3 week trip around the Balkans States

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
8
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
8
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
7
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
6
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
6
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
6
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
67 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
Europe
country
Albania / Bosnia & Herzegovina / Croatia / Kosovo / Montenegro / North Macedonia / Serbia
Length of time
2-4 weeks
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 2,000
Time of year visited
July
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
141st/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 40% SUMMARY RATING: Superb

Summary

The Western Balkans don’t tend to be towards the top of the classic European adventures list, but they really should be and especially so if you’re looking for a 2-3 week adventure.  Whilst the likes of Spain, France and Italy offer the beautiful settings and a similar(ish) geographical area, the Western Balkans offer the variety of 8 different countries, are more compact, less busy and go toe-to-toe with those countries in terms of beaches, dramatic settings and cute old towns.  Examples?  The Havar area has the best beach and boat setting in Europe; Lake Bled and Sveti Stefan must be up there with the most picturesque spots in Europe; Dubrovnik has arguably the best Old Town and city walls in the world; and, in my opinion, Montenegro has the most beautiful coastline in the world.  Don’t believe this?  Give it a go – as I say, one of the best 2-3 week European adventures in Europe

highlights

#1 - Lake Bled, Slovenia. All the ingredients of a fairy tale: small church perched perfectly on a small island ✅ ; sitting in the middle of crystal clear water with only the light lapping of row boats ✅ ; castle nearby hanging over a precarious ledge to the water ✅ ; the further backdrop of the Julian Alps ✅ . An Instagrammer’s dream!

#2 - The coast of Montenegro. The world's most beautiful coastline (a big claim, I know). The crystal clear waters of the Dalmatian coast meet full blown mountains that meet right on the waterfront and with the backdrop of picturesque beaches with terracotta roofed island paradises

#3 - the island of Havar, Croatia. The most luxurious beach destination in the Balkans. Glitzy harbour with super yachts and world-class beach bars, a variety of adrenaline pumping lash centres in Havar Town coupled with more chilled out spots all around the island. And don't miss the Blue and Green caves that can be explored as part of a boat trip to Vis Island

#4 Dubrovnik, Croatia. One of the best preserved Old Towns in the world, with spectacular city walls and a stunning setting that sees it surrounded by mountains to the east, the crystal blues of the Adriatic to the west and the terracotta roofs of the buildings pouring out into the nearby town. Dubrovnik quite rightly sits as one of the premier Old Towns in the world

#5 Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Having lunch overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage listed Stari Most bridge. The bridge itself looks like something straight from Naboo in Star Wars with its beautiful sweeping arch held high by the two towers and with its gorgeous setting as the focal point of the town surrounded by the Herzegovina mountains. The Old Town is pretty to walk through and has the slightly unusual and eerie sights of pillars with thousands of bullet holes from the not so distant Civil War

#6 - Lake Ohrid's Byzantine Churches, North Macedonia. There is a nice Old Town, a medieval castle with a set of walls that allow you some super views and various lakeside beaches that attract many local tourists. But it is the gorgeous views of the picturesque Byzantine-style church roofs overlooking beautiful Lake Ohrid that make it the highlight of North Macedonia

#7 - The Pltivice Lakes, Croatia. How are these not more famous??!! Mesmerising aquamarines and luscious greens from these lakes and the hundreds of waterfalls that link them, all easily walkable across the boardwalks and hiking trails

#8 The Bay of Kotor and its Old Town, Montenegro. The mini-hike up to St John's fortress for stunning views over the medieval maze of lanes and Venetian Palaces of the Old Town and the spectacular harbour behind

#9 Ljubljana, Slovenia. Pretty and compact city to wander around for a day with its pedestrianised streets looking over the river, the famous 3 bridges and in particular the Ljubljana Castle area for views out across the city and nearby mountains

#10 Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina). I must call out that I didn't visit Sarajevo because I instead went further inland to Belgrade. But everyone I spoke to who did a similar trip put it as one of their highlights

My recommended route

Lonely Planet "Greatest Hits" route for the Balkans

Rough itinerary

Day 1 – Fly into Ljubljana 

Day 2-4 – Lake Bled and Ljubljana.  Give yourself 3 days in total to experience the picture perfect spot of Lake Bled, the instagrammers dream, where the walk around the lake and to the view points is just stunning; and to wander the Old Town and climb up the to Ljubljana Castle

Day 5 – travel down to Havar Island, including taking the ferry from Split

OPTIONAL EXTRA – the journey down to Havar will likely pass through Zagreb, which is a pretty town to visit, and Split, the home of the fantastic Diocletian’s Palace.  You will already be seeing lots of pretty Old Towns in this trip, so I would suggest skipping Zagreb, but if you are in any way a fan of Roman history, Split is a must

Day 6-8 – Havar Island.  Chill out on the various secluded beaches on the island, take a boat trip to the mysterious blue and green caves near Vis Island, and hit some of the great lash / partying in the beach bars of Havar Town.  The star island and beach spot of the Adriatic

Day 9-11 – Mostar and Sarajevo.  Make the journey inland to Bosnia for Mostar, with its wonderful Old Town, world famous Stari Most Bridge and the pillars with thousands of bullet holes as an eerie reminder of the Civil War, and the buzzing capital of Saravejo

Day 12-13 – Dubrovnik.  Head back to Croatia for arguably the most famous Old Town in the world with a stunning walk along the City Walls and for views looking down from Mount Srd

Day 14-15 – the Montenegro Coast.  Enjoy the picture perfect views of Sveti Stefan and the beautiful Ol Town, and also amazing views, of Kotor Bay.  Make sure to stay in Kotor Old Town

Day 16-17 – Albania / Kosovo.  Make your way either through Albania, for a spot of randomness, or through Kosovo, with its historic city of Prizen

Day 18-20 – Lake Ohrid.  Chill out at the end of an awesome trip by the lakeside of Lake Ohrid and see the Byzantine Churches with their beautiful settings by the cliffs

Day 21 – Fly out from Skopje 

Travel Tips

  • For the itinerary, the Lonely Planet recommends for its “Greatest Hits” route to go Ljubliana – Zagreb – Belgrade – Sarajevo – Mostar – Dubrovnik – Kotor – Prizren – Ohrid – Tirana.  I would largely agree with this (and I’ve shared the photo of the route), but with a few key exceptions:
    • Add the island of Havar in Croatia, its the best beach and sailing hub in Europe
    • Add Lake Bled in Slovenia, it is simply one of the most picturesque places in the world
    • Don’t bother with Belgrade unless you have some friends there that can show you around
    • Chose between Albania or Prizren in Kosovo.  Don’t do both – you’re only really passing through these places to get to Lake Ohrid
    • This route hugs the Dalmatian Coast a bit more and saves you time doing the detour to Zagreb and roundabout way to Albania
    • I think at a push you could do this itinerary in 2 weeks, but 3 weeks gives you the chill out time
  • If you’ve only got a week – I’d prioritise the the coastline highlights of Havar, Dubrovnik, Kotor and an interior trip to Mostar.  Its tough not to visit Slovenia’s Lake Bled and Northern Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid, but I think you’ll juts take up too much time getting there, whereas the 4 places I mention are far closer together
  • Individual travel entries – I’ve written individual travel entries for all of the destinations, each with their own detailed tips and more photos:
  • When to visit – you’re realistically looking at the summer months for the best time to visit as you can hit the beaches and generally soak up to positive energy of everyone in the summer.  But, I also think the shoulder seasons of mid April to May and September to mid October would be ok as the crowds will have left by then and you can still do all of the above experiences whilst only really missing out on sunning yourself on the beaches.  I wouldn’t bother with this itinerary in winter
  • I wish I’d included . . .
    • The challenge of climbing Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest peak but manageable at 2864m / 9400ft
    • The EXIT festival in Novi Sad in Serbia
    • Timing the trip to Mostar to also see the annual diving world championships from the Stari Most Bridge

Experiences nearby

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Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone