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.
After Part One tackled the five best waterfront destinations in the Balkans, the second installment of this two-part series highlights the region’s five most beautiful inland destinations. If you’ve never heard of them, all the better. Go before the world finds out. You can thank us later.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The only Bosnian city to make this list is one of its most iconic. To many in the region, Mostar (pictured above) symbolizes the unique blending of cultures and traditions that has defined the mountainous country at the heart of the Balkans for centuries. The capital of the southern Herzegovina region, which runs down to Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, Mostar—particularly its old town—reflects the many influences that have swept the country since the tiny outpost on the Neretva River was urbanized under Ottoman rule in the early 16th century.
Connecting the domed churches of the west bank with the minarets of the east bank is a true architectural marvel: the Old Bridge, or Stari Most. Rebuilt since its destruction during the war in 1993, the bridge—first built by the Ottomans in 1566—is not only the city’s most important attraction, but a nod to the quiet strength and beauty of the city’s people. Make sure to pick up some burek (a savory pasty filled with meat) or cevapi (sausages served with pita) to nibble when you break from your wandering through the artisan stalls on Kujundžiluk (goldsmith’s) Street.
For guided trips to and through Mostar, contact Sarajevo-based tourism operator Green Visions.
Travel long enough in the Balkans and you will hear many places described as “one of Tito’s regular holiday destinations.” The fact that Yugoslavia’s long-time leader first came to prominence by fighting the Axis powers here and later established a landmark hotel here lends credence to that claim for the mountain town of Kolasin in northern Montenegro. A memorial in the town’s main square pays tribute to Tito’s partisans who lost their lives during World War II and the hotel is now on its third iteration: reopened as the massive lodge-style Bianca Resort and Spa Hotel in 2004.
Kolasin is perfectly situated in the black mountains for which Montenegro earned its moniker, just over an hour’s drive from the capital of Podgorica, with heart-pumping whitewater rafting available in nearby Tara River Canyon and skiing available at the impressive Kolasin Ski Resort. After a long day of rafting or skiing, make sure to try the cheesy polenta at the charming Restaurant Konoba in the main town square.
Photo: SarahTz, CC-BY
The UNESCO-protected town of Berat, nestled between Tomorri and Shpirag mountains, has history in spades. It is believed to have been the Illyrian stronghold of Antipatreia and is kept under the watchful eye of an imposing Byzantine-era castle fortress. Known as “The Town of a Thousand Windows,” Berat’s most striking feature is its architecture, with rows of ivory and russet Ottoman-style houses snaking their way up the hill to the fortress.
Make sure to climb the stairs to the kalaja (as the fortress is known locally), which still houses the town’s traditionally Christian neighborhood along with nearly a dozen churches and a few mosques. Don’t miss the 13th century Church of the Holy Trinity or the chance to experience true Albanian hospitality at the family-run Cobo Winery.
Renowned tourism operator Outdoor Albania is a great choice for booking trips throughout the country that take discovery to the next level.
Novi Sad is another great example of the Balkan magic that is created when cultures mix and new meets old. Serbia’s second largest city, and the capital of the multi-ethnic province of Vojvodina, Novi Sad sets the country’s cultural drumbeat. Home to countless annual festivals, including the massive EXIT music festival that takes place each July inside the walls of the 18th century Petrovaradin Fortress, the city has an infectious artistic energy.
Sure, there are plenty of traditional tourist attractions—like the striking Liberty Bridge and the expansive Museum of Vojvodina the city’s true appeal is in the buzzing cafes that line the pedestrian-only Zmaj Jovina and summertime beach parties on the Štrand. When in Novi Sad, make sure to take the Danube Bike Path over to Fisherman’s Island for some of the city’s best fish goulash.
Long-time travel expert PanaComp is Novi Sad-based and is a great choice for taking in the sights anywhere in Serbia.
Prizren during Dokufest. Photo: Katarina, CC-BY
A cultural and intellectual center during Ottoman rule, Prizren is one of the most well-preserved cities in the tiny Balkan country of Kosovo. Still in dispute with neighboring Serbia about its status as an independent state, Kosovo’s tourism industry is only recently beginning to blossom. With a prime location at the foot of the majestic Šar Mountains, Prizren is a great base from which to explore the rest of the country—from the Rahovec (Orahovac) wine region to the ski center of Brezovica (currently targeted for a €400 million development deal).
Prizren is also one of Kosovo’s most diverse cities, where you can hear Turkish as commonly on the streets as the predominant Albanian. The Ottoman influence is present in the city’s architecture as well, with the 17th century Sinan Pasha Mosque and rebuilt Old Stone Bridge main fixtures of the city center. The Byzantine-era Prizren Fortress towers over the city, where the country’s best filigree artisans hawk their wares.
Make sure to visit Prizren in August during Dokufest, when the city transforms into a showcase for the wide range of artists and thinkers who flock to the world-renowned film festival.
If adventure is a priority, contact the Prishtina-based operator Balkan Outdoor Experience for any active endeavor … from hiking to mountain yoga.
Top photo: Justin van Dyke, 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.