It has been 5 years that I have been living in Europe and traveling around the continent (on and off) on our camper van. We got to see many amazing countries but my best travel experience has been our Balkans road trip.
While most of the travel destinations in Western and Central Europe have been cursed with “over tourism”, a lot of the Balkans are still relatively unexplored.
Simply put, the Balkans are colorful, affordable, offbeat, and the natural scenery is breathtaking.
While your typical Euro trip may burn a deep hole in your pocket, you can actually travel the Balkans on a tight budget. But hey, for that you may have to skip one or two countries in this suggested route.
Here’s the thing, the recommended road trip through the Balkan countries took me as more than three different trips to complete due to time limitations. But I couldn’t help thinking how amazing it would have been if San and I had a month to ourselves for this ultimate Balkans road trip.Check & Compare Car Rental Prices
Many places on this list are much easier to reach with a car (you can rent one for cheap) because this list contains a few national parks. In the recent years we have done this trip on our camper van as well as a rented car. But in our early travel years, we have also traveled in the Balkans without San and without a car.
Based on our experience, the best way to travel the Balkans is by road tripping, especially if you want to see natural landscapes. Even though we have our own camper van, we did most of our road trips in the Balkans with a rental car. At times It just makes things much easier! Want to do this too? Get yourself a travel credit card, rent a car and start exploring the Balkans.
If you’re a nature lover like us, then you’d love to travel to the Balkans by car so that you can visit the places that YOU want to see, instead of making a mandatory stop in big cities. In case you’re looking for a country specific guide, then check out our awesome Croatia road trip itinerary.
Which countries are the Balkan countries?
The Balkans is a region in Europe, which is towards the southeast part of the continent. There are many different definitions of the Balkans with slight variations. Each once has evolved over the time and has been modified. Countries like Italy, Turkey, Slovenia and Greece are not 100% geographically in the Balkan Peninsula.
For the sake of travel, the below countries are collectively considered Balkan countries:
*At the moment this itinerary doesn’t include information about Moldova and Kosovo but we may add it at a later point.
Where to start your Balkans road trip?
If you see the suggested route map for this road trip through Balkan countries, you will notice that you can do this trip in many different ways. You can do just a part of the trip and include just 2 or three countries or remove a few destinations.
You can start this trip in Zagreb in Croatia or Sarajevo in Bosnia or even Belgrade in Serbia. Or, get creative and pick ANY of the destinations that we have mentioned on the route that has an airport and start your circle from there.
You can pre book a rental car at any of these places and move ahead from there. Book your rental car in such a way so that you can pick and drop it in different locations. In case that’s not possible or affordable, you can just slightly alter this route to make it circular and pick and drop your car at the same place.
Apart from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia are the best countries to rent a car and start your trip. I have always seen the lowest rental rates there and also there are many budget airlines that fly to these countries.
So go head and modify this flexible road trip itinerary through the Balkans to suit your needs. You can make it a 3 week Euro trip itinerary by adding a few Western European cities or just let it be 2 weeks or 3 weeks in the Balkans itinerary. Our Balkans road trip was one of the best Europe road trips for us. What’s on your Europe bucket list?
Balkans Road Trip Route Map
Before you start planning your road trip through the Balkons, please read some important tips that are at the bottom of the post. Here’s a suggested map with trip route map which will give you an idea of the itinerary.
15 Spots on Balkans Road Trip
1) Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
I will start with one of the most visited countries in the Balkans – Croatia. This itinerary includes many under the radar places but Plitvice Lakes National Park is not one of them.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is perhaps the most visited destination in Croatia but is totally worth the visit because it is spectacular. We had seen pictures of the lakes and the waterfalls of Plitvice National Park before but were not prepared for the vivid color of the water and the clarity.
The Plitvice Lakes national park is huge and there are many walking trails for different lengths. We took the one that is for 18 KMs and did not regret it. We were able to do this trail within a day but you have an option of purchasing a multi day ticket. We’d recommend you to start early here to avoid the long queues at the entry point to save time.
The entry is €25 – €30 per person or 180 Kunas, which felt a little high because we were on a tight budget. However after seeing the beauty of this place and how well maintained it is, we think this price totally makes sense.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is close to Croatia – Bosnia border, so it makes sense to make it your first destination on your Balkans road trip. I have a detailed post about visiting and avoiding crowds in Plitvice Lakes – check it out.
Where to stay near Plitvice Lakes:
You can’t stay inside Plitvice Lakes National Park but will have to stay in one of the nearby villages. We found a place called Camping Korena, which was just 5 KMs away from the national park entry gate. They have bungalows too, you can find out about this place here. and they have a free shuttle service to the park. We paid just EUR 3 per tent but we were carrying our own. The toilets and showers are very comfortable and clean. There is a river behind the campsite where you can chill – it is Korena River.
Optional Stop: Una National Park, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Una National Park is just 30 KMs away from Plitvice Lakes and is a natural wonderland that includes Una River and its tributaries – Krka and Unac.
We visited Una National Park on a separate trip in 2019 with our 8-month-old baby and loved it as compared to Croatia’s crowds.
2) Split, Croatia
On your way from Plitvice to Bosnia, the route goes from Split and is a very obvious stop. Split is Croatia’s famous beach destination where you can experience both history as well as modernity. You can check out the historical buildings as well as spend many lazy hours on Bačvice beach.
While you’re in Split, you should also check out the remains of Diocletian’s Palace, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. If you need a break from history or busy beaches, you can head to the Marjan Nature Park. Here you can climb Telegrin peak and get a panoramic view of Split.
If you have a little more time on your hands, you can park your car in Split and take a boat to the nearby Hvar Island. You can also make a side trip to the lovely Krka National Park where the entry is 30 Euros per person.
3) Kravice Waterfalls and Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Kravice Waterfalls are insanely gorgeous and reminded us of Plitvice Lakes’ waterfalls – except less crowded and you can actually swim in them!
We didn’t expect the waterfalls to be so massive and our jaws literally dropped when we caught the first sight. The best part is that these waterfalls form a big natural swimming pool. Carry a mat and your swimming gear so that you can set up a small base near the pools and go for a swim.
There are 3 – 4 bars and restaurants that are right next to Kravice waterfalls where you can get food and drinks. If you walk further along the Drina river, you will see some lovely places and a smaller waterfall, which is called Small Kravice.
Please note that the Kravice waterfalls are also called Kravica waterfalls. To make matters more confusing, there is another destination in Bosnia called Kravica. I wanted to let you know so that you don’t by mistake put that in your GPS navigator and end up at the wrong place. Kravice waterfalls are near Studentski.
The entry fee to Kravice Waterfalls is €7.5 per person, which is quite cheap as compared to Croatia’s National Parks – Plitvice and Krka.
Kravice waterfalls are 50 minutes drive away from the main Mostar city. Mostar is famous for its historical bridge, which is Ottoman style. This city has a sad history and was heavily bombed during the war in 1992 and 1993.
Where to stay near Kravice Waterfalls:
If you want to stay in Mostar, try Apartments Konak or Old Bridge Terrace Apartments – these two places are right next to Mostar’s famous Old Bridge. We stayed in the nearby town Medugorje, which is closer to the waterfalls and boked a place called Guest House Robi, that was simple yet comfortable. We paid 20 euros for the night for a room for two of us.
4) Dubrovnik, Croatia
If you’re thinking that this route is going criss-cross – you’re wrong. If you go in a straight line from Split in Croatia to Dubrovnik, you will drive very close to the Bosnia and Montenegro borders and it makes sense to go to the spectacular Kravice waterfalls, and then enter Croatia again.
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones series, then most likely you know about Dubrovnik already. This is where the scenes of King’s Landing and Qarth were filmed.
The walled city of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO world Heritage site and cannot be compared to other beach or historical destinations because it is like none other. While you’re here, walk around the old town and get lost in the maze like streets. Get lazy on Lapad beach or Banje beach which can get really busy during summer.
5) Kotor Bay, Montenegro
Dubrovnik is very close to Montenegro and we highly recommend you stop in the spectacular Kotor bay. Kotor bay is very close to the border and has many different options of places to stay.
If you don’t like busy destinations, then you don’t have to stay in the main Kotor town. San and I found a small fishing village that is just at the start of the Kotor bay and is called Denovici.
Kotor Bay is often called one of the most beautiful bays of Europe. If you look at a satellite image of this bay, it looks like a 3-pointed flower. I have never seen a bay like this! The seaside has many turns and you can see other villages on the other side of the water.
More than the seaside, San and I really enjoyed the viewpoints that we came across as we drove along the bay. There were places to stop where we could park our car and enjoy the view.
Where to stay in Kotor Bay:
We stayed in Denmar Apartment in Denovici where we paid 25 euros for a double room.
6) Žabljak and Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
Montenegro’s beach side is definitely famous but we enjoyed the mountains so much more! From Kotor bay, drive towards the North Montenegrin Mountains and stay for a few days in Zabljak, which is inside Durmitor National Park.
Zabljak was very cold when we visited, even in the peak summer time, so I’d recommend you carry warm clothes. If you like to hike, there are several amazing hiking trails in Durmitor National Park.
You’re going to love the Black Lake in Durmitor National Park and we highly recommend you walk all around it. It won’t take more than one hour. It is called black but the water is bluish-green and clear.
Another spectacular place that you should not miss here is the Tara river canyon. It is the deepest and biggest river canyon in Europe and some say it is the second biggest after the Grand Canyon. The easiest way to see this is by going to Tara Bridge. You can also go for rafting on Tara river or zip over the canyon to enjoy the view.
7) Visegrad, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Visegrad is a riverside town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is on the banks of the River Drina. It features a historical bridge, which features in the award-winning novel – The Bridge over the Drina.
Visegrad is one of those places where you can be lazy and just enjoy the lively atmosphere. Walk over the romantic bridge and see how blue the river looks when the sun shines. You can also go to Visegrad spa, which is just 5 KMs out of the city.
There is an excellent riverside restaurant here where you must treat yourself to a good meal. The restaurant is called Anika and we had the best meal of our road trip here. The meal was so good that we even crossed the border one day from Mokra Gora in Serbia to just eat in Anika restaurant in Bosnia.
Where to stay in Visegrad
We stayed in a place called Harmony apartments where we paid 20 euros for an unbelievably squeaky clean apartment that had a kitchen too!
8) Mokra Gora and Tara National Park and Zlatibor, Serbia
The most amazing thing about Mokra Gora is that it is still under the radar and not much visited by the tourists and same for Tara National Park. Hardly anyone speaks English in the village and you will need your Google translate app to communicate.
While you’re in Mokra Gora, ride the “Nostalgia Express”, which is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. It is a narrow gauge train with old-fashioned compartments and what looks like a steam engine. This little train ride reminded us of Sri Lanka.
There is a wooden village in Mokra Gora and is called Drvengrad. (a.k.a. Küstendorf). Literally everything here is wooden, even the lamp posts! It was actually built for a film called Life is a Miracle, but was left to thrive after the movie ended.
You can even rent a room in Drvengrad and stay here overnight. Some parts are covered with artwork and this village is often the location for cinema workshops and movie festivals. For more information, read this detailed post about Drvengrad.
Spend a day or two in the nearby Tara National Park. This is where Drina river (the same one in Bosnia) makes a very deep gorge and creates a dramatic view. You can also see the Tara mountain here. You will be so happy that you have a car because if you start hiking here, it will take you many days to see some important places in the national park.
After seeing the beauty of Mokra Gora and Tara National Park, Zlatibor is nothing but an extremely busy town. I didn’t like the town but I liked the grassy hills around it.
Where to stay in Mokra Gora:
We stayed in two places here – Apartment Matogi and Apartment Mateja. As the name suggests, both were more than just rooms but were like little houses. In both these places, we had our own gardens, kitchens and living rooms.
9) Belgrade, Serbia
I have mentioned this many times and here it goes again – San and I hate big cities. The reason why some big cities like Belgrade are here on this list is because you will eventually have to pass through some of them for the ease of route.
Belgrade has a lot of history but lately it has become more famous for its party scene. They say Belgrade is the new Berlin! Attend one of the typical floating river parties while you’re here.
10) Sibiu, (Transylvania) Romania
From Belgrade, head to Romania and go straight to the Dracula’s area – Transylvania. Believe it or not, Sibiu was voted as “Europe’s 8th most idyllic place to live” by Forbes magazine.
Sibiu is one of those destinations which will be liked by both history or nature lovers. The town looks really beautiful with the backdrop of Transylvanian Alps. Walk around in the old town and see the Citadel of Sibiu. Hike the nearby Cindrel and Fagaras mountains and enjoy the dramatic viewpoints.
Dracula’s Castle is not in Sibiu but 2 hours away and is called Bran Castle. Believe it or not, this castle has nothing to do with the book writer or Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Dracula) but is a lovely place to visit nonetheless.
11) Bucharest, Romania
Bucharest is one of those few cities where I actually enjoyed myself a lot. It is a very big city and with a lot of old buildings that have a story to tell. Even if you’re not into architecture or history, you will find these aspects of Bucharest interesting.
Firstly, there are many old churches that are definitely interesting from the outside, but you’re in for a surprise when you step inside. The details in most of the churches are astounding. Secondly, the old government buildings are super impressive, such as the house of the parliament, the Roman Athenaeum, etc. Moreover, the party scene is really good. Stay in Bucharest’s old town area and see how it livens up as the sun starts to set.
Where to stay in Bucharest:
12) Sofia, Bulgaria
Like seeing ancient ruins? You can see them in Sofia’s city center. This vibrant city in Bulgaria with a backdrop of Vitosha Mountain can be your spot for a couple of days.
Apart from the historical buildings, you should spend some time in Sofia’s many parks and vibrant cafes. Head to the Lover’s Bridge where there’s usually an exhibition going on.
13) Seven Rila Lakes, Bulgaria
The Seven Rila Lakes are near the Rila Mountains. As the name suggests, these are seven lakes of different shapes and sizes that are connected with a series of streams and waterfalls. It will take you 2 hours to drive here from Sofia.
The shallowest lake out of the Seven Rila Lakes is Ribnoto Ezero, which is also known as “the fish lake”. This is where you will need to stop and find a place to stay in order to explore the area. Many people just make a day trip to these lakes instead of staying here overnight.
Please keep in mind that the only way to enjoy the Seven Rila Lakes is by hiking. There is a chair lift too but is not usually open in summers, but only in winters during the skiing season. You may hike for 40 minutes to a few hours or even days – depending on how many lakes you want to see.
The Seven Rila Lakes are frozen from October to early June, so dress in warm clothes. For more information, you can read what other travelers have to stay about the Seven Rila National Park.
14) Mavrono National Park or Lake Ohrid or Skopje, Macadonia
Macedonia is a very small country and I will give three options of places that you can visit for different kind of travelers. Beach lovers should head to a lake side town called Ohrid, history lovers should head to Skopje and Nature lovers should go to Mavrono National Park, which is between Ohrid and Skopje.
Lake Ohrid and the town Ohrid is a UNESCO world heritage site. In early Greek documents, it was called “the city of light”. Lake Ohrid is so big that it looks like sea. In fact, there are a few rocky beaches here that will make you forget you’re next to a lake.
Skopje is the capital city of Macedonia and you can see a lot of historical buildings and landmarks here. You can head to Macedonia Square to see the statue of Alexander the Great, walk on Skopje’s stone bridge, check out Kale Fortess and see how Porta Macedonia shines at night.
Not many who visit Macedonia end up seeing Mavrono National Park, the biggest national park in the country. Check out the Mavrono Lake that’s inside the national park and semi submerged church. In winter months you can also ski here.
15) Valbonë Valley National Park, Albania
Valbonë or the Valbona Valley National Park is a lovely natural paradise which is located in the Albanian Alps in Northern Albania. The river Valbona forms many waterfalls and natural pools, so the resulting landscape is gorgeous.
Just like Serbia’s Tara National Park, even the Valbona Valley National Park borders two other countries – Montenegro and Serbia. The highest peak here is Maja Jezercë which has a few active glaciers.
The craziest part is that the Albanian Alps are connected with the Himalayas through the Atlantic Ocean and they form the Alpine-Himalayan Orogenic belt.
Where to stay in Valbona, Albania
While you’re here, go stay for a few days in a typical alpine inn in Valbonë village, that’s inside the national park. We recommend Hotel Rilindja, which also has a hostel and is next to a lovely lake. Alternatively you can check out Jezerca.
Optional Balkans Road Trip detours in Romania, Bulgaria and Albania
16) Constanta, Romania
Constanta is a beach destination in Romania, which is by the Black Sea. I just spent a few days in Romania and a lot of those days were spent in Constanta. This area has resort destinations like Mamaia or offbeat hippie villages like Vama Veche. Vama Veche is just a couple of kilometers away from Bulgaria border. It is so close that one of my friends actually walked to Bulgaria from Vama Veche.
17) Varna, Bulgaria
Varna is Bulgaria’s hipster beach destination that’s very easily accessible from Romania’s Constanta. During summer, Varna is highly visited for its beaches and parties.
18) Skadar Lake, Albania and Montenegro
The biggest lake in the Balkans, Shkodër Lake (a.k.a. Scutari, Shkodra) is between Albania and Montenegro and you can visit it from both the countries. If you’re entering from Montenegro, you will have to visit the lake from Skadar Lake National Park. From Albania, you need to go to Shkodra town to visit the lake. This lake is really big and you can go for a boat ride on it. You can also take the Lake Koman Ferry
Few tips to keep in mind for driving in the Balkans
I will write a detailed post about this but just for now, here are some quick tips that you must keep in mind when you travel the Balkans by driving:
1) If your rented car doesn’t have an EU number, make sure your rented car has a green card, else you can’t cross the border.
2) Most car rental companies will not let you take your car to Kosovo because of just one or two cases of car bombings. I have heard Kosovo is beautiful but we did not end up visiting.
3) We crossed many traffic police checkpoints but most of them were in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many check points were hidden in the mountainous regions where they frequently stopped others for over speeding. Thankfully, San and I were never stopped.
4) Google Maps app will be your best friend and you will end up using it all the time. Make sure your rented car has a USB charging spot for your phone. Download a part of your trip on offline maps every few days.
5) For the sake of traveling easy, we have included a few big cities in this itinerary. We’d recommend you spend less time in them and more in the nature. More than anything, driving and parking in big cities is going to be a big pain the bum!
6) As much as we tried, we couldn’t find a single cellular operator with 3G that covered all the countries. We had to buy a SIM card in every country that costed 5 euro and had at least 10 GBs of date. If you find a single SIM then comment below and let us know!
7) If you are tight on budget, you should consider skipping Croatia entirely and start your trip from Bosnia or Serbia.
8) Yes, you can rent your car from one place and return it at a different place – but it depends on the availability and car rental company.
Have you ever traveled to the Balkans? If yes, let us know about your favorite destination in the comments below.
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