When people asked, “where are you going?” and I responded with Slovenia, people’s main response was “Oh, what made you pick there?” – truth was after days of searching online, taking a virtual trip around Europe looking for a destination with good flight times, a short, simple trip to and from the airport and looking at more hotels on booking.com than necessary I finally landed on Slovenia. It has also been on my wish list for years since I saw photos of the beautiful Lake Bled so an autumn break seemed like a good time to visit and it didn’t disappoint.
As you might have read in my previous post, travel in your 30s is slightly more refined; so after a very reasonably timed flight at 1pm, we were ready and raring to explore when we got to Ljubljana. We checked into Hotel Cubo where we were greeted by friendly staff and a modern, spacious and clean room with a rather incredible shower, let’s just say it’s lucky Mark and I like each other! The hotel is in an amazing location, you cross the road and you’re basically on the river embankments and into the Old Town.
Ljubljana was awarded European Green Capital 2016 and it’s easy to see why; it’s like walking onto a film set in the Old Town with pedestrianised, spotless, cobbled streets, colourful buildings and cafés lining the riverside. Once you climb to the top of the castle you can also see how green the surrounding area is and admire the Julian Alps as the backdrop to this pretty little city.
On our first afternoon we explored the Old Town, eyeing up restaurants for dinner and finding our bearings – we also discovered how good the Slovenian wine is. So after ambling around we settled ourselves at a table on the street at Güjzina our waiter talked with enthusiasm about the wines, in addition to the craft beers they had to offer which were brewed up by a local. After doing the standard tourist routine of enjoying our drinks whilst studying the ever faithful Lonely Planet guide to Slovenia we also called in for a wine at MOVIA wine bar. I’d read about it before we left and had spotted it on our recce so it was a must for me. Of all of Slovenia’s winegrowing regions, the Goriška Brda have the highest per-hectare yield of medals and recognitions and a very hefty wine list. We asked for some recommendations and I enjoyed a large Cabernet Sauvignon served in the most amazing glass (I do love a good wine served in the right glass!), with it’s fruity flavours and smooth finish it was the perfect wine to accompany the meat and cheese platter we shared as we warmed up before heading back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.
Must see sights
There’s plenty to do in a day, and if you had longer there are multiple museums to visit but we wanted to soak up Slovenian life in the sunshine. So, after a breakfast of pancakes and coffee (couldn’t recommend Hotel Cubo more highly!) we headed out relatively early and strolled down the banks of the river. Things not to miss:
- All the bridges! It would be hard to miss them but the key ones not to miss include Butcher’s Bridge which is adorned with lovers padlocks, the Three Bridges or Triple Bridge and Dragon Bridge
- A boat trip on the river – although we didn’t actually do this, it would be a great way to to wile away an hour, there were plenty of places you could book onto a river cruise for a reasonable price.
- Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanaski Grad) – built in the 15th Century this castle majestically overlooks the city; it almost blends into the backdrop behind the beautifully architectural buildings that sit below it. The castle is free to visit where you can wander several rooms with exhibitions and take in the scenery from the viewing platform, enjoy a drink in the sunshine from the Castle Café. That said, it’s absolutely worth paying the extra for entry. You can admire 360º views of the city and beyond from the watchtower and the Museum of Puppetry is surprisingly interesting, with faultless interactive displays explaining the history of puppetry in Slovenia and the integral part of day to day life it played, from streets shows to TV shows.
Top tip: Take the funicular up to the castle and walk down, just make sure you take the more ‘paved’ path, on our first climb down we went the ‘off road’ route and it was a little hairy! Even the cobbled path is very steep but you can cling onto the railing on the way down.
- Ljubljana Castle Vineyard – after exploring the castle and ready to head back down to the city, we discovered a sign that said ‘vineyard’… people who know me will know I can’t ignore a sign like this. So off I skipped down a tree lined footpath basking in the glorious autumn sunshine… the vineyard is an acknowledgement of the excellent wines Slovenia produces, the vines were planted in April 2016 to demonstrate this – whilst there was no wine to be found at the end of the path there it was a pretty sight and an enjoyable walk. The original castle vineyard was found in archaelogical excavations and is known to have still existed in the 1930s.
Find out more about the vineyard and its history
Places to eat and drink in Ljubljana
Wherever we go we like to embrace traditional food, drink and traditions so we ate traditional or regional dishes where we could but most restaurants catered for all tastes.
Julija – This restaurant is nestled between several others on the popular Stari Trg but it had caught our eye on our first day so we booked a table and returned later for dinner. The staff were friendly, and the food delicious. I’d recommend the main of rump steak with cep mushrooms, cheese dumplings and a Teranno wine sauce – a feast! We couldn’t manage desserts but we did enjoy a traditional Slivovitz; a fruit brandy made from Damson plums.
Güjzina – This is also supposed to be great for food, split across two buildings adjacent to each other and seating outside. As I’ve already mentioned we enjoyed sitting here for a pit stop, people watching and planning!
Slovenska Hiša – this was probably one of my favourite places, with bar stools and high tables right on the river near the Triple Bridge it had a great atmosphere, a good philosophy (see the sign!), a supposedly great breakfast and an incredible wine list. The wine list was thorough and explained the wines including autochthonous wines made from indigenous grapes, which means they have been cultivated for centuries and centuries in the same place.
Makalonca – Perhaps we weren’t quite the right audience for this trendy and hip, student filled floating bar but we went for it anyway! We had a less traditional meal but stopped for a late and light lunch of cheese and ham toastie with some potato chips to share – the burgers sounded good too but we didn’t want to spoil our dinner. Definitely worth a visit, make sure you get your timings right so you can soak up the afternoon sun on the river, quite literally!
Restaurant Na Gradu – situated in the castle grounds this is one of two restaurants, both looked just as impressive, what’s more decadent than dining at a castle! At night the castle and watchtower are lit up and candles lined the windows of the restaurant. We’d been drawn to this by the traditional dishes served up using fresh, local, organic produce. Service was excellent, and the food certainly didn’t disappoint – our culinary experience began with an amuse bouche of meat pate (duck, pork and goose) with freshly baked bread. A starter of pasta filled with potatoes served with mushrooms lovage and linseed. Main of traditional Kranjska sausage served with sauteed potatoes and fresh horseradish. If that’s not your thing, try the wild boar served with mash potato and Terrano sauce. I also had to try their cake for dessert as I couldn’t resist!
Strelec Restaurant – Although we didn’t eat here personally we couldn’t help but wander into the The Archers’ Tower and marvel at the wine display and the spiral staircase that leads up to the dining room – a great location for a special occasion.
Dvorni wine bar – we’d come across this on our morning walk and decided to stop in on our last night for a couple of glasses. The beauty of drinking wine in Slovenia is they serve glasses in 100ml which means you get to try more wines and Dvorni certainly has plenty for you to try!
I’d pre-booked a transfer from the airport to Ljubljana, Hoppa and suntransfers offered similar and reasonable rates for the 30 minute trip.
We’d planned a few nights in Lake Bled after Ljubljana although you could do this as a day trip if you wanted to. For those that want to stay longer, it’s probably a good idea to get a car and drive around. We were advised the best way to get to Lake Bled was by bus, so we made our way to the bus station, a short walk from our hotel. Forget local transport buses like you know them in the UK, this was a comfortable coach; the journey took about 1 hour and 30 minutes but it was nice to enjoy the stunning scenery of lush green fields and snow tipped mountains set off spectacularly by clear blue skies and sunshine.
I’d read about Lake Bled and seen the photographs but I don’t think anything quite prepared me for the initial tranquility of the lake. Having come from the city, whilst not overly populated, busy or bustling with bodies and traffic the lake brought an overwhelming sense of calm.
Once due to be filled in by the order of Ignac Novak, the lake was saved by a Swiss hydropath named Arnold Rikli who was one of the first people to recognise the value of Bled’s climate and educated people in the healing qualities of the natural springs and helped to turn it into a tourist destination.
We were visiting slightly out of season but the arrival of coach trips full of tourists and backpackers exploring Europe was fairly evident, and a little disappointing to be honest but to be expected in hindsight. The town of Bled doesn’t have too much going on and is a slightly strange mix of hotels, restaurants and shops. From big brand names like L’Occitane to independent shops touting tourist tat! That said, it was still an enchanting and endearing place to visit. If you like walking, this is the place to come – once you escape the main strip of the lake that’s brimming with hotels there’s a natural beauty to discover.
Things to do
The two main attractions of the lake are Bled Castle (Blejski Grad) that towers over the lake, clinging onto the cliff and of course the picturesque Bled Island… people (not just me) must leave this place with hundreds of pictures of the church upon this tiny island, because every angle is a new one and you can’t help but photograph it.
The castle has steps that lead up to it from the Parish Church of Saint Martin which although steep are the easiest route up and offer some breathtaking views as well as a few seats along the way for those less able.
The castle will easily occupy a few hours from climbing up, to taking in the panoramic view of the lake from one end the other, it really is a sight to behold. If you want to stop for longer there’s a little café for drinks and snacks and also the castle restaurant. If you can get a seat by the wall I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. There’s a small museum which offers some great insight into the history of the lake and traditions of the area.
Boat trip to the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island
There are two ways to get to the island, you can row yourself or you can pay to take a pletna– before embarking on rowing it I suggest taking a stroll along the lakeside and watching how long it takes someone to row before volunteering yourself! Once you arrive on the island you’re free to wander, you need to pay if you want to go into the church but otherwise you can walk the outskirts of the island, there’s also a small museum and café.
Walking is one of the draws to this area of Slovenia along with adventure sports such as rafting, mountain biking and more. If we’d have had more time we would have tackled the walk to Vintner Gorge but unfortunately we ran out, if you’re visiting in peak season there’s also a bus that runs daily. However, we still racked up plenty of steps; you can walk the 6km around the lake which is definitely worth doing and if you don’t fancy walking there’s a tourist train that runs round it or you can get a horse and cart.
Top picks for places to eat in Bled
We were a little out of season so I’m sure there were plenty of more restaurants to choose from just some seemed very quiet, I imagine this is quite the opposite in the height of season!
Gostilna Murka – this restaurant tucked at the bottom of one of the routes down from the castle offered a warm welcome, good service and tasty food. A great value place for lunch, I had a pumpkin soup and the homemade bread was the perfect companion to the dish.
Penzion Milno – if you’re staying at the northern edge of the lake this is on the southern strip, so you can enjoy a pleasant walk around the lake towards the island and the church and to be served up traditional dishes in this Penzion. I imagine this is lovely in summer when you can sit out the front and enjoy the view – it was still fairly pleasant for an early evening drink, although inside isn’t as cosy as some the service was faultless and the food delicious. Don’t miss out on the venison or ghoulash!
Penzion Berc – this was my favourite find, sitting back from the lake and more in a residential area surrounded by other penzions, this traditional building doesn’t only have rooms but a restaurant with a killer menu and wine list! The setting is beautiful, even in autumn, the small restaurant although inimate has an open kitchen outside and they use local produce and serve a range of wines from across the country – they will willingly match you wines to your food whether it’s by the glass or the bottle.
I started with trout (fished from 3km away) served with trout caviar, beetroot, horseradish and bellinis, followed up with Pasta filled with potato served with rabbit ragout and finally finishing off with one of the most impressive desserts I’ve ever had… a chocolate magic ball filled with blackcurrant ice cream with raspberry sauce and dark chocolate, crushed wafffle and served with a glass of Pineau des Charents…are you drooling yet?!
Must trys – produce of Slovenia
The first thing we were told on arrival in Slovenia was we must try the Kremna Rezina – the orginal Bled cream cake, layers of light cake and cream, you won’t struggle to find it around the lake but they say it originated in the Park Hotel Restaurant in 1953 so it’s a good place to start.
You’ll find pumpkin seed oil served with most bread in restaurants, dark in colour and nutty in flavour it’s a must have with fresh bread.
Kranjska sausage classified a Slovenian speciality by the European comission in 2006 you’ll find it on most menus, although it has been around since long before then – first made in 1896 the certified recipe requires high-quality pork, hard bacon, garlic, pepper, salt and pig’s intestine.
Sausage is not complete over here without freshly grated horseradish to accompany it.
Honey – you’ll find someone selling it around every corner, filled with different flavours so you can take your pick! Look out for the bee hive panels too, decoarated in time old tradition they show various stories of the family or community – often with a witty spin on reality!
Plum brandy – mainly served as an aperitif it washes down the rest of the meal effortlessly!