Lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and the Adriatic coast. Slovenia has it all. This two-part blog post honors our favorite country – one we have visited many times and plan to return to again and again as its beauty is captivating and feels other-worldly. This post focuses on all the ways you can enjoy the water in this northern Balkan country. It will be followed up by a second post dedicated to the land. This has been a two year work in progress, and it will continue to be updated as we “check off” our bucket list items. There is so much to love about Slovenia – so much to do and see – that there’s something for everyone. From the city to coast or the mountains, there are endless opportunities for nature lovers, culture seekers, and adventurers! Behold, sLOVEnia.
[All photos belong to the author unless otherwise noted. Please ask before using photos (I’m pretty generous) and always cite sources.]
Lake Bled is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Slovenia, and for good reason. The fairy tale-like setting is fenced by the peaks of the Julian Alps, crowned by Castle Bled overlooking the lake from a steep cliff, and the iconic Bled Island church. Bled is beautiful in any season. In the winter there is a small ice rink set up in the Park Restaurant courtyard and a sweet little Christmas Market along the promenade. There is decent shopping (expect tourist prices) and most people speak English. Park in one of the many parking lots and go explore!
THE WATER This glacial lake is clean – a glistening blue-green – as no motor boats are allowed. There is plenty of “traffic” however, with wooden boats, SUPs, and swimmers. There are two main areas designated for swimming. The area directly under the castle is a “strand” with lots of amenities that you can enter for a fee and rent equipment, diving boards, and lay on the manicured grass or beach chairs, as well as pay a fee to use the floating obstacle course. No pets allowed on this strand. The other swimming strand is on the far side of the lake in a small cove and is more of a natural beach. It is popular, and parking can often be packed in the busy season. In the shoulder seasons, it is easy to find parking on either side of the lake and fees are reasonable.
THE FOOD It is easy to find decent dining in Lake Bled, and for the most part the prices are reasonable. You can’t visit without trying the famous Bled Cream Cake (we recommend the Park Restaurant and Cafe, where you can taste the original version) but another great option is making a reservation for lunch or dinner at Bled Castle. Having a reservation here is also a good way to gain free access to the castle and park for free! *The castle may not be the best option with small children. Our other favorite place to eat at Lake Bled is Sova (which means owl in Slovenian, so Willow was thrilled) which is delicious and family friendly. We recommend staying away from the Trgovski Center eateries (low quality), but everything along the lake promenade – especially when the huts are set up – will be satisfying! Be sure to stop at our favorite bakery Hitri Kruhek for breakfast pastries, pizza, or snacks before relaxing by the lake for the day!
THE FUN The walking trail around Lake Bled is approximately 6km (3.7mi) and takes between 1-2 hours. It is worth doing this as it allows for ever-changing vistas. It is also fun to visit the castle, as even if you can’t get a reservation to eat at the restaurant, it is still worth it. Have cash handy for parking. The views are terrific! A little tip: although the best views are from inside the castle walls, it is still possible to get a glimpse of the lake from an outside vantage point. Behind the castle, accessible from the right side, there is a path that takes you to a lookout platform. Continue down the path a bit further and carefully climb up the knoll on the left and the views are almost as good, without having to pay entrance fees! We noticed fishing is popular from the shores, but I’m not sure about the rules around fishing permits or licensing, so be sure to look that up if you’re interested. Straza Hill overlooks Lake Bled and can be accessed for a small fee via chair lift. There is a luge-type toboggan (we haven’t done it, but we hear a 3 ride pass is what is recommended!) that can zoom you down the hill and looks like fun! For a rewarding hike, wear sturdy shoes and find the trails for Mala Osojnica. The top of this hill gives us the quintessential view overlooking Lake Bled and the Julian Alps that we often see in photographs and magnets. The lake-side trail up to this viewpoint is quite steep and more challenging, but we were able to do it with our 3 children. The back-side of the hill is a safer bet for inexperienced hikers. The popular Vintgar Gorge is located just north of Bled as well. Boats are allowed on the water if they don’t have gas motors, and you can rent boats or paddle boards around the lake as well. If you’re not comfortable renting, you can pay a fee to take a ride out to Bled Island on one of the classic wooden boats. Finally, in the winter there is ice skating at the Park Restaurant courtyard.
WHERE TO STAY We have traditionally stayed at a comfortable Air BnB in nearby Radovljica (Apartments Jansa – large multi-bedroom apartments, under $100/night, helpful and friendly hosts who speak English, comfortable and budget-friendly) as it is another cute nearby town to explore, has ample space for our family plus guests, and is only a 5 minute drive into Lake Bled. If you want to stay in Bled, there are plenty of hotels (expensive), cabins and apartments to rent all around the lake. Hotel Kompas is a lovely property, but is more of a splurge, with great views over Lake Bled, a beautiful swimming pool and boasts one of the best breakfasts we have ever had at a hotel.
Below: Lake Bled promenade, views of the Julian Alps from outside of Castle Bled, wooden boats to Bled Island, the first viewpoint climbing Mala Osojnica, and jumping in at the Castle Strand swimming area.
Above: Walking around Lake Bled, and a sLOVEnia photo op. Below: Views from Bled Castle and walking around the lake.
As much as we love Lake Bled, the neighboring and twice-as-large Lake Bohinj has totally captured our hearts. We choose to escape to Bohinj any long weekend we have the opportunity, as it is under 5 hours from Pápa. Lake Bohinj is located about 30 minutes west of Lake Bled on country roads that send you right into the heart of Slovenia. You will notice the iconic hay drying racks as the road twists and turns past each farm – something unique to this region. You will also find yourself moving deeper and deeper into the center of Triglav National Park, where the road stops and you’re surrounded by mountains that reach down to the waters edge. In many ways this gem of a destination reminds me of Telluride, Colorado – only smaller and much less populated and commercialized. The largest – and also most remote – lake in Slovenia boasts the clearest glacial waters I have ever seen. It is possible to look down into the lake and watch fish swimming by your feet as you take a dip. Between us we have been to Lake Bohinj 9 times, and each time there has been an interesting mix of weather. The mountains can collect moisture, so expect fast moving clouds and occasional precipitation. On the other hand, even when we have made our way to the lake on a day we expected rain, it eventually cleared! It is truly remarkable in any weather, but seeing the mountains rising up around you from the lakeside is stunning. If you ask me, this place is one of the best kept secrets of Slovenia! Especially for nature-loving Mainers like us.
THE WATER The emerald green hues of Lake Bohinj will lure you in, and the clean, mineral-rich feeling of a chilly plunge will leave you feeling invigorated! I swear the water is healing. Take a dip near the town (adjacent to the bridge on either side) where the water is warmer, or head down the lake between the mountains that rise up from the waters edge. It is a bit chillier there, but also less busy. Not far from the car park approaching Ukanc the land juts out and forms perfect areas for swimming. Park and walk out on the rocky sandbar – and make sure to bring water shoes or sandals. It is common to find people changing into swim gear right in the woods – it’s Slovenia!
THE FOOD The town of Bohinj on one side of the lake and Ukanc on the other have a few restaurants and eateries. There are more options in nearby Lake Bled. It is fun to plan for a picnic lunch here so you don’t have to interrupt your day with a restaurant. That said, the Apartments-restaurant Ukanc has decent pub food, and there are a few options in downtown Ribčev Laz. Another option is to take the gondola up Vogel peak and grab a good bite with a view at Restaurant Viharnik. It is advisable to stop at the grocery store, cafe or bakery in Bohinjska Bistrica on your way to Lake Bohinj to grab a few amenities, but there also is a small grocer in town by the lake.
THE FUN Bohinj is a quiet place. Nature lovers can do anything (without a motor) on the lake – from swimming and snorkeling to paddle boarding, kayaking and canoeing. There are also nearby hikes (Vogar, Vogel, Slap Savica or Mostnica Gorge) to keep you occupied, as well as companies that will take you canyoning, paragliding, or even rock climbing! There are places to rent paddle boards, and kayaks, but we recommend bringing your own floaties and just relaxing on the water on a sunny day. In Ukanc there is a terrific log playground for kids that is located at the entrance of a picturesque alpine village of cottages. It is common to see bikers along the roadways as well as folks walking the long path on the south side of the lake. From one end of the lake to the other is approximately 4 km or 2.5 miles.
WHERE TO STAY There are many tent camping areas around Lake Bohinj but they fill up quickly in the summer and peak seasons. Air BnB (apartment rentals), hotels and cabin rentals are also available, but keep an eye out as they are often more expensive than nearby Lake Bled, Radovljica or the towns on each major roadway (209 and 633) between the lake and Bohinjska Bistrica. Srednja Vas v Bohinju has some cute places to stay as does Stara Fužina and Ukanc. Bohinj is an ideal “day trip” if you are staying at nearby Lake Bled, so choose the nicest day and head west with amphibious shoes and swim stuff!
THE WATER There is nothing quite like the crystal clear, frigid, turquoise glacial waters of the Soča River. Carving its way through rocky western Slovenia, it has created stunning gorges and rock formations that are the main attraction in this region. Even in the dead of summer, the Soča is freezing cold – nothing like the lakes mentioned above – but it’s still worth taking a swim or sitting by the water’s edge and dipping in your toes on a hot summer afternoon. There are plenty of areas along the river that have sandbars, shallow areas, or huge rocks to climb around on that make for easy water access for a quick chilly plunge. The Soča River and surrounding valley is home to many fish and other wildlife, so always be respectful to keep this emerald gem well preserved. When you are here it feels like you have found one of the few places on Earth still relatively undisturbed by human consumption.
THE FUN Besides climbing down to the waters edge to hang out for the afternoon, there are lots of great hikes along the river to enjoy the unique riverside rock formations and views of the mountains beyond. Most trails have plenty of little bridges to walk across to gain the best views of the Soča’s otherworldly hues. Waterfall hikes detailed below are Slap Virje, Slap Boka, and Slap Kozjak. If you are interested in booking a river rafting tour, guided kayak tour or other river adventure, this is the place! Hiking the Tolmin Gorges is also popular. Climbing and biking is popular in this region as well as unique adventures such as zip lining, bungee jumping and sky diving! In the winter it is possible to go ice climbing as well. We have enjoyed the Soča in many seasons, but always remember to bring sunscreen and bug spray in the spring and summer!
WHERE TO STAY As the Soča River is long, there are many ways to enjoy it. The most popular towns to stay in are Bovec in the north, central Kobarid, and Tolmin in the south. It is less than 40 minutes to drive between these towns, so any one of them [or village in between] can make a great home base for your time in the Soča Valley. We recommend staying in the picture-perfect alpine valley of Drežnica, near Kobarid, that I will highlight in my “Bucketlist Slovenia: LAND” blog. Whichever town you decide to stay in, make a point of visiting the others. There are plenty of land marks and viewpoints to explore and little eateries to enjoy in each town. It is also possible to tent camp, and the facilities at Kamp Soča are great. There are plenty of other options along the river for camping too – just search “Kamp near Soča” to find the right fit. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss Hiša Franko in Kobarid. This incredible restaurant boasts one of the world’s most accomplished female chefs, Ana Ros, featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Book early – it is worth the splurge!
Just west of Kobarid on the Italian border there runs a small sister river to the Soča where we found the most charming swimming hole. In the shoulder seasons people fish here, but in the summer, some clever folks dammed the river so the water warms up and swimming is perfect here! This is just one of the places to mark on your travel map, but not really a place to stay. The kids can hunt for tadpoles in the water pools in the rocks and take mini “cliff jumps” off the rokcs into the water. We even found a few large fish near the rocks, too! Bring proper amphibious footwear and goggles to see all the life in the river Natisone! There is a restaurant nearby that is open in the peak season, and picnic tables are near the parking lot which is located here:
Robič 19, 5222 Kobarid, Slovenia
In the town of Tolmin you will find several intersections of rivers. One of these is the merging of the Tolminka and Soča. There is nice sand at the water’s edge and a lovely little park to play at. We visited in April when it was not yet hot enough to swim, but I can imagine it would have been perfect in the hot summer months! There may even be events held here certain times of the year. It is a perfect place to relax on a summer afternoon, and I would imagine a great fishing spot as well.
Dijaška ulica 18, 5220 Tolmin, Slovenia
If you drive past Lake Bohinj on road Ukanc 904, it will dead end at a beautiful lodge Planinski dom Savica. Park here and pay a small fee at the trail head hut to hike the 15 minutes to Savica waterfall. The path is well kept, with many of the uphills made into steps for easy access to anyone on foot. Slap Savica is a lovely waterfall wedged in the Julian Alps surrounding Lake Bohinj, so the water is that same gorgeous, glittering green. On a clear day the views are decent from the lookout tower at the waterfall. Use caution when it is wet – the rocks can be slippery! If you’re at Lake Bohinj and have an hour to kill, this is a great option. *The waterfall is larger than it appears in these photos.
I recommend this waterfall hike more for the views along the Soča river leading up to the waterfall then for the waterfall itself. The waterfall is somewhat anti-climactic, but the mountain views from the bridge and along the little paths down to the river’s edge are well worth the trip! There is a nice parking lot just for this hike and it has a port-o-potty for facilities. The lot is located over the infamous Napoleon’s Bridge – which is also not to be missed! (See the bridge in photos of the Soča River above.) If you are lucky you will pass a cluster of bee hives (very popular in Slovenia) and you may even see a slow moving giant salamander!
Ladra 1, 5222 Kobarid, Slovenia (parking, waterfall hike)
This little magical grove is nestled in the northwest corner of Slovenia just outside of Bovec on the Gljun river. There is a parking lot at the end of the road near the trail head, but no facilities. Walk down the path and find a series of paths and giant rocks surrounding a frigid pool at the base of this lovely little water fall. If you’re brave like Didi, take a dip! Some people were diving from a little platform on one end of the pool – refreshing indeed! More info on Virje can be found here.
We have not hiked to this massive waterfall yet. It is also located in the northwest corner of Slovenia between Bovec and Kobarid not far from Slap Virje. The parking lot for the view point hike is located here: Podklopca, 5230 Žaga, Slovenia. More information on viewing this waterfall can be found here. [Photo below from google images.]
This beautiful location is still on our list of must-see locales in Slovenia. It is located north of Lake Bled near the Austrian border on the way to Kranjska Gora. It is possible to walk behind this lovely waterfall, which makes it especially noteworthy in the region. More information on this waterfall can be found here. [Photo from google images.]
Slap Rinka is located in the Logarska Dolina region of north-central Slovenia. This is an extremely tall waterfall you can hike to from the parking area here: 3335 Logarska Dolina, Slovenia. More information on this waterfall can be found here. [Image from google.]
At just 37 km long, the Slovenian coast to the Adriatic sea is short, but there is no shortage of fun to be had here. Slovenian beaches simply do not compare to neighboring Croatia. But if you’re enjoying a weekend in coastal Piran, Izola or Koper, there is plenty to do and many ways to enjoy the sunny Adriadic sea. Many of the beaches – or “strands” – are walled with concrete, which some may prefer, but the ones I am interested in are pebble or sand beaches, below. We have yet to visit any of the following beaches, but we hope to before our time is up in Hungary!
Bele Skale Beach
Mesečev Zaliv Beach (Moon Bay)
Izola (Svetilnik) Beach
Portoroz and Koper beaches are also popular, but they are more of a production than these more natural beaches above. They are covered in concrete at the water’s edge with large sandy areas for sunbathing, and there are plenty of restaurants and facilities surrounding them if that’s your cup of tea!
Whether you’re on a solo adventure, a couples getaway, or a family vacation, Slovenia is the perfect destination. In Part II I will discuss the LAND, including cities, mountains, valleys, and great hikes in between. Stay tuned!