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Written by Jessica Moore
When avid travelers think of the picturesque getaway of their dreams, maybe white sands and tan lines on a secluded island come to mind. Or maybe, just now, you’ve conjured up the classic European scene: relaxing on some bistro chairs outside a buzzing Parisienne cafe.
We all want to check off our top countries on our bucket list. What most people don’t initially consider is making a trip to the Balkans.
“WE’RE GOING TO THE BALKANS” isn’t a proclamation you hear or utter every day. Admittedly, I’d never heard of the Balkans (let alone pinpoint a single Balkan country on a map) before I found myself having to travel there to avoid the Schengen Area (Pro tip: if you’re a long-term traveler planning to make your way across Europe, you need to know about the Schengen; long story short, I discovered that I was only permitted to stay in western Europe for a total 90 days, and I hilariously found this out on my 85th day. I had only 5 days left and needed to plan my escape–fast).
Serendipitously, the fear of violating the Schengen led me to one of the most beautiful regions I have ever explored. I’m probably the first traveler ever to say this, but I thank the universe for the Schengen Area, because if it didn’t exist and subsequently push me to travel outside my comfort and knowledge zone, I would have never considered traveling to this remarkable region.
It’s funny how traveling does that to you. Be prepared for anything, expect the unexpected, and it’ll lead you to places.
The Balkans are probably the most underrated region to travel in the world. Southeastern European countries like Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia are gorgeous destinations with perfect Mediterranean climates. You know those white sands, tan lines, and bistro chairs you’ve been dreaming about? The Balkans have all that, too, and much more.
With striking beaches, ancient ruins peering over boisterous cafes by the sea, hip clubs along sunny boardwalks, delicious fresh-caught seafood, and even Game of Thrones filming locations (yup, you can walk the streets of “King’s Landing”), the Balkans may be the best-kept secret in Europe.
And guess what? Everything is cheaper in the Balkans, from the food to lodgings, prices are easily half the price of other European destinations. Apartments and hostels are as low as $24 a night!
Here’s where to go.
Tirana is the capital city of Albania, and it’s buzzing with people. It’s a fantastic stopover for a couple of days before you head over to Saranda.
The cafe culture is real in Tirana and all over Albania. And it doesn’t include just coffee; rakia, a fruit brandy, is consumed like water in Albania (be careful–the stuff is strong), and if you meet a few locals, they’ll probably boast that their family makes the best rakia. If you’re lucky they’ll pour you a taste!
That’s how it is in Albania: you get a certain type of warmth from people, like they’ve known you all your life and haven’t seen you in ages.
Albania is a secular Muslim country, so public calls to prayers are beautifully bellowed from the mosques in the mornings and evenings. Gyro vendors perfume the streets with delicious pitas, and the bakeries have local delicacies like homemade Turkish delights you can’t miss.
So why Tirana? Go to Tirana to marvel at the ancient Roman architectural ruins, or maybe old communist monuments like the Pyramid of Tirana are more your speed. Walk around this busy city and see the beautiful colorful buildings, antiquated clock towers, and political public art and historical preservations like the Bunkart 2 (an exhibition in a real underground bunker that highlights Albania’s painful past with Communism).
I stayed at the Tirana Backpacker Hostel, and out of the 18 countries I visited on my extended trip throughout Europe, this hostel easily places in my top 3. The interior is a vintage-retro open space with wood burning fireplaces in each room, eclectic art, and friendly fellow travelers excited to share Albania’s secrets with you.
But the real experience is the veranda outside: a hippie oasis covered with dozens of eccentric plants, hammocks, a fully stocked bar, and the occasional unplanned Albanian guitar-folk performances by local neighbors. We extended our trip 3 more days to soak this hostel in.
Saranda is a lovely coastal town that comes alive in the summer. No big name hotels or commercialized establishments here–instead, you’ll find small oceanfront hotels, quaint restaurants right on the ocean, bustling farmers’ markets, and cute bars with a ton of people.
Saranda is all about relaxation–it’s easy to just live in your bikini, take long walks on the beach, gorge on some seriously affordable seafood straight from fishermen’s boats, soak up that warm Mediterranean air, and find yourself forgetting what day and time it is.
There are beach chairs and huts as far as the eye can see during the summertime, the water is unbelievably clear and fresh, perfect for swimming. If you’re looking to party, there are tons of clubs bumpin’ along the shoreline.
Make sure to pay a visit to Lëkurësi Castle which peers over Saranda. It’s a restaurant now, but the view of the whole town is breathtaking. You can even walk there to explore Albania’s beautiful farmland!
Another must-see is the Blue Eye, only 8 miles away from Saranda proper. It’s a natural water spring that has an unbelievable blue color that looks emerald or turquoise, depending on the day and at what angle you look at it.
Stay at Hotel Blue Sky, which is right on the beach. Get a sea view room for a ridiculously cheap price, enjoy their private beach and bicycles you can rent to bike the town, or enjoy a meal and a drink at their in-house restaurant.
Montenegro has some mind-blowing beauty. Kotor’s rolling green hills and rocky mountains appear as though they’re competing for the best views of the ocean. Small houses and buildings are effortlessly etched into the stretching hillsides looking over scattered sailboats on still water. It’s green and tranquil in Montenegro. It’s all about that slow life, perfect for escaping the monotonous bustle.
Kotor’s old town is as charming as it gets: ancient cobblestone surround the small town’s brick clock tower. The town is so small, you can probably walk through it in less than an hour. But it’s fun to get lost in its ancient alleyways, discover hole-in-the-wall medieval chapels, and enjoy some excellent (and cheap) wine tasting.
You’ll find local farmers selling homemade cheese and seasonal produce just outside the town’s gigantic walls (which you can climb for the best view; the pathway looks like a miniature replica of the Great Wall of China). Kotor even has a cat museum! Residents of Kotor love and respect their stray cats, so be prepared to see several of them running around.
If you’re traveling during the summer peak season, it’ll obviously be more crowded, and many a cruise ship will dock for cruisers to explore Kotor. I traveled during off season (November), and though it was a little rainy, it was romantic and quiet. We genuinely felt we had the whole ancient town to ourselves.
I’m not going to sugar coat it: Bosnia was a war-torn country, and you can feel the history and the repercussions of that conflict first hand. I learned from the owner of our hostel that buildings semi-destroyed from the Bosnian War still stand today to serve as a constant reminder of that dark time.
These remnants are everywhere. However, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting this important country, recognizing the significance of Bosnia’s history, and appreciating even more the wonder that is Mostar.
A simple search for Mostar will give you iterations of the same landmark that isn’t just for tourists: it’s a true work of art, a gem in Bosnia. The Stari Most bridge, reconstructed in the 16th century, is a sight to behold. It’s a romantic, seemingly thin bridge that arches over the blue Neretva river. At night, the lights from the surrounding buildings light up the river, and the bridge looks alluring and haunting.
Mostar’s Turkish houses were built from stone and brick, and walking through the town’s bazaar you’ll find small streams, lush trees, flowers, and bushes surrounding street vendors selling everything from Bosnian flutes to hand woven wallets.
The food is ridiculously affordable–I’ll never forget ordering a bowl of the most delicious tomato soup I’ve ever had at a restaurant overlooking a gorgeous stream for only $0.25. Make sure to spend your money in Bosnia to contribute to their economy!
Get yourself lost in the throngs of people sifting through little shops and water banks. Get a classic Turkish coffee paired with Turkish delights and find somewhere scenic to sit, unwind, and enjoy the sweetness in the air.
Stay at Taso’s House. This hostel is run by the most enjoyable man, Taso. He greets you with said Turkish coffee and introduces you to the history of Bosnia and how the war impacted Bosnian life, including his own hostel.
The hostel is fully equipped with a full kitchen, a breezy balcony, and if you’re up for it, daily excursions that make seeing the rest of Bosnia and other Balkan countries easier.
Croatia’s tourist industry is booming thanks largely to Game of Thrones, and it’s been quite the popular destination in comparison to the other Balkan countries.
Maybe it’s the illustrious mountains, warm water, and heat that entices travelers year round, or the clash of history and nature constantly reminding you of its beautiful coexistence. Or perhaps it’s the Croatians themselves, a mix of warmth and no BS vibes, that make this coastal country even more inviting. After visiting Croatia, I think about this place almost every day.
Zadar, an old town by the sea, should be your first stop in Croatia. If you’re trying to avoid crowds but want to visit Croatia during its peak season, Zadar is calling you right now. Sitting pretty on the Dalmatian coast, Zadar has stunning beaches and an old town lined with shiny marble. Near Zadar’s clocktower in the People’s Square are Roman ruins spread out in the open.
Zadar is arguably most famous for two unique attractions. For all those dancers out there, you have to visit the solar-powered dancefloor called the “Monument to the Sun” designed by Nikola Basic. It charges during the day and lights up for dancers at night.
The second attraction, just a few feet from the dancefloor, is the Sea Organ, an attraction that will blow your mind. It’s essentially a gigantic harmonica built within Croatia’s steps straight into the ocean. The Sea Organ is played by ocean waves. That’s right, the ocean’s current dictates what notes the sea organ plays. What does it sound like? It sounds like a ghostly yet heavenly choir. Lay down by the steps during the day. Put your ear to the organ, and listen to music fueled by the sea.
All it takes is an hour drive to reach Skradinski Buk, a crescent of waterfalls you can swim in. This is one of Croatia’s coveted treasures, a natural wonderment.
Oh Split, how I miss your beach life. Even in October, the water in Split was warm and clear. It seemed like all Croatians did was swim during the day, and saunter by bars and cafes at night.
Split has a vast collection of ancient Roman architecture. Diocletian’s Palace is impressively intact, allowing you to step back in time in an enclosed 360 view.
On its main promenade, seafront modern cafes and trendy shopping centers are alive and a welcome sight, yet these structures don’t cloud the relics of this old city. And that’s the remarkable thing about Spit: the ancient and the modern work beautifully together.
My favorite beach in Split is Bačvice, which is also the epicenter of coastal nightlife in Split. Most of the beaches I visited in Croatia were pebble beaches, but Bačvice is all sand. Watching locals play picigin, a beach ball game, was one of my favorite ways to pass the day while sipping on rakija (Croatia’s delicious liquor) and sunbathing.
This is the most popular city on our list, and for good reason. Dubrovnik boasts some of the most iconic filming locations for Game of Thrones.
As much of GOT nerd as I am (I definitely did Cersei’s walk of shame, it was awesome), Dubrovnik is so much more. Its medieval narrow streets and flights of stairs weave in and out of this age-old stone and brick city, revealing dazzling vistas of the deep blue Adriatic sea. I spent my time in Dubrovnik getting lost, following music, cats, or fishermen to watch their daily catch. It all makes you feel like you’re transported back in time.
A perfect day in Dubrovnik looks like this: when you first get there, take a cable car ride to see a bird’s eye view of Old Town. Then head back down for a walking tour (there are loads of people offering GOT ones). After, get sunkissed at Banje beach and go for a swim (the water is warm!).
After a day at the beach, head over to Buza Bar–the best location to catch a Croatian sunset. The bar is built along a cliff where rocks and boulders that spill out into the ocean. Sit up on a rock and take in the breathtaking view. Watch the ships go by, meet fellow travelers, and go grab a beer with them.
For dinner, head over to Orhan, a restaurant overlooks “Blackwater Bay” from Game of Thrones. They have excellent mussels, octopus, fish, salads, and crepes.
And finally, you’d be crazy to miss out on Dubrovnik’s Cave Bar More. It’s a bar built inside a cave with intricate stalactites faintly dripping water, and an ambiance that is otherworldly. You can go outside for a seafront drink, too. It’s an experience you can’t miss!
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