Slovenia’s charming Lake Bled is nestled among the Julian Alps, near Austria. As the country’s leading mountain resort, it offers beautiful alpine scenery, a cliff-hanging medieval castle, and a small fairy-tale island which is reached by Bled’s version of a gondola.
I recently visited Lake Bled during a 2-week Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) tour of Croatia & Slovenia. Since the lake is just around an hour’s drive from Ljubljana (Slovenia’s lovely capital), we took a day trip there.
During our short time in Lake Bled & the town (also called Bled), we primarily toured the Castle and Bled Island. The island is home to a 17th-century church with a beautiful bell tower. We visited in mid-October, which was a nice time to visit – the weather was still pleasant and fall colors already quite brilliant.
This picturesque jewel of Lake Bled is beloved by Slovenes and visitors alike. And certainly more & more of today’s travelers are finding their way to Slovenia, a beautiful country in southeastern Europe which has a lot to offer.
In this blog post, I will share highlights of what we did in our short but active time at Lake Bled. Plus, I list other special things you should do if you are able to spend more time there.
How to Enjoy the Best of Lake Bled:
- Tour the hilltop Medieval Castle
- Take a Pletna Boat Ride out to the island
- Visit Bled Island & its picturesque Church
- Visit Café Belvedere (aka Tito’s Tea Room) at Vila Bled
- Enjoy a leisurely walk or bike ride along the lake
- Order a slice of Bled’s famous Cream Cake (kremsnita)
- Enjoy a swim in the lake – during the summer season – or hire your own rowboat.
Visit the Hilltop Medieval Castle
First built in 1004, Bled’s Castle is the oldest one in Slovenia. However, the main draw for visitors is its cliff-top location with amazing views of Lake Bled (far below!) and the surrounding mountains. The castle’s wide-open terraces are packed with tourists jockeying for classic Lake Bled postcard and/or Instagram shots.
However, the Castle has other interesting things to offer its visitors beside the killer views. On the first level there is a café and a Beehouse selling honey products in one of the castle towers.
There is also the Printing Works shop with a working replica of a printing press from Gutenberg’s time. In the shop, you can learn about traditional hand printing techniques and print your own memorial document. The delightful man in the shop gave us a quick and interesting demo.
On the upper level, you’ll find a nice restaurant next to the large terrace with the best views. There is a lovely frescoed chapel adjacent to a two-story historical museum (above). The museum tells the story of Bled, the castle and the surrounding region.
And for you oenophiles, the castle has a wine cellar where you can bottle and cork your own souvenir bottle of Slovenian wine. Be sure to climb the stairs up to the wooden defensive gallery (above right) for the best views of the mountains east of Bled.
We spent an hour at the Castle, which gave our group a good taste. But you could certainly spend more time. Like most visitors, our bus took us up the steep hill to the castle parking lot. However, if you’re in the mood for a great workout, you can hike all the way up to the castle yourself, which is said to take 20-30 minutes from the town.
Take a Pletna Boat Ride To Bled Island
Our next stop was Bled Island in the middle of the lake. But first we had to get there! I was really looking forward to this part because I knew we’d be traveling on one of Lake Bled’s iconic pletna boats – their version of a Venetian gondola! These wooden boats are skillfully powered by local oarsmen.
The first pletnas were built in the 12th century and today, they are still hand built to a similar design. These traditional boats have a flat bottom and a signature colorful awning that offers shade to passengers.
The oarsmen’s special rowing technique has been passed down through the same families from generation to generation. Because pletnas have no keel, the talented oarsmen need to work hard to steer the flat-bottomed boat with each stroke. They make it look easy, but clearly it is not!
So, yes, half the fun was getting out to the island. The pletnas are powered by tall, handsome (and young!) Slovenian men. Our delightful 23-year-old oarsman (above right) has been doing this for 4 years. Plus, he looked a lot like Bradley Cooper! So, all the women in my boat agreed that the 5-10-minute boat ride (each way) was much too short!
The majority of visitors arrive at the island by pletnas, leaving from a few different locations around the lake. Apparently, the longest point takes 20-25 minutes each way. We departed from a dock near the Vila Bled, which was probably the shortest ride. You get the same oarsman both directions. As a result, I’ve read that many pletna boatmen adhere to a 30-minute waiting time on the island.
Visit Bled Island & the 17th Century Church
Lake Bled’s Church of the Assumption is perched on a forested islet in the middle of the lake. Its formal Slovenian name is Blejski Otok, but locals simply call it “The Island” (Otok).
Arriving at the island’s boat dock, there’s a steep climb of 99 stone steps up a Baroque staircase to the top. That’s where you’ll find the church, plus a restaurant, gift shop and art gallery.
Speaking of those 99 steps, it’s long been a tradition for Slovenian grooms to carry their brides up the steps on their wedding day. And if they’re successful in reaching the top – as most are! – it’s considered good luck. Apparently, on Saturdays during the summer, there can be a steady stream of brides and grooms. However, none were spotted on my Thursday in October.
Church of the Assumption / Ringing of the Wishing Bell
The most important building on the island is the pilgrimage church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The church’s current Baroque version (the 5th iteration) was built in the 17th century. This pretty little church also has a Venetian flair – with the bell tower separate from the main church.
Visitors to the island flock to the church to ring its “wishing bell.” Another local belief claims that if you can get the bell to ring 3 times with one big pull of the rope, your wish will be granted. The bell’s long rope hangs from the church ceiling in the middle of the aisle just before the altar.
Our OAT Tour Leader Martina told us that successfully ringing the bell would guarantee you would return to the island. A few members of my group tried it, after Martina demonstrated the proper technique. I’m afraid I struck out myself, but it looks like Catie & Linda will be going back to Bled one day! I’m jealous…
Climb the Bell Tower/ Tour the Island
Visiting the island itself is free, but there is a cost (6 euros) to enter the church. The entrance ticket also includes the bell tower. So, I took a quick easy climb up to the top for a view. Unfortunately, the tower windows are grated so it’s fine for a peek but not really for taking photos.
From the church, I followed another set of stone steps back down to the lake, on the opposite side from the boat dock. It’s a short but scenic stroll along the lake on a forested path to reach the pletna dock. From here, you can really appreciate the deep green/bluish color of Lake Bled. Apparently, the color is due to minerals in the lake water.
You can also rent your own boat to row out to the island. I saw one group departing from a small dock along this path. In total, we spent only 45 minutes on the island, as we had to return for our waiting pletna oarsman. And, yes, the time went very fast!
Visit Café Belvedere (aka Tito’s Tea Room) at Vila Bled
Today, Vila Bled is an upscale hotel situated on the shores of Lake Bled. Completed in 1947, the villa served as the summer residence of former Yugoslavia president Josip Broz Tito for many years. There, President Tito hosted numerous official state visits – including Nikita Khrushchev, King Hussein of Jordan, Indira Gandhi, Kim Il Sung, and many others.
The charming Vila Bled opened as a hotel in 1984 and has hosted many famous modern-day visitors, such as Prince Charles, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Paul McCartney and William Hurt. The hotel website states that their rooms – mostly suites – are elegantly furnished in a style reminiscent of the 1950s. The hotel is also surrounded by a beautiful park.
If you’re walking on the lakeside path, you’ll pass the base of the stairs leading up to Vila Bled (above right). In fact, we passed the stairs on our way to the boat dock where we first caught our pletna out to the Island. This part of the lake is quite peaceful, being farther away from the main town of Bled.
Café Belvedere – for Great Lake Views
Café Belvedere, located in the former Belvedere Pavilion on the park grounds above Vila Bled, is said to offer spectacular views of the lake and the island. The Pavilion, set on 30-meter pillars, was designed by famous Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik.
It’s also known as Tito’s Tea Room because President Tito hosted heads of state and celebrities of the time here in the Pavilion. They would meet at these relaxed “tea parties” for a glass of cognac and smoke of cigars, discussing relevant topics of the day. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in those times!
Today, Café Belvedere offers beautiful views from a peaceful terrace of the former Pavilion. It’s also known to be a great spot to enjoy a slice of Bled cream cake (see section below), as you take in the history of the place. The Café is only open in the summer season, from late April to the end of September. So, I did not personally visit Café Belvedere, since it was already closed.
However, a good friend visited Lake Bled in June. She highly recommended going to Café Belvedere (Tito’s Tea Room) & enjoying a slice of cream cake. She said the tea house was lovely and filled with old photos and memorabilia of Tito.
To get there, she advised that you go through the hotel and take a path at the back, go up some stairs into the woods, and walk about 5-10 minutes to reach the Café & Pavilion. Since my excellent Rick Steves Slovenia guidebook did not mention this Café/Tito’s Tea Room, I don’t have any additional intel for you (except the active link above).
Enjoy a Walk or Bike Ride Along the Lake
Another popular activity for Lake Bled visitors is to take a walk or bike ride around the 1.5-mile-long lake. The scenic and peaceful lakeside promenade measures 3.5 miles & takes around 1.5 hours if you’re walking at a leisurely pace. Of course, this doesn’t include those mandatory photo stops!
Unfortunately, we did not have time to do this full walk, but it sounds wonderful! Along the way, you’ll pass by some grand 19th century villas built by local aristocrats – that includes the hotel Vila Bled (mentioned above.)
Order A Slice of Bled’s Famous Cream Cake
After all your activity exploring Bled, you’ll want to refuel yourself with a slice of cream cake – Lake Bled’s famous dessert. You’ll see it called by either its Slovenian name “kremna rezina” or German-derived name “kremšnita.”
It’s a dish that dates back to the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. The cake is a layer of cream and a thick layer of vanilla custard artfully sandwiched between sheets of delicate, crispy crust.
Thanks to its protected designation of origin status, the “real” Bled cream cake only comes from the patisseries at Lake Bled. Back in Ljubljana, we enjoyed a slice of cream cake – and yes, it came from an authorized Bled bakery. It was delicious but oh, so very rich!
Boating/ Swimming on the Lake
For those visiting Lake Bled during the summer season, you can add taking a swim in the beautiful alpine lake to your list of must dos. The lake has several suitable spots for a swim. On my mid-October visit, I put my hand in the water & the temperature felt around 65 degrees F (18 C). So, I was happy to just look!
Lake Bled has a peaceful ambience, in part due to the fact that no motorized boats are allowed on the lake. Thus, you’ll find only pletnas, rowboats and rowing shells. In fact, Bled is the rowing center of Slovenia. Bled hosted its 4th world championships in 2011 & the town has produced many Olympic rowing medalists. Hmm… I’ll bet some of them have been pletna oarsmen!
Final Comments / For More Info on Lake Bled
Hopefully, I’ve given you a strong flavor of what makes Lake Bled such a special place to visit – whether for a quick day trip like me or better yet for a longer period where you can savor the wonderful sights & peaceful Alpine lake setting.
The town of Bled is located on the east end of Lake Bled. Rick Steves says in his guidebook: “Bled is more functional than quaint.” He also says the Old Town area, under the castle, is less touristy than other parts of Bled. As mentioned, it’s a little over an hour’s drive to Lake Bled from Ljubljana – with a bus taking about 1 ¼ hours.
The two excellent resources below will give you a lot more information about the travel logistics & what to see and do in Lake Bled and the surrounding areas. I can promise you there’s a lot! (click on the hot links below).
- Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook (I used the Kindle version for my trip)
- Bled Tourism Board website
COMMENTS: Have you visited Lake Bled? If so, what were some of your favorite things to do? Any recommendations to add?