There is an art to a great pub. A combination of convivial atmosphere, an environment that is either cozy or cool (and occasionally both), great drinks that are well-priced, and a genuine casual aura that cannot be faked (which is why pub chains tend to feel like pub chains). The British invented one concept of pub, and the term, public house, is theirs. Other countries boast their own versions of such establishments. They are not bars, certainly, in the contemporary hipster sense of a bar (exotic and/or expensive cocktails, homemade bitters, stylish bar food). In fact, if you know what “homemade bitters” are, then you probably don’t want to go to a “bar” anyway, unless it is categorized as “dive bar,” which is also its own creature.
Continuing our series of articles about Slovenia (where The Secret History of Art spends a lot of time each year, thanks to Mrs. Secret History of Art being Slovenian), today’s article will highlight five great pubs in Ljubljana, highly recommended either one at a time or as the focus of a Ljubljana weekend pub crawl.
Pub in the Slovenian sense is actually more of a gostilna, the word for a rustic country inn that, one might imagine, put up stage coaches and riders on the long, forested roads between Slovenia’s towns and villages. Gostilnas still to this day often offer basic hotel accommodation, but are largely establishments for eating and drinking, featuring traditional Slovenian food, hearty and enormously portioned, and exactly two types of beer (we’ll get to those in a moment). But today is not about the food, it’s about where to drink and why. Here are five Slovenian pubs, all in the center of Ljubljana, that are worth a visit, or indeed a crawl, beginning with dinner at 7pm and ending with drinks in an underground crypt at 1am.
Vrtna ulica 8, 041/ 843 106
You’ll need to begin your pub crawl on a full stomach, and there’s nowhere more fun and atmospheric and delicious than Harambaša, located down an alley in the low-lying Krakovo neighborhood, just south of the heart of the city center, along the river. Harambaša bears a sign on its door proclaiming “Welcome to Sarajevo” and inside is decorated with 19th century daggers, odd false window dressings, and old colorized postcards of a lost Sarajevo. The food is fantastic, and I love places that serve only one or two things, unapologetically, but do it so well that you know you’ve hit the jackpot. Order a bottle of Union or Laško beer (or go traditional Sarajevo Muslim style and drink yogurt) and a giant plate of either čevapčiči or sudjukice, both with lepinje (fluffy, warm pita loaves) and kajmak (a hybrid between cream cheese and butter that melts over your meat). Čevapčiči are the staple meat of the Balkans, the equivalent of a hamburger. Mixed meat (usually pork and beef) is chopped and rolled into short sausages which have the consistency of meatballs. They are spiced gently and grilled, and are the default fast food of choice from Slovenia to Albania to Macedonia. Sudjukice are spicy grilled sausages (you might have tried sudjuk in a Lebanese restaurants—all of these foods are imports and adaptations after the Turkish wars in this area). Harambaša is as good as this gets (we’ll cover restaurants such as these in a later post), and the atmosphere is so joyous and lively that you’d think they pump laughing gas through the vents. This is greasy finger food, and more fun for that fact. Stuff yourself silly, but leave room for baklava and Turkish coffee afterward, served traditionally in a copper pot. All orders of Turkish coffee come with a complimentary Drina cigarette, the Sarajevo brand, because even for non-smokers a cigarette balances nicely the rich unction of the Turkish coffee and the grease of the meal. You’ll need your strength, because then it’s off to four more drinking establishments.
Rimska cesta 21, +38612510324
Mon – Fri 07:30 – 01:00, Sat 10:00 – 01:00, Sun 11:00 – 00:00
The hipster pub for hipsters who are down-to-earth and prefer grunge to $15 cocktails mixed by other hipsters. Žmavc is covered in graffiti and modern art, and features slick students and unshaven old men, often smoking suspiciously fat hand-rolled cigarettes, and discussing politics, literature, or interior design, depending on which table you sit beside. This is widely considered to be the place to go for Ljubljana cool cats, and is a stark contrast to the surprisingly popular riverside bar, Maček (The Cat), which is the place to go in order to see and be seen, but which is not heavy on character—Žmavc is the place to go and not be seen, except by those cool enough to realize that it’s cooler to go somewhere not to be seen (and in doing so, be seen) than to go somewhere in order to be seen.
It’s also as good a place as any to mention that Slovenia largely deals in exactly two beers, Union and Laško. The joke is that you drink Laško and several hours later Union comes out—that Union tastes like a watered-down version of Laško, but that is unfair. Laško is the richer beer, certainly, more flavorful and robust and hopsy, but Union is easy-drinking. If Laško is like the great Czech beers, then Union is a perfectly serviceable Corona. Why not try both, perhaps at once?
Both are owned by the same company, the Laško Brewery, so the once-famous rivalry (everyone is either a Laško or an Union fan) is less of an issue. Laško now also produces some very good radlers (in England they’d call them shandies), which are half-and-half combinations of beer and lemonade, beer and grapefruit, or beer and blood orange. Far and away the best and most popular is Radler Grapefruit, which has none of the over-sweetness of the other flavors and is genuinely delicious, something I’d never before tried. You might also ask for Laško’s new iC, a hard cider that is among the best I’ve ever had (similar to Bulmer’s).
Heading out of the center from of town along Zaloška will bring you to an Alice-in-Wonderland pub overhanging the Ljubljanica River. Podvodni Mož (The Underwater Man) is named after a poem by the popular 18th century poet France Prešeren which tells of a man who lived beneath the Ljubljanica and who emerged to dance with Urška, the most beautiful girl in Ljubljana, and they danced so wildly together that she went away with him beneath the river. If they’d had a few drinks here you could understand why.
The décor is amazing and yet completely unpretentious. One wall holds a vitrine containing real iron implements (the head of a halberd, a spear) that were found in the riverbed. Fish tanks keep with the aquatic theme as do glowing lights on tables and strung through the wild wisteria that grows all over the wooden deck above the river, so by night you feel as though you are in a submarine surrounded by iridescent sea creatures pulsating in the darkness.
Zaloka cesta 69, +38659139552
Mon – Thu 17:00 – 01:00, Fri – Sat 17:00 – 03:00
The penultimate stop on any good pub crawl will take you about 15 minutes on foot out of the city center, following the long and funky Trubarjeva Street until it turns into Zaloška Street. Just keep on going, the river on your right, until you bump into Zlati Zob (The Gold Tooth).
Zlati Zob is an ethnic pub, specializing in ethnic music, which in Slovenia means gypsy and Balkan bands. The inside is decorated as one might imagine a gypsy caravan—packed with hanging silks, shimmering drapery, old band posters, and mismatched furniture. Most nights from 9pm there are live bands playing a raucous, chaotic, joyous music that feels truly exotic to Westerners and Slovenes alike, who have always been partial to the music of the other ethnic groups within the former Yugoslavia.
This pub is also refreshing in that it has multiple exotic beers on tap (several from Czech Republic, which is always a good thing), and every day they prepare their own fresh fruit juices (try sliva, or plum juice). This is also a good place to try various schnapps, a Slovenian specialty. There is slivovica (plum schnapps), brinovec (herb schnapps that’s great for indigestion), vilhjamoka (Williams pear schnapps, the most delicate and flavorful), medica (syrupy honey schnapps), borovnica (blueberry schnapps), which represent the most common Slovenian variations. But Zlati Zob also has rakija (Croatian schnapps) and rumena osa (yellow wasp, a less sweet and unctuous alternative to medica).
Alley between Cankarjevo Nabrezje and Mestni Trg
Camp, kitsch, and very cool, this underground pub down an alley beside the river is the least traditional of these establishments but is so weird that it makes for an ideal last stop on your Ljubljana pub crawl. You’ll know you’re at the right spot if you see a medieval-looking bird-cage with a fake human skeleton sitting inside it hanging at the corner of a dark, cobbled alley.
Pri Škelet (At the Skeleton’s Place) is decorated as if a costume shop was having a fire sale of Halloween paraphernalia. Fake skeletons are everywhere, literally tucked into corners of a relatively small crypt-like space. It is regularly packed with college students (60,000 of the 300,000 people who lived in Ljubljana are students), who speak English well and are very friendly. The beer is good (the usual suspects), but if by this point you are beered-out, then this is the right place. All cocktails are two-for-one, and they are large and well-dosed with liquors. Pri Škelet is also open into the small hours of the morning, so head here for your final stop on the crawl.
Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history. His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting, profits from which go to charity.
Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.