A guide to Bled

A guide to Bled

One of Slovenia’s most well known and best loved attractions, few visitors leave Slovenia without having visited Lake Bled. It’s close to the capital, Ljubljana, and the ski resorts of north eastern Slovenia, and no more than a couple of hours from the coast or any other part of the country meaning there’s really no excuse not to visit.

Bled is undoubtedly one of Slovenia’s most beautiful spots.  It’s practically impossible not to be captivated by this shimmering lake turquoise lake with its tear-drop shaped island and the baroque castle that keeps watch over the lake and the town clustered at its eastern end.

There has been a settlement here, with the lake at its centre, for centuries. Today it’s a bustling town that relies heavily on the tourism industry but it’s also popular with people who work in the capital but want to live in a more family friendly environment. Things could have been much different, however:  one owner of the lake planned to extract the clay from the lake as a raw material for brick making. It was thanks to a Swiss physician, Arnold Rikli, who saw the possibilities in using the lake’s thermal springs, that Bled became a successful spa town and, in turn, the popular resort it is today.  Under his supervision, Bled soon became one of central Europe’s most popular spa resorts. The Karadžordževićis, the Yugoslav royal family, frequently summered at Bled and Europe’s most fashionable people flocked to enjoy the warm waters which they believed to be beneficial to their health.

Bled is not the largest of Slovenia’s lakes so a circuit makes a comfortable hour’s walk. Alternatively it’s possible to take a ride in a horse drawn carriage or to circle the lake on the miniature road train. On the way handsome nineteenth century lakeside villas, tree lined promenades and dozens of noisy water fowl provide plenty of interest. A walk round the lake can be broken up with regular stops for refreshment meaning a leisurely circuit can easily fill a half day.

The most popular way to see the lake is from the water and that means taking a pletna ride:  these hand-propelled gondolas operate during the summer months. Visitors disembark at a wooden jetty just below the pretty baroque church. An exhibition in the church shows how the island and the lake have changed. It’s customary for visitors to try ringing the ‘wishing bell’. It’s said that those who successfully make the bell chime will be granted a favour, and it’s not as easy as it looks.

High above Lake Bled, the town’s baroque castle is the stuff of fairytales; unsurprisingly it’s a popular venue for weddings. The views from the castle grounds are stunning; as well as providing an alternative perspective on the lake, the vistas stretch to the majestic snow capped Julian Alps.  In winter you can see skiers across the water on the slopes of the mini-ski centre at Straža. Inside the castle there’s a museum, a restaurant and a wine store. A steep footpath leads from Bled town to the castle but the road train provides a useful alternative.

Bled is a good centre for winter holidays.  Zatrnik is just one of a number of ski resorts in the area but many skiers and snow boarders prefer to stay in Bled because it is livelier in the evenings and has more accommodation to choose from.  Bled has everything from budget hostels and good value private rooms, to luxurious hotels with the best in spa facilities. For a really memorable trip it’s possible to stay in Tito’s Presidential Suite at Vila Bled in the waterside hamlet of Mlino.

Bled and the surrounding area is popular with Slovenians who love to get outdoors.  Many families own a ‘vikend’ – a simple rural house meant for weekend visits. The area is also popular with foreign buyers as a place for re-location or for vacations. As a year round holiday destination, Bled properties tend to have favourable rental potential.  There’s a wide range of property for sale in the Bled area including contemporary apartments, traditional chalet-style houses and stunning modern villas. Small rustic properties within the Triglav National Park are highly prized but they are often protected by planning rules and may not always suit the demands of a modern family.  

The Gorenjska region is home to some of the country’s most dramatic natural attractions. Vintgar Gorge is one of the most visited: here the Radovna River cuts a course through the crags to Šum, the country’s tallest waterfall. A specially built path with handrails and wooden steps means that this spot is accessible to most people.

Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, offers the chance to do some serious walking. To be considered a true Slovene, the saying goes, one must climb Triglav at least once. A number of local guides escort climbers on two day ascents. For the most fearless sportsmen and women there’s the challenge of the Bled Winter Swimming competition. Having hosted the World Winter Swimming Championships in 2010, it was decided to have a yearly event in partnership with the famous Slovenian endurance swimmer Martin Strel. Swimmers from nine countries participated in the 2013 event, at which the British swimmer Haydn Welch swam the first ever ice mile in the lake.

At the end of a day or skiing or walking (or even just as a well deserved treat) a pampering session is just what Dr. Rikli ordered. Several of the larger hotels have sauna facilities but for real luxury the spas at Hotel Golf and Grand Hotel Toplice are highly recommended. Both offer a variety of contemporary and traditional treatments as well as sauna facilities and Turkish-style bathing. Alternatively the Castle Baths with no less than four outdoor pools and roped off area for swimming within the lake, provides an opportunity for the cost conscious to enjoy the lakes thermal water which averages around 22 °C.

Bled’s hotels offer a variety of packages, some of which combine accommodation, dining and free use of the spa facilities. Bled does have some very good restaurants, however, both in the town centre and in the surrounding countryside. To sample the traditional cuisine of the Gorenjska region visitors should head for a rural gostilna; the town centre restaurants mostly cover a range of international cuisines.  Those with a sweet tooth should ask to try a ‘Kremna rezina’. Ištvan Lukačević created it from a traditional Serbian recipe but the Bled version has a protected designation of origin. The cake has one layer of custard and one of whipped cream between layers of crisp pastry and is finished with a dusting of icing sugar. Bled’s Hotel Park is considered the home of the kremna rezina and even offers a workshop to show guests how to make it.

The ‘Bled Days’ festival takes place on the fourth weekend of every July; hundreds of floating candles are launched onto Lake Bled followed by a brilliant fireworks display. Music is a feature of several of the town’s annual events:  there’s an international violin festival in June and the Okarina restaurant curates a world musical festival in August.  December opens with the chance to do some Christmas shopping at the St. Nicholas Fair and on Christmas Day the town there’s a performance of the ‘Legend of the Sinking of the Bell’; at the end the show a Christmas tree is sunk in Lake Bled. On 31st December hundreds of people gather on the lakeside to watch an enormous fireworks display to welcome in the New Year.

Only a short drive from Ljubljana Airport, Bled is an ideal location for a holiday home but with the capital 60 kilometres away it is also a viable option for commuters who are looking for a location that offers a good balance of town and country.  The town of Kranj is the nearest sizeable shopping centre though Bled’s shops can meet most everyday needs. Villages such as Ribno and Selo are popular with families though slightly larger towns like Radovljica and Lesce may have more entertainment for teens and older children.

Road access to Italy and Austria, as well as to all other regions of Slovenia, is excellent. For those seeking a holiday home few European destinations come close to Bled: with activities year round and endless countryside to explore, it’s easy to see why so many people come back year after year.