The Most-Breathtaking Balkan Peninsula Cities

A large swath of Europe’s landscape is occupied by the Balkan Peninsula, one of the continent’s oldest and largest settlements. Natural wonders and historic landmarks dot the territory, merging with unique culture, making it a popular destination with people from around the globe. From untainted beaches to towering mountains, luxurious resorts to ancient buildings, tempting dishes to homemade brews–the Balkans will draw you in, surprise you, excite you, and ante up abounding and unforgettable hospitality. From Albania to Macedonia and breathtaking Serbia, a journey across the Balkans offers a unique angle on Europe.

9. Bitola | Macedonia

Bitola is the second largest city in Macedonia yet the atmosphere feels so much more small-town than anything large. Sophisticated and charming, central Bitola is an easy place to get around, the food is fresh, uncomplicated, and tasty, and the locals have an easy, friendly way about them. Bitola has a handful of attractions to engage you easily for a few days. Sirok Sokak Street is the main artery, a lively backdrop of bars, restaurants, and shops lining the pedestrian-only, broad lane. Café culture is full-blown, creating endless opportunity for people-watching. Macedonian’s, along with the rest of the Balkans, love chatting over coffee, showcasing a social and relaxed way of life. Historical sites also abound, from fetching mosques to the imminent Clock Tower visible from all across the center of the city. The 15th century enclosed Bazaar, imposing Church of Sveti Dimitrij, and views from Bitola’s towering position at the base of Pelister Peak, the city is filled with appeal.

8. Belgrade | Serbia

Belgrade is Serbia’s most celebrated capital where layers of history, abundant cultural points, and a party almost each and every night has given the city an appealing reputation. Proud, outspoken, and adventurous, Belgrade is one of Europe’s most lively capitals, and though it’s more gritty than pretty, the rolling city hills showcase immense charm. Slowly, things are changing from good to better with plenty of gentrification happening citywide, seamlessly pairing with Hapsburg leftovers, art nouveau mastery, and socialist quarters, all dramatically contrasting with relics from the Ottoman empire. In Belgrade, the renowned Danube meets the Sava River where parkland unfolds alongside chaotic urban sprawl. A new world is evolving while keeping the old within its clutches. Quirky sidewalk kiosks, magnificent coffeehouses, and restaurants passed through generations flank Knez Mihailova, a vibrant pedestrian avenue lined by historic buildings leading to Kalemegdan Citadel, the city’s crown jewel.

7. Kotor | Montenegro

Magic seems to carve through every crevice of Kotor, Montenegro on the stunning Adriatic Coast. Enfolded in the Bay of Kotor’s south side, the city is enveloped by panoramic mountain scenery. Charm and authenticity are more than evident here, even with swaths of people spilling into the city during the later summer months, flocking to Kotor’s medieval and divine Old Town. Tucked between Kotor’s unpredictable bay and lofty mountains, the town of Kotor is ideally at one with its comely backdrop. History here began in the 9th century, evident in old buildings wedged together in one perfect assembly. At night, Kotor’s walls are spectacularly illuminated, seemingly protecting the treasures within–labyrinthine lanes of marble, small family-run shops, drool-worthy restaurants, and animated bars set around clandestine colonnades. Marina’s are crowded with the yachts of the super elite in warm weather but there’s no real downside–decent swimming conditions are lacking–any true history, romance, or architectural enthusiasts will have a hard time finding the heart to leave.

6. Split | Croatia

Croatia’s second biggest city, Split is one of the most profound of all European cities showcasing abounding ancient ruins. Traditionally one of the main ports for visiting the Dalmatian Islands, it’s become more of a destination than merely a gateway. Split has blossomed, and beautifully so, offering very much to fill the curious mind. Planning in the city has been fruitful with plenty of new, elegant hotels and trendy restaurants and with Krka National Park and the Mosor Mountains close by, the list of possible endeavors is plentiful. As the Riva (seafront) gets an old look updated by marble, the journey into Split is even more impressive and the atmosphere along the old walls immeasurable. Authentic Dalmatian life is at its best here, and always lively, it perfectly balances tradition with vicissitude. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Diocletian’s Palace is one of the most dramatic of Roman testaments and more than enough to wow even those who have “seen it all.”

5. Ohrid | Republic of Macedonia

Ohrid is one of those must-see places, a traveling cliche but a truth nonetheless. If in Macedonia, it is the place to go. Sitting on the sidelines of dramatic Lake Ohrid, Europe’s deepest, oldest, and most endearing lakes, it’s one of the Balkans’ most prominent summer resorts. Glorious Ohrid is Macedonia’s crowning jewel, stunning historic churches lining a rolling hill in the ethereal Old Quarter topped by ancient St. Jovan Kaneo, and with close by Gali_ica National Park and the not-so-distant and fairly isolated beaches on the lake’s east side, there’s not much to complain about. Most of Macedonia seems to make their way to the lake between mid-July and mid-August. From that point, nightlife is utterly chaotic and prices skyrocket–best to visit outside of the festive season. May and June, or late summer and early Fall are excellent, and far more quiet, times to visit.

4. Plovdiv | Bulgaria

Plovdiv is an explorer’s utopia–smaller than Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia but just as interesting. Delve into the ancient Philippopolis amphitheater–this Roman relic is a 2nd century marvel, only stumbled upon in 1968. Plovdiv is considered one of the oldest cities in Europe to have been constantly inhabited–the enormity of this fact is hard to swallow until a walk through the gorgeous amphitheater. The center is entirely charming, with cloisters of houses each topped with unique roof lines and architectural details so pleasing to observe and with just the perfect amount of eye-catching steeples for a small town. Cobblestone streets wind through Plovdiv, diverting to beatnik cafes, high caliber museums, and art galleries, captivating until the sun sets and another kind of entertainment comes alive. The nightlife in Plovdiv is excellent with a good choice of lively bars and clubs catering to the university town that also boasts some of the best Bulgarian, Thracian, Byzantine, and Roman antiquities in Europe.

3. Prizren | Kosovo

Prizren is Kosovo’s cultural capital and a top choice to strike out and explore one of the world’s most newly formed nations. Under the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo was thriving, and today, architectural details remain from the Ottoman period. Scenic Prizren is a shining star with plenty of infectious post-independence elation and eagerness. In August, Dokufest sees the city come entirely alive and fill up with film-industry people from around the world. The international short film and documentary festival takes over the town with parties, exhibitions, and screenings. When on route from Albania to Pristina, the enchanting mosque and church-laden old town deserves a few hours of your time. The old town is one of the most impressively preserved in the Balkans, with a horde of buildings dating back to the 14th century. Check out an art exhibit in the old Pristzen hammam, explore the remains of the Serbian Quarter, see a panoramic view of Prizren from Roman-era city castle, and don’t miss the Shadervan, the city’s old stone piazza and social gathering point.

2. Bled | Slovenia

Lake Bled steals the show in Slovenia with seemingly glowing aquamarine water, waterfront homes nestled along the riverbanks, and a 17th century castle smack dab in the middle of it all on its very own island. Idyllic it is, scenic and relaxing, and on almost every postcard you’ll find in the country. Blue skies seem to crack open above the lake, shining down on calm waters and illuminating all that’s naturally perfect in the surrounding area. Walk the two-kilometer path encircling Lake Bled and you’ll what it means to take the “perfect walk.” If romance is in the cards, Lake Bled is a great choice but it’s also an exciting destination for canyoneering, cycling, hiking, and boating so bring your adventurous side along. As with any fantastic lake, Bled is swarming with tourists come summer–they come from far and wide. A fall or spring visit is just as picturesque and although the water temperature isn’t quite as soothing all of Lake Bled’s finest points stay strong.

1. Tirana | Albania

A possibly unforeseen addition to the list, Tirana makes the cut as a quirky and vibrant portal into Albania and a city with some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches. One of the most unusual capitals on the continent, Albania’s isolation from the rest of the globe for more than 50 years has created a city unlike any other. Spirited and dynamic, Tirana is Albania’s thumping heart, this diminutive part of the country has high aspirations that have coalesced into an animated scene of unabashed fun and bold consumerism. Since its communist period, Tirana has undergone an evolution of massive proportions, with a transformed city center and bold, vibrantly painted buildings, pedestrian-only boulevards, and public piazzas. Sweeping avenues are flanked with Ottoman empire relics and pieces of its communist and Italian past, from flagrant socialist murals to exquisite cupolas while traffic congests the streets in a stifling way, meeting headlong with pedestrians in a kind of controlled chaos that’s dazzling to watch.

10 Vacation-Worthy Towns on Croatia’s Stunning Coastline

Having shaken off its war-torn past, Croatia, the European Union’s newest member, is primed to make the most of its future. That means showing off its gorgeous Adriatic coastline to the ever-increasing number of tourists arriving at its shores. The southern city of Dubrovnik has long been a half-hidden European gem, but other coastal towns are following its example. Travelers can explore the walled medieval cities in the morning, search for isolated beaches for an afternoon swim, and at night sample seafood caught fresh that morning. Read on for details on the allure of our top 10 towns on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

10. Korčula

Wine lovers will adore the island of Korčula, filled with vineyards and said to produce the country’s best white wine. Walls enclose Korčula town, an ancient city filled with narrow, stepped streets. The town itself is overlooked by a number of defensive towers, previously designed to warn away invaders but now used for everything from housing museums to cocktail bars. The town, believed to be the birthplace of Venetian merchant and world traveler Marco Polo, loves to share its history with modern day explorers. Visitors should make a point of seeking out a Moreška performance, routinely given for tourists. This traditional sword dance pits two groups in a mock dance battle over a veiled woman, and its participants are required to be natives of Korčula.

Korčula Croatia

9. Rijeka

For those after more than just a pretty beach (Rijeka proper has few) this is the town to visit. Home to Croatia’s largest port, Rijeka feels more like a Rotterdam or a Naples than a glossy tourist destination. But that grit churns out some polished diamonds. The city, a famous musical hub in its Yugoslav days, boasts a number of venues featuring live music, as well as playing host to other cultural events. The city center reflects Rijeka’s days under Habsburg rule, with its Baroque clock tower its main centerpiece. When done wandering the pedestrian streets of the Korzo, climb the 561 stairs to Trsat Castle. The fortress, dating from the 13th century, is now another great place in Rijeka to catch a concert or take in a performance. Even when there’s nothing going on, the views from the top of the hill make climbing all those stairs worth it.

Rijeka Croatia

8. Pula

Leave the Coliseum to the bustling crowds in Rome and head for Pula instead. This ancient town’s most famous landmark is a 1st century Roman amphitheater, one of the best preserved in the world. Other sites from Roman times include the Temple of Roma and the Arch of the Sergii, while the streets of the old city are still lined with Roman paving stones. Also known by its Italian name Pola, this bilingual city makes the most of its heritage, hosting summer events that recreate gladiator fights and offer visitors the opportunity to taste Roman food and beverages. Those seeking to get away from it all should head 10 kilometers south to Kamenjak National Park on the southernmost point of the Istria peninsula. Jump the cliffs, snorkel the coves or simply find a deserted beach and gaze out at the nearby islands.

Pula Croatia

7. Šibenik

Lacking, as it is, ancient ruins or Roman heritage, many visitors to Croatia don’t bother to stop in Šibenik. But as the oldest Croatian town on the Adriatic, missing out on Šibenik would be missing out on a part of the country’s history. The four fortresses still surrounding the town remind visitors of the natives’ continual resistance to outside rule, dating from the 11th century and the many rulers, including Venice, Hungary, Austria and Italy, that it has seen since. The most noteworthy sight in Šibenik is the St. James Cathedral, a renaissance era church made entirely out of stone and featuring external detailing composed of human faces, said to represent town inhabitants of the 15th century. Šibenik is located near Krka National Park, a similarly overlooked destination which features waterfalls and lakes similar to that of the more famous Plitvice Lakes further east.

Cathedral Šibenik Croatia

6. Zadar

Visiting some towns along the Adriatic coastline can feel more like stepping inside a museum, a room which time forgot. Not so with Zadar. This small city has enough year-round residents to make for some hustle and bustle during the day, while at night Zadar’s bars and restaurants fill up with a mix of tourists and locals eager to sample their delights. That’s not to say Zadar is just any old town, however. When heading out for a walk along the water, visitors might literally stumble upon ancient Roman ruins, like the Augustinian forum near the center of the old city. Newer installations give Zadar a new flavor as well – along the seafront is the Sun Salutation, whose colored glass plates not only create a light show but also collect enough energy to power the harbor’s lighting system, as well as the Sea Organ, which uses the waves to make music.

xbrchx / Shutterstock.com
xbrchx / Shutterstock.com

5. Trogir

The historic city of Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an excellently preserved medieval town with few modern blemishes. Located just a short drive from Split (another city on our list) Trogir makes an excellent day trip, or visitors might choose to stay just outside of town on one of the many gorgeous beaches. Stroll along Trogir’s seafront and admire its little harbor stuffed with sailboats before ducking inside the city’s gates. Have a look at the Cathedral of St Lovro and its renaissance chapel, then seek out the fortress at the water’s edge. Both sites offer the chance to climb their towers and drink in the view. It’s all too easy to lose several hours within the town’s walls, wandering the narrow, winding streets and discovering charming cafes and interesting shops.

Trogir Croatia

4. Rovinj

Rovinj is one of the few towns in the world where visitors can wake up in a five-star hotel, then head down to the harbor to watch fisherman haul in their catch. Known as Rovigno to the Italian speakers of this bilingual town, there exists plenty of reminders of its Venetian heritage. The Church of St. Euphemia in Rovinj’s center is topped by a bell tower modeled off the famous cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice, and a climb to its top offers lovely views. While climbing the hill to St. Euphemia’s, take time to stop in the shops along Grisia, where local artists display their work. Those interested in feasting off the fish they watched pulled ashore in the morning should visit the open-air market, selling fresh seafood as well as olive oil, truffles and other culinary treasures.

Rovinj Croatia

3. Hvar

The fabulous nightlife of Hvar is best when the summer crowds swell its population, but September may be the ideal time to visit the island and its eponymous town. The island’s beaches, like nearby Uvala Dubovica, won’t be crowded, but it will still be warm enough to sunbathe and swim. When it’s time to return to town, the central piazza will no longer be stuffed with tourists, making for great people watching as the residents use the early evening to stroll and catch up on one another’s lives. Take in the Renaissance-era harbor, then wander through the old town’s marble-paved roads and browse the quirky shops. Follow the path up the hill to the fort built high above the town, where the best views of the town and nearby islands can be found.

Hvar Croatia

2. Dubrovnik

Long the crown jewel of Croatia, Dubrovnik misses out on the top spot because it’s just too well known. (Relatively) high prices and large crowds make this southern town a bit less idyllic than others on our list, but its treasures mean Dubrovnik can’t be ignored. The old city is simply breathtaking, paved in marble and surrounded by walls dating back to the city’s time as the Republic of Ragusa. Experience that history with a walk around the walls, or dive into the fantastical by seeking out the sites featured in HBO’s popular Game of Thrones series. Seek out Buža, a bar hidden amidst the walls, famous for its incredible views across the Adriatic. But those seeking beaches should bypass the rows of loungers near the center of the city and catch a ferry to the nearby islands instead, where the vibe is much more chill and the seascape spectacular.

Dubrovnik Croatia

1. Split

A town that’s grown from the ruins of a Roman emperor’s palace, now that’s pretty hard to beat. Diocletian’s Palace, which dates from the 4th century A.D., is today a UNESCO World Heritage site, but still hosts homes, shops and restaurants within its walls, descendants of those built by the local population who took up residence here way back in the 7th century. Be sure to take a tour of the underground areas of the palace, and those unafraid of heights can climb the steep, winding stairs to the top of the Bell Tower of St. Domnius for incredible views over the harbor. Split has recently revamped its seafront as well, making it the perfect place for a drink after exploring the center of the city, or just for a stroll at sunset.

Split Croatia Palace