Rare is the traveler who has claimed all the capitals of the Western Balkans. Rarer still, any person—resident or otherwise—who has checked all of these hidden gems off their bucket list. Though the region was known for conflict in the 1990s, anyone who has visited this undiscovered corner of Southeastern Europe knows that those issues have long since passed. They also know that the density of culture and unspoiled beauty found here are unsurpassed.
Hugging the Adriatic Sea and split by a string of towering massifs along the Dinaric Alps and Sharr Mountains, this region has ideal locales for any adventure traveler. Now is the time to witness the mosaic of culture, architecture, peaks, rivers and lakes unsullied by heavy industry, which has compromised many other parts of Europe.
The first installment of this two-part series highlights five beautiful waterfront destinations in the Balkans. If you’ve never heard of them, all the better. Go before the world finds out. You can thank us later.
Often referred to as “Little Austria,” the influence of the Habsburg Dynasty, which ruled the country for nearly six centuries, can still be felt in the northernmost Balkan country of Slovenia. That is especially true in the resort town of Bled, which sits upon a glacial lake fed by thermal springs. Bled is a perfect spot place in both summer and winter for visitors to enjoy water sports, skiing, magnificent hikes or just to relax in one of the dozens of lakeside spa hotels.
Yes, tourism has reached Bled, and for good reason: it looks like the scene of a fairytale. Perched atop a 130-meter cliff, Bled Castle forms the backdrop for a landscape that features the 16th century Church of the Assumption, whose spires peak out from the small island at the center of the lake. While in Bled, make sure to take a Pletna boat out to ring the church’s wishing bell and dine on Carniolan sausage and cream cake while taking in the views from the castle restaurant.
Albania is a newcomer to the international tourism scene, but gaining momentum due to the virgin beaches and crystal-blue water along its rugged Adriatic coastline. Cut off from the rest of the world under the 40-year rule of communist leader Enver Hoxha, what the country lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in hospitality and pristine beaches.
Peering across a thin strip of sea at the Greek island of Corfu, Sarandë is the start of a stunning national park that forms Albania’s southern border with Greece. The town is as beautiful as it is remote, with the nearest international airports a two-hour ferry ride away, on Corfu or a winding five-hour drive away in the country’s capital of Tirana.
While Sarandë is arguably Albania’s most beautiful beach town and a versatile spot to either relax or party, it also serves as a perfect home base for day trips. Make sure to venture out. Book a trip with tourism specialist Our Own Expeditions to Butrint National Park, the village resort of Ksamil the 45-meter-deep natural spring known as the Blue Eye.
Photo: Bridget Nurre Jennions
With over 3,500 miles of coastline, which curls around islands and is chock full of rocky beaches and medieval fortresses, Croatia is a tourism magnet. Though many of the major towns along the coast have been overrun by Game of Thrones fans and Yacht Week partiers, some, like Cavtat, still maintain a fishing-village charm.
Nestled in a cove just nine miles south of Dubrovnik, Cavtat offers a serene escape from its hectic northern neighbor. Here, you can taste olive oil as you watch the fishing boats. Located off the road connecting Croatia to Montenegro, you can reach Cavtat by land or sea, with the Baroque Church of St. Nicholas greeting the regular ferries from Dubrovnik.
While in Cavtat, make sure to see the 15th century alabaster relief in St. Nicholas and dine on fresh fish in one of the town’s welcoming seaside cafes.
The Bay of Kotor on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast is rapidly growing as a tourist destination, so the pressure is on to visit before the cruise ships and international developers destroy the peaceful charm of this bay where sheer cliffs drop straight into the sea. Shaped like an angel, the bay’s halo is Perast, the most picturesque of the towns that dot the 67 miles of coastline along the winding bay.
Perast is the kind of place that makes you want to settle down in a stone house for the summer and write a novel. With the best view of the bay, the town looks straight on to a pair of tiny islands that are home to the Abbey of St. George and the distinctive turquoise-domed church of Our Lady of the Rocks.
While in Perast, be sure to make your way over to the old city of Kotor to climb the over 1300 steps to the majestic Castle Of St. John. Upon your decent, reward yourself with some tasty crudo at Galion your efforts. For an assortment of cultural and adventure tours, check in with the experts at Black Mountain.
Photo: Hans Põldoja, CC-BY
Legend has it that there were once 365 churches in the scenic lakeside town of Ohrid the Republic of Macedonia … one for every day of the year. While that is no longer the case in this UNESCO-protected town on one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes, there is no escaping the area’s rich history—even as you follow the cobble-stoned path down to sunbathe next to bikini-clad locals in the summer sun.
In addition to the wide variety of adventure sports offered around the lake (sailing, diving, paragliding and biking), Ohrid’s main draws are the archaeological ruins dating back to the early Stone Age and its many beautifully preserved Orthodox churches with their elaborate frescoes. While in Ohrid, make sure to taste the impressive selection of local wines and visit the Church of St. John at Kaneo, one of the city’s icons, which offers some of the best views of the lake.
Photo: Nicolò Bonazzi, CC-BY
Breathtaking Balkans columnist Bridget Nurre Jennions is an Emmy-winning TV journalist and an international development specialist in Kosovo. Follow her travels on her blog, Bridgekrieg.