The Balkans are a fascinating and multi-faceted region that’s still relatively unexplored by tourists. Breathtaking mountains, thousands of kilometres of warm beaches, ancient monuments still standing, an ethnically and religiously diverse (and always welcoming) local environment – it really doesn’t get any more varied than that!
However, with a region as broad and as varied as Southeastern Europe, it can often be a challenge to choose where to go. Read on to learn about 8 charming Balkan towns where you can truly delve into the spirit of the Balkans – whether in better-known locations like Greece and Bulgaria or in still-undiscovered corners of the peninsula like southern Albania and Herzegovina!
1. Bridge over the ages: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The arched Old Bridge of white stone spanning the turquoise waters of the Neretva River is Mostar’s main symbol. It is present not only in the Herzegovinian town’s coat of arms but even in its name, alluding to the main occupation of the local residents as bridge keepers.
The Old Bridge, a work of legendary 16th-century architect Sinan, connects the cobblestone streets of Mostar’s old town on either side of the river, as well as the mix of Ottoman, Western and Mediterranean influences that shaped this charming place. Tragically, the original century-old bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian War, but its reconstruction now reminds of the fragility of tangible heritage.
2. A church for each day of the year: Ohrid, Macedonia
Ohrid is a delightful Macedonian town panoramically located on the shores of the crystal-clear Lake Ohrid. A religious and cultural centre since ancient times, it has been called “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, and not without reason. Reputedly, Ohrid once hosted 365 individual churches, one for each day of the year, and though far from all of these are around these days, those that remain make up for the numbers in their fabulous design and decoration.
Medieval churches, lavish merchant houses from Ottoman times and the mighty walls of Emperor Samuil’s fortress attract visitors to this heavenly town on the lakeside… but the innumerable wild beaches still remain Macedonia’s best-kept secret. And for some unforgettable hiking with lake vistas, you can always wander into the nearby mountain of Galičica, nested between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa on the other side.
3. Cyan city of the Aegean: Kavala, Greece
While Greece is known the world over for its beautiful islands like Crete and Santorini, the towns of the north Aegean coast are not to be underestimated either. Kavala, an attractive and lively place perched on the forested hills above the Bay of Kavala in the Greek Northeast, is a historic town that boasts a load of historic artifacts.
A few kilometres from the town you can stroll among the magnificent ruins of ancient Philippi, a city founded by Philip II (Alexander the Great’s father), and see a well-preserved Ancient Greek theatre as well as the standing walls of early Christian basilicas. Exploring Kavala itself, you will encounter a curious aqueduct from the time of Suleiman the Magnificent which supplied the seaside town with fresh water from the mountains. And don’t pass by without visiting the home of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt!
4. Medieval imperial abode: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Dominated by the medieval citadel of Tsarevets on the hill of the same name, Veliko Tarnovo is an antique town situated above the meandering Yantra River in north central Bulgaria. In the 12th-14th century, Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which has left behind a collection of intricate Byzantine-style churches and ruined fortifications in the old section of the town and a few serene monasteries in the valley of the Yantra.
The work of master architect Kolyu Ficheto and other skilful craftsmen transformed the town in the 19th century, with charming houses and public buildings from the Ottoman period now a ubiquitous sight around Veliko Tarnovo. Of these, the most notable may be the curious House with the Monkey with its lively façade decoration and the Constituent Assembly building (now a museum) where Bulgaria’s first constitution was drawn up in 1879.
5. Romantic port on the Adriatic: Kotor, Montenegro
Kotor is a little town breathtakingly situated at the end of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor on the Adriatic coast of tiny Montenegro. Shaped by the interplay of Venetian influences and native South Slavic culture, this Mediterranean jewel heroically withstood the Ottoman onslaught behind its imposing fortifications.
Today, Kotor invites visitors with its charming Adriatic old town nested below the dramatic cliffs of Lovćen and Orjen, part of the extensive Dinaric Alps. Enter the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, a 12th-century bulwark of the Romanesque style… or if you’re feeling lazy like Montenegrins are perpetually reputed to, just have a seat in one of the airy cafés on the Square of Arms and engage in some crowd watching!
6. Ancient home of Constantine the Great: Niš, Serbia
The setting of Stevan Sremac’s captivating stories, Niš is much more than south Serbia’s largest city. Niš is an urban centre that has been bustling with life. Visit the Ancient Roman archaeological site of Mediana to see gorgeous mosaics and to learn about Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, who stemmed from this Balkan province. Then tour the Ottoman fortress bang in the middle of the town and see the Islamic heritage of the city.
At the grim Skull Tower (Ćele-kula), you can witness the macabre side of Serbian-Ottoman relationships – the skulls of 952 defeated Serbian rebels who committed suicide instead of surrendering were used by the Ottomans to build this unique and rueful landmark. Enjoy a plentiful lunch with juicy Serbian barbecue at Tinkers Alley (Kazandžijsko sokače) and sample the richness of local salads and drinks – including the delicious Serbia cousin of Bulgarian rakia!
7. Epirote chronicle in stone: Gjirokastër, Albania
A sleepy town of labyrinthine cobblestone alleys and antique houses with slate roofs, Gjirokastër (also known as Gjirokastra or historically as Argyrokastro) counts among Albania’s hidden gems – though to be fair, the entire country is itself a hidden gem that has been largely left alone by large-scale tourist activity.
For its size, Gjirokastër ranks pretty well in terms of famous figures born there. Two of the best-known Albanians worldwide, writer Ismail Kadare (who immortalized his hometown in a few of his novels) and notorious dictator Enver Hoxha (whose native house is now a museum). Hike up to the castle high above town for some picturesque views of the rows of pretty houses in the valley below… and surprisingly, next to the fortified walls you will discover an American reconnaissance plane from the Cold War that was supposedly shot down over Gjirokastër!
8. Thracian hub of Ottoman culture: Edirne, Turkey
Edirne may have lost much of the influence it had when it was the capital of the growing Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), but it still preserves its invaluable Islamic monuments. Of these, the glorious Selimiye Mosque from the 16th century stands out as an absolute masterpiece of Ottoman art.
Edirne, located in the middle of what is today European Turkey or Eastern Thrace, was founded in ancient times and bore the name of Roman Emperor Hadrian as Adrianople. The town was contested by Byzantines, Bulgarians and even Latins throughout the Middle Ages. Until the 20th century, it still hosted a vibrant multiethnic community. Along with the monumental imperial mosques, the imposing ruins of the abandoned synagogue and a couple of Bulgarian churches remind of this flourishing diversity.