Ljubljana Castle & History Museum
The castle towering over the Old Town centre of Ljubljana
atop Castle Hill is arguably Slovenia
's capital city's premier tourist sight. And it offers something for the dark tourist too: a) an old prison/dungeon and b) a new history museum that necessarily covers lots that is dark too (world wars, communist repression, etc.). So it's a classic dark-meets-mainstream package.
More background info: The castle goes back to an original medieval fortress atop the same hill that was probably built some time in the 11th century. Following an earthquake it was completely rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries.
After the castle lost its role as a secure home for local lords and rulers it became a military arsenal and barracks in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the 19th century, parts of the castle took on the role of a prison (or penitentiary, as it is called here, since at the time new ideas of “reformed” treatment of convicts took hold – cf. ESP
). This lasted initially up to 1895, but its prison role was revived in WWI
, during which POW
s, mostly from Italy
were held here.
Some more or less famous political prisoners were also incarcerated at Ljubljana Castle, such as the Hungarian politician Lajos Batthyány, several Italian revolutionaries and the Slovene modernist writer and political activist Ivan Cankar
In the early 20th century a first attempt was made of turning the site into a public place and attraction/museum, but these early plans did not materialize. Instead parts of the by now crumbling castle were used for housing poor families from 1919 until the early 1960s.
Then extensive renovation work set in that would last several decades. The funicular began operating in 2006. And after over a century of ownership in municipal hands, the castle was turned into an “independent public institution” in 2010.
Since then a major programme of further modernization and establishing tourist facilities has been completed. The latest addition was that of the history museum described below.
With all these recent developments and upgrades, Ljubljana's castle has finally cemented its role as the city's foremost tourist attraction.
What there is to see: When I last visited Ljubljana (in May 2016), I took the lazy way up to the castle, by funicular – and was lucky that for some 'special day' reason, the ride was free!
At the top I made my way straight to the two dark aspects here: the penitentiary cells and the history museum.
The penitentiary is reached by a few steps down into old thick walls. Inside it's little more than a short corridor with a few former prison cells
. A couple of these contain some museum commodification
in the form of text-and-photo panels providing a little historical background information. Furthermore there are plaques dedicated to particular prominent prisoners and in a corner I also saw a wreath from Italy
that was presumably honouring the Italian POW
s in WWI
). A small side room has a set of extra prison doors stacked along a wall, as well as more bars, perhaps from former prison cell windows. Altogether it's not really that much to look at, but a little dark bonus all the same.
Across the main courtyard of the castle is the history museum. It too is inside some old walls but the interiors here have been substantially modernized. It's a bit like modern architecture inside old. The design of the museum exhibition is also very contemporary, with lots of interactive screens and such like. However, there aren't that many original artefacts.
Much of the information the museum offers is conveyed via interactive screens rather that static panels. This has the downside that no more than two visitors can easily use these screens simultaneously, unless they somehow sync up.
At least everything is presented bilingually, in Slovenian and English (although occasionally the English is a bit “shaky”, and you're left scratching your head as to what it was supposed to tell you).
From a dark-tourism perspective there isn't so much of interest in the older history sections, although they do have a pretty impressive medieval 'danse macabre' tapestry on display.
Of more immediate dark interest are the sections about WW1
, although given the space limitations and lack of more dramatic artefacts on display, this can hardly compete with the equivalent section in the Contemporary History Museum
, let alone the specialist Kobariški muzej
Following the inter-war years, the coverage of WWII
and the occupation of Slovenia by Nazi Germany
also have their dark elements, of course. Again, information is largely conveyed through texts on interactive screens. Amongst the few artefacts on display is a partisan puppet (sic!) and, on the much grimmer side, wires that were used to tie up prisoners during WWII.
The section I found most engaging overall was the one about the communist
era when Slovenia
was part of Yugoslavia
, and to a degree also the one about Slovenia gaining its independence. It is also in these sections that a few larger original artefacts are featured, beginning with a bust of Tito and ending in a collection of steel helmets of the Yugoslav army, made redundant in the Ten-Day War that preceded Slovenia's independence. (See also Contemporary History Museum
There are also some more unusual exhibits. For instance a couple of those batons used in relay races that Tito apparently was especially fond of – you can find a huge collection of these at the Tito Mausoleum & Museum
. Some of those are flamboyant expressions of socialist realism
, but the two on display here in Ljubljana are comparatively modest designs.
A fun hands-on exhibit is that of a pre-digital telephone, with an old-style round dial plate. This is one for the younger generations, of course, who may have seen these things in old films but probably never used one. Here they can get their hands on one and turn the dial plate with much giggling delight.
All in all
, the history museum is certainly a worthwhile addition to all the new commodification at Ljubljana Castle. However, compared to the Contemporary History Museum
in the Tivoli park of Ljubljana
, it has to be said that the new museum at the castle can't quite compete. It is more crammed, too reliant on interactive screens, and there's a relative dearth of artefacts on display. So if you have time for only one of the two history museums, I'd rather recommend the other one. Yet, if you are visiting the castle anyway, then you might as well pop into the history part all the same for a quick look, given that it doesn't cost extra …
The rest of the castle is rather outside the normal scope of dark tourism, but in part also worth a look. See under combinations
high above the very heart of Ljubljana
's Old Town centre, atop Castle Hill, forming the city's most unmissable landmark.
Access and costs: easy (at least by funicular) and not too expensive.
To get to the castle, there are essentially two ways: the easy or the hard way, i.e. you can either walk it, up steep and winding paths, or take public transport. The latter includes the most convenient and popular means of transport in this specific case: the castle's own funicular. This departs from the north-western section of the foot of Castle Hill at Krekov Square. At the lower funicular station ticket office you can buy combined funicular and castle admission tickets (as well as various other packages, such as ones including guided tours – see combinations
Prices (in mid 2016): regular combined castle admission and funicular: 10 EUR (children aged 7-18: 7 EUR), without funicular: 7.50 EUR (children 5.20 EUR). Family tickets (2 adults plus minimum one child: 26/19 EUR).
You can buy tickets in advance online – from the ljubljanskigrad(dot)si website – and get a 10% discount. Prices include admission to all museums and other features, but not guided tours (see below
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. in high season (June to September); the museums and penitentiary close at 9 p.m.; out of high season open only until 9 p.m. (museums: 8 p.m.) in April, May, October, and in winter open only from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (museums 6 p.m.) except in December, when closing time is 10 p.m. (museums 7 p.m., outlook tower 9 p.m.).
for just the museum, the penitentiary and maybe the outlook tower something like two hours can be sufficient, but if you also want to see the rest of the castle's attractions and/or go on one of the guided tours (see below
), then you may have to factor in up to twice as much time.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Ljubljana.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The castle itself is THE principal mainstream combination. And much of it will be enjoyable for virtually everybody – such as the superb views from the top of the castle's highest tower. From here you can look straight into the heart of the Old Town of Ljubljana
and onto the Triple Bridge. To get there you have to climb the stairs to the top (on an ingeniously designed double-helix spiral staircase, so that there's never any oncoming traffic), but it's absolutely worth the effort.
Other parts of the castle also hold yet more attractions, such as the “Virtual Castle” film screenings about the history of the castle, as well as a museum of puppetry, several shops, galleries, cafés/restaurants, and so on. When I visited, there was mediaeval live music being played in the castle's chapel, and actors/jesters in period costume entertained an audience of mainly children in the courtyard.
Taking the latter approach even further, there are guided tours called “Time Machine at the Castle”, led by six different, and differently period-costumed guides representing different periods of time in the history of the castle and of Ljubljana in general. These tours take place daily four times a day every two hours between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. in high season (July to September), only twice a day in May and June (11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) and only at weekends (also twice, same times) the rest of the year. The tours are conducted in Slovenian and English (further languages available via an audio guide), last ca. 90 minutes and cost 10 EUR (children 7 EUR) or 12 EUR (8.40) including the funicular (family tickets: 23/30 EUR).
For further attractions outside the castle complex see under Ljubljana
- Ljubljana Castle 01 - funicular bottom station
- Ljubljana Castle 02 - going up the funicular
- Ljubljana Castle 03 - castle tower
- Ljubljana Castle 04 - double spiral staircase in the tower
- Ljubljana Castle 05 - view down into the courtyard
- Ljubljana Castle 06 - penitentiary
- Ljubljana Castle 07 - bars
- Ljubljana Castle 08 - cell doors
- Ljubljana Castle 09 - history museum
- Ljubljana Castle 10 - dance of the dead
- Ljubljana Castle 11 - war politics
- Ljubljana Castle 12 - Broz Tito
- Ljubljana Castle 13 - partisan doll
- Ljubljana Castle 14 - wire used to tie up prisoners
- Ljubljana Castle 15 - little Yugoslav flag
- Ljubljana Castle 16 - batons
- Ljubljana Castle 17 - Slovenian Yugoslav Socialist Republic symbol
- Ljubljana Castle 18 - old phone for contemporary kids to handle
- Ljubljana Castle 19 - on the brink of independence
- Ljubljana Castle 20 - redundant Yugoslav army helmets
- Ljubljana Castle 21 - green by night