Breezing through the Balkans
- 2 weeks
Consider this a 'greatest hits' of the Western Balkans, taking in a slice of each of the eight countries featured. It can easily be tackled on public transport, although a car will give you more flexibility for exploring the extraordinary countryside along the way.
Start by city-hopping through four of the capitals: Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia, Belgrade in Serbia and Sarajevo in Bosnia. While the first two are cute, mid-sized, Central European cities, Sarajevo's fascinating cultural fusion lets you know that you're on the East side, while Belgrade is a hub of history, culture and late-night hedonism.
Stop to take a look at the famous bridge in Mostar on your way to the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, then hop across the Croatia–Montenegro border to its 'mini me' Kotor. From here you can take an extraordinary drive via Budva, Podgorica, the breathtaking Morača Canyon and through the mountains to historic Prizren in Kosovo.
Continue on to Macedonia, and spend a night amid the old-world architecture of Ohrid on the shores of the eponymous lake. Cross into Albania to experience the wild colours of the vibrant capital, Tirana.
Cruising the Coast
- 3 Weeks
This itinerary traces a leisurely path along arguably the Mediterranean's most spectacular coastline, from the Adriatic Sea all the way to the Ionian. An extensive network of ferries and buses makes car-free travel a breeze.
Spend your first week exploring the Istrian peninsula, starting in pretty Piran, the main attraction of Slovenia's tiny slice of coast. Cross the border into Croatia and head to Poreč, where an extraordinary Byzantine basilica awaits. Continue on to the gorgeous old town of Rovinj and the ancient city of Pula, replete with Roman ruins. Be sure to take day trips into the interior to visit Istria's historic hill towns and to experience its exemplary cuisine. The best beach is in Rabac, on Istria's east coast; stop for a swim before heading up to the shabby but interesting city of Rijeka.
Set aside your second week for exploring Dalmatia but, before you do, detour to Plitvice Lakes National Park to witness its famed waterfalls. Plunge down to Zadar and wander through the slippery marble streets of the old town. Keep cruising the coast to the sun-kissed city of Split, home to Diocletian’s Palace and gateway to the Dalmatian islands. After a couple of days on party- and beach-loving Hvar Island, hop over to Korčula Town on the island of the same name. This picturesque little fortified town is a taster for the main course, the famous walled city of Dubrovnik.
Start your third week by crossing into Montenegro and driving around the extraordinarily beautiful Bay of Kotor. Take a look at palazzo-packed Perast and then press on to the fortified old town of Kotor for a couple of days. As you continue down the coast, stop for a quick look at the still-charming walled town of otherwise-overdeveloped Budva and pause along the highway for the obligatory photo of the fortified island village of Sveti Stefan. Stop for the night in buzzy Ulcinj before crossing the border into Albania and following the coast as the sea switches from the Adriatic to the Ionian. Spend your last two nights on the Albanian Riviera, making sure to visit Gjipe Beach and the ancient ruins of Butrint.
- 4 weeks
If you've got a few months to spare, excellent fitness and a local crew handling the logistics, you could tackle the extraordinary 1261km cross-border Via Dinarica hiking trail. If not, this car-based itinerary roughly traces the route, allowing for a series of day walks in remote national parks.
Start in the the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Stop for a look around Postojna Cave before heading to Cerknica to check out the disappearing lake and Notranjska Regional Park. Book in a bear-spotting tour in the Lož Valley the following day, then continue across the Croatian border to Risnjak National Park. Look out for the park's elusive namesake, lynx (ris), as you hike through the forested mountains, then continue on to busy but beautiful Plitvice Lakes National Park. Cut through the Velebit range to the coast and base yourself in Starigrad-Paklenica for a day hike in rugged Paklenica National Park. The next day, briefly leave the mountains to explore the waterfalls and lakes of Krka National Park.
Cross the border into the Hercegovina region of Bosnia and drive through Konjic to the ski resort of Bjelašnica. Spend the next day hiking to the lost-in-time villages of Umoljani and Lukomir, and sampling traditional Bosnian cuisine. Continue on to Sarajevo for a taste of the Bosnian capital and then take a detour up to Tara National Park, the most scenic part of western Serbia. Back in Bosnia, pause to view the famous bridge on the Drina River in Višegrad before pushing on to Sutjeska National Park, where excellent mountain hiking awaits.
Enter Montenegro and allow a couple of days to explore the mountains and famous river canyon in Durmitor National Park and then another day for lakeside Biogradska Gora National Park. Cross into Kosovo and base yourself in Peja (Peć) to visit its famous Orthodox monastery and to tackle the walking tracks in the nearby Rugova Valley.
Continue down into Albania and head to Valbona in the Accursed Mountains, the official end of the Via Dinarica. From here you can take day hikes into the mountains or organise a cross-border trek through a local agency, venturing into Montenegro's Prokletije National Park.
West Side Glory
- 2 weeks
Wend your way around the western edge of the Western Balkans in this route through Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Along the way you'll take in spectacular mountains, coast, lakes, rivers and waterfalls, along with Ancient Roman, Venetian, Austrian and Ottoman towns.
Start at glorious Lake Bled before delving into the art-nouveau delights of Ljubljana. Visit the Škocjan Caves and then hit the coast at picturesque Piran. Journey across the Croatian border to the glamorous seaside town of Rovinj. On the next leg you'll edge past interesting Pazin, Opatija and Rijeka en route to the extraordinary Plitvice Lakes National Park. From here, it's a breeze to duck across the Bosnian border to Bihać, gateway to the waterfalls of Una National Park.
Cross back into Croatia and continue on to Zadar, a walled coastal city with a profusion of Roman remains. There's more of Ancient Rome to be spotted in effervescent Split. From here, venture back into the heart of Bosnia to visit the charming Ottoman town of Jajce. More Ottoman architecture can be seen in Mostar, including its signature bridge. Press on to Trebinje, a pleasant little place with a walled riverside old town. Dubrovnik Airport is nearby.
The Middle Road
- 3 Weeks
A trio of capital cities, five national parks and a medley of historic towns punctuate this route through the heart of the Balkans, traversing Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro.
Start your journey with a few days in Serbia's rambunctious capital, Belgrade. Once you've explored its museums, fortress, smoky cafes and lively bars, take a detour northwest to Novi Sad, the principal city of the nation's multiethnic Vojvodina region. From here it's only a half-hour drive to Fruška Gora National Park; set aside a day for hiking, wine-tasting and expeditions to historic Serbian Orthodox monasteries. Head south to Tara National Park and linger to explore the forested mountains and dramatic Drina River canyon.
Cross the border into Bosnia and visit Višegrad, the town immortalised in Ivo Andrić's acclaimed novel The Bridge on the Drina. From here, Sarajevo is due west and worthy of a multi-day stay. Soak up the sights, sounds and tastes of its historic Baščaršija quarter, feasting on burek (filled pastry twists), baklava and Bosnian coffee in the shadow of historic mosques, churches and synagogues.
Continue on to sun-scorched Hercegovina, where the highway hugs the emerald-hued Neretva River. Stop in Konjic to see the old stone bridge and secret nuclear bunker, before continuing on to gaze upon the exquisite architectural ensemble that is the Ottoman-era core of Mostar. Pause in Blagaj to visit the peaceful tekke (dervish house) before continuing east to Sutjeska National Park, distinguished by its mountain scenery and extraordinary Partisan memorial.
Hop across the Montenegrin border and spend a couple of days hiking and rafting in mountainous Durmitor National Park. One night is enough to get the gist of the modern capital, Podgorica, and allow another to explore the museums and galleries of Old Montenegro's historic capital, Cetinje. From here take the spectacular route through Lovćen National Park and down the precipitous, serpentine road to Kotor – a walled gem positioned within the innermost fold of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor. With Kotor as a base, it's easy to explore the entire bay by boat, bus or car and then pop over to neighbouring Budva on the Adriatic Coast.
An Eastern Circuit
- 2 Weeks
This itinerary traces a ring through Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and can be commenced from any of the three capital cities and tackled in either direction. Tirana Airport has the best international connections, which is why we've started there.
Allocate a couple of days to Tirana, the kooky Albanian capital. Take the picturesque journey north to remote Theth National Park. Double back to the historic city of Shkodra and then cut east to Kosovo. Just across the border, Prizren has a historic core and is a good base for hikes in the nearby national park. The capital, Pristina, is not as pretty but it has an enticing atmosphere all of its own.
Continue south and cross into Macedonia. The capital Skopje contrasts wonderful Socialist Modernist architecture with a recent, much-derided, neoclassical makeover. From here, beat a path to mountainous Mavrovo National Park. Continue on to Ohrid, a highlight not just of Macedonia, but of this eastern edge of the region. Follow the eastern shore of Lake Ohrid to the Albanian border, pausing to visit the imposing Sveti Naum Monastery along the way. Back in Albania, head to the Ottoman-era town of Berat and the coastal resort of Durrës.