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The Balkans also known as the Balkan Peninsula, comprises of 8 countries in southeast Europe namely, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria. The region takes its name from the Balkan mountains.
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I’d suggest opting to go on a Balkan road trip instead of using the public transport to explore the countries because you don’t have to depend on public transport and its timings AND you can always go off-track and see places that you hadn’t included in the itinerary to begin with.
To compare rental car prices to find the best deal from different service providers, you can check out this rental platform.
Remember to also check the inclusions and exclusions along with the price that you’re going to pay. Consider all the costs that might be involved while renting a car like insurance, road assistance, petrol, etc.
Don’t forget to get Green Card insurance. Most car rental companies will include it but double-check to be sure otherwise you might end up paying high fees at the borders. The insurance covers all countries except Kosovo.
This Balkans travel itinerary that I’ve listed can be used as a road trip itinerary but can also be covered by other modes of transport. Hence, I’ve provided the travel time between destinations keeping in mind a road trip by car but if you’re not on a very tight budget, you can fly from one capital to another.
Country #1 : Slovenia
Ljubljana | Lake Bled
The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, houses the only major airport of the country.
Take a walking tour of the city to explore the Old Town, the iconic Triple Bridge, the Dragon Bridge and the Ljubljana Castle.
After all the walking, relax in the largest park, Tivoli Park, of the city or go paddling on the Ljubljanica River.
Lake Bled is a day trip away from the capital at less than an hour’s distance and boy, will you love it!
This picturesque lake with the small Bled island in its midst will remind you of a fairy tale setting and leave you mesmerised.
You can reach the island either by renting a rowing boat or by taking a traditional gondola-like wooden boat called Pletna. You can also swim across if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. However, the lake freezes over during the winter so be prepared to see a sheet of ice instead of water.
The Church of the Assumption of Mary stands on Bled Island and has 99 steps leading to it. It is considered lucky to climb the steps and ring the bell thrice to make a wish come true.
If you fall in love with Slovenia, I won’t blame you if you do, and you want to make an exclusive trip to the country then you can check out my post for a one week Slovenia itinerary.
Country #2 : Croatia
Zagreb | Plitviče Lakes | Split | Dubrovnik
From Lake Bled, Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is 2 hours away and Plitvica is 3.5 hours away.
Opt for a walking tour of the capital to learn about its history. Zagreb has an artistic feel so you can opt for a tour that showcases some of the best street art pieces around the city.
Zagreb has really good culinary and nightlife scenes so your day, and night, will go by in a breeze.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is 2 hours away from Zagreb. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most beautiful and scenic national parks.
It is an amalgamation of 16 different lakes connected via a series of trails with picturesque waterfalls and lush greenery all around.
The Plitviče Lakes are the most stunning lakes I’ve ever seen.
Travel Tip: Get there early in the morning as it opens because it can get extremely crowded later in the day due to its popularity.
Plitvica to Split is a 3-hour drive approximately.
This beautiful coastal city has a lot to offer. Split is less crowded than Dubrovnik (thankfully!) and more affordable too!
If you’re a beach baby like me you’ll love basking in the sun and sipping margaritas on the beach.
If beaches aren’t what you’re looking for, you can explore Diocletian’s Palace. Then climb up Marjan Hill for splendid views.
The culinary scene and nightlife in Split are as good as in Zagreb. So, if you wanted to have a night out or go pub/club hopping, Split would be the place to go for it.
Go for an evening stroll along the seaside promenade.
From Split, a drive to Dubrovnik will take you about 3 hrs.
The ever-growing popularity of the city made famous by Game of Thrones should not be a deterrent to visit this city. Stroll through Old Town, head up to Srd Hill via cable car and enjoy the most beautiful panoramic views of the city. Neighbouring Imperial Fortress was strategically built on this spot in the early 19th century.
The Baroque-styled St. Blaise’s Church is one of the city’s major landmarks. Within the church you’ll find a large staircase leading to the main portal decorated with ornaments.
The main altar is a Gothic statue of St. Blasius holding a model of the city as it looked before the devastating Great earthquake hit it and destroyed parts of it leaving it in ruins.
You can stroll on the limestone-paved pedestrian street of Stradun or Placa that runs through Old Town and grab a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants lining it. Or on the cobbled pathways along the massive stone walls that encircle the city.
You can check out a little more detailed list of places to see and what to eat on my post.
From Dubrovnik, you have a choice of two countries that you can go to – Montenegro or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Kotor is a 2 hour drive and Mostar is a 3 hour drive from Dubrovnik. I’m taking Kotor as the next stop in the itinerary but you can always change it up and calculate the route accordingly.
Country #3: Montenegro
Kotor | Durmitor National Park
Kotor is a star of the coast being the southernmost fjord of Europe. It is a stunning medieval town located in the Bay of Kotor. Stroll through its cobblestoned city centre, to see the Venetian influence still visible in the architecture.
A couple of elevated points let you view the panoramic coast – Kotor Fortress, St. John Fortress and San Giovanni. Climb up the steps of any of these to see breath-taking views of the Old Town and the bay.
Durmitor National Park
The Durmitor National Park is a 3 to 4 hour drive from Kotor. It has tonnes of activities for adventure lovers like white water rafting, hiking and canyoning.
You can also camp here if you have a tent or a camper van. You’ll find the deepest canyon here, the Tara Canyon, and the Black Lake.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mostar | Sarajevo
From Durmitor National Park, Mostar and Sarajevo are located 4 hours away so you can go to either.
The most iconic landmark of this historic town is the beautiful Old Bridge (Stati Most) across the Neretva river. The arched bridge you see when you visit the place is a restored version of the original 16th century bridge, built by the Ottomans, which got destroyed during the Bosnia War.
You can learn about the bridge’s history by exploring the Old Bridge Museum nearby. You can climb the Koski Mehmed-Pasha Mosque’s minaret to see a panoramic view of the city.
Mostar also has beautiful Turkish homes in Islamic architecture across town that you can get a glimpse of while walking its streets.
The capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sarajevo, is located 2 hours away from Mostar, and is one of the must-visits, especially during the summer. It is a charming capital and has a beautiful city centre.
You can take a walking tour of the city to learn about the town’s Ottoman and Austro—Hungarian rule to its ultimate and devastating siege.
A testament to this would be the Sarajevo War Tunnel that today serves as a museum explaining the wartime history of the city.
Grab a souvenir to take back home in the bazaars of Old Town, Vratnik.
Visit the Latin bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.
You can also visit the Yellow Fortress (Jekovac Fortress), a fortification positioned on Jekovac Cliff that served as a defence point against the Austro-Hungarian troops.
You can also check out the Olympic bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics which has since remained abandoned but is still intact.
Country #4 : Serbia
Tara National Park | Belgrade | Novi Sad
Tara National Park
Tara National Park is 3-3.5 hours from Sarajevo.
It is the 3rd largest of its kind in the world and provides the perfect setting for a change in atmosphere from city views. The Drina River Gorge/Canyon is the park’s highlight. River Drina meanders its way through the cliffs and makes for a lovely setting for rafters.
This park also has two artificial lakes – Perućac and Zaovine where one can enjoy kayaking or leisure sailing in the calm waters if rafting isn’t your sport.
From the previous capital of Sarajevo to this next one of Belgrade takes a little shy of 5 hours.
The capital city of Serbia and also its largest city, Belgrade, is located on the banks of the Danube river. Your first stop is the iconic fortress, Beogradska Tvrđava, or commonly known as the Belgrade Fortress. It is located in Stari Gard (Old Town) at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers and is a must visit.
From there you can head to Skadarlija, which is also in Stari Grad. Skadarlija is a vintage street and has an archaic bohemian ambience associated with it which you will notice as you walk along the street.
After walking around the city, you can sit and relax by the river at the Kalemegdan Fortress Park, which is the largest park in Belgrade and is located atop a cliff.
Visit the Nikola Tesla museum and check out the inventions of the famous scientist.
You can end the day by exploring the bustling nightlife that the city is famous for.
It takes about 1-1.5 hours from the capital to your next city in Serbia, coincidentally the 2nd largest city in Serbia.
Novi Sad is also located on the banks of the Danube river but on the opposite side.
One of the main attractions of Novi Sad is the Petrovaradin Fortress, which dates back to the 17th & 18th centuries, overlooking the Danube river.
You can also check out the iconic Petrovaradin clock tower and the Žeželj Bridge. The original bridge got destroyed during a bombing and was later rebuilt as an arch bridge.
The Old Town, Stari Grad, is worth walking around and is the site of the neo-Renaissance City Hall.
Sit leisurely in one of the cafes along the Sava river or in Dunavski park to enjoy your evening.
Travel Tip: If you visit in the summer, the famous EXIT music festival is held here. You can also visit one of the most beautiful beaches on the Danube, Štrand.
Country #5 : Kosovo
Prishtina | Prizren
The Republic of Kosovo is a landlocked area in the Balkans and is a partially disputed state. It is home to quite a few preserved natural sites and fortresses with amazing views.
Kosovo isn’t a touristy country and I bet many of you probably would not even have heard about it. But it’s a lovely Balkan country that you can leisurely explore without the bustling crowds.
You can get to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, directly from Belgrade which will take you about 5.5-6 hours or you can head to Skopje, capital of Macedonia, first, and then to Prishtina.
Belgrade to Skopje is approximately 4.5 hours and Skopje to Prishtina will take you approximately 1-1.5 hours.
Wander the streets of this capital and take in the historical sights. A quirky and popular tourist attraction is the ‘Newborn’ monument, which is essentially a typographic sculpture located in front of the Palace of Youth and Sports.
Stop by at a local restaurant to try out Kosovan cuisine which draws a number of influences from other countries so is pretty unique.
From Prishtina, it would take you about 1.5 hours to get to Prizren.
Although being the 2nd largest city in Kosovo, Prizren, is quite small in size so it can be covered in a day. It is located on the banks of the Prizren Bistrica river, and it stands out for its stone-walled bridge over the river.
The Prizren fortress provides you with a panoramic view of the city so don’t forget to visit it. The picturesque Old Town has a number of beautiful mosques that you can check out.
It has borrowed elements from the Ottoman empire which is visible in the architecture of the Pasha Mosque and the Shadervan Square which has a fountain to provide drinking water for the people.
You can try the local cuisine which consists of Albanian, Serbian and a bit of Turkish influence.
Skopje | Matka Canyon| Ohrid
The Republic of North Macedonia (erstwhile Republic of Macedonia), as it is officially called, often takes a backseat when thinking of European, or for that matter even Balkan, destinations because of its lack of coastline.
But it has wonderful scenery framed by mountain ranges, lakes and national parks. That’s why this landlocked country is one that should be visited at least once.
Your first stop in Macedonia is Skopje, which is situated on the Vardar river, and is a 2 hour drive from Prishtina, Kosovo.
Having been ruled by the Romans, the Serbians, and the Ottomans at different points in time, the city’s architecture still displays the diversity in its structures. Check out the Kale Fortress and the Chain Bridge to see glimpses of these.
You can take a walk around the city’s main square, Pella Square, and catch the triumphal arch standing tall, Porta Macedonia or the Macedonia Gate.
You’ll also find the statue of Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital.
The next Macedonian stop is Matka Canyon and can be reached in half an hour’s drive from the capital.
This stop is a popular one for hikers and adventure lovers so feel free to skip it if you like relaxation more than thrills. The Matka Canyon stretches over a vast area and includes 10 natural caves that you can explore by foot. It also houses ruined monasteries and a couple of gorges.
The Matka lake within the canyon is the oldest artificial lake in Macedonia and has beautiful turquoise waters.
Your last stop in Macedonia, the town of Ohrid, is about 3 hours away from the capital. Once upon a time, the city of Ohrid was home to 365 churches – one for each day of the year! Phew!
Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is considered as one of the oldest lakes in the world and has crystal blue waters. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes overlooking Lake Ohrid where you can sit and enjoy the view.
Alternatively, to try something different you can hire a bicycle and ride by the lakeside to enjoy the scenery.
For a trip to prehistoric times, visit Samuel’s Fortress. It was built during the reign of Tsar Samuel in the 10th century and served as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire. It is a steep hike to reach there but the spectacular view of the city from the top makes up for it.
You can also check out the archaeological complex called Museum on Water, also known as Bay of Bones, where underwater archaeological research is conducted. It is a partial yet authentic reconstruction of a pile-dwelling settlement and makes for an informative day trip.
Country #6: Albania
Tirana | Berat
Your next stop is the unconventional city of Tirana, capital of Albania. It is a 2.5 hours’ drive from Ohrid.
Tirana, the capital of Albania, isn’t like any of the other traditional capitals or cities mentioned in this Balkan itinerary. The city, especially Skanderbeg Square, is colourful with pastel buildings all around, dominated by Ottoman, Fascist and Soviet-era architecture.
Head to the Piramadia, formerly the International Centre for Culture and a museum, and see graffiti covered walls.
If a museum visit is something that interests you, go to the National History Museum to learn about Albanian history and culture.
If café hopping is something you had in mind, you can try out Tirana’s café culture which can easily take up your whole day.
You can trek to the nearby Mountain Dajti for stunning views of Tirana city.
Berat is situated on the Osum river. Berat in Old Slavonic translates to “white city” so be ready to see stunning white Ottoman houses with large windows overlooking the town. Hence, it is also known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows”.
Berat consists of three parts divided by the Osum River: Gorica, Mangalem and Kalaja, the last being a residential quarter. The town also has a 15th-century mosque and a number of churches of the Albanian Orthodox Church.
The 13th century Citadel of Berat, also referred to as Berat Castle, is a fortress that overlooks the river, the modern city as well as the old quarter across the river.
Gjirokastër is a lovely, well-preserved Ottoman town that possesses the title of the UNESCO World Heritage site. All the houses in this little town have roofs made from stacked, flat stones which have a nice look overall.
The Gjirokastër Fortress, overlooking the town, houses five towers, the Gjirokastër Museum, the clock tower, a church and a stage where the National Folk Festival is held every 5 years.
You can also soak a little in the Benja hot springs which will take you about 3.5-4 hours to get to. It is located in a gorge and there are pools to enjoy the sulphur springs. Nearby, an old bridge arcs over the sulphur-rich river from where the thermal waters originate.
Country #7: Bulgaria
Sofia | Veliko Tarnovo
From Berat, you can head back to Skopje for the night and the next day you can leave for Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, which should take you about 3.5-4 hours.
You can go one of the free walking tours of Sofia to learn more about the Bulgarian culture.
The Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the most recognised landmarks of the city. It was built to honour those who fought and died in the Russo-Turkish War.
From here, you can visit the Saint Sofia Church from where the city got its name. Don’t forget to go underneath the building via the underground labyrinth as it has catacombs.
Sofia has a really good food culture and you can opt for one of the free tours to check out the culinary haunts.
Walk on Vitosha Boulevard which is the main pedestrian street lined with shops and food spots. Or you can walk along Graf Ignatiev street, another pedestrian street lined with pastry shops and the occasional tram. Both the streets also have bars that have shisha and happy hours.
For a unique sight, you can head to what’s locally called the Square of Religious Tolerance. It is an area that features four places of worship of four different religions that co-exist peacefully. Behind this area is the Sofia History Museum where you learn about Bulgarian history.
From the capital, Veliko Tarnovo is about 3 hours away.
The erstwhile capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo, is a town that has quite the picturesque sight with houses and streets stacked on hills. It is located on the Yantra river and is situated on three hills – Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora.
You can see the sound and light show on the historical Tsarevets Hill in the night. The fortress on this hill, Tsarevets fortress, housed the royal palace at one time from the 12th to the 14th century.
Country #8: Romania
Bucharest | Transylvania | Sibiu or Sighisoara | Strad
From Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest should take you about 3-3.5 hours to get to.
Bucharest is known for its unique architecture with the meeting of Western and Eastern styles. A lot of monuments were designed and built during the Communist era hence have that influence.
If a museum tour is what you’re looking for, look no further than Bucharest. The National Museum of Art of Romania, the open-air Village Museum and the Storck Museum are some of the must-visits. Most museum walking tours should cover these.
Casa Melik is a 250 year old hidden gem within the city making it the oldest house here. It is open to the public as it hosts a museum, Theodore Palady Museum, and hundreds of paintings adorning it.
After all the walking, relax in Grădina Cișmigiu, the oldest public garden of the city. Located right in the city centre, its lush green tree-lined winding paths make for a perfect stroll and will make you forget that you’re in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city.
Bucharest’s Old Centre or Centrul vechi houses multiple watering holes, restaurants and cafes along with rooftop bars on old 17th century buildings.
Transylvania is a 4-4.5 hours’ drive from the capital. This town will remind you of Grimm’s fairy tales because of its Old Saxon architecture (especially the Saxon churches), picturesque views, cobblestone streets, pastel coloured houses, secret passages and clock towers.
Transylvania is most famous for the Bran Castle and its association with Dracula. This picturesque landmark turns into an eerie one at night. It is perched on a cliff and acts as a defence point for the city of Brasov.
Originally a 13th century wooden citadel, over the years its appearance has changed to better adapt with time. Vlad the Impaler is said to have been imprisoned here for a couple of weeks.
While here, you can try some traditional Saxon delicacies.
Sibiu also takes about the same distance from the capital as Transylvania.
It is a quaint medieval town situated in the heart of Transylvania. Sibiu was named European Capital of Culture in 2007 and still remains an important cultural centre of Romania.
To witness this, take a walk around Brukenthal Palace that now houses one of the finest art museums, the Brukenthal National Museum. It was also the 1st one that opened in Romania.
Sibiu also houses some unusual museums (Hunting and Pharmacy Museums) and the remains of medieval towers.
It also made it to Forbes’ 2008 list of “Europe’s Most Idyllic Places to Live”. You can see why in the town’s charming squares, baroque buildings and the beautiful passageways that connect the Upper Town with the Lower Town.
Check out the beautiful yet haunting Corvin Castle, a 15th century castle further West of Sibiu built in Gothic-Renaissance style and one of the largest in Europe. It takes 1.5 hours from Sibiu to get there so you can make a day trip out of it.
For dinner, you can try the local Sibiul Vechi’s delicious cuisine and enjoy it with some live performance or traditional music.
Alternatively, instead of Sibiu, you can take a day trip to the picture postcard Saxon town of Sighisoara, which is an hour away from Transylvania. This town is the place to be if you want to enjoy Romanian culinary delights.
You can build your appetite by climbing up the Clock Tower. Built in 1281, it is made up of Romanian tiles and a clock whose dials each represent a character from the Greek-Roman pantheon, making it a fine work of art. The view of the village from the top is quite beautiful.
To get an insight into the Saxon architecture and the fortification of this medieval town, visit Sighisoara’s 13th century Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that is still inhabited till date.
Travel Tip: Go for the unique tour with Sighișoara’s drummer. He’ll take you to the Citadel, tell you stories in the rhythm of his drum and you can even witness a re-enactment of olden times.
Transylvania and Dracula have been associated with each other for as long as anyone can remember. That’s because the Wallachian ruler, Vlad II Dracul, father of Vlad the Impaler, who we identify today as Dracula, settled in Transylvania and his son, Vlad III Dracula (Vlad the Impaler), was born in this town.
Dracul translates to the Dragon which originated from the fact that Vlad’s father was a member of the Order of the Dragon. In Romanian, Dracul translates to the Devil, which contributes to the myth.
You’ll find Dracula’s house in the Citadel Square. Casa Vlad Dracul is the house of Vlad Tepes, the character who inspired Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula, who was born here in 1431. It is now a restaurant.
Go strolling through the cobbled streets and head to one of the many churches in this village to see 500-year-old frescoes and renaissance paintings.
So, there you have it, the ultimate Balkan Itinerary that is sure to leave you stunned!
RESOURCES FOR YOUR BALKAN TRIP
- Skyscanner to find cheap flight deals.
- Rental Cars to hop on your next road trip.
- Booking.com to find a hotel deal.
- Hostel World to find a backpacker hostel.
- World Nomads to insure your travel.
- Viator to find a cool day tour.
- Or my Global Packing List.
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