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The Balkans region is a treasure trove of ancient cities and artifacts, making it a perfect destination for history buffs. With cities that date back centuries, there is no shortage of things to explore and discover in the Balkans. Whether you choose a walking, cycling, or boat-based holiday, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in the region’s rich history.

Today, we present this article highlighting the seven best alternative places in the Balkans, to give you some ideas on how to enjoy a perfect mix of natural beauty and a unique, less touristy experience.

Less popular than Western Europe, The Balkans offer a unique and fascinating travel experience. This makes it an ideal destination for travelers who want to explore something new and authentic, slightly more challenging than well-known cities around Europe. The region is also more affordable than many other destinations in the world, making it accessible for travelers on a budget.

In addition to its rich history and friendly people, the Balkans are also home to some of the most stunning natural landscapes in Europe. With high mountains, long hiking paths, lakes, and rivers, the region offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration, be it reaching a remote mountain peak or swimming in crystal-clear waters, you’ll find plenty of options in the Balkans.

Several years ago, while on my way to Asia, I had the chance to hitchhike through every country in the Balkans. Despite being greeted with plenty of enthusiasm from the locals, I discovered a complex area tainted by recent war history. However, thanks to their unique culture and incredible landscape, the Balkans left me with an everlasting memory that urged me to return several years later with my wife and my first son. So much that we even entertained the possibility of living in Albania for a while.

But enough talking, let me introduce our 7 best alternative places in the Balkans!

Alternatives places in the Balkans: The Ostrog monaestery in Montenegro
A picture I took of the Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro, a place that could well be on this list of alternatives places in the Balkans!

Šar Mountains – 3 countries

As a massive trail running junkie, I couldn’t help but start this list of alternative places in the Balkans with… mountains! With 30 peaks higher than 2,500 meters, this place is sure to satisfy any hiking craving. For more adventurous travelers, you can even challenge yourself to a 10-day thru-hike of the range.

In addition, the area offers a wide range of outdoor activities, such as mountain biking or even skiing in the Balkans, one of the most famous being the Brezovica ski resort.

The Šar Mountains, also spelled as Sharr Mountains, are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species, and finally became a national park when North Macedonia was the last of the three countries to grant it this special status in 2021.

For the most part, this region remains rather remote and is home to more traditional ways of living. You may encounter livestock roaming around the mountains, usually guarded by a few Šarplaninac, the local shepherd dog. Don’t miss out on tasting some delicious local white cheese like the Šarski Sir in North Macedonia. Additionally, you can enjoy the alcoholic beverage called Rakija, which is served warm with sugar.

These mountains might well be my favorites of this list of alternative places in the Balkans.

The Sar mountains national park

Krka National Park – Croatia

Krka National Park is an absolutely stunning destination located in Croatia, boasting no less than 17 waterfalls within a 400-meter radius. Certainly not as as famous its neighbour, the Plitvice National Park, and therefore deserving of its appearance on a list of alternative places in the Balkans, Krka is a true hidden gem, featuring an abundance of wildlife, including more than 800 species of plants, 20 types of fish, and over 200 species of birds.

Since its opening in 1985, the Krka National Park has become known for its crystal-clear blue waters and breathtaking waterfalls. While all of the waterfalls are worth a visit, the Skradinski buk is probably the most famous, attracting locals and tourists alike to its natural pools on hot days for a refreshing swim.

But there’s more to Krka than just its waterfalls: the area is also home to multiple hiking trails that take you through lush greenery, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the unique wildlife and gorgeous landscapes of this Croatian paradise.

Visitors to Krka National Park can also delve into the rich history and culture of the region, with one of the most famous landmarks being the Visovac monastery, located on a scenic island in the middle of a serene lake.

Krka National Park

Vlora – Albania

From its city of stone, Gjirokastra, to its hiking paradise in Theth National Park, there’s a wide range of places to choose from in Albania! I’ve decided to go for this list of alternative places in the Balkans with Vlora, first because it might be less famous than the two aforementioned sites, and also because I wanted to add a truly beach destination to this list of alternative places in the Balkans. (Yes, I’m trying to restrain myself from including only historical and hiking places, usually my two favorites!)

Founded by the Greeks hundreds of years ago, Vlora is a coastal city located in the southern part of the country, about 100 kilometers south of Tirana, the capital. It’s also the third largest city in Albania with more than 100,000 inhabitants.

Marking the northern tip of the Albanian Riviera, Vlora is packed with sandy beaches, but also boasts several museums and historical landmarks in town. Renting a scooter might be the best way to explore the local natural wonders if the Albanian driving style doesn’t scare you.

The city makes a great base for a day trip exploring the nearby Sazan Island, which is the country’s largest. It was formerly a military base but has been open to the public since 2015. Don’t forget to include the Karaburun Peninsula in your day trip!

Vlora beach
A beach close from Vlora

Durmitor National Park & Tara Canyon – Montenegro & Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Durmitor National Park is home to the deepest gorge in Europe, the Tara River Canyon, stretching over 82 kilometers between two countries, Montenegro and Bosnia. This breathtaking site got the chance to host multiple times the European Championships in Rafting, and figure amongst the best spots on the continent for Canyoning. Looking for a little thrill during your travels? A trip to the canyon is a must-do for outdoor enthusiasts in the Balkans!

The Durmitor National Park, founded in 1952 and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, offers numerous hiking trails that cater to different levels of experience. From the challenging Bobotov Kuk peak to the easy Skakavac waterfall trail, you’ll surely find a trail suitable. Grab your camera!

The park is also home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including the endangered Balkan lynx. Visitors can take guided tours to learn more about the park’s history and ecosystem, or opt to explore on their own. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and snacks, and be sure to wear sturdy shoes and comfortable clothing for a day of adventure in this beautiful park.

A hut in the Durmitor national park
A little hut in the Durmitor National Park

Ruse – Bulgaria

When visiting Bulgaria, I remember one local friend telling me that Bulgarians strongly believe when God created the world he gave different elements to each country, with some taking the mountains and pastures, others the coasts and seas. When Bulgaria’s turn came, there was nothing left, so God took a piece of its own land, and gave it to Bulgaria. The quote stayed with me while traveling around the country, and from ancient Roman ruins to stunning natural landscape, I wasn’t sure what to include in this list of alternative places in the Balkans.

Famous sites like the ancient capital Veliko Tarnovo or the church-powered Nessebar are rather popular for sightseers. Therefore, I’ve decided to go with Ruse, a perfect town to base yourself while discovering the nearby Rusenski Lom Natural Park and other sights. Located right on the Danube River and close to the Romanian border, the city itself can keep you busy for up til a day thanks to its numerous museums (History and the Eco Museum & Aquarium might be the best!) or the Sveta Troitsa Cathedral.

But the real attractiveness of Ruse consists of the numerous nearby attractions : while some will prefer to go on a relaxing boat trip on the majestic Danube River, adventurous visitors might rent a car to tour the World UNESCO site Ivanovo rock-hewn churches, the Basarbovo rock monastery and the fortress of Cherven, all part of the Rusenski Lom Natural Park. Many tourism agencies in town also offer a full-day tour of these landmarks.

7 Best Alternative Places in the Balkans 1
The Rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo

Leskovac – Serbia

Are you a foodie? While Leskovac may not offer as many attractions as bigger cities like Belgrade, the city is renowned throughout the Balkans for its delicious cuisine and its self-proclaimed title as the “home of the best grill in the world”.

Leskovac is now famous for organizing the yearly “Rostilijada”, a barbecue festival that draws in thousands of visitors from Serbia and abroad. During these five-day celebrations, they hold multiple competitions, such as making the biggest Pljeskavica, a Serbian dish consisting of a burger that originated from the town. Thanks to their prowess, they managed to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for making the biggest burger ever!

Worried about putting on weight from indulging in food? No worries, the picturesque surrounding hills offer a fantastic playground to burn some calories and avoid any feelings of guilt associated with your next bite.

Yes I know, we definitely needed some food-related spots to make a really complete list of alternative places in the Balkans.

Pljeskavica World Record
The Pljeskavica Guiness Record | © Ljiljana Stojanovic

Kokino – North Macedonia

Kokino is a small village located in the Macedonian countryside. Despite its unremarkable appearance, this sleepy town hosts the fourth-oldest observatory in the world! Estimated to date back to the 19th century BC, the observatory was unearthed thanks to thorough archaeological investigations in 2001.

This mystical place is believed to have been used by ancient tribes to study the movements of the stars and planets. Situated around a thousand meters above sea level, on top of the Tatichev Kamen hill, many markers have been carved out of volcanic rock, accurately marking different events such as equinoxes and solstices.

Various vessels filled with offerings were found in the cracks of the rocks, suggesting that potential rituals and religious rites were performed on this holy site. Research into this fascinating place is still ongoing.

Located in the northern part of North Macedonia, just 6 kilometers from the Serbian border, the Kokino observatory can be reached on a day trip from Skopje. It takes around an hour and a half to get to the archaeological site from the capital. Alternatively, visitors could base themselves in the nearest city of Kumanovo, about thirty kilometers away.

Megalithic Observatory Kokino
Parts of the Kokino Observatory

And you? Have you been to any of these alternative places in the Balkans? Do you have any suggestions about any site to add on this list? Feel free to share your experience and opinion with us!

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Maxime

A young father following his dream of travelling the world, now joined by HiuYing, his wife, Darian, and Mati, their two sons.
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