Visiting the site of Europe’s most recent war might not sound like a relaxing vacation, but you’d be surprised. The Balkans is a land where the people are as varied and complex as the landscapes, where a calico demography of ethnicities and creeds spots the hillsides and valleys, and where recent and terrible tragedy is belied by lavish hospitality and wry cynicism. By some tokens, it might be the best place to get a feeling for the Europe that once was.
Most tourists make a few stops along Croatia’s glittering Adriatic coastline, or hightail it all the way down to Istanbul or Greece. The rest of the peninsula lurks in murky indistinctness: post-Communist, Eastern European, familiar yet strange at the same time. There’s much more to the Balkan Peninsula than Dubrovnik city tours and cruises on the Adriatic. Here are 11 of the best places you should visit.
Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Why you need to go: Just a short ride from Dubrovnik in Croatia, Trebinje in Bosnia’s Eastern Herzegovina region is a perfect entry point to Bosnia’s taciturn Serbian half, the Republika Srpska. Fenced in by high scenic mountains, the city’s distinctly Mediterranean feel is tempered by Cyrillic-lettered signage and Byzantine cupolas. The brilliant blue-green Trebisnjica river placidly corrals the crumbling old town from the (also crumbling) new, reflecting the weathered stone buildings on a perfectly smooth surface before disappearing underground to reappear in Croatia.
The one must-do thing: Party. On summer nights, the city’s old town turns into what amounts to an open-air fête, with live music outdoors and DJs spinning in the town’s surprisingly abundant nightclubs.
Why you need to go: Dating back to Roman times (Constantine the Great was born here 1,800 years ago), Niš is a city Serbia studded with remnants of the past. Typically characterized as a gateway to the east, the city changed hands dozens of times over history, a fact borne witness by the still-impressive fortifications scattered throughout the center. Now a hub of culture in Serbia, Niš hosts a number of festivals throughout the year and boasts a lively cafe and bar scene.
The one must-do thing: See what remains of the city’s violent past at the Skull Tower. The vengeful Ottoman vizier Hurshid Pasha constructed a tower out of the skulls of his vanquished foes to serve as a warning to future enemies.
Why you need to go: Turkey’s own slice of the Balkans is small these days, but boasts a rich history. Last stop on the road to Istanbul (or Constantinople, depending on when), Edirne has been the site of dozens of major battles since the Hellenistic era. Its most famous attraction is the gigantic 16th-century Selimiye Mosque that dominates the skyline. The city’s central place in Turkish culture is attested by the interesting Turkish sport of oil wrestling, and a festival commemorating the tradition is held every June.
The one must-do thing: The city is perhaps one of the best places in the world to appreciate traditional Ottoman architecture, especially bridges. Walk along the lengthy Maritza bridge and admire Edirne’s many minarets from the lookout at its midpoint.
Danube Delta, Romania
Why you need to go: The sprawling delta of the Danube is the terminus of Europe’s longest river, which weaves its way from Southern Germany to the Black Sea. These vast and sparsely populated waterways, knit together by narrow canals, are the country’s breadbasket and home to a UNESCO-protected wetlands rich in wildlife and biodiversity.
The one must-do thing: Book a cruise through the scenic waterways and dine on delicious local fish and caviar.
Why you need to go: Well away from Croatia’s heavily touristed Dalmatian coast, Osijek is the center of Croatia’s Eastern Slavonia region. Heavily ravaged during the wars of the ’90s, the city has been mostly rebuilt. Slavonia is renowned across Croatia for its food, a heady mixture of Croatian, Serbian, and Hungarian cuisines representative of Osijek’s multiethnic heritage, and famous for its spiciness and freshness.
The one must-do thing: Go wine tasting in the countryside around the city, and sample Graševina, Croatia’s most famous wine, at its source.
Aladzha Monastery, Bulgaria
Why you need to go: Hewn into the living rock of a vertical karst cliff in Northeastern Bulgaria, the ancient Aladzha Monastery is one of Europe’s most esoteric Christian monasteries. Monks carved living quarters, crypts, and even a small chapel into the limestone. A short hike through the forest brings you to a catacomb dating even further back in time, where they eked out a meager existence over 1,500 years ago.
The one must-do thing: Throw a few coins onto the carpeted floor of the monastery’s chapel for some good luck.
Why you need to go: Though a century of Greek governance has reoriented the city toward the Aegean, for millennia, Thessaloniki (or Salonica, or Salun, or any of the many names the city has gone by over the years) served as the gateway to the Balkans. It was known as the cosmopolitan second capital of the Ottoman Empire, and later its large historic Jewish population earned it the moniker “mother of Israel.” Ravaged by a catastrophic fire a hundred years ago, the new city was rebuilt on top of the old, the ruins of which are visible in the tunnels of city’s new metro system.
The one must-do thing: Eat seafood and drink wine! Thessaloniki’s life is in its street cafes, of which it has more per capita than any other city in Europe. Take a leisurely stroll down the waterfront, an activity so intrinsic to local culture that it has its own name,volta.