5 undiscovered Balkan towns to be on your radar now!
Centuries-old history, unique culture, and unspoiled natural beauty make these off-the-beaten-path Balkan towns ideal for the cultured adventurer.
Albania is relatively unknown to American travelers, but slowly gaining recognition due to its centuries-old history, authentic culture, and extensive coastline on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Cut off from the rest of the world during decades of communist rule, what the country lacks in terms of modern tourist infrastructure is more than compensated by the genuine hospitality of its people.
Sarande is a charming seaside town in the very south of Albania, easily accessible by car from the capital Tirana or by ferry from the Greek island of Corfu. It is a popular entry point for trips to the stunning Butrint National Park which extends to the border with Greece. The park includes the archaeological site of Butrint – a UNESCO-protected ancient city resplendent with Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins.
Also near Sarande and within the Butrint National Park, the village of Ksamil is a great destination for a day to enjoy the beach, the crystal-clear waters of the Ionian Sea, and to sample fresh seafood and local wines.
As legend has it, in the Middle Ages, this scenic lakeside town had 365 churches – one for each day of the year. Back then, it was a major commercial, religious, and literary center. Nowadays, Ohrid’s main draw is its Old Town with winding cobblestone streets and beautifully preserved Orthodox churches with elaborate frescoes. The town and the lake are among the few to be listed as both UNESCO World Heritage Cultural and Natural sites.
For the outdoor enthusiast, the area around Lake Ohrid offers a variety of activities – from sailing to diving, paragliding, hiking and biking. South of Ohrid Town, the Galicica National Park located between the Ohrid and Prespa Lakes is one of Europe’s best in terms of animal and plant variety. If you are up for it, a short but intense climb will take you to a ridge from which you can see both lakes simultaneously – quite a rewarding sight!
Nestled between two mountains, Berat’s UNESCO-protected Old Town has history going back millennia. Some 2,600 years ago, its hilltop castle was an Illyrian stronghold and later used by Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans. The neighborhood at the foot of the castle hill, known as The Town of a Thousand Windows, is still Berat’s most striking feature because of the rows of Ottoman-style houses climbing up the hill with windows facing the river.
Make sure to climb the stairs to the medieval citadel to appreciate the gorgeous views, stop to admire the frescoes of the country’s greatest medieval icon painter, and relax over lunch at one of the local restaurants.
Novi Sad, Serbia
Serbia’s second-largest city is relatively young by European standards – it was founded as a trading post on the Danube River in the 17th century. Similar to other Balkan towns, it offers a curious mixture of cultures, historical influences, and architectural styles.
Towering over the river on a high volcanic rock on the eastern bank of the Danube, the massive Petrovaradin citadel was a military outpost of the Habsburg Empire and played a key role in the war with the Ottomans. Its outer walls stretch for over 3 miles and you can find an extensive network of underground chambers and passageways. Nowadays, the fortress houses the annual EXIT music festival which takes place in July.
Craving your outdoor adventure fix? Cycle west along the Danube Bike Path and to Fisherman’s Island and have lunch at one of the restaurants on the river bank.
Prizren’s history goes back to medieval times, but it feels remarkably young and vibrant, with people thronging the many cafes and restaurants along the river bank and in the central square. Still in dispute with neighboring Serbia over its status as an independent state, Kosovo has only recently begun attracting tourism.
Thanks to its strategic location at the foot of the Shar Mountains, Prizren was a cultural and administrative center during Ottoman rule and this influence is still to be felt thanks to the 17th century Sinan Pasha Mosque, the Old Stone Bridge, and the medieval fortress towering over the city. Prizren is a great base from which to explore the rest of the country—from trips to the Rahovec wine region to hikes in the Shar Mountains.
While the Croatian and Montenegrin coasts are getting overrun by summer crowds of package tourists and cruise ship passengers, these 5 Balkan towns still maintain much of their authentic character and charm. Head over and discover them before the rest of the world finds out! Not sure where to start! We do!!!