The best Balkans itinerary for an unforgettable 3-week road trip

by | Jan 7, 2024 | Bosnia&Herzevgovina, Croatia, Europe, Itineraries, Montenegro, Roadtrips, Slovenia | 0 comments

Epic 3-weeks Balkans itinerary
Epic 3-weeks Balkans itinerary

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The Balkans are one of Europe’s most stunning and underrated regions. Picture dazzling coastlines caressed by turquoise waters, medieval towns that transport you back in time and breathtaking alpine landscapes with rugged peaks and steep canyons.

But the beauty of the Balkans extends beyond its impressive landscapes.

The region boasts a rich tapestry of cultures, influenced by centuries of history and a blend of various ethnic groups. From the ancient Greeks, Romans and Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans have absorbed a diverse range of influences that can be seen in its traditions, architecture, languages, and cuisine.

The Balkans have been on my bucket list for a long time and last September, we finally embarked on an epic road trip through this amazing part of Europe. This 3-week Balkans itinerary is jam-packed with must-see places and epic activities, from the Slovenian Riviera through Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to the impressive Dinaric Alps in Montenegro.

The amphitheater in Pula
Clothes hanging across a street in Rovinj

DAy 1-2 | Pula

When planning your Balkans road trip, remember that car rental companies usually charge much higher one-way fees for returns in a different country. Because of this, I’d recommend starting and ending your trip in Croatia. This Balkans itinerary starts in Pula,  but you could also fly into Rijeka or Zagreb instead.

Sitting at the tip of the Istrian peninsula in northern Croatia, Pula is known for its Roman-inspired architecture, ancient temples, and magnificent coastline.

The city’s most iconic landmark is the well-preserved Roman amphitheatre, the Pula Arena. In addition, Pula features ancient temples and historical buildings, a vibrant waterfront promenade, and a charming old town with cute cafes and shops. In short, Pula is the perfect starting point for an amazing road trip through the Balkans.

View of the old town of Piran
Boats in the harbour of Piran
A restaurant sign advertising fresh fish
View of the old town of Piran
Boats in the harbour of Piran

DAy 3-4 | Piran

Distance: 125 km from Pula to Piran via Rovinj

Say goodbye to Croatia temporarily and head to Piran on the Slovenian coast and country number 2 on this Balkans itinerary. I’d recommend leaving early so that you have time for some stops along the way:

  • Rovinj is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful towns in Croatia. The picturesque old town is located on a small peninsula. The town’s most prominent feature is the soaring tower of the Church of St. Euphemia, which thrones above the colourful medieval houses.
  • Lim Bay, also known as Lim Fjord (although it is not technically a fjord) is a 10-km long channel north of Rovinj.  It’s known for its mussel and oyster farms. For some freshly shucked oysters, head to Tony’s Oyster Shack.

Croatia and Slovenia are part of the EU, so you won’t need to show your passports/IDs and documents when crossing the border. From the border, it’s less than thirty minutes to Piran.

The city wall in Piran
Woman relaxing after a swim in Piran

When talking about perfect coastal towns, Piran should be pretty high up on that list. The medieval town is a maze of narrow alleys, picturesque squares, and pastel-coloured houses. It sits at the tip of a peninsula, jutting out into the Adriatic.

Well-preserved city walls tower above Piran and the promenade surrounding most of the town is lined by many restaurants and cafes. Piran is one of my favourite destinations on this Balkans itinerary, and I’m sure this seaside town will cast its spell on you too!

Where to park in Piran | Most of Piran is car-free. There is this secure parking outside the city walls.  You can either walk into the old town from there or catch the free tourist shuttle that runs between the parking and Tartini Square.

Swimming on the promenade in Piran

The best things to do in Piran

  • Spend some time strolling around the picturesque old town of Piran, sipping coffee at one of the restaurants on Tartini Square, snapping photos, and getting lost in the cobbled alleys.
  • Wander up to St. George Cathedral and climb the church tower for the best view of Piran. There is a small fee of 3 euros for the church tower, but it is totally worth it.
  • Enjoy a refreshing dip in the Adriatic. There is a tiny beach next to Piran Harbour, but you can also swim anywhere else along the promenade. There are various steps for easy access, and the big rocks are the perfect spot to bask in the sun after swimming.
  • Watch the sunset on the promenade or enjoy some sundowners at Cafe Teater.
  • Sample delicious Istrian food or fresh seafood in one of Piran’s many great restaurants. We had a delicious meal at Hotel Piran and got recommended Rostelin and Fritolin (both were completely booked on both nights we spent in town but the reviews are great).
 

Where to stay in Piran

There are many options in Piran’s old town and along the promenade. Old Town Rooms Piran is a cute guesthouse in the heart of the old town and only 1-2 minutes from the promenade. Apartments Jago is a charming 1-bedroom apartment built over 3 floors. It has a cosy living room, a fully equipped kitchen and a private rooftop terrace.

Stone house in the village of Groznjan
The small village of Hum in Croatia

DAy 5 | Istrian peninsula

Distance: 265 km from Piran to Plitvice Lakes via Groznjan and Hum

After this quick stint in Slovenia, it is time to head back to Croatia. The next stop on this Balkans itinerary is Plitvice Lakes National Park, but before you head there, make sure to check out some more of Istria’s gems:

Groznjan is a quaint village, perched on a hilltop above the Mira River valley. Once a Venetian fortress, Groznjan is now an artistic hub and boasts various galleries and shops, where you can find unique souvenirs and culinary delights.

Motovun was on the list of places recommended by the person at the rental car station in Pula. It looks stunning, but when we got close to Motovun, it was incredibly busy and parking was only possible way below the village. We decided to skip this visit and head to Hum instead. If you’d like to visit Motovun, I’d recommend booking a night there, so that you can enjoy the village without the day visitors.

Hum is a tiny village. It’s home to only around 30 inhabitants, and you can probably walk the whole village in less than 15 minutes. But it is super cute, and the only restaurant in town, Humska Konoba, is a great place to try some delicious Istrian dishes including truffle.

Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Where to stay at Plitvice Lakes National Park

I’d recommend staying in Rastovača, a small settlement within walking distance of Plitvice Lakes National Park. Most of the guesthouses and B&Bs in Rastovača will allow you to leave your car there while you visit the national park, so you can save the parking fee, and you can reach Entry 1 to the national park on a 5 to 10-minute walk.

Alternatively, there are three hotels within the national park, but from what I have read, they are relatively pricey and value for money is much better outside the park.

Waterfall at Plitvice Lakes National Park
Boardwalk at Plitvice Lakes National Park

DAy 6 | Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest national park in Croatia, covers almost 30.000 ha of lush forests, bright turquoise lakes, and gushing waterfalls. The national park is one of the most famous destinations in Croatia, and I have to admit that I was curious if it was worth the hype…

Plitvice Lakes National Park is a must-visit on any Balkans itinerary!

You can easily spend hours roaming along the boardwalks and hiking trails, exploring the many waterfalls and bright turquoise natural pools, and enjoying the view from stunning viewpoints.

Best views on this Balkan itinerary
Plitvice Lakes National Park
A boardwalk at Plitvice Lakes National Park
Best views on this Balkan itinerary
Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park can get very crowded, especially during the high season from around mid-June to September. But there are a few things you can do to beat the crowds:

  • Get your tickets in advance. The number of tickets per hour and entry is limited, and especially the slots in the morning often sell out during the busy months. Tickets cost between 10 and 40 euros per person, depending on the season. You can check availability and buy your tickets here.
  • The gates to Plitvice Lakes National Park open between 7 and 8 AM. Get into the park as early as possible (as soon as it opens!). The big groups start arriving between 9 and 10 AM, and this way you will get a head-start on the big crowds.
  • Enter the national park through Gate 1, as most people do. This way you can get a head-start on the big crowds, instead of meeting them halfway and having to weave past them on the boardwalks.
On the ferry in Croatia
On the ferry in Croatia

Distance: 120 km from Plitvice Lakes to Zadar + 1.5-2 hours on the ferry

After exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park, hop back into your rental car and drive to the ferry port in Zadar. From there, catch the Jadrolinija car ferry to Dugi Otok.

You can check timetables and book your tickets here. We booked our tickets on the day and ended up having to extend our stay because the ferry was fully booked. There are obviously worse things than spending an extra day on a beautiful island, but if you’re on a schedule, I’d recommend booking your ferries in advance.

Dragon Eye in Dugi Otok from above

DAy 7-9 | Dugi Otok

The Croatian archipelago consists of over 1.000 islands, islets and reefs and no Balkans itinerary would be complete without a relaxing island getaway (or two!).

Dugi Otok is one of Croatia’s largest, but lesser-known islands. The first thing that made me want to visit Dugi Otok was a photo of a turquoise lake surrounded by forests at the top of steep cliffs, plummeting into the deep blue ocean. Sounds pretty amazing, right?

I am happy to report that Dugi Otok has so much more to see!

The cost is dotted by pebbly beaches and hidden sea caves, the villages are quaint and colorful, and the lonely bays and coves boast some of the clearest water in enchanting shades of turquoise and blue.

Brbinjscica Bay on Dugi Otok
View of the ocean on Dugi Otok
Houses reflecting in the harbuor in Sali, Dugi Otok
Table in front of a restaurant in Dugi Otok
2-week Namibia itinerary
Table in front of a restaurant in Dugi Otok

The best things to do on Dugi Otok

  • Telascica National Park at the southeastern end of Dugi Otok is one of the must-see places to explore on the island. Covering an area of 70 km2, it boasts secluded bays and pine forests, 13 islands, 14 free-roaming donkeys, 200 meter high cliffs, and the turquoise salt lake Mir.
  • The Kornati National Park consists of 140 islands, islets and reefs. Join a group tour or private sailing trip and spend a day exploring the stunning archipelago.
  • Brbinjscica Bay is a small, secluded bay surrounded by imposing cliffs and numerous sea caves. It’s the perfect spot for a swim, and you can also hire kayaks to explore the coastline.
  • The coast next to Brbinjscica Bay is one of my favourite places on Dugi Otok. Here’s where you can find the Dragon’s Eye, a natural rock pool, and Golubinka Sea Cave. You can reach the sea cave by jumping off the cliff and swimming into the cave or by kayak from Brbinjiscica Bay.
Standing in front of Stari Most bridge in Mostar
Colorful trinkets at a shop in Mostar
A mosque in Mostar
Standing in front of Stari Most bridge in Mostar
A mosque in Mostar

DAy 10 | Mostar

Distance: 290 km from Zadar to Mostar

Catch the ferry from Dugi Otok back to mainland Croatia. Most of the route from Zadar to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina will take you along the highway. This is not the most incredible drive on this Balkans itinerary, but it’s pretty straightforward and shouldn’t take you much more than three hours.

The historic city of Mostar is best known for and named after the famous, perfectly shaped Stari Most (Old Bridge) spanning the Neretva River that runs through the town.

Mostar’s enchanting town centre is a maze of cobbled streets and old Turkish houses, traditional restaurants and trinket sellers. The Old Bridge and most of the old town were destroyed during the 1990 conflict. They were rebuilt a decade later, becoming a symbol of post-war reconciliation.

While Bosnia & Herzegovina is not part of the European Union, you might be able to visit the country on a Schengen Visa. You can find more info about it here.

Whenever I travel abroad, I always use Airalo to get an eSim with local data. It’s the easiest way to stay connected!
Hiking at Durmitor National Park in Montenegro

DAy 11-12 | Durmitor National Park

Distance: 230 km from Mostar to Zabljak

Start your day with a coffee at Fabrika Coffee Mostar and an early morning stroll through the old town. A 4-hour drive takes you from Mostar into the mountains of Durmitor National Park in Möntenegro.

Durmitor National Park is one of the most impressive and stunning places you’ll visit on this 3-week Balkans itinerary. Spanning 390 km2, it boasts an incredible alpine landscape of jagged limestone peaks, steep valleys and alpine meadows, dotted by dazzling mountain lakes and small local villages.

In addition to some of Montenegro’s highest peaks, Durmitor also features the deepest canyon in Europe!

The magnificent Tara canyon cuts through the mountains of Durmitor National Park, at a maximum depth of 1,300 meters (just 200 less than the Grand Canyon, making it the second-deepest canyon in the world).

While Montenegro is not part of the European Union, you might be able to visit the country on a Schengen Visa. You can find more info about it here.

Unique rock formations at Durmitor National Park
View from Sedlo Pass in Montenegro
Sign at the Bobotov Kuk hike in Montenegro
At the top of Bobotov Kuk summit
View from Sedlo Pass in Montenegro
At the top of Bobotov Kuk summit

The best things to do at Durmitor National Park

  • Durmitor National Park is a hikers’ paradise, featuring more than 150 km of trails that offer the perfect opportunity to explore the majestic mountain terrain. Put on your hiking boots, take in the stunning scenery and spend an epic day in the mountains.
  • For an unforgettable experience, summit Bobotov Kuk, the highest peak in Durmitor and one of the highest mountains in Montenegro. The climb to the 2,523-meter-high peak takes about three hours from Sedlo Pass, but once you reach the top, the 360° views will take your breath away.
  • Take a leisurely drive along the scenic 85-km Durmitor Ring Road, which winds its way past towering mountains, charming local villages, and makeshift stalls selling local produce.
  • Visit Curevac viewpoint to enjoy the best view of Tara Canyon, Europe’s deepest canyon. You can get to the viewpoint on an easy, pretty flat 2-3 km hike from this parking lot or in about 2 hours from Zabljak.

Check out my complete guide to hiking Bobotov Kuk at Durmitor National Park.

Traditional house in Zabljak
View of Durmitor National Park through the window

Where to stay in Zabljak

Zabljak, the main town in the area, is the ideal base for your next two nights. The town features plenty of accommodation options in and around town, various restaurants and cafes, a decent-sized supermarket, and even some outdoor stores.

We stayed in one of the chalets at Mountain View Lodges. The chalets are located about 6 km out of Zabljak, nestled in the picturesque countryside. The chalets have a fully equipped kitchen, a cosy lounge, two upstairs bedrooms, and a generous terrace with sweeping mountain views.

We truly enjoyed our stay there, but I’d like to mention that checking in was a little complicated, because we weren’t able to reach the owner. Make sure to message +382 68 820 419 on WhatsApp ahead of your arrival and you will be fine (this is the person managing the place).

Pavlova Strana viewpoint in Montenegro

DAy 13-14 | Skadar Lake National Park

Distance: 145 km from Zabljak to Vranjina

Lake Skadar is the largest lake in the Balkans, extending across the Montenegrin-Albanian border.  Interestingly, only the two-thirds of the lake located in Montenegro are protected, and the birdlife in the region is almost unparalleled anywhere in Europe!

Keep your eyes peeled for over 270 bird species, including majestic pelicans, cormorants, and eagles. In addition, the national park boasts rugged mountains, island monasteries, tiny villages, and sprawling fields of water lilies.

River at Skadar Lake National Park in Montenegro
Water lilies on a lake
Boat cruise on lake Skadar

THE BEST THINGS TO DO AT SKADAR LAKE NATIONAL PARK

  • If you’re looking to add some stunning views to your Balkans itinerary, don’t miss out on Pavlova Strana Viewpoint. Located at Skadar Lake National Park, this viewpoint offers the most popular and picturesque view of the Rijeka Crnojevica River flowing into Lake Skadar in an almost perfect U-shape.
  • Booking a lake cruise is one of the best things to do at Skadar Lake National Park. We booked this tour and enjoyed a private 2-hour cruise on Lake Skadar, sipping local wine, spotting an incredible amount of birds, and enyjoing the golden hour. Alternatively, you can also explore the lake by kayak.
  • The old road to Bar is a beautiful and very scenic mountain road between Virpazar and Bar on the Montenegrin coast. We ended up on this 35-km long drive out of curiosity, and I’d definitely recommend including it in your Montenegro itinerary.
House boats in Montenegro
Bed overlooking the river in Montenegro

Where to stay AT SKADAR LAKE NATIONAL PARK

Talija Skadar Lake in Vranjina is the most unique accommodation in this Balkans itinerary and the perfect base while visiting Skadar Lake National Park. This unique gem is a little cabin floating on the Moraca River. You can spot birds and jumping fish from your bed in the upstairs section or on the little terrace. The owners also run the restaurant next door, a great place for local food.

Alternatively, look out for accommodation in and around Virpazar, the main town at Lake Skadar. The main road connecting Podgorica with Virpazar can get quite busy, and I’d recommend booking a place that is not right by the road.

Bay surrounded by steep mountains
Cat looking out of a window

DAy 15-16 | Kotor

Distance: 70 km from Vranjina to Kotor

Prepare to be awed by the stunning beauty of the Bay of Kotor, deemed to be one of the most impressive landscapes in the Mediterranean. With its towering mountains, winding coastline, and quaint villages, the bay looks like a real-life postcard.

The medieval old town of Kotor is a well-preserved maze of narrow cobbled streets, churches, and hidden squares, all enclosed by the impressive city walls. As you wander through the town, you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.

Kotor is probably the most popular destination in Montenegro. And as soon as you arrive in the stunning Bay of Kotor, you’ll understand why visiting Kotor is a non-negotiable on any Balkans itinerary.

Person looking out on a city and bay

The best things to do in Kotor

  • Start your day right with a scrumptious brunch at Hotel Hippocampus. Bruch is served on the rooftop terrace, which is a peaceful retreat from the busy alleys of Kotor.
  • Spend some time wandering around the picturesque old town of Kotor, sipping coffee on one of the many squares, browsing some of the boutiques, snapping photos and getting lost in the narrow alleys.
  • Climb the city walls surrounding Kotor. The walls surround the old town and zigzag up San Giovanni Hill behind it to a maximum elevation of 280 meters. The highest point, Fortress Sveti Ivan (St. John) is one of the best places to enjoy the view (and sunset) over the Bay of Kotor.
  • If you’re up for a challenge, hike Pestingrad Peak for an exceptional view of the Bay of Kotor. It’s just a 45-minute drive past the Kotor Serpentines to the trailhead. Once there, you can park your car and begin the 2.5-hour return hike to the 1,000-meter-high peak.
  • Venture beyond Kotor and visit Perast, a smaller and quieter coastal village, only a short drive away from Kotor. Instead of driving, you can also head there by boat, combining it with a trip to the mesmerizing Blue Cave.
City wall and mountains
Restaurant in a narrow alley

Where to stay in Kotor

There is something magical about staying within the city walls of the historic old town. You’ll be amid the hustle and bustle, but you’ll also get to enjoy the city at its less busy, especially in the mornings. Just keep in mind that it can be a little loud on weekends and that you’ll have to park your car outside the city walls.

For slightly cheaper options with the best views of the Bay of Kotor, look for accommodation in Muo northwest of Kotor’s old town. The picturesque houses are lined up along a narrow road winding along the coast, which makes driving there a little challenging. But you can reach the old town on foot from most places in Muo.

On the other side of the old town is Dobrota, technically a suburb of Kotor. You can easily reach the old town on foot from there too, and since the sun sets behind the mountains on the other side of the bay, Dobrota enjoys sunlight for longer at the end of the day.

House and boat by the water
Bay and beach photographed from above

DAy 17-19 | Mljet

Distance: 90 km from Kotor to Dubrovnik + 1.5 hours on the ferry

From Kotor, reaching the Montenegrin-Croatian border will take just over an hour. The road mostly winds its way along the beautiful Kotor Bay. Once you’ve crossed the border, reaching Dubrovnik should take you less than an hour.

Drop your rental car in Dubrovnik, then head to the port to catch a passenger ferry to Pomena on the island of Mljet. Mljet is known as Croatia’s greenest island. It is shrouded in Mediterranean forests, olive orchards, vineyards, interspersed with salt lakes, sleepy villages, soft sandy beaches, and mythical caves.

A few peaceful days on Mljet is the perfect way to end your Balkans itinerary!

Renting a car is most practical if you’d like to explore Mljet. There is no direct car ferry from Dubrovnik to Mljet. You can hire a car from Mljet Car Rentals in Sobra, or drive to Prapratno and catch the ferry from there to Sobra.

A cave on the coast from above

The best things to do in Mljet

  • Odysseus Cave is the most amazing place to visit in Mljet. You can swim into the cave through a tunnell that leads into the bigger cave, which has an opening at the ceiling. The sunlight entering creates mesmerizing reflections at the surface of the water and makes it gleam in the most incredible shades of blue.
  • Spend a few hours exploring Mljet National Park and its two turquoise saltwater lakes surrounded by lush forests. You can go for a hike, hire kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, or visit the Benedictine monastery set on a small island in the middle of the larger saltwater lake.
  • Mljet’s best beach is a bit of a hidden gem. Plaza Limuni is located at the southern tip of the island, past the village of Saplunara and some other nice beaches.
Restaurant and people standing in a narrow alley
Cat sleeping on stairs
Sunset over the ocean
Restaurant and people standing in a narrow alley
Sunset over the ocean

DAy 20-21 | Dubrovnik

Visiting Dubrovnik feels like a journey into the past or like stepping straight into a movie scene. As soon as you step through one of the three city gates, you can vividly imagine Dubrovnik’s exciting past as an important trading post.

Inside Dubrovnik’s walkable city walls, you’ll find a picturesque mix of Gothic and Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces, winding alleys, hidden courtyards, and streets lined by restaurants and boutiques. And surrounding Dubrovnik there are mountains, a coastline spilling out into hidden bays and pebbly beaches, sea caves and islands waiting to be explored.

We only had one day in Dubrovnik, but if you have a little more time in the Balkans, spend a few extra days in Dubrovnik. If you also only have a day, here’s what you should do:

  • have lunch at Moskar Street Food (they do the best truffle gnocchi you’ll ever eat!)
  • walk the city walls and spend a few hours wandering around and exploring hidden corners of the old town
  • treat yourself to a private sunset cruise for the perfect end to your Balkans road trip
  • enjoy a delicious dinner at Restaurant Marco Polo‘s cosy courtyard
Houses and forest reflecting in the water

The best time to visit the Balkans

The best travel time for this 3-week Balkans itinerary are the early and late summer months. Plan your trip between June and early July or from mid-August to late September. This way, you’ll visit the Balkans just before or after the main tourist season.

In my opinion September is the best month for a trip to the Balkans, and Southern Europe in general.

In September, the days are still hot and mostly sunny, but it cools down a little at night. The Mediterranean has had the time to warm up a little over the summer months. And you will be able to avoid the rush of the summer and autumn holidays, but also visit before places start closing down for winter.

Cars driving on a mountain road
Unique rock formations above a road

How to get around the Balkans

While you could visit most places in Croatia, Piran, Mostar and even Kotor by Flixbus, you’ll need a car to visit all the places on this Balkans itinerary. And to be honest, Flixbus is great if you want to travel from one city to another, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to get the most out of your trip to the Balkans. 

Travelling by car allows you to stop at all the amazing viewpoints, take detours to cute villages and hidden coves, and travel at your own speed. As in most countries in Europe, you’ll drive on the right-hand side in all countries visited on this Balkans itinerary.

Though often rather narrow, the roads are generally in good condition, especially on the Croatian islands and in Montenegro.  You will be driving your fair share of hairpin bends and I’d recommend renting a car of a smaller size with automatic transition to make navigating these roads as easy as possible. 

Don’t forget to save this Balkans itinerary to Pinterest to save it for later!
Epic 3-weeks Balkans itinerary
Epic 3-weeks Balkans itinerary

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Hi, I’m Sara, a twenty-something Swiss on a mission to become a full-time travel writer and digital nomad.