A road trip through the Balkans is the ultimate European adventure.
The region is much easier to travel through than it was just a few years ago, but it’s still off the radar and requires some planning and patience. However, the Balkans will reward you with beautiful landscapes, good food, friendly locals, and the cheapest prices in Europe… I’m currently living in Tbilisi, Georgia and this road trip through the Balkans really reminds me of my recent road trip in Georgia!
This is one of the best Balkan road trips you can go on. In fact, it’s the ultimate Balkans road trip itinerary from Sarajevo to Istanbul, that will bring you through cities, mountains, bunkers, waterfalls, and beaches for the adventure of a lifetime.
Sarajevo, where war meets life
Sarajevo is a good starting point for this Balkans road trip itinerary, as it will immerse you straight away in the region’s culture and history. I also really want to visit Zagreb and Budapest, but after some thought I decided to start from Sarajevo. Will have to go back to visit these two cities sometime!
With sarajevo, on one hand you have a truly beautiful city and friendly, proud locals who will go out of their way to help you; on the other, the memories of the Yugoslav war, which had its deadliest toll in Sarajevo, are still very much alive, and signs of the bombings are visible all around. We felt that while in Sarajevo we had to learn as much as possible about the war, but also live fully the city. Locals don’t want their city to be known just for the war, and in fact Sarajevo offers much more than that.
Start with a free walking tour led by Sarajevo Insider, then stop for Bosnian coffee (similar to Turkish coffee) in Bascarsija. Dedicate a full day to the Sarajevo Total Siege Tour which will also bring you to the Tunnel of Hope and the 1984 Olympics bobsled, then visit the Gallery 11/07/95 – Srebrenica exhibition to fully grasp the horrors of the recent war.
Have dinner at Pivnica HS where they brew Sarajevo’s most popular beer, then go for a drink and live music to Kino Bosna.
If you are in Sarajevo in August, you’ll be able to enjoy the Sarajevo International Film Festival, which populates the city with lots of events and a very lively nightlife.
Mostar, perched towns, and underground secret bunkers
The Stari Mostar, or Mostar bridge, is one of the symbols of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but this isn’t the only reason to pay a visit to the town – there are quite a few things to do in Mostar indeed! The town in itself is beautiful but very touristy. If you want to explore the surrounding area, your own car or a rental one is necessary.
Don’t miss a stop in Blagaj, famous for its 16th century Dervish Tekke, and the lovely perched, walled town of Pocitelj.
If you are driving from Sarajevo to Mostar, about halfway you’ll find the town of Konjic. One of the most unique places to visit in Europe, other than for the rafting opportunities by the Neretva river, the town recently became famous when the once-secret underground bunker of Marshal Tito was revealed. This huge 70,000-square feet bunker now also hosts an art biennale, and can be visited by contacting the Konjic tourism office. Unmissable even if you are not a big history fan.
Belgrade: kafanas and design eateries
Belgrade is a surprisingly lively city, and it’s often considered the nightlife capital of the region. Even during the war, not even 20 years ago, locals kept wanting to live their life as normal as possible, and each time a bombing siren went off, they ran to a bridge and started dancing… how amazing is that? Today the city blends old and new, and does so very well.
Check out the Savamala district, the hipster neighborhood of Belgrade, where you can find narrow street and beautiful street art. In Belgrade you can find traditional kafanas where you can try the Serbain dishes next to design eateries with great food and amazing prices. Try Manufaktura for dinner and Mala Fabrika Ukusa for brunch.
If you want to follow this Balkans itinerary in the opposite direction, keep in mind that Serbia doesn’t recognize the autonomy of Kosovo so, while it is possible to go from Serbia to Kosovo, it’s not possible to enter Serbia from Kosovo. In this case, you will have to circumnavigate Kosovo and enter from Montenegro or one of the other borders.
Pristina and day trips on a hippie van
Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, is quite a greyish cities and doesn’t offer as much as the other stops in terms of tourist attractions. However, the locals are super friendly and here you can find the best coffee outside of Italy. Just sit at a cafè and do some people-watching with an espresso: that’s what locals do.
Pristina is a good starting point for day trips exploring the nature of Kosovo. As I said before, my dream is to go on a road trip aboard of a Volkswagen vintage van. I will, sometime in the future. If you have my same dream and don’t want to give up, there are options for financing your van. However, in Pristina my dream came true, although for just one day. Read about our day trip chasing waterfalls in a hippie van.
Prizren, documentaries and sunset views
It was love at first sight with Prizren. The city conquered us right away, and it’s definitely my favourite place in the Balkans. Life goes on slowly in Prizren, and even though it’s the second largest city of Kosovo, it retains a delightful village feel. Here you can find the Sinan Pasha Mosque and the Unesco-listed Church of the Virgin of Ljeviš among other important monuments.
Its streets in the Old Town fill up with visitors from all over the world in August, when the International Dokufest attracts over 20,000 people. When we were there, the documentaries were projected in beautiful locations such as by the river or up in the fortress, and it made for a couple of very relaxed days. The views of the city from the fortress at sunset time are also unmissable! You don’t want to miss this gem during your Balkans road trip.
Skopje, the quirkiest in the Balkans
Skopje is as fascinating as – can we say it? – absolutely weird. The Skopje 2014 project was launched in 2010 to revitalize the city and attract more tourists. For this reason, hundreds of statues were built around the town. Literally, one every meter it looks like. However, most statues are of questionable taste and completely random. I’m guessing there wasn’t a whole plan to regulate the construction, and many people refer to Skopje as the capital of kitsch. This IS bringing more visitors though!
Apart from the statues, take a stroll through the Old Bazaar for traditional and cheap souvenirs, and have a quick lunch with a burek, a meat/cheese/potatoes-filled fried pastry that can be considered the one traditional dish of the Balkan region. You will find it anywhere, and sometimes it will be your only option… so hopefully you’ll like it 🙂 Climb up the Kale Fortress for views over the city, and if you’re interested in getting in touch with different cultures, head to Shutka, the gypsy capital of Europe (post coming up – stay tuned!).
Check out this post about the coolest things to do in town!
Sozopol: a beach break by the Black Sea
We chose Sozopol because a Balkans road trip itinerary can’t end without some beach time. We will be back to explore Bulgaria another time: Bulgaria is quite a big country and will need its own road trip, but if you have time please plan some stops along the way.
Sozopol, one of the major seaside resorts in the country, dates back to the 7th century BC, and the old town with the ancient remains and the narrow white streets are exquisite.
Bulgarians love to party! They start during the day at the beach clubs and keep going till the wee hours of the morning in the clubs in Sozopol. If you are a party animal, you can find huge parties at Sunny Beach, a touristy beach town just one hour away.
Istanbul: a grand finale
There’s not a better place to end a road trip than Istanbul, where Europe and Asia meet and melt. Istanbul offers so much that it’s impossible to summarize it in one paragraph.
From experiencing the traditional hammam to visiting the most famous buildings in Sultanamet, from shopping at the Grand Bazaar to a day trip to the Princes’ Islands, there’s enough in Istanbul to fill a one-month visit. But if you only have 4 days or less, follow this Istanbul itinerary to make the most of your visit.
Check out this extensive guide to Istanbul for tips as well.
The Balkans are one of the most underrated regions, and we will need to go back to visit the places we haven’t been yet. Montenegro is on our bucket list: check out why by reading this Kotor guide.
One last suggestion: here’s how to use your google map itinerary when you are offline so you can follow this itinerary!