The Balkans are becoming the new place to be. As travel prices in Western Europe get higher more people are heading East to discover the beauty and culture of the Balkan Peninsula. While there is so much natural beauty on offer in the area (check out hiking in the Albanian Alps) the cities and towns also offer their own unique vibes and make great city break destinations.
So whether you're heading off on a Balkan road trip or just looking for an interesting place to explore for a few days, here's a list of the best cities in the Balkans by people who have been there and loved it.
by Max of Travels of a Bookpacker
Ljubljana is one of the cutest little capitals in Europe. We immediately fell in love with its beautiful pedestrian streets to wander, cosy cafes to hang out in and active art and student scene. There is plenty to explore in the city. One of the highlights is the castle on the hill overlooking the old town of Ljubljana. Besides the amazing architecture in the old town there are many great shops lining the streets and no shortage of excellent places to enjoy a coffee or some traditional Slovenian food. On Fridays and some public holidays you can enjoy some street food and craft beer at the market in the city centre.
Ljubljana is very well located in the centre of Slovenia so that it makes a perfect base for several great day trips around this beautiful little country!
If you want to read more about Ljubljana, find our full city guide here. We found an amazing hostel called, Celica Art in an old prison which has a great cafe and some cool artsy rooms to stay in or check out other accommodation options here.
by Jennifer of World On A Whim
Zagreb, Croatia would be a perfect addition to your Balkan itinerary. It may not be as well-known as some coastal cities like Dubrovnik and Split, but Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and should not be missed. The city has a distinctly urban feel to it, yet retains the right balance as it isn’t too overwhelming in size. Classic European cobblestone streets are a staple in Zagreb which is divided into an upper and lower town, both of which are well worth a proper exploration. And, while the main thoroughfares in most capital cities have mostly mediocre tourist food, you will find the best gorgonzola gnocchi of your life on Tkalciceva, a large promenade lined with restaurants and bars. There are beautiful parks and flower markets throughout the city as well as attractions like the Museum of Broken Relationships. Yes, there is a museum dedicated to heart break and it is a fascinating visit. The displays are personal objects left over from former relationships—both romantic and familial—accompanied by short stories about the relationship.
If you are looking for a place to stay in Zagreb, I recommend the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel or Swanky Mint hostel depending on your budget. Finally, while Zagreb is inland, the city is the perfect gateway to other parts of Croatia like the Istria region which is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea and the Plitvice Lakes.
Towns in Istria, Croatia
by Natasha and Cameron of The World Pursuit Travel Website
Istria is a region in Croatia. When looking at Croatia look to the northwest, pinpoint the triangle, and that is Istria bordered by Italy and Slovenia. Because Istria isn't in southern Croatia it often gets skipped, but after traveling the country for six weeks I can say that it was my favorite region - don't make the mistake of the other travelers. Because Istria has been under rule before by the Venetians, Romans, Byzantines, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, and Yugoslavians the culture and history is unlike anywhere else in Croatia. Each and every small town here is beautiful in its own way. One of the hotspots is the seaside town of Rovinj. It's easily one of the largest towns in Istria, and is filled with cobbled alleyways and Mediterranean ambiance.
My second favorite town to visit in Istria is Motovun. Motovun is a hillside town famous for truffles. Here you can go truffle hunting with pigs and eat truffle oil, truffle butter, truffle ice-cream, truffle cheese, truffle pasta, and even truffle alcohol. Other fantastic places to visit are Pula, Fazana, Bale, and Labin.
Check out accommodation options around Istria.
by Alex of Swedish Nomad
Split is one of my favorite destinations in all of Europe, and it's definitely one of the best gems of the Balkans. Split is a historical city that goes way back in time. Most prominent is the Unesco heritage site - Diocletian's palace, which actually covers the whole old town of Split.
The beautiful Riva just on the other side of the wall is the perfect place to go for a stroll or sip on some Aperol Spritz or coffee. Split is also just a boat trip from the amazing islands of Hvar and Brac. If you can afford it, I really recommend to stay within the walls of the old town, or go there early in the morning. It's truly magical, and you can almost feel what it was like to walk around here during the Roman Era. If you're looking for a budget-friendly option, I would recommend AirBnB as there are plenty of good places to rent in Split. For restaurants and bars, there are many good ones to choose from. But my favorite restaurant is Konoba Nevera, and my favorite bar is Pun Kufer. If you want a more budget-friendly restaurant or good options for vegetarians and vegans, I suggest Sexy Cow or Makrovega.
All in all, I think Split offers a unique experience. It's a mix of Mediterranean, Balkans, and la dolce vita as well as a historical place with lots of charm and atmosphere.
Check out accommodation options in Split.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
by Kamila of Kami & The Rest Of The World
Sarajevo is one of the most incredible cities I've ever been to! I don't know any other place (well, except for Jerusalem) where you can find temples of four main religions within few hundred meters range: Orthodox church stands close to the Catholic cathedral that is nearby Jewish synagogue and within an eyesight of the mosque. In Sarajevo the cultures meet, literally. You walk the main pedestrian street and suddenly you transfer from the grand architecture of Austria-Hungary to the Ottoman style houses. Sarajevo played an important role in the 20th century history: that's where the World War 1 started, that's where the Winter Olympic Games took place in 1984 and that's where the longest siege in the post WW2 times happened. You can feel the history on every step!
Sarajevo is also the city of spectacular sunsets and incredible city views. Due to its location on the hills you will be rewarded with beautiful sights after each uphill walk. There are so many great things to do in Sarajevo but my favorite one is watching the sunset from the Yellow Bastion and witnessing the most magical moment in the city, the call for prayer from all the mosques around, with the most amazing view of Sarajevo in front of your eyes.
If you're looking for a good and budget friendly accommodation then Franz Ferdinand hostel is your best option. For the most typical food head to Bascarsija and follow the smell for delicious cevapi (grilled minced meat).
Read about all the reasons to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
by John of From Real People
Nestled on the banks of the Neretva River, the area around Mostar has been inhabited as far back as human history itself. Evidence of Roman settlements have been found beneath the current city, which itself dates back to the 1400s. Life and all the hustle and bustle of Mostar centre around the Stari Most or Old Bridge that was built across the river by the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s. The bridge stood for 427 years before being destroyed in November 1993 by the Croat Forces during the Croat-Bosniak War, as was most of the old Ottoman city around it.
Thankfully the bridge and the surrounding streets were painstakingly rebuilt. Nowadays, the area around the bridge is wonderful for exploring the Old Bazar Kujundziluk and watching the divers of the Mostar Diving Club jump into the river below. Many people miss the Kriva Cuprija (Crooked Bridge) located a little further down the river. This part of the city is great to escape the crowds and the hawkers selling their goods. Also, visit the War Photo Exhibition to
truly understand how the city has literally been reborn from its ashes after the war.
Check out accommodation options in Mostar.
by Mark of Wyld Family Travel
We spent some amazing days in the dead of Winter in Belgrade. Snow covered parks, icy footpaths and foggy mornings. High on any visitors list is a trip to Kelemagdon fortress. The fortress borders the old town and the Danube river. The fortress once protected the whole city as Belgrade's population lives inside its walls. One of Belgrade's most iconic monuments "The Victor" is located looking out over the Danube and the Serbian plains as a protector of the city.
The Serbian food is a highlight its heavy meat based warm and hearty to fill you up. A tour with a company like Taste Serbia will take you try many of the traditional Serbian delicacies. One of Belgrade's favourite sons Nicholas Tesla is celebrated with an airport named after him and a museum to honour his achievements. In the summer months, the river comes alive with bars and restaurants. Nightclubs pop up on barges and boats, markets and carnivals attract people to the park around Kelemegdan Fortress. Belgrade is cheap to visit and easily accessed by a growing number of budget airlines that fly into the city.
Check out accommodation options in Belgrade.
by Rohan of Travels of a Bookpacker
Prizren is the most beautiful city in Kosovo. The town centres itself around a river flanked by cafes, restaurants and bars. Minarets rise along the skyline and the fortress looks down on the town from its hilltop position. There is a great vibe in the city with history and culture on every corner mixing with a younger personality visible in the trendy cafes and music and art scene.
Plan your visit during the Dokufest which showcases documentaries, talks and performances from around the world during a one-week festival. There's always something happening, people are out and about in the streets and there's some good quality films to be seen.
The town gets very busy during this time so book accommodation in advance, we recommend M99 Hostel in the city center.
Kosovo is an amazing country, read about some more Awesome Things to Do in Kososvo.
by Sonja of Migrating Miss
Kotor is the stunningly beautiful town in a corner of the Bay of Kotor, inland on the coast of Montenegro. The fortified town itself is a sight to behold and add in the gorgeous mountainous surroundings and you definitely have one of the best cities to visit in the Balkans. The town itself is in the Venetian style, although it changed hands from the ancient Romans, to the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, France, Britain and finally Yugoslavia. Montenegro has now been an independent sovereign state since 2006, but all this history has had an influence on the town. There are countless alleys and nooks to explore that have been kept relatively authentic thanks to UNESCO World Heritage status. Ancient city walls stretch for 4.5 kilometers up the hillside behind the city.
The top thing to do in Montenegro is climbing the walls for the amazing views from the top. Just be sure to bring some water since it’s steep and can get very hot! Kotor has a small pebbled beach where you can cool down, as well as a ton of restaurants serving delicious food including local cheese platters and fresh seafood dishes. The Italian influence is still prevalent throughout the city, with plenty of pizza places, but there are also influences from Turkey like the delicious Borek pastry. It’s the perfect city to both explore and relax, with amazing panoramic views all around!
Check out accommodation options in Kotor.
by Bilyana of Owl Over The World
Budva is a buzzing resort on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. There are lots of cool things to do in Budva, as well day trips opportunities, which will give you the opportunity to visit the surroundings of the country and not only.
Budva is famous for its beaches, Mediterranean architecture and parties. However, the small town is still not a very popular destination for lots of people but well-worth the visit. The Old Town of Budva is a pretty labyrinth of narrow streets. The beaches are beautiful and attract many people during the summer months. Not far away from Budva is also one of the most beautiful little towns that I have visited – Kotor. If you’re visiting Budva, a day trip to Kotor is a must and the other way around too.
Check out accommodation options in Budva.
Staying longer in Montenegro? Read our Ultimate Montenegro Itinerary
by Rohan of Travels of a Bookpacker
Tirana is a city full of character and quirks. Emerging from its communist past with all the flair and vibrancy of a European capital but with some edginess and peculiarities still remaining. In this upbeat city you'll find everything from hip cafes to underground bunkers and everything in between. Take a walking tour and discover the ancient and recent history of Tirana or visit the brilliant BUNK'ART museum housed in an old bunker. If wandering is your thing look out for street art and colourful buildings painted by the city's mayor in a crazy but somewhat successful attempt to brighten the city.
There is plenty of great food in Tirana from cheap eats like burek (pastry filled with meat or cheese) to fine dining. For unforgettable experience try the degustation menu at Mullixhiu, local food with a twist served in interesting ways. The menu changes each day but is always made from fresh local produce. We stayed at Central Tirana Apartment which was very comfortable, clean and well located. If you looking for something a bit more fancy, check out Hotel Boutique LAS.
You want to know more about Tirana, check out our full Tirana city guide .
by Stephanie of Sofia Adventures
Last summer I spent a week in the beautiful town of Berat, Albania. Protected as one of Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Berat is a beautiful city of multiple styles of architecture, notable for its beautiful Ottoman houses set on the Osum River, Berat Castle, and beautiful Orthodox churches. While there, I stayed at Berat Backpackers, a trendy and relaxing hostel. However, my private room with its own terrace didn’t feel like a hostel at all. One of my favorite things about traveling in the Balkans is how you find beautiful cities full of culture, but with prices that make them super affordable to travel to.
Getting to Berat by bus was a bit of an adventure, as Albanian buses run regularly but never by their assigned schedule. I'll never forget the feeling of being told to wait by myself on the side of the highway for the next bus - I thought for sure it was going to be a disaster. But then it showed up in a few minutes, and that driver took me all the way to the foot of my hostel in the town even though Berat wasn't on his public schedule. Everywhere I went in Albania, I met lovely people who wanted to help me learn about their country. Berat is a place to start learning about Albania.
There is a lot more to see in Albania, read about our 20 things to do in Albania.
by Allison of Eternal Arrival
The first city I stepped foot in Albania was Saranda, and I think for that reason it’ll always be one of my favorite cities in the Balkans. Saranda is a port city about 30 kilometers away from Corfu, so close you can easily see it from the beach in Saranda. Saranda is an amazing gateway to some of the best day trips in Albania, such as the Blue Eye, Gjirokastra, Butrint, and the lovely Ksamil Beach. It’s also only a short distance from stunning, crystalline beaches further up the Albanian Riviera, such as Himara, Gjipe, and Dhermi.
Some cool things to do in Saranda itself include walking up to the ruins of Lëkurësi Castle overlooking the city, walking around the waterfront, eating delicious seafood at the restaurants on the sea, and chilling on the beach in town in Saranda. My biggest tip for visiting Saranda is to stay with Tomi at Saranda Backpackers. He was the nicest guy ever, even preparing a massive beach bonfire with an Albanian feast for us one night!
Ready to go? Plan your Albania itinerary with our guide here
Ohrid, Macedonia (FYROM)
by David of Travelsewhere
The city of Ohrid may well be the Republic of Macedonia’s most well-rounded destination. Resting on the shores of the lake of the same name, the city is blessed with sweeping scenery thanks to the surrounding mountains, plus all of its waterfront. Then there are Ohrid’s ample historical treasures, from the imposing Samuel’s Fortress to the picturesque church at Kaneo. Walking about Ohrid’s historical area will take you past many ancient churches, not to mention the city’s amphitheater.
Whether you want to hike, swim or sightsee, Ohrid’s got you covered. The city also makes for a good base to explore other parts of the lake, like down at the monastery of St. Naum near the Albanian border. Nearby the monastery you can also find some peaceful beaches to lie on in the sun, like at Ljubanishta.
As Macedonia’s most popular tourist destination, you can rest assured you’ll find everything you need to enjoy your stay. Accommodation ranges from budget stays like at Villa Milka to more resort-style places by the water’s edge. There’s also plenty of choice for dining options, with somewhere like Restaurant Belvedere a good choice for local cuisine, especially when sitting outdoors. If you’re looking for a break from Balkan cuisine, the pizzas at Pizza Nemo are pretty great too. Lastly, if you want dinner with a view, it’s hard to beat Restaurant Kaj Kanevche.
by Sarah of A Social Nomad
Bulgaria’s capital Sofia is a surprisingly cosmopolitan compact city that’s both affordable and easy to reach from other European and Balkan Cities. Arrive into Sofia airport and you’ll be able to take the subway to the center in less than 20 minutes, and a bus from there to anywhere in Bulgaria (or indeed Europe) easily.
The best central spot to stay is near the Serdika Metro Station, where you can access the city on foot and easily get to the airport and bus and train stations by metro. The city itself is easy to navigate with a subway and great pedestrianized areas. Take a free walking tour to figure out what you want to see more of, and get a feel for the cuisine of the area with a free walking and tasting tour with Balkan Bites – and you’ll head off for dinner with some great Bulgarian food recommendations.
Visit the incredible Central Mineral Baths, now a museum, head to the magnificent Largo to see communist-era buildings and then check out the superb Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. If you visit in summer check out the plethora of free festivals and the pavement café lifestyle here in the city.
Check out accommodation options in Sofia.
Do you want to know more about Sofia? Read our Sofia budget city guide.
Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
by Daniela of Ipanema Travels
If you ask the locals which is the most beautiful city in Bulgaria, the opinions will be split between Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv. Well, I am partial and for me, the best city in Bulgaria is Veliko Tarnovo. I have to confess though, I have lived there for more than 10 years.
What is so special about Veliko Tarnovo? The city is located on the hills cut through the Yantra River and you have these stunning views of the old houses clung to the rocks surrounded by the green hills. The city has also rich cultural and historical heritage. During the heyday of Bulgaria in the 12th – 14th century Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. There isn’t much left from those glorious days, but you can still visit Tsarevets – the fortress where the king’s palace and the main church were located. The spirit of the Bulgarian National Revival (18-19 c.) is well preserved in the architecture of the city. Walk the cobbled streets of the Varusha quarter or stroll along the river on Gurko Street, or visit the Samovodska Charshia – the old market street with local craftsmen and many souvenir shops.
The hotel prices in Veliko Tarnovo are moderate, so when choosing accommodation you should be considering the views. Wherever you stay, ask for a room on the riverside and you won’t be disappointed. Check out accommodation options in Veliko Tarnovo. For some great food, go to Etno or Shtastlivetsa.
Already in love with Veliko Tarnovo? Read Daniela’s complete guide on Veliko Tarnovo.
by Liza of Tripsget Travel Blog
Thessaloniki is a fabulous city in the Balkans and definitely one of the best cities in Greece. Located on the Mediterranean Sea, it has an amazing atmosphere of friendliness. Most of the people are very chilled, nobody rushes anywhere, pushing other people on the streets. Thessaloniki is the city of food and coffee, I would say. Food - because of plenty of great and cheap options to eat and a wide variety of bakeries with delicious Greek pastries and coffee - because most of Greeks in Thessaloniki drink coffee all the time, even in bars. It’s very unique to Greece - entering a bar or a nightclub, where people just sit and drink coffee. I guess it was too early for the Greek nightlife - just 11 pm! We stayed at Hotel Olympia and the hotel was really good.
by Elaine and David of Show Them The Globe
The beautiful coastal town of Kavala in northern Greece is one of the lesser visited parts of the country. Once known as the “Mecca of Tobacco” the city was a significant hub of economic activity and has a rich history. Today the city is less important as a port but is now a beautiful holiday destination with pristine beaches, delicious food and lots of places to explore.
The main draw of Kavala and the reason we visited is the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site of Philippi. These stunning archaeological ruins are unique as the site contains remains of Roman, early Christian and Byzantine era due to the city changing hands over time. When we visited we were the only people at the site and it was a truly unforgettable experience.
We stayed at the Egnatia City Hotel & Spa which has beautiful views across the Kavala and down to the sea. The hotel is perfectly located for exploring the city and the site of Philippi is a short drive away.