If you are seeking just the right blend of the exotic and the familiar, consider visiting one of these eight incredible places in the Balkans on your next European trip.
The Balkans are home to some of our favorite places in the entire world. We were fascinated by the region’s complex history and culture, the result of its location between the East and the West. There is much to discover here, and many visitors will find that they were unaware of the important role the Balkan countries have played on the world stage over the centuries.
If you’re a first-time visitor to the Balkans, you can get a taste of the region’s unique culture, history, and cuisine in any of the following fascinating places. Be warned, however: Your first visit will leave you hungry for more of the experiences the Balkan countries have to offer!
1. Rovinj, Croatia
Romantic Rovinj is a marvelous medieval fishing town that would make an excellent home base from which to explore Croatia’s Istrian region. Governed over the centuries by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Austro-Hungarians, Rovinj is popular with European tourists, but you won’t encounter many Americans. It is here that the consonant-rich Croatian language takes on an Italian lilt.
Dominated by the 18th-century hilltop Church of Saint Euphemia, Rovinj’s walled old town is a charming labyrinth of cobblestone streets. Stroll along the harbor and marina, but eschew the touristy waterfront restaurants — instead, look for those hidden away on side streets.
From Rovinj, you can travel south on the Istrian peninsula to Pula, where you’ll find a coliseum more intact than Rome’s; Motovun, whose legendary giant inspired a children’s book and political allegory; and Opatija, a luxurious resort for the 19th- and 20th-century political elite. Make sure you order the region’s tasty truffle products and sample its incomparable Malvasija wine.
2. Split, Croatia
Often overshadowed by its popular neighbor, Dubrovnik, Split boasts the splendid Diocletian’s Palace on its waterfront. This UNESCO World Heritage site, where the fourth-century Roman emperor chose to spend his retirement, is the only such place where people live and work today.
Within the palace walls are numerous accommodations from which to choose, ranging from small private inns to luxurious boutique hotels. You can also dine in the shadow of the palace’s peristyle — a film location where a character from Game of Thrones met his demise.
Walk around the palace walls and into the cellars where the imperial bounty was stored; then exit through the Golden Gate and rub the feet of the giant statue of Gregory of Nin, who celebrated religious services in Croatian in the 10th century.
3. Korcula, Croatia
The Dalmatian Islands along the Adriatic Coast are a popular summer destination for tourists. We recommend that you forego the crowded spots for a more authentic experience in Korcula.
Korcula’s claim to fame — disputed by Venice, which is located directly across the sea — is that it’s the birthplace of the famous explorer Marco Polo. Whether this is true or not, Korcula has been inhabited since the Mesolithic Period.
While you are there, enjoy the traditional Moreška sword dances and the historic klapa a cappella singing from the region. You might also want to hire a boatman and spend an idyllic day drifting between the many smaller islands and Mljet National Park.
4. Mostar, Bosnia And Herzegovina
Today, you can amble along the riverbank and gaze upon the rebuilt bridge from any number of vantage points. If you’re lucky, you might witness one of the many diving competitions held at the bridge!
While you’re in town, don’t miss the Cejvan Cehaj Mosque, which was built in 1552 and still bears the marks of artillery shelling; the Muslibegovic House; the Old Bazar Kujundziluk, named for the goldsmiths who plied their wares there; and the Ali-Baba Cave bar, which was used to store munitions and other supplies during the war.
5. Sarajevo, Bosnia And Herzegovina
Possibly our favorite capital city in Europe, plucky Sarajevo will win your heart. Situated on several hills, the city was founded in the 15th century on a site that has been occupied since prehistoric times.
Decimated during the war of the 1990s, Sarajevo has bounced back to become the rising star of the Balkan region in terms of economic growth; tourism to the area is steadily increasing.
Don’t miss Latinski Most, the bridge upon which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914; the Sarajevo Brewery, which remained open during the war of the 1990s, offering free spring water to citizens who braved the sniper fire to get it; the marvelous turn-of-the-century Sarajevo City Hall, recently restored to its former Moorish-style glory; and the House of Spite, a residence (now a restaurant) that was moved at considerable cost to accommodate the City Hall project when the home’s owner refused to budge.
6. Lukomir, Bosnia And Herzegovina
Inhabited for centuries by seminomadic Muslim herders, Lukomir is becoming a popular destination for eco-tours, located as it is high above the former site of the Olympic downhill skiing events at Bjelašnica. The main attraction here is the magnificent alpine terrain, along with the medieval stecci, or tombstones in the graveyard overlooking the village.
Locals will offer you traditional Bosnian coffee and hand-knit goods. You can stave off hunger with burek, delicious meat or cheese phyllo pastries cooked in a cast iron pan and served with fresh yogurt at the one and only restaurant in town.
Overnighters can book a room at a hostel, but the majority of visitors will come to Lukomir on a small-group tour. Accessing the town on one’s own is difficult due to the steep, rugged, and primitive roads.
7. Belgrade, Serbia
The capital of Serbia, Belgrade, is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Danube and the Sava. This strategic location has been mentioned in numerous myths and legends, including that of Jason and the Argonauts.
One of the main attractions in Belgrade is Kalemegdan, an ancient walled fortress overlooking the waterways from the bluffside. Take note of the medieval gates and military equipment displays in the fortress, and don’t miss the recently discovered secret bunker that the former president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, had built for his personal use.
Other points of interest are the Skadarlija neighborhood, a bohemian enclave for artists and intellectuals; Knez Mihailova, a pedestrian street built over a Roman-era access road; and Kafana Question Mark, a traditional Serbian tavern that features Balkan cuisine and starogradska music. The tavern was given its unusual name after local religious leaders objected to its former name.
8. Sofia, Bulgaria
A livable and cosmopolitan city, Sofia is typically a visitor’s first introduction to Bulgaria, an under-the-radar destination even for the Balkan countries. The area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Period, however.
In Sofia, you’ll encounter a modern, Parisian-style vibe on the pedestrian-only Vitosha Boulevard. You’ll also see Roman archeological digs along several of the main arteries in the city center.
Don’t miss the historic Saint Nedelya Church; the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; Saint Petka Church, an Orthodox church with beautiful murals; and the fourth-century Church of Saint George. Sofia’s emerging food scene and lively arts and design community will round out your experience.
About The Author
Betsy Wuebker has visited almost 50 countries, and she recently returned to the United States after four years of full-time international travel. Since 2008, she and her husband, Peter, have documented their journey toward location independence and a travel-centered lifestyle on their blog, PassingThru.