During our three weeks in Slovenia, we got to spend four days in the gorgeous Julian Alps, located in the northwest corner of the country. We went for two days to meet up with our friends who happened to be on vacation there, and then when my family came to Slovenia for a visit, we had to take them back to see it too.
The region reminds me a bit of Switzerland. Driving around, it’s all snow-capped mountains, pastoral landscapes, and small villages with church steeples sticking up in the center. And it was very accessible to us from our home base in Ljubljana, as the most popular city, Bled, is a mere 40 minute drive away. Here are our highlights from our time in the Julian Alps.
1. Lake Bled
Lake Bled is the star of the region. If you Google “Slovenia,” almost all the images you see are of Lake Bled. It’s easy to understand what the fuss is all about. Lake Bled is a stunning aquamarine lake surrounded by mountains, with a castle on a cliff looking over it and a tiny island with a church in the center. It couldn’t possibly be more picturesque. Based on what I had read about Bled, I was a little concerned that Bled would feel overly crowded and commercialized. There’s definitely a cheesiness factor. For example, there are swan-shaped boats you can ride in and this heart-shaped frame for taking photos.
It wasn’t as crowded as I feared, though I bet it’s much worse in July. And there’s plenty of charm and beauty to be found. I mean, does this even look real?
The quintessential Bled activity is renting a row boat to row to Bled Island. We did it with our friends and again when we came back with my family. Honestly, I don’t think you can come to Lake Bled and not rent a row boat. If rowing is not your thing but you still want to go to Bled Island, you can also pay to ride on a bigger boat with a man who rows for you. But rowing yourself is a lot more fun. And it only takes about 10-15 minutes to get to the island.
When we were there with our friends, we let the men do the rowing, but when we went back with my family, everyone took their turn at rowing the boat. It’s harder than it looks, mainly due to the difficulty of coordinating the oars. But we all had a blast trying to get the hang of it!
When you get off your boat on the island, you are standing at the bottom of 99 steps leading up to the church. There’s a legend that says that if a groom carries his bride up all 99 steps, they will be in love forever. Or something like that.
I was teasing Matthew about the fact that he definitely could not carry me up all those stairs and it would be a terrible idea to even try. (And I meant it. It wasn’t one of those times where I was saying one thing but secretly wanting the opposite.) Suddenly, he got a look of determination on his face and told me to jump on his back. And you know what? He carried me up all 99 of those stairs. As we made our way up, a crowd of people gathered at the top to cheer him on. He was about to give up and set me down about 5 steps from the top until they all started chanting “One more!” So he pushed himself up the final steps and then pretty much dropped me onto the side of a gelato stand. All in all it was a pretty funny and impressive moment.
2. Lake Bohinj
Bohinj is Lake Bled’s less touristed, less polished sister. The views are gorgeous, with the stunning green color of the water and the backdrop of the Julian Alps. Our first stop was the town of Ribčev Laz. It was tiny and not at all crowded. You can rent canoes, kayaks, and stand up paddle boards if you want to get out on the water, but we decided to walk around the lake instead. There’s a trail that goes all the way around the lake, but it takes 3-4 hours. We just walked about 30 minutes in one direction and then walked back. It was lovely, and there weren’t too many people around.
After our walk we were ready for lunch, so we drove to the next town over, Ukanc. We ate at a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant called Gostišče Erlah. We ate outside in a lovely setting, and decided to try some of the local specialties. This area is known for its trout. They had a tank of them swimming around outside the restaurant, so you know they’re fresh. You are presented with the whole fish on the plate, which can be a little off-putting. But I tasted Matthew’s trout, and it was absolutely delicious. You just have to look out for bones!
My vegetable dumplings with mushroom sauce were also wonderful and very filling.
3. Vintgar Gorge
Vintgar Gorge is a mere 15 minute drive from Bled. The gorge has a series of wooden walkways that take you from one end to the other. The light filters down through the trees in a really beautiful way, and the water is a stunning aquamarine color.
It took us about 30 minutes to get to the end. We took advantage of the one picnic table there to sit and enjoy a picnic lunch in that beautiful setting before walking back to the entrance.
Unfortunately, none of us felt like our photos really captured the beauty of the place, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
4. Savica Waterfall
Savica Waterfall is a short 4km from Ukanc. You can either hike from the town to the waterfall (about 2 hours one-way) or you can drive to a parking area near the waterfall and then hike for about 20 minutes to get to the falls. We opted to drive, which didn’t go as smoothly as one would hope. Hilarity and ridiculousness ensued. I think I’m going to save the story for a post about all of our travel mishaps. So stay tuned.
As for the waterfall itself, it takes only a short walk to get there but it is entirely uphill with a lot of stairs. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with a fabulous view of the valley on one side and the waterfall on the other.
The falls were much bigger than I expected, and they seemed to appear out of nowhere. You can’t tell from the photos how impressive the waterfall really was.
5. Vršič Pass
Vršič Pass is the highest mountain pass in Slovenia. It was built by Russian prisoners of war during World War I to create a faster path for German and Austro-Hungarian troops to cross the Julian Alps. The whole time we were in Slovenia, I was dying to drive through it because I had a feeling there would be some amazing views. Finally on our second-to-last day in the country I had the chance to drive through the Vršič Pass with my family.
We had the best time! We went at our own pace, pulling over anytime we wanted to stop for photos and to admire the view. That happened a lot.
One of the stops along the way is the Russian Chapel, which is dedicated to over 300 Russian POWs who were killed in an avalanche while building the pass.
At one spot, there were hundreds of small rock piles, and my mom decided that we needed to add our own family rock pile. Even my teenage brother and sister got into it, helping to choose a rock to represent each member of our family. It turned out pretty well!
While they worked on that, Matthew and I climbed up a bit to get a nice view.
My favorite stop-off point was a gorgeous green meadow with a magical looking forest on the other side, which I just had to explore.
This turned out to be one of my favorite days of my family’s two-week visit, and it was something the whole family enjoyed.
Slovenia’s Julian Alps are a fantastic travel destination for nature lovers (even those like me who only like nature in small doses). It’s easy to get around, the people are friendly, there’s lots to do and everywhere you look is beautiful. I can’t believe it doesn’t get more tourists, but I’m confident that the tourist numbers will grow as more and more people find out about it. I’m just crossing my fingers the secret doesn’t get out until I have the chance to go back and spend some more time there!