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Looking for a unique travel experience? Tour the Balkans! Although it may not be among the top destinations in Europe, the Balkans is a wonderful place to visit. The Balkans have been ruled by the great Byzantium, Roman and Ottoman Empires, and finally, the Austro-Hungarians.
With centuries of struggle for freedom from numerous great forces, the Balkans have been left with rich cultural and historical heritage, sanctuaries, archeological sites and fortifications that attract visitors from around the world.
The Danube, that grand European river, runs through the Balkans. The Balkans’ shores are surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean and Black Seas, and the hilly relief is under the command of the Dinaric and Carpathian mountain ranges.
In addition to all that, there are a number of parks that preserve the natural habitats of many species of plants and animals.
The Balkans is a place dotted with Christian and Muslim memorials and features a turbulent history. Plus, the area has given the world excellent philosophers, Nobel laureates, scientists, athletes, musicians and artists.
Which Countries Are in the Balkans?
You may find different answers to the question of which countries are included in the Balkans. This is due, in part, to the fact that some of the countries are not contained entirely within the Balkan Peninsula.
However, most will agree that it includes the former Yugoslavia countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo, along with Albania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Romania. Some will also include Greece and Turkey.
Don’t Miss These Sights When You Tour the Balkans
Are you ready for an exciting journey through the most beautiful parts of the Balkans and its rich history? Here are 25 amazing things you should know when you tour the Balkans.
Music Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia
Novi Sad is a city of lovely architecture located in the north of Serbia. The town is dominated by the Petrovaradin Fortress, which offers an incredible view of the Danube River and the city. Every summer that fortress becomes the music capital of Southeastern Europe.
Exit Festival is one of the best European music festivals, with thousands of visitors worldwide. During the festival, which usually lasts for a few days, you can enjoy concerts by music stars such as Prodigy, Manu Chao, Nick Cave and many others.
Ancient Ruins of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
The city of Plovdiv is older than Rome and Athens. The second-largest Bulgarian city was inhabited 8,000 years ago. Plovdiv Roman Theater is one of the best-preserved ancient theaters in the world. In this magical place, you can enjoy concerts and various artistic performances.
Also worth seeing are the remains of the ancient Philippopolis and Roman Stadium in the main street. If you want to learn more about the city’s history, you can visit the Regional Ethnographic Museum that keeps essential objects and documents about Plovdiv’s past.
Stroll the narrow streets of Plovdiv Old Town and peek into the art galleries. Come to Kapana, a former craft center where you will find shops featuring various handcrafts.
Many old houses in the Old Town have been converted into museums, so it is not surprising that Plovdiv was declared the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
Find more walking tours and activities around Plovdiv here.
Skiing in Slovenia’s Kranjska Gora
Kranjska Gora is a part of the Julian Alps and offers the most beautiful landscape in Slovenia. This popular ski resort has more than 20 ski routes of different levels of difficulty. Planica Nordic Center is known for its ski jump, which also hosts World Cup competitions.
You can reach the top of the ski jumping hill by a cable car, and from there, if you are brave enough, you can go down by zipline.
In the summer months, Kranjska Gora is a fantastic place for hiking, biking and walking through gorgeous nature and visit Lake Jasna and the spring of the Sava River. If you are in good shape, embark on conquering mountain peaks, including Triglav, the highest Slovenia peak.
See more of Kranjska Gora at the Triglav National Park. Book your adventure tickets here.
Christmas in Zagreb, Croatia
Did you know that Zagreb hosts one of the best Christmas markets in Europe? Every December, the Croatian capital is illuminated by a festive fairy-tale atmosphere.
Have some family fun attending exhibitions, concerts and exciting events for kids at various locations in the city.
Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor
Oversea cruisers often pass through one of the most beautiful bays in the world and come to Kotor. You can join many passengers from these ships within the old town walls and find quality restaurants and interesting shops.
Those in better physical shape can climb up the steps to the top of the fortification, which offers an incredible view of Kotor’s Bay. You can also go on a road trip to the small island of Gospa od Skrpjela and see the charming town of Perast nearby.
Ohrid in North Macedonia
One of the oldest European lakes is in the Balkans. Lake Ohrid, located on the border of North Macedonia and Albania is a tourist hot spot. It is known for its clear water, transparent up to 20 meters (65 feet) of depth. There are several beautiful beaches on Lake Ohrid’s shores. Also, you can enjoy a boat ride on the lake.
The surroundings of Ohrid are rich in cultural and historical sights, among which the Church of St. Sophia and the Orthodox monasteries of St. Neum and St. John stand out. Important sites are Samuel’s Fortress, the ancient theater and the Archaeological Museum in the Bay of Bones.
Take some time to walk through the old town’s narrow alleys. You can find shops of traditional crafts and pastry shops where you can eat desserts prepared according to old recipes.
Find more tours and activities around Ohrid here.
No tour of the Balkans, or Europe for that matter, is complete without a visit to Athens. Athens, the Greek capital, is one of the world’s oldest cities overflowing with cultural, artistic and historical significance. It was the home to numerous philosophers from ancient Greece and introduced democracy, so it is also a symbol of Western civilization.
The ancient sanctuary of the Acropolis is a must-see for all visitors. On this hill, you can visit the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, and Erechtheion, known for its columns in the shape of female figures.
Museum-lovers will be delighted by the collection of antiques at the National Archaeological Museum. You can also explore exhibitions at the Museum of Cycladic Art, the Acropolis Museum and Hadrian’s Library.
In ancient Greece, athletic competitions were held in front of 60,000 spectators. Panathenaic Stadium is the largest building in ancient Greece. It is built out of marble, 2,500 years old, and the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 were there.
Sutjeska National Park in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Incredible natural beauty awaits you in the area between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Sutjeska National Park includes two of the highest Bosnian mountains, Maglic and Volujak, as well as the beautiful mountain Zelengora, with eight glacial lakes, and amazing Perucica, one of the largest European rainforests.
In this area, you can find thousands of different plant species and around 150 species of birds. In addition to walking along the endless hiking trails, adventurous ones can experience rafting in the river Tara canyon.
Book a full day tour of Sutjeska National Park here.
The Ottoman Stone City of Djirokaster, Albania
The city of Djirokaster is located in southern Albania, 200km (124 miles) from the capital Tirana. Above the town, there is a fortress of the same name that was built in the 12th century. For a time, it was used as a prison for political opponents.
Today, Djirokaster fortress serves as a military museum, where you can see the weapons used in the fight against Western powers during World War II and the Cold War.
The houses, built in an authentic Ottoman style, are specific because of the stone roofs. Stroll through the narrow streets of Djirokaster Old Town and visit the Old Bazaar. Take a look at the windows of numerous small shops and craft workshops.
Stop by Zekate House, the former residence of an Ottoman general that has been turned into a museum. It is considered to be the best example of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans.
Walled City of Dubrovnik, Croatia
You really can’t tour the Balkans without a visit to Dubrovnik, “The Pearl of the Adriatic.” The walls of the medieval city of Dubrovnik were the setting for the filming of the Game of Thrones series. Thanks to fans from all over the world, Dubrovnik has become the most prominent destination in the Mediterranean in recent years.
Take a walk through the Stradun pedestrian zone and enjoy the beautiful palaces and cathedrals surrounding it. After that, it will be clear why this city in the south of Croatia is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Rila Monastery in Bulgaria
Rila Monastery is the largest Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria, located in its southwestern part, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Sofia. The sanctuary is on the mountain Rila, at 1,150 meters (3,773 feet) above sea level, in a beautiful environment. Nearby is Musala, the highest peak of the Balkan Peninsula.
The religious sanctuary was founded in the 10th century by one of the most significant Bulgarian saints, Jovan Rilski. Although the entire complex is surrounded by 24-meter high (78 feet) walls, the monastery was destroyed several times during the Middle Ages.
Known for its beautiful frescoes, museum, library and treasury, the Rila Monastery also has more than 300 rooms to house the resident monks. It has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List for almost 40 years.
Greek Summer Destination of Halkidiki
The majority of the Balkan countries’ residents visit Greek resorts every summer. The Halkidiki peninsula, not far from Thessaloniki, is the most popular among them. Halkidiki consists of an interior and three additional peninsulas – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos.
While Athos is a holy land with 20 Orthodox monasteries and 2,000 monks, Sithonia and Cassandra are real vacation paradises with their sandy beaches and the turquoise Aegean Sea. More than 70 blue flag beaches await you here.
You can enjoy the beautiful coastal towns of Neos Marmaras, Sarti, Hanioti, then the picturesque Afytos, the luxurious Sani, and the top camps of Thalatta, Armenistis and Blue Dream.
Bohemian Quarter of Belgrade, Serbia
The capital of Serbia is known for its nightlife, clubs and taverns. The best-known part of Belgrade is Skadarlija. That bohemian quarter of incredible energy is located in the center of the city. The pedestrian cobbled-stone street features excellent restaurants with lovely flower gardens and great food.
You can taste local wines or rakija and have a good time with friends in a cheerful atmosphere created by local music orchestras.
Check out more tours and activities in Belgrade here.
Massive Monuments of Skopje, Macedonia
One of the largest cross-shaped monuments in the world is located in Skopje. It is 66 meters (216 feet) high, called Millennium Cross, and placed on the hill called Vodno. You can reach the top of that hill by cable car or hiking trails.
Interestingly, you can see the Millennium Cross from a distance of 30 kilometers (18 miles). But that is not the only large monument in this city. The giant statue “Warrior on a horse” located in the city center represents Alexander the Great.
That is just one of the dozens of statues dedicated to important figures in Macedonian history that have been installed in the center of Skopje. Take a walk through the central square and assess whether this is art or kitsch culture.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
located in the extreme west of the Balkan Peninsula, Lake Bled is just 45 minutes from Ljubljana and is surrounded by the magical ambiance of the snowy peaks of the Julian Alps and endless forests.
There is a small island in the middle of the lake, where the church of St. Mary is located. If you want to enter the church, you have to climb 99 steps from the shore.
Bled’s climate is considered beneficial to recovery from several diseases, as well as a place that delights mountaineers and cyclists. The walk around the lake takes about two hours.
On the rock above the lake is the old Bled Castle, built in the 11th century, making it the oldest castle in Slovenia. Lake Bled looks like a place from a fairy tale during the winter. There are three large ski resorts in its vicinity, so if you like winter sports, Bled will enchant you.
Find more activities around Lake Bled here.
The Croatian coast of the Adriatic Sea is said to be the cleanest sea in Europe. Like its more famous siblings, Split and Dubrovnik, Zadar sits along that beautiful Croatian coastline. But, being a little less-known Zadar has the benefit of being less crowded with tourists.
Zadar has plenty of historic sites to explore such as the ancinet Roman Forum in Old Town and the Venetian-era St Anastasia’s Cathedral. Visit the Zadar promenade in the evening for spectacular sunsets accompanied by the music created by the unique Sea Organ installation.
You can also go on a day trip and discover beautiful beaches on Hvar, Losinj, Korcula, Brac and Vis islands or visit the national parks of Brijuni, Mljet and the Kornati that nature lovers will adore.
Enjoy the beaches on a kayak tour around Zadar here.
Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Mostar is one of the largest cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The river Neretva divides the town into two parts connected by the Old Bridge. The Turks built this bridge in the 16th century. Unfortunately, the bridge was destroyed in the war in 1993 but was rebuilt in 2004.
It has become a symbol of Mostar, instilling hope in different nations’ ordinary life in this area. Every year there is a competition jumping from the bridge to the cold Neretva River.
Belogradchik Fortress in Bulgaria
Belogradchik Fortress is located in the northwest of Bulgaria. It was built during the Roman Empire and was later expanded by the Ottoman and Bulgarian rulers. It consists of three parts, with walls 2 meters (6.5 feet) thick and 12 meters (39 feet) high.
Near the fortress, there are marvelous Belogradchik rocks, up to 70 meters (229 feet) high. These rocks belong to Bulgarian seven wonders of nature, and their color varies, from red to yellow.
Learn more about the history and rocks in the Fortress here.
“Damned” Mountains in the Albanian Alps
The Albanian Alps are a mountain range in northern Albania, western Kosovo and eastern Montenegro. However, their name in Serbian is “Prokletije,” which means “damned” mountains. The name came from the frightening and brutal look of these mountains.
Snow-capped peaks over 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) high are located in all three countries. The highest peak, Maja Jezerce, is in Albania rising 2,694 meters (8,838 feet) above sea level).
The most popular tour is the Theth-Valbona hiking trail, where you can see amazing canyons and beautiful mountain lakes.
The Wooden Town of Drvengrad, Serbia
In Serbia’s western part, on the mountain Mokra Gora, the famous movie director Emir Kusturica built Drvengrad, a town out of wood. Drvengrad is also known for the Kustendorf Film Festival, which hosts famous actors worldwide every year.
Not far from this place, Andricgrad is dedicated to Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric. Make sure to take the “Sarganska osmica” ride.
It’s a ride on an old sightseeing train whose route goes through Mokra Gora Nature Park, between Tara, Zlatibor and Zlatar mountains. It may very well be one of the most impressive parts of the Balkans.
Durmitor National Park in Montenegro
You can go hiking in the mountains and enjoy yourself on the beach on the same day in Montenegro. Durmitor National Park is one of the most beautiful places in the Balkans. It’s only a 2-hour drive from Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, and 2½ hours from the Adriatic Sea.
True nature-lovers will be delighted by the stunning mountain peaks, lakes and numerous hiking trails.
You can embark on conquering the highest peak of Bobotov Kuk (2,523 meters, 8,277 feet) or go on a circular tour of the hidden corners of this magnificent mountain.
Monasteries of Meteora, Greece
The complex of Orthodox monasteries of Meteora is located atop rocky pinnacles in the Greek province of Thessaly. It consists of 26 monasteries, of which just six are active today.
Due to their exceptional cultural and historical significance, Meteora’s monasteries are under UNESCO cultural heritage protection.
Construction of these monasteries began in the 14th century when monks used primitive tools to climb the material to the rocks’ tops. Later, steps were carved into the rocks, so climbing was made easier, but you need to go up from 150 to 300 steps to each monastery. A ticket price for visiting these monasteries is just 3 euros per person.
Plitvice National Park in Croatia
Plitvice, the oldest national park in Croatia, is visited by a million tourists every year. Although most of the park consists of pretty forests, the park’s most beautiful part is the Plitvice Lakes complex.
Plitvice National Park contains a total of 20 lakes and many waterfalls, which have been under UNESCO protection since 1979.
Choose one of the eight circular tour routes and enjoy a walk along the wooden path next to the wonderful lakes and waterfalls. Also, you can rent rowing boats and experience Plitvice lakes from a different perspective.
Bascarsija is the old part of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. It has been a shopping and cultural center of the city for centuries, featuring many small shops with handicrafts.
You can see preserved buildings from the Ottoman Empire and several mosques from the 15th and 16th centuries. Try Turkish coffee and kebabs, a local meat specialty.
Matka Canyon, North Macedonia
Matka Canyon attracts adventurers from all over the world with its high rocks. It is located near Skopje, and it’s a popular place for kayaking, hiking, diving and speleology. Due to its rich flora and fauna, it has also been declared a natural monument.
The canyon is dominated by the lake of the same name, with several monasteries and a dozen caves around it. Take a boat ride on the lake and enjoy its calmness and beautiful green color.
Book This Trip
Start planning your journey through the Balkan states today! You can find everything you need like hotel or VRBO options, local restaurant favorites, insider tips on getting around and more through Travelocity and TripAdvisor. When you are ready to book, be sure to check out Kiwi for exclusive flight deals and ground transportation options here.
Make the most of your time in each destination by booking some tours through GetYourGuide. From the Plitvice Lakes Day Tour in Croatia to the Rila Monastery Wine Tasting Tour in Bulgaria, there is an activity for everyone to enjoy. Book your tours and see more destinations here.
Author Bio: Based in Serbia in Europe, Marija Stojanovic Petkovski worked as a journalist but realized writing about the most beautiful places in the world is something that inspires her. She is sure that a pint of good craft beer perfectly accompanies a tasty homemade lasagne. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her children and spending time outdoors with her family.