The Balkans are nearly the perfect holiday destination. Wonderfully scenic, with a fascinating (although often brutal) history, this loose collection of countries tucked away in Southeastern Europe are easy to get to, extremely affordable and, for the most part, not nearly as touristy as comparable destinations in Western Europe. They offer extraordinary geographic diversity – from gorgeous Mediterranean beaches to spectacular alpine mountain ranges to lush valleys with crystal clear rivers cascading down the middle. The historical variations are endless, with a rich variety of castles, palaces, forts and bridges to explore. Culturally, this broadly defined region offers a diversity that seems almost implausible at times, with stark societal, political, religious and linguistical differences not only between nations, but often even neighbouring villages. So, the hard part isn’t deciding on a Balkan holiday for your next trip. It is deciding exactly where to go and what to do.
What is the Balkan Peninsula?
“Balkan” is based on the Turkish word for “wooded mountain range”, although there are a number of other less likely, more exciting theories out there (i.e. honey & blood) if you care for a deep dive into the etymology. Of course, the exact dimensions of the Balkan Peninsula aren’t much clearer, roughly outlined by the Mediterranean on one side and several mountain ranges. The Balkan Mountains, Carpathians, Julian Alps, Rhodope mountains and Dinaric range all provide geographical perimeters. It stretches west to Slovenia, north to Romania, south to Greece and east to Turkey.
What are the Balkan countries?
It has never been easy to clearly define the Balkans, with dozens of variations politically, geographically and religiously. Slovenia is usually included because, along with having a small portion of the peninsula within its borders, its history as part of Yugoslavia ties it in with the others. Moldova is sometimes included because of its close connections with Romania but fits closer politically and economically with the former Soviet Union countries to its north. Greece and Turkey both technically have geographical ties to the Balkan Peninsula but not much else and are not usually included. Most of the countries have their own languages, while Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina all speak dialects of Serbo-Croatian.
However you decide to define them, it will never be 100% clear. For tourism purposes, however, there are generally 10 nations that are considered part of the Balkans.
With strong Italian influences, an impressive range of mountains and a wide range of diverse highlights, Slovenia is fast becoming one of Europe’s most popular destinations. Despite a more modern feel than many other Balkan countries, Slovenia remains an affordable destination that still hasn’t been overrun by the masses.
Ljubljana is a lovely, walkable capital city featuring an outstanding castle, a pleasant Old Town and a wide assortment of photogenic bridges criss-crossing the Ljubljanica River. While it is compact enough to enjoy in a day, you could easily fill several days exploring all the lesser known spots.
Spectacular Lake Bled is not only the standout attraction of Slovenia, but one of the best places to visit in all of Europe. A photographer’s dream, you can spend days wandering the surrounding hiking trails and checking out amazing viewpoints around the lake, Bled Island, Bled Castle and the picturesque backdrop of the Triglav Mountains.
Formerly a Venetian port in medieval times, gorgeous Piran still retains a classic charm despite its status as the prettiest town on the Slovenian Riviera (which is only 46 km long, but still). Views out over the iconic red-roofed buildings, Tartini Square and the famous Bell Tower from the Walls of Piran are obviously a must, but it is also enjoyable to just meander through the Old Town and eventually find a spot along the promenade to watch the sunset and try some fantastic local seafood.
You Should Know…
The world-famous Lipizzaner stallions originated in Lipica, Slovenia and, although they now spend most of their time on tour around the world, we are told they still receive their mail there.
See also: The 15 Best Places to Visit in Slovenia
Easily the most popular Balkan holiday destination, Croatia features an embarrassment of coastal riches. Amazing beaches, beautiful island resorts and terrific medieval architecture draw huge crowds in summer, although there is plenty more to this modern, prosperous Balkan highlight. It is the most expensive country in the region but is also the place to go for summer sun and comfortable resorts.
Perfectly riding the line between old and new, ancient Split offers amazing classic architecture in combination with plenty of hedonistic nearby beach culture. Repeat visitors to Croatia often describe Split as their base of choice when staying on the coast.
You may know it as King’s Landing from Game of Thrones but, surprisingly, stunning Dubrovnik has somehow continued on despite the end of the famous TV series. They may no longer face the bright lights of the Hollywood cameras but, rest assured, there are still many thousands of personal cameras making sure this photogenic marvel never lacks for self-confidence.
While most tourists focus on the tremendous coastal gems of Croatia, there is plenty to enjoy inland as well. Plitvice Lakes, in particular, are well worth a day of your time. Surrounded by lush greenery, this marvelous collection of little lakes cascading prettily into one another offer great views from any of the excellent surrounding trails.
You Should Know…
Even the most expensive rubber gift shop dragon perched on your shoulder for your Fort Lovrijenac photo shoot probably isn’t going to fool your friends back home. And it certainly won’t protect you from the Lannisters.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Still finding its footing as a tourist destination following the demise of Yugoslavia and years of political turmoil surrounding its complicated, three-pronged government, BiH offers an exciting opportunity for those looking beyond beach resorts or flashy mountain scenery.
Sarajevo is truly an underrated gem, and an absolute must-see for history buffs. Its vicious past is graphically illustrated at sites throughout the city, which are often fascinating and uncomfortable in equal measure. As a true cultural, political and religious melting pot, it is the kind of place that becomes more compelling the deeper you explore.
Located in the engaging river city of Mostar, the simply named Stari Most (Old Bridge) is one of the most picturesque bridges in all of Europe. Arching high above the Neretva River, this stunning piece of architecture can be enjoyed from a vast array of incredible viewpoints, providing something slightly different from each one.
Even though it is just a short drive outside Mostar, Blagaj was somehow spared by the war that destroyed the Old Bridge and most of the city around it. Visitors willing to get a bit off the beaten path can enjoy fun Buna River boat trips to a superb cave and the big highlight, the dazzling dervish monastery built into the side of a 200-metre high cliff.
You Should Know…
Many locals make a living collecting tips from spectators before leaping from the 20-metre-high Stari Most. They are masters at building suspense but, strangely, will rarely give change for a 5.
Closely tied to Serbia both geographically and politically, tiny Montenegro packs an amazing amount of diversity into a small package. Kotor Bay is one of the world’s most picturesque cruise ship ports and it’s all uphill from there, literally, as the landscape climbs into the natural wonders of Lovcen National Park, with the natural beauty extending all the way through to Durmitor National Park and the Serbian border.
Progressive, modern and easy on the eyes, most of Podgorica was destroyed during WW II, meaning most of its buildings were built much more recently than many others around Europe. It also features plenty of green space and a lot of great hiking in the nearby hills, not to mention close proximity to outstanding Lake Skadar.
Spectacular from virtually any angle, unbelievable Kotor Bay seems created specifically to adorn the cover of travel magazines. Kotor Old Town is just as compact, jumbled and confusing as a classic walled city should be, the viewpoints on the nearby hills are stunning and easy to reach, and cat lovers will appreciate the ongoing respect these local rat-killers earned way back during the plague. And nearby Perast is almost too cute to be real.
Bar. Often overlooked as merely a functional seaport and transport hub, what this little city lacks in tourist appeal it more than makes up for with authenticity and some under the radar attractions. Stari Bar (Old Bar) is a fascinating and extensive ruined city with a well-preserved fort, Roman aqueduct and mostly intact set of walls with views over the new city to the sea. Yet the entrance fee is just €2. Go figure.
You Should Know…
The Old Olive Tree of Mirovica, which some claim is the oldest tree in the world at over 2,000 years young, still just looks like a normal tree. I’m not sure what else we expected.
In general, tourists don’t really know much about Serbia. They’ve heard of Belgrade, of course, and maybe the famous EXIT festival in delightful Novi Sad, but most don’t realize that Serbia is a very large country with a bevy of outstanding natural attractions. Mountains, rivers, forests – it’s all there for travellers willing to delve a little deeper than the night clubs of the capital.
Belgrade (Beograd) is a vibrant young city known as the party capital of the Balkans (or maybe even Europe). Of course, there is plenty to see and do before the sun goes down as well, including beautiful churches, bustling plazas and some truly amazing street art.
There are many different ways to get to Serbia but by far the most interesting is the Balkan Express train between Bar and Belgrade. Starting (or finishing) on the Montenegrin coast, this dated but comfortable train goes through dazzling mountain and valley scenery, and provides a unique opportunity to spend quality time with local Balkan commuters.
Tara National Park, in the spectacular Dinaric Alps, is a wondrous natural expanse to explore for hikers, bikers, climbers and kayakers. Most don’t realize that Serbia is a great destination for outdoor pursuits and regular visitors to this quiet gem are usually happy to keep the secret to themselves. Drina Canyon, in particular, should not be missed.
You Should Know…
Most train toilets open directly onto the tracks so think twice before trying to dispose of any illegal contraband while stopped at a station. You know what, now that I think about it, maybe just don’t use the toilet at all, for anything, while you’re stopped at a station.
Now here is a place for those who truly love the route less taken. It has become hard to find places in Europe undiscovered by tourism but Kosovo, Europe’s newest country, is definitely one of them. Like seemingly everywhere in the area, they have gorgeous mountains and sublime hiking trails, but the great attraction of a trip to Kosovo is the novelty of getting off the beaten path.
Pristina, the relatively small capital (pop. 150,000), provides a freshness rarely encountered by tourists in main cities, despite its obvious chaos. Almost entirely Albanian both ethnically and culturally, visitors to this rising urban centre are still welcomed as a pleasant novelty. The nearby Gollak Mountains offer a natural diversion and Pristina is the starting point to reach almost every other attraction in the country.
The Old Town of Prizren is a classic medieval beauty, with ancient architecture, cobblestoned streets and photogenic bridges. The amazing castle stands high over the Old Town, the Shar Mountains are an easy day trip away, and a very young population hints at the horrors of past troubles.
14th century Visoki Dečani Monastery boasts a tremendous location nestled in forested mountains, but the fun doesn’t end there. Inside, this virtually unknown church is wonderfully maintained and covered in colourful ancient murals, making it one of the most beautiful buildings in all of the Balkans.
You Should Know…
While Kosovo separated from Serbia in 2008, there are still many nations that do not recognize their independence, including Serbia. To this point, nobody has asked our opinion, which is good because we are still working on a witty yet appropriately sensitive reply.
This is the place most adventurous travellers mention when asked about the next great Balkan destination. Friendly, affordable, uncrowded and visually magnificent, Albania checks all the boxes for an off-the-beaten path journey. With welcoming beaches, ancient cities and some natural splendour to boot, this up-and-comer has a big future ahead in Balkan holiday tourism.
Tirana. Yes, it is loud, brash, and the traffic is awful, but you have to admire how enthusiastically it is transforming itself from dour communist stronghold to colourful, energetic 21st century capital.
Known as “the town of a thousand windows”, Berat is one of two Albanian UNESCO Heritage site (along with Gjirokastra), and rightly so. Mesmerizing Ottoman houses line the steep hills all the way up to the delightful castle. Having the looming spectre of Mount Tomorr in the background just adds another dimension to your already memorable photos.
The Accursed Mountains span parts of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo and can transport willing nature enthusiasts back in time with their empty hills, quaint mountain villages and evocative herds of sheep.
You Should Know…
Lake Ohrid, one of the most attractive lakes in all of Europe, actually falls partially in both Albania and North Macedonia. And, while the eponymous town of Ohrid and most of the main tourist infrastructure can be found on the Macedonian side, there is a fun bike path on the Albanian shore. Weigh your options carefully.
Landlocked North Macedonia, along with the relatively new Kosovo, represent the true frontier of European travel. If you like your history long, complex and somewhat baffling, then this is just the place for you. Remnants of dozens of classic civilizations can be found across this compelling and largely untouched Balkan surprise.
The 600,000 or so residents of Skopje make up roughly ¼ of the entire population of North Macedonia. As this fledgling nation of just 30 years struggles to modernize and progress, it all starts here. Continually inhabited since 4,000 BC, there is obviously history to spare, and the handsome Vardar River adds a pleasant touch.
Lake Ohrid. The ancient city of Ohrid is on the Macedonian side and is a must-see but, if you have the time, we would suggest checking out the Albanian side as well to experience the subtle cultural differences and get lake photos with two different flags. With nice hiking trails, plenty of watersports and a wide range of unique viewpoints, Lake Ohrid attracts tourists any time of year. Iconic Sveti Naum monastery can be visited on a short day trip.
The island of Golem Grad, on Lake Prespa (just east of Lake Ohrid), is also known as Snake Island and, yes, there is a good reason for that. This surprising wildlife hotspot close to the Greek border is also known for its tortoises, rabbits and far too many species of bird to get into right now. And snakes, of course, in case that wasn’t clear.
You Should Know…
Use of the name “Macedonia” has been an ongoing sore point between North Macedonia and Greece, with their southern neighbours claiming dibs. Eventually Greece agreed to allow the newer nation to be called “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” but, after nearly 30 years of wasting both time and stationery, the UN put them both into timeout until they hashed it out, and North Macedonia was born.
Famous for its layered history, multiple mountain ranges and being the fictional home of the world’s most famous fictional tyrant, Romania is a diverse and engaging destination. As with most nations in this part of the world, Romanian history and culture are part of a messy and confusing puzzle that has led to a wildly exotic selection of sites and attractions.
The enthralling medieval city of Brașov is right in the heart of Transylvania, just a few hours from the capital of Bucharest, but well situated close to many other Romanian highlights such as the Transylvania castles, Sinaia (hiking and Peles Castle) and Sighișoara (Old Town citadel). Despite being a fairly large city, Brașov is both a historic and architectural delight and progressively modern. If nothing else, there is a thriving café culture to enjoy on any of a dozen charming little plazas.
Visiting the spectacular Peles Castle in the mountains of Transylvania. Although Bran Castle is famous as the inspiration for Dracula’s castle, Peles is actually more impressive. One of the most beautiful castles in Europe, its neo-renaissance style is both unique and endlessly photogenic. Of course, it is worth visiting both, as Bran Castle looks exactly how you’d picture the forbidding lair of a mysterious, malevolent vampire, and the outstanding Rasnov Citadel is a must-see as well.
The Fortified Church of Biertan is an underrated gem, unique and imposing with impressive views out over the surrounding hills. A UNESCO Heritage Site, this amazing 15th century fortress is surprisingly intact, featuring a maze of narrow lanes, 3-tiered walls and a picturesque classic church.
You Should Know…
The term “gypsy” is considered derogatory by the Romani people, even when it just makes sense as the easiest last-minute Halloween costume you could think of.
Enthralling Bulgaria offers many things for many people. Hedonistic Black Sea beach resorts? Check. The massive Danube river basin? Check. Downhill skiing in picturesque mountains? Check. One of the world’s most famous monasteries? Of course. It also serves as the bridge between Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, making it a good place to either start or end your Balkan holiday.
The capital of Bulgaria, lovely Sofia, teems with life, art, and history. Eminently walkable, charming Sofia effortlessly combines ancient history with modern development, all while retaining enough natural green space to appeal to nature lovers. Aleksander Nevski Memorial Church is even more extraordinary in person than in all those famous photos, and church lovers could spend days seeking out all the other impressive monuments to Bulgaria’s long, checkered history.
It is hard to decide what is more captivating about fabulous Rila Monastery, its wondrous location in an enchanting valley deep in the Rila Mountains, or the 1,000 years of history stretching from its time as a humble hermit’s hut to the magnificent bastion of Bulgarian culture it represents today.
The Valley of Thracian Kings. A few hours by bus northeast of the popular second city of Plovdiv, you will find an amazing collection of Thracian tombs. At least you will if you have a guide, as many of the tombs aren’t so easy to find or get to. On the bright side, you can expect to have these intricate tombs, dating back as far as 300 BC, mostly to yourself.
You Should Know…
Apparently, there has never actually been a Bulgarian woman named “Sofia” who earned the honour of a capital city named after her through clever lobbying and occasionally vicious retribution. And now I’m not even sure why I thought that.
How much time do you need for your Balkan holiday?
In a perfect world, you find yourself with plenty of cash and 6 months to kill, although even that may not be enough time if you have (like us) embraced the wonders of slow travel. On a typical 1-week vacation you could hit all the main highlights of one country. Or you hit one or two top spots in two different countries. On a typical 2-week trip you could see all the highlights of any one of Slovenia, Croatia, Romania or Bulgaria. However, if you prioritize, you could also combine Croatia with the either best parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kotor Bay in Montenegro. Other good 2-week itineraries include Serbia and Montenegro or Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia.
On the other hand, if you really want to immerse yourself, we would recommend slowing down and spending at least a week in your top destinations, or even a month if you are a digital nomad or travelling indefinitely. We used to feel like 3-4 days was plenty just about anywhere, then we started making it an even week, and now we find that a month is about the perfect amount of time to really experience a place before we start to get bored.
Nonetheless, whether you have 1 week or 1 year, this guide should help you prioritize your Balkan destinations and plan your itinerary.
How to Get to the Balkans
Every country in the Balkans has an international airport, although some cities offer more frequent flights at lower prices. If you can’t find a good itinerary directly to your preferred starting point, try focusing on Sofia, Ljubljana or any of Zagreb, Zadar, Split or Dubrovnik in Croatia.
Long-distance buses connect most main cities in the Balkans and some masochists even undertake the epic journey from Istanbul all the way through the Balkans to Western Europe. We have found FlixBus to be a perfect combination of cheap and comfortable, and they offer long-distance options into the Balkans from Budapest, Vienna, Zurich and many cities in Germany and Italy.
How to Get Around the Balkans
Most of the time, buses will be your best bet for getting around the Balkans. Almost all points of interest are connected by frequent, affordable bus routes, although comfort and quality definitely vary from country to country.
Trains are often the most comfortable mode of travel in the Balkans but the routes are somewhat arbitrary and the times inconvenient. However, it is always worth checking because when you can make the schedule work for your itinerary some of these train journeys (such as the iconic Balkan Express) can turn out to be highlights of your Balkan holiday.
Renting a car maximizes your freedom and allows you to reach many of the less-visited attractions that can be difficult to get to by public transport. Car hire is generally good value in the Balkans and, with the exception of a few of the larger cities, traffic is light and the driving is easy. One big glitch, however, when planning a Balkan road trip is the lack of international car hire agreements in the region. Very few places will even let you rent a car in one country and cross an international border, let alone return it several countries over. There are a handful of companies that may allow a short stint in a neighbouring country but, for the most part, any Balkan holiday road trip will mean renting multiple different cars in multiple different countries and taking buses, train or planes from one to the next.
Where to Stay in the Balkans
Obviously, there are thousands of hostels, hotels and apartments throughout the region. You will have almost limitless options when deciding where to stay on your Balkan holiday. However, here are some of the best ones we found, either through personal experience or the recommendations of other travellers.
Ljubljana: Galeria River Hotel is on the vibrant Breg promenade with great views from most rooms. This midrange choice has some rooms with a simple kitchenette.
Bled: Conveniently located only 100 meters from the lake, Old Parish House offers some rooms with a lake view and an excellent included breakfast.
Piran: Memento B&B is right next to the St. George Parish Church and offers a terrific buffet breakfast and some rooms with sea views.
Split: The great Hotel Agava Split offers 4-star amenities (including a pool) at mid-range prices. It is located right in the heart of everything (less than 10 min to walk to Diocletian’s Palace) and some rooms have sea views.
Dubrovnik: Located right in the Dubrovnik Old Town, units at Stajeva 11 have couches, kitchenettes and great city views.
Plitvice: The House by the River lives up to its name with a serene location just a short walk from the entrance to Plitvice National Park.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo: You can’t beat the location of Hotel Ovo Malo Duše, right in the heart of Bašćaršija area. Also, an excellent breakfast is included and you get a free walking tour if you stay for at least 3 nights.
Mostar: An excellent midrange option is the Hotel-Restaurant Kriva Ćuprija set in a heritage-listed limestone house overlooking the Crooked Bridge in the Old Town just minutes away from the Old Bridge. Some of the rooms have balconies with views of the Old Town.
Blagaj: Villa Bunski Biser is a terrific value with nice rooms, breakfast included and excellent amenities, including a shared lounge.
Belgrade: Right in the heart of Stari Grad, Viktor Luxury Suites offer elegant rooms and mid-range prices, including kitchenettes and a patio.
Tara National Park: Featuring beautiful grounds and terrific hiking just out your door, Apartments Milev are located in Mokra Gora, just a 5-minute walk from the train station and 7 km from the entrance to the park.
Podgorica: Near the Turkish Bath House, Boscovich Boutique Hotel is a very comfortable hotel with an excellent included breakfast.
Kotor: It has a strange name, but you could throw a rock and hit the iconic clock tower from the very nice Old Town Nr404 right in Kotor Old Town.
Bar: Villa Irma is a nice, traditional hotel walking distance to Stari Bar.
Pristina: Swiss Apartments Prishtina have full kitchens and hardwood floors and are located right near the centre of town. Some units also have balconies.
Prizren: Not far from the Albanian League of Prizren Museum, the cozy Monarch Boutique Hotel has nice balconies overlooking the city and express check-in.
Visoki Dečani Monastery: At Chalet Kujta you can get fully equipped units (including breakfast) at value prices, all in Peje, just a 15-minute drive from the monastery.
Tirana: 4-star Mondial Hotel offers full luxury, including a sun terrace and rooftop pool, at lower mid-range prices.
Berat: Located just a few blocks from the Old Town and the castle, Hotel Rezidenca Desaret has terrific views from the terrace.
The Accursed Mountains: You can either start or finish the popular Theth-Valbona trek at Vila Alexander B&B, a beautiful, serene spot right on the river.
Skopje: Hotel Alexandar II is another great value 4-star hotel that you can usually get for mid-range prices, and right in the centre of the city to boot.
Ohrid: Boasting stunning lake views, the outstanding Villa Varosh has modern, comfortable rooms with a variety of different balcony views.
Brașov: Safrano Palace may not literally be a palace, but for the price it may feel like one. Located right in the centre of the Old Town, it is fully equipped and very comfortable.
Sighișoara: Stay in an authentic medieval castle at the outstanding Casa Mador. Classic architecture and plenty of history but with all the modern amenities you need.
Bran: Guest House Piatra Craiului has excellent value rooms near the iconic castle and they claim to have been the very first guesthouse in the area.
Sinaia: If you like having an entire apartment with a full kitchen, Elexus Apartments are a great choice close to everything in central Sinaia.
Maramureș: Baia Mare is a good base for exploring the churches, and Hotel Europa includes breakfast and is one of the best choices in town.
Sofia: Rosslyn Central Park Hotel Sofia is a beautiful, well-equipped and modern hotel in an amazing location right on famous Vitosha Boulevard.
Rila Monastery: Located in nearby Blagoevgrad, a good option is Spa Hotel Orbita, a surprisingly affordable 4-star luxury hotel with a pool and included breakfast.
Valley of Thracian Kings: If you decide to stay the night to have more time to see the tombs, The House in Shipka is comfortable, relaxed and traditional option.
Congratulations, we fully support your decision to embark on an exciting Balkan holiday. As you will have gathered by now, this region is wildly diverse, from terrain and architecture to culture and language. Yet, despite all the differences and confusing politics and frequently strained relations, the Balkan nations share a certain collective attitude as a region that has been largely held apart from the rest of Europe for centuries. The combination of this mutual connection and all the localized grudges and disputes makes for a very unique atmosphere and a truly unforgettable journey. Whether you dream big trying to experience all 10 Balkan countries or just pop in one country at a time, you should have no problem finding the perfect Balkan itinerary to fit your interests.
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