This is the fifth in an eleven-part series covering my June/July 2019 trip to Slovenia and Venice. You can read my last post, covering my exploration of Ljubljana, here.
Slovenia really has a ton of natural beauty, particularly in the north approaching the Julian Alps. There are two lakes that attract visitors, both within two hours of Ljubljana- Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj. Bled is much smaller, and is more of a picturesque resort area, whereas Bohinj is massive, and the area has a ton of longer hikes and watersport activities. There’s also rafting further west on the Soca River. I originally wanted to spend a day in each area, even though you have to go through Bled to get to Bohinj. (In retrospect, if that was the plan, I would’ve stayed in Bled.) But when I got to Ljubljana, it turned out the weather was going to be super rainy in the north one of the days I had devoted to the lakes. So, I adjusted my plans and made the very ambitious plan to do both on a single day, and figured I’d leave day 4 for one of the two caves (Skocjan and Postojna), which are more suitable for rainy days. I’m glad I saw Bled and Bohinj, but if you have the time, I recommend spending at least one night in the general vicinity, and doing a full day or more in Bohinj, in addition to a day around Bled.
If you’re just doing Bled from central Ljubljana, you can totally just take a bus. I ended up renting a car from Sixt because I was going to use it to explore central Slovenia and then make my way west to the coast. Sixt was actually the only company that had one-way rentals available, and the rate wasn’t that bad– $68 for three days in an Automatic. My original reservation was made on Priceline through Autoslash. A few months later, six weeks before my trip, Priceline canceled the reservation, simply saying that Sixt said it was an “invalid” rate. Priceline customer service was of completely no help. Of course, rates had gone up in the interim, so when I rebooked at that time, the cheapest rate had gone up to $95. Not a huge difference, certainly not one that would suggest there was something wrong with my first rate. Autoslash was great about this, though, and ended up sending me a refund for the price difference.
Unfortunately, when I rebooked, I selected the wrong Sixt location in Ljubljana to pick up the car. There are two, and they had the same prices – one at the train station, close to the Intercontinental, and one closer to the old town by the Grand Hotel Union. I meant to book the former, and ended up with the latter. It wasn’t that long a walk, but it was a smaller location, with only one person working. People in front of me didn’t have a reservation, and it took them a long time to secure theirs. In all, it was forty-five minutes between when I arrived at the location and when I got my car, which is insane. So, be forewarned when renting with Sixt in Ljubljana. Also, the streets around this location are all one-way and very confusing, so I got lost several times before I finally was able to get myself out of the city.
Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge
The drive to Bled was mostly on a wide freeway, which had very little traffic. Once you got off the highway and approached the town in Bled, there was some traffic, but it still took only forty-five minutes to get to the lakefront. It was around 11am by the time I got there, which was a later start than I’d hoped for, so the first few parking lots I approached were completely full. But I eventually found one that wasn’t too far at all, with reasonable hourly rates. (You pay at a machine at the end of the day, and it’s cash only. Three hours was 8 Euros. Also, make sure you have change for the toilets around the Lake.)
The Lake itself is quite stunning. There is a paved trail around the lake, and you can just amble around. Lots of people cycle around, and you can rent bikes for that. There are a number of side trails that allow you go up into the hills and also to Bled Castle – which I ended up not doing given my time constraints. You can also rent different kind of boats to kayak or whatever on your own through the lake, for about 15 EUR an hour. Closer to the town, there are a number of restaurants and hotels right on the lake with waterfront seating. There are also a bunch of beach “clubs” around the lake, some of which are pay-to-enter water parks, and others which are just beaches with kiosks. The Slovenian rowing team has a big facility on one end. One big activity is hiring a gondolier to row you across to Bled Island, in the middle of the lake, which has a picture-perfect church you can visit and ring a bell. Everything I read indicated that both the gondola and the church were overpriced tourist schlock, so I skipped that. My plan was to have a pleasant walk counter-clockwise around the entire lake, and then do the short, steep hike to Ojstrica, a well-known viewpoint. It was really lovely watching people swimming in the blue-green water, whether couples on their own off rocks, or families at the beaches—and lots of doggos. There were also some cool houses and such around the lake. I took a ton of pictures, so these are just a sample.
The turn-off for the hike to Ojstrica was a little more than halfway around the lake. It was listed as an easy hike and I think that is definitely incorrect. It certainly was short—only taking me about 20 minutes—but it is extremely steep, and the end has some unpaved tricky sections. Thankfully, it was pretty shady. There were some people attempting it without proper footwear which frightened me. I also don’t recommend trying unless you are in at least ok shape. That said, the views were a great reward. The plateau is quite small, with a single bench, and there’s competition for the good views/shots.
After my hike, I climbed down to the lake and waded for a bit, before continuing along the path. You definitely run into more tourists closer to town, so I imagine a lot of folks do not make it the way around. There is a little tourist “train” (connected golf carts) that goes around, as well. On this side of the lake, you are much closer to Bled Island, so I got some good views of the church, as well as of the Castle.
Around 2/3 of the way around the lake, development starts up again, with a small Mercator supermarket and a string of restaurants. I stopped at one, Sova, which was a little pricy but had great views from their second-floor terrace. I had a good Italian-ish grilled chicken dish and a bottle of sparkling water for about 20 EUR.
Soon I found myself back in town. I had wanted to stop at Park Café, which is known as the place to get the traditional snack of Bled, a cream cake referred to as kremnitsa, but there were no seats available in the shade there, so I kept walking around and ended up finding a stand selling it, and stopped for that and an iced coffee. Kremnitsa is very delicious and I ended up buying it at supermarkets a few more times this trip.
I could have spent another few hours enjoying Bled, but given the rest I wanted to do, I was back on the road at about 2:15pm, for the short drive to Vintgar Gorge. It was a fifteen-minute drive, even with getting lost, so pretty close. I was looking forward to what I read was a beautiful walk through a gorge with waterfalls and lovely scenery. In the end, though, this is something I would skip – particularly in high season. You have to pay 5 Euros to park, and then another 10 Euros to enter the path itself. (You can save on parking by doing a park and ride.) There were lots of group buses. Maybe it would be better earlier in the day, but it was packed with older people and families with kids, which is a problem because it is essentially a one-person wide, narrow path. At the widest parts, you can have people walking in each direction, but there’s little room to pass slow movers, or constant picture taking. It took about 30 minutes to get to one end, where there’s a little refreshment stand and a bigger waterfall that some people were swimming in. I turned around, and was able to have a more enjoyable walk back as it was a bit less crowded, and got back to the starting point, where I paid 2,50 for a bottle of water, and headed back to my car. Pretty? Sure. But there are better hikes in the area I could have done in the same time, that would have been a better workout and not cost 15 EUR, and would not have been so frustrating. (It was almost entirely flat and there was a well-maintained path of walkways the whole way). Most of my pictures are from my return trip.
I stopped at a Spar supermarket and picked up some provisions, then drove back through Bled and over to Lake Bohinj, which took another 45 minutes. Bohinj is massive, but there is a bit of a town on the east side of the lake; I parked near the St. John the Baptist Church in a small parking lot, where 5 EUR got me about 2 hours of parking. It is a completely different vibe than Lake Bled, as Bohinj is so much bigger – you certainly can’t walk around it in a few hours – and also much less developed. It was still fairly busy, though, with lots of families enjoying their day at the beach. I followed one of the paths and waded in the water a bit, which was cooler, and not as crystal blue. I sat for a bit, before stopping for a strudel and an iced tea at a small restaurant/bar with outdoor seating. (N.B.: One of several cash only places I saw that day.) I’d note I saw no tour buses or groups, but that may have been a function of the hour, or that there’s just fewer specific things to see and do. If I had had my full day, though, I would’ve rented a kayak on Bohinj, taken the Vogel Cable Car up to the mountain resort there, and done the Savica waterfall or Stara Fužina hikes nearby. I’m still glad I got to see it though.
The drive back to Ljubljana was easy, particularly once I got through Bled, and I was at the Four Points about an hour later. Since I didn’t even get there until 7:30pm, I decided to just have dinner at the hotel after a shower, and an early night before my day of folly the next day.
There are two major caves that people visit in Slovenia, both west of the Ljubljana: Postojna Caves, which is close to Predjama Castle, and Skocjan Caves. Postojna Caves is the slightly more touristy one, and there is a train ride inside the caves. Skocjan was supposedly less touristy, and involves walking—and pictures are not allowed. I had originally planned on doing one on my way from Ljubljana to the Coast, but figured I’d do one on my new free day, and the other en route.
Google maps showed me that Skocjan was closer to Ljubljana, so I figured I’d do that one and have a leisurely day. I left my hotel at 10:30am, and followed the route google sent me on. It seemed weird that the exit it had me get off the highway at had no signs for such a major attraction, but okay. It seemed weirder that it then had me making random turns on progressively smaller and smaller dirt roads. And then I was completely lost. I tried like 5 times and found myself in circles. Thankfully, the SUV that Sixt had given me could handle the roads (although the car got covered in dirt), but I really was just in the middle of nowhere, with some farmhouses here and there. I couldn’t get data service on my cell, so I basically just gave up and drove back to the main highway, and kept driving out of frustration. At a rest stop, there was wifi, where I discovered something I hadn’t seen on Google Maps before:
Well, that explains it. I wonder if it’s a joke on tourists. The actual Skocjan Caves is nearly 50 kilometers away – further west, past Postojna. I was going to do it, though, out of principle. (I should have done Postojna.) To get directions there, I had to put in the Slovenian name of the park.
Even though I ended up driving almost all the way across the country to the coast, a route I’d do again the next day, I still got to Skocjan around 12:05pm. (It is a very small country.) Unfortunately, it has preset tour times and I had just missed the 12pm tour. You have an option of doing three different routes, the “classic tour” through the caves, a self-guided newer route, or both. I was committed, or so I thought, I’ll do them both—which cost 24 EUR and was estimated to last 3 to 3.5 hours.
While I waited, I had a mediocre chicken burger and fries at the onsite restaurant at the visitor’s center. At 1pm, there were about 150 people ready to go on the tour, which started with a 700m walk en masse to the cave entrance. There, we were divided into three groups of 50, each with English tour guides. At this point, I realized I’d forgotten my jacket so was afraid I’d freeze in the caves, but I was fine.
I totally understand the no photographs in the caves policy. Someone asked the guide about it, and she explained it had nothing to do with conservation, just that people would take forever and be stopping all along the way. As is, without photos, that’s what happened, and we moved at such a glacial pace and I was completely and utterly bored. Maybe I was more excited by these things as a kid, and there were a lot of families. I was probably the only solo traveler. I was also disappointed that there was very little explanation about the caves and their history, just walking along the well-lit paths.
Part 1 took 70 minutes for my group, and, even though I’d paid for part 2, I was done. From the cave exit, you can take an elevator or walk a trail. The trail was enjoyable—largely because of how empty it was—and it only took me 12 minutes to reach the spot the elevator let out. There was a nice little viewpoint on another trail from the Visitor Center which I did, and stopped at an ice cream stand which had the most disappointing ice cream of the trip. To make myself feel better about what I considered a wasted day, I checked the weather and confirmed yes it was raining in Bled and Bohinj, even though it was sunny in Skocjan. Predjama and Postojna would have been a better option.
Technical Museum of Slovenia
I left the parking lot at 3pm, and decided I could still do something more that day. One thing that had interested me was the Technical Museum of Slovenia (Tehniški muzej Slovenije), a museum of engineering and industry, in Bistra – just off the road back to Ljubljana, about forty-five minutes from Skocjan. After I got off the highway, I thought I was lost again, but no, the Technical Museum is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – a very pretty middle of nowhere.
The museum was pretty interesting, and had a large range of exhibits. The grounds are a former monastery, and have a variety of different halls with different themes. Some of them are quite dated, particularly those on taxidermy and hunting. My favorite exhibits included one on Jugoton, a Yugoslav recording company and school of music from the 1960s, the transport section (which unfortunately didn’t have much English signage), and, one of the most notable exhibits, a collection of Tito’s cars. It’s a great rainy day activity, a great place for kids, or a great place for nerds. And it was less than a half-hour outside of Ljubljana. It was a twenty-minute drive for me back to the suburbs around Ljubljana, where I stopped at a small mall for shopping before heading back to the Four Points….and the rain finally hit me, with a massive downpour. I had a decent Italian dinner at Azur, a restaurant a short drive from the hotel, before bed before the drive to the coast the next morning.
Next up, a review of my stay at the Four Points by Sheraton Ljubljana Mons.