They say all roads lead to Rome, but in the Balkans, the road actually does. With routes connecting East and West, and spots where empires literally collide, one of Europe’s most undiscovered areas is also one of its richest in everything from nature to nightlife.
Get your feet wet island hopping in coastal Croatia, just a quick boat or plane ride away from Venice, and then set off and explore the new Via Dinarica trail that traverses the tallest peaks in all eight of the western Balkan countries (despite their former conflict) for a step back in time surrounded by ancient cultures, untouched landscapes and booming nightlife in up-and-coming capitals. Here’s 10 ways to soak up the best the Western Balkans has to offer.
Start a tour of Croatian wine in the coastal town of Dubrovnik — Photo courtesy of Ivan Ivankovic via FlickrVineyard Hop in Croatia
With 300 official wine regions scattered across continental and coastal Croatia, it’s not hard to vineyard hop your way across the country. Start in the southern city of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its walled old town (a.k.a. King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones”), before driving an hour along the coast to the Pelješac peninsula, known for producing the full-bodied ruby red Postup wine, where you can sample the county’s first certified organic wine at the third-generation Kriz family winery.
Set off on a culinary tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina starting in the town of Trebinje — Photo courtesy of Marcus Saul via FlickrCook Like a Local
One of the best ways to get to the heart of a region is to break bread with its people. Eat your way around rural Bosnia and Herzegovina through the valleys near the town of Trebinje in the southern half of the country on a tour guided by local chefs and restaurateurs who will share their secrets from the ground up. Stock up on ingredients during trips to local farms and markets before learning how to prepare dishes in the most traditional ways possible: grilling on vine sticks, cooking in clay pots, and roasting lamb on a spit over a large heated stone.
Hiking the Via Dinarica on the border of Kosovo looking out at Macedonia — Photo courtesy of Ivan NeshovskiHike through the Heart of the Balkans
The 400-mile-long Via Dinarica trail snakes its way across 20 national parks, 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 200 mountains (including the highest peaks in the Dinaric Alps) as it crisscrosses the borders of eight Western Balkan countries–Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Break the trek down into segments with one of Green Visions’ hiking expeditions like the 8-day Best of Via Dinarica trip through Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes rafting the deepest canyon in Europe followed by bungalow stays riverside.
Hike the old Roman road that connected East and West — Photo courtesy of Auron Tare/Our Own ExpeditionsWalk the Road to Rome
Built by the Romans in the 3rd Century BC, the Via Egnatia, along with the Via Appia in Italy, connected the eastern and western parts of the empire, passing through Albania, Macedonia and Greece on the route from Rome to Istanbul. Start in Durres, the last coastal town before Rome that sits on Albania’s Adriatic Coast, and make your way through the first reopened leg of the trail, a 295-mile-long trek that ends in Thessaloniki, Greece, where you’ll come across ancient streets and Roman stations along the way.
Stay with local villagers while trekking through Macedonia's Mavrovo National Park — Photo courtesy of Marjan Lazarevski via FlickrSafari Through Macedonia’s Parks
Set off on a jeep safari through Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park, home to some of Europe’s last wild populations of brown bear, wolf, lynx and chamois, where rangers will show you how to track and spot beers on day and night game drives. The Macedonian second-generation family owned company Balojani Bear Tours kicks off the first of its 8-day tours in May, with daytime treks and nights spent at homestays in nearby villages where you’ll feast on traditional meals of locally grown fare.
Go for street food or fine dining in Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital, Sarajevo — Photo courtesy of Gabriel Hess via FlickrGo Old School Ottoman & New Wave Gourmet in Sarajevo
A line runs through the center of Sarajevo’s old town, or Baščaršija, marking the “Meeting of Cultures” with Ottoman architecture on one side and Austro-Hungarian on the other. Head toward the Ottoman side and stop in the courtyard of a remaining old caravanserai like Morića Han, once an inn for caravans of traders during Turkish times that’s now filled with restaurants, cafes and colorful bazaars selling rugs and dangling lanterns. Don’t leave the old town without sampling two street food specialties: cevapcici, beef sausages served with flatbread, and burek, phyllo-filled “pastries” stuffed with meat.
If fine dining (and wine) with a view is more your speed,Arman Galičić’s Hedona is part supper club, part winery that serves up some of the best views of the city from the slopes of Poljine. The concept of slow food rings true here as each plate in the eight course pairing is crafted with seasonal (and local) ingredients and presented in gastronomic fashion and served alongside wines from the region.
The "Gateway to the Balkans" is also one of the region's hottest capitals of nightlife — Photo courtesy of Jorge Láscar via FlickrDance the Weekend Away in Belgrade
From the top of the Belgrade Fortress, you can look out and see the point where the Sava and Danube rivers meet, giving Serbia’s capital its nickname as the “Gateway to the Balkans.” The bustling metropolis maintains a bit of its bohemian charm thanks to Skadarska Street, Belgrade’s version of Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood, but the city is still seen as the Balkans’ capital of nightlife. Every weekend in the summer, the Savamala District transforms into the Banging Summer Arena, where 2,000 people fill the open-air space as DJs spin EDM, techno, trap, deep house–and entry starts at just 2 euros.
Perch up in a villa stay on Kotor Bay in Montenegro — Photo courtesy of Trish Hartmann via FlickrCruise Kotor Bay
Call a waterfront villa your home-away-from-home as you set out and explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kotor Bay in Montenegro, nicknamed Europe’s “southernmost fjord.” Stroll the streets of the old town with its 12th century walls and wander through the village of Perast’s 17th century and 18th century Baroque palaces that look out to the “Our Lady of the Rock” island. If you want to squeeze in more of Montenegro’s coastal highlights, hop on board a gulet cruise heading roundtrip from Kotor exploring spots like Herceg Novi on the Croatian border and the sandy shores near Albania.
Lake Bled sits right at the foothills of Triglav National Park, home to Slovenia's tallest peak — Photo courtesy of Lemsipmatt via FlickrBask on Lake Bled
A statue of Ziva, the goddess of love, used to stand where the Gothic church lies today on Bled island on the western side of Bled Lake in Slovenia. Get a closer look climbing up 99 stone steps to the top of the Church of the Assumption and follow the legend, ringing the “wishing bell” three times. After getting folklore out of the way, bask on the lake’s only beach, Grajsko kopališče, just underneath castle rock or take off and explore the area by horseback through forested trails and valleys.
Albania's capital is stepping up its game with plenty of attractions from shopping to nightlife — Photo courtesy of Michael Panse via FlickrParty in an Up-and-Coming Capital
Eastern European capitals like Prague have had their moment. Tirana, Albania has stepped out of its Communist shadow offering a mix of soul, grit and unexpected glamour with its Ottoman-style architecture, grand boulevard lined with shops and restaurants, and booming nightlife scene. From the rotating SKY CLUB bar you can take in sweeping 360-degree views of the city, or head down to Tirana’s center and and join the locals barhopping in the Blloku, or Block, where former governmental villas now house pubs and cocktail bars.