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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.

Osijek's main square fountain and cathedral
The beautiful architecture in the university town of Osijek has survived against the odds © xbrchx/Shutterstock

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
Cafes with tables along a cobbled street in Belgrade
Explore the bohemian quarter in the sunshine and end your day in a floating club © e2dan/Shutterstock

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:

An overview of the old town beside Miljacka River, Sarajevo
Two very different cultures dominate the landscape of Sarajevo © Pete Seaward/Lonely Planet

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:

A view of the islets that lie within the Bay of Kotor.
There are so many beautiful islets in the Bay of Kotor that it's hard to choose a favourite © irakite/Shutterstock

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:

A woman sits on a hill overlooking Dubrovnik's old town
Get to know more than the well-trodden routes in Dubrovnik © Anna Lurye/Shutterstock

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:

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.

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