We hopped a bus from Ljubljana to Bled, a quick drive up the valley, tracing the river to our destination. The bus rounded a bend, the lake coming into view, reflected town lights shimmering in the ripples. We sped past our stop at the top of the hill and barreled down into the town below. I turned to Dan. “I think we just missed our stop.”
This is a sentence I’ve uttered far too many times, but it comes with the territory. When you travel to countries where you don’t speak the language, miscommunications and missed directions are the norm, and certainly part of the experience.
We pulled into Bled’s main bus terminal. Instead of disembarking, I strolled up to the bus driver, pointing to the map and smiled with a shrug. Luckily, Slovenia is home to many patient and kind people. The driver simply nodded, gently motioning me to sit back down and pointed up the street. Five minutes later, we bid our driver a zdravo and walked down the snowy lane to our home for the next four days.
Christmas in Lake Bled is dreamy, and we filled our time easily. We almost had the lake to ourselves, its shores nearly deserted with just a few families strolling along, popping into the little shops, petting the Christmas horse (!!!), ice skating to pop songs, and visiting the advent market. That first morning was bright with that winter sun glow, hues of yellow piercing the water, fog hugging the surface. A man cruised by on his paddle board. Pure peace.
And that was just one of many moments that made me stop and pinch myself. There is so much to do and see in Slovenia, but even just the region around Bled is rich with both natural and cultural entertainment. Although I’m partial to visiting in the winter during the holidays, it’s just as enchanting all year round. So here is a list of what you can do in Lake Bled.
What to do in Lake Bled
We climbed up the castle first thing. I couldn’t contain myself. The hike up is a little steep, but the path, with its steps and ropes, makes it easy. The view from the top is incredible, the lake below like glass reflecting the moody colors of the sunset. The castle is over a millennium old, the oldest in Slovenia. And due to its dreamy location, it doesn’t get any more fairytale than this.
Walk, run, bike
Lake Bled is surrounded by a paved path that is perfect for a morning stroll, jog, or even bike ride. This is the best way to see the lake, especially if you can allow yourself to do it leisurely. Don’t check the time, just meander. Experience each side, the different characteristics and attitude evolving as you slowly curve.
You’ll find the lake more subtle from the west, and a little more showy as you near the island. Old docks stretch out into the waters, cherry-wooden row boats parked like cars. Really feel the sunbeams as you pass under the castle, then enjoy the shivers as the sun dips behind the hills on the southern side as things get a little more crispy.
Don’t be envious of the brave rowers out on the lake… join them! A visit to Lake Bled is simply not complete without exploring the tiny island. It’s only accessible by boat, either a covered pontoon in a small group or your own private rowboat. It’s cheap, a few euro for an hour. As you watch your oar dip into the water and swirl, lean back and take in the views. You get to watch the castle drift by as you near the island. Do a couple circles to map out your plan of attack, then wander the little trails that circumvent the steep village perched on the rocky mass.
Mala Osojnica Views
You’ve probably seen those quintessential views of the lake from above. This is accomplished with a little stretch of your legs, an hour jaunt up a steep, narrow trail (trail #2) complete with summiting an iron staircase that seems to just emerge out of nowhere. But it’s worth it. You can steal glimpses of the lake through the branches along the way, or save your gawking for the top as you sit on a wooden bench and absorb the serenity.
The entire region is known for its cream cake. You can even find versions of it in nearby Zagreb and Budapest. But Lake Bled claims its own as the best, the original. Obviously don’t just take their word for it, you better do a taste test. The Hotel Park sings its own praises, but I personally preferred the giant slice at Slaščičarna Zima. You be the judge.
Imagine strolling along damp, wooden boardwalks as they zigzag across turquoise rapids, all while protected by towering evergreen trees. Vintgar Gorge is just the place and a stone’s throw from the lake. It’s easily accessible by car, bus, hitchhike, or even a longer walk or bike ride. As a mini bonus, you get to see the back of the castle. Instead of erupting from a rocky cliffside, the castle is level with the golden fields, taking on an entirely new personality.
Lake Bled has the fame, but Lake Bohinj is almost, secretly, better. It’s much larger and far less crowded. The water is calm and still, surrounded by rocky hills and dense forests. There are dozens of hiking trails, campgrounds, and even a small ski area where you can take a gondola up for expansive views of the frosty valleys and Julian Alps. If you make the trek (you can get there by bus or car), stop at the Church of St. John the Baptist. This church is teensy tiny, but famous for its beautiful frescoes.
Central Europe knows how to Christmas. Each country has its own traditional spin, but you can almost count on at least one festive advent market in each town or city. Lake Bled has its own mini version, but you go not for the shopping, but rather for the food and entertainment.
If you’ve never tasted the sipping chocolate in Slovenia, it’s a must during the holidays. Its consistency falls somewhere between hot chocolate and chocolate pudding. You don’t necessarily need a spoon, but it could help you devour each and every morsel. There’s no shame in using your finger, though. Another highlight is the mulled wine, of course, and anything consisting of sausages and potatoes. After ordering your food, snag a seat next to the bonfire and admire the lights strung high in the trees above, or those shimmering in reflection along the lake’s shore. Peddle the bike to make the swans light up, shaped like a heart.
And as for entertainment, this is my favorite part. I have a deep love for any type of local performance. Bonus points if it involves quirky traditions. I don’t usually understand what’s said, but that almost makes it better. You’ll be more surprised when a woman dressed in all black lace climbs the stage to sing a haunting version of Silent Night in Slovenian.
Legend of the Sunken Bell
And if you’re in Bled on Christmas Day, you can’t miss the Legend of the Sunken Bell performance. I’ve been twice now and it’s a great way to learn more about the culture and history of the region. I won’t spoil it all for you, but a lighted bell drifts along the lake before plunging into the icy waters. Divers from all around the country wade into a circle carrying long torches. And there’s a very energetic fire show to kick it all off.
How to get to Lake Bled
Lake Bled is named for the town that borders its shores, Bled, and getting there is easy. You can fly or take a train to Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana. If flying into Ljubljana is out of your price range, you can also check nearby airports, including Venice, Zagreb, or Budapest. There are regular trains and buses to/from Zagreb and Budapest, or Venice is best if renting a car.
Once in Ljubljana, you can rent a car from either the airport, train station, or even downtown. Or you can take a cheap bus (bus station is next to the train station) to Bled, which is just north on the A2 highway. Alternatively, you can also take a train, but keep in mind that it doesn’t run very often and the train station is not in the town of Bled, but rather on the oppostite side of the lake.
Driving takes about 40 minutes and the bus about one hour. If taking the bus, go into the bus station and purchase your ticket. The cashier can tell you which dock number your bus is. It’ll arrive just a few minutes before departure, so don’t worry if it’s not there early!