Take a day trip to Lake Bled and Ljubljana for a fairytale adventure you'll talk about for the rest of your life. Includes map and tips!

A Slovenian fairytale

What a dream of a day trip. I saw photos of Lake Bled once upon a time when a friend took a whirlwind trip through the Balkans and posted her snaps on Instagram. Our travel styles couldn’t be more different—I would feel dizzy if I attempted her pace—but I most definitely filed spots away that I wanted to see from her trip, and Lake Bled topped the list. While I decided to stay in Montenegro and Croatia for my three-month trip in the region, I did put “day trip to Lake Bled” on my list of must-dos for Zagreb. That my day trip included Ljubljana only added to the adventure (and gave me another city where I’d like to spend more time).

I took a tour, but you don’t have to

While not at all necessary if you have a car at your disposal, I took a tour for this day trip. I did not have a car, as I’d moved states back in the US a month before I left for the Balkans, and I wasn’t able to get my International Driving Permit in time. 

While I otherwise probably wouldn’t have taken a tour for this day trip to Lake Bled, I did find it helpful for context and skip-the-line ease with stops and definitely recommend this tour if those interest you. It so happened that this group proved my favorite of all the day trip tours I did in the region, so I hope that you would have the good fortune of meeting people you’ll have dinner with afterwards as well.

My experience and what you need to plan your own day trip to Lake Bled and Ljubljana

As with most of my Travel posts, I share my experience on the day trip and also provide information for you to plan your own.  In the Plan section below, I’ve provided a map and information on what you’d need to do this trip on your own, as well as a link to the day trip, should you wish to book it. You can click the button below to jump to the plan section if that’s all you’re looking for today.

Table of Contents

Croatia had not yet entered the Schengen Zone when I took my trip

I took this day trip at the twilight of an era—less than two months after, Croatia joined the Schengen Zone. This means that you’ll just zip through the border crossing. I had wondered why Croatia hadn’t joined the Schengen area before, unlike Montenegro, it had been a part of the EU since 2013.

On this trip, I found out why. Our guide, Dino from Roundabout Travel, told us that Croatia had not yet become part of the Schengen Zone because of its border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Much of that border is natural, with rivers and mountains, it’s tough to guard, and it meant that Croatia presented some risks.

You’ll zip through the border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia

Croatia had addressed those risks enough, that it joined the Schengen Zone in January 2023 (it adopted the Euro at the same time). Our border crossing, which Dino warned us could be time consuming, depending on the line, went very smoothly. We didn’t hit traffic, and Dino collected the passports from the eight of us and handed them back when we went through passport control on both the Croatian and Slovenian sides. Had we been driving a semi, though, we might have been there for hours.

A lovely drive to Ljubljana—and a story about an orange former president

Slovenia is gorgeous, and the drive toward Ljubljana was filled with scenes of farmland and tiny little photogenic villages. Our guide pointed out one village in the distance and said, you may have heard of this town’s most famous resident, Melania Trump, the former first lady of the US. While her husband was president, the town capitalized on her name and christened a cake the Melania Cake to greet the influx of visitors to the area.

However, according to Dino, when they also tried to rebrand a cake for her husband, the Trump Cake, the orange man threatened to sue some small-town bakers in Slovenia trying to make a few extra Euros. Class. Melania had never returned to the village. No word on how cake sales are going now that her husband is out of power.

The 1990s

I did not take a single day trip tour, not even the one about olive oil and wine or speedboat tours, without the guide touching at least briefly, usually at great length, on the wars in the 1990s, following the breakup of Yugoslavia. The guides I had felt that it was their duty to discuss it, even though it remains a highly divisive and painful topic (and one that poses challenges for visitors—my best advice is to listen and reserve comment and watch questions). This trip was no different.

Tito

Dino talked more about the experience under Tito, who remains beloved in the region. Under Tito, there wasn’t a lot of choice (“One kind of milk, one type of bread . . . “), and dissent was not tolerated (“You could disappear in the middle of the night”), but that people were taken care of. The government, Dino shared, would send you on vacation if you couldn’t afford it yourself.

Tito essentially was Yugoslavia and how it lasted for as long as it did, with the different ethic and religious groups. He stood up to Stalin and carved out a unique place for Yugoslavia in the Cold War order, but it was mostly due to his. When Tito died in 1980, it was only a matter of time until Yugoslavia would break apart.

Slovenia’s different path

Slovenia’s path to independence from the former Yugoslavia went much more smoothly than other countries. Unlike Croatia, whose war for independence lasted years, Slovenia’s lasted ten days, following their declaration in 1991. Slovenia was always wealthy, and it also had a largely homogenous population (i.e., not a large Serbian population).

So, unlike the rest of the region, Slovenia does not bear the same scars. Slovenia was the first county in the former Yugoslavia to join the EU in 2004 (Croatia followed in 2013). The economy is stronger and prices are higher.

Ljubljana

I didn’t really know anything about Ljubljana heading toward the Old Town, so I didn’t know what to expect and had chosen to be surprised. Dear Reader, I’ve thought about spending a month or two there at least once a week since, and I am sure that I will wind up back there again.

Arriving in Ljubljana

We arrived near the Old Town, and exited the parking garage near the music academy. We regrouped there before heading toward the center. We had a quick tour before getting some time to explore the city on our own.

History of Ljubljana

Although many of the buildings date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people have lived in Ljubljana for thousands of years, with a mix of the Illyrians and Celts. In the Roman times, the city was called Emona. A statue in the main square, which, alas, I only saw as we drove past it, dates back from the Roman era.

An ancient past, with a name dating back to the twelfth century

Ljubljana first appears with its current name in written records in the twelfth century. It came under Hapsburg rule in the fourteenth century, where it remained until after World War I, when it joined the Kingdom of the Serb, Croats, and Slovenians.

After WWII, Ljubljana was the capital of the Republic of Slovenia in what became Yugoslavia. When Slovenia achieved its independence in the 1990s, Ljubljana became the country’s capital.

Ljubljana is earthquake prone

As with other cities in the region it is earthquake prone, and a particularly strong one in the late nineteenth century nearly destroyed the city. They rebuilt and modernized to protect against the next one.

Ljubljana is a green city

Dino shared that Ljubljana, along with the rest of Slovenia, is a leader in sustainability. To save energy, many people ride bikes. This isn’t true everywhere in this region—in fact, in Montenegro, I heard that if you saw an adult man on a bike, it was a sure sign that he was not from Montenegro. That wasn’t entirely true, but there’s a bit of truth to it.

In addition to the strong biking culture, there’s also a unique electric car that will take you around the Old Town for free as a way to save fuel (they’re really cute).

Gallery: Prešernov trg

A brief tour of Old Ljubljana, starting with Prešernov trg

We had a whistle-stop tour of old Ljubljana, including the main square, looking up to the castle, which dated back to the fifteenth century. Our first stop, Prešernov trg, the main square, gets its name from a famous Slovenian poet, France Prešere. The square connects the more modern Ljubljana to the medieval city via the famous Triple Bridge.

A poet unlucky in love

Dino shared that, sadly, Prešeren was unlucky in love, but his statue points to the window where his love, Julija Primic, lived. You can find a relief of her next to the window. I’m not sure how she would feel about her spurned suitor forever staring at her, but it does make for an interesting visual.

Aside from the statue and Julija Primic’s window, the most famous structure in the square is the Franciscian church, dating to 1700.

Gallery: The Triple Bridge

Crossing the Triple Bridge into Old Ljubljana

We crossed the Triple Bridge, recognized by UNESCO, over the Ljubljanica River to the pedestrian-only (plus bikes and those electric cars) fairytale Old Town. 

Gallery: Old Ljubljana

City Hall, the and the cathedral

We saw the city hall, which visitors can freely visit, and then went on to the cathedral, with its ornate doors featuring the death of Christ, overseen by 12 bishops, and then to the impressive Central Market.

Ljubljana’s Central Market

Like all great green markets, Ljubljana’s Central Market is more than just a place to buy food. It’s a destination unto itself. Located along the river, and accessible via the Mesarki and Dragon bridges (you could also take the Triple Bridge and stroll a bit), the Central market is not to be missed. Among the unique things you’ll spy is a milk vending machine!

Experience a bit of Slovenia’s food culture

Get to know Slovenia’s food culture by touring the open-air green market, as well as shops and restaurants in a covered market (Plečnik’s Covered Market). I spent a bit of time roaming around here on my free time.

Pumpkin oil is tasty

While I’d tasted pumpkin oil before (and have since created a recipe using it!), it is a specialty of this region, and the quality of Slovenia’s pumpkin oil is excellent. It’s the olive oil of this northern region. We had samples with some local bread in the Center Biotehnike in Turizma specialty shop. I picked up a small bottle as a souvenir.

I spy a lot of dragons

At that point, I’d noticed a lot of dragon merchandise, and asked about it. “Aha! Yes, we’ll get to that,” Dino said as we walked through the fruit and vegetable market, Dino explaining that the market moved outside following Slovenia’s independence and transition to capitalism (specialty markets now occupy the graceful main buildings). Dino arranged for a pumpkin oil tasting at one of the shops, and we then walked to the end of the market and to Dragon Bridge (Zmajski most).

Dragon Bridge

Dragon Bridge, built in 1901, depicts a legend of Ljubljana’s founding. According to lore, Jason founded the city, and he and his Argonauts slayed a dragon. Another legend has to do with St George, and dragons being a symbol of old paganism overcome by Christianity. The truth is likely lost to time, but the dragon remains as a symbol of Ljubljana.

There’s a funny legend surrounding the Dragon Bridge—when a virgin crosses it, the many dragons festooning the bridge will wag their tails. As such, women have tended to avoid crossing it.

Free time—lunch!

With that, we got a couple of hours to wander about the town on our own. Dino had recommended Klobasarna as a spot where we could get an authentic, quick, lunch of sausages. Oh, Dear Reader. Yum. I got a half-sausage, served with sauerkraut, spicy mustard, and a bit of bread, along with a glass of wine. I hadn’t had a sausage so tasty since I had enjoyed one standing up outside a stand in Vienna an age ago.

Chatting with an expat couple

An older expat couple sat nearby, here in Ljubljana for a year while they decided where to settle permanently. We got to talking, and she got me all interested in visiting Trieste. It’s different from the rest of Italy with its Hapsburg influence and worth seeing for the mix of styles. Alas, weather and time were not on my side for that trip.

Ljubljana had really charmed me, I said to her. It’s beautiful and different from other places I’d been in the region. My companion loved Slovenia for that very reason. It’s a little secret, she said. 

Bonding over food allergies

We also talked about food allergies (me, shellfish; her gluten—I told her about one of my besties who has celiac and I going out to dinner in Boston and what a pair we made). “The funny thing about me is that I’m a baker. Like, I owned a bakery. It only showed up late in life, but I just can’t do it anymore.”

Exploring Ljubljana after lunch

She recommended a square a bit too far for me to get to in the time I had left, so I bid her and her partner goodbye and set out to do some exploring. I checked out City Hall, but there was a cover band singing a song by 4 Non-Blondes that makes me want to claw my ears out with a spoon (apologies if you are a fan), so I fled in search of other sights.

I can’t say as I knew much of what I was looking at, but it was all lovely. I got some roasted chestnuts near the Triple Bridge and strolled around. Occasionally I saw other people from the tour, but we all mostly went our own ways.

Coffee time and time to go

After lunch is naptime for me, so I decided to get some coffee at a stand that I’d seen as we walked through the Central Market before heading to the meeting point. I was not alone. A couple from LA by way of New York (both with fabulous glasses) had the same idea, and we ordered macchiatos in what was my first to-go coffee in the more than two months since I’ve been in Europe. It was excellent coffee, definitely not Dunkies (sorry, Boston). We drank coffees and strolled over to the meeting point.

Onward to Lake Bled

Once gathered, we piled back into the minivan and headed across the Dragon Bridge and out of Ljubljana for the forty-five minute drive to Lake Bled. As we left the city, the Alps came into view. Wow. As it was a sunny day, it wasn’t really great for car pics, but I definitely enjoyed the view. We started chatting some as a group about how long we were in Zagreb and what brought us there. One woman from Singapore was on a eight-month sabbatical from her job. I told her that I was on a permanent sabbatical from mine, haha. Burnout, it seems, is pretty universal.

Take a day trip to Lake Bled for a fairytale day! Image shows lake Bled, with Bled Island and Bled Castle, surrounded by the Julian Alps

Lake Bled

You’ve seen the photos. They’re legit. Dear Reader, seeing Lake Bled in person will fill you with awe, especially if you happen to do it on a quieter day like I did. 

About Lake Bled

Nestled in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, Lake Bled is a dream. Formed by a glacier, Lake Bled is about 30 meters deep.

Legend has it that Lake Bled was created by fairies

Legend has it that local shepherds did no t heed the request of the fairies to protect their dancing spot, and, to avenge an injury sustained by one of the fairies, the lake filled with water.

The beauty of the place will make you believe in those fairies.

One of the most scenic places in all of Europe

Only Bled Island remains of the original land. Bled Island now has a beautiful church and the lake is flanked by Bled Castle, making it one of the most scenic wonders in all of Europe.

It is a little more built up in places

It is more built up in parts that you might expect from the photos (Tito had quite a spot, with an impressive lookout point—today this is the Belvedere Villa). We drove around the lake until we got to the point where we’d meet up with our Plenta boat ride out to Bled Island.

Taking a Plenta boat for a fairytale ride out to Bled Island

No trip to Lake Bled is complete without stepping into one of these handmade, flat-bottomed wooden boats, navigated by a skilled Pletnar, who inherited the position from his father. We had a friendly Plentar awaiting our arrival, and after we paid for our tickets, we got into the boat.

Wow. Visiting Lake Bled in November meant that we had the lake mostly to ourselves, and we rode on undisturbed waters out to Bled Island. Our group had bonded, and we had a lot of fun, but we also all hushed for a moment to take in the wonder of Lake Bled.

Bled Island

Lake Bled is stunning, but it’s Bled Island, with its graceful seventeenth-century church that makes it a fairytale. Bled Island has been used as a holy site since prehistoric times and had been a cultic site before the region converted to Christianity in the medieval period.

The 99 picturesque stone steps you need to climb up to the church are also stunning to look at, not so much to climb. I saw a young woman sprint down those steps in spiked heels, but we mere mortals should wear decent shoes. A reason to be happy to be single—if you want to get married on the island, the groom must carry the bride up the 99 steps.

What you can do for free vs. admission

You can just walk around Bled Island and explore, but I wanted to ring the Wishing Bell, so I paid to enter the church.  You can also climb the bell tower (I did not), visit the small museum. If you choose not to pay, you can visit the gift shop, as well as a gelato stand and pastry shop (I saved my snacking for Bled Castle).

The Sunken Bell

In the mid-sixteenth century, legend goes, a young widow wished to memorialize her husband, killed by robbers and his body thrown into the lake, by commissioning a bell for the church on the island. Tragically, the bell sank in a storm before it could be installed. The widow, despondent, sold all of her possessions and moved to a convent in Rome. Moved by her plight, the Pope commissioned a new bell for Bled Island.

If you ring the bell and tell the lady from the lake your wish, she will grant it.

I made a wish.

Skeletons in the chapel

Bled Island is an ancient religious site, and you can view some of the 124 skeletons buried there.

A quick trip through the museum, and back down the 99 steps to the boat

We had enough time to experience the island, but I would have loved to spend more time there. I particularly was intrigued by the view of the Belvedere Villa, Tito’s place on Lake Bled. It looked so out of place, and ghostly on the shore.

Heading back to land

By this point, our group was having fun, and a fascinating couple from LA by way of New York and Belgium, decided that they had to try their hand at steering the Plenta boat. Our guide let them (and would have let the rest of us, but it looked hard!). We laughed and had fun on the way back.

A last look from the shore, and then it was onward to Bled Castle.

Bled Castle

Jutting off a cliff towering over Lake Bled, Bled Castle dates back to the early eleventh century, with the building of the Romanesque tower. It is the oldest castle in Slovenia, and stunning to behold from the shores of Lake Bled and offering breathtaking views of Lake Bled from above.

Over the centuries, the castle was built up and restored after a damaging earthquake.  It underwent and extensive restoration in the twentieth century.

Touristy but fun

Today, Bled Castle is very touristy, with a working print shop, wine cellar, museum, gift shops, a restaurant, and a bakery (try the Blejska kremšnita, or Bled Cream Cake)! There’s also a candle shop that smells divine, as it specializes in beeswax. It’s fun to wander, but make sure to take the time to revel in the breathtaking views of the lake and the Alps beyond.

Castle walls and the tower

You’re free to scamper about the castle walls (be careful, as the stairs are a little tricky) and visit a museum in the tower. I liked looking through the little windows out to the mountains and the town below.

The wine cellar

Alas, I didn’t really have time for a glass of wine, but I did get a good peek in the cellar.

Views and cake!

To me, the best part of Bled Castle was climbing up to an overlook and taking in Lake Bled below. The late autumn sunset had begun, and, even on a slightly overcast day, I just couldn’t believe my eyes.

Finally, I had to try a slice of Bled Cream Cake (Blejska kremšnita). All over the Balkans, you’ll find versions of this cream cake, pastry cream cooked between layers of puff pastry. Bled Cream Cake has a layer of vanilla custard as well as the cream filling. While it was tasty, for my money, the best version of cream cake can be found in the Bay of Kotor, Montengro, with Krempita Kotorska (the secret is the third layer of pastry in the middle). Having said that, I don’t think that I’ve enjoyed a pastry in a more scenic location, and I think that you must try it.

Heading back to Zagreb

Finally, it was time for us to leave. I’d joined two women from Singapore at their table to eat my cake, and we walked down the castle path to the van together, joined by the couple from Los Angeles. We had a lively conversation that continued all the way back to Zagreb. Traveling solo, I hadn’t met tons of people in Zagreb yet, so I welcomed the conversation. It continued, as we had dinner later that evening at Gostionica Ficlek, one of my favorite places to eat in Zagreb.

The stunning fairytale scenery and great company made my day trip to Lake Bled and Ljubljana one of my favorite experiences of my Balkan adventure. Below is everything you need to plan your adventure!

Plan your day trip to Lake Bled and Ljubljana, Slovenia!

Here’s what you need for a fantastic day trip!

General considerations

  • Even though Croatia has joined the Schengen Area, this is still an international trip. Bring your passport and keep it secure.
  • Bring or plan on getting cash. You will need it for the Pletna boat and for tips and may require it for lunch.
  • Wear good walking shoes. Those 99 steps up Bled Island are the pretty kind, not the perfectly smooth kind. I’m guessing that you might be more like me and not the fleet-of-foot lass who ran down the stairs in spiked heels.
  • Lake Bled is a 4-season attraction, but it’s definitely less crowded in late autumn. I didn’t run into any crowds to speak of, but I’ve heard from friends and seen photos that suggest that this is not always the case.
  • Locations on the map have linked websites where I could find them.

To take a tour or not take a tour

This is an easy day trip from Zagreb, so not a lot of planning is needed. There are day trips I took during my three-month Balkans trip where I would most definitely recommend a tour due to road conditions, but this isn’t necessarily one of them. The only reason why I did a tour was because I had just moved states prior to leaving on my trip, and I didn’t yet have my permanent driver’s license, so I couldn’t get my International Driving Permit. Had I had that, I think renting a car would have been lovely for this trip, as I could have spent a bit more time (or even an overnight) in Ljubljana.

Sometimes a tour is just nice

Having said that, I loved the tour that I took, or, more specifically, the tour group, for this day trip to Lake Bled and Ljubljana. I’d reached that point in solo travel where I wanted a bit of company, and this lively group more than provided it. While there’s always a bit of a rush with a tour, this one did allow sufficient time for exploring, and not having to find parking at Lake Bled (and having a Pletna boat reserved for us) helped.

Have a car if you skip the tour

If you haven’t rented a car, Lake Bled is a bit of a pain to get to, so I would recommend a tour.

Book tickets in advance if you don’t take a tour

If you don’t take a tour, you can book tickets for Bled Castle online, and they remain good for a year. Having a ticket in advance would save you some time at the gate if it’s crowded.

Tour with GetYourGuide

If you do wish to take the tour, you can find it with GetYourGuide

Solo female travel

I loved my quiet stroll through Ljubljana after lunch and my wander around Bled Island and think that you would have a lovely time as a solo female traveler.

If you go in summer and want to swim in Lake Bled, make sure to secure your belongings. Slovenia is a very safe country as far as violent crime goes, but petty crime happens. Otherwise, standard street smarts apply, and you’ll have a great time.

Accessibility

Ljubljana

Ljubljana is generally accessible, though the scenic Old Town has those charming cobblestones. If you have questions about accessibility for wheelchairs or other impairments for specific attractions, Ljubljana has a helpful website that lets you check.

Lake Bled

Lake Bled is not as accessible, with Bled Castle being an unfortunate example. My understanding is that Bled Island is not accessible, either. There are, however, viewpoints, and, provided that you have a badge for your car, you can park in any disability spot for free and without a time limit.

The tour I took is not suitable for those using a wheelchair.

Map

This map includes both Ljubljana and Lake Bled, so zoom in for a specific area. The details below have websites, where applicable, as well as costs as of this writing.

Get Directions

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