born and raised local Iva Gruden. Of course, you can go to any city and simply wander, choosing restaurants that proclaim to serve the typical food, but doing a food walk with a local allows you to eat what they would eat, and learn what makes the culinary culture special beyond the ingredients.
One of the many delicious meals I savored with Iva on her food walk…
In Ljubljana, it was meeting the restaurant owners and learning what drove their passion for food, what they loved about their city and how the idea for the restaurants were formulated. There’s a difference between stopping into a place and eating a vegetable soup, and stopping in with a local and having the chef tell you they picked those vegetables fresh from their garden this morning, and that their recipe inspiration came from their 25 years working in Italy.
While I could tell you about what I noticed about Ljubljana’s culinary culture as a visitor, I thought it would be more pertinent to have, Iva, the real expert, give her perspective.
Without further adieu, here is everything you need to know to make your trip to Ljubljana a delicious one.
Photo courtesy of Iva Gruden
1. You run Ljubljananjam Foodwalks. What is the philosophy and goal with this?
The idea is simple: I want my guests to get to love Ljubljana like I do, through the city’s culinary side. I have lived and traveled abroad enough to know what we have in Ljubljana and Slovenia. I take guests to my favorite spots in the city to experience delicious food first hand. Although it’s not just about the food we taste, but the places we stop and the people behind tabletops. People tell stories and people make food; therefore, food tells stories. With my Ljubljananjam food walks, you get to eat and drink like a local with a local — me.
2. In your opinion, what is Ljubljana cuisine/what does it mean to you?
First it means home. Second, it means local, fresh, seasonal. I like the fact most Ljubljana eateries follow these principles, therefore I anticipate every season and certain holidays because I know special dishes are coming. And because Ljubljana is a capital — meaning people of many origins, tastes and diets live here — the scope of food on offer is satisfyingly abundant. The balance between traditional and contemporary food is awesome.
3. Historically and/or culturally, what has helped to shape Ljubljana as it is today?
It would be all the cultures that have lived here, starting with Romans over 2,000 years ago — who interestingly enjoyed great wine even back then! Next, it was the role of Ljubljana as always being a merchant and transient city, selling goods between East and West, and of course the people who lived here and had their demands: river workers — the Ljubljanica River was once the main “road” in the city — merchants, city dwellers.
We are fortunate enough to have a farmers’ market every day except public holidays and Sundays. Our attachment to garden vegetables, despite living in a city, is big, and many citizens have some sort of urban garden. Our fish market is also very well stocked. I guess we took the best from all the empires & federations we were ever part of — like Roman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslavia — and made it our own.
Photo courtesy of Iva Gruden
4. Along with your food walks, how would you recommend first-time visitors navigate trying the local cuisine?
Basically just take a stroll downtown around lunch hour, noon to 2pm, and observe where locals go. Ljubljana tourism board also has an initiative called Taste Ljubljana, a good starting point to understand what we eat and when. Also, go visit our farmers’ market and talk to the vendors.
5. What is one local dish everyone needs to try when visiting Ljubljana and why?
I would say depends on the season. Try mulled wine in winter, dandelion and lamb’s lettuce salad in Spring, superb gelato in summer, and pumpkin soup in the fall. I could go on forever…
A cold brew coffee at Cafe Čokl. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.
6. Tell us about Ljubljana’s coffee culture. What’s it like? Any great places to get a caffeine boost?
Tine Čokl from Cafe Čokl likes to say we drink Italian coffee Vienna style, which in other words means we like espresso-based coffee having served to us at a table, and I do agree with this. I would also add coffee for us is a ritual. We don’t just drink, we enjoy coffee — with present company. We take our time, sit down, chat, drink, chat.
As with everything, things are changing and we are also feeling the third wave coffee influence, such as introducing Chemex, cold brew, Syphon, AeroPress, Canadiano.
Where to drink? There’s many places that combine previously stated combo: good coffee + good people. I equally like to go to a cafe across the street I live in (in Vič district) as well as places downtown. Some of my favorite cafes are the above-mentioned Cafe Čokl as well as Repete, STA Travel Cafe, TOZD, LP Cafe and Wine Bar, B&B Slamič, Daktari and Cafe 13.
7. For those wanting a culinary experience beyond simply eating in a restaurant, what’s a more interactive way they can get to know the culinary culture?
For sure joining my food walks. That aside, there’s quite a few web initiatives, like EatWith. There are also cooking classes on traditional Slovenian food, like Cook Eat Slovenia. Definitely visit the farmers’ market, preferably on a Saturday when there’s also an organic part. On Fridays between March and October there is the Open kitchen (Odprta kuhna) food market, which in its third season has already become a staple for many Ljubljana people and foreigners to meet, mingle and hang out. Restaurant Week is now happening in both spring and fall, and you can eat at many great restaurants for a flat price for their special tasting menu.
Wine Routes take over downtown at least twice a year if not three times. Pop up dinners appear and picnics in a park alongside garage sales. Read great Slovenian food blogs, such Cinnamon & Thyme, My Daily Sour Bread and the articles and blogs on website. Or indulge into many innovative meal deliveries, such as Organic Garden — or Birbox for beer!
And again, observe and follow the locals … and you will almost guaranteed end up at the river having a glass of wine or pint of beer.
Photo courtesy of Iva Gruden
8. In terms of concept restaurants/dining experiences in Ljubljana, what’s one you recommend and why?
I really like Gostilna Dela (“Restaurant Of Work”), which has a unique concept in the country: they reintegrate youngsters between 17-25 years back into society by training them to become restaurant personnel. And they work together with thrift store Stara Roba – Nova Raba, which makes them the first and possibly only recycle bar in Slovenia.
9. On your food walks, what’s one thing that surprises many guests about Ljubljana cuisine?
Horse meat. And milk machines. But generally just how good it is. They can’t praise it enough.
10. What predictions do you have for the future of Ljubljana cuisine?
If we continue the trend of the past few years it will get better and better. I hope restaurant people keep up with realizing the value of traceable, fresh, seasonal food.
Photo courtesy of Iva Gruden
11. Where can visitors go to drink like a local?
To a friend’s place. Otherwise in winter follow the scent of mulled wine, with stands along the river set up every December for the annual Christmas market. Čopomana on Čopova (Čopova 14) is another great option.
In other seasons, find a bar with a patio. Anything along the river is great, but not everything is at the river. So step a street aside and check the menu for some fine Slovenian wine or craft beer, and you’ve got a winner. I like the above-mentioned TOZD as well as Moj žep (Krakovski nasip 12), Prulček Bar, Sir Williams Pub, Irish Pub Ljubljana and Lepa Žoga.
12. What’s your favorite way to burn off these food/drink calories in the city?
Biking and walking. Ljubljana’s landscape is so perfectly flat that I can manage to get anywhere with my own power, be it by bike or on foot.
Contributed by IVA GRUDEN.
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor’s, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn’t really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.