Balkans: the best road trip itinerary
When you think of the first trip to Europe, you always come up with the same cities: Paris, Rome, London, Madrid, Barcelona … And you would not be wrong. They are undoubtedly wonderful and unforgettable cities for those who visit them for the first time and should be visited at least once in your life (or many times).
But if are willing to leave the “tourist” aside and put on the suit of the “traveler”, you can discover extraordinary corners outside the typical European circuit (although it is increasingly difficult to find them as everything is being invaded by masses of tourists), as is the case of this 20 days Balkans road trip itinerary throughout the incredible landscapes and villages of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.
- 1 SLOVENIA
- 2 CROATIA
- 3 MONTENEGRO
- 4 BOSNIA
- 5 BACK TO CROATIA
- 6 BACK TO SLOVENIA
Let’s start with one of the most beautiful and most overlooked countries in Europe: Slovenia. It is a country of diversities: in its scarcely 20,273 square kilometers, representing only 0.004% of the land area, it has more than 24,000 species of animals and is the third country with the highest forest density in Europe, with almost 60% of its territory covered in green. Being located in a crossroads of countries (Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia) their influences, culture, and dialects are very diverse.
How to decide then what to visit in Slovenia and how long to go? I propose a road trip, if possible, by car, which will always allow us to discover otherwise inaccessible corners. But before that it is important to know: to drive in Slovenia, it is necessary to have a sticker for the car that enables you to travel around the country. This sticker can be obtained at any gas station near the border or within Slovenia (the sticker valid for one week has a value of 15 euros). For more information about this, check out the official link (do not risk traveling without the sticker because the fines are very strong): https://www.slovenia.info/en/plan-your-trip/getting-to-and-around-slovenia/to-slovenia-by-car
WHAT TO SEE IN SLOVENIA
DAY 1: LJUBLJANA
The “difficult to pronounce” Slovenian capital (until finding out that the J is pronounced like “e”), is a very friendly city to walk. It is as small as it is as beautiful, especially in times of good temperatures when the streets are filled with people who go out to have a beer on the terraces of the downtown bars.
If you visit it between mid-March and October and are lucky enough to arrive on a Friday, you can enjoy the “Open Kitchen” gastronomic fair, an outdoor festival for the palate where you can taste the exquisite Slovenian and international food at the hands of the most prestigious chefs in the country.
WHAT DO SEE IN LJUBLJANA
Here you will not need your car. Ljubljana is small and in one day it can be perfectly walked. Whether on foot, crossing its beautiful bridges like the Dragon Bridge or the Triple Bridge, or visiting its 15th-century castle, or by boat, crossing the river Ljubljanica, enjoying from the water the baroque architecture of the city.
I always recommend not following a specific itinerary in the cities, but rather walking aimlessly, getting lost in the streets. It is the best way to discover corners outside the tourist circuit that are often more unforgettable than those that appear in the guides.
DAY 2: LAKE BLED AND VINTGAR GORGE
Now it´s time to turn on the car engine. Just half an hour away from Ljubljana, and after having stopped for coffee in the picturesque village of Radovljica, you come to one of the most idyllic spots in Slovenia: Lake Bled. I remember reading a paragraph in a travel book that convinced me that I had to go there. The paragraph said:
“An emerald lake, reflecting the green of the mountains of the Julian Alps, and in the middle, an island, and on the island, a church, and its bell ringing in the silence of the recent dawn.”
And fiction, in this case, resembles reality.
The glacier lake of Bled is the heart of the city and it is a pleasure to visit its waters either in the traditional Pletna boats, navigated by the “Pletnarstvo”, or in rowing boats that require a small effort that is really worth it. With these boats you can reach the island and visit its baroque church of the seventeenth century (the original was from many centuries ago but had to be renewed several times due to earthquakes), with its famous fate bell, consecrated by Pope Clement VII, who is said to fulfill the wish to the one who makes it rings three times.
The origin of the bell, however, is a little more tragic: according to its legend, the widow Poliksena, who lived in the Castle of Bled in the XVI century, had a bell made to honor her late husband and had it transported to the island’s church, but during the boat ride, a strong storm sank the ship that carried the bell, killing all the crew. The bell sunk into the bottom of the lake. After this incident, she went to live in Rome where she became a nun. Pope Clement VII, after hearing her sad story, sent his people to make a replica of the bell. And that is the one that is on top of the church ).
A visit to the castle of Bled is a great option to enjoy the best views of the lake and its surroundings.
In the afternoon you can not miss one of the most spectacular places in the country: Vintgar Gorge, just 4 kilometers away from Bled. Part of the Triglav National Park, this turquoise water gorge allows us to walk along a 1600 meter path between rock walls until we reach a spectacular waterfall.
Wilder option: If you like to avoid the most touristic places of each region, then I recommend visiting Lake Bohinj instead of Bled (or do both if you are willing to face a busy day). This lake is more rugged and less touristy than Bled, but it is just as spectacular.
DAY 3: LOGARSKA DOLINA
On our last day of the first stage in Slovenia (we will return to the south of the country on our return to the capital), we will visit an idyllic valley of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, caves, and forests. We are talking about Logarska Dolina, a place that invites us to spend several days, but in our limited itinerary, we must settle for a small visit (which will make us want to return).
From Bled you can go through the country, but I recommend you to do it by crossing the border with Austria (you leave Slovenia to enter Austria and then re-enter). It takes exactly the same amount of time (about an hour and a half) but the landscapes of the borders are unforgettable. I will not tell you more about Logarska Dolina. I’m going to let these pictures speak for themselves.
Croatia is a country quickly identified with the walled city of Dubrovnik or the idyllic islands of Hvar or Korcula. But there is more life behind those beautiful (and must-go) destinations. Places like its beautiful capital, Zagreb, and its Austro-Hungarian architecture, or the wonderful Plitvice National Park and its countless waterfalls, so different depending on the season of the year in which you visit it. Or its region of Istria, known as “The Croatian Tuscany” for its bucolic landscapes, its lost villages among hills, and its wine.
Croatia is a country that suffered a lot from the injustices of wars. Today is a prosperous country, which does not forget but does not suffer. With a unique natural beauty, with very friendly people, and a gastronomy of Mediterranean influence, with unforgettable truffles for our palate.
We could be a whole month traveling through this country between the sea and the mountains, but we only have 20 days to make a good road trip through the Balkans, so we are going to choose some of the must-see sights of Croatia and, without a doubt, we will return again.
WHAT TO SEE IN CROATIA
DAYS 4 AND 5: ZAGREB
After leaving behind the 200 kilometers that separate our new destination from Logarska Dolina, the last stop of the first stage of the journey through Slovenia, we arrive in Zagreb, the Croatian capital and the largest city in the country.
WHAT TO DO IN ZAGREB
Many pass it by and go directly to the south, the islands or the walled Dubrovnik. But I recommend that you stop for two days in this city of Austro-Hungarian air, full of gardens and museums, such as the Museum of Broken Relationships where you can travel through immaculate white rooms full of objects from all over the world that tell a story of different broken relationships, as the name says.
The museum is located in the upper part of the city, the area with the most recognizable, oldest and most emblematic buildings of Zagreb, such as the Neoclassical-style Parliament or the 13th-century San Marcos Church (only open to the public during Masses). The most recommended thing is to climb the Lotrscak Tower from where you get the best panoramic view of the city, and then descend to the lower part by the funicular, one of the shortest in the world (66 meters) and the oldest mean of transport in Zagreb (operating since 1893).
In the middle part of Zagreb, known as Kaptol, you will find the Trg Josipa Jelacica Square, the heart of the city and where all the Croatians gather to take the classic coffee. And nearby, the famous Dolac market, another city must.
In the lower part is where we can spend our second day, between buildings of Austrian reminiscence like the National Theater of Croatia, and large and colorful art deco hotels like the Esplanade, former stop of the Oriental Express on its journey to Istanbul. Just imagining those travelers descending from the luxurious train to its emerald hall makes us travel to other times. We can finish our day visiting the beautiful botanical garden of 50,000 square meters and more than 10,000 species of plants.
DAY 6: PLITVICE NATIONAL PARK AND ZADAR
A visit to Croatia without going through Plitvice National Park would be an offense for the traveler. This park, declared National in 1949 and incorporated into the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979, is an immense beech, fir and pine forest, which makes you fall in love with its more than 20 interconnected turquoise lakes and its almost 100 waterfalls, which can be enjoyed up close along the wood paths that run through them.
It is worth a visit at any time of the year as the park acquires a unique beauty in each of the four seasons. Plitvice is divided into the Upper and Lower Lakes, connected by a boat ride, included in the price of the entry, through Kozjak Lake. It is the lower ones that offer the greatest beauty, with its turquoise color and the largest waterfall in Croatia: the Veliki Slap, or “Great Waterfall”. But both deserve the visit, so I recommend starting the day early.
To finish the day in the best way, having visited one of the most beautiful natural sites in Europe, nothing better than to contemplate “the best sunset in the world”, according to Alfred Hitchcock while he was having a coffee by the Adriatic coast in Zadar, our next destination. And what better than to do it while listening to the music coming from the Organ of the Sea, an experimental instrument that produces music when the waves of the sea enter its tubes located under a large set of marble steps.
DAY 7: SPLIT
An hour and a half separates Zadar from the second largest city in Croatia and the main city of the Dalmatian region: Split. This important fishing port and naval base of the Adriatic has a historic center that is a European jewel and part of the World Heritage sites since 1979. Walking there is traveling to past times of the Roman Empire. The Diocletian’s Palace, built between the third and fourth centuries, is an architectural marvel difficult to forget due to its fantastic state of preservation, and is the heart of the city of Split, which is easy and fast to navigate.
Another beautiful place to walk is the Marjan Park, a green lung on the coast of the city from where you can get wonderful views of the city and the sea.
DAYS 8 AND 9: HVAR ISLAND
From Split, there are several boats that depart daily to the different islands of Croatia. We chose the island of Hvar, but I invite you to also search information about other islands such as Korçula, or Braç, or Mijet, to choose the one that most strikes you. Of course the ideal would be to know them all, but in a 20-days itinerary for three countries like Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro, you have to be realistic.
The boat ride to the island of Hvar is already an enjoyment of its own. The simple fact of leaving the car (which you can get on the boat, and that is what I recommend in order to be able to enjoy the most of the Island of Hvar) predisposes us to sit on the deck of the boat and enjoy the landscape on a 2 hours trip from the port of Split to Stari Grad, the capital of the island. For more information about the ferry, visit the official website: http://www.jadrolinija.hr/en/ferry-croatia.
I recommend that once there, and after getting back into the car, do not follow a fixed itinerary in these two days but just take the roads to discover the corners of this island with beautiful villages, mountain roads, stone beaches with crystal clear seas and a landscape that little and nothing has changed since its first Greek settlements.
DAYS 10 AND 11: DUBROVNIK
The best option to reach Dubrovnik from the island of Hvar is to go to the coastal town of Suçuraj, south-east of the island, and take the ferry to Drvenik. The route is shorter than that to Split and leaves us 120 kilometers away from one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Known as “The Pearl of the Adriatic“, Dubrovnik is one of the must-see places in Croatia.
On December 6, 1991, the walled city suffered a devastation following the army’s attack during the Gulf War. But today, even though the wounds are still open, Dubrovnik is bathed in colors. You must do the route through those walls that surround it. From there you get the best views of the city and its beautiful natural surroundings.
The walled city can be perfectly discovered in one day, so we can take advantage of our second day in the city to enjoy its beautiful beaches or visit the neighboring island of Lokrum (600 meters from the port) and its Natural Park. The island was uninhabited until 1023, when a group of Benedictine monks founded an abbey in search of a haven of peace in which to pray and perform their gardening. That is the origin of the long botanical tradition of the island and today you can enjoy its wonderful botanic.
On the island there are no buildings beyond the Benedictine Monastery in Romanesque style. But its natural landscapes, such as the Dead Sea, a salty lake 10 meters deep, or Mount Glavica, 96 meters high, from where to enjoy incomparable views of the city of Dubrovnik and the neighboring islands, make the visit worth it. The ships to the island of Lokrum leave from the old port of Dubrovnik, and as there are no hotels on the island, you have to return before the last boat, so do not fall asleep on the shore.
A country as small (the eighth smallest in Europe) as beautiful, and off the tourist circuit, even when we think of a tour of the Balkans where Croatia takes all the prices. That is why it is not surprising that we often find ourselves alone in the most beautiful natural landscapes, or in beautiful cities such as Kotor, which invites us to travel in time. The coastal region of Montenegro is considered one of the great recent “discoveries” in the world of tourism. So do not waste time and visit it before it becomes more massive.
WHAT TO SEE IN MONTENEGRO
DAY 12: KOTOR AND BUDVA
On this day we will enter the unknown world of the young nation of Montenegro. And we will do so by visiting the wonderful fortified city of Kotor, founded during the Roman Empire. For four centuries it was dominated by the Republic of Venice and it was there where it achieved its maximum architectural splendor that made it part of the world sites protected by UNESCO.
Walking through its cobbled and labyrinthine streets is like time traveling. Kotor is one of the best preserved medieval towns on the Adriatic. One of its great jewels is the Cathedral Sveti Tripum, consecrated in 1166, and restored twice due to strong earthquakes that severely damaged it.
But without doubt the most beautiful experience of the Montenegrin city is to climb up to the Fortress of San Juan, more than 200 meters high of the city. The climb is done on foot, by a stairway that zigzags along its entire length. Many will say that the trip is complicated but my wife did it with five months of pregnancy and without any problem. Of course, you have to wear a hat and carry lots of water since the heat in spring and especially in summer can be very intense and there is nothing to buy all along the way.
The fortress itself is not the main reason for the ascent as it is not in a good state of preservation (all UNESCO efforts have gone to the city below). But the views you get of Kotor Bay, the surrounding mountains and the rooftops of the city are wonderful and are what make it worth the effort.
Once we descend and enjoy a lunch in one of the several restaurants of the walled city, we are ready to embark on our trip to the bustling city of Budva, one of the many walled citadels that remains as it was during the Venetian dominion of the region. In Budva, you will have the option to relax in one of its beaches and also enjoy the bustling nightlife. Many call it the “Montenegrin Miami”.
DAY 13: LOVTCEN NATIONAL PARK AND PERAST
In just an hour and a half, we went from the sea level of Budva to more than 1700 meters of the highest peak of Lovtcen National Park, inscribed within the national parks of Montenegro since 1952. Its location a stone’s throw from the sea and from the center of the country gives the park a type of climate that allows the development of more than 1000 different types of plants. From the top of its mountains you get unparalleled views of the region and, on clear days, you can see several kilometers round as we are among the highest peaks in the country.
To spend the last hours of the day, nothing better than the beautiful town of Perast, an idyllic place by the sea, surrounded by mountains. You can enjoy a delicious dinner with their typical truffles next to the water.
With the war still very close, tourism in this beautiful country is growing slowly. We were not lucky enough to spend many days here, but because of the little we saw and drove, the natural wealth of Bosnia transforms this country into a place that definitely needs to be included in a road trip through the Balkans. Of course, mountain roads are not suitable for the faint of heart, not by the roads themselves but by how bad they drive.
WHAT TO SEE IN BOSNIA
DAY 14: MOSTAR
Almost 3 hours separate our last Montenegrin destination from the attractive Bosnian city, so we will leave this whole day to enjoy it. Mostar became one of the most pleasant surprises of this tour. Without a doubt, its most famous attraction is its wonderful Ottoman bridge built in the sixteenth century that the unjust and terrible war of the Balkans destroyed it in 1992. Thanks to the collective effort a new bridge was built a few years later respecting the original style, so, despite not being the same, you can understand how it was before it was destroyed. From the top of the bridge, and as a centuries-old tradition, several divers are encouraged to jump into the cold waters of the river.
But Mostar is much more than a bridge. It is an amazing city, a mixture of traditions and religions. At times it seems that we are walking in an Arab country, with mosques and markets, street foods. And outside the city, the large abandoned and destroyed buildings remind us that we are in a place that suffered too much a few years ago. The constructions are kept like they were left after the bombings so that the injustice lived by that town is not forgotten. The street art tries to illuminate that darkness leaving hopeful messages of peace but at the same time of memory.
Mostar is surprising and is, without doubt, a magical place within this route.
BACK TO CROATIA
DAY 15: TROGIR – SIBENIK
On our return to the north, we have two options: either we cross Bosnia or re-enter Croatia to tour more of its beautiful cities and towns. We chose the first option, but after driving half an hour on wonderful winding mountain roads, we decided to turn back and return to Croatia. Why? Bosnia looked spectacular, but after dodging several cars that came head-on in blind mountain curves, our love for life itself outweighed the scenery. You can see that in Bosnia driving is not something where they are experts at, or at least that was the impression that gave us that half hour of experience.
Trogir is our next stop. It is considered the best preserved “Roman / Renaissance” city in Central Europe. Maybe that’s why it was chosen by the series GAME OF THRONES as one of the real scenarios for the shooting and the creation of the world of Qarth, “the largest city there is and there will be,” according to the series. It is small and ideal for walking.
From there, less than an hour apart, you will find the town of Sibenik, where the river Krka flows into the Adriatic Sea. Another exceptionally preserved medieval town that is worth a visit.
DAY 16: PULA
This day we have to be willing to drive a long stretch (a little over 4 hours), so we will leave the full day for the city of Pula, the Croatian city with the greatest Roman Empire legacy that we will see in our tour. Pula, despite being the largest city in the Croatian region of Istria, is still small to walk on foot.
In 177 BC the Romans invaded the Greek city and began to transform Pula into an important point of reference of its Empire. Its amphitheater, built between 27 and 68 BC is a true relic and the sixth largest Roman amphitheater in the world. It could accommodate up to 23,000 people. Its interior is not as preserved as other amphitheaters but its past splendor can be appreciated.
By walking through the city we will discover Roman arches, the Theater, the Temple of Augustus, among other Roman jewels.
DAY 17 and 18: ROVINJ AND TOWNS OF ISTRIA, “THE CROATIAN TUSCANY”
After a few hectic days, the ideal thing is to take two days to go slow and enjoy this Croatian region that is known as Croatian Tuscany. An ideal region to practice what we call Slow Travel (SLOW TRAVEL, THE ART OF TAKING IT EASY)
Istria is plagued by beautiful medieval villages high above the hills. Walled and sleepy villages with narrow streets and stone houses, with small restaurants or wineries where to enjoy the best wine of the region. Motovun, Groznjan, Pazin, are some of the small villages where to spend a couple of relaxed days.
The ideal option is to use Rovinj as a base, a beautiful coastal city from which you can appreciate one of the most beautiful sunsets of the country, more precisely from the port parking lot.
BACK TO SLOVENIA
DAY 19: PIRAN
We will slowly begin our return to our first country: Slovenia. We will visit the port city of Piran, with medieval architecture and red roofs, narrow streets and a Venetian air and Austro-Hungarian reminiscences.
DAY 20: CAVES OF POSTOJNA AND RETURN TO LJUBLJANA
On our final return to the Slovenian capital we will spend the morning to visit one of the most impressive natural sites in the country: the caves of Postojna, home of the strange human-fish. These caves are an underground network of tunnels, passages and galleries, replete with stalactites and stalagmites of thousands of years old. Its karstic diversity and easy access make these caves of great tourist interest. But beyond the huge number of visitors per year, we can not leave Slovenia without visiting them. Part of the route is done on foot and another part on a train.
The caves are located 115 meters deep so the temperature is constant and between 8 and 10 degrees. It is necessary to take into account that to bring a coat with you, even in midsummer. It is incredible to think that a stalagmite needs 10,000 years to grow a meter. In the cave, the stalagmite known as The Jewel, is 5 meters in size.
The admission ticket to the cave is very expensive: 25 euros per person. But if you have that money, it is an expense that is worth doing. The ticket includes personalized guide and the trip by train. For more information, you can access the official website of the caves at https://www.postojnska-jama.eu/en/
After the tour, we return to the Slovenian capital to enjoy the last night of the trip and to remember every single day of this unforgettable adventure in the less known Europe.
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