Visiting the Balkans
At the beginning of the year, Vogue, Condé Nast and a wealth of others declared Eastern Europe the destination of 2017. If you are a follower of trends, then now is the time to visit the Balkans, because this is the most beautiful and underrated part of Eastern Europe. But if trends are not dictating your travels, now is still a very good time to visit the Balkans, because much of this territory is still untamed, authentic, and rich in traditions and culture. And you have plenty to choose from. The countries that make the Balkan Peninsula are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The European side of Turkey, with the capital Istanbul, is located on the Balkan Peninsula too.
Countries like Croatia, Greece and Turkey are already popular travel destinations, while Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia became better-known in the past ten years. Traveling in the Balkans is relatively easy, you can always choose to tour two or three neighboring countries to experience more. Or take your time and see each country to take in a different essence of the place with every vacation. All the countries in the Balkans offer something special year-round. Springs bring spectacular blossoms, summers are for hikes and sun-kissed holidays, autumns celebrate the bounty of the land with all kinds of harvest festivals and winters are for active pursuits in the snow. You will love the Balkans, whenever you choose to go. (strictly in order from North to South).
Slovenia’s best-known attraction is Lake Bled, a natural area that deserves only accolades. The capital, Ljubljana, is a chic mix of old and new, and the Volčji Potok Arboretum is a paradise for tulip lovers from April to May during the “month of tulips.” Adrenaline seekers can go river-rafting on Soča or follow other active pursuits in Soča Valley, like zip line adventures, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, and so on. Oenophiles will enjoy the country too, with wine festivals in Maribor, and tours on Posavje wine county. Lake Bled (picture on top), with the Bled Island and the 17th-century baroque pilgrimage church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary.
Where to stay:
Sitting opulently in the heart of town, Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa was constructed in the 16th century as a palatial city residence for the nobility of the day. Tucked discreetly away down a charming little street, it exudes a stately calm and elegance and is a great base to explore this fantastic little city. Throughout it retains its sense of aristocratic grandeur with lovingly maintained frescoes, polished stone floors and beautiful period furnishings. The charming cobblestone courtyard and garden of Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa give on to a well-appointed spa and wellness centre where a highly qualified team of therapists are on hand to offer a wide selection of treatments. A block from the banks of the river, you’re within easy walking distance of the main attractions, the charming medieval streets of the old town, grand Baroque bridges, the ruins of the Roman settlements of Ljubljana and the stunning castle that soars high over the town.
Croatia needs no introduction. Statistics show that this country has the fastest tourist growth in the Balkans, with 80% in the past five years, and it’s just getting started. After Zagreb and Zadar, Dubrovnik is its busiest town in terms of tourism, but destinations like Osijek, Vukovar, and Split are also beguiling for visitors, due to their cultural heritage, festivals, and countryside. We cannot ignore Croatia’s Game of Thrones appeal, its spectacular beaches and national parks, and the scrumptious food. Yes, Croatia still has an excellent production of organic vegetables domestically, and strong culinary traditions. Plus, the seafood is to die for.
Dubrovnik needs no introduction. It is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, famous for its charming Old Town. Please note that if you visit this year, a law is in place to limit the number of tourists to no more than 8000 per day. The exception to the rule are visitors who buy the Dubrovnik Card, the key that opens the door to the top attractions of the city.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Muslim-friendly Bosnia and Herzegovina is a magnet for tourists from the United Arab Emirates, but the country is equally welcoming to people of all religious backgrounds. Although traces of the Bosnian War are still evident in many parts of the country, a lot has changed since December 1995. Sarajevo is a beautiful capital, Mostar is an enchanted gem and a city of culture, and Doboj is perfect for night owls. You can book a wine tour around the countryside, or even enjoy the views from the controversial Visočica hill, allegedly the world’s largest pyramid.
Stari Most bridge in Mostar, a replica of the original that was destroyed in 1993 by the Croats during the Bosnian War.
Serbia has many fascinating sites too. Visit the Đerdap National Park to see the striking Đerdap Gorge and the Iron Gates on the boundary with Romania. Visit the Lepenski Vir archaeological site, which is located in the park, not far from Donji Milanovac, an idyllic town on the right bank of Lake Đerdap on the Danube. Milanovac, in Eastern Serbia, is just a small village but it is close to the picture-perfect “Spring of Krupaja” – one of the most impressive karst springs in the country, with a turquoise pool that flows suddenly with a waterfall into the river below. Or enjoy the starry skies above Radoinja in Western Serbia.
Drvengrad is a traditional village built for Life Is a Miracle, a movie by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica. The community is close to Užice in western Serbia.
An independent republic since 2008, although Serbia still claims it as its own autonomous province, Kosovo is living a new dream. The country is landlocked between Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro in the center of the Balkan Peninsula. Although the Kosovo War scared the land and its people, peace settled in, and now Kosovo is an inviting travel destination, with idyllic villages nestled along country roads through the Kopaonik and the Sharr Mountains or on the undulating hills leading to the plains Metohija and Kosovo. You will love hiking or cycling through the Rugova Canyon, or go chasing waterfalls like the picture-perfect White Drin Waterfall in the Žljeb mountain. You can explore the caves of Gadimje, or spend time sightseeing one of the larger cities of Kosovo.
Prizren, the most beautiful city in the country by many accounts, beckons with the Prizren Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage listed attraction. The historic Old Stone Bridge (Ura e gurit) over the river Prizrenska Bistrica is a cherished landmark of Prizren. Other attractions in Prizren include the Marash compound, the Shadervan neighborhood with its Turkish cafes, the 14th century Serbian orthodox monastery Our Lady of Ljevis, and the city’s eye-catching mosques.
Romania should definitely be on your list when you visit the Balkans. It shares the Black Sea coastline with Bulgaria, but its resorts are not as well developed and more expensive. But not far from the coast, one best preserved European deltas, the Danube Delta beckons with its protected lacustrine ecosystems and the largest colony of common pelicans on the continent at Rosca Buhaiova. Romania’s capital, Bucharest, once known as the “Little Paris” is now dominated by Soviet-style buildings, but some of its central areas, in the area between Piata Unirii and Piata Victoriei, still exude Parisian-chic. Transylvania is Romanian territory too, and if you are a fan of Dracula, you’ll probably visit Bran Castle, which is beautiful, but by no means the former residence of Vlad the Impaler – who ruled over Wallachia in the south.
Peleș Castle, one of the most beautiful Neo-Renaissance buildings in the country, erected between 1873-1914. It is today a museum and a popular attraction in Sinaia, a mountain resort in the Carpathians.
Montenegro is a small country with a big heart. It’s the real gem of the Balkans, with mountains that make you stop in awe, seductive beaches, and sunsets of magic on Ada Bojana. The idyllic Bay of Kotor with the medieval town of Kotor is a UNESCO Heritage site in a spellbinding natural area. Climb the ramparts to the top of St. John Mountain for views of the bay from the San Giovanni Castle. Porto Montenegro, a luxury yacht marina in Tivat is another attraction that makes the Bay of Kotor such a desirable tourist destination.
Budva is a charming town by the Adriatic Sea, known for beaches and its well-preserved Medieval walled city. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations of Montenegro.
Albania has mesmerizing mountain sites and an attractive coastline. The country managed to entice scores of tourists from the neighboring countries members of the EU, especially from Italy. An official website of the Albanian National Tourism Agency showcases some of the best places to visit if you are a first timer. They recommend historic towns like Berat, Durrës on the Adriatic Coast, and Korçë. Tirana is also a fascinating destination, full of cultural attractions, and ideally located to allow you nature hikes on Mount Dajti.
Theth, a village in the Theth National Park, ideal for lovers of nature. Surrounded by high mountains, it has magnificent waterfalls, unique alpine landscapes, caves, and even a working mill.
Bulgaria is a great destination for budget skiing. It has some of the best powder in this part of Europe, and world-class resorts that don’t charge an arm and a leg to pamper you in the winter. The best beaches of the Black Sea coast are in Bulgaria too, with Sunny Beach the top lively oasis in the summer, followed by the Golden Sands Beach. But visit Varna for rich history and plenty to see, plus affordable accommodation, even in luxury resorts.
Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, the largest Eastern Orthodox place of worship in the country, inside the Rila Monastery Nature Park, at the foothills of the Rila Mountains.
The Republic of Macedonia is like a sleepy village and a paradise for nature lovers. Lake Ohrid is a major tourist attraction, as the area offers opportunities for a wealth of activities, including mountain cycling, climbing, skiing, hiking, horseback riding, caving, paragliding, and diving. At the foothills of Mount Osogovo, about four hours drive from Ohrid, Kratovo is a living museum, with bridges made by old masters, and six Middle Ages towers that are also the symbols of the town. Visit the children’s art gallery in Kratovo for a sweet, unique experience. Popova Šapka attracts skiers in the winters in Macedonia’s most popular resort.
Ohrid, the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” once had a church for every day of the year. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still noteworthy today for architecture and nature. Notable landmarks: Ancient Theatre of Ohrid and Monastery of Saint Naum.
Most people say Greece, and Athens is the first image that pops to mind. Athens is rich in historical attractions that safeguard the city from the heights of the Acropolis. Pláka is tourist central, while Gazi is hipster central. But Athens is not for peaceful escapes. The Greek islands offer that privilege, with miles of pristine beaches, azure waters, spectacular mountains and gorges, and the most beautiful sunsets on Earth. And then, there’s the food. You will not find better olive oils than those made on Crete, or better honey. No other tomatoes on Earth taste better than a Santorini tomato. Greek wines are exceptional too. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, was born on Kos, and his Asklepieion still stands on the island.
Famous for ancient ruins and Blue Flag beaches, this is the cradle of the gods, and one of the best places in the world to indulge in hedonistic pleasures. Sunsets views from Kalymnos, one of the Dodecanese islands, are breathtaking.