Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
There’s a sense of secrecy and mystery to the Bay of Kotor. Grey mountain walls rise steeply from steely blue waters, getting higher and higher as you progress through their folds to the hidden reaches of the inner bay. Here, ancient stone settlements hug the shoreline, with the old alleyways of Kotor concealed in its innermost reaches behind hefty stone walls. Talk about drama! But you wouldn't expect anything else of the Balkans, where life is exuberantly Mediterranean and lived full of passion on these time-worn streets.
In Croatia, get up close and personal with the city by walking Dubrovnik’s spectacular city walls, as history is unfurled from the battlements. No visit is complete without a leisurely stroll along these ramparts, the finest in the world and Dubrovnik's main claim to fame. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, they are still remarkably intact and the vistas over terracotta rooftops and the Adriatic Sea are sublime, especially at dusk when the sunset turns the hues dramatic and the panoramas unforgettable.
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Whether you come to sublime, hilly Ohrid for its sturdy medieval castle, to wander the stone laneways of its Old Town or to gaze at its restored Plaošnik, every visitor pauses for a few moments at the Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo, set high on a bluff overlooking Lake Ohrid and its popular beaches. It's the prime spot for absorbing the town's beautiful architecture, idling sunbathers and distant fishing skiffs – all framed by the rippling green of Mt Galičica to the southeast and the endless expanse of lake stretching out elsewhere.
Belgrade may be a million light years away from hedonistic hotspots like Barcelona and Berlin, but somehow, the gritty city has morphed into one of the top party destinations in the world. Perhaps it’s an enduring live-for-the-moment phenomenon (the city was repeatedly bombed in 1999) or simply the sociable Serbian spirit: whatever the reason, Belgrade by night (and well past dawn) throbs to the beat of countless clubs, bars and splavovi, floating pleasure pontoons. Ask a local for their favourite haunt, or just follow the crowds.
Kosovo’s most charming town is pretty little Prizren, nestled in the valley of the River Bistrica and dominated by the minarets and church towers of its old town. Despite the dark legacy of war, Prizren today is a forward-looking place, with one of Eastern Europe’s best film festivals, Dokufest, bringing a splash of international sophistication every summer. The rest of the year you can explore the town’s rich heritage in the form of its hilltop fortress, grand mosques and ancient churches.
Island Hopping in Croatia
From short jaunts between nearby islands to overnight rides along the length of the Croatian coast, travelling by sea is a great and inexpensive way to experience the Croatian side of the Adriatic. Take in the scenery of this stunning coastline as you whiz past some of Croatia's 1244 islands and explore hidden beaches like those on the Pakleni Islands. And if you have cash to splash, take it up a couple of notches and charter a sailboat to see the islands in style, propelled by winds and sea currents.
Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina
If the 1993 bombardment of the iconic16th-century stone bridge in Mostar underlined the heartbreaking pointlessness of Yugoslavia's brutal civil war, its painstaking reconstruction has proved symbolic of a peaceful post-conflict era. The charming Ottoman quarter has been especially convincingly rebuilt and is once again a delightful patchwork of stone mosques, souvenir peddlers and inviting cafes. In summer it is tourists rather than militias that besiege the place. You can still find bombed-out buildings, but many of these seem to have become an almost organic part of the townscape.
Mt Triglav, Slovenia
For such a small country, Slovenia has got it all: charming towns, great wines, a Venetian-inspired seashore and, most of all, mountains. The highest peak, Mt Triglav (2864m), stands particularly tall in local lore. Indeed, the saying goes that you’re not really Slovene until you've climbed to the top. If time is an issue and you're driving, head for the high-altitude Vršič Pass, which crosses the Julian Alps and leads down to the sunny coastal region in one hair-raising, spine-tingling hour.
Accursed Mountains, Albania
Albania’s natural landscape is its greatest drawcard, and it's best experienced in the country’s north, where the Accursed Mountains offer superb hiking, traditional mountain villages that still look like they’re living in the 19th century, and the ferry ride across stunning Lake Koman. The most popular hike is the gorgeous and only moderately challenging day trek from Valbona to Theth, which shouldn’t be missed. But for keen walkers there are dozens of opportunities to walk in the raw near-wilderness of high Albania.
The capital of the multicultural northern Serbian province of Vojvodina and the 2021 European Capital of Culture, Novi Sad is famous for its energetic EXIT Festival, gregarious groggeries and Danube beach parties. But this rustic region is also distinguished by its tranquil nature, mellow villages, unhurried vibe, Hungarian-influenced gastronomy and a laid-back legacy of big-hearted hospitality. Compact and well linked by good roads, the quirky highlights of Vojvodina offer a slow-travel treat for those keen on kicking back.