five Balkan countries to discover for your next holiday

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Montenegro

With the Adriatic Sea to the south and mountain ranges to the north, Montenegro is an easy place to combine a beach holiday with a more active holiday. The beach scene is centered around the medieval walled city of Budva, which has a 22 kilometer long strip of sand and pebble coast. Lake Skadar, southern Europe’s largest, is about an hour’s drive away, perfect for boat trips among water lilies and Dalmatian pelicans.

Fjord-like, Unesco-listed Bay of Kotor, surrounded by mountains, is unavoidable. There are several medieval towns, many churches and monasteries around the coast; from baroque Perast, sightseers can visit the islet of Our Lady of the Rocks. In Kotor town, 1,355 steps lead to the Sveti Ivan fortress, with spectacular views.

Budva.

Budva. Photo: Kuriyama Chikara/Getty Images

Heading north, sights include the mountaintop mausoleum of the 19th-century ruler Petar II Petrović-Njegoš; Cetinje, the former capital; and Ostrog Monastery, built into a cliff. Durmitor National Park, with its forests, lakes and mountains, is the ultimate destination for outdoor adventure. Zabljak, the highest town in the Balkans (1456 meters), is a good base. Visitors can zipline over the 1.3 km deep Tara Canyon; go rafting on the Tara River; swim in Black Lake; or brave wolves and bears as they walk 25 marked trails.

Kosovo

Mirusha Falls

The Mirusha waterfalls are in a protected park in central Kosovo known for its canyons and karst landscape. Photo: Olivier Wullen/Alamy

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and remains a largely undiscovered tourist destination for Brits, who may still associate it with the year-long war of 1998. But today it’s a safe place to travel, with few crowds and low prices. Landlocked Kosovo consists of two large plains surrounded by mountains with 50 peaks over 2,000 meters. That means great hiking, horse riding and skiing. With no sea, swimming in natural pools is popular: the Mirusha waterfalls have gorges, caves and 13 lakes. There is a lively nightlife in the capital Pristina and in the second city Prizren. That’s partly thanks to the fact that this Balkan state has the youngest population in Europe – more than 65% of its population is under 30 years old. The two cities also have many mosques, museums and monuments, including Pristina’s Emin Gjiku Ethnographic Museum and the Newborn Monument, unveiled for independence and painted in a different style each year.

Elsewhere, top sights include four Unesco-listed monasteries and churches – Dečani, Peć, Gračanica and Ljeviš; the bear sanctuary, home to European brown bears rescued from captivity by the charity Four Paws; and Gadime Cave, full of crystallized stalagmites and stalactites.

Slovenia

Ljubljana is a city of Baroque and Habsburg buildings.

Ljubljana is a city of Baroque and Habsburg buildings. Photo: kasto80/Getty Images

Slovenia has a charming capital; mountains, lakes and forests; fine wines; and even a short stretch of coast. Ljubljana, the compact capital, is built around the Ljubljanica River, with Baroque and Habsburg buildings on both banks. A glass of wine on a riverside terrace is hard to beat, but the city also has a hilltop castle, art galleries, theaters and museums (with Europe’s only complete mammoth skeleton at the Natural History Museum), iconic 20th-century architecture by Slovenian Jože Plečnik, and the wooded Tivoli Park.

Piran is the most beautiful town on the Slovenian coast, with Italianate architecture reflecting centuries of Venetian rule

In the northwestern part of the country, the top sights are the spectacular lakes Bled and Bohinj in the Julian Alps. On the other side of the mountains, the less visited Soča Valley offers hiking, rafting and kayaking in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.

Heading south, you must visit the Postojna and Škocjan caves, and Predjama Castle, built into a cave mouth. Piran is the postcard town on the coast, with Italianate architecture reflecting centuries of Venetian rule.

Eastern Slovenia is a wine country – lively Maribor, the second city, has the world’s oldest vines – and is a good choice for a farm stay. Ptuj, the oldest city in Slovenia, is a beautiful place for a day trip.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Hikers in Sutjeska National Park.

Hikers in Sutjeska National Park. Photo: Witold Skrypczak/Alamy

Another country associated with 1990s warfare, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is back on the backpacker trail. The capital, Sarajevo, has been compared to a miniature Istanbul or Jerusalem, with its old town, Baščaršija, full of bazaars, mosques and restaurants. But recent history has not been forgotten: the History Museum and the Tunnel Museum both tell the story of the four-year siege that claimed the lives of 10,000 people in the 1990s.

Related: Peace amid cascades: national parks in Croatia and Bosnia

Mostar, in the south, is the second biggest draw, famous for its beautiful old bridge – visitors can pay to dive off it if they dare. Less touristy (and longer) is the Arslanagić Bridge in the beautiful town of Trebinje in the far southwest. Other notable towns include Travnik, the former Ottoman capital, and Jajce, with a spectacular waterfall.

Baščaršija, Sarajevo's old town.

Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old town. Photo: Federica Gentile/Getty Images

Rafting is popular from March to October; one of the best rafting regions is around the town of Bihać, convenient for the rapids of the Una River. Other active options include multi-day hikes in Sutjeska National Park, overnight stays in mountain huts and the 10-day TransDinarica mountain bike trail from Mostar to Sarajevo. The riders live in B&B and home stays and eat home-cooked food. In winter, there is reasonable skiing in the Bjelašnica and Jahorina mountains south of Sarajevo.

North Macedonia

North Macedonia is blessed with lakes.

North Macedonia is blessed with lakes. Photo: AleksandarGeorgiev/Getty Images

North Macedonia – so-called since 2019 – is a mountainous but green Balkan state. Although it may be landlocked, it is blessed with lakes: most famously Ohrid, one of Europe’s oldest and deepest, but also Prespa, Dojran and more than 50 smaller glaciers.

Unesco-listed Lake Ohrid is the top attraction, surrounded by ancient monasteries, beach bars and seafood restaurants. Activities include lakeside cooking classes, e-bikes, boat trips and paragliding. The town of the same name is full of churches and monuments, and along the lake are picturesque fishing villages.

John's Church, Lake Ohrid

St. John’s Church at Kaneo, Lake Ohrid. Photo: Saraginov/Getty Images

Skopje, the capital, is less immediately appealing, but retains a Byzantine fort and an Ottoman center, plus modern additions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art. Mavrovo National Park, on another lake and home to bears, wolves and lynxes, offers hiking, cycling, horse riding and swimming in summer, and skiing in winter. It is also home to the picturesque 11th-century Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery. The other national parks are Galičica, found between lakes Ohrid and Prespa, and Pelister, a mountain with two glacial lakes.

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