You haven’t truly experienced Europe if you haven’t been to the Balkans. This region of Europe is unique in terms of culture, language, cuisine and people. It’s unlike any other part of Europe that you might have been to, which makes it all the more fun to visit.
At this point, you might be wondering: what exactly are the Balkans? The Balkans are a geographical region in Europe that occupy the Balkan peninsula. Sandwiched in between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea, the countries most commonly characterized as Balkan countries are: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Many of the countries in this region (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia) formerly made up the country of Yugoslavia. Also, due to their geographical location, many were highly influenced by Russian language, culture and politics during the 1900’s. In fact, some variation of the Cyrillic alphabet is still used in Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia.
We spent nearly 3 months traveling through the Balkans and exploring the most beautiful cities and places. Based on our experience, here are the 15 best places to visit in the Balkans.
15 Best Places to Visit in the Balkans
1. Oradea, Romania
Oradea is one of our favorite places in all of Romania, and quite possibly all of the Balkans. It’s not far from the border with Hungary, so the architectural influences of the Austro-Hungarian times are all throughout the city.
Oradea has small-town charm but is still big enough that there is plenty to do. The pedestrian-only zone in the heart of town is lined with charming shops and cafes where a cappuccino sells for less than $2 USD.
Despite its charm and beauty, Oradea often gets overlooked by tourists so it’s the perfect place to enjoy some quiet time away while experiencing one of the most beautiful Romanian cities.
2. Krka National Park in Croatia
Krka is one of the most popular national parks in all of Croatia, and it’s easy to understand why. The park starts less than 10 miles inland from the Adriatic Sea, has crystal clear waters, and is tucked away in the mountains.
It’s about halfway between two major coastal cities, Zadar and Split, so from either city you can get to the park in less than two hours.
Like many popular tourist attractions, Krka can be very busy depending on when you go. It’s best to arrive early and beat the crowds, and if all possible, try to go after peak tourist season ends in August.
3. Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Plovdiv was one of the most beautiful places we visited in the Balkans. The second largest city in Bulgaria has history dating back to ancient times, and is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Throughout history, Plovdiv has been ruled by a variety of groups. Romans, Huns, Ottomans, and Communists have all left their mark and the city.
Today, Plovdiv is revitalizing itself and is proudly showing off its history to locals and tourists alike. The Kapana neighborhood has become a haven for artists, hipsters, and amazing restaurants.
It’s also possible to step back in time by visiting the Old Town neighborhood, which still has homes that belonged to Ottoman merchants over one hundred years ago.
Additionally, Plovdiv is close to some amazing vineyards. Within an hour of downtown Plovdiv, there are several wineries that are working diligently to put Bulgarian wine back on the map. Make sure you try a red mavrud, a Bulgarian specialty!
4. Mostar, Bosnia
Mostar is best known for the iconic Stari Most bridge, which crosses the emerald green Neretva River to connect both sides of the city. The city is surrounded by mountains and has gorgeous Ottoman architecture, so it’s easy to let the days pass while sipping Bosnian coffee at a cafe and watching the world go by.
Mostar also has a great nightlife scene that is incredibly affordable. There are plenty of modern bars and cafes to visit, but we think the best places to visit are the ones overlooking the river.
Of course, no trip to Mostar is complete without trying the famous Bosnian dish, cevapi, which is sausages served with pita and raw onion.
For the adventure seekers, head about 25 kilometers north to Konjic, where you can go whitewater rafting down the Neretva River. We recommended saving this for the hottest of days, since the Neretva’s temperature peaks at 54 F (12 C) in the summer months.
5. The Pellumbas Cave in Albania
Pellumbas Cave was one of our favorite adventures of 2019. Relying on Google Maps and two-year-old Trip Advisor comments, we set off to explore the cave. Fortunately, we compiled everything you need to know about Pellumbas Cave here.
The cave was both spooky and beautiful, and it’s well worth the hour-long hike to get to the cave’s entrance. This hidden gem is also relatively unknown, since we only passed two other hikers on the entire hike. We passed a third person, but it was a local woman attending to her goats.
We recommend going into the cave with headlamps, which can be rented in the town where the bus drops off. Also, take hiking boots if you have them. The cave is very damp so it gets slippery and you need shoes with traction.
6. Split, Croatia
Split is a gorgeous Croatian city located on the Adriatic coast about 100 miles northwest of Dubrovnik. Thanks to the low-cost airline, Norwegian, it’s easy to get to Split without breaking the bank.
Wandering around the city center of Split is nothing like we had ever experienced. You can stroll along the promenade that is lined with cafes and palm trees and simply take in the warm mediterranean lifestyle. There is also Diocletian’s Palace, an incredible relic of Roman life that is in the heart of the city. It’s easy to find yourself wandering through the quiet cobblestone streets while hopping between nightlife hotspots. Make sure to try some rakija, which is a potent fruit brandy that is popular all throughout the Balkans.
Split also has incredible beaches, our favorite being Bačvice Beach. The blue-green waters are dotted with sailboats, locals are playing picigin in their speedos, and you can’t go very far without finding a bar to enjoy a cheap drink at.
Something about Split just feels inviting and romantic, which makes it the perfect place to have a relaxing holiday. Be sure to try the black squid ink risotto, which is one of many local delicacies.
7. Tirana, Albania
Albania’s capital city is a place that needs to be on your bucket list. Tirana isn’t at the top of the list for most travelers, but we think it should be. There are lots of great things to do all over the city, and it’s a fairly walkable city so getting around is easy.
Tirana has lots of beautiful art installations. The New Bazaar is a bustling outdoor market that has tons of fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The buildings surrounding it are cheerfully painted to give the area a pop of color and character.
Two of our favorites attractions couldn’t be more different from each other. The first, The Cloud, is a modern and interactive outdoor art piece that is free to visit and is one of our favorite works of art in the Balkans. It really does look like a cloud! Our other favorite, BunkArt, is a former nuclear fallout bunker that has been converted into a gallery which teaches you a lot about the “Sigurimi”–the political police responsible for doling our harsh persecution under the reign of Enver Hoxha.
8. Sibiu, Romania
When you picture a charming Transylvanian city, it’s likely that you’re picturing Sibiu. Most of the city center is entirely cobblestone or brick streets and is very pedestrian friendly. Parts of the city date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, so there is plenty of history to take in during your stay in Sibiu.
Sibiu is well known for the “judging eyes” on many of the older buildings. Romanian folklore says these houses are keeping their eyes on passersby and judging any wrongdoing or transgressions that may be happening. It’s fun to make a game out of it and see which houses look the most animated.
While you’re in Sibiu, you’ll eventually find yourself in Piazza Mare, or “Big Square”, which is the center of town. Our favorite coffee shop in Romania (and possibly all of Europe) is Geea Coffee and it’s only a few minute walk from Piazza Mare!
9. The Neretva River in Bosnia
The stunning, emerald green Neretva River is known as the coldest river in the world. Its average temperature during the summer months is 54 F (12 C). Brrr! For those who love adventure, you can go whitewater rafting down the Neretva River. It’s the perfect activity for a hot summer day, since you’ll pass by shady canyons with tall rocky cliffs and even a few small waterfalls.
Being on the Neretva River is one of those things that has you saying “wow” all day long. since the landscape around it is absolutely breathtaking. While we were whitewater rafting, our guide told us we could drink the water straight from the river. It’s not often you find yourself on a river so clean and so beautiful.
10. Constanta, Romania
Constanta is Romania’s largest port city on the Black Sea. It’s a popular beach getaway for many tourists in Eastern Europe, but we noticed plenty of locals enjoying the beaches too, so don’t think it’s a tourist trap.
It’s incredibly easy to get to Constanta from Bucharest by train. From the train station, it’s about a 20 minute walk into town.
One of the best ways to enjoy the Black Sea beaches is to get up early and catch a sunrise. Seeing the sun come up over the Black Sea and hearing the waves gently breaking is one of the nicest ways to start off your day.
The downtown area of Constanta is charming too. Even though it is primarily a beach town, it still has plenty of restaurants, shops, and cafes to visit. We recommend booking accommodations close to the water since you’ll likely be spending most of your time lounging on the beach.
11. Durrës, Albania
Durrës is Albania’s second largest city and is only 30 kilometers west of the capital city of Tirana. It’s also one of the largest ports on the Adriatic Sea! Spending a day in Durrës is incredibly easy if you’re already in Tirana. It’s about 130 lek ($1.30 USD) to take a 30 minute bus ride to the coast.
On the beach, chairs with an umbrella can be rented for a few dollars per day. Also make sure you bring the three important liquids for any beach trip: water, beer, and sunscreen. Price gouging for sunscreen in Durrës is a real thing, with the cheapest we could find being $12 USD.
The beaches of Durrës aren’t quite what you’d expect, since the sand is held back by a concrete seawall and stairs lead you down into the water. Nevertheless, Durrës is still a great place to visit for a beach day retreat if you need some time away from the hustle and bustle of Tirana.
12. Lake Skadar National Park in Montenegro
Lake Skadar sits on the border of Montenegro and Albania, so it’s accessible from either country. We visited the Montenegro side since it’s only a 30 minute bus ride from the capital city of Podgorica to Virpazar, which is a small town on the banks of the lake.
Lake Skadar is the largest lake in the Balkans, and one of the largest in all of Europe. Despite its size, it still doesn’t draw a ton of tourists. It felt like we had the lake to ourselves at times and we loved being in the peace and quiet of nature.
The endangered Dalmatian pelican nests on the banks of the lake. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one while you’re visiting! We were fortunate enough to see two of them. Thanks to local activists, their numbers are slowly rising.
13. Skopje, North Macedonia
Skopje is one of those cities that leaves you with lasting memories. There are lots of great things to do, the food is fabulous and some of the most affordable in all of the Balkans, and the attractions and landmarks around the city combine rich history with modern installations.
In the heart of the city is Macedonia Square, not far from the Vardar River. It is home to the statue of “Man Riding a Horse” but it’s widely believed to be Alexander the Great. Just a few blocks away is the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje.
We ate out quite often in Skopje because it was so affordable. One of our favorite places was Kaj Serdarot because you can order a little bit of everything and it all comes out on one massive platter. It’s located in the Old Bazaar so after the meal, you can walk off the calories by strolling through one of the most beautiful parts of Skopje.
14. Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade is somewhere we really wanted to visit, but unfortunately we didn’t get to visit it (yet). We had heard so many great things about it, but we couldn’t find transit options that worked for us. We had such high hopes of Belgrade that we were planning to stay there for two full weeks, but sadly that plan didn’t work out.
World Nomads calls the city eerie and charming, which is something we’ve also heard firsthand from other travelers. The Serbian capital is apparently very affordable and full of rich history. We’ve heard the best way to get there is to take a night train from Hungary, but be prepared for frequent stops and likely delays.
15. Sofia, Bulgaria
Sofia is said to be one of the most beautiful European capitals, and those rumors just might be true. We were glued to our cameras during our time in Sofia because it seemed like everywhere we went there were more and more amazing sights to see. Plus, there is so much to do, it can be a whirlwind of a few days trying to check everything off the list.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the most photographed buildings in Sofia. It’s a stunning Orthodox cathedral and can hold up to 5,000 people at a time! While it’s free to visit the cathedral and to walk inside, they do charge money for taking pictures inside. Trust us, they’re strict on that rule.
One of our favorite parts of the city was the pedestrian zone known as Vitosha Boulevard. It’s an area with a bunch of great restaurants and also plenty of great pubs for the nightlife scene. One of the coolest bars we went to, Hambara, was a speakeasy style bar in an old barn. If the door isn’t open, give it a knock and they will let you in.