The Balkan region is arguably Europe’s fastest growing hotspot for tourism, with its spectacular scenery and buzzing cities an almost ever-present in ‘must visit’ lists over the last few years. It’s been a few years now since we travelled through this wonderful corner of the continent, and its popularity seems to have skyrocketed in the intervening years. Contrary to popular belief, however, the almost exponential rise in the Balkan countries’ popularity cannot be directly related to our absence from the area. From Bosnia & Herzegovina to Montenegro, these places are simply fantastic – and it’s no surprise they’re enjoying a well deserved spotlight on a global scale.
Here are what feel are the top cities to include in your Balkans itinerary. Some are classics, some are still somewhat less visited – all are brilliant.
Last Update: August 2019
1: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Few cities encapsulate the spirit of the Balkans quite like Mostar, the largest city in the Herzegovina region of the country.
The first thing you’ll notice when arriving in Mostar, most likely by bus or taxi, is how absurdly stunning the surrounding landscape is. This is real take your breath away territory, with Mostar nestled in amongst dramatically steep peaks and gorges, dissected by the dazzlingly emerald Nerevta river.
It is the presence of the Nerevta which gave Mostar reason to build its most celebrated landmark – Stari Most, the iconic and infamous bridge which had stood for nearly 430 years until it was destroyed in a matter of seconds during the Croat-Bosniak war. Re-opened after restoration in 2004, it stands again as the focal point for the city and is considered by many to be one of the most important symbols for peace in post-war Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Nowadays, visitors to Mostar can watch death-defying diving displays into the Nerevta from the top of Stari Most, whilst tucking in to some of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s famous Turkish-inspired cuisine. We would definitely recommend a hearty plate of Ćevapi in one of the many restaurants overlooking the bridge. A post dinner wander outside of the main tourist spots will show you that Mostar still very much bares the scars of war – with bullet ridden buildings, and even bombed out office blocks, visible around most corners.
A city, therefore, that remains in a ‘rebuilding’ phase – but which is very much open for business. You can read more about our trip to Mostar here.
Getting in: Unusually for the Balkans, Mostar does have an operating train station. The train between Sarajevo and Mostar runs twice per day, taking about 2.5 hours (you can use the national train network website to check the timetable). Alternatively, there are frequent bus services to Sarajevo and other cities within Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Croatia (Zadar, Split and Rijeka being the most frequent). We found BalkanViator an invaluable site for working out bus routes, particularly international routes.
2: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo is the second Bosnian city on our list, and with good reason. We loved this place so much that we completely went to town on our write ups, managing to fit 3 blog posts-worth into a 2 night stay!
Like its Herzegovinian cousin, Mostar, a visit to Sarajevo will introduce you to spectacular scenery, beautiful buildings and amazing food – but it will also open your eyes to some of the most violent and shocking episodes in recent European history.
Wander the cobbled streets of the ancient Ottoman bazaar, admire the symbolic cross-roads of East and West, and reinvigorate yourself with a cup of potent Bosnian coffee. Take a trip up into the mountains, enjoying stunning views over this sprawling city, and maybe even explore the now abandoned bobsleigh track from the Winter Olympics.
Don’t forget, however, to visit the museums dedicated to the Bosnian war, learn about the tragic meaning behind the Sarajevo Roses which you’ll notice all too frequently on the pavements, and head to the Tunnel of Hope to hear how the city of Sarajevo survived the longest siege in modern history.
Like Mostar, the history of Sarajevo doesn’t need to dominate your trip – but any visitor should make the effort to engage and understand it in some way. By doing this, you’ll realise just how impressive modern Sarajevo is – a resilient city, with an important story to tell and a bright future ahead of it.
Getting in: As the only capital city on our list, Sarajevo is one of the best connected options. There is a centrally located train station with a limited timetable to destinations within Bosnia & Herzegovina (one of which is Mostar). There used to be a train service between Sarajevo and Zagreb (Croatia) but this looks to have been suspended. Sarajevo is, however, brilliantly connected by bus to destinations near and far (as far as Sweden!). The majority of buses are from the main bus station (Autobuska Stanica) including domestic journeys and international buses to Croatia. There is a second bus station called Autobuska Stanica Sarajevo Istočno (Lukavica) which is out of the city centre and used for buses to Serbia and Montenegro.
3: Ohrid, North Macedonia
Sitting atop the hilly shoreline of Lake Ohrid, the city of Ohrid is one of North Macedonia’s most beautiful spots, and one of the most picturesque in the Balkans. A UNESCO world heritage site since the 1980s, Ohrid has a myriad of ancient churches and monasteries in a whole heap of styles and influences. One of the most impressive has to be the Church of St. Jovan at Kaneo, a compact Byzantine church perched on right on a cliff top, with stunning views over the lake.
Ohrid old town is encircled by ancient city walls, the high point of which is Tsar Samuel’s Fortress, which has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Treat yourself to a nice healthy portion of Burek once you’ve built up an appetite from your wanders! Check out our travel story from our 2015 trip for a more detailed feel of the place.
Getting in: There is minimal transport from international destinations to Ohrid – by far the easiest option is to hop on board a coach from Skopje, North Macedonia’s capital. The buses depart at least hourly, with the journey lasting somewhere between 3 and 4 hours. It takes in some SPECTACULAR mountain scenery along the way and will be a treat in itself. If you fancy taking a train, you’re sadly out of luck – Ohrid doesn’t have a station!
Often overlooked by travellers making a beeline to Dubrovnik or Split, Zadar is yet another beautiful, historic Croatian city on the Dalmatian coast. What sets Zadar apart, however, isn’t just the casual Roman columns dotted all over the old town, or even the classic terracotta rooftops which turn it into a picture postcard destination – this place really stands out for some of its more modern additions, namely the mystical Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation.
At first glance, the Sea Organ installation appears to just be a series of steps down into the water – but looks can be deceiving. In fact, the steps hide a series of pipes which play chords as the sea forces air through them. The mournful tones are ever changing, and provide a hauntingly beautiful backdrop – especially at sunset.
Once the last rays of light have disappeared over the horizon, you can head down to the Sun Salutation on the same stretch of the promenade. This huge glass circle is embedded into the ground, and spends the day soaking up the sun’s energy before using this to power a light show once darkness falls. There can’t be many better places in Europe to spend a summer evening.
Getting in: The train network in Croatia is reasonable compared to other Balkan states, with trains running to Zadar from Zagreb and Split (check out the Croatian rail website for the timetable). The bus is also an option, with routes all over Croatia (including Split, Dubrovnik and Zadar) as well as internationally to Serbia (Belgrade) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (Sarajevo, Mostar and Medjugorje).
Ah, good old Prizren. This small Kosovan city remains an undiscovered gem and is still very much one of the best kept secrets in the Balkans. We really wish we could have spent more time there, and it will definitely appear on our itinerary when we’re next in the Balkan region.
Prizren really is the perfect size for a short adventure in Kosovo – the whole city can be explored entirely on foot, although a little fitness goes a long way if you want to head up some of the more hilly sections of town!
Prizren Fortress is probably the most likely viewpoint to tempt you to get your walking shoes on – this medieval complex is remarkably well preserved considering its age, and was even undergoing extensive renovations when we visited. It certainly offers the best view over the sprawling streets of Prizren below, right over the gargantuan plain to the dramatic mountains on the horizon.
A hike up to the fortress will definitely earn you a break when you get back into the city – and Prizren is awash with lovely cafes, restaurants and bars where you can treat yourself to a tea or coffee, a bite to eat, and watch the world go by.
Getting in: Unfortunately for those determined to travel the Balkans by train, there is no route to Prizren… time to brave the bus! The cheapest and most frequent route is from Pristina (Kosovo’s capital) which takes about 2 hours. There are also international buses, but these are a far less frequent, making this a destination that requires a little more planning to get to unless you are travelling to and from within Kosovo. For researching international routes, we again recommend BalkanViator which we have to thank for identifying a once-per-day bus between Prizren and Ulcinj (Montenegro)!
Kotor has really hit the big time over the last few years, and rightly so! Just down the coast from Dubrovnik, Kotor offers the chance to experience all that’s great about Croatia’s most famous city, but with half the crowds and half the expense.
Its setting alone is simply stunning, with the medieval old town nestled at the bottom of monumental mountains, perched at the end of a bay which looks as if it’s been lifted straight out of one of Norway’s famous fjords. The bay itself offers a myriad of options for excursions and adventures beyond Kotor’s walls, with beautiful island churches and delightful villages waiting to be discovered.
Once back in Kotor itself, you can work up an appetite wandering the alleyways of the old town before tucking in to dinner at one of the many excellent restaurants – unsurprisingly, seafood is particularly good here.
For those who are after a real work out, we’d recommend an early hike up the ancient city walls which cling onto the side of the mountain. You may even spot the a cruise ship (or three) making their way down the bay – a sign that Kotor is embedding itself on the tourist trail and may not escape the crowds of Dubrovnik for too much longer.
Getting in: It’s just about possible to get to Kotor by train… the nearest station is Bar from which only takes 1-2 hours to reach Kotor by bus. Alternatively, there are plenty of domestic and international bus routes to Kotor which can be found on the handy Kotor bus station website.
So, there you have it – by no means an exhaustive list, as the Balkans is full of special places to visit, but we reckon the cities in here would be a great place to start!