Last night, after getting off a long long-distance phone call with my mom, swapping travel stories, I was once again overcame with gratitude that she raised me with wanderlust – an innate desire to travel or wander, to be curious about the world outside of my little corner of it. My first ever adventure outside of my home country was when I was 6, when we piled into a van with our neighbours and drove over 2500km to Zimbabwe. Later, less than a year after my dad passed away, my mom courageously booked us a trip to Western Europe with a tour group, driving through eight countries with a bunch of strangers in a bus (only now, when observing families with young children at tourist attractions do I recognise the bravery of doing this – of single-handedly managing me and my brother under the eiffel tower, or in the crowds of London, or in the subway of Rome…). And after I moved out of the house I would often call her on weekends, only to find that she is road tripping somewhere in South Africa (or that one time when I thought she would be at home in the suburbs of Cape Town, and she was speaking to me from the capital of Zimbabwe). And then I moved to London with my husband, and we started taking advantage of traveling cheaply in and around Europe, and my mom would groan with envy every time I told her of an upcoming trip, but excitedly request photos (or share tips). And then, a few years ago, in true wanderlust-style, she got engaged on the fairytale-island of Lake Bled in Slovenia. My point is, I owe my sense of adventure and curiosity for the boundless world to my mom; but more specifically, it is because of my mom’s ventures to Slovenia that we even knew the little town of Bled existed, and hence had the most unforgettable, magical two-night travel experience ever.
So after a research trip toe Venice (I know…how convenient), we headed over to the capital of Slovenia via Trieste, picked up our rental car, and hit the road to Bled, which is about an hour from Ljubljana and just on the edge of the Julian Alps. And our BIGGEST MISTAKE was not staying longer than two nights! But we made the most of it in the short sliver of time we had, and I think we did a pretty good job. So…here’s what you DEFINITELY should do even when you have the shortest time in Bled, Slovenia:
1. WALK OR CYCLE AROUND THE LAKE
Lake Bled will blow you away from the first moment you meet. But then when you get over the initial shock of how pretty it is, go see it from all angles. The walk around is about 6kms, or you can rent a bike and go explore. So join the the runners on their circuit, the families on their afternoon strolls, the cyclists ambling by and just take it all in.
2. ROW TO BLED ISLAND
A trip to Lake Bled would not be a trip to Lake Bled without making your way to the island. You can row yourself on small rowing boats, or go on the traditional Pletna boats that are rowed by local men. We paid 14EUR each and went with the traditional boats. From the far end of the lake it took about 20 minutes, then we spent 40 minutes on the island, and returned to the shore.
Pletna boats vs row-yourself
Each has its pros and cons. When you’re rowing yourself you obviously have to do the heavy lifting and the rental fees are charged by the hour, so you have to keep track of time. But in this regard, you can spend however long you want at the island and go anywhere you want on the lake. For the larger traditional boats where the men row you out, you just pay a flat fee and then sit back and enjoy the ride.
RING THE BELL WHILE YOU’RE THERE
The church of the Assumption of Maria and its clock tower occupies most of the tiny island. It is a tiny catholic church and for a small entrance fee, you can take a look inside and ring the church bells, which will bring you good luck (fingers crossed). Right next to it, and included in the entry fee (10EUR adults, 7EUR students) is the clock tower. After climbing a couple of flights of stairs you can not only see the pendulum clock and its mechanics, but also a wonderful view of the lake from the top of the island!
3. WALK THE VINTGAR GORGE
From the Vintage Gorge parking lot, a wooden walkway takes you 1.6 kilometres (about a mile) into the spectacular gorge which ends in the Sum Waterfall. It is an easy and absolutely gorgeous (pun intended) walk in the Triglav National Park along a noisy, bubbling stream with crystal clear aqua-blue and turquoise waters, with the cliffs rising up 50 to 100 meters on both sides.
GO AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE! It opens at 8am and we arrived at just past 9am, which is still early enough to beat the crowds. Any later than that and you will most likely be stuck behind tour groups and lots of other hikers. Also, the hike is not circular and the walkway is narrow, so it’s an awkward place to stop for photos when it’s busy, and you’ll have to squeeze past people on the way back. Also, the parking fills up crazy fast.
BRING CASH! We were one of the first cars there, but didn’t bring cash and had to leave to go draw some, only to come back to a nearly full parking lot. The nearest ATM is in front of the Mercator store in Zgornje Gorje (the closest village), only a 5 minute drive. Entrance fee is 5 EUR (4 EUR students).
4. TAKE A DIP IN BOHINJ LAKE
Take the scenic route from Vintgar to Bohinj Lake, which will take you through an hour’s worth of breathtaking views and switchbacks through the Julian Alps and the quaintest mountain villages you’ve ever seen. There you will find the prettiest village and another massive lake framed by mountain tops. All the standard water sport equipment is available for rent, but we just waded into the cold, crystal clear water and paddled around with the ducks and among the fish to cool off after our walk along the gorge. Sharing a single hotel towel, we reclined on the grass until the summer sun dried us off.
5. WAKE UP FOR THE SUNRISE
It was brutal and brief, but we are so glad we sucked it up and stuck it through to see the breathtaking sunrise over Lake Bled from the Ojstrica lookout point. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am, put on some pants and drove to the opposite side of the lake, where we finally parked our car at the campsite. It was already dawn, and the sky was lighting up with soft purples and pink clouds. Then it was a 7-10 minute walk along the road, before turning up to the clearly-marked trail. The trail is only just over 600 meters, but the incline is steep steep steep (especially when you woke up like 10 minutes earlier). One of the locals warned us that it’s an aggressive hill, but we 100% underestimated it. However, our efforts were rewarded when we reached the tiny lookout clearing. So worth it.
TIMING THE SUNRISE: Dawn breaks a couple of hours before the sunrise, and that’s when the sky exhibits intense pinks and purples and blues and oranges, framed by black silhouettes. Then there is a surprisingly long time before that beautiful sun flare. We wished we could have seen more of those in between dawn colours, but oh well…we weren’t gonna get up any earlier than 5am!
6. TRY THE TRADITIONAL CREAM CAKE
Kremsnita is a Slovenian cake that is basically a thin layer of pastry, followed by a custard creme, whipped cream and topped with some pastry flakes and powdered sugar. It’s a classic and you have to try it. Even for someone that really doesn’t like cream, I thought it was pretty tasty (luckily there’s ample custard to overshadow the whipped cream taste). We had it at a restaurant called Babji Zob, where they also served us delicious coffees. While we were there we took notice of early dinners coming out and promptly booked a table for later, where we had the best meal of our trip (which included meals in Venice). Highly recommended.
7. HIKE THE FORESTS AND EXPLORE THE COUNTRY SIDE
There is not enough time in the world to discover all the beauty that Slovenia has to offer, but do take some time to venture into one of the forest trails, or walk along the pretty little villages. It is quiet and calm and serene and slow – just amazing.
8. BLED CASTLE
Bled Castle crowns the top of a steep cliff rising over the lake, where it has been for over 1000 years now. Much of it has been changed into shops – e.g. you can buy wine where the cellar used to be, or iron souvenirs where the blacksmiths used to work. The rest of the castle acts as a social and natural history museum complete with white walls, which hardly resonates as a castle. What is really pretty epic though is the sweeping views; not only of the lake, but of the surrounding country as well. All around are rolling green hills, farms, villages, towering mountains, and then, finally, you can really get a sense of just how incredible and enormous Lake Bled is.
9. STOP BY THE LOCAL MARKET
If you’re there over the weekend, make sure to stop by the tiny little market where locals sell handmade crafts. This is a great way to bypass those typical souvenirs and get to meet some lovely Slovenian people!
10. TAKE A DIP IN LAKE BLED
This is a definite must! Lake Bled is much warmer than Bohinj, and you can take a soothing dip in the calm, bluest blue water right underneath the millennium-old castle and dry off on the decks in the sun. Ah, Bled….
We were absolutely and categorically blown away by Lake Bled and the dreamy Slovenian countryside, and we cannot wait to get back there. We won’t forget this amazing little trip for a very very very long time, and we really hope you get to go out there and live the Slovenian dream!