December’s when the nights are longest and the winter starts to bite, so it may come as some surprise to learn that it’s second only to August in terms of tourist numbers, until you make a visit and see what’s done to make the city so magical at this time of year. The events outlined below all take place in the pedestrianized area, where it seems on almost every street and every night there’s lights, music and action. So use this list as a casual guide, and don’t worry too much about specific times and dates. Wherever you go, and whenever, you’ll be sure to find some mid-winter cheer to warm your heart.
The official start of festivities comes on December 1, with the turning on of the Christmas lights. These are surprisingly tasteful and often slightly bizarre, featuring math formulae among the shooting stars and rocket ships, with neither a Santa nor branded character in sight. The lights stay up the whole month, and will be turned on by the Mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Janković, at an event that takes place in Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg) and starts at 17:15.
Market stalls on Breg. Photo: Visit Ljubljana
Something else that starts on December 1 and runs until January 2 is the Festive Fair, which is a lot of market stalls selling food, drink, hats, scarves, gifts and so on. These are set up in Pogačarjev trg, the square on the northside of the Cathedral, but also along the river bank and down to Breg embankment, where you’ll find a nativity scene featuring hand-made and life-sized figures made out of straw. The food tends to be rather hearty fare, not aimed at the vegetarian or health conscious, although there are also lots of chestnuts to go with mulled wine, hot mead and schnapps.
Starting just before the rest of these activities is the ice-skating rink that’s been set up in Zvezda Park / Congress Square (Kongresni trg), which is due to run from November 25 to January 7. The cost of tickets varies depending the time, equipment rental, and age of the skater, with more details on the Ice Fantasy website, and there’s a schedule of events on the ice if you prefer to watch rather than risk a broken hip.
As seen by Visit Ljubljana
St. Nicholas (Sv. Miklavž) is one the big figures in a traditional Slovene December, and if want to browse for gifts and decorations ahead of his name day (December 6), then check out the stalls from December 3 to 6 in Prešeren Square. The man himself makes an appearance on December 5, with a procession through town accompanied by devils and angels handing out sweets to children. Another event aimed the younger ones is the Magical Forest set up in Zvezda Park, nearby the ice rink, where there are workshops on making seasonal decorations open from 16:30-19:00, and December 3 to 23. And from December 15 to 23 there are the evening (17:00-21:00) appearances of the Good Fairy, a woman who sits on a high throne and listens to the wishes of all who climb the steps to share them with her. This annual event is a project created by the local painter Zmago Modic. You can find the fairy just in front of the Town Hall, in Town Square (Mestni trg).
The Christmas Concert in front of Town Hall. Photo: Visit Ljubljana
Music is a big part of the season, and there’s a full programme of performances, both paid and for free, with the latter mostly taking place in the various squares around town. On a smaller scale keep an eye out for the organ grinders, albeit without monkeys, who’ll be conjuring music from their contraptions in the early evening from December 15 onwards. Larger events include children's choirs in the Town Hall, held in the evening from December 18-21, while in front of this building, and just a few steps from the Good Fairy, is the location for the Christmas Concert, held on December 24 from 17:00 on.
The magic doesn’t end on December 25, as Slovenia has another popular figure, a remnant of its less religious days under Communism. This is Grandpa Frost (Dedek mraz), a local version of Santa Claus who’ll be travelling through the town with his Lipizzaner horses from 17:00 on December 26 to 30, following a route that runs: Križevniška ulica, Breg embankment, Cobblers Bridge, Town Hall Square, Stritarjeva ulica, Prešeren Square, and ending in Zvezda Park.
Anika and Petra, from Foreigners Speak Slovene, enjoy the season
Of course, the final event of the year is New Year’s Eve, and this is marked with concerts all over town, the biggest being in Zvezda Park, which starts with a children’s show at 16:00. Other places to enjoy the fun are French Revolution Square (Trg francoske revolucije), Town Square, and Pogačarjev trg, with fireworks being set off from the castle at midnight.
All in all, if you spend some time in Ljubljana this December you’ll soon understand why it’s one of the most popular times of the year for visitors. Just don’t forget your hat and gloves, as it can get very cold, even with a bellyful of mulled wine and klobasa, and stomping your feet to some heart-warming turbo-folk.