8 Great Destinations to Explore in the Balkans

October 21, 2013 by

Europe, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Often overlooked, the Balkan region is a land of unexpected surprises where history, art, and culture merge to create unique bustling urban centers. Historical sites and museums, distinctive architecture, and lively restaurant scenes are the norm. Throughout the region, striking natural landscapes provide ample opportunity for outdoor activities with lakes, rolling mountains, and even historical ruins dotting the countryside. Throw in the fact that the Balkan countries are relatively small, transportation options are numerous, and prices are quite low, the region is ripe for exploration.

1. Bitola, Macedonia

Sirok Sokak Street

Sirok Sokak Street. Photo courtesy of Katherine Sazdanoff.

Macedonia’s second largest city, which actually feels more like a small town, is undeniably charming and sophisticated. Central Bitola is easy to navigate, locals are friendly, the food is simple but tasty, and there are more than enough sights to keep visitors busy for a day or two. The beating heart of the city, the pedestrian-only Sirok Sokak Street, perpetually buzzes with action. Restaurants, bars, and shops line the wide street, along with packed cafes showcasing Bitola’s lively café culture. People watching at one of the outdoor cafés is a fine way to spend a couple of hours, though be forewarned outdoor seats are quite a hot commodity!

There’s more to Bitola than Sirok Sokak Street though. In fact, the city is rich in historical sites such as the stoic Church of Sveti Dimitrij, several attractive mosques (including the famed sixteenth century Yahdar-Kadi Mosque), the looming Clock Tower visible from practically everywhere in the city center, and the fifteenth-century covered Bazaar. Stop at the bazaar to buy tasty local fruits, pickled veggies, and the ubiquitous ajvar (a spreadable relish made with peppers). Traditional souvenirs can be purchased here too.

Perched at 660 meters above sea level and at the foot of the Pelister Peak, Bitola’s location is lovely too. Views of the surrounding countryside are simply stunning, so seek out outdoor seats with a view. Or better yet plan a day at nearby Pelister National Park to see the landscape up close and personal.

2. Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress

Kalemegdan Fortress. Photo credit: Matt Zimmerman via Flickr.

Known for tennis greats (Novak Djokovic), strong plum brandy (Slivovitz, anyone?), and one of the world’s most vibrant nightlife scenes, Belgrade isn’t your typical European tourist destination. But, inquisitive visitors that are willing to dig a bit deeper will discover an interesting, unique urban center with a heck of a lot of character.

Nowhere is this character more prominently displayed than on Knez Mihailova, the city’s grand pedestrian-friendly boulevard. Home to lively restaurants, happening bars, bustling shops, and splendid historical buildings, visitors will no doubt spend the majority of their sightseeing days on this lovely boulevard.   On one end lays the mighty Kalemegdan Citadel whose sturdy walls house the city’s well-stocked Military Museum. Kalemegdan Park sits adjacent to the Fortress, and is a splendid place for an afternoon stroll with its manicured gardens and historical monuments.

Additional standouts are the world’s largest Orthodox Church, Sveti Sava, and Stari Dvor, a former Royal Residence and current home to the City Assembly of Belgrade. Science enthusiasts will enjoy the Nikola Tesla Museum which houses an astonishingly large display of the scientist’s works.

3. Ohrid, Macedonia

Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid. Photo credit: By Inge via Flickr.

Location, location, location—nowhere has the adage rung so true. Situated on the crystal-clear waters of Lake Ohrid with rolling mountainous views, the location couldn’t be any better. The Lake is one of Europe’s deepest and most photogenic lakes, and is a very popular summer tourist destination. Wake up early to catch dazzling sunrise views on either a boat tour or while leisurely sitting on one of the docks.

Ohrid teems with historical sites too. Declared as both a natural and cultural world heritage site by UNESCO, there is an array of attractive churches, such as the stunningly beautiful Church of St. John at Kaneo. Another worthwhile stop is Samuil’s Fortress built during the middle-ages. Climb the stairs to the top of the fortress walls for sublime views.

4. Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki

Historic site in Thessaloniki. Photo credit: George M. Groutas via Flickr.

The Greek Islands, Athens, and even the Peloponnese—all are popular destinations on Greece’s well-trodden tourist path. But, what about Thessaloniki?

Fewer tourists seem to make the trek to Greece’s second-largest city, which is quite frankly a shame. As is the case throughout Greece, Thessaloniki boasts an array of fascinating historical sites. Due to its mammoth size, you can’t miss the city’s most prominent one, the White Tower, which ominously sits adjacent to the sea. Another must visit is the striking Church of Agios Dimitrios which was constructed in the fifth century (that’s correct, the fifth century!).

Apart from the historical sites, Thessaloniki is a cultural and entertainment hotspot with an abundance of restaurants, bars, and rows of shops.  The boulevards that shoot off from the coast are particularly popular. During the sunny summer months, these boulevards have a quasi-Miami feel with fashionable locals and tourists enjoying delectable mezes at outdoor tables. Grapevines stuffed with rice and vegetables, succulent meats, salty cheese, crisp vegetable salads with fresh olive oil, assortments of local breads and dips, and savory phyllo pastries are the norm. There’s quite a happening nightlife scene in Thessaloniki too for those inclined to stay up late.

Visit Thessaloniki on a

5. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo

Sarajevo. Photo credit: Lazhar Neftien via Flickr.

Sarajevo is a stunner, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Yes there are still remnants of the devastating war in the 1990s, but Sarajevo has by and large risen from the rubble to become one of the region’s most exceptional cities. Situated in the Sarajevo Valley and encased by densely forested mountains, the city’s location is as dazzling as they come. It’s here in the surrounding mountains that the 1984 Winter Olympics took place—adventurous visitors can still ski at two of the Olympic centers, Jahorina and Bjelasnica.

The Ottoman-era Old Town is replete with historical ruins including the Sebilj, a beautiful eighteenth-century wooden fountain, a typical Ottoman-style public bath, the striking Gazi-Husrevbey Mosque, and a one-block covered marketplace. Window shop in Bascarsija, a maze of pedestrian-friendly, shop lined streets that sit within Old Town. Make sure to stop in one of the many neighborhood cafes too. To act like a local, take a peek at your neighbors to figure out the proper way to drink a Cup O’ Joe Bosnian-style (it involves a yummy sugar cube!).

Walk a couple of blocks and jump ahead a few centuries to discover the Austria-Hungarian portion of the city. Beginning their rule in 1878, the Austro-Hungarians built an array of grand buildings best seen while walking along the river. It is here near the Latin Bridge where Austria-Hungary’s prince was assassinated leading to WWI. Keep an eye out for the plaque that marks the exact spot.

After a jam-packed day of sightseeing, head out for coffee or a beer. Zlatna Ribica may just be the coolest café in the Balkans with its eccentric, utterly unique décor—it’s a popular local spot so expect a crowd. If a beer sounds more appealing, Pivnica HS serves superb beers crafted in the adjacent brewery. Food is served here too.

Visit Bosnia on a day trip from Dubrovnik

6. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar

Mostar’s Stari Most Bridge. Photo credit: Peter Collins via Flickr.

Cliché or not, Mostar really is pretty as a picture. It’s a place to come and relax, and enjoy the beautiful architecture and divine views.

Located in an emerald colored valley and surrounded by mountains, Mostar hosts sparkling countryside views in every direction. The Old Town’s cobbled winding streets sashay past colorful, local shops and bustling restaurants and cafes. If you have put off purchasing gifts for loved ones, Mostar’s shops are a perfect place to do so. It’s impossible to miss the famed Stari Most Bridge, perhaps the most famous landmark in all of Bosnia. Constructed in the mid-sixteenth century, the bridge was destroyed in the 1990s but has since been expertly restored to its former fame and glory.

7. Skopje, Macedonia

Square, Skopje, Macedonia

Main Square, Skopje, Macedonia. Photo courtesy of Katherine Sazdanoff.

Skopje is not the region’s most glamorous city, but it is surprisingly dynamic and interesting.

Skopje’s main square, Plostad Makedonija, bustles with endless activity from tourists taking photos of monuments to locals gabbing over coffee. History buffs should stop in the Museum of the City of Skopje, and also head to Carsija, Skopje’s old Ottoman section. In Carsija, don’t miss two of the city’s premier art galleries that are housed in former Turkish baths, the City Art Gallery and Cifte Amam. The formidable sixth-century Tvrdina Kale Fortress showcases beautiful views of the city and is a worthwhile late afternoon destination.

8. Kotor, Montenegro

Bay of Kotor, Kotor, Montenegro

Bay of Kotor. Photo courtesy of Katherine Sazdanoff.

Warning: Kotor is someplace you will never, ever want to leave. Kotor’s location is quite simply magnificent. Situated smack-dab in between the placid, azure-colored Bay of Kotor and a sea of soaring, craggy mountains, it’s easy to while away an entire day staring in awe at the majestic landscape. Though, do make sure to get out and explore as there is lots to see!

Impressively preserved, medieval Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. With thick fortification walls surrounding the entire district and cobbled streets chock full of historical and cultural wonders, a visit to Old Town is a wholly unique experience. Don’t miss the twelfth-century beauty, St. Tryphon Cathedral.  Fashionable locals dine in the array of upscale restaurants, cafes, and bars that sit both within the walls and along the water. For picnic foods, beeline to the bustling outdoor food market that sits along one of the exterior fortification walls.

Adventurous travelers should undertake the 1350-step ascent to the very top of the fortification. The sparkling views of the surrounding countryside are well-worth the effort to reach the top.

Visit Montenegro on a day trip from Dubrovnik

- Katherine Sazdanoff

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One Response to “8 Great Destinations to Explore in the Balkans”

  1. Gvozdje Says:

    I would recomend to everyone traveling to Balkan to visit Novi Sad in Serbia. It is really beautiful city… And it has great music festival called EXIT

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