The Balkan region is much easier to travel through than it was just a few years ago, but it’s still off the beaten path and requires some research and planning. Although your patience might be tested daily during your travels, the Balkans will reward you with beautiful landscapes, rich culture and history, friendly locals, and the cheapest prices in Europe. Your route through the Balkans will obviously depend on where you start and finish and how much time you have. As with any road trip, try to mark the places you really want to see and then join the dots in the most logical way.
Here is my suggestion for a couple of weeks of travel, but feel free to adjust the route based on your interests, budget, and seasons of the year.
Hardly undiscovered, but certainly underrated, this tiny Balkan country packs a powerful punch: safety, thriving tourism industry, and breathtaking scenery.
Slovenia is a small country, located between Croatia, Italy, and Slovenia, and you can get from one end of the country to another in a matter of hours, but the diversity you’ll encounter is fascinating. Slovenia is most known for its well-cared-for nature.
Start your journey with Ljubljana, Slovenia’s tiny but charming capital. Ljubljana’s rich history, beautiful architecture, and green surroundings attract more and more visitors every year. The streets of Ljubljana are filled with cafes, bars, and restaurants. Ljubljana’s central location also makes the city a great headquarters while visiting Slovenia. From Ljubljana, you can easily reach most tourist attractions in Slovenia by car. Spend two or three days in Ljubljana, and then take a car, bus, or train and go to Bled next.
Bled is a stunning lake set among mountains complete with an island church in the middle and a castle looking out over the lake. Spend at least a day at Bled. If you’d like to visit a less touristy lake, check out Lake Bohinj.
Being the newest addition to the EU, Croatia’s tourism industry has been booming. Croatia is generally more expensive to travel to compared to the rest of the Balkans (except maybe Slovenia).
Some budget travelers choose to skip Croatia, especially during the summer months when tourists flock to Croatia’s islands and seaside towns. However, with approximately 1,200 islands, azure waters and picturesque villages rich in history, Croatia is definitely worth seeing.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
From Slovenia, it will be easy to reach Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. We recommend spending a day in Zagreb and then making your way to Plitvice. Plitvice Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site two hours away by bus from Zagreb. Stroll along the wooden plank trails and admire the glistening waterfalls crashing into the ever-changing colors of the 16 interconnected lakes below. Spend a day or two at Plitvice.
Dubrovnik will probably be the most expensive location on your road trip but consider including it in your travel plans. It’s one of the best-preserved medieval walled cities in the world and has recently become immensely popular due to being featured in the ever so popular Game of Thrones series.
Make sure to visit the Old Town, and spend at least two, if not three, days in Dubrovnik.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
A visit to the Balkans would not be complete without visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. Huge mountainous regions forming stunning valleys, crystal clear rivers, and leafy forest paths. Nature lovers should definitely put Bosnia and Herzegovina on their list. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also a budget travelers paradise. Although increasingly popular, compared to other areas of Europe and neighboring Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains pretty calm on the tourist front.
2 hours and 30 minutes away by car from Dubrovnik, Mostar, the second most popular destination in the country after Sarajevo, is your next stop. Mostar’s most recognizable landmark is also Balkans’ most celebrated bridge. The Old Bridge (Stari Most) forms a majestic stone arc between medieval towers. Spring and summer are ideal times to visit, as there’s little to do during winter and summers are very hot. Mostar has an easy and chilled out vibe and the town is quite safe. Most visitors are day-trippers who arrive by the bus leave around 10 a.m. and depart by 3 p.m., thus the secret of visiting Mostar is to stay overnight.
The route between Mostar and Sarajevo is quite scenic. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is often known by the siege of the 1990s and the raging war that engulfed Bosnia and Herzegovina for full four years. Some might also know it by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. However, today’s Sarajevo is intriguing and vibrant. Albeit small for a capital, Sarajevo packs history, culture, nature, and an interesting meeting of the East and the West in Europe. Plus, it’s very affordable for a European destination! Plan for a two to three days stay.
Serbia is warm, welcoming and fun. It easily rivals most Europe’s capitals when it comes to its party destinations. But Serbia is much more than that. Hiking spots, waterfalls, caves, and other natural wonders are abundant. Intriguing monasteries and fortresses are everywhere, and locals are outgoing and friendly.
Five hours away by car (or seven by bus) from Sarajevo, your next stop is Belgrade. Belgrade is often considered the nightlife capital of the region. If you’re into a bit of partying, Belgrade is the city for you. Belgrade is lively and features both traditional and hip restaurants and cafes. There is a lot to see in Belgrade, which means it’s recommended to spend at least two to three days here exploring the historical sites, trying different restaurants, and enjoying its famous nightlife scene. One of the places you must visit in Serbia is the Kalemagdan Fortress.
National Park Tara
On your way to Montenegro make sure to visit Serbia’s National Park Tara. National Park Tara covers a huge area and is perfect for hiking. You can stay in small bungalows in villages, camp in the forest or stay in the towns and walk from there. Spend at least two days in Tara, or more if you love hiking.
Montenegro, an area two-thirds of the size of Wales, keeps making it to “‘it destinations” lists for its breathtaking seas and mountains and captivating old towns. Although Croatia boasts more beaches and sprawling Adriatic coastline, Montenegro’s claim to fame lies in its unspoiled terrain. Prices do go up in the summer tourist season, so for even more savings, visit in the spring or autumn.
Kotor’s Old Town lies on the shore of the Bay of Kotor and is backed by mountains. The alleyways lead past museums, old barracks, traditional restaurants, and churches. A UNESCO-protected, walled town, medieval Kotor was built during the Byzantine Empire and features a strong Venetian influence. Spend at least two days in Kotor.
Less than an hour drive away from Kotor, this picturesque village has been famous for a while now. Sveti Stefan is most commonly associated with the iconic island connected to the mainland by a narrow corridor. Today this is the luxurious Aman Sveti Stefan resort and, unfortunately, access is restricted to the island in order to protect the privacy of resort guests. If you really want to get on the island, make a reservation at the restaurant and you’ll be allowed on to the island. If that’s not in your budget, enjoy the view from “The Olive Tree” terrace on the mainland, tucked into a cove near Villa Milocer. A day trip to Sveti Stefan is enough time to see it.
Macedonia — also known as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — is snugly tucked in between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Similarly to the rest of the Balkans, it offers amazing scenery, friendly locals, and affordable lodging and food.
Although Skopje is a very interesting capital, you’re better off heading to Ohrid. Ohrid is one of the coolest spots in the Balkans. Ohrid is one of Macedonia’s highlights and both the lake and the town have been put under UNESCO protection. The lake is among the oldest in the world, with unique flora and fauna, and is a popular tourist destination in summer. It also carries special spiritual significance as the center of Slavic literacy and being home to as many as 365 churches.
Our Balkan road trip ends here, and yet there is so much else to be seen! Bulgaria, Kosovo, Turkey, and Greece… Many other spots in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia.
The Balkan region offers stunning mountain ranges, superb beaches, cultural and historical complexity, numerous historic towns, friendly locals, good food, affordable prices.
It’s immediate, raw, and mostly untouched by tourists. You must experience it to really grasp its beauty.
Or maybe I’m just subjective?