Hopping in the car and going on a drive through the stunning dreamscape of the Balkan Mountains or along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea is a bit like a fairytale. Read ahead to embark on four scenic drives through the region’s immaculate beaches, epic mountain ranges, ancient castles and unspoiled valleys.
Picturesque lake in the quaint town of Perast, Montenegro © Atilla Ariner / EyeEm / Getty
Croatia and Montenegro: Dubrovnik to Lovćen National Park
Begin this cross-border trip through the breathtaking Dinaric Alps by taking the D8 from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Perast, Montenegro. While these bordering countries share some of the visual landscape, prepare for a change of scenery as the flat topography of Croatia’s southern coast turns into the dark, craggy peaks of Montenegro.
When you arrive at the quaint town of Perast, anchored on the Unesco-listed Bay of Kotor, you will be enchanted by its quiet atmosphere and 16 stunning Roman Catholic churches. The top attractions are Gospa od Škrpjela and Sveti Djordje, which you’ll find floating in the middle of the bay’s aquamarine water. Both islands are accessible by boat (3 to 5 euros).
Hop back in the car and drive 30km down the road from Perast to the world-renowned city of Kotor. Dive into medieval history by climbing the city walls to St John’s Hill – a fun, educational and rigorous hike up the ancient fortifications dating back to the year 532.
Those looking for incredible views from heights of up to 1749m should complete their drive on the ‘Serpentine Road’ which leads up a steep mountain from Kotor to one of Montenegro’s finest natural marvels, Lovćen National Park. This drive boasts 25 hairpin turns and mind-boggling mountain views. Your entire trip can range from four hours to three days depending on the length of each stop.
Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria © Evgeni Dinev Photography / Getty
Bulgaria: Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo
Heading north along Route 55 from Plovdiv, this drive begins with bucolic views of Bulgaria’s evergreen heartland. A wonderful stop on this particular journey is Dryanovo, a small town located at the base of the Balkan Mountains. This charming village is home to the famous Dryanovo Monastery dedicated to St Archangel Michael. The building’s origin dates back to the 12th century and has a long past of destruction and revolution. The church was burned down to the ground twice during the years when Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but was rebuilt in the 17th century and stands to this day. The newest restoration is quite remarkable.
Continuing north on the highway toward Veliko Târnovo, this last 30-minute leg is consistently ranked as a top scenic drive in Europe – the views are truly spectacular. You will meander through the internationally renowned Valley of the Roses, a lush area banked by two river valleys that grows some of the rarest varieties of roses in the world. If you are lucky enough to be visiting in May or June when the flowers are at their peak, roll your car windows all the way down, take a luxurious inhale and enjoy the heavenly scent for the entire stretch of the valley. Other charming stops along this drive include the church in Shipka and the towns of Tryavna and Etara.
Scenic coastline near Himarë, Albania © ollirg / Getty
Albania: Vlora to Himara via the Llogara Pass
Hikers, bikers, beach lovers and history buffs alike will enjoy this drive’s sweeping views of the Dukat Valley to the north and the Albanian Riviera to the south. From Vlora head south on SH8, a smooth roadway cut directly into the mountainside. In addition to the stunning beaches below, other charming sights may include a herd of goats walking casually down the road with their shepherd, or locals riding mules or donkeys.
Noteworthy stops along SH8 are the beautiful beaches of Orikum and Dhërmi. Between these two beaches you will also find Llogara Pass National Park – home to some of the finest hiking and biking trails in the region. The park combines fresh high-altitude mountain air with the upstream breeze from the Ionian Sea and is an excellent site for adventure sports or a simple family picnic.
Finish your drive with a visit to Himara, one of the most pristine beaches in the Balkans. Himara’s serene oceanfront also has plenty of local restaurants, surf shops and traditional ale houses to try. Those over 21 can enjoy a taste of the local rakia, a popular fruit brandy native to the Balkans.
Neretva River winding through the city of Mostar © Lassi Kurkijarvi / Getty
Bosnia and Hercegovina: Sarajevo to Kravica Waterfall
Hwy E73/M17 runs parallel to the turquoise Neretva River, which cuts through Bosnia and Hercegovina and Croatia, making its final rest in the waters of the Adriatic Sea. The river successfully irrigates one of the most fertile and ecologically diverse valleys in the Balkans. From Sarajevo to Mostar you will pass the delightful towns of Konjic and Jablanica. However, this leg of the drive is so magnificent you may not want any interruptions!
Upon arrival in Mostar, visit the old town and its charming cobblestone streets lined with markets selling local jewelry, pottery and flatware. The city has distinctly Ottoman architecture including delicate mosques with turrets so tall they seem to touch the clouds. Stari Most, a bridge renowned for both its history and its incredible view, is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. After you stroll over its grand arch, you will surely see why. For multi-day travellers, Mostar is also the perfect overnight stop.
The stunning Kravica Waterfall © Ellica_S / Getty
On the drive from Mostar to Kravica Waterfall you will pass through the Imperial Vineyards. Unbeknownst to many, Hercegovina provided wine to the royalty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during its peak. Stop for a glass of local wine among endless fields of perfectly manicured grapevines.
You may not believe how beautiful nature can be until you view your final destination, Kravica Waterfall, at close range. Enjoy lunch and a swim in its emerald waters while gazing up at one of the finest examples of raw natural beauty on the continent.
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