The site of Europe’s most recent war is probably not top of mind when planning your next European vacation. And why the hell not? The Balkan Peninsula is a land where the people are as varied and complex as the gorgeous landscapes, where a calico demography of creeds and ethnicities spots the hillsides and villages, and the still-healing wounds of tragedy are met with old-world hospitality and wry sarcasm. By some tokens, it might be the best place to get a feeling for the Europe that once was.
Most American visitors to the area make a few stops along Croatia’s glittering Adriatic coastline, or hightail it all the way down to Istanbul or Greece. The rest of the peninsula lurks in murky indistinctness: post-Soviet, Eastern European, familiar yet curious at the same time. But there’s much more to the Balkans than Game of Thrones tours in Dubrovnik. Dig deeper and you’ll find progressive, youthful enclaves of hard-partying folks, quaint small towns steeped in history, and drop dead gorgeous scenery. Here are 16 of the peninsula’s best finds.
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Unbeknownst to many, Albania possesses what might be the Mediterranean’s last bit of pristine untouched coastline: the 150 kilometer-long stretch of sand and cliffs between the towns of Vlorë and Sarandë. Also known as North Epirus, the area is dotted with a picturesque collection of ancient villages clinging to its coastal hills. Himare is the most spectacular: its crumbling castle, situated high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean sea, affords breathtaking views. Definitely spend time on the beaches, though. There are some hotels, but the best way to enjoy these secluded strands is in a tent -- campgrounds abound.
The one must-do thing: Relax on the beach, obviously. Head down to Jala for a truly spectacular beach day.
Skopje, North Macedonia
After decades of being known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM for short), newly rechristened North Macedonia is a seriously underrated country to visit -- it’s dirt cheap, boasts beautiful Greek and Byzantine ruins, and is home to some incredibly kind people. Its capital city, Skopje, sports a winding Albanian quarter complete with ancient mosques, bustling markets, and one of the region’s best party scenes. Outside of the Albanian quarter, the newly built governmental center exudes a Vegas-esque Caesar’s Palace vibe intended to evoke Macedonia’s “glory days” -- 2,000 years ago, the time of Alexander the Great. Visit the great man himself in all his metallic glory: a 78-foot statue of an unnamed (for political reasons) warrior-king on a massive, anatomically correct horse, its beachball-sized bronzed balls gleaming proudly in the sunlight. Truly a sight to behold.
The one must-do thing: Check out Kapan An, a nightclub built into a historic 15th-century caravanserai, a traditional Muslim inn and trading house in the Old Bazaar district. In the warmer months, parties in the building’s spacious central courtyard last until the early morning hours.
Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia
North Macedonia’s premier tourist destination, Ohrid’s main draws are its charming Old Town showcasing its Ottoman heritage, gorgeous ancient monasteries, and the massive lake that gives the town its name. Take a boat ride on the serene waters, and get a look at the spectacular Church of St. John at Kaneo, a 13th-century Byzantine basilica perched on a hill overlooking the clear blue waters.
The one must-do thing: Take the 2.5-hour ferry ride across the Lake Ohrid to the spectacular 1,000-year-old monastery of St. Naum on the Albanian border and soak in the views along the way.
Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Just a short ride from Dubrovnik in Croatia, Trebinje in Bosnia’s Eastern Herzegovina region is a perfect entry point to Bosnia’s taciturn Serbian half, the Republika Srpska. Fenced in by high scenic mountains, the city’s distinctly Mediterranean feel is tempered by Cyrillic-lettered signage and Byzantine cupolas. The brilliant blue-green Trebisnjica River placidly corrals the crumbling old town from the (also crumbling) new, reflecting the weathered stone buildings on a perfectly smooth surface before disappearing underground to reappear in Croatia. To properly appreciate Trebinje’s glory, head to nearby Leotar mountain and catch a paragliding tour over the city and surrounding area.
The one must-do thing: Party. On summer nights, the city’s old town turns into what amounts to an open-air fête, with live music outdoors and DJs spinning in the town’s surprisingly abundant nightclubs.
Dating back to Roman times (Constantine the Great was born here 1,800 years ago), Serbia’s third-largest city is studded with remnants of the past. Historically characterized as a gateway to the east, the city changed hands dozens of times over history, a fact borne witness by the still-impressive fortifications scattered throughout itsthe center. Now a hub of culture in Serbia, the citizens of Niš host a number of festivals throughout the year and enjoy a lively cafe and bar scene.
The one must-do thing: See what remains of the city’s violent past at the Skull Tower. The vengeful Ottoman vizier Hurshid Pasha constructed a tower out of the skulls of his vanquished foes to serve as a warning to future enemies.
The southern city of Dubrovnik, aka King’s Landing from GoT, is indisputably beautiful, but the summer months see its limestone arteries clogged with tourists clamoring for a taste of Westeros. Rijeka is one laid-back northern alternative. Though the city has a heavy Italian influence, Austrian-style cafe culture is the name of the game here, and you’ll see locals relaxing in the many outdoor cafes on its main boulevard, Korzo. For a bit of exercise, climb up to the hilltop Trsat Castle and admire a panoramic view of the city and the Rječina river that winds through it.
The one must-do thing: Take a day trip to Krk island, home to beautiful beaches, cute little villages, and one of Croatia’s most delicious wines -- the golden-colored Vrbnicka Zlahtina, an indigenous white grape variety.
Nestled deep into the bay that shares its name, Kotor has one of the most scenic shorelines in Europe, ringed by old towers and villas and steep mountains that rise precipitously from its deep blue-green waters, speckled by sailboats. Kotor’s massive 15th-century Venetian walls conceal a hive of twisted, medieval streets bursting with restaurants, bars, basilicas, shrines, and hostels. Montenegro is like a cheaper, teensier version of Italy -- get a taste in Kotor before exploring other beautiful small towns like Perast and Budva.
The one must-do thing: Climb up the 1300-odd steps to the mountaintop fortress that rises steeply above Kotor’s old town to catch the sunset. It’s sweaty work, but the view here is unparalleled: the Bay of Kotor reflects the setting sun, its twin islands barely visible in the distance. Hands down, one of Europe’s best panoramic views.
Though a century of Greek governance has reoriented the city toward the Aegean, for millennia, Thessaloniki (or Salonica, or Salun, or any of the many names the city has gone by over the years) served as the gateway to the Balkans. It was known as the cosmopolitan second capital of the Ottoman Empire, and later its large historic Jewish population earned it the moniker “mother of Israel.” Ravaged by a catastrophic fire a hundred years ago, the city was rebuilt on top of the old, the ruins of which are visible in the tunnels of city’s new metro system. Venizelou station contains an open archeological site where commuters can admire 84 meters of ancient marble-paved road.
The one must-do thing: Eat seafood and drink wine! Thessaloniki’s life is in its street cafes, of which it has more per capita than any other city in Europe. Take a leisurely stroll down the waterfront, an activity so intrinsic to local culture that it has its own name, volta.
Perhaps owing to its turbulent past and recent war of independence, Kosovo doesn’t make it onto many tourist must-see lists. But there’s a silver lining here: thanks to Clinton’s intervention into the conflict, the Kosovar people love Americans! Here, travelers from the states will be welcomed like long-lost siblings. It doesn’t end there: Pristina, the capital of Europe’s youngest country (in more ways than one -- the median age here is 28) is surprisingly cosmopolitan. The EU has a big presence here, and the city is home to a substantial expat population and a lively bar and cafe culture.
The one must-do thing: Visit the Bill Clinton statue on its eponymous boulevard (constructed to give thanks for American aid during the Kosovo War) and give Slick Willy a high-five.
Turkey’s own slice of the Balkans is small these days, but boasts a rich history. Last stop on the road to Istanbul (or Constantinople, depending on when), Edirne has been the site of dozens of major battles since the Hellenistic era, when it was known as Adrianople. Its most famous attraction is the gigantic 16th-century Selimiye Mosque that dominates the skyline. Edirne is perhaps one of the best places in the world to appreciate traditional Ottoman architecture -- especially bridges. Take a walk along the lengthy Maritza bridge and admire countless minarets from the lookout at its midpoint. The city’s central place in Turkish culture is also attested by the interesting Turkish sport of oil wrestling, and a festival commemorating the tradition is held every June.
The one must-do thing: Drink wine! Thrace’s wine route, known as Trakya Bag Rotasi in Turkish, starts in Edirne. From here, you can follow the route through dozens of historic vineyards, each boasting its own characteristic flavors and varietals.
Danube Delta, Romania
Why you need to go: The sprawling delta of the Danube is the terminus of Europe’s longest river, which weaves its way from Southern Germany to the Black Sea. These vast and sparsely populated waterways, knit together by narrow canals, are the country’s breadbasket and home to a UNESCO-protected wetlands rich in wildlife and biodiversity.
The one must-do thing: Book a cruise through the scenic waterways and dine on delicious local fish and caviar.
Why you need to go: Well away from Croatia’s heavily touristed Dalmatian coast, Osijek is the center of Croatia’s Eastern Slavonia region. Heavily ravaged during the wars of the '90s, the city has been mostly rebuilt. Slavonia is renowned across Croatia for its food, a heady mixture of Croatian, Serbian, and Hungarian cuisines representative of Osijek’s multiethnic heritage, and famous for its spiciness and freshness.
The one must-do thing: Go wine tasting in the countryside around the city, and sample Graševina, Croatia’s most famous wine, at its source.
Why you need to go: Albania’s darkly named mountainous northern region is one of the least-developed parts of Europe, home to a tribal culture with roots stretching back centuries. The towering cliffs of the Albanian Alps frame villages frozen in time, primeval forests, and barren sheep pastures, making the wild region a destination for in-the-know nature lovers.
The one must-do thing: Take the old, rusted-out Lake Koman ferry from Koman to Fierze. The three-hour ride across the lake’s perfectly still surface passes steep cliffs and lush green mountains and is one of the most scenic journeys in the Balkans.
Why you need to go: Walking through Bitola, one of the oldest cities in Macedonia, one can see the progression of the city’s varied history. Once the seat of European consuls in the Ottoman Empire, Bitola boasts fine examples of 19th-century romantic architecture juxtaposed with its ancient Turkish bazaar -- a sight straight out of the Middle East.
The one must-do thing: Take a day trip and drive to Ohrid, an ancient, beautiful city, nestled against a mountain lake and home to uncountable churches, basilicas, and Orthodox shrines.
Aladzha Monastery, Bulgaria
Hewn into the living rock of a vertical karst cliff in Northeastern Bulgaria, the ancient Aladzha Monastery is one of Europe’s most esoteric Christian monasteries. Monks carved living quarters, crypts, and even a small chapel into the limestone. A short hike through the forest brings you to a catacomb dating even further back in time, where they eked out a meager existence over 1,500 years ago.
The one must-do thing: Throw a few coins onto the carpeted floor of the monastery’s chapel for some good luck.
Why you need to go: The ancient town of Sozopol on the Black Sea Coast is one of Bulgaria’s most historic cities. Dating back even before the times of Ancient Greece, the city’s old town features cobblestone streets and the characteristically ramshackle two-story houses common in Ottoman cities. In the summer season, it is a lively resort town for Bulgarian tourists who come for sun, good food, and the fantastic beaches.
The one must-do thing: Stroll through the picturesque old town before hitting the waterfront for a glass of local wine and some serious sunbathing on the beautiful Harmani beach.
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Conor O’Rourke is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. He likes traveling, bikes, rap music, and tacos. His work has been published on Matador Network, Serious Eats, Sprudge, and others. Find more of his work at ConorORourke.com.