Best time to visit the Balkans

I didn't associate North Macedonia with heat, I was thinking mountains and medieval meanderings. Wrong. August was sizzling. Luckily chilled, local white wine is always on tap
The Balkan region spreads over 500,000km², so climate does vary, particularly between the mountains and the coast. There are a lot of both. Anywhere on the coast can hit 30°C in summer, so hikers and cyclists beware. Many Balkan countries are small, too, such as Montenegro or North Macedonia, so they get busy in Jul-Aug. Generally spring and autumn are perfect for cultural and national park visits. In many countries you can go rambling happily as late as Nov. In countries dominated by mountains, such as Serbia or BiH, you rarely get over 17°C up high in summer. And do pack raingear.

Croatia Weather Chart

RAIN (mm)

Balkans, month by month

Give Skopje in North Macedonia a miss in winter. During November, December, January and February, an unpleasant layer of smog tends to settle over the city, caused by polluting Communist-era factories and fumes from domestic stove fuel being trapped between the cold ground and a layer of warmer air. Instead, come in the autumn, September and October, when the grapes make the countryside air fragrant and there are some lovely colours in the Matka Canyon. In contrast to North Macedonia, February and March are lovely in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with clear, sunny days likely. There will still be plenty of snow at higher reaches too. Summer temperatures can soar in Kosovo, which some find surprising, while winter brings snowfall. The best time for walking holidays here is either April or September. April to early June are the best months to visit Albania, with mild weather for walking and cycling, lower prices and rural areas that are virtually free of tourists. May, as well as September and October, are the most pleasant months for cycling in the Balkans. Expect balmy weather that gets cooler in the mountains. Peak season is less of a worry in countries such as North Macedonia and Albania, which see far fewer visitors. However, late June through to July and August sees blazingly hot temperatures on the Albanian coast, as well as inland. Residents of Tirana fleeing the heat mingle with day-trippers from Corfu in the resort of Saranda, but the rest of the coastline is still pleasantly calm for the most part. August is peak season in Croatia and Montenegro – and when we say it gets busy, we mean busy. Huge, polluting cruise ships queue up to discharge thousands of day-trippers into Dubrovnik, which is best skipped entirely in August if you can. In Montenegro, give the coast a swerve in August and head up into the mountains. The same goes for Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj in Slovenia, which are swarming with camera-brandishing coach groups in summer, the activity holiday season having started in May. April through to late September and even into October is the best time for small ship cruise holidays in Croatia. The best sea conditions start from April – calm and warm enough for swimming. This is also when the islands you’ll be sailing between start opening up. Come early or late in the season, however, to avoid the Mediterranean madness along the coast and on the islands.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Balkans or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Things to do in the Balkans

Things to do in the Balkans...

Culture vultures swoop on down, because the Balkan basket is packed with ancient civilisations and contemporary revelations. Visit UNESCO sites such as the fortified city of Dubrovnik or lesser known Kotor in Montenegro. Tirana in Albania has the most superb juxtaposition of Italian and Ottoman architecture, marvellous minarets versus crumbling communism. Ljubljana is one of Europe’s prettiest capitals, with 19th century wooden shops, medieval architectural treasures and cobbled courtyards. And then there are the moving 1990s war memorials, such as Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Built during the Ottoman Empire and destroyed in the war, it has been restored and is now considered the greatest symbol of Muslim, Croat and Serb reunification. National parks in the Balkans are very off radar, which means there is a lot of space for outdoor enthusiasts to play in. To discover some of the lesser known Balkan beauties, hike through Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park or North Macedonia’s Baba Mountain massif in Pelister National Park. North Macedonia is also home to Mavrovo National Park with 52 peaks higher than 2,000m. And Europe’s oldest primeval forest can be found in Sutjeska National Park in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as can Donje Bare Lake, a wonderful place to go for a dip. Pack everything for the Balkans; there are so many unexpected adventures to be had. See the Balkans on two wheels. Given how closely the various countries are bunched up together, just a few hours of cycling in the Balkans can reveal many contrasts as you slip easily across borders. The landscapes are magnificent, while little towns and villages are quiet but welcoming to cyclists, as they provide an income in areas that suffer from diminishing populations. There are many routes available, from the Dalmatian Coast, to Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia via the Durmitor mountain massif, and Croatia to Montenegro along the Adriatic Coast. This is a mountainous region so there are some long climbs involved at times, but trips are graded according to difficulty, so you always know how much challenge to expect.

Things not to do in the Balkans...

Expect five star tourism, except in Croatia’s coastal resorts. The Balkan countries are still relatively new to tourism and, in many ways, this is why we love them. Many countries such as Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) have a delightfully rural culture. These are countries where slow travel is innate, people are still striving to make a living from the land, and religion plays an important role. Please respect local people and their cultures and don’t go looking for Moët in the mountains.
Be insensitive about ethnicity in countries like Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and read up on the conflicts of the 1990s before you go. Know that in BiH, for example, there are three main ethnicities and religions: the Bosnian Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox; Roman Catholic Bosnian Croats; and Muslims who are known as Bosniaks. In many countries the 1990s war still feels very recent, so don’t come armed with opinions. People lost loved ones and still bear the scars and, although they do engage politically, leave it to them to bring it to the table. That usually happens with a bottle of local wine.
Unfortunately, some of the Balkan countries are going down the all inclusive resort and vast cruise ship route. We see this kind of thing as cul-de-sac tourism that brings few tangible economic benefits to local people, and plenty of negatives. Responsible tourism is the only way to put these monsters into reverse.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Boudewijn Boer] [Tempchart: Glannis Arvanitakis] [Things to do box: Marco Verch] [Adventure: Thomas Guillem] [BiH tips: Andreas Lehner] [BiH Rosanna: Mario Fajt] [Kosovo tips: Amer Miftari] [Serbia: George M. Groutas] [John Penge Belgrade: Jorge Lascar] [Eating: Antonis Gkekas] [Montenegro tips 2: Sergey Norin] [Albania tips: Gerd 72] [Macedonia: Onosim] [Tips intro: Kyle Taylor] [Tip1: NH52] [Tip2: Mario Micklisch]