Food Crawl in Ljubljana with Ljubljanajam

Slovenia: A Food Tour through Ljubljana

Uncovering Ljubljana with Ljubljananjam

“Food history is as important as a baroque church. Governments should recognize cultural heritage and protect traditional foods.  A cheese is as worthy of preserving as a sixteenth-century building.”

– Carlo Petrini {founder of the International Slow Food Movement}

During the infant stage of this blog, you’d never find a post on food or wine. I was a grad student living in London, feeling lucky to enjoy a few evenings out at pubs and great food finds from local markets. At the time, I felt spending on food experiences was unnecessary; a superfluous add-on to an itinerary. As my travel style has evolved (and my student debt has thankfully dwindled), food and wine have become integral parts of our trips. To be honest, my entire perspective on food and wine has changed dramatically, especially over the past few years. Yes, it’s a bit of a luxury that we can spend our money delving into the food scenes and wine tasting in different cities, but I increasingly find that food is a way of accessing a region’s culture. What people eat, what they drink, what they grow regionally, and how they prepare food provide insight into the history and evolution of a destination.

That sentiment rings true across the world, and when it came time to explore Slovenia’s capital city, we opted to discover the city and its history on a food tour through Ljubljana with Ljubljananjam. Step foot in Ljubljana and you’ll quickly get a feel for its cool kid vibe. It’s a destination that manages to seamlessly blend a hip, modern face into a city that is rich with medieval architecture and historic charm. It’s a fascinating medley, and the food scene there reflects this same old-meets-new perspective. Iva, founder of Ljubljananjam, met up with us and a couple of other visitors to share her take on the food scene in Ljubljana and in Slovenia broadly. What we learned went far beyond our plates.

Food Tour with Ljubljananjam

We started at a central square in old town Ljubljana in mid-September. We’d come from Croatia and Austria before heading into Slovenia and the word everywhere was that this September was one of the worst Septembers on record weather wise. We got lucky with some strategic sunny days, but we also had our share of frigid days and our time in Ljubljana brought chilly fall temps that called for pants, boots, and jackets (our Caribbean dwelling selves were poorly prepared for this). When we met up at 11:30AM, we were thrilled with our first stop: a warm bowl of soup paired with homemade elderflower juice, the perfect way to warm up. The minestrone was a modern take on a Slovenian staple, with thinly sliced vegetables, barley, and a touch of lemongrass, as a way of bringing a global twist to a local favorite.

Slovenia is sandwiched between Italy, Croatia, Austria and the Adriatic, and the regional diversity of food reflects those disparate influences despite the country’s small size (about 7800 square miles). Slovenia’s landscape varies from sea to alps, so the country benefits from a wide variety of domestic inputs. There’s a rich foraging culture, and a strong emphasis on farm fresh fare. It seems to be a place that embodies the slow food movement, with an emphasis on quality inputs and local produce. A walk through the central market provides a quick glimpse of the fruits and vegetables grown in the region, including a number of varieties we’d never seen before. If your experience is anything like ours, you’ll probably notice a number of bees during your time exploring (we saw a number in the market). To bring that cool kid eco-friendly vibe to the fore even more, Slovenia is home to the world’s first beekeeping school (the country has 4 beekeepers per 1000 inhabitants). Knowing everything that I’ve shared about the country thus far, that somehow doesn’t seem to be a surprise, right?

Food Tour with LjubljananjamFood Tour through Ljubljana, Ljubljananjam

Markets like these always make me wish that I had a week to spend in the destination to give us time to really shop the market and use the products. With just a couple of days in the city, we had to stick to window shopping but picked up some fresh grapes that we would taste later in the day. If you have more time in the region, the market is a great place to stock up on fresh fruits and veggies – and even farm fresh milk, straight from a vending machine set up on the periphery of the market.

Food Tour with Ljubljananjam

The indoor part of the market is a series of stalls selling breads, cakes, meats and cheeses. We stopped at a couple of stalls to test their wares: wild game salamis (for them), plus goat and sheep milk cheeses (for me). We meandered on through the fish market to an art gallery-cum-restaurant where art and food co-exist in a quirky space.

Food Crawl in Ljubljana with LjubljanajamFood Crawl in Ljubljana with LjubljanajamFood Tour with Ljubljananjam

We started with our choice of local beverage, either a craft lager or Slovenian wine. Scott opted for the former and I opted for the latter, a Blaufränkisch from the region. Armed with our beverage of choice, we noshed on deconstructed sandwiches, bread served with pumpkin seed oil, and a mashed ricotta blend. Non-meat eaters are well catered for on this food tour through Ljubljana, and in Slovenia in general. An easy swap of meat for radishes did the trick (most restaurants seemed to have options that catered well for dietary restrictions).

Food Tour through Ljubljana, Ljubljananjam
With Iva from Ljubljananjam

Then it was time for the main event in our food crawl, a series of entrées shared amongst the five of us at a wonderful little restaurant in the heart of the old city. We walked through the main thoroughfare, surrounded by stunning medieval buildings, past the town hall which dates back to the 1400s, and down the boutique-lined corridor. The restaurant was just a few doors from Lesar Hotel Angel, our home base in the city, yet we would have never stumbled upon it had Iva not introduced us.

Food Tour through Ljubljana, LjubljananjamFood Tour through Ljubljana, Ljubljananjam

Out came the requisite wines, and then the series of entrées: ricotta gnocchi, octopus with squid ink risotto, and a ribeye salad (sans ribeye for me). I remember one of my concerns going in: am I really going to be able to eat my way through Ljubljana for four hours?! Four hours is a lot of eating.

The answer, of course, is yes. We ate our way through for four hours and were happy about it. It’s a food tour so there’s lots of eating involved but the portions are perfect to keep you fueled and excited for the next course. I get tired of too much of the same when it comes to food, so for me it was the perfect way to dine.

The two ladies joining us – a mother/daughter duo – had Slovenia roots, so we spent lunch chatting about heritage, about Slovenian history, about the Slovenian diaspora (they came from Cleveland, where there’s a sizable contingent), and about how the country had changed since gaining its own identity after the breakup of Yugoslavia. One of the best parts of travel for me is the human element. Getting local perspectives on history, politics, etc. is the most educational piece, and this tour brought that in spades. Even for those that aren’t as interested in the changing Slovenian food scene, the tour itself provides an incredible way to discover the old town and the nuances that only locals or veteran visitors can really help you uncover.

Our final savory food stop was a wine bar, where we sipped another glass of local vino (somehow we were all totally fine at this point in the day despite our many glasses of wine) paired with a cheese and charcuterie plate, before we ended at a quirky coffee shop with potica, a Slovenian sweet treat, to round out our day. We’d had four hours of incredible eats that ran the gamut but there was a common thread in what we experienced: national pride.

We saw that same nationalism at restaurants that we dined at as well. Wines and beers shown on wine lists were almost exclusively locally produced (and really good, I might add), cheeses and meats came from regional farms, and even the more innovative avant-garde fare often had roots in local specialities or ingredients. For us, it was a spectacular way to better understand what it means to be Slovenian, and which foods represent the population.

The beauty of a well-done tour anywhere in the world is access to local knowledge. Food was the anchor for the tour, but each plate that came out sparked conversation for us: where were its roots? What history or region did each dish reflect? For each question that we had, Iva graciously shared her insight and helped us learn more about the place that we were steadfastly discovering. For those wanting to dig deep on a trip to Slovenia – and eat well! – a food tour through Ljubljana may very well be the most delicious way to score a history lesson. ✧

Anyone else been to Ljubljana? What was your take on the city’s food scene?

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect, formerly The Traveling Scholar. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. She is a former resident of London and San Francisco and now calls the island of Anguilla home. In addition to The Wanderlust Effect, Shannon is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort and is on the Board of Directors of the Omololu International School in Anguilla.