The Balkan region, comprising of the former Yugoslavian in southeast Europe is among the remaining hidden (sort of) gems of Europe. The area comprises of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Most people will likely associate this area with the Balkan Wars and ethnic cleansings that engulfed the region in the 1990s. A lot has changed since then, and the region is largely peaceful. The region is very diverse, blending the food, architecture, and religions of its past.
The Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990s
Not only was this trip to the Balkans one filled with stunning views, iconic European architecture, and top rate food, I learned A LOT about the Balkan Wars. I’ve always known about this war but never the details or understand the why. Visiting the region really helped me learn about the history and their differences. These differences still permeate today but for the most part are kept in check for the most part.
To grossly oversimplify and summarize, Yugoslavia was a country that was created post WW2 consisting of the Southern Slavic speaking states of what is now Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and North Macedonia. These 6 countries were one big country ruled under a quasi Communist regime led by Josip Tito. Yugoslavia was not part of the USSR and while they had relations with the Soviet Union, they were never part of it. In fact, Yugoslavia enjoyed tremendous economic growth during the Cold War period and the country was very much open to the rest of the world.
Josip Tito was essentially the Godfather of the country and he kept the country in check making sure Nationalism was tempered down and people focused on making the country strong. After his death in the early 1980s, the union quickly dissolved with Slovenia leaving first (they were the most different than the rest) and Macedonia shortly after.
The remaining countries of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia were extremely similar in language, culture, and history. In fact, the languages of Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are more similar than American English and British English. However, these countries each had different religions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Islam) which was the main dividing factor of the war.
Serbia had ambitions to regain their lost lands and build a “Greater Serbia” that would encompass much of the land of current day Bosnia and Croatia which led to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Many thousands died and even more were displaced. Atrocities were committed on all sides but the worst is definitely the massacre at Srebrenica where many thousands of Bosnians died by the hands of Serbian soldiers.
Where I went in the Balkans
I visited the Balkans, not to be confused for the Baltics in Northern Europe (if you are looking to visit the Baltics including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland then make sure to read my Baltics travel itinerary as well) in early July. I spent two weeks traveling through Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Summer is the high season and it can get very crowded in places.
Dubrovnik, Croatia is by far the worst. This amazingly beautiful city always attracted large amounts of tourists but Game of Thrones, and uncontrolled cruise ship quotas has really made it crowded. The iconic Old Town is a daily music festival from sunrise to well past sunset and restaurant prices rival that of New York and London.
I would highly recommend visiting the area in the fall or late spring if possible!
In total, this itinerary is for anyone that has 10-15 days to spend in the Balkan region visiting the following places:
- Belgrade, Serbia
- Belgrade to Montenegro scenic train ride
- Kotor, Montenegro
- Dubrovnik, Croatia
- Hvar, Croatia
- Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
If these places ring a bell and sound like the places you want to visit, this is the perfect itinerary for you! I did my trip in that specific order but it is easy to mix and match depending on what you want to see. Also, let’s not forget Slovenia, Albania, and Macedonia in this mix. Time is everyone’s enemy, myself included, and I just couldn’t fit everything in in such short time.
- Belgrade, Serbia to Bar, Montenegro Scenic Train ride
- Kotor, Montenegro
- Dubrovnik, Croatia
- Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Full Montenegro Road Trip
The itinerary starts in Tokyo, where most transpacific flights land, and ends in Tokyo. From Tokyo, I took the bullet train to Kyoto which passes through Mount Fuji for those looking to spend a few days. Then I spent a few days in Osaka making sure to eat more than I already have been, before taking a flight on ANA to the island of Ishigaki.
Day 1-4: Explore Belgrade, Serbia
The first stop on the itinerary is Belgrade. It’s perhaps the greatest city you’d never visit. As far as tourism goes, Serbia is largely overshadowed by its neighbor Croatia which enjoys the Adriatic coastline and Venetian architecture. You will not see the tourist hordes in Belgrade, even though tourism has increased over the years.
Serbia is perhaps the cheapest country of the itinerary (cheaper than Bosnia in my opinion) which makes eating the local cevapcici and drinking the local rakia even more enjoyable. The old town is not that big and a stroll through Knez Mihailova is rather quick.
On the third day, we took a day trip to Golubac fortress. There are frequent buses that leave multiple times a day and is a 2 hour journey. Golubac and the surrounding area is very beautiful with many mountains, canyons, and gorges.
Day 4: Belgrade to Bar Train during the day
Day 4 is dedicated to the scenic train ride from Serbia to Montenegro. These trains and old Soviet era machines that are neither fast nor luxurious. The views, cost and experience make up for it however. Click here to read my in depth post about this train ride.
The train taxes about 10 hours from Belgrade to Podgorica (capital of Montenegro) and another 2 hours to Bar (coastal town in Montenegor). The cost is €20 per ticket and runs twice daily, once during the day, and one overnight. I’d highly recommend taking the day time train so you can see the changing landscapes. The most beautiful part are the mountains once entering Montenegro and during the day train, you’ll arrive just in time for the sunset.
I got off the train in Podgorica, and took a taxi for €50 to Kotor where I spent the next few nights. Many people continue on to the other coastal towns in Montenegro.
Day 4-6: Kotor, Montenegro
Kotor, Montenegro is similar to Dubrovnik but without the massive crowds. It does see a lot of cruise ship traffic and day trippers from Dubrovnik, but those crowds die out by the late afternoon. The town is in a bay and is surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. Click to read more about my Kotor experience.
The old town is small but super quaint. A hike up to the Castle of San Giovanni offers some of the most breathtaking views in all of Europe. I would highly recommend doing this hike during the sunset hours. There are people selling beers and water along the way so be sure to stock up on some Jelen or Niksicko and soak in the views.
I stayed here for two nights which I think is enough time for this little town. There really isn’t that much to do or see. For those with more time and want a good party, the neighboring city of Budva offers some of the craziest parties in Montenegro.
From Kotor, there are buses that depart numerous times in the day for Dubrovnik. The cost is €10-15 and takes 3 hours.
Day 6-9: Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik is easily one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The large Old Town is a UNESCO heritage site and is immaculately preserved. In recent years, the huge increase in tourism has led UNESCO to issue warnings to the city to reduce the strain on the cobblestone streets or else. Expect to see huge crowds at pretty much all time of the day. Read more about my Dubrovnik experience.
Dubrovnik’s success as a tourist draw means prices here are sky high. Prices in the old town are comparable to London and New York with main dishes averaging 150-200 kn. The seafood is quite delicious here however! Get out of the Old Town for a much cheaper experience.
For accommodations, I stayed at the Guesthouse home sweet home perched up on the hill with fantastic views of the old town and the Adriatic sea. Would highly recommend staying here!
The main draws of Dubrovnik are a walk along the city walls that completely surround the old town. The views from the walls are brilliant as you can see the Old Town’s iconic Venetian rooftops. For more expansive views, take the Dubrovnik cable car to the top of the Mount Srd offering breathtaking views of the Old Town and the neighboring Eliphiti Islands.
From Dubrovnik, we also took a day tour to Korcula. Supposed birthplace of Marco Polo, this town is a smaller and more quaint version of Dubrovnik on an island. If I had more time, I would elect to stay in Korcula a night or two. From Korcula, it is also a quick ferry ride to Hvar.
Day 9-12: Hvar, Croatia
From Dubrovnik, there are daily ferries that go direct to Hvar. This ferry ride is almost 4 hours and costs 200 kn for a one way ticket.
Hvar to me is a smaller version of Dubrovnik with slightly better views (although Dubrovnik is quite amazing already). It also attracts huge crowds during the summer months but seemed more manageable than Dubrovnik. The island of Hvar is home to some wonderful sights including its own version of the fortress walls that offer stunning views.
I’ll admit 3 days is probably more than you need but this is a great place to relax and do nothing but drink wine and eat seafood all day. If this isn’t your thing, then 2 nights is enough, unless you came to Hvar for partying. In summer months Hvar tends to get a lot of party-hungry high-end visitors (Prince Harry among others) who hit this Croatian destination to celebrate their stag dos on Hvar in posh beach clubs or on yachts.
Day 12-14: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
From Hvar, we took the ferry to Split, a town where the popular Croatia Yacht Week embarks. After doing a lot of research, many people agreed that Split is a skip. From Hvar, Split is a must stop as this is the closest town with buses to Mostar. Read more about my trip to Mostar.
Mostar is a very unique town. It has a long and complex history having been occupied by numerous cultures. The Old Bridge is the town’s main draw and what a draw it is. The views of the Stari Most and the mountains in the background are perhaps one of the most fairy-tale like images in Europe.
Mostar and the rest of Bosnia was hit particularly hard during the war and it was interesting exploring other parts of town that are still riddled with bullet holes from its dark past.
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Mostar but I wanted to catch the scenic train to Sarajevo which only left in the mornings so I stayed here for 2 nights. There are many places to grab drinks with views of Stari Most, and the best cevapcici in the region is made in Mostar and Sarajevo.
Day 14-15: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Like the Belgrade to Bar train, The train from Mostar to Sarajevo is equally as stunning and a fraction of the time. The train departs Mostar at 06:45 and takes roughly 3 hours to get to Sarajevo. The cost is 10 Bosnian Marks for a one way ticket.
Starting in 2018, there are multiple trains a day and one that leaves at 5pm. If this was available, I would stay one less night in Mostar and take this train. It is right around sunset time and I can only imagine those views to be fantastic.
Of all the Balkan countries, I wish I spent more time in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Balkan Tours is a great way to make this happen.
Balkans Two week itinerary Day by Day breakdown
Day 1 – Belgrade, Serbia: Arrive in Belgrade
Day 2 – Belgrade, Serbia: Explore Belgrade
Day 3 – Belgrade, Serbia: Day trip to the Golubac Fortress
Day 4 – Belgrade to Kotor: Scenic train from Belgrade in the morning, stopping in Pordgorica and then to Kotor
Day 5 – Kotor, Montenegro: Explore Kotor, San Giovanni Castle hike
Day 6 – Kotor to Dubrovnik: Take 3hr bus ride from Kotor to Dubrovnik, leaving time to explore Dubrovnik in the evening
Day 7 – Dubrovnik, Croatia: Explore the old town, walls tour
Day 8 – Dubrovnik, Croatia: Game of Thrones tour (if interested), Lokrum island in afternoon
Day 9 – Dubrovnik, Croatia: Day trip tour to Korcula
Day 10 – Dubrovnik to Hvar: 4hr ferry from Dubrovnik to Hvar
Day 11 – Hvar, Croatia: Explore Hvar
Day 12 – Hvar to Mostar: Ferry to Split, bus to Mostar (about 6 hours)
Day 13 – Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar for the day
Day 14 – Mostar to Sarajevo: Mostar to Sarajevo scenic train in the morning, explore Sarajevo in afternoon
Day 15 – Sarajevo: Flight home from Sarajevo
There is a lot to see in the Balkans and 2 weeks is not even close enough. There is countless ways to mix and match an itinerary for two weeks. I would have loved to visit Slovenia. With two weeks, I would replace the first 6 days in Serbia and Montenegro with visiting Ljubljana, and Lake Bled. From Ljubljana, I would either fly to Split or take the overnight bus to Zagreb, and onto Split.
From Split, I would follow my same Croatia itinerary but in reverse (Hvar to Korcula to Dubrovnik to Mostar)
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