A 2-week roadtrip through the southern Balkans: Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece
The Balkan Peninsula is truly a captivating corner of the globe, full of unique surprises and hidden gems to offer international travelers. One of the easiest ways to enjoy this region of the globe is to rent a car and see it for yourself! In this post I have mapped out a two week itinerary starting from Tirana, Albania and routing through Macedonia, Bulgaria, and northern Greece. I have also included estimates of driving time by car between destinations, and also my recommendations for how much time to spend in each city are in italics. Of course, travelers are encouraged to customize their own trips to suite their pace and preferences!
Another note: I started my road trip in Tirana because that is where I live, but you can start or end your adventure at any leg in the trip.
1. Tirana, Albania —> Ohrid, Macedonia (2.5 hours)
Ohrid, Macedonia is a hidden gem of the Balkans and a wonderful place to spend a weekend relaxing by the refreshing waters of Europe’s oldest lake. Wander through the heart of Ohrid and enjoy the quaint, cobblestone streets framed by trellises full of bright, hanging flowers. Rent a pontoon boat for an afternoon and enjoy the fresh local food in the waterside cafes. Ohrid is truly a peaceful, romantic getaway city that can’t be missed.
I recommend spending at least two days in this beautiful town.
2. Ohrid, Macedonia —> Skopje, Macedonia (2 hours)
The journey from Ohrid to Skopje is pretty short, but nature lovers may enjoy stopping by Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia for a side excursion to see Duf Waterfall, only thirty or so minutes through a well-marked trail. We found this was a perfect way to break up the driving and enjoy some nature along the way.
Skopje is an eclectic capital that has been dubbed the “Vegas of the Balkans” for its quirky mix of massive statues contrasted with its Ottoman-era Old Town and the Turkish Bazaar. You can also take a cable car up to the Millennium Cross for a fantastic view of the city on a clear day. Outside the city, we spent an afternoon hiking Matka Canyon along a beautiful river with jutting cliffs on either side. I recommend spending 1-1.5 days seeing Skopje.
From Skopje, you may also be interested in taking the two hour drive to visit Prizren, Kosovo, a historic town dating back to the 14th century. Small and quaint, a stroll through Prizren would take a single afternoon.
3. Skopje, Macedonia to Sofia, Bulgaria (3.5 hour drive)
Along the way from Skopje to Sofia, there are several small monasteries and Eastern Orthodox churches not too far off the main road if you feel adventurous and want to visit some of the smaller religious sights in the region.
Once in Sofia, check out the free walking tours, the Jewish Synagogue, Saint Alexandar Nevskior Cathedral, or just enjoy the modern vibe at some of the craft breweries and trendy restaurants around the city. With Sofia as one of Europe’s oldest cities, there are ruins and sites from numerous dynasties and empires here. Spend an evening with the locals by grabbing a drink and heading out to the public parks to enjoy the night with friends and watch the old men play chess under the trees.
Insider tip: drivers will need to purchase a small vignette sticker–a kind of road tax– to place inside their car window. You can purchase one for one week and it costs around 10 euro.
I absolutely loved the rich history and wonderful cultural attractions here, and recommend spending 3 days here. Can’t wait to go back again one day soon!
4. Sofia, Bulgaria to Rila Monastery (1 hour, 45 minutes), then to Thessaloniki (3 hours, 15 minutes)
Along the road from Sofia to Thessaloniki, Greece, I highly recommend stopping to check out Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery. Built in the 10th century, this reclusive monastery still houses around 60 monks and features distinctive black-and-white painted architecture. Touring Rila Monastery takes about 1-1.5 hours, and is a must-see in Bulgaria.
From Rila, continue down to Thessaloniki, Greece. Thessaloniki is a very walkable city with a rich nightlife along the waterfront and lots of outdoor dining options. I recommend spending 2 days enjoying this fun cosmopolitan city. From Thessaloniki, there are numerous beach options only an hour or two away, so you may choose to extend your vacation into the Halkidiki Peninsula (the “3 Fingers”) if you decide.
5. Thessaloniki, Greece to Meteora, Greece (2 hours 45 minutes)
Meteora is a destination you simply cannot miss. These stunning monasteries built atop jutting peaks have inspired and awed since the 9th century. Most recently, this site inspired some of the scenes for the famous fantasy series Game of Thrones! Only 6 of the 24 monasteries still remain today. Travel tip: go early in the morning to beat the tour buses and ladies should remember to cover shoulders and legs.
I recommend 1 day visiting Meteora.
6. Meteora Greece to Ioannina, Greece (1.5 hours)
Ioannina is modern, picturesque Greek town nestled into stunning Lake Pamvotis and filled with bright flowers blooming along the street sides. Walk along the sparkling lake and check out the old fortress in the center of town. Like many cities in Greece, Ioannina can proudly boast delicious and fresh Greek fare.
I recommend spending 1 day in Ioannina.
7. Ioannina, Greece to Vikos Gorge (1 hour drive)
Vikos Gorge in Greece is another must-see. Avid hikers could enjoy hiking the beautiful trails of Vikos for several days or even weeks, but we only spent two days there. Vikos Gorge is the largest gorge in the world and is truly one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever witnessed. Beautiful arch bridges from the Middle Ages still rise over the clear waters at the bottom of the canyon. We loved every minute of our time spent here, and would be thrilled to visit again if given the chance. I recommend at least two days spent here, but avid hikers may wish to extend their time.
8. Vikos Gorge to Tirana (4.5 hours)
From here we wrapped up our road trip and headed back home, but I recommend making some stops in Albania along the way if you have time! Vikos Gorge to Gjirokastra is less than 1.5 hours away, and you can spend some time walking around this famous Ottoman-era UNESCO World Heritage Site.