By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
Lake Bled, nestled up against the northeast side of the rugged Julian Alps, is almost certainly the most photogenic, relaxing spot in Slovenia (and that's saying a lot). Since the Habsburg days, this has been the place where Slovenes have wowed visiting diplomats with this fine example of their nation's natural beauty. But above all, Lake Bled feels like a place that Slovenes enjoy alongside their visitors.
As no motorized boats are allowed on it, Lake Bled is particularly peaceful. Crew team stroke rhythmically through glassy waters, merging natural and human grace. Strolling (or biking) the 3.5 miles around the lake is enjoyable and scenic. Big Stol ("Chair") mountain looms just above, and in good weather, you can see the Julian Alps, including iconic Mount Triglav, poking above the ridge at the far end of the lake. At a leisurely pace, the path takes about an hour and a half on foot…not counting stops to snap photos of the ever-changing view.
On the way, you'll pass some great villas, mostly built by local aristocrats in the beginning of the 19th century. The most significant one was a former residence of Marshal Tito — today the Hotel Vila Bled, a fine place to stop for a coffee and pretend Tito invited you over for a visit. For the more adventurous, hiking paths lead up into the hills surrounding the lake.
On the north end of the lake is Bled's cliff-hanging castle. Dating in one form or another from 1,000 years ago, it was the seat of the Austrian bishops of Brixen, who controlled Bled in the Middle Ages. Today it's merely a fine tourist attraction with a little history and lots of big views. The various sights at the castle — a decent history museum, a frescoed chapel, an old-fashioned printing press, and a wine cellar — are more cute than interesting, but the real reason to come up here is to bask in the sweeping panoramas over Lake Bled and the surrounding mountainscapes.
Don't leave without a trip out to the Bled's steeple-capped island, which nudges the lake's quaintness level over the top. Locals call it simply "the Island" (Otok). While it's pretty to look at from afar, it's also fun to visit.
The island's main attraction is its Church of the Assumption. An eighth-century Slavic pagan temple dedicated to the goddess of love and fertility once stood here; the current Baroque version (with Venetian flair — the bell tower is separate from the main church) is the fifth to occupy this spot. Inside is the rope for the church bell, hanging in the middle of the aisle just before the altar. A local superstition claims that if you can get this bell to ring three times with one big pull of the rope, your dreams will come true. Close your eyes and give it a ring. When you open them, you'll find yourself on an enchanting island in the middle of a stunning alpine lake.
The most romantic route to the island is to cruise on one of the distinctive flat-bottomed pletna boats. Like the equally iconic gondolas of Venice, these boats carry on a tradition dating back generations, and are still hand-built according to the same centuries-old design. Keep in mind, however, that the oarsmen stick close to their 30-minute waiting time on the island. For more flexibility (and to save money), you can rent your own boat and row to the island. It's even possible to swim, especially from the end of the lake nearest the island, but you're not allowed into the church in your swimsuit. Guess you'll just have to go in naked.
And be sure to enjoy the town's specialty, a vanilla-custard-and-cream cake called kremna rezina, a.k.a. kremšnita. Slovenes travel from all over the country to sample this famous dessert. Slightly less renowned, but just as tasty, is grmada (literally "bonfire"). This dessert was developed by lakeside Hotel Jelovice as a way to get rid of their day-old leftovers. They take yesterday's cake, add rum, milk, custard, and raisins, and top it off with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. It's the perfect end to a perfectly relaxing day.
While the lake's main town, also called Bled, is more functional than quaint, it offers a lakefront lined with cafés and resort hotels. The whole area quiets down at night — there's no nightlife beyond a handful of pubs — giving hikers and other holiday makers a chance to recharge.
Bled is also a great jumping-off point for a car trip through the Julian Alps, and a wide variety of other worthwhile side-trips are right at its doorstep. These include the less developed lake named Bohinj, even deeper in the mountains; a spectacular (yet easy) hike in the nearby mountain gorge of Vintgar; the pleasant Old Town of Radovljica, with its fascinating little beekeeping museum; and the ironworking town of Kropa, boasting a museum that attracts the kind of people who wonder how things work.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook.