UNESCO World Heritage Sites in The Balkans
The Balkans is a region of immense historical, cultural and natural value. There are various natural attractions unique in the region, but also phenomenal historic cities, ancient burial sites and incredible architecture.
This article tackles all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Balkans, more specifically those in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. If you like checking things off a list while traveling, this should be your go-to list. There are seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Western Balkans, but there are many more individual sites (as some sites consist of multiple sites).
If you want to see as many of these sites at possible in one trip, check out our Guide to Backpacking the Balkans.
Slovenia – 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Located in Slovenia’s Karst region, the Škocjan Caves are among the most impressive natural attractions in this part of Europe. It’s an extraordinary system of underground rivers and waterfalls, collapsed dolines and subterranean chambers, including one of the largest known cave canyons on earth. The caves have been designated World Heritage because of their exceptional geological features. This is the very area where geological terms like “karst” and “doline” originated.
Heritage of Mercury in Idrija
This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises the mining sites of Almaden in Spain and of Idrija in Slovenia. Idrija became an important mining site when mercury was discovered in the area in 1490. The current site includes the living quarters of miners, mercury stores, mining infrastructure, and a miners’ theater. An active mine until quite recently, this used to be one of the world’s largest mercury mines.
Pile Dwellings in Ig
The UNESCO World Heritage Site “Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps” encompasses no fewer than 111 individual sites spread across all Alpine countries. Two of them are located in Slovenia—two separate sites in the town of Ig.
Pile dwellings were stilted settlements built on the edges of wetlands, rivers and lakes around the Alps. They date from 5,000 to 500 B.C. All settlements included in this UNESCO site are well-preserved and offer an intriguing insight into prehistoric life in Central Europe.
Croatia – 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Palace of Diocletian in Split
Split, Croatia’s second-largest city, is home to the ruins of the Palace of Diocletian. The city exists because of it. Diocletian’s Palace was built from the late-3rd century to the early-4th century as a retirement place for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The city of Split developed around it, first housing servants and people supporting the former emperor’s lifestyle, later an actual town.
The towering cathedral was constructed in the Middle Ages with materials taken from the ancient mausoleum. Other structures in this protected site are medieval fortifications, 13th-century churches, 15th-century Gothic palaces and various other buildings in other architectural styles. The Palace of Diocletian is still the beating heart of Split. Visiting is free as the site lies in the core of the old city and is dotted with bars and restaurants, shops and museums.
Stari Grad Plain
The Stari Grad Plain on the island of Hvar is a uniquely well-preserved agriculture landscape created by Greek colonists in the 4th century B.C. Still in use to this very day—the landscape is dominated by wineries and olive groves—the plain still looks exactly as it did thousands of years ago. The stone walls and stone shelters bear the same layout as when the Greeks cultivated the plain 24 centuries ago.
Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica in the Historic Center of Poreč
The small coastal town of Poreč in Istria became Christianized in the 4th century, one of the first Christian towns in the world. Comprising the atrium, episcopal palace, baptistery, and Basilica, this UNESCO World Heritage Site protects a collection of religious monuments and buildings dating from that time. It is the most complete surviving complex of its type and one of the world’s greatest examples of early Byzantine architecture and art.
Historic City of Trogir
Boasting an exceptionally rich culture, Trogir has reaped the advantages of centuries of foreign rule—from the Greeks to the Romans to the Venetians. The city’s octagonal street layout dates from the Hellenistic period and was improved by successive rulers who added fortifications and gorgeous public buildings.
Nowadays, the historic city of Trogir is the best preserved Romanesque-Gothic town in all of Central and Southeastern Europe. The absolute highlight is the city’s medieval heart, which is surrounded by fortified walls and home to a castle, old houses and a variety of palaces in Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles.
Old City of Dubrovnik
Nicknamed “the Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik is a major tourist destination in the Adriatic. Located on the Dalmatian coast, this ancient city became a Mediterranean power in the 13th century and remained an independent republic—known as Ragusa—for a couple of centuries. It was the only city-state that could match Venice in terms of marine and trade power.
The Old City of Dubrovnik is an exceptionally well-preserved town, made up terra-cotta roofs, religious buildings, cobbled streets and massive, iconic city walls. Nowadays, it’s a hugely popular attraction, a cruise ship destination that draws thousands of visitors on any given summer’s day and a place to use as a base to take day trips around the area.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
One of the most remarkable national parks in Europe, Plitvice Lakes National Park is renowned for its terraced lakes and countless waterfalls. Over a period of thousands of years, water flowing over chalk and limestone rocks has built so-called travertine dams, which blocked the flow and created lakes.
This unique landscape features crystal-clear lakes, forest-covered hills, amazing hiking trails and an abundance of wildlife, including wolves, brown bears and a large number of species of birds. This is the largest national park in Croatia and, established in 1949, one of the oldest in Europe. It’s among the star attractions in Croatia, visited by more than a million tourists each year.
Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik
Built between 1431 and 1535, the massive Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik is the result of an exchange of architectural influences between Tuscany, Northern Italy and Dalmatia in the early Renaissance.
It was built under the supervision of three successive architects and is made entirely of stone. It is, in fact, said that this is the world’s largest building constructed with only stone. An absolutely monumental structure, the Cathedral of St. James is a triple-nave basilica with a dome and three apses. Notable features include the 71 sculptured faces of people—men, women, and children—on the outside. Also, the building is unique in the sense that its exterior perfectly reflects the way it looks on the inside.
Stećci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards
This is one of the serial UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Balkans, a site that’s made up of 28 different, smaller sites spread across southern Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, western Serbia and western Montenegro.
The site protects the tombstones, known as stećci, that dot the region. Laid out in rows, according to the customs in medieval Europe, these cemeteries date from the 1100s to the 1500s. Made from limestone, the tombstones feature various inscriptions, decorative carvings, and motifs. In Croatia, you can find stećci in two places—Cista Velika and Konavle.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Old Bridge Area in the Old City of Mostar
The Stari Most, or Old Bridge, in the city of Mostar, is one of the star attractions on the entire Balkan Peninsula. This iconic 16th-century Ottoman bridge spans the River Neretva, connecting two different parts of this historic city. The bridge was destroyed during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many wars within the 1990s Balkan War, but it has been meticulously rebuilt.
The area around the Stari Most is of a large cultural importance for its combination Ottoman, Mediterranean and Western European architecture. Mostar has been and continues to be a symbol of coexistence of different cultural, religious and ethnic groups as well as a model of international co-operation.
Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad
Constructed in the 16th century by order of Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović, this magnificent bridge is a prime example of Ottoman architecture and civil engineering. Designed by court architect Mimar Korca Sinan, this is an architectural masterpiece made up of eleven masonry arches. It’s its unique elegance and monumental appearance that makes this bridge such a valued structure.
Stećci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards
Bosnia-Herzegovina is the country with, by far, the most stećci. There are twenty of them scattered across the nation. You can consult the official map by UNESCO for specific locations. Notable ones are found near Kakanj and Stolac. Some of the best preserved are in the town of Srebrenica—there, you’ll find no fewer than 800 tombstones.
Montenegro – 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor
This extraordinary site encompasses the inner Bay of Kotor, the old town of Kotor and the fortifications of Kotor. It’s one of Montenegro’s greatest attractions, a place deserving a spot on any itinerary in the Balkans.
This area is especially significant because of its natural, protected harbor, which made the towns inside the bay exceptionally prosperous. Kotor was an important commercial and artistic hub in the Middle Ages, renowned for its schools and imposing mansions.
Durmitor National Park
One of southeastern Europe’s wildest places, Durmitor National Park protects a landscape formed by glaciers and traversed by wild rivers and underground streams. It is bordered by deep canyons on three sides, including the Tara River canyon, which is the deepest canyon in Europe and one of the deepest in the world. Thick pine forests cover the slopes, offering a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, while mountain lakes shimmer in valleys.
Stećci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards
Montenegro has three sites with medieval tombstones or stećci. There is one in Plužine, and two are located near Žabljak, the main gateway to Durmitor National Park, which gives you the opportunity to hit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once.
Albania – 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
A major archaeological site in Albania, Burtrint has been home to humans since prehistoric times. It used to be the location of a Greek colony and was also a thriving Roman town. Later on, it was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, became a part of Venice for a while and was eventually abandoned sometime during the late Middle Ages.
Nowadays, a great collection of ruins remains, providing a look at each chapter in the history of the town. There are ancient Greek and Roman monuments, fortified walls and an early-Christian baptistery among many other structures.
Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokastra
Located in southern Albania, Berat and Gjirokastra are two fortified cities that have been inhabited continuously since ancient times. They offer a deep insight into the evolution of everything from art and architecture to religion and culture in this part of Europe.
Berat is sometimes called “the city of a thousand windows” and is one of Albania’s greatest architectural gems. You’ll see influences from Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans—spanning the city’s entire lifetime. Landmark buildings range from castles and palaces to mosques and churches.
Gjirokastra lies on a slope of the Drino River valley and overlooks an ancient landscape dotted with characteristic stone buildings. The town’s centerpiece is the 13th-century citadel, which is surrounded by several turreted houses dating from the 1600s, a typical architectural feature of this area.
Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe
This huge World Heritage Site extends across the entire European continent, from Spain to the Ukraine, from Belgium to Bulgaria. There are two places in Albania where you can enjoy the gorgeous woodland scenery in a typical European beech forest.
In the very north of the country, on the border with Montenegro, lies Valbonë Valley National Park. Not the entire park is part of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, though. If you’d like to focus on that particular part of the park, you have to go to the Gashi River nature reserve.
The other, second place in Albania is Shebenik-Jabblanicë National Park. The part of that park that’s designated World Heritage is Rajca nature reserve.
Macedonia – 1 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region
Macedonia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site is not one that you’ll want to ignore. This site is extraordinary because it was inscribed for both its natural and cultural value. There are only 27 other, similar sites in the world. Lake Ohrid is an ancient lake, created about two to three million years ago and is home to more than 200 endemic freshwater species—both fauna and flora.
The town of Ohrid, set on the lake’s shore, is old as well. In fact, this is one of the oldest settlements anywhere in Europe. Archaeological artifacts found there span a period from the Bronze Age through the Middle Ages. The structures in its old center date from the 7th to the 19th century, also offering a superb insight in the evolution of architecture and art in the region.
Bulgaria – 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Its oldest part dating from the late 900s or early 1000s, the Boyana Church just outside of Sofia is made up of three main buildings. Its eastern church is that oldest part, while the second two-floor building was constructed in the 13th century. The third church of the complex dates from the early 1800s.
What makes the Boyana Church such a valued historic complex is its layers of wall paintings in its interior. These works of art span a period between the 11th and the 19th centuries, offering a detailed and unique insight in the skills, subjects and styles of different periods in time.
The Madara Rider is a spectacular example of medieval rock art in Europe. In fact, it is the only one of its kind on the entire continent. Situated near the village of Madara on the Madara Plateau, it’s a 23-meter-high rock relief carved into a cliff that rises up 100 meters from the ground.
The relief depicts a mounted knight who triumphs over a lion and dates from the early 8th century, the time when the Bulgars settled in the region and the state of Bulgaria was born. The inscriptions surrounding the relief tell us about important events in that period of time, including tales of famous Khans.
Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak
Named after its nearest town, the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak dates back to the Hellenistic period in the late-4th century BC. The tomb lies close to Seutopolis, which was the capital of Thracian King Seutes III, and is part of a much larger necropolis.
The structure itself has a beehive shape and was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list because of its unique aesthetic and phenomenal art. The interior murals feature people and horses and are the best-preserved artworks from the Hellenistic period in Bulgaria. The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak is the only monument of its kind in the entire world.
Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari
Another ancient tomb in Bulgaria, this Thracian tomb lies near Sveshtari village. It dates from the 3rd century BC and is a prime example of the architectural skills and principles of the Thracian culture. It’s one of the most significant remaining Thracian cult buildings, both because of how rare they actually are and because of how well-preserved it is.
Its interior boasts ten sculptures of female figures, carved high in the walls of the main chamber. Another highlight is the decoration of the lunette in the vault. Both are the only known examples of their kind in what used to be Thracia, extraordinary reminders of the Getes’ culture in this region.
Ancient City of Nessebar
The Ancient City of Nessebar is more than three millennia old and occupies a peninsula on the Black Sea coast of eastern Bulgaria. The city became a Greek colony in the 6th century BC, and most of its current remains date from that Hellenistic period. Those remains include such great landmarks as a temple of Apollo, the Acropolis, a Thracian fortified wall and an agora.
Other monuments in this glorious city are much younger, such as the Byzantine fortress and the Stara Mitropolia Basilica, which both date from the Middle Ages. This city was once the major port on the frontier of more than one empire, but the wonderful thing about it is that it’s still very much alive. It is a premier resort town on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, offering you the opportunity to explore millennia of human history as well as relax and enjoy the beautiful natural scenery.
Pirin National Park
Pirin National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its outstanding natural beauty, its glacial geomorphology, and its enormous biodiversity. These rugged mountain landscapes consist of more than 70 glacial lakes, countless waterfalls, many caves, small glaciers and coniferous forests. The Baikushev’s pine, the oldest tree in Bulgaria, estimated at 1,300 years old, is located in the park.
This is one of the most breathtaking natural places in this corner of Europe, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife lovers. The park’s home to brown bears, gray wolves, chamois, golden eagles and more than 220 other vertebrate species.
Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo
Many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria are ancient religious buildings or sites, and this is no exception. The Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo are a collection of churches, monasteries, and chapels that were chiseled into solid rock on the cliff banks along the Rusenski Lom River.
Dating from the 1100s and built by hermit monks, the complex is nothing like Bulgaria’s other historic groups of buildings. Besides their absolutely unique setting, the churches’ main claim to fame are their 13th- and 14th-century frescoes. They’re exceptional examples of Bulgarian medieval art and play an important role in the story of Christian art in Europe.
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
The Rila Mountains in the northwestern Rila region of Bulgaria is not just about hiking because located around 1147 meters altitude you will find one of the most famous religious buildings around – the Rila Monastery.
This is one of the most visited sites in the country and is often visited as part of an organized day trip, or as part of a hiking trip. The complex is packed with various buildings and looks like a protective fortress from the outside.
As you enter the stone walls, you will see several types of colorful architecture, which is unique to anything you will see anywhere else, as well as significant religious art types. The Hreliov’s Tower and The Nativity of The Virgin are two of the most famous parts of the compound, and the main church itself was built way back in 1343. Whether you are at all religious or not, you can’t fail to be moved by the spirituality which oozes from the site itself, as well as the natural beauty which surrounds it.
Srebarna Nature Reserve
In the far northeastern corner of Bulgaria lies Srebarna Nature Reserve. This freshwater lake lies near the Danube River and is a critically important area for many birds migrating between Europe and Africa. The reserve doesn’t only include the lake, though, but also the former farmlands to the north and a stretch of forests along the Danube.
It’s one of Europe’s prime bird-watching areas, offering nesting grounds to 99 species and a seasonal home to about 80 different migratory birds.
Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe
In Bulgaria, you can experience and explore the iconic beech forests of Europe in Central Balkan National Park. Located in the heart of the country, in the central and higher parts of the Balkan Mountains, this national park is one of Europe’s largest and most significant protected areas.
The park is a collection of no fewer than nine different nature reserves and is home to an abundance of wildlife and many vulnerable ecosystems and communities.
Serbia – 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Established in 1190 by Stevan Nemanja, who founded the state of Serbia in the Middle Ages, the impressive Studenica Monastery is the grandest of all the Orthodox monasteries in the country. It is a fortified monastery, which was absolutely necessary during that time in European history, and has not one but two churches. Both the Church of the King and the Church of the Virgin were constructed with white marble and house invaluable collections of Byzantine art dating from the 1200s and 1300s.
Medieval Monuments in Kosovo
The Medieval Monuments in Kosovo consist of four historically significant Serbian Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries. They reflect the heyday of the Byzantine-Romanesque religious culture in the Middle Ages. The four structures are the Dečani Monastery, the Church of the Holy Apostles, the Patriarchate of Peć Monastery and the Church of the Holy Virgin of Ljevisa.
Stećci Medieval Tombstones Graveyards
Serbia is home to three of the 28 UNESCO World Heritage-listed stećci in the Balkans. You can see these extraordinary medieval tombstones in Hrta, Rastište, and Perućac. What sets them apart from other ancient graveyards in Europe is that they were used by all three medieval Christian faiths in the region.
The Catholic Church, Orthodox Church and the Church of Bosnia, which no longer exists today, all used stećci for their burials. Additionally, it’s just the spectacular detail, variety, motifs, epigraphy and reliefs of these thousands of tombstones that make them a sight worth seeing.
Gamzigrad-Romuliana, Palace of Galerius
Numerous remarkable Roman ruins dot the Balkan countryside and coasts. One of the least-known great complexes is Gamzigrad-Romuliana, located deep in the Serbian heartland near the Danube River. Dating from the late-3rd to early-4th centuries AD, this imposing Roman palace and memorial complex was built for Roman Emperor Galerius Maximianus.
The complex used to be known as Felix Romuliana, named for the mother of the emperor. It’s a huge collection of various buildings, from temples and basilicas to bathhouses, fortifications, ceremonial venues and a tetrapylon. The complex is part of Serbia’s Roman Emperors Route, which links seventeen birthplaces of Roman emperors in modern-day Serbia.
Stari Ras and Sopoćani
All UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Serbia are historic, man-made structures and so is the Stari Ras and Sopoćani complex. This is yet another group of gorgeous medieval buildings, a collection of fortresses, churches, fortified walls, monasteries, and other archaeological sites. Stari Ras—literally “Old Ras”—was the first capital city of Serbia, set at the crossroads of the Western and Byzantine worlds. Nowadays, all that remains are ruins, the outlines of the city walls, the lower town of Trgovište and the hilltop fortress of Gradina. It’s a precious site because of its natural, artistical, historical and cultural significance.
The Monastery of Sopoćani lies nearby and is home to some of the world’s finest Byzantine and Serbian medieval frescoes. They date from the late-13th century and were made by great Byzantine artists who, for one reason or another, weren’t able to work within the Byzantine Empire and were welcomed by the King of Serbia.