Millions of people visit Western Europe every year. Italy, Switzerland, Paris etc. are some of the most popular European countries that people visit. However, there is a part of Europe that often gets forgotten by travelers. Particularly, the places in the Balkan Peninsula are like hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered. This list covers an itinerary that’s supposed to help you cover the most important places in the Balkan Peninsula (apart from Greece, since Greece is already pretty touristy) in 10 days. Let’s dig in:
Day 1: Ljubljana – best amongst the places in the Balkan Peninsula
Ljubljana is one of the most beautiful, cleanest, and well-organized capitals I’ve seen in my life. The city looks like a fairytale. It feels like a mix of Amsterdam, Florence, and Venice. Even though geographically belongs to the Balkan Peninsula. Yet, Ljubljana, and the whole of Slovenia for that matter, is more similar to Western Europe. The streets of Ljubljana are centralized along Ljubljanica River. With Venetian and Roman architecture surrounding the city. Ljubljana has only 278,000 residents. Thus, making it one of the smallest capitals in Europe. So the city is never too crowded. And it’s a great amongst places in the Balkan Peninsula to visit even if you’re traveling with children.
If you have a little extra time at hand, do visit the rest of Slovenia, as it is a gorgeous country. Here’s a beautiful list of things to do in Slovenia for you.
Day 2: Zagreb
After a couple of hours driving from Ljubljana, you will reach Zagreb. Its the capital of Croatia. Despite being the capital, Zagreb often gets forgotten by visitors that head directly to the heavenly beaches and islands of Croatia. However, the city has remained the center of the country since the medieval times. And you will always find interesting things in Zagreb. If there was a competition for in which city would it be hardest to get lost, Zagreb would be one of the favorites. It’s nearly impossible to get lost here, as there are signs on practically every corner. Zagreb is a city with a rich history and here you will find some of the most important museums and buildings in the whole of Croatia. This is a must visit amongst the places in the Balkan Peninsula
Day 3: Mostar
Mostar is a 6-hour drive away from Zagreb and is the first non-capital city on this list. Mostar is one of the most charming cities in the Balkan and is home to the iconic Old Bridge (Stari Most). The bridge that saw the rise of Yugoslavia, after the partisans defeated the fascists at the legendary Battle of Neretva and was also there to witness Yugoslavia’s downfall in the 1991 war. Mostar is a small and compact town that can be covered in a day but it has a lot to offer and is one of the most important historic cities in the Balkan. The city is still wearing a scar from the 1991 secession war but that just adds to its charm. A day in Mostar is something you will certainly never forget.
Day 4: Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities in the region and its nickname ‘The pearl of the Adriatic’ is a good description. The city has been listed as a UNESCO heritage site since 1979 and recently has been used for the shoots of the popular TV series Game of Thrones. However, nowadays Dubrovnik can be a bit too touristy at times. Because of its touristy reputation, Dubrovnik is the most expensive city on this list.
Nevertheless, a trip around the Balkan can’t be complete without Dubrovnik. The architecture of the city will amaze you. Exploring the streets of the Old town will make you go back through time. The walls that are comfortably surrounding the city are also a must visit. Dubrovnik is probably the most charming city in the region. But come here with some extra money. Like I said Dubrovnik is one of the most expensive cities at the Peninsula. Thus add it to your list of places in the Balkan Peninsula.
Day 5: Kotor
Kotor is a small town just like every other town in Montenegro. However, Kotor is different because it has the power to send you back in time. The Old Town is simply amazing and I get wowed every time I visit, no matter how many times I go there. Because of its location next to the sea, Kotor was under Venetian influence throughout history. That’s how there’s so many Venetian-influenced building in what’s supposed to be the ‘Orthodox Cristian part of the Balkan’. Kotor has something in store for everyone, from breathtaking museums to parties at the old castles. It’s also the biggest port in the country and the main jumping off point towards all of the islands. Thus, you can add Kotor to the places in the Balkan Peninsula that you want to visit.
Day 6: Lovcen National Park
I could have put a lot of other places here but I chose this one because it’s really close to Kotor and it’s one of the most peaceful places off the beaten track in the whole region. I don’t know why that’s the case because Lovren National Park is simply stunning. It would be good for you to take a day to relax in the nature and enjoy the amazing view.
Day 7: St. Stefan
Sveti Stefan (that’s how it’s originally pronounced) is one of the most beautiful islands in the Balkan and my personal favorite. St. Stefan is where luxury and history meet. The island played a significant role for Montenegro in the medieval times as a defensive stronghold against the Turks. The island was only a fort until the 19th century but today St. Stefan is one of Montenegro’s tourist hotspots. A highlight of your visit would be to stay in the historic island village- a truly unique experience which I strongly recommend.
Day 8: Skopje
This is going to be the longest journey of the trip so I suggest you leave during the night so you could reach Skopje at early morning. If you followed the itinerary, you had three days of rest without too many activities, so it should be manageable. Skopje recently was nicknamed the most controversial capital in the Balkan because of the project Skopje 2014 and the new statues that started surrounding the city center. The city center is now filled with statues and buildings from different architecture and art styles and periods. Some of them aren’t related with Macedonian history at all!
But nevertheless, Skopje has a lot to offer and Macedonia is a country with a rich tradition. The canyon Matka is arguably the most beautiful place in the city and one of the most beautiful places in the region. It’s also home to arguably the deepest cave in the world. Its depth is still unknown. Macedonian food is also one of the best traditional cuisines I tried in my life.
Day 9: Sofia
The capital of Bulgaria is around 5-hour drive from Skopje. It’s a city that made a nice transition from a communist capital to a multicultural and fast growing city, with Chinese and Arab neighborhoods-something you can’t find anywhere else on the Balkan. It’s also one of the rare cities in the Balkan that has free walking tours. Sofia is the cultural and historic center of Bulgaria and the most important historic buildings and museums are located here. Sofia is a wonderful and budget-friendly destination that you really shouldn’t miss when touring the Balkan.
Day 10: Belgrade
Belgrade is the largest city in the region. Belgrade is the capital of Serbia, a country known as the ‘bad guy of the 90s’ and some people would say the country that is to blame for the downfall of Yugoslavia. The war in the 90s culminated with a NATO intervention and multiple bombings of Belgrade which left a big scar on the city. Belgrade is the city where the rivers Danube and Sava confluence. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe with its beginnings dating 6,000 years ago.
Because of its strategic location, Belgrade was involved in 115 wars throughout history and the city was burnt down to the ground 44 times! That’s why there aren’t as many historic sights but there still are some must visit places like the Belgrade Fortress. You will also see some charming sights along the Sava and Danube, especially the confluence located around the city center, which has been the center of the city from its very beginnings. Bonus point: Belgrade is the undisputed party capital of the Balkan and one of the best partying cities in Europe. I chose Belgrade as the last stop because it’s home to the largest airport in the region and the flight fares for going back to your country would be relatively cheaper from here.
So there you have it: the ultimate Balkan 10-day itinerary. The itinerary is possible as most of the distances between the cities are short and I have done this itinerary a couple of times. However, if you feel the schedule is a bit tight, you can always add a day or two. Have you been to some of these places in the Balkan Peninsula? Do you think we missed something in our list of places in the Balkan Peninsula? Feel free to share your opinion in the comments.
A few tips for the end
Most of these places in the Balkan Peninsula on the list have airports but it’s the best to start and end your trip either at Belgrade, Sofia, or Zagreb. These cities have the busiest airports in the region and therefore have lower flight fares compared to other cities. If you’re coming from Western or Eastern Europe you can also reach all of these cities by bus or train but this will take much more time. If you have a little more time at hand, you can try this beautiful Balkans road trip itinerary. It will take you through the wonderful peninsula through most spectacular views.
When it comes to food, most of these places in the Balkan Peninsula have similar food as they all used to be part of the same country in the 20th century: Yugoslavia. And the Yugoslavian cuisine is amazing and I’m sure you’ll love it. Especially if you’re a meat lover. But even if you’re not there are a lot of vegetarian local dishes. You can also easily find restaurants serving continental and Asian food.
Finally, the best time to visit these places in the Balkan Peninsula in the spring, between the months of April and June. The winters at the Balkan are too cold going down to minus 15, while the summers are really hot going up to 40+ degrees Celsius. That’s why the best time of the year to visit the Balkan is the spring. That’s the time when nature starts reviving and everything becomes more vibrant. The Balkan Peninsula is definitely at its best when wearing its spring outfit.
PS: This is a guest post by Daniel of passportsymphony.com