Cobblestoned streets, fairy-tale forests, wine regions, medieval towns, sandy beaches, ancient ruins, cosmopolitan capitals, old bazaars, almost definitely haunted castles and over a thousand islands. Adventure, anyone?
Ripe for Adventure
Your timing couldn't be better. Countries that were once hard going have oiled the infrastructure and rolled out the welcome mat. Cities that once made headlines for all the wrong reasons are now impressing with their diversity and authenticity. Landmarks that were all but obliterated in the 1990s – like Mostar's iconic 16th-century stone bridge and Dubrovnik's Old Town walls – have been painstakingly resurrected. Beyond the sights to be seen, though, it's the unabashed hospitality that makes each day spent in the Balkans surprising. A quiet lunch by yourself can quickly morph into dinner by the seaside with enthusiastic locals who won't hear of you not trying everything on the menu. This is a region brimming with fresh adventures that are more accessible than ever before.
Rocky mountains and terracotta towns plunge spectacularly into the Adriatic Sea along the Croatian and Montenegrin coastlines. Parts of the Balkans have been luring outdoor adventurers for centuries, but some pockets are only now being added to adrenalin junkies' do-before-you-die lists. Dramatic landscapes like Albania’s and Macedonia's ominous mountain peaks are made for hiking and biking, and there are wild rivers to raft in Bosnia & Hercegovina, Serbia or Slovenia. For those who would rather just absorb the great outdoors than set out to conquer them, some of the boat rides in the Balkans glide you past idyllic scenery incomparable to any in the world.
Home to History
Though change is coming on quickly, timeless traditions and cultural customs aren't falling by the wayside. Blood feuds in some parts aren't as ancient as they ought to be and pastoral scenes are still as home-grown as they ever were. It's a region where you can barely keep up with the nightlife, but still get stuck behind a horse and cart. Urban landscapes are a pop-up book of ancient architecture on a grand scale, and winding Ottoman streets are punctuated with Austro-Hungarian villas and the occasional communist concrete block. Throw in Roman ruins and a Venetian facade, then wrap it all in a medieval wall and plonk it by the sea. History isn't just ancient in the Balkans, it's epic. This was the battleground and resting place of the Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires; a stroll through town can evoke the rise and fall of civilisations.
Budget: less than €40
- Hostel beds for as little as €10
- Self-catering is easy everywhere
- Save by sleeping in private rooms and campsites
- Midrange hotels average about €50 per night
- Standard restaurant meals for about €10
- Comfortable train travel in ‘soft’ sleepers
Top end: more than €150
- Upwards of €100 for top end, prime view hotel
- Prime meat in a fine restaurant about €25
- Hire cars about €30 per day
If You Like
Regions at a Glance
Europe doesn’t get more classic and more edgy than this. Parts of the Balkans strain under the weight of visitors in summer, while other areas remain entirely remote. Some countries will project you back to the birth of ancient civilisations, while in others you will bear witness to new nations finding their feet. It’s impossible to generalise about a region as drop-dead diverse as this one, with crumbling monasteries teetering on clifftops, upbeat urban capitals, otherworldly landscapes, decadent dining, world-class wine, rugged mountains and rushing rivers all wrapped in ribbons of majestic coastline, sprinkled with thousands of islands, and packed with memorable people who can’t wait to welcome you.
Once isolated Albania still offers isolated beaches along the Ionian Coast. Moving inland, Albania’s mountains are some of Europe’s most spectacular; the Koman ferry is possibly its most beautiful boat ride. Tucked away in far-flung landscapes, village life is still governed by traditions that have long been forgotten elsewhere; you may encounter sworn virgins and shepherds in these parts. Meanwhile in Tirana, hip cafe culture rules the day before club culture takes hold of the night.
Bosnia & Hercegovina
The accessibility and affordability of outdoor adventures in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) mean it is fast becoming a European hub for kayaking, skiing, hiking and mountain biking. Its mixed Muslim and Christian heritage is reflected in the food, culture and architecture. Rebuilt historical centres showcase its history; scars of recent horrors still show in parts, Socialist eyesores taint rural landscapes, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian buildings loom in urban centres, and charming medieval castles are dotted around elsewhere.
The old towns of Zagreb, Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik are full of fans, but take your time getting between them. The 1778km coastline of Croatia is lined with fantastical ancient towns, sleepy fishing villages, glitzy beaches and seafood restaurants. Off the coast, 1244 islands cater for almost anyone’s idea of idyllic; Euro-chic yacht life sails past backpacker beach party ghettos. Istria’s food and wine are decadent, and eight national parks showcase Croatia’s extraordinary scenery.
Things aren’t simple in Europe’s newest country. International expats bustle around cosmopolitan Pristina with its mix of modern shops and Ottoman-style bazaars. Beyond the capital, Kosovo’s Serbian monasteries have outstanding frescoes, age-old atmosphere and forbidding walls that have withstood the turbulence of times past. The hills around Peja are ideal for scenic hiking and skiing. A visit to Kosovo is not only fascinating, but also contributes to the country’s emergence onto the European travel scene.
A Balkan-Mediterranean hybrid, Macedonia offers hassle-free travel through a spectrum of experiences. Lake Ohrid is rimmed by spectacular towns and swimming spots. Macedonia’s Byzantine churches house important medieval art, while its monasteries are all about location, perched on cliff ridges or even built into cliff faces. Hikers, climbers and mountain bikers can enjoy panoramas over untouched mountain landscapes, while wine connoisseurs can enjoy a drop of vino with laid-back locals among the seemingly endless vineyards.
Size isn’t everything. Montenegro crams a lot into a small space, including resplendent sandy beaches, luxury retreats, extreme sports, jagged mountain peaks, dramatic gorges and charming old towns wrapped in a Mediterranean climate. The cherry on top is the Bay of Kotor, where rugged mountains and orange-roofed ancient towns emerge dramatically from the sea. Hikers gravitate to Montenegro’s impressive national parks, while rafters paddle their way through the sheer walls of the Tara Canyon.
The sounds emanating from the clubs of Belgrade, the all-out edgy EXIT festival, and the Dragačevo Trumpet Assembly in Guča are reinventing Serbia’s old image as the bad boy of the Balkans. Serbians don’t do things by halves; the hospitality is palpable and the diversity is unexpected. With art nouveau architecture up north, Turkish-toned Novi Pazar down south, Roma communities dotted between and Serbian Orthodoxy throughout, Serbia is a place to unlearn what you think you know.
Nearly all visitors are mesmerised by the sheer beauty of this tiny country. The main draw is the jaw-dropping scenery, from the soaring peaks of the Julian Alps to the subterranean magic of Postojna Cave or the idyllic Lake Bled with its tiny baroque chapel on a picturesque island. The list of activities on offer is endless, with the most popular pursuits skiing, hiking, cycling and rafting. But this is also a terrific foodie destination, whose regional white and red wines pair well with local specialties.
- Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/balkans) Destination information, hotel bookings, traveller forum and more.
- Hidden Europe (www.hiddeneurope.co.uk) Fascinating magazine and online dispatches from all the continent's corners.
- Independent Balkan News Agency (www.balkaneu.com) Region-specific economics and politics.
- Balkan Insight (www.balkaninsight.com) Find out what's going on before you get there.
- Calvert Journal (www.calvertjournal.com) Online magazine on contemporary culture in eastern Europe, including the Balkans.
- Via Dinarica Hiking Trail
This 1930km 'mega-trail' (https://viadinarica.com/) connects Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. Its main artery, known as the White Trail, links the peaks along the Dinaric Alps and Šar mountain ranges.
- Balkan Cross-Border Festivals
EXIT in Serbia still reigns supreme, but it recently started spreading out to neighbouring countries: the Sea Dance Festival (www.seadancefestival.me) in Montenegro kicked off in 2014 as EXIT's after-party at Budva's Jaz Beach; the Sea Star Festival (www.seastarfestival.com) was launched in Croatia's Umag in May 2017; and in March 2018 the EXIT team brought a new festival to Bosnia's Jahorina mountain.
- Game of Thrones Tours
Since gracing our screens as a filming location in Game of Thrones, ever-popular Dubrovnik is served by tours of the city. Dragons are not included.
- Belgrade's museums
After being closed for 10 and 15 years respectively, due to reconstruction and a lack of funds, two of Belgrade's major museums have finally reopened – the Museum of Contemporary Art in October 2017 and the National Museum in June 2018.
- Bunk’Art, Tirana
Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s rule of terror and paranoia resulted in hundreds of thousands of concrete boltholes across Albania. Some are now repurposed; one bunker on Tirana's outskirts has a new lease of life as a gallery of modern art.
- Ferhadija Džamija, Banja Luka
Restoring Banja Luka's classic central mosque took longer than building the original, but the result was well worth the wait.
- Archaeological Museum of Macedonia
This shiny new museum is the culmination of Skopje's recent splurge on monuments to boost national pride. Its three floors extol the riches of Macedonia's weighty history better than anywhere else in the country.
- Golubac Fortress
The remains of this 14th-century fortress on the Danube brood majestically at the entrance to the Iron Gates gorge and Djerdap National Park in Serbia. A massive EU-funded reconstruction was expected to be completed by autumn 2018.
- Montenegro's Offbeat Outdoors
Adventurous and quirky new activities are offered in Montenegro, from quadbiking to glamping, though our vote goes to submarine rides around the Bay of Kotor.
- Zagreb's Bistro Explosion
Zagreb has gone bistro crazy over the last couple of years, adding a touch of variety to a dining scene dominated by local-pleasing Croatian and Italian eateries.
When to Go
High Season (Jun–Aug)
- High temperatures and balmy evenings.
- Hotels will be about 30% more expensive and you may need to book in advance, particularly by the beach.
- Big draws like the Croatian islands will be crowded.
Shoulder Season (Apr–May & Sep–Oct)
- The weather remains mild and warm.
- Prices drop and crowds dwindle.
- Various festivals going on; all up the best time to travel in the region.
Low Season (Nov–Mar)
- Days can be dark and cold.
- Hotel prices drop to their lowest.
- Many attractions and coastal towns all but close – time to hit the ski slopes!