Far east: five Balkan countries to discover for your next vacation | European holidays

Montenegro

With the Adriatic to the south and the mountain ranges to the north, Montenegro is an easy place to combine a beach break with a more active holiday. The beach scene centers on the medieval walled city of Budva, which boasts a 22-mile strip of sandy and pebbly coastline. Lake Skadar, the largest in southern Europe, is about an hour’s drive away, ideal for boating among water lilies and Dalmatian pelicans.

The fjord-like Bay of Kotor, listed by Unesco, surrounded by mountains, is a must. There are several medieval towns, many churches and monasteries around its banks; from Baroque Perast, tourists can visit the islet of Notre-Dame des Rochers. In the town of Kotor, 1,355 steps lead to the Sveti Ivan fortress, with spectacular views.

Budapest.
Budapest. Photography: Kuriyama Chikara/Getty Images

Heading north, sights include the mountaintop mausoleum of 19th-century ruler Petar II Petrović-Njegoš; Cetinje, the old capital; and Ostrog Monastery, built into a cliff. Durmitor National Park, with its forests, lakes and mountains, is the ultimate destination for outdoor adventure. Zabljak, the highest city in the Balkans (1,456 meters), is a good base. Visitors can zipline through the 1.3 km deep Tara Canyon; go rafting on the Tara River; swim in the black lake; or brave wolves and bears as they navigate 25 marked trails.

Kosovo

Mirusha Waterfalls
The Mirusha waterfalls are in a protected park in central Kosovo known for its canyons and karst landscape. Photography: Olivier Wullen/Alamy

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and remains a largely unknown tourist destination for the British, who may still associate it with the year-long war in 1998. But today it is a place safe to travel, with few people and low prices. Landlocked Kosovo comprises two large plains surrounded by mountains with 50 peaks over 2,000 meters. That means great hiking, horseback riding and skiing. Without sea, bathing in natural pools is popular: Mirusha waterfalls have canyons, caves and 13 lakes. There is a lively nightlife in Pristina, the capital, and in the second city Prizren. This is partly thanks to this Balkan state having the youngest population in Europe – more than 65% of the inhabitants are under 30 years old. Both cities also have many mosques, museums and monuments, including the Emin Gjiku Ethnographic Museum of Pristina and the Newborn Monument, unveiled for independence. and painted in a different style each year.

Elsewhere, top sights include four UNESCO-listed monasteries and churches – Dečani, Peć, Gračanica and Ljeviš; the Bear Sanctuary, home to European brown bears rescued from captivity by the charity Four Paws; and the Gadime cave, full of crystallized stalagmites and stalactites.

Slovenia

Ljubljana is a city of Baroque and Habsburg buildings.
Ljubljana is a city of Baroque and Habsburg buildings. Photography: kasto80/Getty Images

Slovenia has a charming capital; mountains, lakes and forests; fine wines; and even a short stretch of coastline. Ljubljana, the compact capital, is built around the Ljubljanica River, with Baroque and Habsburg buildings on both banks. A glass of wine on a riverside terrace is hard to beat, but the city also has a hilltop castle, art galleries, theaters and museums (with the only mammoth skeleton of Europe at the Natural History Museum), an emblematic architecture of the 20th century made by Slovenes. Jože Plečnik and the wooded Tivoli Park.

In the northwest of the country, the main sights are the spectacular Lakes Bled and Bohinj in the Julian Alps. On the other side of the mountains, the less-visited Soča Valley offers hiking, rafting and kayaking in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

Heading south, must-sees include the Postojna and Škocjan Caves, and Predjama Castle, built into a cave mouth. Piran is the postcard town on the coast, with Italianate architecture reflecting centuries of Venetian rule.

Eastern Slovenia is a wine region – Maribor, the bustling second city, has the oldest vineyard in the world – and is a good choice for a farm stay. Ptuj, the oldest town in Slovenia, is a beautiful place for a day trip.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Hikers in Sutjeska National Park.
Hikers in Sutjeska National Park. Photography: Witold Skrypczak/Alamy

Another country associated with the war of the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina is back on the backpacker trail. The capital, Sarajevo, has been compared to an Istanbul or Jerusalem in miniature, with its old town, Baščaršija, full of bazaars, mosques and restaurants. But recent history has not been forgotten: the Historical Museum and the Tunnel Museum both tell the story of the four-year siege that killed 10,000 people in the 1990s.

Mostar in the south is the second biggest draw, famous for its beautiful old bridge – visitors can pay to dive if they dare. Less touristy (and longer) is the Arslanagić Bridge in the pretty town of Trebinje in the far southwest. Other notable cities include Travnik, the former Ottoman capital, and Jajce, with a spectacular waterfall.

Baščaršija, the old town of Sarajevo.
Baščaršija, the old town of Sarajevo. Photography: Federica Gentile/Getty Images

White-water rafting is popular from March to October; one of the best rafting areas is around the town of Bihać, convenient for the rapids of the Una River. Other active options include multi-day hikes in Sutjeska National Park, overnight stays in mountain huts, and the 10-day TransDinarica mountain bike trail from Mostar to Sarajevo. Runners stay in bed and breakfasts and homestays and eat home-grown food. In winter, skiing is affordable in the Bjelašnica and Jahorina mountains south of Sarajevo.

North Macedonia

North Macedonia is blessed with lakes.
North Macedonia is blessed with lakes. Photography: Aleksandar Georgiev/Getty Images

North Macedonia – so called since 2019 – is a mountainous but green Balkan state. Although landlocked, it is blessed with lakes: the most famous in Ohrid, one of the oldest and deepest in Europe, but also Prespa, Dojran and more than 50 smaller glacial lakes.

The Unesco World Heritage-listed Lake Ohrid is the main attraction, surrounded by ancient monasteries, beach bars and seafood restaurants. Activities include lakeside cooking classes, electric biking, boat trips and paragliding. The town of the same name is full of churches and monuments, and dotted along the lake with picturesque fishing villages.

St. John's Church, Lake Ohrid
Church of St John at Kaneo, Lake Ohrid. Photography: Saraginov/Getty Images

Skopje, the capital, is less appealing in the immediate future, but retains a Byzantine fort and an Ottoman centre, as well as modern additions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art. Mavrovo National Park, on another lake and home to bears, wolves and lynx, offers hiking, biking, horseback riding and swimming in summer, and skiing in winter. It is also home to the picturesque 11th-century Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery. Other national parks are Galičica, located between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa, and Pelister, a mountain with two glacial lakes.

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