The Balkans Tours and Travel Guide
The Balkans Attractions & Landmarks Guide
The Balkan Peninsula encompasses most of southeastern Europe and spans 12 countries – including Greece, the nations of former Yugoslavia, as well as Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and European Turkey.
It’s a region that has historically been a tinderbox of ethnic and political tensions and violence, but is mostly peaceful today and features some of the most outstanding scenic and cultural sites in all of Europe. Prices are still lower there than in the rest of Europe, so now is a good time to book a tour to this fast-emerging vacation destination.
Counting Kosovo – which declared its independence from Serbia in 2011 but is not yet universally recognized as such – and European Turkey, which includes Istanbul, the Balkan Peninsula is made up of a dozen countries that incorporate multiple religions, languages, and cultural traditions.
While Slavic tongues predominate, the region also features Greek, Turkish, and Romanian. Primary religions include Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Islam (both in Turkey and parts of former Yugoslavia).
Ottoman and Italian cultural influences are strong along the Adriatic coast, many towns throughout retain a medieval European atmosphere, the glories of ancient Greece and Rome persist in extensive ruins, and shoddy 20th century Stalinist architecture is an unfortunate reminder of the sway the former Soviet Union once held over much of the region.
Why Visit the Balkans on a Tour
The Balkans are the perfect place to visit on a tour. Covering over 250,000 square miles, there is so much to see and do. Visiting this region on a tour is the best way to experience the highlights of the area with expertly planned itineraries.
The Balkans have a very special history and cultural makeup which makes visiting on a themed tour ideal. You can plan your trip around hiking the rugged mountains of Montenegro, eating your way through the cities and villages of the region, or learning about the historical influences that make the Balkans special.
Top Countries in Balkans
Traditionally, there are 8 main countries that make up the Balkans. The region stretches from Bulgaria in the north to Greece in the south, Turkey to the east and Slovenia to the west. While each of these countries are spectacular in their own right, there are a few that are top destinations included in most Balkan tour itineraries.
One of the top travel destinations in the Balkans, Croatia has become a traveler haven. With romantic old towns, historic coastlines, and a rich food scene, Croatia has everything a traveler could want. A few of the most popular stops in Croatia are Split and Dubrovnik, the main cities on the spectacular Dalmatian Coast.
Bosnia is arguably one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Much of the country is made up of colossal mountains, deep valleys, and teal rivers. Visitors will love the old town of Mostar and its famous bridge and historians will enjoy the walking tours in Sarajevo learning about the city’s importance in recent conflicts and World War I.
Montenegro is no longer a secret anymore. This small Adriatic Coast country is drawing in adventure seekers and beach goers from around the world. Montenegro has some of the best hiking trails in the Balkans and Kotor is a top cruise and tour destination with its mountains and stunning bay.
Once a Communist stronghold, Bulgaria has an interesting feel. The capital of Sofia is laid back with busy city parks, sprawling squares, and a thriving cafe scene. The surrounding countryside has rolling hills and history that any traveler will want to visit.
Off the Beaten Path Balkan Travel Destinations
While much of the Balkans may be considered off the beaten path, there are few destinations in this region that most travelers may not have heard of.
1. Mostar, Bosnia
A must when visiting Bosnia, Mostar is a hidden valley village. This small town is known for its medieval Ottoman old town and Stari Most (old bridge). Visitors will enjoy eating at the restaurants surrounding the water, shopping through the streets of the old bazaar, and catching a glimpse of one of the world-famous bridge jumpers.
2. Skopje, Macedonia
The capital of Macedonia is a quirky one. Skopje is popular for its unique architecture and hodge podge of buildings lining the river that runs through the city. However, if you wish to go where most have not, this fun city has a growing cafe scene and historic shopping area that will not disappoint.
3. Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Straddling both Macedonia and Albania, Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in Europe. This vast lake is an ideal place for boat tours, relaxing on the beach, or visiting the countless churches surrounding the lake.
4. Prizren, Kosovo
Kosovo’s second city, Prizren is nestled below the Shar Mountains and is the cultural center for the country. Kosovo’s important location in Europe can best be scene in Prizren where you can see Ottoman architecture, Serbian Orthodox churches, medieval fortresses, and Kosovo’s wine region.
Like its weather, Balkan cuisine depends on which country you are in. However, many of the countries do have some overlap.
Throughout the region you will see influences from the Mediterranean, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Additionally, in Slovenia and parts of Croatia you can find food closely related to Austria.
Popular dishes in the Balkans range from lamb, goulash, and seafood. Balkan cuisine is very rustic and hearty with stews and soups being a mainstay. One of the most common things you will find are sacs, or lids that cover a dish that hot coals have been poured over to cook the meal. The traditional stews and lamb dishes are cooked in these dishes.
Additionally, the Balkans are known for stuffing everything. You will find peppers, pastries, and meat stuffed with vegetables, sauces, and more meat throughout all of the area.
For travelers who are vegan or vegetarian, you will find eating in the Balkans a bit difficult. Traditional Balkan food is very meat heavy, but there are options in the major cities for vegan restaurants and vegetarian options.
What to Expect from Balkan Tours
One of the best parts about Balkan tours is the combination of scenery and cities. This area of Europe has stunning landscape and some of the most historic and unique cities. You can expect to be awed by both the natural environment and the man made wonders of the Balkans.
There will be plenty of opportunities to learn about the storied history of this region and how the combination of cultures has molded these countries. You will also be able to learn more about how the countries are growing and developing after the recent conflicts that have occurred.
While some Balkan tours will have a low activity level, it should be noted that the Balkans are very mountainous. Some of the cities were built next to mountains or on the coast and you will encounter steep inclines and many stairs. Also, if you are taking a more active tour, you can expect to be doing some extreme hiking.
Are the Balkans Safe to Visit?
Overall yes, the Balkans are safe to visit. The people of the Balkans are known for their kind hospitality and generosity. However, in the busier areas, pickpocketers are common so make sure to secure your belongings.
Much of the conflicts that occurred after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and Communism have ended. However, there are some areas, like the Albania and Kosovo border, that you should avoid. Double check your country’s safety recommendations before visiting and pay attention to your trip itineraries for where the destinations are.
Which Balkan Tour is Right for Me?
In choosing the Balkan tour that’s right for you, it helps to break down the region into three main parts: Greece, Albania, and European Turkey; the former Yugoslav republics; and Romania and Bulgaria. (Alternatively, if you’re interested in seeing them via small-ship sea cruise, you could separate them by the major seas that frame their coastlines: the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean, and Black.)
1. Traveling through Greece, Albania, and European Turkey
Greece is the best known and most popular tourist destination in the Balkans, and easily warrants a trip by itself, especially if you include the Greek Islands. Athens, Olympia, Mt. Olympus and Delphi are among the mainland highlights, while the Cycladic islands – such as Mykonos and Santorini – are among the most popular in the Aegean. Greece also borders the Ionian Sea to its west.
Little Albania, just a short ferry hop from the Greek island of Corfu, is sandwiched between Greece to the south and Montenegro to the north, with a coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
Just now being discovered after a long period of isolation and subsequent years of developing facilities for tourists, Albania is a land of castles, monasteries, mountains, beaches, and parks.
European Turkey stars Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, whose sights include the Topkapi Palace museum, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, and ferry trips across the Bosporus between European and Asian Turkey. Recently plagued by terrorism, Istanbul travel currently poses some risk.
2. Traveling through the former Yugoslav Republics
Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia comprise this grouping (the country of Macedonia is not to be confused with the Greek region of the same name). Held together for decades by the dictator Tito, Yugoslavia disbanded following the collapse of Communism and initially set off a series of post-civil wars among Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, ignited by long-simmering ethnic, religious and national rivalries.
The region is now peaceful and Croatia has become one of the stars of European tourism, with outstanding attractions such as medieval Dubrovnik, classical Split (the city walls are built right into the remains of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace), a series of jewel-like islands along the Adriatic coast, and inland natural wonders such as Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Little Slovenia, heavily influenced by nearby Italy, is a land of mountains, lakes, and castles, while Montenegro is almost entirely mountainous – except for a slender strip along its lovely Adriatic coast. That strip harbors Kotor, one of Europe’s most pristine medieval walled towns, framed by a steep mountain backdrop and reached via southern Europe’s only fjord.
Serbia is anchored by the region’s largest city, Belgrade, gaining fans for its newly minted nightlife, but the country is also known for its mountains, monasteries, and medieval fortresses. One way to see parts of Serbia is via Danube river cruises. Its small offshoot country, Kosovo, is largely undiscovered, as is Macedonia to the south.
Bosnia-Hercegovina played a huge role in world history – its capital, Sarajevo, was the site of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, which ignited World War I. Bosnia today is a center of Islamic culture in the Balkans, a remnant of the days when the Ottomans ruled much of this region. But most of Bosnia’s Moslems are native Slavs, not Turks. Mosques, mountains and medieval villages are among the highlights.
3. Romania and Bulgaria
These two major Balkan countries have outlets both to the Black Sea and the Danube River, so may be partially toured via small ship and river cruises. Romania, the land of both notorious Vlad the Impaler and Transylvania’s fictional Count Dracula – whose Bran castle, along with Vlad, were two of the inspirations for Drac – is also known for its painted churches and monasteries, medieval villages, and the Carpathian Mountains. Bulgaria is an ancient land of mountains, monasteries, castles, and a vibrant traditional culture.
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