Southwestern Balkans Road Trip Itinerary (Montenegro, Albania, Greece, & Macedonia)
One of Europe’s most diverse regions, the Balkans are home to everything from rugged mountains and pristine lakes to ancient cities and beautiful islands. You could spend a lifetime exploring this warm and vibrant peninsula, flanked by the shimmering waters of the Adriatic, Ionian, and Black Seas, on Balkan road trips.
When looking at a map, it might seem like a relatively small region, and in the grand scheme of things, it might just be. But the many countries that make up the Balkans offer fantastic road trip opportunities. Below, we’ve created a road trip itinerary around the southwestern Balkans.
Start your engines.
We’ll visit four countries—Montenegro, Albania, Greece, and North Macedonia—and several of their most incredible destinations. On the way, we explore historic towns, see large lakes and catch glimpses of the beautiful Balkan coastline.
Note, though, that this is just a suggested southwestern Balkans road trip itinerary. We’ll feature half a dozen of the top places to visit below, but you are, of course, free to add stops on the way. These are the destinations that, we think, should form the cornerstones of your road trip around the southwest part of the Balkans.
So, without wasting more words on generalities, let’s dive right into the top spots, shall we?
We’ll start this southwestern Balkans road trip in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. While the city is often overshadowed by other destinations like the Bay of Kotor, Budva, and Durmitor National Park, it’s still a great place to explore.
One of the least touristy capitals in the Balkans, Podgorica is a beautiful old city. Set at the confluence of the Ribnica and Morača Rivers, it’s home to several architectural landmarks. However, the city’s real attraction lies in its vibe—its nightlife, coffee culture, and generally pleasant atmosphere.
Additionally, it’s also a fantastic base to explore the rest of southern Montenegro. The surrounding hills offer excellent hiking and viewpoints, while the nearby river valleys are dotted with wineries.
After exploring Podgorica and its vicinity, it’s time to move on to your next road trip destination: Lake Skadar. This famous lake is literally only about 20 kilometers and less than 30 minutes from the capital of Montenegro.
Lake Skadar, Montenegro, And Albania
The Morača River runs from Podgorica into Lake Skadar at its northwestern end (the road basically parallels it). Simultaneously, the Bojana River drains the lake into the Adriatic Sea at its southeastern end in Albania.
Surrounded by karst mountains and lined by rocky shores, Lake Skadar is the Balkans’ largest natural lake, divided between Montenegro and Albania. The Montenegro part is protected as Lake Skadar National Park. The part in Albania, on the other hand, is a nature reserve.
There’s plenty of history and culture to be found in the towns and villages around the lake. Especially Besac Fortress is really worth visiting. Foodies will undoubtedly enjoy indulging in the area’s artisan products like home-cured smoked ham, wines, goat cheese, honey, and rakija, the local liquor. Fish dominate the menus of the local restaurants.
Nature lovers, too, will find plenty of things to do at Lake Skadar on their Balkans road trip. There are numerous outdoor activities available, from bird watching to kayaking, swimming, cycling, and hiking.
We suggest exploring Montenegro’s Lake Skadar National Park first before moving on to the Albanian side.
This area is where you’ll find the town of Shkodër, the namesake of the lake. Visit-worthy landmarks include the Lead Mosque, Mes Bridge, Shkodër Cathedral, and Rozafa Castle.
From Shkodër, it’s a pretty straightforward 100-kilometer drive south to Tirana, the vibrant capital of Albania.
We recommend spending at least two full days in this city, a place where old and new meet. The many different things to do in Tirana showcase perfectly how vibrant modern city life has swiftly replaced stagnant communist formalism in this part of Europe.
Since shaking off its communist cloak in the early 1990s, Tirana has essentially become an entirely different city. It finally became alive, if you will, and discovered its own potential and personality.
From functional architecture and other unattractive urban designs, it changed into a city filled with bustling pedestrian streets, lively festivals, colorful buildings, beautiful verdant parks, and great museums.
Tirana highlights are plentiful, ranging from Skanderbeg Square and the extraordinary Bunk’Art museums to the scenic Dajti Ekspres and the historic Tanner’s Bridge.
Lake Ohrid, Albania, And North Macedonia
With its surrounding landscapes, Lake Ohrid is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Balkans that spans Albania and North Macedonia. Both sides are well-worth exploring.
The region is remarkable for both its cultural and natural attractions. The Albanian side of this superb UNESCO site encompasses the Lin Peninsula, while Albania’s main lakeshore town is Pogradec.
Particularly the Lin Peninsula is an interesting stopping point on your southwestern Balkans road trip, home to an early-Christian 6th-century church. On top of that, three nearby sites contain evidence of prehistoric habitation by people, too. This is, in other words, a very old place.
On the North Macedonian side of the lake lies the town of Ohrid. This is one of Europe’s oldest towns, home to archaeological sites spanning from the Bronze Age through the Middle Ages. In the beautiful city center of Ohrid, you’ll find many historic buildings, spanning a period from the 7th to the 19th centuries.
In terms of natural history and beauty, Lake Ohrid stands out as well. It’s the deepest lake in the Balkans and one of the deepest in Europe. Additionally, this is also one of the world’s oldest lakes, its origins going back no fewer than 5 million years. (That puts it on the same scale as Lake Tanganyika and Lake Baikal when it comes to oldness.)
And if that’s not enough, Lake Ohrid is also a biodiversity hotspot. It’s home to about 200 endemic species, from mollusks and plankton to predatory fish. This is one of the most biodiverse “small” lakes on Earth.
Two other nearby lakes—the Prespa Lakes—and Prespa National Park make for a great road trip stop.
One of the longest driving stretches on this southwestern Balkans road trip itinerary is from Ohrid to Thessaloniki, Greece. This section is about 290 kilometers long, a journey that’ll take you between 3.5 and 4 hours.
The second-largest city in Greece, Thessaloniki is the most important city in the northern part of the country. It’s a modern metropolis with its roots deep in Antiquity.
Ancient landmarks include such grand monuments as the White Tower of Thessaloniki and the Arch of Galerius. Another great attraction is the so-called Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s Aristotle University is the largest in the Balkans.
Additionally, Thessaloniki also features a booming nightlife, a thriving arts community, and some excellent beaches. This combination of ancient and modern architecture and leisure is why this fantastic Greek city made our list of greatest southwestern Balkans road trip destinations.
Skopje, North Macedonia
Located in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, Skopje has been under Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rule, a rich history that’s visible at various locations around the city. Numerous landmarks dot Skopje, from the 15th-century Stone Bridge and the Kale Fortress to the Old Bazaar of Skopje and the Mother Teresa Memorial House.
As North Macedonia’s capital, there are also several excellent national museums you can visit. At the western outskirts of central Skopje, you can get to the top of Mount Vodno by cable car. A bit further outside the city, hiking trails lead to the medieval monasteries and beautiful Matka Canyon cave.
These are our six key destinations around which you can build your own southwestern Balkans road trip itinerary. Which other cities, parks, or lakes would you include?Share