The Balkan Peninsula is one of the last relatively unexplored corners of Europe. But with a wealth of history, cultural and culinary treasures and great nightlife, it won’t be long before the region becomes the next travel hotspot. Hot summers and cold winters mean that the best time to go is late spring or early autumn.
Major cities are accessible by plane from other parts of Europe, and once on the ground, driving distances are short and roads are smooth. An extensive bus network makes it possible to do the trip by public transport, and two weeks will allow you to see the major cities and get a taste of life in the Balkans.
Bosnia and Hercegovina
Sarajevo is home to one of the prettiest pedestrian old towns in the Balkans. A walk through the markets is a must before visiting the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot at the start of World War I. In the evenings, join the lively crowds in the old city for an al fresco dinner of ćevapi, a local specialty of grilled meat kebabs. Further afield, visit the War Tunnel Museum to see how supplies were brought into the city during the siege in the 1990s.
Where to stay: Halvat Guesthouse.
A short but beautiful drive away, Mostar’s iconic Old Bridge is the most famous in the Balkans. Narrow pedestrian streets like Kujundziluk are packed with shops, and the busy cafes are perfect for watching daring locals dive off the bridge. Further afield, the city’s history can be explored in everything from centuries-old mosques to the haunting bombed-out buildings along Bulevar Revolucije.
Where to stay: Vila Park.
The famous walled city of Dubrovnik is one of the most visited in the Balkans. Visitors can explore the white marble streets and walk along the imposing ramparts. A five-minute walk from the Old Town, a cable car takes passengers to the top of Srd Hill for great views over the city, and ferries ply the routes to nearby islands like like Lopud, Koločep and Šipan. Watersports enthusiasts can indulge in everything from kayaking to boating, and sun worshippers can find a sandy cove to soak up the rays.
Where to stay: Hotel Bellevue.
The walled city of Kotor is often referred to as the 'new' Dubrovnik. Its narrow streets and pretty plazas rival those of its northern neighbour, and refreshingly lack the heaving tourist crowds. No trip is complete without a hike to the Castle of St John at the top of the mountain, a steep trek that rewards the intrepid with stunning views of the town and marina below.
Where to stay: D & Sons Apartments.
Not far from Kotor, Budva is another walled city that boasts a pretty Old Town, sand beaches and great nightlife. Bars fill the cobbled streets and line the waterfront outside of the historic city walls, and Mogren Beach and other sandy strips draw visitors from all over Europe during the warmer months. Boat rides to secluded beaches like Drobni Pijesak and small islands like Sveti Nikola are also a popular activity, and a great way to get away from the bustle.
Where to stay: Avala Resort.
Tirana is one of the most off-the-beaten-path capitals in Europe, but the city’s vibrant cafe culture and funky public art make it worth a visit. Fans of architecture and history can soak in the zany Pyramid building and the beautiful Et’ham Bey Mosque, and art lovers can appreciate locals’ efforts to beautify their city by painting some of the drab Modernist buildings. The famous Skanderbeg Square is home to the opera house and National Historic Museum, as well as a monument to its namesake.
Where to stay: Sheraton Tirana Hotel.
The town of Ohrid is a gem in the Balkans. Set beside a beautiful lake, its narrow, winding streets open up to reveal gems like a Roman amphitheatre, castle fortress, and church with 11th-century frescoes. Picturesque orange tile rooftops and the royal blue water of the lake make this Macedonian town a favorite stop in the region. Visitors can walk along the waterfront and hike up the hills to the beautiful Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon Church and Car Samoil’s Castle, or head out on the water for a boat trip to nearby Sveti Naum.
Where to stay: Vila Mal Sveti Kliment (www.vilamalsvetikliment.com).
Skopje is a city where old meets new, with a historic hilltop fortress overlooking a never-ending series of monumental modern constructions. The maze of streets in the Old Town hides pretty interior courtyards full of cafes and restaurants, while huge squares like Plostad Makedonija are home to new monuments and museums. Don’t miss the Memorial House of Mother Teresa (this is her home town, after all), or the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle.
Where to stay: Duvet Hotel.
Pristina is emerging from its troubled past as a safe and lively capital city. There is a strong cafe culture and locals say it has the best coffee in the world (the Amélie cafes are a good place to try it). For history lovers, the Bill Clinton monument is a must, and the myriad local street markets have something for everyone. Pristina’s haunting memorial walls with photos of those that lost their lives in the 1990s are an ever-present reminder of the recent past.
Where to stay: best done as a day trip from Skopje.
Sofia is a magical city full of yellow brick roads and picture-pretty churches. The iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a focal point, but the smaller Hagia Nedelja Church and Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker are also worth a stop. The city’s lively cafes are a great place to take a break, with Planet Bar de Luxe and the restaurants along Oborishte Street being particularly good choices.
Where to stay: Kempinski Hotel Zografski.
Belgrade may be best known for its great nightlife, but the city has a wealth of historic treasures and cultural attractions, too. Kalemegdan Castle is one of the most famous monuments, and cafe lovers will be spoiled for choice on bohemian Skadarska street and nearby Strahinjica Bana. Head down to the river for dinner at Iguana, one of the city’s top restaurants, before exploring the nightlife in the bars around it.
Where to stay: Beograd Art Hotel.