Balkans cities

“My absolute favourite place is Sarajevo,” says Stefan Hellmuth of our partner, Intrepid Travel. “This city is poised to become a major destination in south-eastern Europe in the coming years, so best to go now before the secret gets out.

Visitors to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans should go there without prejudice in regards to the causes of the 1990s war. Listen to stories from different angles and from people of different ages in different regions, and stay open minded. After all, the majority of the people suffered, and no one wanted this to happen.”

Some Balkan cities, such as Sarajevo and Mostar, still display horrendous scars of war, while others, like Kotor, are pristinely beautiful. Some like Dubrovnik are thick with tourists in the summer months; others remain far quieter. Some have architecture that reflects centuries of being tussled over by empires, while others retain just a few fragmented landmarks.

As Ollie Pemberton of our partner Exodus Travels notes, the best way to get a feel for them is in the company of a local guide, often someone who has lived in these communities their entire lives: “The passion is evident from all our guides. All of them are really passionate people. In Albania for example they’re so concerned about people leaving having had the best time of their life. They really want people to realise how great it is, so they’ll go overboard talking about the history and taking people to places that visitors wouldn’t normally go to.”

Our Balkans holidays are typically multi-country tours, during which you’ll travel overland by road or rail between cities, with the occasional diversion into more rural and remote areas. Even stopping for just a night or two allows you to get a feel for the distinctive ambience of each city. We suggest stopping at cafés as often as possible is a good way to achieve this. Handily, it also lets you compare their styles of coffee.

Belgrade

Situated in a dangerously strategic position where the Danube meets the Sava River, over the course of its history the Serbian capital has been fought over in more than 100 wars, besieged, bombed and burned to the ground many times.

And yet… Belgrade remains one of the most pleasant cities in the Balkans to visit, with the rail journey from Podgorica through canyons and gorges, between snowy mountains, incredibly scenic. The city is a vital intersection between Eastern and Western Europe, creating a fascinating cultural mix – the food particularly is renowned, we recommend stuffed wraps known as sarma as a delicious snack on the go.

John Penge, from our partner Exodus Travels, enjoys Belgrade and parts beyond: “On the journey from the airport it may not look like the prettiest of cities, but when you get into the centre things vastly improve. Belgrade Fortress and Kalemegdan Park are very nice places to explore, with some good views of where the Sava and Danube rivers meet. Outside Belgrade, I enjoyed the train ride to Mokra Gora and my stay in the village of Sirogojno. Sirogojno is a little village to the west of Serbia, where you can enjoy the tranquil setting as well as learn about how the community lives.”

Dubrovnik

Big cruise ship tourism and a prominent role in Game of Thrones have made this beautiful city a high-profile victim of overtourism. Yet from its medieval walls, you can see what lies further afield: the Elephati archipelago just offshore, the pine forests and lakes of Mljet National Park, the walking trails of Konavle Valley, sailing trips and small ship cruises off the Dalmatian Coast. Dubrovnik remains a stunning city, but avoid it in summer if you can, and use a cruise planner to dodge the worst of the day-tripping crowds.

Kotor

Worryingly, Kotor’s exquisite bay is leading it to become as attractive to cruise ships as Dubrovnik. We recommend heading up to the hills above it, either on foot or by bike, to admire the views. The 4.5km-long Venetian walls and medieval old town are lovely to explore outside peak season. To be fair to the cruise crowd, it’s easy to see why Kotor is so popular, with its Mediterranean atmosphere and unarguably stunning location.

Andrew Villone, from our partner Savour the Experience, has several personal favourites: “Kotor in Montenegro is almost a sister city to Dubrovnik, with its beauty and its walls. It has a lovely bay location, but I’m worried it may soon suffer from the same issues with cruise ship tourism. Ohrid in North Macedonia is a fascinating ancient site, with one of Europe’s oldest universities and that stunning lakeside setting.

“I also really love the spectacular drive up to the hilltop town of Gjirokaster in Albania, where the houses stack up against the hill very tightly. Coastal areas in the Balkans are easy to reach so naturally they get very busy, whereas places like this that are more remote are far quieter.”
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.

Mostar

The destruction of Stari Most, the 16th-century bridge spanning the Neretva River by Croat forces in 1993 was one of the great cultural tragedies of the Croat-Bosniak War. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, the 10th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and a splendid reconstruction has now been erected, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and symbol of reconciliation in a city that still feels split down the middle. The population on the east bank is predominantly Bosniak and on the west Croatian, most Serbs having fled Mostar during the conflict.

This unofficial capital of the Herzegovina region is best visited in spring or autumn, although in summer you can watch (among thick crowds) as daring young men dive 20m from Stari Most’s parapet in exchange for donations. Beyond the picturesque Old Town, much of Mostar remains bombed out, but the surviving architecture includes Kajtaz House, once a harem, and a 16th-century hammam, now a museum where you can learn about the rituals of the Turkish bath.

Ohrid

It’s said that there were once 365 churches on the shore of Lake Ohrid, where the city of Ohrid sits on the eastern bank. Ohrid’s historic architecture ranges from the 11th-century St Sophia’s Cathedral to the Byzantine St Bogorodica Perivlepta and the Hellenic theatre, which during Roman times was used to stage gladiator fights.

Balkans holidays taking in Ohrid will often mix the sightseeing with boat trips on the lake. If you have free time, there are swimming beaches and you could try and seek out the prized Ohrid pearls. Produced from fish scales coated in layers of emulsion, genuine Ohrid pearls are the ancient tradition of only two Ohrid families.

Pristina

The capital of Kosovo has a mainly Albanian population, and is one of the most enjoyable places in the Balkans to sample café culture. Much of the city’s historic architecture was torn down and replaced in the 20th century – the Communist-era buildings, particularly the Brutalist National Library, are considered some of the ugliest in the world! However, some notable structures remain, including four mosques, among them the Carshi Mosque dating back to the early 15th century, and an Ottoman bathhouse.

Mark Huggins, from our partner Undiscovered Destinations, on the highlights of Kosovo and capital Pristina: “Kosovo is one of the least-known parts of Europe. It has lots of interesting sites, including UNESCO-listed Decani Monastery and the architectural heritage of picturesque Prizren. Anyone who is interested in both modern and ancient European history will be fascinated by Kosovo. One can also enjoy beautiful scenery and walking in the Rugova Valley and do some wine tasting at a local vineyard. We would recommend combining visiting Kosovo with Albania and Macedonia for a wider look at the region.”

Sarajevo

Sarajevo is among the most culturally diverse cities in Europe, often compared with Istanbul for the way it stands at a crossroads between East and West. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated here, sparking World War I, and Sarajevo still bears many scars from the more recent Yugoslav Wars. The Tunnel Museum informs visitors about how the city withstood a 1,400-day siege, while architectural highlights include the 16th-century Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque and the Bašcaršija bazaar, where residents have bought and sold their wares since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Tom Wilkinson, Europe product manager at our partner Exodus Travels, has travelled the Balkans several times and has particular affection for Sarajevo.

“It’s an enormous region, of course, but I think you would get a good contrast by visiting Ljubljana, Tirana and Sarajevo. In my opinion, the most interesting city is Sarajevo, because of the history of the fairly recent conflict there. The scars are still very real despite redevelopment.

“The Tunnel Museum on the outskirts is a must-see. An old house riddled with bullet holes was the entrance to the tunnels, and you’re being shown round either by people who were involved in the conflict themselves or their children, so it’s very fresh and well-informed. Also, in Sarajevo you’ve got Christianity and Islam together, which Is unusual for a European capital.

“Tirana in Albania has evolved very rapidly since the dictatorship ended. It used to be only the party elite – a third of the population or so – who were allowed cars. Now everyone’s bought them and it’s a bit of a nightmare cycling in the centre.”

Skopje

The statuesque capital of North Macedonia suffered a huge earthquake in 1963, which destroyed many of its historic monuments as well as much of the city itself. Since then, there has been an effort to ‘repopulate’ Skopje with almost 300 statues in marble and bronze. Dominated by nearby Mount Vodno, and the birthplace of Mother Theresa, Skopje is a springboard to Lake Ohrid, but worth exploring on its own merits. It boasts perhaps the largest and best-preserved bazaar in south-east Europe, which dates to the 13th century, while several times a day the call to prayer resounds from minarets that dot the skyline.

Sofia

At the foot of Vitosha Mountain, the Bulgarian capital is a scenic place to spend a day or two exploring, with an eclectic architectural heritage that reflects Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Communist occupation. The UNESCO-listed Boyana Church and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral are two of the city’s key landmarks, while there are many spas in the surrounding area taking advantage of the region’s natural thermal springs.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Radik Sitdikov] [Intro: Damir Bosnjak] [Belgrade: Dimitrije Milenkovic] [Mostar: Zac Wolff] [Sarajevo: Peter Schulz]