Engulfed in mystery, history, and stunning landscapes, this best of the Balkans guide takes you from Budva to Bulgaria for a trip of a lifetime
The Balkans, a region in Southeast Europe, is often overlooked but is gaining popularity for its stunning natural beauty and for Europe travel on a budget. Deriving its name from the Ottoman Turkish language, Balkan means “chain of wooded mountains”, a reference to the mountain range that goes from Bulgaria to the Black Sea coast. This best of the Balkans guide tells you where to go and what to do in this gorgeous region.
Surrounded by mystery, history, and many stunning landscapes, the nine Balkan countries are currently Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia.
With an appeal equal to its neighbor Croatia, but with better prices and less crowded spaces, Montenegro is proving to be one the big hits of the European summer. Budva, a coastal city, is an unusual and trendy destination. It features one of the most authentic citadels, displays of ancient Mediterranean architecture, an effervescent and nearly non-stop nightlife, and famous rocky-sand beaches. The city also has numerous colorful buildings that add to its lively atmosphere.
You can visit local shops and restaurants, talk to residents, take a stroll by the beach and stop for a swim in the Adriatic Sea. Mogren Beach is usually a very good option. It is also where you can see the “dancing girl”, a sleek statue of a lady in a yoga pose. From Mogren, you can also have a peak at Sveti Nikola, a tiny island that looks like a sinking ship. By boat ride, you can get to the island and spend time exploring.
An insiders tip is to go to Budva around May and September, but avoid the high season in July and August. Guesthouses and hostels are the cheapest. If possible, choose one in the historical downtown area. A day-trip to Kotor, a little village encrusted in the mountains of Montenegro is highly recommended by tourists and locals alike.
If you’re down for a buzzing nightlife, some pretty stunning hikes, and marvelous beaches with crystal clear water, don’t hesitate any longer: Albania is the next big thing in Riviera life! Starting at the village of Palase and ending in Lukove, there is lots to discover on the shores bathed by the Ionian and Mediterranean seas. Spare at least a week to fully cover the many castles, beaches, orchards, and national parks that this place has to offer.
The National Park of Llogara, for instance, offers the visitor the chance to paraglide and go on a scenic drive through the mountain chain. The park is also the dividing point between the Adriatic and Ionian seas, another distinctive characteristic of the place. If you love Llogara, the next stop should be Butrint, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Butrint is the largest archaeological site in Albania and dates back to the 10th century. The place tells the story of grand civilization with so much personality that is impossible to visit and not imagine what it was like in the past, in the time of each civilization’s glory.
Some of the most hyped beaches in the Albanian Riviera include the one and only Ksamil,which you can hit after visiting Butrint, as these two locations are close to each other. This piece of heaven on Earth is also located only 20 km away from Saranda, one of the most popular cities in Albania during the summer. Another option for enjoying a great evening is Dhermi, a buzzing beach with incredible bars and many locals to hang with.
Forget Dubrovnik, friends! This time we are going to Cavtat. This Croatian destination is often overlooked, but has plenty to offer. Its landscapes with cute white boats on the horizon are to die for. The locals are folksy and artsy, and keep their traditions alive with embroidery, paintings, and even weekly traditional-costume themed dances on public squares in the village of Cillipi.
The promenade in Cavtat is another main attraction. Lined up with restaurants, shops, and kiosks, getting to town is truly pleasant and an unrushed activity. Take your time to admire the surroundings and stop as many times as you want to get a traditional souvenir or some local crafts.
Learning about Cavtat’s famous figure is also a popular activity, and the House of Vlaho Bukovac is highly recommended. Vlaho was a painter who become an important figure in the Croatian art scene in the late 19th century. As a homage to him, Cavtat kept his house and belongings and transformed the former in a museum open to the public. The Church of St. Nicholas, near the waterfront, has many of Bukovac’s works painted and stored inside.
The city offers boutique hotels and many other cheaper options as well. Getting around on foot or boat are the best ways to explore.
Belgrade is Serbia’s capital, located at the confluence of two of the most famous rivers in eastern Europe, the Danube and the Sava. This city is also one of the oldest in Europe, being documented for more than 7,000 years.
It has suffered many attacks through the years, and in between conflicts, rebuilt itself more than 38 times – an impressive feat that shows Serbian resilience and strength. Nowadays, things are a lot more peaceful in Belgrade. Don’t expect to find too much grey in the city, because despite its rich and bloody past, the city boasts buildings in lively colors and a cozy culture around bars and cafes.
Belgrade also has countless museums, festivals, and theaters with a special focus on the visual arts. Filmmaking students and professionals will have a blast in the many cinema events the city hosts, such as the Free Zone Film Festival and the Belgrade Documentary and Short-Movies Festival. Design lovers can be part of Belgrade Week of Design.
Some of the iconic museums to check out include the Nikola Tesla Museum, the National Museum, and the Museum of Applied Arts – or, if you’re more of a history buff, switch that with a visit to the Belgrade Fortress.
During the summer, travel lovers and residents flock to public plazas like the Republic Square (which is also a historic landmark) to enjoy some outdoor time with a laidback vibe. Nearby there are narrow, little streets for a lively night stroll. For a day amble, some options include checking out the Saint Sava Cathedral and the Saint Mark Church, which is located in a lovely park where you can also have a picnic afterwards.
Romania is mostly known for Bucharest, its famous capital, but Timișoara isn’t to be left out of your travel bucket list! Also called the city of Parks and Flowers, its pleasant and under-the-radar atmosphere surprises travellers – making it a hidden gem in the Balkans! A traditional lifestyle and the modern blend seamlessly in this cosmopolitan city: from the famous Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral to street art spread through the neighborhoods, there is something for everyone here.
One of the best spots to start the day is in Victorei Square. Several bars, coffee shops, and restaurants line up the streets leading to the Square to enjoy some traditional fare. The interesting thing about Victorei is that the square is one of the edges of a group of three.
So, after visiting, head to Liberty Square, a calmer location where you can observe locals and some quintessential Baroque style buildings. The final stop is Unirii Square. The Baroque Palace, an important cultural and historical landmark for the city, is located here. You can also relax and appreciate the surroundings or rent a bike. Go to museums and parks too, such as Roses Park (ask a local to tell about its famous legend!), and Timișoara’s own Central Park. Some of the cool museums to check out include the Banat Museum and the Memorial Museum of the Revolution.
Bansko, in Bulgaria, shakes things up as it’s a hub for winter travel, specially due to its affordable ski resorts. Bansko has hosted many winter sport events and continues to be an up and coming destination for below zero temperature lovers. When all winter birds flock to Aspen, the Alps, and Finland, find yourself being a trendsetter by travelling to this town at the foot of the Pirin Mountains.
Bansko is the best of the Balkans for winter outdoor fun. So grab your skis, snowboard and sleds to ride on the Bulgarian slopes. Then take a break and enjoy hot chocolate with an amazing view, and by night time, stick around downtown to watch the frozen fountains light up, like colorful ice sculptures! The main Pirin street is another place to check out – and if you endure the weather, walk it from beginning to end.
Also visit Bansko’s museums and churches. Old Town is specially recommended for the latter, as it’s home to the Sveita Trotsa Church, built in the 19th century and one of the town’s most famous landmarks. The suggested museums include Velyan’s House, House Museum of Neofit Rilski, and the House Museum of Nikola Vaptsarov. Another great option to warm up is to go to the many wellness spas and enjoy a very cozy hot tub or a heated pool.
As one of the ports on the Black Sea’s shore, Varna is the third largest city in Bulgaria, occupied by Russians and Turks in its early foundations. Today, the city offers plenty of options for entertainment and leisure. Walking in Varna is easy and it’s the most recommended way to get around. Differently from the other Balkan destinations, the city is not known for Baroque architecture, but Art Nouveau, a style that brings a bit more of a fun flare to the buildings instead of solemnity. Therefore, it is possible to compare the differences and similarities between the two styles.
One of the best examples is found in the Varna Cathedral, a shining cement and copper mixture that resulted in one of the most beautiful attractions of the city – and also one of its postcards! The Archaeological Museum is another example, but a less prominent one. Here you can look at artifacts dating back 6,500 years and even a tomb encrusted with 1.5 kilos of gold. On the outside, make sure to check out the famous Sea Garden, a park with incredibly well maintained gardens and sculptures.
In the summer, Varna offers many amazing beaches to help travellers and residents cool down. The Black Sea is calm and clear for good meters into the water. Asparukavo Beach is a fairly unknown tip from a local. There are restaurants and bars in the proximity and a marvelous landscape to look at. Menus are usually in Bulgarian, but try a foodie adventure and eat local. English menus can be found in the famous Golden Sands Beach, 17km from Varna, but a spot definitely worth visiting.
We hope this best of the Balkans guides inspires you to find bliss in some lesser-known but equally stunning spots in Europe.