The Balkan Peninsula is an area of indescribable richness, complexity, history, and natural landscapes. With so many incredible cities to visit, it can easily become overwhelming when trying to plan a trip through the Balkans. Instead of sticking to the well-trodden capital cities of these Balkan countries, here are 7 unique places to visit on your next trip.
- Kotor, Montenegro
Perhaps no city on earth possesses such a unique charm as the quiet coastal town of Kotor, Montenegro. Just an hour and a half from the capital of Podgorica, this city sits on the pristine waters of the Bay of Kotor, and boasts a quaint Old Town surrounded by fortified city walls. Several medieval churches, such as St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, St. Luke’s Church, and St. Nicholas’ Church all contribute to Kotor’s antique charm. A hike up the city walls’ steep 1350 steps rewards the energetic traveler with a breathtaking view of downtown Kotor nestled into the bay. The main plaza, called the Flour Square, is overlooked by a Clock Tower built in 1602, and offers visitors several fine dining options and cafes.
2. Lake Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia
Aptly named “Macedonia’s Freshwater Sea”, Lake Ohrid is easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in Macedonia. Crystal clear waters stretching on for miles creates an alluring attraction for summertime visitors looking for a refreshing respite from the heat. Estimated to be 300 million years old, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered one of Europe’s oldest lakes. But of all the features that make Lake Ohrid special, perhaps none stand out as much as the clear, blue-green water which allows one to see clearly below for tens of meters. I highly recommend renting a pontoon boat for the afternoon (look for the captains to be docked in the morning and prices available for negotiation), and then head out for a few hours of swimming and exploring some of the lake’s many attractions, such as the Bay of Bones or the famous St. Jovan of Kaneo Monastery. Feel free to bring your own drinks and snacks along for the tour!
3. Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
The Balkans are full of ancient churches and monasteries, but Rila Monastery deserves special mention. Situated strategically high in the mountains, Rila is Bulgaria’s most famous and largest Eastern Orthodox monastery. Located less than two hours away from Sofia, Rila is accessible by bus or by car. Founded in the 10th century by hermit monk St. John of Rila, this monastery is a peaceful refuge deep in the forests of Bulgaria.
Like many religious sights, visitors are requested to be respectful during their visit, including wearing modest clothing.
4. Vikos Gorge, Greece
While the famous Greek isles seem to attract most of the world’s attention, Greece still has so much more to offer! Nestled in the Vikos-Aoos National Park, Vikos Gorge is the world’s deepest gorge and a perfect destination for nature lovers and hike enthusiasts. There are several trail options available to hike, each one ranging in difficulty and length, so be sure to find a path that is suitable for you. There are several small villages which offer access to the park, such as Zagori, Papigo, or Aristi. Hotels and bed & breakfasts here offer accommodation at very reasonable prices, some as low as 20 or 30 euro a night if you visit during the off season. My best advice is to bring sturdy walking shoes, and of course, your camera—you won’t want to miss such a breathtaking sight at the top of your hike!
5. Valbona, Albania
With fewer tourists than its Balkan neighbors, Albania is already considered “off the beaten path”— however, there is no other place here as remote and as breathtaking as the northern mountain range. Reaching this secluded natural area is no small feat, however: I highly encourage touring with a guide who speaks the local language and is familiar with the small villages and unkempt roads that characterize the region. But the intrepid traveler who ventures this far will always be rewarded: Valbona offers some of the most majestic rocky peaks and miles of untamed land I have ever seen.
6. Prizren, Kosovo
Dubbed Kosovo’s “Cultural Capital,” Prizren is a small town with a rich history and lots to offer. Nestled along a river, the Kosovars here enjoy quaint bridges, a historic downtown area, numerous waterside cafes in their quiet city. It has likely been occupied since the 2nd century AD, and the diverse architecture in the city reflects the unique and varied influences of the cultures who have occupied it through the years, such as the Ottomans. A medieval fortress sits high on the hill above the city and offers the best view of downtown; it is free to enter and can be reached with a short hike. Prizren is also one of the most diverse destinations in Kosovo, as reflected in the presence of numerous historic mosques and monasteries alike, and also its four official languages: Albanian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Turkish. Prizren is accessible with bus connections through numerous large cities nearby, such as Skopje and Belgrade.
7. Sarande, Albania
Another fantastic option in Albania brings us further down south: the stunning beaches of Sarande on the Ionian Sea. Located close to its famous neighbor Corfu, Greece, Albania boasts the same breathtaking waters, but for a fraction of the price. It is a true gem of the Albanian Riviera, and fortunately remains undiscovered by large cruise lines. Located close to Sarande is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint, an ancient city once occupied by the Romans and Greeks, and the mesmerizing natural spring called the Blue Eye. History lovers will also enjoy checking out Lukursi Castle, built in the 16th century, which overlooks Sarande from a hill.
With only seven destinations listed here, I am sure there are many more unique and off-the-beaten-path options around the Balkans that I haven’t covered. What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments, and maybe that’s where I’ll head next. 🙂