Today I’m hosting the article by fellow writer, Mary, who shares with us the Balkan itinerary that you might find useful when planning your Balkan trip. I personally believe it showcases Balkan highlights pretty well and is perfect especially for those of you who are hoping to visit Balkans for the first time. Read on and find out about the best places to visit in the Balkans.
Located in southern Europe, the Western Balkans region offers a unique experience and mixture of cultures. Historically it is where the East and West meet, trough the Middle ages this was a region where the Ottoman Empire confronted Habsburg Monarchy and Medieval Venice.
When you mix all the three cultures together you get something very unique. From the Alpine lakes of Slovenia to the beautiful Mediterranean coast of Croatia and up to Christian Churches and Muslim Mosques of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this Balkan itinerary will unveil the hidden beauties and charms of Western Balkans.
Table of contents
- 1 Balkan itinerary
- 2 Final thoughts on visiting Balkans
- 3 Travel Resources
Here is the Balkan itinerary that will help you plan your trip to the Balkans. While it focuses on highlights of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina only, three of the most popular countries in the region, you can extend it to other places, especially neighboring Montenegro or Serbia.
This Balkans itinerary can be a good plan for your first trip to the region. Below you can find the places you can’t miss.
Ljubljana is one of the most charming cities in the Balkans. It’s compact but packed with attractions.
Don’t miss the Old Town, located along the Ljubljanica river. You will find there plenty of bars and restaurants, busy with people till late night hours. It’s especially vibrant in the summertime when everyone is outside.
Climb to the castle for the beautiful view of the city or to Neboticnik – the first skyscraper in Ljubljana. If you are lucky you can even see Alps from there.
Ljubljana also has the cool, alternative side, with its most popular spot – Metelkova. This former military barracks were turned into the creative and artistic center and now bring people from all over the world who want to see more than just the main Ljubljana sights.
Read more about Ljubljana here:
- 21 Amazing Things to Do in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- Alternative Ljubljana guide
- Ljubljana pictures that will inspire you to visit the lovely capital of Slovenia
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Bled is an Alpine lake in the Slovenian Julian Alps near the charming little town of Bled.
The bled lake is literally like something you see in fairy tales. Emerald green lake with a small island in the middle upon which stands a Catholic monastery from the 15th century.
On the northern shore of the lake a medieval renascence castle was erected. Castle is a museum today and is open to visitors.
There are many hiking and biking trails around the lake and a visit to the monastery is done by riding in a gondola (pletna). It is also possible to rent a boat for a lake ride along the lake.
The stunning Vintgar canyon should not be missed as well. Lake Bled can be easily done as a day trip from Ljubljana via private tour or taking a public bus to the town of Bled, it’s only an hour drive.
Read more about Lake Bled here:
Postojna Cave, Slovenia
The karstic landscape of the Slovenian Alps has created many natural wonders along the country and one such is an amazing Postojna cave.
It is the only cave with a railway built inside some 140 years ago and still operational today. It is a unique way to experience a cave with its halls and corridors and impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
Caves of Slovenia are home to a unique creature – Olm or human fish who spend their entire lives in cold dark ponds of the underworld.
Another attraction is the Predjama castle. Built on the cliffs (and partially carved in the cliffs) it is a 12th-century castle which is a museum today.
Postojna can also be done easily as a day trip from Ljubljana, there are many private tours that offer a day trip and it’s only 45 minutes drive from the capital.
Read more about Postojna Cave:
The capital of Croatia is home to some million inhabitants with its wider metropolitan area. The city itself emerged from two small medieval towns that united and merged.
The old historical center has a strong Austro-Hungarian look, a residue from its not so distant past. Climb to the historic Upper Town with a funicular, but don’t be scared by a cannon shot at noon from the Grič tower – a tradition from the Middle Ages. Take a walk along the Strossmayer promenade and enjoy the beautiful view of the town beneath.
The “upper town” is the old historic center where one can see the Parliament building, the iconic roof of St. Mark Church with the historic coat of arms painted on the tiles, or stop at the Museum of Broken Relationships.
Dolac is the main green market of the city and this is where you will find all the “goodies” of fruit and veggies, organic and homemade.
Zagreb offers a wide variety of activities to explore and enjoy from shopping, nightlife, to enjoying some peace and quiet in one of the cities oasis-like Maksimir Park or the Jarun lake.
One can easily explore the city using public transport as tram tickets are really cheap. Spending 2 or 3 days in Zagreb is enough to experience the city.
There are many private walking tours that can be booked but there is also a Hop On Hop Off bus that offers 2 tours (shorter and longer). Among the walking tours one sticks out particularly, it’s called The Secrets of Grič, an interactive show that takes you on a journey through medieval Zagreb during the witch hunt period.
Read more about Zagreb:
- The best things to do in Zagreb, Croatia
- Visit Zagreb, Croatia – the hidden gem of Europe
- 8 Zagreb museums you can’t miss
- Alternative Zagreb guide
- Photo walk through street art Zagreb
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
One of Croatia’s most precious jewels lies less than 2-hour drive from the capital and can be a perfect Zagreb day trip. In the mountainous regions of Croatia, 16 lakes form an amazing nature show in a cascade with over 90 waterfalls. It is also good to take a pair of good and sharp binoculars as a lot of wildlife lives here.
Plitvice Lakes are listed on the UNESCO natural heritage list since 1979. Since Croatia’s tourism has had a boom in the past decades don’t be surprised with long queues and even longer lines of Asian tourists taking pictures of everything.
It is essential to buy a ticket a few days in advance during the summer season because the number of visitors is limited in order to preserve nature. The park is open all year round and it is hard to say is it more beautiful in winter when the snow falls and everything freezes or in spring and summer when it’s lush and green.
The park has 2 entrances – upper and lower, and the ticket can be bought at either one or online.
The lakes are emerald green and considered one the most beautiful in Europe. They have been enlisted as a national park since 1949. There are eight hiking trails within the park taking from two to eight hours to complete.
Apart from walking it is also possible to take a boat ride on the lake Kozjak or take a ride in the small rail. Both boat and the rail are completely electric and eco friendly to minimize the impact on local flora and fauna.
Bringing your food in the park is allowed but there are also a few restaurants. Accommodation options are plenty as the region is very visited by tourists. There are many private apartments in the vicinity as well as campsites and the park itself has a few hotels.
Local villages and their offer should not be missed, from amazing homemade cuisine to local traditional handcrafts the surrounding area has much to offer. The park itself can be walked through in 4 hours.
Read more about Plitvice Lakes:
Sunny Dalmatian coast, Croatia
Dalmatia is the southernmost region of Croatia where a dash of original old Mediterranean is still kept.
Zadar is the northernmost town of the region estimated to be some 3000 years old. Due to its long history, it has a rich cultural heritage which is seen carved in stone all over the old city center. Remains of the roman forum dominate the city center however its northwestern part of the waterfront promenade is what attracts most visitors.
Here there are two unique installations – the sea organ which creates a melancholic melody by the sea waves and a Greeting to the Sun, a light installation of solar panels that shines during the night.
Spending a day or two in this gorgeous town should be enough to “recharge your batteries”, just make sure to bring an all-around beach umbrella as a protection from the strong sun.
Krka waterfalls is another Croatian national park on the Krka river. The park has seven stunning waterfalls and it is even possible to take a swim under the largest one during the summer months. There are several hiking trails that lead all over the park from the river itself to the deep forest that surrounds it.
Apart from natural beauty, there are many preserved mills on the Krka river most of which are now important monuments and museums where the traditional life of the old days is preserved. Krka waterfalls can easily be done as a day trip with many tours available from almost any town in coastal Croatia as well as the capital – Zagreb. The highway is really close which makes it really accessible.
Only 20 kilometers down the river on the coast lies the charming little town of Šibenik. Its old city center is an art of stone lace carefully preserved over centuries and it St. Jacob cathedral is part of a UNESCO cultural heritage. The old city center of Šibenik can be explored in one afternoon.
Further down the coast lies the largest city of the region – Split. It was built some 1700 years ago from as a palace of a Roman emperor Diocletian. Split is a very vibrant city and one of the most visited in Croatia by tourists.
Its entire old city center is a UNESCO world heritage site. Diocletian’s palace is open for visitors and entrance is free (people actually still live inside it).
Apart from the palace, St Domnius Cathedral dominates the city but the central spot for local people is the waterfront. It is an extension of the city’s port and a central place for locals who enjoy a coffee under palms in one of the many coffee bars.
Accommodation options are plenty, from luxury resorts to small private apartments. When in Split, one must try some of the local specialties like Soparnik – a veggie pie with chard and garlic, or a Dalmatian specialty – Pašticada, a slow-cooked beef in a wine sauce that melts in the mouth.
Split is very connected and you can get here by highway, ship, or airplane as many low-cost airlines operate here.
When in Split one must not miss a chance to visit one of the nearby islands. Split is a good base to locate yourself for exploring the surrounding area. Spending a couple of days here can really be refreshing and from here it is possible to do lots of tours in the region.
Brač is one of the most popular Croatian islands with less than hour ferry ride from Split. The island still offers authentic lifestyle of a laid back Mediterranean – quite and charming coastal villages, stunning beaches, hiking trails, and amazing homemade cuisine.
The most prominent feature of the island is the Golden Horn beach, an amazing natural extension of pebbly beach that reaches out in a deep with a thick pine forest. This beach is featured on many postcards of Croatia and it’s a must-see.
Hvar is perhaps even more popular, it is also known as Mykonos of Croatia, thanks to its stunning beauty and rich nightlife. Some of the world’s most famous celebrities come to relax here and the island is also famous for being the sunniest Croatian island with over 2800 hours of sun per year.
The old town of Hvar has become especially popular for younger generations of tourists with its vibrant night club scene. Sandy beaches of Jelsa call for all-day relaxation and it is possible to take an excursion to nearby islets.
The island is very famous for its lavender fields that extend all over as well as vineyards.
Hvar is very easily reachable from Split by ferry. Both Hvar and Brač can be done as day trips with a ferry from Split (much cheaper than taking a private boat tour) however it is better to rent an apartment and spend a few days here to truly experience the islands, beaches etc.
Read more about the Dalmatian Coast:
- How to visit Krka National Park in Croatia
- 35 Split pictures that will inspire you to visit Split, Croatia
- 6 amazing things to do in Zadar, Croatia
The southernmost part of Dalmatia and Croatia’s most famous town. The entire old city center of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO world heritage site and its walls are what made it famous.
Once a rival of Venice in terms of wealth and power, today its walls has made it so famous that the Game of Thrones TV series chose it as a filming location. The walls date back to the 13th century and walking on them is a must-do activity.
Besides the walls, the city center is a labyrinth of lace-like stonework and art. Visitors are mostly fascinated by Stranud – the main street, Rector’s Palace and Sponza palace as well as Orlando’s monument and Onofrio’s fountain.
Apart from the old city center visitors often visit the nearby mount Srđ to which a cable car drives.
Dubrovnik offers plenty of diverse accommodation from luxury resorts to privately owned apartments, however, during the summer season, it is almost impossible to find available accommodation so it is necessary to book in advance.
Dubrovnik can be visited as a day trip from Split (2 hours car drive) or by bus it takes some 3 hours, however, it is recommended to spend a day or two here to truly experience everything this town has to offer. One thing to keep in mind though, due to its high popularity Dubrovnik is naturally a very expensive town.
Read more about Dubrovnik:
- 23 Amazing Things to Do in Dubrovnik, Croatia
- 50 pictures that will inspire you to visit Dubrovnik, Croatia
- 23 Great Day Trips from Dubrovnik, Croatia
- The Bay of Abandoned Hotels in Kupari, Croatia – the Urbex Heaven
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Leaving Croatia and heading over to neighboring Bosnia the first town that comes across is the charming Mostar.
Nowhere else in Europe the collision of Catholic and Muslim worlds is as obvious as here. When looked upon from afar, one notices the tips of minarets from mosques as well as crosses from the towers of Catholic churches.
The old city center of Mostar feels like one has gone several centuries in the past. The amazing stone bridge with towers on opposite sides above the emerald green Neretva river is breathtaking. It dates back to the 16th century and it was demolished during the Bosnian war in 1993 but was restored in 2004 to its original look, and today it a UNESCO world heritage site a first such site in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Apart from the bridge the old town of Mostar is a living reminder of the old times of Ottoman rule which is visible in the architecture all over cobbled streets. Turkish house is an authentic coffee bar where you can experience the true rhythm of the town.
There are several day trips to local attractions that shouldn’t be missed like Vrelo Bune is a beautiful natural phenomenon where the river Buna comes to the surface or Kravica waterfalls which offer a true refreshment during hot summer.
But probably the most important site is Međugorje – an important Catholic religious site where supposedly Virgin Mary revealed herself to children. The Vatican has been investigating the phenomenon for more than 30 years and local authorities are trying hard to get it recognized as a holy site like Lourdes or Fatima. In any case Međugorje is an important pilgrimage site that attracts many visitors each year.
Spending half a day in Mostar is more than enough to experience the best of what this town has to offer and it can be done as a few hours stop on a way to Sarajevo from Split or Dubrovnik.
Read more about Mostar:
- 25 Amazing Things to Do in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Street Art in Mostar – the Outdoor Gallery in the Iconic City
- Remnants of the war in Mostar
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
In the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies one of the historically most unique cities of Europe. A city where East meets West and where Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim religions collide.
When one thinks of Sarajevo first that comes to mind are the čevapčići – local fast food and coffee. When starting a Sarajevo tour one first starts with a nice cup of fresh Bosnian style coffee which is made by pouring boiling water over finely ground coffee and served in small cups with several sugar cubes.
Among the interesting sites to visit in Sarajevo is the Latinska Ćuprija bridge where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot which caused WWI. In close vicinity is the main shopping street Ferhadija, filled with small shops and boutiques.
Baščaršija is the main promenade and a great place for lunch. Bosnian house restaurant is a great choice for a local cuisine and the whole restaurant has a retro 19th-century style look.
Kazandžiluk is one the most beautiful streets in Sarajevo famous for many metal craft shops selling handmade mostly copper products. This part of the city is filled with mosques and Turkish style coffee calls from every bar.
Čevapčići are the most famous Bosnian dish served with onions and a red pepper sauce called Ajvar or greasy cheese called Kajmak.
Remnants of war are still visible across Sarajevo, and what particularly sticks out are the roses of Sarajevo. They are holes left from exploding bombs which were filled with red wax as a memory to suffering city.
Spending a day or two in Sarajevo is enough to experience the best this city has to offer. Sarajevo can be easily reached from Croatia (Zagreb or the coastal towns) however Bosnia and Herzegovina is not famous for its roads. There are no highways which means local roads only. For example, a trip from Zagreb to Sarajevo by bus takes will take some 8 hours, while from Split it takes some 5 and a half hours.
Read more about Sarajevo:
- My favorite things to do in Sarajevo
- Where to stay in Sarajevo – best Sarajevo accommodation
- The most tragic city in Europe – Sarajevo history
- Multicultural Sarajevo
- Sarajevo street art in pictures
- Alternative Sarajevo guide
- Sarajevo bobsled track – how to visit and what to expect there
- How to get from Belgrade to Sarajevo – a detailed guide
- 10 Sarajevo viewpoints with the best panorama of the city
- 50 Sarajevo Pictures that Will Inspire You to Visit Sarajevo
Final thoughts on visiting Balkans
This was just a fraction of Balkan highlights, but the region (that not so long ago was just one sovereign state) has so much more to offer. These countries have preserved their cultural heritage and tradition and turned to tourism which brought much-needed development.
The Western Balkans are getting more and more popular and you should visit Balkans as soon as possible too.
About the author: Mary is the editor and writer at divein.com, a diving magazine run by passionate divers and instructors. The mission of divein.com is to bring people the best diving locations around the world and also to raise awareness of preservation and conservation of oceans and marine life.
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