The Balkans have attracted adventurers for centuries – literary bigwigs Lord Byron and Rebecca West penned romantic accounts of journeys through these, once foreboding and mysterious lands. For modern-day travellers, intrigued by the puzzle of Europe’s rough-around-the-edges southeastern corner and eager to explore beyond the stereotypes, rewards are many and memorable.

Ancient heritage sites reveal the cultural riches of a region that’s always been a crossroads – and frequently a battleground – of civilisations, while surprisingly upbeat capitals reflect the dynamic transformations of recent years as the Balkans rediscover their identity in typically over-the-top, quirky fashion. Meanwhile, flying under the radar are some pretty impressive sites (yet to be mapped on the tourist trail) where hands-on history lessons are handed out in splendid surroundings.

Echoes of the past: World Heritage sites

Ancient ruins at Butrint national park, Albania. Image by Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet

Butrint, Albania: Butrint national park is Unesco World Heritage–listed, along with two other Albanian gems: the historic centres of Berat, ‘the town of 1000 windows’, and Gjirokastra, ‘the city of stone’.

Spanning around 2500 years, from Hellenistic and Roman to Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman times, this huge archaeological site is a delight to explore. Some of the most significant monuments from the various eras include a 4th-century-BC Greek sanctuary and a theatre from the 3rd century BC, Roman baths from the 2nd century AD, a 6th-century Christian baptistery and basilica, and a Venetian castle from the 14th to 16th centuries (don’t miss the relief of a lion killing a bull on the wall of one of the ancient gates).

Legend has it that Butrint was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy; later Julius Caesar established a colony here; it suffered vandal raids and was captured by the Normans, then became an outpost of Venetian Corfu; even Lord Byron was welcomed by Ali Pasha, ‘the Muslim Bonaparte’, in these parts. Not only does Butrint provide a fascinating insight into the layers of mind-boggling Mediterranean and Balkans history, but its natural setting – ancient ruins spread out in a lush forest on the Ionian coast – creates an enchanting atmosphere.

Tip: The 29-sq-km Butrint national park is well signposted, but make sure you allow for plenty of time (eg a couple of hours) to wander around. It’s easily reached by a public bus from Saranda, itself only a 45-minute ferry ride from the Greek island of Corfu, making Butrint an excellent day trip for summer holidaymakers.

Ceiling fresco at Dečani monastery. Image by Franco Pecchio / CC BY-SA 2.0

Visoki Dečani, Kosovo: Visoki Dečani monastery is arguably the most impressive site from the collective known as the ‘Medieval Monuments in Kosovo’, which also includes the Patriarchate of Peć, the Gračanica monastery near Pristina, and Prizren’s Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš (it had a stint as a mosque during the Ottoman rule). These four sacred Orthodox sites are inscribed both on Unesco’s World Heritage and World Heritage in Danger lists.

Nowadays heavily guarded monastic enclaves, these forlornly beautiful reminders of medieval splendour boast impressive age-old frescoes. The early-14th-century Dečani, however, stands out for several reasons. Its incredibly picturesque setting in a river valley at the foot of the Accursed Mountains makes the first glimpse of its tri-coloured marble walls a memorable sight. The Romanesque features, obvious in the architecture, are unusual for the predominantly Byzantine style of medieval Christian monuments in the Balkans. There’s an outstanding treasury of Byzantine icons, and more than a thousand fresco themes – look for the unique representation of Jesus with a sword and the equally impressive family tree of the Serbian medieval Nemanjić dynasty.

This still-vulnerable oasis of serenity remains true to its time-honoured tradition: the monastery sheltered refugees of all ethnicities during the Kosovo war.

Tip: Dečani has a thriving community of monks who are not only restoring frescoes and painting icons, but also making their very own wine, cheese and honey – you can buy all of these at the small souvenir shop. Bring a passport when visiting, as you’ll need to surrender it at the KFOR checkpoint just before the entrance to the monastery.

Views over Lake Ohrid from Sveti Jovan at Kaneo church. Image by Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet

Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia: North Macedonia’s main tourist drawcard is among those select sites that earned a Unesco World Heritage listing both for their natural and cultural significance. The four-million-years-old Lake Ohrid, boasting more than 200 endemic species, is one of the deepest in Europe; only a few others in the world (eg Lake Baikal) were formed in such a remote geological age.

The town of Ohrid – likewise one of the oldest human settlements in Europe – is nicknamed the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ for its huge number of archaeological sites, some dating back more than 5000 years. It also lays claim to the origins of Slavic literacy, thanks to the work of Sts Climent and Naum on the development of Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts – search for the well-preserved epigraphs inside the Sveti Naum monastery. The old town’s treasures range from the medieval hilltop castle of Car Samoil and the Hellenistic-era amphitheatre to the Byzantine frescoes of the grand Sveta Sofija cathedral and the famous Sveti Jovan at Kaneo church, stunningly perched on a cliff above the azure lake.

Popular modern-day events include the 30km International Swimming Marathon between Sveti Naum and Ohrid (held in August) and the renowned Ohrid Summer Festival, featuring opera, theatre and dance (July to August). The ultimate timeless souvenir are the elaborate Ohrid pearls, uniquely crafted from the scales of the little fish from Lake Ohrid. The method is a family secret, passed on from generation to generation, so make sure you get an official certificate with your beautiful jewellery.

Tip: For a memorable experience, St Naum Hotel on the lake’s southern shore offers traditional rooms and wonderful views in peacock-protected surroundings, while Restaurant Ostrovo, with fully equipped rafts on the springs of Crni Drim river, serves local fish delicacies.

The quirk factor: revamped capitals

‘Newborn’ monument in Pristina. Image by amanderson2 / CC BY 2.0

Pristina, Kosovo: The ‘newborn’ capital of Kosovo, Pristina plays host to multiple EU and UN organisations, lending this buzzing city of about 200,000 people a more cosmopolitan feel. Recent additions to Pristina’s cityscape include statues honouring several Albanian heroes: 15th-century leader of national resistance to the Ottomans, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg; Catholic missionary (born in neighbouring Macedonia) Mother Teresa; and the first president of the Republic of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova. Signs of glorification of the US are also hard to miss: soon after Kosovo proclaimed independence in 2008, Pristina unveiled a 3m-high bronze statue of President Bill Clinton in the downtown boulevard named after him, while reportedly the world’s second-largest copy of Lady Liberty greets visitors from the rooftop of Hotel Victory. And the popular ‘Hillary’ boutique on Bill Clinton Boulevard sells fashion inspired by the style of Mrs Clinton, who visited the shop herself in 2012.

Tip: The Ethnographic Museum, housed in an Ottoman-era building, is a great introduction to the way of life in Kosovo from the 15th to the 20th century. It focuses on four themes (birth, life, death and intangible heritage); exhibits include furniture, handicrafts, clothing, musical instruments etc. English-speaking guides can explain the traditional birth, wedding and burial rituals.

Bridge of statues leads to Skopje's new Archaeological Museum. Image by Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet

Skopje, North Macedonia: For a full-on time-travel experience, North Macedonia’s capital Skopje offers history lessons on every corner. The cobblestoned lanes of the Ottoman bazaar, the city’s most atmospheric quarter, are filled with crafts stores, mosques and hammams, traditional eateries, teahouses and wine bars. But these days it’s upstaged by the ‘Skopje 2014’ project – the government’s love-it-or-hate-it makeover of the city. Apart from monumental new buildings (such as the neoclassical Archaeological Museum on the bank of the Vardar river, or the Porta Macedonia triumphal arch with a rooftop observation deck), a huge number of quirky statues have popped up all over town offering a veritable historic hall-of-fame introduction to North Macedonia. But even locals have trouble telling who’s who on two statue-studded pedestrian bridges over the Vardar river, now keeping company to the neighbouring 15th-century Stone Bridge.

Tip: The newly opened Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, spread over three floors, features over 6000 artefacts from prehistory to the Middle Ages. Some of the exhibits presented to the public for the first time include a copy of Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus, and a reconstructed Roman chariot from the 2nd century. Fifteen wax figures are also on display, among them those of Alexander the Great and Phillip II.

Tirana’s multi-coloured buildings. Image by Tony Bowden / CC BY-SA 2.0

Tirana, Albania: Albania’s energetic capital, which in 2014 celebrated the 400th anniversary of its founding by Sulejman Pasha, Tirana has come a long way since it emerged from the shadows (and isolation) of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship. These days it’s more likely to make travel headlines for the burgeoning nightlife in the trendy Blloku neighbourhood. The local government’s campaigns from recent years have focused on both symbolic and practical improvements – splashing striking colours over drab communist apartment blocks, increasing green spaces and introducing cycling lanes along the city’s wide boulevards – and are slowly but surely contributing to Tirana’s transformation into a more attractive and liveable urban environment. Despite the makeover, just like in the rest of the country, you’re sure to come across a quirky mushroom-shaped communist-era bunker in the capital.

Tip: Just 18km southeast of the city centre, on the Tirana–Elbasan national road, medieval Petrela Castle (fortified during Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s reign) offers fantastic views over the capital and Erzen valley from the top of a craggy hill. There's a restaurant for some fine dining in this impressive setting, which was under the command of Skanderbeg’s sister during the war with the Turks.

Under the radar: history lessons

Views from Kokino megalithic observatory, Macedonia. Image by Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet

Kokino megalithic observatory, North Macedonia: A fascinating place most people have never heard of, Kokino megalithic observatory in North Macedonia is a Bronze Age archaeological site discovered in 2001. Significant recognition soon came from NASA: in 2005 the agency placed Kokino on its list of the world’s most significant ancient observatories alongside Stonehenge, Abu Simbel and Angkor Wat. Kokino is also on Unesco’s tentative World Heritage list. Numerous artefacts unearthed at the site include ceramic vessels, stone axes and more, while excavations of an Iron Age settlement found at the locality’s southern terrace are in the works. The seemingly random pile of rocks is a window to an ancient civilisation: the main elements of this sacred site, which was used in ancient times for the observation of celestial bodies and recording of solstices and equinoxes, are stone throne seats and east-horizon markers for the positions of the sun and the moon. Ancient midsummer rituals (probably related to the celebrations of the harvest season) are re-enacted these days as the annual Wake of the Kokino Dawn (31 July), featuring recitals and music performances.

Tip: It’s recommended to visit the Kokino site with a guide from the Kumanovo National Museum (Done Božinov 24, 500m from the bus stop; open Tuesday to Sunday), as it’s not signposted. Bronze Age artefacts discovered at the site are also exhibited at the museum. Kokino is located about 35km northeast of Kumanovo.

Tomb of a Sufi Muslim at Novo Brdo, Kosovo. Image by Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet

Novo Brdo (Novobërdë) ruins, Kosovo: Novo Brdo (Novobërdë), 30km east of Pristina, is known as the ‘green lung of Kosovo’, but there’s a more interesting story to this pleasant hiking area. Back in the 15th century, Novo Brdo was a thriving mining complex with around 45,000 inhabitants. The mine was rich in minerals (gold, silver, lead and zinc); according to some records it produced 6 tonnes of silver annually. There was even a factory for coins and for gold and silver jewellery. Novo Brdo’s wealth was famous across Europe, and miners came to settle all the way from Saxony, while trade with Dubrovnik and Venice flourished. The mine served several empires – Roman, Byzantine and Turkish – but it started to decline with the Austro-Turkish war in the 17th century. Apart from the fortress ruins – look for the large sign of the cross high up on the outer walls – the complex includes the remains of a 13th-century cathedral (built over a temple from the 4th century BC), a 16th-century tomb of a Sufi Muslim, as well as a functioning mosque from the 18th century.

Tip: A visit with a multilingual local guide can be organised through the Tourist information centre near the village of Bostane (check the website for details). Various outdoors activities and accommodation in rural guesthouses in the area can also be arranged.

A bunker guards an abandoned boat at Sazan island, Albania. Image by Brana Vladisavljevic / Lonely Planet

Sazan ghost island, Albania: Albanian tourism is still in the developing stage, and the country’s authorities are looking at opening up new attractions for visitors to this long-time isolated country. One of them is the captivating Sazan ghost island. The largest island on the Albanian coast, Sazan is about a 45-minute boat ride from the port of Vlora, right where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. As an important strategic point, it’s an old military base as well as the location of a former Soviet Union submarine. Sazan opened to public in summer 2015, and it sure is a fascinating place to explore, both for its post-apocalyptic feel and the enjoyable hiking through Mediterranean vegetation with postcard-perfect views of the sea below. The utterly abandoned buildings include apartment blocks and even a school for the military personnel’s families. Of course, the island is dotted with bunkers (as far as these little concrete monsters go, you could do a lot worse for location!), a stubborn reminder of what once was Europe’s most paranoid dictatorship.

Brana Vladisavljevic is Lonely Planet’s Destination Editor for Southeastern and Eastern Europe. She’s a big fan of the Balkans and loves rediscovering the region. Follow her tweets @branavl.

Brana travelled to Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia with support from Adventure Travel and Trade Association and Western Balkans Geotourism Council. Lonely Planet contributors don’t accept freebies in return for positive coverage.

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