Guest Post by Lorelei from California Globetrotter
Having thoroughly explored the Balkans as part of my 2-week honeymoon road trip, as well as a previous summer holiday, I can say without a doubt that this region is one of the most beautiful in Europe. Many are still under the impression that the Balkans are dangerous, thanks in part to the horrific images that filled their TV screens in the 90s. However, today the peninsula has become an Instaworthy destination for tourists looking to discover unspoiled, historical, outdoor-sy destinations on a budget!
There is so much to see and do throughout the Balkans that it was hard to narrow it down to only 10 destinations, so you’ll be greeted to a few bonus destinations as well that would be an absolute shame to miss.
The capital of Slovenia often gets overlooked for many of its surrounding neighbours, but is often described as a hip, up-and-coming destination still relatively under the radar. The city is alive and well with a bustling city center with cafes and restaurants lining the Ljubljianica River. Take a stroll over the famous Triple Bridge and admire the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation aka “Pink Church” while devouring an ice cream or head up to the Ljubljana Castle.
Bonus: Lake Bled, Slovenia
Just a 45 minute drive away from Ljubljana, you simply must spend at least a full day taking in the beautiful scenery of the “Alpine Pearl”. While here, you can’t leave without indulging in a slice…or two of the region’s famous Cream Cake! I promise I won’t tell anyone if you have more than one! (More on Lake Bled here)
Located on a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea, Split is home to the largest and best preserved Roman palace in the world. The Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered an enormous palace to be built here in 295 AD, where he would one day retire. While here, I highly recommend doing a free walking tour to learn about the history of the palace, the emperor and his cabbage. Stroll along the promenade and enjoy a beautiful sunset off in the distance.
Bonus: Plitvice Lakes National Park
Prior to arriving in Split, I highly recommend visiting the incredibly stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park. I suggest arriving early to avoid the crowds. Follow the wooden paths which will lead you up, down and around waterfalls and lakes of such deep turquoise and sky blues leaving you in absolute awe. Pack a picnic and find a nice patch of grass to relax. Whatever you do though, don’t forget a jacket, even if it’s 90°F outside of the park.
The number one destination to visit in the Balkans is without a doubt Dubrovnik, “the Pearl of the Adriatic” with its impressive fortified walls and red roofs set against the deep blue Adriatic Sea. Heavily destroyed during the Balkan War, the town has been rebuilt to its former glory and is today a bustling little Venetian fortress. While here, be sure to walk the city walls for views over the town and the Adriatic as early as possible to avoid the crowds and before it gets too hot. Also take the time to take a ride on the Dubrovnik Cable Car for the most iconic view of the town.
Where Western and Eastern Europe collide, Sarajevo is a mixture of Turkish and Austrian influence with quite the turbulent history. It is often nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Europe” for its wide variety of religions converging here, which have coexisted in this melting pot for centuries. Sarajevo is a must-visit for any big political or history buff, as it was the powder keg which ignited WWI, and also saw some of the most intense fighting during the Balkan Wars. Today, the town has been rebuilt to its former glory and taking a stroll through the Old Bazaar or the Vijecnica for a small fee is an absolute must. Be sure to consume as much Baklava as acceptably possible! (More on Sarajevo here)
Bonus: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
You simply can’t pass up the opportunity to visit Mostar, especially if you’re stopping in Dubrovnik, Croatia as it makes for an easy day trip. Most people come for a glimpse of the iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge) which was originally built by the Ottomans well over 400 years ago. Destroyed during the Balkan War, the bridge and town has been rebuilt to its former glory. Today, you can stroll through the Old Bazaar style shops or watch a bunch of guys dive off of the bridge into the deep turquoise river below.
Another popular day trip from Dubrovnik, or an extended stay is without a doubt Kotor. Located on a ria, often called a fjord, the town is much less crowded than its neighbour with the same Venetian architecture, cuisine and feeling. You simply can’t come here without hiking up the rugged surrounding mountains to the Castle of San Giovanni (St. John’s Fortress) for the most iconic view over the entire ria and the town. Trust me, it’s worth every step of the way! (More on Kotor here)
Bonus: Sveti Stefan, Montengero
Looking for the ultimate R & R destination? Head to the neighboring town of Sveti Stefan. Steeped in luxury, the small islet of Sveti Stefan is so exclusive, touring the island is not possible without having paid a hefty price of 800€ per night or making a dinner reservation on the island. To the left of the island is a large public beach at an affordable price, but should you be interested in extra privacy, comfort and luxury, then pay the 100€ fee to soak up the sun in the cove to the right. Trust me, it’s worth the money! Should you get hungry, head up to Hotel Adrović & Restaurant for the best view in town!
Another neighbouring town just 30 minutes away from Kotor is one of the last Venetian outposts along the Adriatic just oozing with charisma waiting to be discovered. The fortified town is one of the loveliest along the Budva Riviera. Stroll through the Stari Grad (Old Town), along the promenade or catch some rays on the Budva Old Town Beach lined with straw umbrellas. I honestly couldn’t get enough of this adorable town! (More on Budva here)
Skopje, Republic of Macedonia
Quite possibly the most fascinating and most refreshing capital in Europe, with its own unique vibe as the city tries to rewrite its history in order to attract more tourists. The city has undergone a complete makeover, known as the “Skopje Project 2014” which has been quite controversial, but has done wonders to create what is being called as a “Mini Las Vegas” – just without the casinos. With impeccably white Greek-style architecture, gargantuan statues and monuments throughout the town, as well as having the largest Old Bazaar outside of Turkey, this city is incredibly impressive and definitely worth a visit! (More on Skopje here)
While we may not have fallen in love with Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria is still very much worth a visit. The history of the city is incredibly fascinating and the iconic Alexsandur Nevski Memorial Church is definitely a must-see! While in Sofia, I highly recommend booking yourself an evening of traditional Bulgarian cuisine, singing and dancing at Chevermeto.
Bonus: Rila Monastery
Prior to arriving in Sofia, you simply can’t pass up the opportunity to visit the “Crown Jewel of Bulgaria” and a UNESCO World Heritage site with its impressively vibrant frescoes. The Rila Monastery, located deep within the Rila Mountains was founded by students who wished to study and learn from the hermit monk who lived in a cave for many years. The monastery was once home to over 300 monks, but today only around 60 are left.
With brightly colored buildings both with historic Ottoman and Western European architecture and ancient ruins dating back to the Romans, Plovdiv feels like you’re stepping back in time. It is currently being debated as to whether or not it’s the oldest city in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world! As Bulgaria’s second largest city, there is a mixture of history and a young hip vibe that permeates every corner of the town.
Plovdiv’s Ottoman houses offer a glimpse into the lives wealthy merchants dating back to the early 19th century, which was my favourite part of visiting this amazing city! The town is getting prepped as it has been named the 2019 European Capital of Culture!
Bonus: Sunny Beach & Old Nessebar, Bulgaria
Bulgaria’s coast on the Black Sea has become quite the hot spot for young tourists looking to party on a budget at Sunny Beach or even Golden Sands as an alternative to Greece or Italy. With that said, you can expect lots of bars, restaurant and amazing beaches at Bulgaria’s largest beach resort to soak up all the sunshine you want. Straddling the coastline, you’ll notice one massive resort after another, which speaks volumes as to how popular this beach destination is for families, couples and groups of friends.
However, if you’re more interested in history, culture and architecture, just a few minutes away is the small port town of Old Nessebar. Dating back well over 3000 years, it is one of only a few UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bulgaria. What makes this town so charming besides the Black Sea which encircles it, is the beautiful wooden architecture known as “National Revival” which dates back to when Bulgaria regained its independence in 1878, making for some dreamy photos.
With wide boulevards, spacious squares and many decadent buildings throughout the city, Bucharest feels more like you could be in Paris. However, with its turbulent past under Communism, many buildings were replaced by large grey Soviet style buildings and many others are crumbling. Since the country overthrew its dictator, the city has begun to flourish once again. With a young hipster atmosphere, the city center is alive with over 200 bars, cafes and restaurants.
While here, I highly recommend taking a free walking tour of the town to learn about the fascinating history, the people and the architecture. Be sure to take a peek inside the new, modern Carturesti Carusel bookstore, have a meal at Hanul lui Manuc, the Urbanist or Caru’ cu Bere and if you’re interested in taking a tour of the megalomaniac Parliament Palace built by the former dictator, be sure to apply online prior to your arrival.
Bonus: Timisoara, Romania
Last, but certainly not least, if you’re interested in political history, then consider visiting the third largest city in Romania which proudly boasts being the home of the beginning of the Romanian Revolution which eventually toppled the country’s dictator. When visiting the town, take in the pleasantly colorful Main Square which has been beautifully restored to its former glory after being badly destroyed during WWII and the slow decay under Communism. There is a youthful vibe here as the city is home to thousands of students and there seems to always be something going on.
As the Balkan countries continue to rebuild, modernize and improve their infrastructure, they will continue to become more and more popular with tourists looking to explore a new corner of the world beyond Paris, London, and Berlin. Many are still under the impression that this region is still very unsafe, but I found that to be quite untrue. The roads were our biggest worry, but as I said, the infrastructure is continuously being improved.
Yes, corruption still runs a bit rampant in some countries, there is still a lot of poverty and buildings riddled with bullet holes or on the verge of crumbling at the seams, but over time, as tourism increases in this region, these too shall fade. But there’s beauty in the breakdown, right? So, get going before it become too touristy!
About the Writer
Lorelei is an American expat who moved to Germany in 2012 and is the author of California Globetrotter. Since then, she has been traveling around Germany discovering the best kept secrets. She has a serious addiction to adorable half-timbered towns and castles beyond the typical touristy destinations. To discover more charming, wanderlusty towns, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest!
Have you had the chance to visit the Balkans in your travels? Where have been your favourite cities in the Balkans that you’ve visited? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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