Europe is a continent that has a lot to offer and there are a lot of magical places to see. But I can’t help to feel that the Balkan Peninsula is the ˜Forgotten part of Europe. Yes, the living standard in these countries is lower compared to the rest of Europe and there are cultural differences between the two, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of hidden, beautiful places that don’t get the attention that they deserve and this Balkan road trip guide covers everything you need to know before exploring this beautiful region.
Let’s start from the beginning…
Best Time To Visit The Balkans
If you ask me, there’s no bad time to visit the Balkans but the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ might vary from person to person, that’s why here’s a complete overview of taking a Balkan road trip during different parts of the year.
Spring Sprung Surprises (March to May): The Balkans awaken like a bear after hibernation. It’s the Goldilocks season – not too hot, not too cold. Streets in cities like Belgrade and Zagreb are buzzing but not swarming with tourists. Nature bursts into life, making hikes in the Dinaric Alps simply breathtaking (literally and metaphorically, those hills are no joke!). And the best part? Prices haven’t skyrocketed yet.
Summer Sizzlers (June to August): Summer in the Balkans is like that one popular kid in school – everyone wants to hang out with them. Expect company, lots of it, especially along the Adriatic Coast. It’s prime time for beach bums and island hoppers. But beware, it’s hot. I mean, “Did I just step into a sauna?” hot. And busy – think queues, crowded Old Towns, and beach towels claiming territories at dawn.
Autumn Aura (September to November): The crowds thin out, but the foliage scenery is just gorgeous. The mountains of Montenegro and Macedonia are a sight to behold with their autumnal hues and most importantly, the weather is still pleasant – perfect for those who like their trips as cool as a cucumber.
Winter Wonderland (December to February): Winter in the Balkans isn’t just about sipping hot šljivovica by the fire (though highly recommended). Think Christmas markets in Zagreb, skiing in the Bulgarian mountains, or exploring frost-kissed medieval towns without losing your toes to frostbite. It’s quieter, more affordable, and has a certain je ne sais quoi.
Planning A Budget For A Balkan Road Trip
First things first, the Balkans are like a thrift shop of European travel – lots of treasures without the hefty price tag. But, like any good bargain hunt, a bit of planning goes a long way. From cozy hostels in Belgrade to charming Airbnbs in coastal towns like Kotor, your options are as varied as a Balkan buffet. Hostels can be a wallet’s best friend, starting around €10-15 per night. For a more private affair, Airbnbs or guesthouses range from €20-50, depending on how fancy you’re feeling.
Let’s talk food – it’s why half of us travel, right? The Balkans offer a smorgasbord of culinary delights that won’t bankrupt your belly. Street food like burek or ćevapi will keep you full for a few euros. Sit-down meals? Think €5-15. And let’s not forget the local markets – a paradise for budget-conscious, self-catering chefs.
Renting a car? Prices vary like the Balkan weather. Expect anything from €20 per day and upwards. Pro tip: book in advance and look for deals. And remember, petrol isn’t free – budget around €1-1.50 per litre.
Here’s the good news – wandering ancient streets and gazing at stunning landscapes is free. But for those must-see spots (looking at you, Plitvice Lakes), set aside €10-30 for entrance fees.
A comfy daily budget? Around €40-60 should keep you ticking along nicely, but this can flex depending on your taste for luxury or adventure. Remember, your Balkan road trip is about experiences, not expenses.
Selecting A Vehicle For Your Balkan Road Trip
Think of your vehicle like a travel partner – choose wisely, and you’ll be singing duets down the Dalmatian Coast. Go for something that fits your style and budget. Compact car? Great for fuel efficiency and squeezing into those “Did they size this parking spot for ants?” spaces in ancient towns. A bit more rugged and roomy? SUVs are your friend, especially if you’re venturing off the beaten path or bringing enough luggage to rival a rock band on tour.
To Rent or Not to Rent: If you’re not driving in from home, you’ll likely be renting. This is where your bargain-hunting skills come into play. Compare prices online, and remember, the early bird doesn’t just get the worm; they often get cheaper rates. Oh, and double-check that insurance – Balkan roads can throw curveballs.
The Roads Less Traveled: Expect the unexpected. From silky smooth highways in Croatia to bumpy backroads in rural Bosnia, it’s a mixed bag. Some roads are as narrow as a dieting supermodel, with twists and turns that could make a rollercoaster jealous. Others are wide and welcoming.
Mountain Passes and Coastal Cruises: Fancy hairpin turns with jaw-dropping views? The Balkans deliver. But remember, with great views come great responsibilities – like not gawking at the scenery while navigating a cliffside road.
Border Hopping: Got your papers? Good. Crossing borders in the Balkans can range from a breezy “nod and go” to a full-on “please explain why you have a trunk full of fridge magnets”. Be prepared for a little wait, have your documents handy, and practice your polite nod.
Accommodation is a crucial plan of planning your Balkan road trip and in this section, we’ll try to briefly introduce you with the main accommodation options in the Balkans and their pros and cons.
Camping: Nature’s Five-Star Hotel – Whether you’re pitching a tent by the emerald rivers of Bosnia or parking a camper van along the sun-kissed Adriatic coast, the Balkans are a camper’s paradise. Wild camping? Generally a thumbs-up, especially in Albania and in Montenegro, but always double-check local laws. Prefer a bit more structure? Campsites range from rustic (a patch of grass and a prayer) to pretty plush (hello, hot showers and Wi-Fi!). Budget-wise, it’s like finding an extra slice of pizza in the box – delightfully affordable.
Hostels: Social Butterflies’ Dream Pads – Hostels in the Balkans aren’t just a place to crash; they’re social hubs, cultural crossroads, and sometimes even impromptu party venues. Perfect for solo travelers or those looking to make new friends who can’t pronounce their hometown. Prices are wallet-friendly, but check if you need to bring your own padlock for lockers or an extra euro for linen.
Guesthouses: Grandma’s House, but Cooler – Often family-run, guesthouses are where you get that “home away from home” vibe, complete with home-cooked meals (sometimes too many, thanks to Balkan hospitality). They’re a fantastic way to dive into local culture and maybe pick up a recipe or two. Price-wise, they’re a happy middle ground – more than a hostel, less than a hotel.
Airbnb & Rentals: Live Like a Local – For those who want their “own” place, Airbnb’s got you covered. From quirky apartments in Belgrade to seaside villas in Croatia, there’s something for every taste and budget. It’s like playing house, but in a country where you probably don’t speak the language. Exciting, right?
Hotels: From Budget to Bougie – Hotels in the Balkans can range from “I just need a bed and a roof” to “Is that a gold-plated toilet?”. Capitals like Sofia and Zagreb offer more upscale options, while smaller towns might have a cozier, more budget-friendly selection. They’re great for those who enjoy the finer things in life, like room service and not having to make their own bed.
Crossing Borders In The Balkans: What To Expect
The golden rule of Balkan borders: have your documents ready. Passport? Check. Car papers if you’re driving? Check. A green card for insurance? Triple check. And if you’re bringing a rental car across borders, make sure you have permission from the rental company – they’re not fans of international surprises.
Waiting is part of the journey. Some borders are a breeze; you’ll spend more time admiring the scenery than talking to border guards. Others, especially during peak season, can feel like a slow crawl through No Man’s Land. Bring snacks, good music, and maybe practice some deep breathing exercises.
One day, a border might be as calm as a sleepy cat in the sun. The next, it’s like a scene from an overly dramatic soap opera. Stay flexible, stay calm, and remember – every border tale is a great addition to your travel anecdotes.
Lastly, don’t forget that not all car insurance is created equal in the Balkan odyssey. Double-check that your coverage is Balkan-proof, especially if you’re hopping between EU and non-EU countries.
This guide to taking a Balkan road trip wouldn’t be complete if we don’t cover some of the main country-specific highlights. Let’s start with…
Slovenia: The Balkan Singapore On The Sunny Side Of The Alps
Ljubljana – The Heartthrob Capital: First stop, Ljubljana. It’s like that cool cousin everyone loves – small, charming, and full of surprises. Stroll along the Ljubljanica river, get lost in the enchanting streets, and if you feel watched, it’s probably just the dragons of Dragon Bridge. Don’t miss the Ljubljana Castle, perched like a crown above the city – the view is worth the climb (or the funicular ride for the less stair-enthused).
Lake Bled – Postcard Perfection: Next, let’s paddle over to Lake Bled. It’s the supermodel of lakes – ridiculously good-looking and photogenic from every angle. The church on the island is like something out of a fairy tale, and Bled Castle offers views that will make your Instagram followers green with envy.
Triglav National Park – Nature’s Playground: For the adventurers and nature lovers, Triglav National Park is your outdoor gym. Hiking, climbing, paragliding – if it’s outdoorsy, it’s here. The park is home to Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s pride and joy.
Postojna Cave and Predjama Castle – Underground Wonders and Cliffside Marvels: Feel like exploring a subterranean fantasy world? Postojna Cave is your go-to. It’s like nature decided to go all out with an underground sculpture exhibit. Nearby, Predjama Castle laughs in the face of traditional castle-building rules – it’s literally inside a cave. How’s that for edgy living?
Piran – The Coastal Charm: Lastly, don’t skip Piran on the coast. This Venetian Gothic town is like stepping into a time machine, minus the sci-fi effects. Wander the narrow streets, soak up the sun on the Tartini Square, and enjoy a sunset that’ll make you want to write poetry, even if you’re not a poet.
Croatia: Crystal Clear Waters & UNESCO Sites
Dubrovnik – The Pearl of the Adriatic: First stop, Dubrovnik. Yes, you’ve seen it on TV as King’s Landing, but no dragon can outshine its real-world majesty. Walk the ancient city walls, but watch out – they might just steal your heart. And if you’re feeling adventurous, take a kayak tour around the city walls.
Split – Where Ancient Rome Lives On: Up next, Split. This city is like a live-in museum, and Diocletian’s Palace is the main exhibit. Wander through the Roman ruins, sip coffee in the Peristyle Square, and if you listen closely, you might just hear the whispers of the past.
Plitvice Lakes National Park – Nature’s Own Watercolor: Plitvice Lakes, because who doesn’t like waterfalls? It’s like Mother Nature decided to show off, creating a symphony of cascading water, emerald lakes, and lush greenery. Pro tip: Go early to avoid the crowds and have the waterfalls all to yourself.
Hvar – The Sunny Island of Lavender and Parties: If you’re after sun, sea, and a bit of a boogie, Hvar is your island. It’s known for two things: lavender fields that make you feel like walking through a perfume ad, and nightlife that could give Ibiza a run for its money. And if that’s not enough for you, also check out this list of hidden gems in Croatia you can add to your bucket list.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Blend of Cultures & History
Sarajevo – The City Where East Meets West: It’s where the East and West shake hands, and you can walk from an Ottoman bazaar to a Habsburg boulevard in minutes. Don’t miss Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old bazaar, where you can haggle over carpets or just soak in the atmosphere.
Mostar – The Iconic Bridge and Beyond: it’s home to (probably) Bosnia’s most famous landmark- the Stari Most (Old Bridge), one of Europe’s most beautiful bridges and a symbol of resiliience and Unity. Wander the cobbled streets, sip coffee beside the Neretva River, and if you’re lucky, catch the local divers plunging into the water – it’s a tradition!
Jajce – Where Waterfalls Meet Kings: A hidden gem alert! Jajce is a small town with a waterfall right in its heart, because why not? It’s like nature decided to build its own city center. This town was once the seat of kings, and it still wears its crown proudly. Don’t miss the Pliva Lakes – they’re like nature’s version of a chill-out lounge.
Travnik – The Town of Viziers and Vibrant Rooftops: Travnik, with its colorful rooftops, looks like someone spilled a paintbox over the town. Once the capital of governors, today it’s a postcard-perfect stop. The Travnik Fortress offers views you’ll want to write home about, and the local cevapi (grilled meat delicacy) will make your taste buds throw a party.
Montenegro: Fjord-Like Landscapes & Coastal Towns
Kotor – The Fjord’s Favorite Child: Kotor is a beautiful medieval town tucked away in Europe’s southernmost fjord surrounded by fortress walls. So, if you’re in Montenegro and you’ve had enough of beaches and beautiful Montenegrin islands (I know, it sounds crazy), Kotor is Montenegro’s most important historic city.
Budva – The Beach Lover’s Dream: Next up, Budva. It’s like the cool kid of the Montenegrin Riviera, with beaches that make sunbathers swoon and nightlife that dances till dawn. Stroll through the Old Town, a mini Dubrovnik, and soak up the history before you soak up the sun.
Durmitor National Park – For the Love of Mountains: Craving a nature fix? Durmitor National Park is your prescription. This is where mountains jut skyward like nature’s skyscrapers, and the Tara River Canyon carves through the landscape like a blue ribbon. Hiking, rafting, or just basking in nature’s grandeur – Durmitor is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
Perast – The Sleepy Stunner: This little town is a hidden gem, sitting quietly by the Bay of Kotor. It’s as if time decided to take a leisurely stroll here and then forgot to start back up again. Visit the Our Lady of the Rocks island and church, a man-made isle with an origin story that’s as fascinating as the place itself.
Kosovo: The Unexplored Gem
Pristina – The City of Contrasts: First up, Pristina, a city where old-world charm high-fives modern quirks. It’s like a hipster met a history buff and they decided to design a city together. Don’t miss the Newborn Monument, symbolizing the country’s new beginnings. It changes design annually, so it’s always ready for a new selfie.
Prizren – The Cultural Capital: Then, there’s Prizren, arguably one of the most picturesque towns in the Balkans. It’s like stepping into a living, breathing postcard. The old stone bridge and the fortress overlooking the city are like cherries on this scenic cake.
Peja – The Gateway to the Accursed Mountains: Fancy a bit of nature? Peja’s your gateway to the Rugova Valley and the Accursed Mountains (less cursed, more stunning). It’s where adventure junkies get their fix – hiking, climbing, zip-lining. After a day in the wild, the city’s Ottoman-era bazaar is the perfect place to wind down and wonder why it’s called the Accursed Mountains when it feels more like heaven.
Gjakova – The Old Bazaar and Beyond: Gjakova’s old bazaar is the soul of the city, brimming with character and craftwork. It’s like a living museum, minus the entrance fee. Wander through and watch the world go by – you might even end up with a handcrafted souvenir or a story to tell.
Albania: Ancient Cities & Natural Beauty
Tirana – The Colorful Capital: Kick-off in Tirana, a city that’s like a box of crayons come to life. Buildings here aren’t shy about showing off their vibrant hues. The city is a funky blend of Ottoman, Italian, and communist-era architecture, served with a side of buzzing café culture.
Berat – The City of a Thousand Windows: Next, head to Berat, the poster child for Albanian charm. It’s nicknamed the ‘City of a Thousand Windows’, and you’ll see why – every building looks like it’s trying to out-stare the other. The whole town is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Gjirokaster – The Stone City’s Time Capsule: Gjirokaster, with its stone-roofed houses and fortress overseeing the town, feels like you’ve walked onto a medieval movie set. It’s known as the ‘Stone City’, and it’s stubbornly, beautifully stuck in time. Don’t miss the ethnographic museum – it’s in Enver Hoxha’s old house, irony much?
The Albanian Riviera – Sun, Sea, and Laid-back Vibes: Fancy some beach time? The Albanian Riviera (which also includes a few islands) is your spot. It’s like the Mediterranean’s younger sibling – just as beautiful, less crowded, and still a bit of a secret. Saranda, Ksamil, and Dhermi offer crystal-clear waters, pebbly beaches, and seafood so fresh, it practically swims onto your plate.
Macedonia: Lakes, Mountains & Rich History
Ohrid- The Gem By The Lake: This Macedonian city is the home of the Ohrid Lake, the oldest lake in Europe. The lake is 2 million years old and it has a unique ecosystem, providing a home to more than 200 different species. Needless to say, the lake and the entire city of Ohrid are on UNESCO’s heritage list, but the lake and its stunning beaches aren’t everything Ohrid has to offer. Ohrid is a city full of history and is also known as the Jerusalem of the Balkan. At one point in time, Ohrid had 365 fully functional churches, one for every day of the year.
Skopje – Where Quirkiness Meets History: Begin in Skopje, a city that’s a quirky cocktail of styles. It’s like someone gave a kid a history book and a Lego set and said, “Go wild!” From the colossal Alexander the Great statue to the whimsical Old Bazaar, and even the scenic Matka Canyon, Skopje doesn’t just embrace eclecticism; it takes it out for dinner and a movie. The Mother Teresa Memorial House is a must-visit – it’s a slice of peace amid the city’s lively buzz.
Mavrovo National Park – The Wild Heart of Macedonia: For those who hear the call of the wild, Mavrovo National Park answers with open arms. It’s a haven for hikers, skiers, and nature lovers. The park’s centerpiece, Mavrovo Lake, is stunningly serene, and the half-submerged St. Nicholas Church is like something straight out of a fantasy novel. The park’s biodiversity is a nature enthusiast’s bingo – keep your eyes peeled for rare lynx sightings!
Bitola – The City of Consuls: Bitola is like the cool, cultured aunt who’s seen it all. Once dubbed the “City of Consuls,” it’s got charm and history in spades. Stroll down Širok Sokak Street, sip a coffee, and watch as the past mingles with the present. The nearby Heraclea Lyncestis ruins are a must-see – they’re so well-preserved, you half expect ancient Macedonians to start strolling around.
Serbia: Vibrant Cities & Natural Wonders
Belgrade – The City That Never Sleeps: Start your Serbian trip in Belgrade, a city with more energy than a double espresso on a Monday morning. It’s a place where history and hipness hold hands. Kalemegdan Fortress offers not just a history lesson, but also killer views of where the Danube meets the Sava. And for a taste of the city’s nightlife, the floating river clubs (splavovi) turn the riverbanks into a party-goer’s paradise.
Novi Sad – The Melting Pot of Cultures: Next, waltz over to Novi Sad, the 2021 European Capital of Culture. It’s like Belgrade’s laid-back sibling with an artsy flair. The Petrovaradin Fortress, known as the ‘Gibraltar of the Danube’, is not just an impressive historical site; it’s also the backdrop for the famous EXIT music festival. Talk about a fortress with a groove!
Uvac Canyon – Nature’s Serpentine Masterpiece: For a wild escape, Uvac Canyon is your go-to. With meandering rivers that look like they’ve been drawn by a whimsical artist, it’s a paradise for hikers, bird-watchers, and Instagrammers alike. The viewpoint overlooking the canyon’s twists and turns is the kind of spot that makes you say ‘wow’ out loud.
Tara National Park – The Green Heart of Serbia: Lastly, breathe in the fresh air of Tara National Park. It’s where nature puts on a show with mountains, lakes, and a side of tranquility. The park’s crowning jewel, Drina River House, is perched on a rock in the middle of the river – it’s like something out of a fairy tale or a very adventurous architect’s dream.
Bulgaria: Diverse Landscapes & Cultural Heritage
Sofia – The City at the Crossroads: Dive into Sofia, a city where antiquity casually leans against metro stations. This city is like an ancient celebrity with a modern twist. Don’t miss the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a behemoth of beauty, or Vitosha Boulevard for a spot of people-watching. And for a quick nature escape, the Vitosha Mountain is just a hop away – it’s like the city’s own gigantic backyard.
Plovdiv – Europe’s Time Machine: On to Plovdiv, one of the oldest cities in Europe. This place has layers – literally. It’s like a historical lasagna, with Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman flavors. The Old Town is a delightful maze of cobbled streets and colorful 19th-century mansions. And let’s not forget the Roman Amphitheatre, still strutting its stuff after all these centuries.
Veliko Tarnovo – The City of the Tsars: Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital, is perched on hills overlooking the Yantra River, looking as regal as its history. The Tsarevets Fortress is a must-visit – it’s like walking through the pages of a Bulgarian epic, minus the dragons.
Black Sea Coast – Bulgaria’s Sunny Side Up: Finally, Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, where beaches stretch like golden ribbons and seaside towns like Nesebar mix sunbathing with sightseeing. It’s where the party side of Bulgaria shines, with Sunny Beach leading the charge.
Greece: Ancient Ruins & Idyllic Islands
Athens – The Age-Old Metropolis: Start your Greek trip in Athens, a city where history is not just studied, it’s lived. The Acropolis stands proud, a timeless beacon of civilization, casually photobombing half the city’s selfies. Wander through the Plaka neighborhood, where the past and present dine together at quaint tavernas.
Santorini – The Sunset Superstar: Sail next to Santorini, the island where sunsets get standing ovations. It’s not just about the stunning views; it’s also about the white-washed houses clinging to cliffs like nature’s ornaments. Oia and Fira are the go-to spots, but don’t forget to explore the lesser-known villages – they’re like hidden tracks on a great album.
Meteora – Monasteries in the Sky: Meteora is surreal, almost like a fantasy novel come to life. Monasteries perched atop towering rock formations offer a spiritual journey with a side of vertigo. It’s not just a place to visit; it’s a place to be awed.
Mykonos – The Glamorous Playground: If partying with style is your thing, Mykonos is your island. Famous for its beaches and even more famous for its nightlife, it’s where Poseidon meets Paris Hilton. But it’s not all DJs and dancing; there’s plenty of traditional charm tucked away in its maze-like streets.
Thessaloniki – The Cultural Mosaic: Drive up to Thessaloniki, Greece’s vibrant cultural melting pot. The city’s waterfront is a tapestry of cafes and history, where the White Tower stands as a silent sentinel of the past. Explore the Byzantine walls and soak in the city’s energetic youth culture.
Balkan Road Trip Itineraries
Last but not least, we conclude this guide to planning your Balkan road trip with a few different itinerary ideas you can consider taking.
Itinerary 1: Western Balkan Circuit (Adriatic Route)
Countries: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania Route
Start in Dubrovnik, Croatia (explore the old town and coast), continue to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (visit the Stari Most). From there, head to Kotor, Montenegro (enjoy the Bay of Kotor) and end your trip in Tirana, Albania (explore the vibrant capital) or make your way to the Albanian coast.
Itinerary 2: Eastern Balkan Road Trip
Countries: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Greece
Begin in Sofia, Bulgaria (explore the city and nearby mountains) and then move to Skopje, Macedonia (visit the historic sites). After that, continue to Ohrid, Macedonia (enjoy the lake and town). Next, visit Tirana, Albania and possibly spend a couple of days on the Albanian coast and complete your trip in Thessaloniki (enjoy the coastline and Greek cuisine) and/or Athens.
Itinerary 3: Central Balkan Adventure
Countries: Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia
Start in Belgrade, Serbia (explore the city’s history and nightlife) and from there, continue to Sofia, Bulgaria (visit the capital and cultural sites). End your trip in Skopje, Macedonia (discover the blend of cultures).
Itinerary 4: Adriatic to Aegean Journey
Countries: Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece
Begin in Split, Croatia (explore Diocletian’s Palace), then head south to Kotor, Montenegro (stunning coastal scenery). From here, proceed to Tirana, Albania (vibrant city life) and conclude your trip in Athens, Greece (visit ancient ruins and enjoy the Mediterranean vibe).
Itinerary 5: Northern Balkan Road Trip
Countries: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia
Start in Zagreb, Croatia (explore the capital), move to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (experience the unique history and culture) and finish in Belgrade, Serbia (enjoy the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers).
Or if you think these routes aren’t enough for your Balkan road trip, you can combine more of them or maybe make your way south along the Adriatic; Slovenia-Croatia-Montenegro-Albania-Greece and come back north following this route: Greece-Macedonia-Bulgaria-Serbia-Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Helpful Resources For Your Balkan Road Trip
Get up to 20% off on car rentals in the Balkan countries by using this link.
For the cheapest flights to the Balkan countries, use this offer to save up to 20% with Qatar Airways.
For accommodation deals, use this Booking discount offer and save up to 15%.
Looking for travel insurance for your trip to the Balkans? My go to choice is always SafetyWing because it has you covered in most unplanned instances you might come across.
Did you like this guide to planning a Balkan road trip? Would you like to visit the Balkans? Which places would you visit first? Feel free to share your comments below.
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