Not many regions can brag that they have renowned national parks, like Durmitor and Plitvice Lakes; world-class cities that retain an air of relaxed cool, like Belgrade; or richly indulgent local food, like ćevapi and burek – but then not many regions boast the riches of the Balkans.
Yet, while the region maintains a resilient and dignified facade, the scars of its past are still visible enough to show there are many stories to tell here. Stories that Lonely Planet Experiences powered by Intrepid Travel, is helping its travellers observe first-hand.
Prior to my visit to the Balkans, I had a glaring lack of knowledge about former Yugoslavia and its intense conflict in the ‘90s – something I was duly self-conscious about. That was a big part of the reason I joined an Intrepid Travel tour; an experience that turned out to be akin to travelling with a living, breathing history book.
Joined by a local Balkan leader, a bevy of expert day tour guides, and 13 other like-minded travellers from around the world, I spent 15 days exploring the Balkans in an immersive, respectful way, with plenty of free time to take advantage of all that the region has to offer.
Experience a classic Balkan welcome in Osijek
Osijek in Croatia perfectly showcases Balkan character: genuine hospitality, a hardy spirit, and plenty of homemade rakija (grappa) flowing. Here, we enjoyed a guided walk that included the site where the conflict first broke out – the personal anecdotes of our guide and the pock-marked buildings around us giving life to the sombre history lesson. Then, once we worked up an appetite, we enjoyed a delicious slow-cooked deer stew at a family-run restaurant.
What to do in Osijek in your free time:
- - Try local craft beers at Kušaonica Piva Gajba
- - Meet world-famous Lipizzaner stallions at Ergela farm in nearby Đakovo
- - Do a day trip to one of Europe’s largest wetlands, Kopački Rit Nature Park
Hit up Belgrade’s offbeat haunts
While at first glance Belgrade might seem like just another gritty cosmopolitan city, with a splash of Nikola Tesla memorabilia, it has many highlights that are unique to this intriguing capital – if you know where to find them. Past the bustle of the pedestrianised street Knez Mihailova, our leader took us one golden-hour evening to nearby Belgrade municipality Zemun, for sweeping views and a Danube riverside seafood dinner. Our quest for offbeat haunts later continued to a dive bar inspired by Gavrilo Princip, the 23-year-old who essentially ignited WWI, before some of my braver tour mates hit up Belgrade’s floating nightclubs.
What to do in Belgrade in your free time:
- - Enjoy the beach on nearby artificial island, Ada Ciganlija
- - Stop by Marshal Tito’s Mausoleum
- - Visit one of Belgrade’s (many) museums, including the Museum of Yugoslavia, the Military Museum, and (you guessed it) the Nikola Telsa Museum
Witness worlds colliding in Sarajevo
Standing in Sarajevo’s Baščaršija district, a distant call to prayer chiming while the city buzzes unassumingly, you feel the juxtaposition of Sarajevo: tragedy and humour, east and west, tradition and modernity. This contrast was a welcome theme on our tour – from enjoying a Bosnian cooking class, complete with time-honoured recipes, to drinking local brews at a hipster craft beer bar. Even during a day tour to Mostar, we visited Stari Most (literally 'Old Bridge'), then the newly graffiti-covered, abandoned bobsled track from the ‘84 Olympics.
What to do in Sarajevo in your free time:
- - Go to a local football game
- - Imagine life under the siege at the Tunnel of Hope Museum
- - See amazing views of the city from the Yellow Fortress
Revel in Montenegro’s natural beauty
Montenegro is hands down one of the most beautiful countries in the world. We were lucky to road-trip through its famed Durmitor National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site marked by rugged mountains, emerald lakes, and deep canyons. Once past Durmitor, we continued to Kotor. Unlike some of our cruise ship peers, we enjoyed solid face time with this stunning mountain-clad port town – hiking St John's Fortress, cruising Kotor Bay, and visiting the twin islands of Our Lady of the Rocks and Sveti Djordje.
What to do in Kotor in your free time:
- - Get your shopping fix at Kotor Bazaar
- - Sip a cocktail at steampunk bar Letrika
- - Laze on the beaches at nearby Budva
Get to know the real Dubrovnik
Ever since Game of Thrones put Dubrovnik on everyone’s bucket list, Croatia’s Adriatic gem welcomes a never-ending stream of visitors. Luckily for us, our leader showed us the best ways to avoid the biggest crowds. Upon arrival, we had a surreal visit to the abandoned Hotel Belvedere; what was once one of the most luxurious hotels in the region is now a shell of its former self. It was completely destroyed during the war in the '90s and now remains frozen in that time while the city moves on around it. Later that day, we were given an explanatory tour of the city walls of Dubrovnik, followed by a delicious dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant on the outskirts of the old town.
What to do in Dubrovnik in your free time:
- - Head to lush Lokrum island for a swim
- - Take in the view from Mt Srđ
- - View powerful imagery from the Balkan conflict at the photography museum War Photo Limited
Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with Intrepid Travel & Urban Adventures, are a new range of mutli-day, day and half-day tours offering amazing experiences in the world’s best-loved destinations. You can book this Balkans tour here.
You might also like: