On our last European tour, we spent almost half of our time on a trip through the Balkan region, which is home to some of the best Eastern European cities. From Albania to Romania, every country and location has something unique to offer. The Balkans are slightly less traveled than Western Europe, they are more affordable, and are filled with friendly locals. It all adds up to make one of our favorite regions to travel through in Europe. It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are our top cities for the best Balkans travel itinerary, in no particular order. Not sure what or where the Balkans are? Read our Balkan travel tips post first.
Balkans Travel Itinerary
Cameron and I have a huge crush on Ohrid after visiting. We arrived by bus to Macedonia’s “crown jewel” with high expectations and were not disappointed. After spending time in the interesting capital city of Skopje, we needed to be one with nature in Ohrid. Ohrid is a small city that surrounds the northern edge of Lake Ohrid, which is possibly one of the most beautiful lakes we have ever seen. You can easily spend a few days here exploring the churches and relaxing in complete serenity along a quiet lake. A few days was not enough for us and we ended up spending a week in Ohrid. This city was one of our favorite destinations on our whole Balkan trip and we would add it to any Balkans travel itinerary.
We spent six weeks in Croatia and we liked every destination on our trip. However, while traveling around Istria we were completely inspired by the small town of Labin. Located about two hours away from Zagreb, and easily accessible by car we found the town of Labin to be splashed in different hues of orange, yellow, and pink. We only had a day here, but it was one of our favorite cities in Istria. There are cafes, art galleries, and restaurants to visit in between the never-ending search for the most beautiful door. Oh, and the elevated city provides some fantastic views overlooking Istria. Yes, there is more to do in Croatia on a Balkan trip than Dubrovnik and the beautiful island of Hvar.
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
The capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina is not just the one of the best Eastern European cities, but for me, it is the best capital city in all of Europe. I visited back in 2013, and ever since have recommended it time and time again to anyone traveling the Balkans. Despite being the brunt of a brutal civil war in the 90’s; however, the city is now thriving with culture. Sarajevo has been called the “Jerusalem of Europe,” because of it’s strong religious identity. This is the only place I have ever been where I came across a mosque, synagogue, Catholic church, and Orthodox within five minutes walk of each other.
Kotor is a gem hidden away in Montenegro. The only bad thing about this gem is that it’s not so hidden anymore. These days, Kotor is pummeled with tourist, cruise ships, and overpriced restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still beautiful, but we had to get out of the tourist zone before losing our heads. A 20-minute bus drive away from Kotor is Perast. Perast is a quaint waterfront town with a population with less than 400 inhabitants. Okay, it’s not a city, but it’s within the Kotor municipality so we’re including it (we’re allowed to bend our own rules). There are only a few cafes, and museums, winding streets. We loved escaping here for the day to have a nice quiet cafe overlooking the Bay.
Anyone traveling up from Albania will pass through Ulcinj, and it is worth the stop on your Balkan trip. Ulcinj is located just past the Albania-Montenegro border but is populated by mostly Albanians. Ulcinj has a charming old town overlooking the ocean and has probably some of the prettiest beaches in Montenegro. We decided to stay in Ulcinj over Budva because of the sheer amount of tourism that Budva receives. With beachfront bars, seafood restaurants, and clean beaches I will not say that Ulcinj didn’t house any tourists, but it is far less than in Budva.
We went to Varna on a whim while traveling by train to Istanbul, and have never gotten over the delicious Black Sea mussels. Hate to say it, but Varna is a major tourist destination for Europeans and is known as one of the best eastern European cities for partying. Although, us being American, most people could not understand why we would ever visit Varna. Varna is your typical beach side tourist vacation spot, with clubs bumping into the night and topless beach goer’s strolling around during the day. We spent our days bathing in the Bulgarian Black Sea, drinking cheap screwdrivers, and eating an endless amount of mussels. (The mussels are the region’s specialty and one our favorite seafood dishes. For an affordable beach vacation in the Balkans, Varna is a great place to start.
Brasov was another destination that we traveled to on the spur of the moment but ended up getting lost in the uniqueness of Transylvania. Brasov is positioned in the Carpathian Mountains making it an excellent winter destination. It also has very mild summer temperatures making it a great place to escape some of the bolstering heat in other European cities. Winter sports and temperatures aside, Brasov is close to the Bran Castle, or better known as one of “Dracula’s Castles.”
We had to settle down somewhere to take a break from the constant traveling life (yes, travelers need breaks too) and figured that Belgrade didn’t look bad for a month. Nowadays, I think about how much I miss living in our big two bedroom apartment in the cafe district of the capital city. We spent a month gobbling down sushi, learning about Tito, exploring the underground tunnels that are located throughout the city, and going to ballet every three nights. We also found the nightlife here to be unbeatable, it’s no wonder it’s rated as one of the best eastern European cities for nightlife. Belgrade is, in short, a cultural, trendy, and artistic city that we found worthy of at least a few days of exploration, or settling down for a month like us!
Albania may be one of the most underrated destinations and should be on every Balkans travel itinerary. Not many people in Albania speak English, transportation is a complete mystery and pain, and it is one of the least developed countries in Europe. Regardless of these minor set backs Albania simply amazed us and is single-handedly one of the best Eastern European cities to visit. When we arrived in the capital city, we felt like we had completely departed Europe. Tirana feels more like a European Bangkok. Tirana is packed with things to do and see, good eats, and amazing coffee shops (we are coffee snobs).
There are three important highlights to note about Tirana.
- Tirana, and Albania packs in some of the most helpful people ever. I believe they are happy to see foreigners traveling their country.
- Tirana is a cheap European capital city, and you can easily live like a king here with a basic budget.
- Tirana is a very colorful city. Thanks to Tirana’s former mayor, Albania’s current prime minister, who ordered the painting of many old socialist buildings to liven up the city. We spent one entire day just snapping photos of vibrant buildings.
I know there is some debacle about including Slovenia in a post about the Balkans. As described in an earlier post, we have decided to define the Balkans as more of a cultural region rather than being bound by geography, therefore, Slovenia stays! We camped out in the modern capital city Ljubljana for awhile before traveling to the countryside along the Croatian border. Somewhere in between was Bled, a popular Slovenian city that surrounds beautiful Lake Bled. Bled is surrounded by the Julian Alps providing visitors with stunning views over the lake. It is perfect for backpackers, honeymooners, retirees, and any kind of traveler you can image. Bled has the scenery, cream cake, and outdoor activities to make the perfect Balkan trip travel destination.
Plan Your Trip to The Balkans
We rely on a few trusted websites that help save us money and time when booking hotels, flights, and car rentals. Check out some of our preferred partners below:
Flights to the Balkans: Compare airlines, dates and prices all in one place with Skyscanner.
Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
Water: We found the water in the Balkans fine to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Lifestraw Go Waterbottle
Guide Book: Sometimes it’s just nice to have a real book. We like Lonely Planet.
Have you traveled to any country in the Balkans? What do you think some of the best Eastern European cities are?
You May Also Like: