9 hidden gems of the Balkan Peninsula you must see before you die
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- UPDATED Mar 13, 2018
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Lying in the southeastern part of Europe, the Balkan peninsula remains a relatively-unknown travel destination. Nevertheless, the Balkan has an abundance of stunning coastlines, marvelous architecture, jaw-dropping landscapes, and a rich history, starting from Alexander the Great’s empire to the days of Socialist Yugoslavia. The Balkan today includes the following countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia and here are the 9 hidden gems of the Balkan Peninsula you must see before you die.
Ohrid is a great summer vacation spot but it’s just as magnificent during the winter. The city is the birth crib of the Macedonian Orthodox church, and as such has 365 churches- one for every day of the year. The city is also home to the oldest and second deepest lake in Europe- the Ohrid Lake: a UNESCO heritage site. Ohrid was also to the very first European university: Plaosnik. As you can see, Ohrid is a city with a glorious history and is slowly becoming a tourist magnet.
Montenegro is mostly known for its gorgeous beaches, but surprise, surprise: the hidden gem on this list is not a beach, nor an island. It’s Virpazar: a small settlement on the Skadar Lake, located in the city of Bar, 15 km away from the coastline. During spring and summer, the few tourists that discovered this magical place come to visit the breathtaking natural parks and protected sights of Virpazar. The small town is also a host of a lot of cultural events, including the famous ‘Days of Skadar Lake’, ‘Days of wine’ and a lot of literary events with artists from all around Europe.
Croatia is also mostly known for its beaches and island. However, unlike Montenegro, Croatia’s hidden gem is an island. How is it possible that this place is not yet discovered by tourists? Well, first of all, Lastovo was one of the most notorious military bases in the former Yugoslavia, and as such was kind of isolated from the rest of the country and unavailable for tourists for a long time. Today, the island is open for tourists and is one of the most preserved islands in Croatia. Remnants from the military base are still present at the island but they just add to the amazing renaissance-like charm of Lastovo.
Rila Lakes, Bulgaria
Comfortably located about an hour away from the capital, Sofia, Rila lakes is one of the most underrated hiking spots in Europe. The Rila Mountain is home to seven glacier lakes that look like giant footsteps leading to the mountaintop when you look from above. All seven lakes are located at a height of 2,300+ meters with the highest one (the tear) being located 2,535 meters above sea level. Every lake has its unique name, and surprisingly (because of the cold water), the lakes are filled with fish, especially minnows and trout/
Mostar and Kravice falls, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mostar is a small town but a home to the Old Bridge that it got its name from. This Old Bridge (Stari Most or Most Stari) was one of the iconic symbols of Yugoslavia. It was here where the Partisans defeated the fascists at the battle of Neretva and Yugoslavia was born. It was also here where Yugoslavia, or what was left from it bombed most of Northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. 30 minutes away from this charming historic town you will find Kravice Falls, a hidden gem many people don’t know of. Personally, I can say it’s the most beautiful waterfall on the peninsula and one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Europe.
One could argue that the whole of Albania is a hidden gem itself. Especially if you take into consideration the fact that Albania was the most isolated country in Europe between 1945 and 1991 under the iron fist of Enver Hoxha. However, Valbona is the ultimate hidden gem. The mountain landscape is simply breathtaking. If it wasn’t for the poor quality of the roads, it would feel like Switzerland. The Valbona National Park it’s vastly unexplored and the local government is trying to boost tourism by providing attractive packages that include staying with locals and eating home-made food when visiting.
Bucharest might be the capital and most important city of Romania but Sibiu is the undisputed cultural capital. The small town was voted the European Capital of Culture back in 2007 but for some reason, it’s still under the radar. The whole city is a beautiful mixture of the medieval and the modern with cobbled streets, adorable, comfortably situated squares, breathtaking architecture and a myriad of cultural manifestations. Finally, Sibiu is located in Transilvania, the birthplace of Count Dracula and therefore has a lot of stunning castles.
This was one of the most mysterious places in old Yugoslavia, and one of its most kept secrets. The only people aware of this place were politicians and high-ranking government members. They would meet at this oasis of peace for hunting and other sports. It was a place where Yugoslavian leaders like Josip Broz Tito and Slobodan Milosevic kept coming here when they needed solitude. Some of the country’s major political decisions were made at this spot. Karađorđevo is a place that has a huge historic significance and happens to be one of the most pristine places on the peninsula.
Predjama castle, Slovenia
The Predjama Castle, or Predjama town is carved into a sheer cliff a mere 9 km away from tourist hotspot, Postoina Cave. This amazing and mysterious piece of architecture completely dominates the landscape. It’s 123 meters tall and more than 800 years old. It is officially the largest cave castle in the world according to Guinness. This architectural masterpiece gives you a glimpse into history and how medieval people came here to look for safe haven. Even more importantly, how did they manage to carve this castle in the cliffs with such accuracy and precision with the limited tools they had?
Despite having a lot to offer, the region remains and off the beaten track destination in Europe, as many people think it’s poor and dangerous to travel around. There were several war conflicts in the 90s when Yugoslavia fell apart but today the Balkan Peninsula is completely safe. However, foreigners can rarely be found around, except for famous tourist attractions like Dubrovnik or Hvar. Locals are curious and very friendly towards tourists, and guests are treated with a lot of respect. Finally, the Balkan peninsula is the most budget-friendly destination in Europe as most of the countries are still developing and recovering from the 50 years of socialism. Use this chance to get off-the beaten-track in Europe and experience some fantastic sights, delicious Balkan delicacies, and amazing local hospitality!