The daytrip from Zagreb to Ljubljana and Lake Bled was magic! There were four of us, our Croatian guide Roberto, and three solo travelers – another American, Rose, from the San Francisco Bay Area, a South Korean, Dong, and me. It was a copacetic, lighthearted group, and I thoroughly enjoyed their company.
Zagreb was foggy and overcast when we departed at 8:00 a.m., so I was dubious about the weather in Slovenia. I soon discovered that, rain or shine, Ljubljana and Lake Bled are always spectacular!
I visited Ljubljana briefly in the summer of 2013, but except for bicycling around the city, have veiled memories. I’ve used media shots again in this post, as the weather wasn’t ideal for photography. Lake Bled and Ljubljana are so spectacular, photography doesn’t come close to capturing their true natural beauty!
Ljubljana is the capital and economic, political, and cultural center of Slovenia. It’s located in the center of the country along the Ljubljanica River and surrounded by the Julian Alps. Ljubljana is considered “one of Europe’s greenest and most livable capitals”. In 2016, it won the European Commission’s Green Capital of Europe award.
Ljubljana is known as a city of culture, with one of the best and oldest philharmonic orchestras in the world. Automobile traffic is restricted in the city center, so streets are wide open and free for pedestrians and cyclists. In summer, cafés have outdoor terrace seating along the picturesque Ljubljanica River.
“Ljubljana has 542 square meters (5,800 sq. ft.) of public green areas per inhabitant. More than 46% of the city is covered by native forests, almost 75% by green areas of which over 20% are protected. Natura 2000 areas established for the conservation of Europe’s endangered species and habitats represent 16.5% of this surface.”
As with most daytrips, we hit the ground running, covered lots of territory, and didn’t have much time to explore Ljubljana. I hope to return in December and spend more time there. We enjoyed a lunch of local cuisine and explored the historical center along the Ljubljanica River. It was bustling with Christmas Market shoppers.
Ljubljana has glorious churches and art nouveau architecture. I spent a few minutes inside The Cathedral Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, marveling at its altar and frescoes by Slovenian artists Matevž Langus and Matej Sternen. The church was designed by architect Jože Plečnik and dates back to 1262.
We didn’t have time to tour Ljubljana Castle, but I vaguely remember seeing it during my previous visit in 2013. Below is a list of notable churches and city center buildings with links. I’d like to visit them all if time permits, but my home base is Zagreb, and there’s still much to explore there.
“Hiking is one of Slovenia’s most popular activities. Slovenia has over twenty thousand square kilometres (7,700 sq. miles) of surface area, with thousands of kilometres of marked hiking trails.”
- Church of St. John the Baptist / Church of Trnovo
- Church of St. Francis
- Visitation of Mary Church
- Church of St. James
- St. Francis Church
- Ursuline Church / Church of the Holy Trinity
- Franciscan Church of the Annunciation
Art Nouveau Buildings
- Vurnik House / Cooperative Bank Building
- People’s Loan Bank
- Grand Hotel Union Eurostars
- Galerija Emporium
- Municipal Savings Bank
- Hauptmann House
Architect Jože Plečnik
Many of Ljubljana’s buildings and bridges were designed by Slovenian “Art Nouveau architect and master of early-modern, minimalist design,” Jože Plečnik. Plečnik “graced” the city with urban design elements like pillars, pyramids, and lamp posts, making it even prettier”. The layout of Ljubljana bridges and streets along the canal is similar to Venice.
Slovenia has abundant natural resources. Several rivers exclusive to Slovenia include the Ljubljanica, Krka, Savinja, and Vipava. The Ljubljanica flows “through the center of Old Town Ljubljana and was once an important trade and supply route”. Today, this popular area is the “heart of Ljubljana’s social scene”. Cafes, restaurants, and street markets line the embankment where “boats cruise up and down the river”.
Slovenia shares rivers with its neighboring countries. River Soča is known for its famous Soča trout and white waters. The Sava is Slovenia’s longest river and has two courses – Sava Dolinka and Sava Bohinjka. They meet in Radovljica.
The Drava River begins in Dravograd and ends in Ormož. It flows through Drava Valley winegrowing hills into the thermal Pannonian Plain. An international long-distance bicycle trail runs alongside the Drava River.
The “lazy-flowing” Mura River is characterised by “backwaters and oxbow wetlands that remained after the river changed course”. The “exceptional biodiversity” of the Mura Region is a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
Slovenia’s warmest river, the Kolpa, “begins at the edge of the Kočevje Forest, the densest in Slovenia. It winds through the “historic-geographical Bela Krajina region”. Camping is popular in the area, and it was awarded the title of European Destination of Excellence (EDEN).
Lake Bled is an unforgettably beautiful lake with a small island in the center and an 11th century castle on a surrounding cliffside. The lake is perfectly framed by peaks of the Julian Alps in the background. Lake Bled is of “mixed glacial and tectonic origin”. It’s about 35 miles from Ljubljana and well worth a visit any time of the year.
“Bled is a destination with a sustainable development vision. For several years, Bled has been advocating green tourism and is the proud recipient of the gold label of the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism.”
The World Rowing Championships were held at Lake Bled in 1966, 1979, 1989, and 2011. In May 2023, Lake Bled will host the 2023 European Rowing Championships. It’s a favorite spot for rowers and rowing regattas. We took a small boat to Bled Island. Our fit 79-year-old rower was an Olympic rowing champion in the 1960s. Years ago, I learned to row in San Francisco Bay, but rowing pletna boats is much different than rowing the lightweight shells I used. Can’t imagine a more perfect place to row than idyllic Lake Bled.
The lake surrounds Bled Island (Blejski otok). At the island, a steep Baroque stone stairway dating from 1655 leads up to several buildings, including a tower and religious pilgrimage church. The Assumption of Mary Church was built near the end of the 17th century. I didn’t go inside the church, but understand the interior is decorated with Gothic frescos from around 1470.
The traditional transportation to Bled Island is via a wooden boat known as a pletna. Sources claim the “pletna was used in Lake Bled as early as 1150 AD, but most historians date the first boats to 1590 AD”. They’re similar in shape to Italian gondolas used in Venice, but are unique to Bled and Slovenia.
“Pletna oarsman employ the stehrudder technique to propel and navigate boats using two oars. The role of the oarsman dates back to 1740, when Maria Theresa of Austria granted 22 local families exclusive rights to ferry religious pilgrims across Lake Bled to worship on Bled Island.”
Our last stop in Slovenia was Bled Castle, built by Emperor Henry II, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Just as we were starting to explore the castle, my iPhone battery died and for some reason wouldn’t recharge with the power block. I was devastated but managed a few photos. On these fast-paced tours, it’s almost impossible to digest the vast information presented, explore the facility, and also focus on taking decent photographs. I’ll have to rely on my memories of the truly magnificent vistas!!
Bled Castle is the oldest castle in Slovenia. It dates back to 1004, when “German King Henry II conferred the estate of Bled on Bishop Albuin of Brixen“. The castle was built by the Bishopric of Brixen around 1011 for defensive purposes. In the Middle Ages, additional towers and a fortification system were built. Bishops never lived in the castle.
The castle was restored between 1951 and 1961. It has museums, a souvenir shop, and a gallery featuring monthly exhibitions. The museum in the upper courtyard displays period-specific artefacts. It “delves deep into the distant past of Lake Bled, from early excavations to its origins and historical development”. I purchased a jar of delicious local “forest honey” at the souvenir shop! In the summer, cultural events take place in the castle courtyard, including an enactment of Medieval life, showing how people lived during the Middle Ages.
Bled Island and Castle are subjects of many fascinating local legends and stories. The scenery was as spectacular as any I’ve seen elsewhere in the world! Rose, Dong, and I ended the day with a fantastic traditional dinner in Zagreb Upper Town near busy, festive Christmas Markets. It was a pleasant, satisfying day!