Despite hearing rave reviews about Ljubljana’s Hostel Celica from fellow travelers in Lake Bled and Vienna, I initially dismissed the idea of staying in a former political prison. I thought it would be creepy or that the property would have a haunted feel. This was silly of me though, as Hostel Celica is one of the most famous hostels in the world! It’s received awards from Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and more, so clearly they’re doing something right!
Luckily, I had a change of heart and was fortunate enough to spend my last night in Slovenia here. My stay was the perfect combination of enjoyable and enlightening; it is easily the most memorable place I have ever slept.
Hostel Celica’s claim to fame is that it originally housed an Austro-Hungarian military prison. The structure served as a penitentiary from 1892 until Slovenia’s independence in 1991.
Artists quickly flocked to the deserted prison, and the surrounding military barracks. This area now forms Metelkova, a creative community formed by squatting artists, musicians, and writers.
Following years of resistance and several demolition attempts, Metelkova and plans for Hostel Celica finally gained the city’s official approval in 2001. A planning committee invited artists from around the globe to renovate the cells, and Hostel Celica welcomed its first guests in 2003.
My original attitude towards Hostel Celica stemmed from concerns that the building would have a creepy aura or even feel haunted. Maybe that sounds silly, but I didn’t want to sleep somewhere that would give me the same sunken feeling in my chest I often experienced living in Berlin’s former Jewish Quarter, or during my visit to Dachau.
When exploring Metelkova on my own though, I realized how misguided my original perceptions were. Despite the area’s history, it is now a vibrant part of Ljubljana. So, I left my cozy accommodation near the Old Town to spend my last night in Slovenia at Hostel Celica.
When I first arrived at the hostel, I was so tired that I briefly forgot I was in what once was a jail. The main level with the bar and restaurant feels bright and airy. You feel welcome instantly thanks to the inviting atmosphere, and friendly staff.
My favorite common area, The Oriental Room, further extends the hostel’s welcoming vibe. I really enjoyed relaxing here with coffee and my kindle.
All twenty cells in Hostel Celica were individually designed by international artists. When refurbishing the cells, the artists mostly used recycled materials, as they were on a minimal budget.
My assigned cell was 111 or the Slovenian Cell. Ljubljana-based artist Matej Bizovičar designed the room to reflect the simplicity of life in rural Slovenia. My favorite features included the rounded bed and the corner window. I found the interior both comfortable and functional. Unlike some of the other cells I visited, my room had a homey, rustic feel thanks to the natural wood accents and corner nook.
Most rooms only have the prison’s original barred windows; these windows were designed to further torment the prisoners by preventing them from seeing the horizon. My cell was unique in that it had a third window, which gave me a better view of Metelkova and more natural light. This additional window was actually the result of a failed demolition attempt.
A wrecking ball left a gaping hole in the structure, which the artist transformed into a vulva-shaped window. The vulva design concept reaffirms the hostel’s mission of bringing new life and a sense of rebirth to the space. Like many oddities in the hostel, I only noticed the shape because my host pointed it out during my tour.
Despite Hostel Celica’s dedication to transforming the space, it still respectfully preserve the building’s history. All the cells still have the original barred windows and doors, and the original barbed wire perimeter is still intact.
There is also a museum in the hostel’s basement focusing on the most brutal aspect of incarceration – solitary confinement. After reading the panels, you can walk into the only eerie-feeling part of the hostel. There’s no natural lighting downstairs, but with a flashlight you can still see prisoners’ inscriptions on the wall. There are several drawings, and roman numerals tracking each day, all serving as reminders of the hostel’s tumultuous past.
Fortunately, any negative associations from the museum are gone once you make it back upstairs. On the main level, there are art displays, loads of people, and nothing but positive energy.
In addition to twenty cells, the hostel also has two dorm rooms, a large common area, and communal kitchen on the top floor. I didn’t hang out in the common area upstairs because I didn’t notice it until my guided hostel tour. I wish I had though – the floor cushions and pitted design looked like a cozy place to hang out during my rainy days in Ljubljana.
Dining & Entertainment
Even if you aren’t staying at Hostel Celica, it’s restaurant featuring traditional Slovene dishes is a visit!
The veal dumpling soup was one of my favorite Slovenian dishes, even though I had participated in a food tour just hours before checking in!
The hostel regularly hosts a wide variety of events, including art exhibits, literary gatherings, communal dinners, and more. Click here to learn more about the hostel’s happenings.
During my visit, there was a live accordion player in the bar, and the hostel regularly has live-music.
When walking through picturesque old town Ljubljana, it’s easy to forget Slovenia was once part of communist Yugoslavia . This simply isn’t the case in Metelkova and Hostel Celica.
In a place where freedom of expression was once limited, it is easy to understand why artists and students fought to protect these creative spaces.
Hostel Celica’s revitalization is both unique and inspiring. While the hostel has an ugly history, it has reemerged as a beautiful, progressive space for people from all over the world to enjoy.