Eastern Europe’s Balkan region is home to UNESCO World Heritage sites, immaculate stretches of Mediterranean coast, relatively untouched national parks, fertile winelands, quaint countryside towns, and some seriously cultured cities. But despite their close proximity to neighboring countries in Western Europe, the Balkan states have long been overlooked due to the area’s complicated history of conflict and war. For this very reason, the Balkans have remained one of the greatest places to get off the beaten path in Europe. If you’re considering traveling in the Balkans, put these shining destinations on your list.
Croatia is among the most touristed of the Balkan countries due in part to its easily accessible location from Western, Central, and Eastern Europe alike. But its 3,625-mile-long Adriatic coastline, which is dotted with more than 1,000 islands that boast ancient architecture and Mediterranean views, is more likely the reason for Croatia’s widespread allure. Off the shores of the Dalmatian Coast, travelers can take water taxis to neighboring Adriatic Sea islands like Brač, known for the white-pebbled Zlatni Rat beach, and Hvar, a resort island recognized for its hilltop fortresses, inland lavender fields, and near year-round sunshine. To escape the beach-seeking crowds in Croatia, head to Vis, a more remote 35-square-mile islet with secluded beaches, quiet fishing villages, and a national cuisine with local wine and seafood similar to that found in Italy.
On the mainland, the coastal city of Dubrovnik is famous—and popularly visited—for its 16th-century stone-walled (and pedestrian only) Old Town. The UNESCO World Heritage site, known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” was further bolstered to global recognition after serving as a filming location for The Game of Thrones. But beyond Dubrovnik’s Mediterranean beaches and medieval fortresses, the city’s local lifestyle makes it a great place to slow down. (More on that here.) Split, Croatia’s second largest city, and Zadar (further up the Dalmatian Coast) offer a similar blend of modern and ancient charm.
Inland, Croatia’s largest and capital city, Zagreb, offers a plethora of museums, cafés, and spacious pedestrian zones to explore. Plitviče Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site made up of a breathtaking network of naturally interconnected lakes joined by waterfalls that extend into limestone canyons, can be reached in approximately two hours by bus from Zagreb. Slightly more off the beaten path—but not to be missed—the idyllic peninsula of Istria features coastal hot spots like Pula, Rovinj, and Poreč, plus inland areas abound with charming hilltop towns (like the artist havens Motovun and Grožnjan), cycling-friendly landscapes, and a refined, truffle-rich local gastronomy.
Serbia’s history sits at the complicated crossroads of the Habsburg, Roman, and Ottoman empires. But this Balkan country is so much more than its past. With rugged national parks, a monastery-dotted countryside, and a notoriously festive club scene in the main cities, Serbia offers a wealth of options for travelers looking to navigate a less commonly touristed part of Europe.
Situated at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Serbia’s rapidly modernizing capital, Belgrade, buzzes with nightclubs, cocktail bars, green spaces, and museums. Just a ways upstream sits Novi Sad, the country’s second largest city. Situated on the banks of the Danube, Novi Sad is dubbed the “Serbian Athens” due to its long history as a center of cultural heritage, which is revealed through neoclassical and baroque buildings, Roman Catholic cathedrals, and café-filled central squares. To the north (near the Hungarian border), the lesser-visited 16th-century city of Subotica is filled with art nouveau buildings that make the site a design-lover’s dream. For striking landscapes and dramatic wilderness, outdoor adventurers should explore the mountains and gorges of Tara National Park, where the Drina River forms a natural border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Đerdap National Park, where the longest gorge in Europe runs along the Carpathian Mountains forming an impressive divide with Romania.
With each passing year, more travelers gravitate to Slovenia in search of outdoor adventure, delectable hyper-local cuisine, and a mix of the old and new.
For hiking, rafting, skiing, and snowboarding, active travelers should visit the Julian Alps, home to Mount Triglav (the nation’s highest peak) and Lake Bled, the glacial lake famous for a church that tops an islet in its center. Nearby in the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, a fairy tale–like landscape boasts sweeping meadows and a well-preserved shepherding heritage.
Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, is known for its young population, plentiful public parks, colorful street art, and riverbanks lined with outdoor cafés and boutiques. From the vibrant city, travelers can embark on day trips to surrounding sites such as the Postojna Caves, a network of dramatic natural caves and tunnels that stretch approximately 80,000 feet underground. Near the Italian border to the west, travelers can taste award-winning Slovenian wines in the Goriška Brda wine region—otherwise known as “Slovenia’s Tuscany.” And don’t miss Piran: Perched on a Mediterranean peninsula between Italy and Croatia’s more frequented coasts, the medieval town offers a lesser-known Adriatic Sea escape.
Montenegro is yet another destination in the Balkan region that boasts majestic peaks, medieval villages, and an immaculate Adriatic coastline. The capital, Podgorica, and the former royal capital, Cetinje, are the cultural centers, but the country offers great variety in its diverse landscape.
In southwestern Montenegro, history is well-preserved in the fjord-like Bay of Kotor. The Old Town of Kotor was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and served as an important port during the Venetian period. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction, but the romantic narrow alleyways and spectacular hilltop fortresses surrounded by towering limestone cliffs haven’t lost their charm. (Don’t leave town without enjoying a cone of wild strawberry ice cream in one of the main piazzas.) Just south of the Bay of Kotor along Montenegro’s Adriatic Coast, the medieval walled city of Budva offers an ideal beach getaway for travelers seeking a vibrant nightlife and local arts scene.
In the country’s northwest, Durmitor National Park is Montenegro’s hub for hiking and skiing (or simply for ogling at tall peaks and deep canyons). Formed thousands of years ago by glaciers, numerous lakes dot the protected national park, which comes alive in fall as the leaves change colors. At the northern edge of the national park near the Bosnia and Herzegovina border, the Tara River forms one of the world’s deepest canyons. The Tara River Canyon is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Years of violence and conflict have clouded common conceptions of this Balkan state, once the center of Yugoslavia. But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, everyday life is actually centered around community-based traditions. Gathering in cafés to converse over robust Bosnian coffee, or kafa, is a deep-rooted ritual in the capital city of Sarajevo, which is considered the “gate between East and West” for its eclectic mix of influences, ethnic groups, and religions. In Sarajevo’s Old Town, Baščaršija, a 15th-century bazaar includes cobblestone streets and small shops of Turkish and Eastern European influence.
About two hours by bus from the capital is the historic city of Mostar, home to Stari Most, a 16th-century Ottoman-style bridge that stretches more than 90 feet across the Neretva River to connect the city. Neum, the only resort town on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Adriatic Coast, can also be easily reached by bus from Sarajevo. Albania
It might come as a surprise to some that Albania has its own Riviera, but the stunning coastline is actually one of the most touristed parts of the country. Still, the beaches of the Albanian Riviera have far fewer crowds than Western Europe’s more popular haunts (even though they rival each other in appearance).
With its temperate climate and position near the Mediterranean Sea, Albania also boasts four distinct wine regions ranging from the country’s eastern mountains to its inland foothills and coastal villages. Albanian winemaking traditions, which date back to the Bronze Age in Europe, are still practiced at small wineries in rural towns like Berat.
Tirana, the capital of Albania, is known for its Ottoman-, fascist- and Soviet-era architecture. Today, the city is increasingly recognized for the unique contemporary culture that’s emerged from the aforementioned eras of rule. Just one hour by car from Tirana, the spectacular Divjakë Karavasta National Park attracts outdoor enthusiasts for hiking, rafting, bird-watching, and Jeep safaris. To the north, the Albanian Alps offer spectacular open-air views in settings like Valbona Valley National Park, where travelers can trek, bike, and ride horses through the mountains among Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.