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Craft an Epic Balkan Itinerary

Far too many people don’t recognize their own creativity. Instead, they ascribe that trait to only practitioners of traditional arts. Musicians and painters – these are creative people. Not us. But here’s the thing about true creativity: it exists to turn tradition on its ear. I contend that independent travelers are part of a new creative class. We’d have a much easier time trusting our travels to a guidebook or a tour operator. Instead we take full control of our destinations, and our destinies. With my itinerary planner series, I hope to unleash the creativity in every jetsetter, giving you not a step-by-step blueprint for your travels, but rather the information you need to create your own plans. Read on for the basics about going off the beaten path and navigating top Balkan cities.

Table of Contents


The Basics of Itinerary Planning

Wherever your travels take you, you’ll be guided by three main principles: time, money, and interest. If you work full-time and have a fixed amount of vacation days, your time will be the most valuable point. Freelance writers and designers like me who scrap together their income from project to project will be more limited by their budgets. Finally, it may seem obvious to advise you to follow your interests, but so many forget this in favor of checking off supposed must-sees. Whatever resources you use to plan your trip – including this one – listen to your gut and leave out anything that doesn’t really inspire you to travel.

After settling on a general budget and timeframe, take a moment to think about your pace. Would you rather pack in as much as possible, spending just one or two nights in each destination? Or would you prefer to focus on just one or two cities to explore them more in-depth? Slow travel can be healthier and less expensive, while fast travel can be more appealing to those with a strict time constraint.

Table of Contents

This being a very long post, I’ve included jump links below. Click a city to skip ahead to its section, and click “Back to top” to return here.

Ljubljana * Zagreb * Split * Dubrovnik * Kotor * Mostar * Sarajevo * Belgrade



What to do

Ljubljana has a beautiful, pedestrian-only city center crowned by a medieval castle. A ticket to Ljubljanski Grad includes a round-trip funicular rail ride and entry to two of the castle’s exhibits, which could include rotating art shows, the castle’s viewing tower, the Museum of Slovenian History, or the unique Museum of Puppetry.

Foodies had best time their trips for summer when every Friday the town square erupts into the Open Kitchen, a market peopled by restaurants from all over the country. Taste Ljubljana also runs daily food, wine, and craft beer tours. Outdoorsy types might prefer to take a day trip to Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj.

Travelers looking to get off the beaten path, especially for a wild night out, can walk just 15 minutes away from the center to Metelkova Mesto. These former army barracks are now an independent commune, where artists have decked every corner with unique murals and sculptures, and social activists advocate for people with disabilities, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, and all manner of minorities.

How to get here

International flights arrive at Ljubljana Joze Pucnik Airport. There is a bus line that runs from the airport terminal to the main bus station in under an hour for about 4 euro. For a little extra you can get a shuttle directly to your hotel. Taxis to the city center run closer to 35 euro.

Trains and buses leave from the same station, within walking distance of the city center. There are plenty of connections to other Balkan cities like Zagreb and Mostar. Venice is very close by.

How much to spend

Backpackers can get by with 20 euro a night for a hostel dorm, and many hostels are in the city center. Mid-range hotels might range from 50 to 150 euro per night, and luxury properties are unlikely to be less than 100 to 150 euro per night.

Your cheapest dining option will be a burek, a savory Balkan pastry filled with meat or cheese, at 2 or 3 euro apiece. A meal at one of the many cafes along the river runs 5 to 10 euro. A fancier indoor establishment will cost at the very least 15 to 20 euro.

A ticket to Ljubljana Castle is 10 euro, including a round-trip funicular ride. Guided tours of the city center, which can focus on history, food, or wine, run 30 to 40 euro.

Budget travel therefore costs at least 30 to 40 euro per day. Mid-range travel could range from 75 to 100 euro per day. Luxury travel could easily start at 200 euro per day.

When to visit

If you plan on visiting other parts of Europe beyond the Balkans, make Ljubljana your bridge between the two legs of your travels. As part of the EU and the Schengen Area, Slovenia enjoys smoother border crossings with Italy and Austria, for example. Visiting the Balkans at the end of your trip? Make Ljubljana your first destination. Moving on from the Balkans to the West? Finish in Slovenia instead.

How long to stay

Ljubljana is an excellent place to slow down and enjoy the city’s energy, particularly if you’re a creative professional working on the road. But if you’re on a tight schedule, you can easily fit its main sights into a long weekend. At the very least, give yourself a full day to explore the city center, another for visiting one of the lakes, and a third for enjoying a specialized tour, like Taste Ljubljana’s craft beer walk.




What to do

Some call Zagreb the next Vienna for its colorful Austro-Hungarian architecture and eclectic vibe. This is an often overlooked destination in Croatia, but well worth a visit for the contrast it provides to the Dalmatian coast.

Top attractions include the Upper Town’s gothic Cathedral and the more popular St. Mark’s Church, with a tiled roof displaying regional coats of arms in an explosion of color. The Museum of Broken Relationships draws many visitors for its quirky niche, while hipsters in the know might seek out the city’s Art Park. In the Lower Town, visitors might focus on the city’s design district or architectural landmarks like the vibrant yellow National Theatre. The city also has its share of atomic bunkers, one of which has recently been converted into a hostel.

Zagreb is just an hour away from Plitvice Lakes National Park, perhaps the most beautiful place in all Croatia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Plitvice Lakes is filled with turquoise waters, limestone canyons, and towering waterfalls. The unique climate and topography of the area make this one of the most rapidly changing parts of Croatia. Plenty of tour operators all over the country offer guided excursions to the park, but it’s not difficult to visit independently. A trip from the Dalmatian coast will take all day, from sunrise to well after sunset. Zagreb is much more closely situated to the park, and a trip might take only half a day.

How to get here

Zagreb is home to Croatia’s largest airport. Popular flight routes include Vienna, Munich, Paris, and London. You can easily reach the city from anywhere in Europe. There is also a large long-distance bus terminal and a train station, with routes to other parts of Croatia and nearby Balkan cities like Ljubljana.

How much to spend

Penny pinchers can pack a sleeping bag and bed down in an old nuclear bunker for just 75 kuna a night, the equivalent of 10 euro. A bed in a more traditional hostel or budget hotel might cost closer to 180 kuna, or 30 euro. Mid-range hotel rooms average about 300 kuna per night, or 50 euro. Luxury hotels start at 600 kuna per night, or roughly 100 euro.

Budget meals are unlikely to cost more than 30 kuna, or 5 euro. A large meal in a restaurant runs about 60 kuna, or 10 euro.

Admission to the Museum of Broken Relationships is 30 kuna, or 5 euro. At peak season, the entry fee to Plitvice Lakes National Park is 180 kuna, or 30 euro.

Budget travel can be for as little as 180 kuna or 30 euro per day. Mid-range travel might cost 350 kuna or 60 euro per day. Luxury travel starts at 1000 kuna or 175 euro per day.

When to visit

I used a night in Zagreb to break up the long overland journey between Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast. If you do not plan on visiting Slovenia, however, Zagreb makes a good place to start or end your trip.

How long to stay

One day in Zagreb is likely enough to cover its highlights. If you plan on visiting Plitvice Lakes while here, devote a separate day to that. If you don’t have a limited amount of time, give yourself another couple of days to explore the city more thoroughly.




What to do

Split’s primary attraction is Diocletian’s Palace, but don’t let the name fool you. This is neither traditional palace nor museum. The ancient Roman walled city is still the living and breathing heart of modern day Split. Walking around its stone labyrinth is a special experience indeed.

Many tour operators run excursions from Split. Krka National Park is about an hour’s drive away. There is only a small portion of the park open to swimmers, so the waterfalls are a bit better suited to those content to enjoy a short walk snapping photos.

This is also a handy base for reaching many of Croatia’s islands, like Hvar and Korcula. A single day trip would be quite the squeeze. If you plan on scheduling any island time, set aside at least a few days devoted to it. If you have lots of time, try out this amazing 7-day island hopping itinerary from Ms Blissness.

How to get here

Split, being on the Dalmatian coast, is a popular cruise dock, particularly in July and August. Ferry routes to the islands and other cities in Croatia run daily. Some routes connect Croatia to Italy.

Across from the port is a bus and train terminal with routes to various Balkan cities, including Dubrovnik, Mostar, and Metkovic.

The Split international airport is a major hub for Croatian Airlines, serving London, Paris, Athens, and Frankfurt, among many other European cities.

How much to spend

A bed in a good hostel is likely to run up to 200 kuna a night, or 30 to 40 euro. Hotels are quite steep, with some mid-range rooms costing 1200 kuna or 200 euro a night, and luxury properties running up to 3600 kuna or 600 euro a night.

The city center is replete with takeaway pizza stands and bakeries doling out hearty sandwiches and wraps for 15 to 30 kuna, or 3 to 5 euro. Restaurant dinners are unlikely to cost less than 75 kuna, or 15 euro.

Diocletian’s Palace has no overall admission fee, but some attractions within like the Saint Domnius bell tower or the Temple of Jupiter have entry fees, ranging from 10 to 40 kuna, or 2 to 7 euro. An excursion to Krka National Park might cost about 200 kuna, or 25 euro.

Budget travel is therefore feasible on 360 kuna or 60 euro per day. Mid range travel runs at about 1500 kuna or 250 euro per day. Luxury travel might cost 4000 kuna or 675 euro per day.

When to visit

Split fits most neatly in the middle of a trip, as Dubrovnik has better international ferry connections. Being to the north of Dubrovnik, Split is also a better overland connection to inland Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia.

How long to stay

Two or three days is sufficient in Split – one for Diocletian’s Palace, one for Krka National Park. Allot more time as desired for venturing out to the islands.




What to do

Dubrovnik, like Split, is a major cruise port on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Its greatest attraction is its centuries-old city walls. Visitors can enter the large stone gates to dine and shop in the Old Town, hike the length of the fortifications, or hop in a sea kayak and paddle around the walls.

Sea kayaking routes circle Lokrum Island, which is where Dubrovnik locals go to escape the bustle of the city. The uninhabited island is filled with attractions of its own, like a Benedictine monastery, a botanic garden, and a naturist beach.

While the islands closer to Split, like Hvar and Korcula, get more tourist attention, from Dubrovnik, you can cruise the Elaphiti Islands. The archipelago of Kolocep, Lopud, and Sipan can be explored within a day. If you’d like to go really out of your way and avoid the crowds entirely, check out Vis Island. You can learn more about visiting this and other hidden gems of Eastern Europe at Girl with the Passport.

How to get here

Dubrovnik is Croatia’s best known city and biggest cruise port. Ferry lines serve most other Croatian ports, like Split and Hvar, as well as Bari in Italy.

Near the port, a bus terminal connects Dubrovnik to the rest of the Balkans, especially bordering countries Bosnia and Montenegro.

The Dubrovnik international airport is less busy than either Zagreb or Split, but serves most major European cities.

How much to spend

At peak season, a hostel bed might cost 120 kuna or 20 euro per night. Mid-range hotels could run about 600 kuna or 100 euro per night. Luxury rooms are likely to be at least 1500 kuna or 250 euro per night.

Budget meals can be hard to find, but typically range from 30 to 60 kuna, or 5 to 10 euro. Sit down restaurants in Old Town can be quite pricey. Expect to spend 150 kuna or 25 euro on a nice meal here.

Admission to the Dubrovnik City Walls is 120 kuna, or 20 euro. A half day kayaking trip around Lokrum Island costs about 230 kuna or 30 euro. A round trip ferry to Lokrum is 100 kuna or 16 euro.

Budget travel in Dubrovnik during peak season is likely to be at least 360 kuna or 60 euro per day. Mid-range travelers can get around on 1000 kuna or 175 euro per day. Luxury travel starts at 2000 kuna or 350 euro per day.

When to visit

If you are traveling from Italy, this is the best place to begin your trip. Otherwise, make this a stop during the middle of the journey as Dubrovnik’s airport is not as sizable as others in Croatia.

How long to stay

Give yourself at least two or three days to see Dubrovnik. One day for the Old Town, one day for Lokrum Island, and if you like, a day for cruising the islands.




What to do

The Stari Grad is in some ways similar to Diocletian’s Palace in Split – a walled Old Town that remains the modern city’s center. Distinctive to the character of Kotor are the dozens of cats wandering its stone streets. City attractions include St. Tryphon’s Cathedral and a Maritime Museum.

For those keen to explore other parts of the country, Old Town Hostel operates several day tours. The Great Montenegro Tour takes the Austro-Hungarian Old Road to the top of Lovcen Mountain for breathtaking views over the bay. Other highlights include trying local cheese and prosciutto at Njegusi, viewing relics at Cetinje Monastery, boating over Skadar Lake, and walking through the Old Town of Budva.

How to get here

There is no airport or train station in Kotor. You will have to rely on bus. The terminal here has routes to other Montenegrin cities and much of the Balkans, though these routes will invariably pass through Dubrovnik.

How much to spend

A dorm bed in a good Stari Grad hostel should cost no more than 20 euro per night. Mid-range hotels run between 50 and 100 euro per night. Luxury hotels range all the way up to 500 euro per night.

Pizza by the slice and savory pastries cost just a few euro. A sit-down meal averages 10 to 15 euro. More upscale dinners will be at least 30 euro.

Entry fees to the Old Town’s museums and churches range from 2 to 4 euro. A day tour to other parts of the country might cost 30 euro, but does not always include things like food and drink or park entry fees.

Budget travel is unlikely to be much more than 30 euro per day. Mid-range travel might be about 100 to 120 euro per day. Luxury travel starts at 300 euro per day.

When to visit

Kotor is relatively difficult to reach, with bus from another Balkan city being the only reliable means of public transportation. Best to make this a stop in the middle of your tour.

How long to stay

One day in Kotor would likely satisfy most travelers. If you’d like to use the bay as a base for the rest of the country, add more days as you see fit.




What to do

Mostar’s claim to fame is its striking Old Bridge. Even though the original medieval bridge was destroyed during the war in the 1990s, the reconstructed version is no less well loved. Every day around noon, visitors gather to watch members of the Divers Club brave the 20 meter drop into the Neretva River below. The rest of the day, we’re content to snap photos of the iconic Ottoman arch.

The cobblestone streets surrounding the Old Bridge are packed with souvenir shops. Mosaic lanterns, hand tooled copper and silver jewelry, and brightly painted ceramics are all on display. You can even watch some of these traditional handicrafts being made.

Beyond the Old Town, Mostar is a city still rebuilding, so tourist attractions are few. A walk around town might reveal abandoned ruins, street art, and graves that seem to stretch on forever. It’s a bittersweet look at how Bosnia and Herzegovina fares today.

How to get here

Your best bet for getting around this part of the Balkans is bus. The main bus station sits just minutes away from the heart of Old Town. There are routes to Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, and plenty of other Balkan cities.

How much to spend

Many of the lodgings advertised as hostels in Bosnia are actually more like homestays. There is nothing to rival Bosnian hospitality, so budget backpackers are sure to get a totally unique experience for less than 20 marks or 10 euro a night. Mid-range hotels average at 50 marks, or 25 euro per night. Higher end properties are over 100 marks or 50 euro per night.

Your cheapest meal options are unlikely to be more than a few marks apiece. Budget travelers need less than 20 marks, or 10 euro per day for food. Even less if your hostel includes a hot, home cooked breakfast, as some do. Meals in cafes or budget restaurants might cost 20 marks or 10 euro apiece. Luxury travelers might drop 30 marks or 15 euro on a meal.

There’s no charge to wander around the Old Town or cross the Old Bridge, but it’s a nice gesture to make a donation of a euro or two if you’d like to watch the Divers Club. There is also a Museum of the Old Bridge with an entry fee of 5 marks.

Budget travelers need at most 50 marks, or 25 euro per day. Mid-range travelers can get around with 100 marks, or 50 euro a day. Luxury travel starts at 160 marks, or 80 euro per day.

It’s also worth noting that businesses in Mostar are very welcoming to tourists and will accept euros, even though they aren’t the official currency of the country. This is not always the case in other parts of Bosnia, however.

When to visit

Bosnia is not an easy part of the Balkans to reach. Best to keep Mostar in the middle of your itinerary.

How long to stay

There’s no need to stay in Mostar for more than a day or two. The Old Town is small and there are no tourist attractions apart from the Old Bridge.




What to do

The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was the site of a devastating three-year siege in the 1990s, and after years of recovery is on a major upswing. Sarajevo has recently been named a European Capital of Culture and gets increasing attention from guidebooks.

Founded by the Ottomans, Sarajevo’s Old Town or Bascarsija is still filled with cobblestone alleys, shisha bars, and muezzin calls. Neighborhood landmarks include an often-replicated Sebilj fountain and the immense Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque.

The city’s more recent history is commemorated in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Tunnel Museum. The latter is what remains of the city’s single lifeline for food and arms built during the 1990s siege, a haunting hollowed-out stretch that just barely enable Sarajevo’s survival.

How to get here

There is an international airport in Sarajevo with most traffic coming to and from Istanbul. (There is a large Turkish community in Bosnia, which is the only Balkan country to have remained Muslim after the end of the Ottoman Empire.) Most other air routes connect the city to other Balkan cities like Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade.

There is a train station in the city, but at present no domestic trains operate. In fact, the only operating route is to Zagreb. If you’re traveling from anywhere else, you’ll have to come by bus. (Fortunately, buses in the Balkans are relatively comfortable.)

How much to spend

Hostels in Sarajevo are rarely more than 30 marks or 15 euro per night. Mid-range hotels are more likely to be in the 100 marks or 50 euro per day range. Luxury hotels still fall under 200 marks or 100 euro per night.

Thanks to the large Turkish community in town, doner kebab are easy to come by for just a few marks apiece. Pizza by the slice and bakery burek are other cheap meal options coming in under 5 euro. A restaurant meal can be found in the Old City for under 20 marks or 10 euro. Hotel restaurants are pricier, upwards of 40 marks or 20 euro.

Admission to the Gazi Mosque is just 2 marks, or 1 euro. Sarajevo’s History Museum charges 5 marks or 2.50 euro for admission, while the entry fee to the Tunnel Museum is 10 marks, or 5 euro.

Budget travel in Sarajevo is possible on 60 marks, or 30 euro a day. Mid-range travel starts at 150 marks or 75 euro per day. Luxury travel might run 300 marks or 150 euro a day.

Unlike Mostar, businesses in Sarajevo do not accept euros and many, including hostels, are cash only. Convert your euros into konvertible marks before arriving.

When to visit

The more limited transportation options in Bosnia make Sarajevo a city best kept in the middle of an itinerary. Starting or ending here would be more difficult.

How long to stay

Give yourself at least two to three days in Sarajevo. Exploring the Old City and the museums in the area will absolutely pack your itinerary. If you like to travel at a slower pace give yourself four or even five days here.




What to do

Celts, Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs, Yugoslavians… Don’t let the drab communist bloc architecture and general grit fool you. Belgrade is a vibrant city that never dies. The historic city center’s top attraction is Kalemegdan Fortress, a fortification with roots in multiple periods of the city’s history as a much-envied stronghold at the meeting of the Danube and Sava Rivers. Today, the fortress commands excellent views over the confluence of these two rivers and is surrounded by a very popular park.

Other attractions in the city include Sveti Sava, the largest Orthodox church in Europe, and the Tesla Museum, celebrating the life and accomplishments of engineer Nikola Tesla, despite the fact that Tesla himself spent no more than a few days in Belgrade. A short educational film precedes a demonstration of various Tesla coils. A bit farther off, you’ll find the Museum of Yugoslav History and Tito’s Mausoleum, final resting place of the famed ‘benevolent’ Yugoslav dictator.

Belgrade has long been attractive to artists and poets. The Skadarlija neighborhood is still jam packed with historic restaurants, still serving traditional Serbian foods, and modern bars of all kinds, from English pubs to Spanish tapas bars. Later in the evening, you might move the party to one of the riverboat clubs lining the Danube.

How to get here

The Nikola Tesla airport is the hub for Air Serbia. Its busiest routes include Moscow, Athens, Istanbul, Vienna, and various cities in Montenegro. The airport is growing and becoming a strong hub for the Balkan region.

Trains leave from a station just ten minutes from the central Slavija Square and serve a number of regional destinations, including Budapest, Ljubljana, Podgorica, Skopje, Sofia, Thessaloniki, Timisoara, Vienna, and Zagreb.

The city’s main bus terminal is a bit farther afield – more like a thirty minute walk  from the city center – and close to Belgrade’s refugee camp. Eurolines Lasta connects Belgrade to most cities in the Balkan region, including those in Bosnia.

How much to spend

Budget travelers can score a bed for 15 euro or less, nearly 2000 per night in the local Serbian dinar. Mid-range properties might cost closer to 6000 dinar or 50 euro per night. Luxury hotels could easily run you 20,000 or more than 150 euro per night.

Like the rest of the region, takeaway sandwiches, burek, and pizza by the slice are readily available for a few hundred dinar, or about 5 euro. Some sit-down restaurants offer full menus for as little as 1200 dinar or 10 euro, satisfying mid-range travelers’ tastes. Skadarlija’s historic eateries, with large servings of traditional food and formally attired servers, can still cost only 2000 dinar or 15 euro.

Free walking tours of the city leave from the central Republic Square every morning. Museum admissions are typically in the 400 to 500 dinar range, less than 5 euro. Neither Kalemegdan Fortress nor Saint Sava church charge entry fees.

Budget travel in Belgrade needs only 3000 dinar or less than 30 euro per day. Mid-range travel falls in the 9000 dinar or 75 euro per day range. Luxury travelers are likely to spend over 24,000 dinar or just shy of 200 euro per day.

When to visit

As Belgrade recovers from the wars in the 1990s and grows, it becomes easier to access. The Serbian capital is a reasonable place to start or end your trip.

How long to stay

Three days is enough to cover the highlights of the city, but you could easily entertain yourself for a week in Belgrade.


Putting it all together

These are just a few highlights of southeastern Europe. All the Balkan countries have considerably more to offer, but with these basics of itinerary planning you can branch out to other resources and put together your perfect trip.

Are you interested in more itinerary planners? Read up on top Italian cities and get a free Italy itinerary workbook.

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  1. What a bunch of wonderful cities on the list! I had to skip Mostar when I did Dubrovnik and Split, but I think I’ll need to do the southeast portion of the trip by themselves 🙂

    1. Yes, it can seem daunting to get to the rest of the region from the Dalmatian Coast. Split and Dubrovnik are both really interesting cities, but the tourism industry has exploded so much there, they’re like their own country! Hope you get to enjoy more of the Balkans someday. (And that I can go back and enjoy the coast, too.)

  2. Wow this post is full of so much good information. I haven’t been to any of these cities. I have been wanting to go to Croatia for awhile, hopefully I can fit in some of these other cities when I finally do.

    1. Thanks Anisa! I hope you have a great time in Croatia. I highly recommend getting away from the coast, even for just a day or two to check out Plitvice Lakes or Zagreb. Istria is also supposed to be amazing – it’s on my list for whenever I can make it back to the Balkans.

  3. OH my, this is a fabulous guide! Some of these places were on my list for my Euro trip last year but sadly didn’t have enough time. But I’ll totally refer to this post when I plan my next Europe trip!! Thanks so much!

  4. You gem! I’m graduating (again) next year and I’ve been thinking where I should go… The Balkan region is pretty high up my list, needless to say… but it’s always a little hard to do research when it comes to such a diverse region!

    I kid you not, I’m so happy you posted this! So much useful details and of course the budget – that’s a massive pointer for me. Bookmarked this 😀

    1. Thank you! It’s true the Balkans are immensely different from country to country. It’s wild to think that this all used to be Yugoslavia, but I think even then there were strong senses of traditional nationalism, which is part of what led to the wars. Good luck on your trip!

    1. I hope you can make it someday! The Dalmatian coast is beautiful but so different to other parts of Croatia. All the Balkans really have a lot of variety.

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