Steve Fallon | 31 May 2023
In a country where even locals will stop in their tracks and stare at the magnificence of their surroundings, the Julian Alps are on a level of beauty all their own...
With its lofty peaks, Alpine meadows, picture-postcard lakes and ariver the colour of a cloudless sky, the Julian Alps region is Slovenia at its most photogenic. It also has the distinction of being an Alpine escape that manages to be just as appealing, if not more so, when winter fades and the skiing and hot-chocolate crowd moves on. What emerges from beneath the thaw is a landscape of iris-blue lakes, walkable trails and easily visited towns that put the history of the region on show.
Needless to say, this outpost of the Eastern Alps is a boon for lovers of the great outdoors. Beyond the pistes, the area is home to Triglav National Park, one of the largest natural reserves in Europe. Hiking, cycling and climbing are high on most visitors’ itineraries, but the real lure is the presence of a Slovenian icon: Mount Triglav (2,864m). This three-headed limestone mountain is so iconic that it appears on the national flag, and its ascent is a rite of passage among locals.
Soča River has become popular with kayakers of all skill levels (Janos Gaspar/Alamy Stock Photo)
Škofja Loka has one of the best-preserved medieval centres in Slovenia (MIKEL BILBAO GOROSTIAGA- TRAVELS/Alamy Stock Photo)
Alongside fresh air and Alpine panoramas, travellers will quickly encounter some of the bluest lakes in Europe. You certainly won’t be the first to fall head over heels in love with Bled; its glacial waters, surrounded by snow-dusted mountains and an 11th-century clifftop castle, are home to a tiny tear-shaped island that houses an elaborate Baroque church. It’s a scene straight out of a fairy tale. Meanwhile, just a short drive to the south-west is the much larger Lake Bohinj, which is fringed by excellent cycling routes and apicturesque waterfront Gothic church.
Even getting from A to B in the Julian Alps can be an adventure. Many consider the route down into the Soča Valley from Kranjska Gora to be the highlight of any visit. On the other side of the Vršič Pass (over 1,600m high) lies the aquamarine waters of the Soča River, which gives rise to a surfeit of gorges, waterfalls and rapids before reaching the whitewater rafting capitals of Bovec and Kobarid. The latter was also the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War – ahistory explored across museums, bunkers, hospitals and trails such as the Walk of Peace.
Indeed, while nature has been generous here, the area’s human history is every bit as compelling. Some of Slovenia’s best-preserved medieval towns scatter the countryside – bottomless treasure troves of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. They also make fine bases from which to explorearegion that, for all its wintry attributes, shines just as bright year round.
How to spend four days in the Julian Alps
Triglav National Park is not only Slovenia’s largest protected area but also its sole national park (Eva Bocek/Alamy Stock Photo)
Day 1: Rich medieval towns
Make a stop at Škofja Loka and its well-preserved Old Town, which is reached via a 14th-century stone bridge. Colourful medieval houses line the riverside, lying in the shadow of the town castle. Just up the road is Radovljica, where a main square opens onto a parade of 16th- and 17th-century buildings, the wonderful Beekeeping Museum and the Gostilna Avguštin, a country inn with full views of Mount Triglav.
Day 2: A bell in a church onan island in a lake
Get to know the heartthrob that is Lake Bled up close by boarding apiloted gondola that will set you down at the island’s monumental South Staircase. Climb the 99-odd steps to the Baroque Church of the Assumption, which has a `wishing bell’ that visitors can ring if they want to ask for a special favour. Beprepared to jointhe queue.
Day 3: A dip and a rather cheesy detour
At the foot of the Gothic Church of St John the Baptist, take a plunge into the crystal-clear water of Lake Bohinj. Next, head north-east for a trio of idyllic villages: Stara Fužina, Studor and Srednja Vas. They are known for their Alpine dairy farming (there’s even a dairy museum in Stara Fužina), smelly mohant cheese and wooden hayracks – used to dry grass – which scatter the countryside.
Day 4: Full tilt to a pass
Kranjska Gora is at its most elegant under a blanket of snow, but it is a spot for all seasons. With Triglav NP on its doorstep, the possibilities for hiking, cycling and mountaineering are endless, and it’s worth making the hair-raising (and spine-tingling) ascent up to Vršič Pass, which counts some 50 hairpin twists and turns. Along the way you’ll pass another iris-blue glacial lake and a chapel built by Russian POWs during the Second World War, before eventually reaching the pass at 1,611m and heading down into theSoča Valley
Ask a local
“Growing up in Bled, deep in the Julian Alps, has been a blessing for me. The area’s natural beauty and tranquillity have shaped my character and provided me with an appreciation for the environment that surrounds me. The mountains have been my playground since I was a child and I have spent countless hours hiking, mountain biking, canyoning and exploring the surrounding nature.”
- Domen Kalajžič, adventurer and founder/operator of 3glav Adventures in Bled
People taking part in canyoning in Slovenia (Cavan Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
One of the fastest-growing adventure sports in Slovenia is canyoning. After donning a neoprene suit and helmet, adventurers are typically attached to a rope as they are guided down through gorges on the edge of Triglav National Park, jumping over and sliding down waterfalls, swimming in rock pools and abseiling. It’s like being in one huge (and natural) water park. Operators at Lake Bled, such as 3glav Adventures, can arrange canyoning day trips.
For a closer look at the Julian Alps without getting your boots dirty, make the easy 4km hike from Bled to Vintgar Gorge. Here a 1,600m-long wooden walkway, built in 1893, perches precariously above a steep drop, offering glimpses of the swirling waters below. It criss-crosses the Radovna River four times before reaching the highlight: the 16m-high Šum Waterfall.
Kranjska Gora Ski Centre & Planica Zipline
Skiers will make a beeline for Kranjska Gora, where the 18 slopes on Vitranc mountain effectively create one huge piste. But if you arrive out of season and are still looking for thrills on the slopes, head for the Planica Zipline, the world’s steepest. The descent runs some 566m over the towering Planica Ski-Jump Centre, with an altitude differential of 200m.
Bled Castle (Jeremy Graham/Alamy Stock Photo)
Peering down at its own reflection in Lake Bled from 130m on high, this enormous 11th-century fortress contains a rich collection of armour and weapons and a small but perfectly formed Gothic chapel with priceless views of the Julian Alps. Drop in on the silver-service Bled Castle Restaurant for lunch, or try the coffee shop for a slice of the local culinary speciality, Blejska kremna rezina (Bled cream cake).
Franja Partisan Hospital
This Second World War-era facility, hidden in a canyon 5km north-east of Cerkno, treated and sheltered up to 500 wounded partisan soldiers from Yugoslavia and other countries in a dozen buildings from late 1943 until the end of the war. It was attacked by the Germans twice but never taken. Political and economic systems are set aside here; this is a memorial to humanity, courage and self-sacrifice.
Keeping bees for their honey and wax is a long-held tradition in Slovenia, though more lucrative by-products, such as propolis and royal jelly, are now just as prized. There’s not much you won’t learn about apiculture after a visit to this museum in Radovljica. The highlight is its wide collection of illustrated beehive panels from the 18th and 19th centuries, a folk art unique to Slovenia.
Top things to do in the Julian Alps
The Church of John the Baptist has stood on the shores of Lake Bohinj for at least 700 years and is filled with 15th- and 16th-century frescoes (Janos Gaspar/Alamy Stock Photo)
CLIMB Mount Triglav and proclaim yourself aSlovene. It is an unwritten law that all Slovenes are expected todo it at least once in their lifetime. Triglav is challenging but very accessible, and there areseveral popular approaches. If you are fitand have a good head for heights, hire a guide and go for it.
RAFT on the emerald-hued waters of the Soča River. It’s a 90-minute, never-forgotten whitewater thriller with rapids of class three and above. For something a bit gentler, opt for an easy and slow float down the Sava Dolinka River. Multiple agencies in Bledand Bovec offer differentpackages.
LEARN about Kobarid’s pivotal role on the Soča Front (Isonzo in Italian) during the First World War by hiking a section of the long-distance Walk of Peace. This links the most important remains and memorials along the front. A visit to the award-winning Kobarid Museum, before or after, will help putit all into some much-needed perspective.
CYCLE around Lake Bohinj, which is good for cyclists of all skill levels. Awell-marked asphalt cycle route runs for 12km along the left bank of the Sava Bohinjka River and then rises up through the Alpine villages of the Upper Bohinj Valley. Expect grand scenery and valley vistas along the way.
Where to stay in the Julian Alps
The country's dairy culture of the area is celebrated in Stara Fužina’s Alpine Dairy Museum (Lynne Nieman/Alamy Stock Photo)
Hotel Triglav Bled, Lake Bled
This restored boutique hotel from 1906 perches above Lake Bled. Expect hardwood floors, Eastern carpets, antiques and a lovely terrace restaurant.
An award-winning sustainable B&B that melds old and new in a century-old homestead on apretty square. It lies just 3km west of Kranjska Gora.
Dobra Vila, Bovec
The Art Deco flourishes and objets d’art of this boutique hotel reflect the building that contains it: a one-time telephone exchange from 1932. There’s an impressive library and wine cellar too.
Located about 9km south of Kobarid, this otherworldly enclave of four luxury self-catering chalets lies high in the mountains, almost 1,000m above sea level.
Hiša Franko,Staro Selo
A converted farmhouse with delightfully themed rooms is enough to pull you 3km west of Kobarid, but the real lure is the restaurant. Its two Michelin stars and sustainable menu (much of it is foraged) is the work of the celebrated chef Ana Roš.
Essential travel information
International dialling code: +386
Currency: Euro (€)
Getting there: British Airways (Heathrow), easyJet (Gatwick) and Wizz Air (Luton) all fly regularly from London to Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport. Flights take 2.5 hours.
Getting around: While it is possible to reach many of the destinations mentioned here by bus, and even by train, driving is the best way to explore the Julian Alps region. Car hire is available at Ljubljana airport.
Weather: Every season has its appeal in the Julian Alps. Spring and autumn are best for hiking and climbing; summer for swimming and cycling; and winter for skiing and snowboarding.
Further information: slovenia.info
You may also like:
A short break guide to Alpes-De-Haute-Provence, France
Best summer adventures in Interlaken, Switzerland
Exploring Northern France's coast
1. Bovec. The alpine town of Bovec has become one of the Julian Alps' outdoor adventure capitals. Set in the heart of Triglav National Park, sandwiched between the Soca River Valley and the Kanin Mountains (peaking at 2,587m), Bovec's an ideal base for hiking, mountain biking, white water rafting or skiing.How do I get to Julian Alps Slovenia? ›
Which airport to fly into to get to The Julian Alps. The main airport of the region is the Ljubljana Airport (LJU). From LJU you can easily get a bus into Ljubljana proper, and from Ljubljana you can get connections, trains and buses to lots of regions in Slovenia.Is Lake Bled in the Julian Alps? ›
Lake Bled (Slovene: Blejsko jezero; German: Bleder See, Veldeser See) is a lake in the Julian Alps of the Upper Carniolan region of northwestern Slovenia, where it adjoins the town of Bled.What is the traverse of the Julian Alps? ›
The Julian Alps Traverse runs from east to west and takes the hiker from the famous Planica all the way to the beautiful valley of the Soča river under the upright mountain Krn. The path in the central part runs underneath summit of Mt. Triglav (2864m), the highest mountain of the Julian Alps.