After living in the Balkans for about 8 months almost 2 years ago (how has it already been that long?!), I still can’t stop singing the praises of this amazing region. Still misconstrued as dangerous due to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, this peninsula is now a hot spot for tourists looking for cheap, undiscovered, historical, outdoorsy destinations!
Narrowing it down to 10 cities in the Balkans was quite a difficult task. Although I only lived in Croatia and Bulgaria during my internships at the U.S. Embassies, I had the pleasure of traveling to almost every other Balkan country before I left the region. Below are some of my favorite cities along with three bonus locations ;)
1 || LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA
I arrived in Ljubljana expecting a cold, grey city and was immediately greeted with a city that rivals the color and architecture of German towns. With all the outdoor markets on the weekends and inviting cafes, this is the perfect weekend retreat from Zagreb, Croatia!
2 || ZAGREB, CROATIA
While most tourists choose to skip over Zagreb in favor of one of Croatia’s coastal cities, Zagreb is a charming location itself. Easily doable in two days, I’d recommend spending the majority of your time exploring the Upper Town (Gornji Grad).
3 || SPLIT, CROATIA
My favorite city in all of Croatia, I much prefer Split over Dubrovnik! While the city fills with tourists in the summer, it is a wonderful haven away from the constant tourist traps in Dubrovnik. Spend your time exploring the ancient palace of Diocletian (you can even rent apartments in it!). If you have extra time, catch a ferry out to one of Croatia’s amazing islands.
Related Post: Dreaming in Diocletian’s Palace
4 || OPATIJA, CROATIA
Part of Croatia’s famed Istria region, this is a food and wine lovers paradise. Opatija has long been the summer destination for the region’s wealthy citizens. A hidden gem less than a two-hour car ride away from Zagreb, it is an easy day trip from the capital city! Make sure to eat lots of truffles and seafood!
Related Post: Overview of Opatija
5 || MOSTAR, B & H
With its iconic bridge as a symbol of Mostar, this town is almost exactly halfway between Dubrovnik and Sarajevo. While Mostar’s Old Bridge was totally destroyed during the Balkan Wars, it was rebuilt in the early 2000s and continues to be a symbol of the city! My suggestion would be to stop over in Mostar for an afternoon while going between Dubrovnik and Sarajevo.
***Warning: Make sure to be really careful if you decide to go hiking in Bosnia and Herzegovina! There are still many landmines throughout the country. Check before you go about safe hiking routes!***
6 || SARAJEVO, B & H
A perfect mixture of west and east, Turkish and Austrian, Sarajevo still holds many visible scars of its painful past. Contrary to common misconceptions, the city is perfectly safe and has one of the friendliest populations. A must-see city for any political and historical enthusiast, Sarajevo was the starting point of WWI and saw some of the most intense fighting during the Balkan Wars. I’d highly recommend the free walking tour – my guide was born and raised in Sarajevo during the 1990s and provided fabulous insight into the city and its past!
7 || KOTOR, MONTENEGRO
I almost didn’t want to mention Kotor because it is such a hidden gem but I feel it is worth sharing! The entire country of Montenegro is dotted with inlets that provide the most gorgeous views (seriously, I would hold my breath going around every corner!). Kotor is one of the prime locations in Montenegro. I took a day trip from Dubrovnik and managed to fit everything in that I wanted to see. Make sure to climb to the top of St. John’s Fortress and absorb the breathtaking views!
Related Post: St. John’s Fortress in Kotor
8 || SKOPJE, MACEDONIA
By far the WEIRDEST city I have ever visited! Skopje is trying to “rewrite” its past by changing the architecture style of the city, installing hundreds and hundreds of statues, and infringing on the religious beliefs of the Turkish population. On top of it, Macedonia is in an ongoing argument with the Macedonian region of Greece as to Alexandra the Great’s birthplace. Although protests were rampant a few years ago, the city is perfectly safe and the population is extremely welcoming!
Related Post: Skopje: The Strangest City in the World
9 || SOFIA, BULGARIA
I will never stop singing the praises of Bulgaria. Hands down, one of the best countries in the entire world! Between the mixture of religion, history, politics, landscape (three mountain ranges and multiple beaches!), and affordable prices, Bulgaria is the hidden gem of Europe. After living in Sofia one summer, I could easily see myself returning to the city for the long-term.
10 || PLOVDIV, BULGARIA
I bet you didn’t know that Plovdiv is the third oldest city in Europe and one of the oldest cities in the world (there is actually a debate as to whether Plovdiv is the oldest city in Europe!). Between the cobblestone streets and brightly-painted buildings, this is a destination not to miss in Europe. Plus, it is only a two-hour car ride away from Sofia so very doable for a day or weekend trip!
Related Post: Third Oldest European City
Although these are not Balkan cities, here are three more not-to-miss destinations in the Balkans!
1 | Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Yes, this place is real. And yes, you really shouldn’t miss it! I took a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park from Zagreb, Croatia. I’m not a great hiker and was able to do this entire park in 6 hours (and took over 300 photos!). While the summer gets really crowded, I’ve been told that all times of the year are gorgeous!
Related Post: Hiking Plitvice Lakes National Park
2 | Seven Rila Lakes National Park, Bulgaria
I would consider this hike a bit more treacherous than Plitvice Lakes National Park. There are lots of hills and climbing involved. As noted by this title, Seven Rila Lakes is comprised of…seven lakes! I managed to hike to 6 of them but ran out of time hiking to the seventh. I would highly recommend renting a car to get here and arriving early if you want to hit all seven lakes!
3 | Hvar (Island), Croatia
Looking for the ultimate relaxation destination? Look no further than Hvar. One of the best vacations I ever took! While I opted to stay in Stari Grad over Hvar Town (I heard that Hvar Town can be a bit party crazy), both cities are stunning! It is essential to rent a car while on the island as it let’s you fully experience the beaches, lilac fields, and wineries.
Related Post: Heavenly Hvar Island
SAFETY IN THE BALKANS
If you’re really worried about your safety in the Balkans, check out this post where I outline and answer the most commonly asked questions I receive!