An often overlooked holiday or travel destination, the Balkan Peninsula holds some of the most beautiful scenery and attractions in Europe – but they might not be what you’d think or expect. Traveling there can be one of the most rewarding and breathtaking things you’re ever likely to do, with the people warm, friendly and extremely hospitable. You will go a stranger and leave a friend!
But before we get into our top picks for budget travel in the region, first – we’re going to have a little geography lesson!
Who or what are the Balkans?
It might be surprising to learn that the Balkan countries are not what you’d expect. As of 2014, the Balkan countries consist of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece.
Bet you didn’t know that, did you?! These borders are often contested though and there are apparently parts of Italy and Turkey that can also be included. For the sake of our handy guide we won’t be covering all the countries, just some of our favourite places in the region. There literally is so much to see here we could write posts forever on the subject! Time is short – so let’s begin!
#1 Zadar, Croatia
The colonial town of Zadar on the Adriatic coast just has to be seen to be believed. It’s a charming walled mini-peninsula, with some simply beautiful architecture, and meandering streets you can get lost in. It also has two of the most unique and wonderful sights you’ll ever see – the sea organ and the greeting to the sun.
The sea organ is an architectural marvel that plays pan-pipe style music via the movement of the waves, and the greeting to the sun is a giant solar panel that turns into this stunning disco floor when the sun goes down! The two attractions are right next to each other on the sea front, and it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go down. By the way – Alfred Hitchcock said that Zadar has the best sunsets in the world – and what’s good enough for him, is good enough for us! Stay at the Lazy Monkey Hostel too to meet friends for life!
#2 Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
If you can, drive (or hitchhike) down the coast and then turn east into Bosnia. The road to Mostar is gorgeous. Mostar itself is centuries old, and the cobbled streets will delight anyone who pays them a visit. But it is the “old bridge” that people really come to see, and it dominates any picture postcard from the town. As well as being extremely beautiful and demanding you bring your best camera, there is something really unique and interesting about the bridge; people jump off it! It’s some 28 metres high if the water level is down, and for decades local boys have leapt off the apex into the water below as a rite of passage. Today you can see them doing it regularly in the summer (it’s very impressive) but for a visitor it’s unfortunately not free.
If you give the local dive club 25 euro you can try it yourself, and get your name immortalised in the dive book. It’s a long way down though! We suggest you take out comprehensive travel insurance!
#3 Kotor, Montenegro
Walking through the old town of Kotor, nestled in dramatic mountains on the coast of Montenegro, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in another world. Kotor is one of the best preserved medieval towns of Europe, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. If you’ve got the legs for it, you can climb the ancient walls that surround the city and rise to a height of 4.5 kilometres!
The views are truly spectacular though, and well worth the huff and puff it takes to get up there! Kotor is also famous for its carnival, so if you’re lucky enough to be here in late summer you might catch it. But simply wandering the rickety streets steeped in history makes this a must see location in any Balkans itinerary.
#4 Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
We couldn’t do a Balkans write up without mentioning this special city. The capital of Bosnia has seen its share of heartbreak and tragedy over the years, nearly being torn apart in the siege of 1992-1996. Today it’s become one of the friendliest and liveliest cities you’re ever likely to visit. There is a real “east meets west vibe here, and you can literally cross a line in the city between traditional western architecture of – say – Vienna, and the Turkish/Ottoman influence from the east. It’s fascinating! Make sure you get lost in the Baščaršija –the old bazaar where you might pick up a bargain. If you get the chance, we heartily recommend a visit to the disused bobsled track outside the city.
A relic of the Sarajevo 1984 winter Olympics, it’s been left to ruin and reclaimed by nature, and it is a photographer’s dream. We’ll have more on this unique attraction in a later post!
#5 Lake Bled, Slovenia
This might be a contentious inclusion, as Lake Bled is technically part of the Alps! But Slovenia is a Balkan country, so we’re putting it in anyway and we don’t care! Why? Because it’s breathtaking. It’s only about an hour outside of the capital Ljubljana, and you’ve got a mini paradise of nature. There are mountains to climb, trails to hike, waterfalls, lakes, rivers – everything you need for the great and glorious outdoors! The lake is frozen over in the winter and is a big pull for ice skaters and in the summer there’s rowing regattas to enjoy. It really is like being in a fairytale – especially if you visit on a misty morning and take a boat out to the 17th century church on the island. It’s as if you’re on a film set! But don’t forget the delightful capital city too.
Ljubljana is one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Most people don’t know where it is, let alone that it’s a capital! It too is a beautiful part of the world, and a magical place to get lost in on a summer afternoon. Don’t miss it.
#6 Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and certainly one of the most disarming. It might take you a little while to soak it in, but rest assured there is a buzz and atmosphere about this city that you can’t quite put your finger on – but you know you love! Serbians are very friendly people – and they know how to have a good time – so try getting to know them at traditional “Kafanas” in the hip bohemian quarter of the city. You can’t miss the amazing views from the Belgrade fortress, which holds a commanding position over the meeting point of the Sava and Danube rivers.
Take a loved one, pack a picnic, pick a bench and just while away the hours! Forget Paris – Belgrade has romance aplenty! Don’t forget to visit the beautiful Saint Sava Temple on Vračar, which is the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans and is the much loved focal point of the city.
We haven’t even scratched the surface of what the Balkans really has to offer, and we’ve had so much fun there (and in writing this post) that we’re sure we’re going to do another one for you soon! If you haven’t been, you simply must go, and if you have, then go again! There’s so much to explore in the region that it would take years to cover it all – and the best part is, most of it won’t cost you a thing! It’s a must for history and nature buffs, or for anyone wanting to experience fascinating cultures, people and languages.