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The Ultimate 5-Day Balkans Itinerary
Though growing in popularity among European backpackers and vacationers, much of the Balkans remains a secret to outsiders. Perhaps, that is what makes it so unique and different from its western European counterparts.
The Balkans region has a long, violent history dating back further than the Ottoman empire. However, most recently, most of the Balkans countries came to be known as a cohesive group after Yugoslavia’s split.
Over half of the countries that are now known as part of the peninsular region used to be known as Yugoslavia until its separation in 1992.
The Balkans comprises 12 countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and the European portion of Turkey.
My Experience On My Balkan Trip
I first visited the Balkans in the winter of 2016 during a skiing trip in Bulgaria’s mountains. However, since visiting initially, I’ve been back several times in various cities around the peninsula. I’ve grown a sort of adoration with the area I don’t have with the rest of Europe.
The combination of its people, nature and landscapes, affordability, and regional history makes the Balkans a special place to travel. As hospitable as the culture is, it is easy to come back again and again, and I would encourage anyone to do the same.
Planning How To Around This Balkan Itinerary
Interrail connects a large portion of the European continent, and it extends into the Balkan region. For those backpackers traveling with a month-long pass, a week-long itinerary in the Balkans is precisely what you need.
Also, most of the region is connected through bus lines like Flix Bus and Infobus.
There are several main international airports throughout the Balkans. In particular, you can fly into these airports from almost anywhere in Europe and have access to all corners of the Balkans:
- Sofia International Airport (Bulgaria)
- Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport (Serbia)
- Istanbul Ataturk Airport (Turkey)
- Franjo Tuđman Airport Zagreb (Croatia)
- Athens International Airport (Greece)
- Henri Coandă International Airport (Romania)
The Balkan countries are often regarded as one of the best regions in Europe to road trip because of their vast scenery and ever-changing landscapes. Spend one-minute twisting and turning through lush mountain forest roads and the next minute cruising along the Adriatic or the Black Sea’s coastal highways.
There is no better way to see it all than to drive yourself through the peninsula. Plus, on short itineraries such as a five-day trip, you won’t have to wait for plane and train schedules, which means you will have more time for sightseeing.
** Note: For the sake of the 5-day time restraint, our itinerary is built around the assumption you are traveling by way of your own vehicle (or car rental).
5 Day Balkans Mini Itinerary
It is entirely possible to vacation to the Balkans and see many great places in five days. However, expect to gain an itch to re-visit and re-visit again. This is a region that can not be seen wholly in five days. It takes more than that – even more than two weeks.
However, the itinerary below should give you a good indication and taste of the region. So, if you plan a vacation to the Balkans, feel free to use part or all of our suggested itinerary to maximize your time spent in one of Europe’s best regions.
Day 1: Zagreb to Belgrade
Wake up in the beautiful Croatian capital, Zagreb! It is a perfect place to start your journey as most cities in Europe have a flight to the Zagreb International Airport, Franjo Tuđman.
This city was made for taking long walks and soaking in the vibrant but traditional culture. Make your way to the Upper Town’s red roofs and cobblestone neighborhoods.
Have coffee or lunch consisting of the Zagreb specialty, Kotlovina. It is a meaty dish with fried vegetables cooked over an open fire in a special sauce.
One of the unique things you can do while in Zagreb is to check out the Museum of Broken Relationships. . . I am not kidding! In this museum, you can find real sentiments from relationships that didn’t last. What a creative idea and massively entertaining. Give it an hour, at least.
Spend the afternoon on the road to the Serbian capital of Belgrade. It will take you three to four hours depending on how many times you stop to take in the sights – and there are some excellent points to stop at. We recommend saving yourself enough time to witness some of Belgrade before the sun goes down.
After arriving in Belgrade, make your way to the Belgrade Fortress to watch the sun go down over a lovely junction of the Danube and Sava rivers.
After grabbing a bit to eat (we recommend burek!), get your dancing shoes on and get ready for one hell of a party. Belgrade is known for the liveliest clubs in the Balkans.
The party happens on the waterfront in Belgrade in the same place you watched the sun go down. On both sides of the river junction, some clubs stay open into the wee hours of the morning. These places don’t take their party lightly.
Day 2: Belgrade to Sarajevo
When you wake up (hopefully you are feeling all right from the night before because there is a whole day’s worth of schedule), if it is a beautiful day, rent a bike from one of the many rental shops in town (about USD 5) and ride back down to the riverfront where there is a fabulous trail that leads you all the way across town.
We rode each way while in Belgrade, but if you are limited on time, we suggest heading toward Topčider Park, where there are so many activities, and people watching you will wish you could stay the entire afternoon (feel free to abandon the itinerary on your second day).
Anything from baseball (in Europe!) to water skiing to sand volleyball. You can see so much activity, especially on the weekends. Hit the market before your ride and pick up some fresh cherries (a Serbian delicacy) to enjoy once you arrive.
Get back to the car and get ready for an absolutely stunning five-hour car ride to the Bosnian and Herzegovina capital of Sarajevo. Make sure your camera is easily accessible.
Sarajevo is known for its museums. If you have time, stop by one or many museums after the rush has left and before it closes to learn a little about the history (WWI started in Sarajevo with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand).
You can even see the bridge where he was killed, which set off one of the deadliest wars in history.
Day 3: Sarajevo (to Mostar) to Dubrovnik
As you wake up in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest city, Sarajevo, surrounded by mountains, get out to Baščaršija, one of the largest outdoor marketplaces in the Balkans. The bazaar is its most famous historical and cultural center and an excellent place for photo junkies.
You could easily spend the morning and the afternoon of this Balkan itinerary wandering through these stalls as there are some real treasures to find here, but there is a busy day planned ahead of you.
You must take the short two-hour drive from Sarajevo to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s second most popular tourist city, Mostar, to see the famous Stari Most Bridge.
Driving in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a real treat. It seems the further you go, the more you are rewarded. Stop off for lunch in Mostar, a town still heavily affected by the Bosnian War over twenty-five years ago.
You’ll notice bullet craters in almost every building in Mostar. Only recently have they started to re-build the after-effects. Some buildings still stand abandoned. Others have been put to use over the years despite their gloomy yet interesting outside appearance.
It was a sad time in Bosnian history, but fascinating history at that!
Walk across Stari Most and, if you are lucky, there will be people jumping from the bridge. They do this for the right amount of money every day. The Old Bridge, which was destroyed in the war, had stood 24 meters high for over 400 years but has since been rebuilt as a replica.
On your two-hour drive to Dubrovnik, you will pass the absolutely jaw-dropping Kravica Waterfall. This is the one must-stop place on this Balkan trip.
The Balkans have so many great things to do and see no matter where you are, but if your itinerary doesn’t take you past Kravica Waterfall, about thirty minutes away from Mostar, you are missing out on a real gem of natural awe.
There is a swimming area (depending on how long you stayed in Mostar), but I would aim to be back in Croatia’s Dubrovnik before sunset as it is one of the best places in the Balkans to watch the sunset. With over 250 days of sun in this coastal paradise, there is a good chance you will be treated to something special at sundown.
Mount Srd is a fantastic place to watch the sun go down (or just take in the view any time of the day), but chances are you won’t arrive in time to make it up to the top. If you have time, try to make it up there. If not, another great spot to watch the sunset is from Slatki Kantun’s perfect terrace and with tasty cocktails.
Day 4: Dubrovnik to Sveti Stefan
By this point, you may be a little worn out by always being on the move. Only two more days of your holiday, enjoy it! If it helps, Day 4’s drive is spent all along the Adriatic coast with spectacular views throughout.
But, while still in Dubrovnik, might as well check out the Walls of Dubrovnik circling the Old Town. The Old Town is one of the best in Europe, in my opinion. It is well kept and this city’s top attraction (hold the beach resorts and boat parties).
The main street, Stradun, is always very crowded (especially during the summertime madness of Croatian tourism); however, if you venture away from the crowded street, the roads narrow, and the people become less frequent. There is always a peaceful bit of Dubrovnik’s Old Town to enjoy if you look for it.
The good news is today’s drive is only two and a half hours between Dubrovnik and Sveti Stefan. The better news? There are multiple stops on the way to keep you entertained, and you will hardly notice you have spent any time in the car.
The drive happens all along the coast, still, and you’d be hard-pressed not to want to stop for a swim at some point.
About an hour from Dubrovnik, you will run into Kotor, which is a beautiful fortified town on the coast of Montenegro. Its medieval old town is packed with ancient churches and cathedrals, and winding roads. It’s worth your time, if only for the afternoon.
About an hour after that, you will run into the small town of Budva, Montenegro. This place is a real treat. It is mainly known for sandy beaches and nightlife. However, the red roofs are my favorite part to adore.
Not far from Budva is the day’s stopping point. Sveti Stefan. It is a small red-roofed islet just six kilometers south of Budva. It is the perfect spot for yet another gorgeous sunset, and, if you prefer, you can make your way back to Budva for accommodation during the night. Make sure you check out the little village on the islet in Sveti Stefan; it is unique and picture-perfect.
Once back in Budva, if you feel like a night out, I highly recommend Top Hill as it has become somewhat famous – especially throughout the Balkans.
Day 5: Budva to Tirana
Spend your last morning leisurely walking about Budva Old Town and the Budva Riviera. Both could be excellent to spend a few hours. It is a three-and-a-half-hour drive to the capital city of Albania, and, assuming your flight isn’t that evening, you have plenty of time.
On the way down the Montenegro coast, you will pass by a few quaint medieval towns of Sutomore and Bar before you hit the border with Albania.
Sutomore is most well-known for its five-kilometer stretch of sandy beaches, which is why most tourists stay there. It is also a scenic little town with a lush forest of pine trees behind the beach.
Bar is even more popular on the Montenegro tourist path. It is home to a growing expat community, and it is easy to see why because of its stunning landscape. Being just a little over half an hour from Sveti Stefan, many people enjoy the escape from the buzz in Budva but still enjoy the Adriatic coast.
I recommend making a beeline to Tirana to spend as much time as possible in this beautiful city from Bar. You will arrive in the early to mid-afternoon with plenty of sunlight to explore the colorful pastel soviet buildings which it is known for.
If you arrive with enough time, a tour of Tirana’s Bunk’ Art is an impressive but shocking look into Albania’s recent communist past. They present the information inside the bunker shelter, which was built for the communist leaders.
For sunset in Tirana (can you tell I’m a sunset enthusiast?), I recommend taking the cable car, Dajti Ekspres, to the top for a view over the entire city. It feels like you can see for hundreds of miles atop the mountain. The cable car stretches one kilometer and is the longest of its kind in the Balkans.
Tirana is a great place to end your road trip. Being Albania’s capital, it has departures to a majority of Europe from Aeroporti Ndërkombëtar I Tiranës (the international airport in Tirana).
You’ve now spent five packed days touring the best of the Adriatic coastal Balkans countries. You’ve been to four countries, four capital cities and seen endless beaches and a sunset every night. What more could you ask for? If you want more options, think about visiting some of the cities mentioned below.
Alternative Destinations Not Included
5-Day Itinerary Around The Balkans
The Balkans is a packed region for travelers who want to see all kinds of landscapes and witness the real aftermath of powerful history. Years of war and fighting have definitely left its mark on this region; however, now it just adds to the Balkans’ appeal as a travel destination.
If you only have five days to spend in the peninsula, we believe this is the best way to see a mix of it all. However, you really should think about coming back or scheduling a more extended trip. As a matter of fact, I don’t have to tell you, you probably will know for yourself by the end of your journey.
Feel free to reach us with any questions regarding your Balkan itinerary before you go!
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