Our 3 Week Balkan Road Trip: Itinerary and Highlights
Road trips are by far our favorite way to travel and a Balkans road trip has been on our mind for a while. We were supposed to do the trip back in the summer, but plans changed (as they so often do) and we ended up back in Asia. Our trip got pushed back to November, and we were a little concerned about how the weather would affect the trip…
Should You Visit The Balkans in Low Season?
While we were relieved we wouldn’t constantly be elbow-to-elbow with hoards of other tourists, we knew that swimming in the crystal blue Adriatic Sea would be out of the question and worried that rain and grey skies would be the theme of the trip. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case at all! We had the most incredible 3 weeks, gorgeous weather 90% of the time, and often found ourselves alone at some of the most heavily visited sites.
Furthermore, we found prices dropped quite a bit in low season, sometimes less than half the price compared to summer months. For example, we paid 30 HRK (less than $5 USD) for admission to KRKA National Park. In July and August, they charge 180 HRK (nearly $30 USD)! We also didn’t have to pay parking and were able to park at the base of the falls (only with about a dozen other cars) instead of having to bus down to the park. Additionally, border crossings between countries were so quick and easy. We hardly ever waited any more than 5 minutes (usually no wait at all), except for the one crossing on the drive from Mostar to Dubrovnik where we waited about 25 minutes. I’ve been told the wait times can get quite long in the summer.
Renting a Car
One of the most difficult factors of planning this trip was finding a car rental company that allowed us to cross borders to all countries we wanted to visit – Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Serbia. We ended up going with Hertz as they were surprisingly the most affordable and would allow us to cross borders for a one-time fee of 26 Euro. When we called to make a slight change to our itinerary, the CSR ended up adding in some other discounts (no idea what she did) that saved us another $100. Somehow it ended up costing us the same amount of money to rent for 3 weeks vs 2 weeks, as originally planned, so we figured, why not?! The cost for 21 days, picking up and dropping off in Zagreb ended up totaling 370 EUR (approx $450 USD). Not a bad spend for a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Our 3-week Road Trip Itinerary
While I had done quite a bit of research and planning before we arrived and had a general idea of what our itinerary would look like, we didn’t book any rooms ahead of time other than our first night in Zagreb. This was soooo hard for me as I love to have a plan, but weather can be quite unpredictable this time of year, we decided we wanted to be flexible and head towards the sunshine. This ended up being a great decision.
2 Nights in Rijeka & Opatija
The plan was to head to straight to Plitvice Lakes National Park (if you’ve never heard of it, check these images out) and then from there to Šibenik for our first night. However, when we arrived at Plitvice we were practically in a cloud and couldn’t see 5 feet in front us. And then it started raining. We decided to wait for a better day if we could fit it back into our itinerary (spoiler alert – we did not :(). In fact, we were showing rain for almost every city in Croatia for the next few days – except Rijeka. Not knowing anything about it, we headed that direction.
While Rijeka wasn’t the most exciting city or the prettiest, it was still a great way to start the trip. Its a port city on the northern coast of the Adriatic and the 3rd largest city in Croatia. From there, we also made the 20-minute journey to Opatija for a day.
Opatija was much more impressive in our opinion. Its a beautiful resort town on the coast full of rich history and stunning architecture. Its also clearly a little more upscale. It made a great day trip and we enjoyed strolling their famous coastal promenade – the Lungomare.
2 Nights in Šibenik and KRKA National Park
While we were sad we didn’t make it to Plitvice, we were excited to visit KRKA National Park. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect and the fall colors were in full effect. The best part? We practically had the place to ourselves! I’ve seen the pictures of this place in high season. They look something like this…
We were grateful to not have to fight any crowds and had no problem getting photos without anyone else in them. The downside? It was too cold to swim, obviously. I’m sure its amazing in the summer, but to be honest, I think I’d rather skip the swimming and really be able to enjoy the place the way we did.
We then proceeded to Šibenik for two nights. This is another historic coastal town not far from the park that’s full of charm. We stayed right in the center where we could explore the winding stairwells and alleyways that made up the historic center. It is also famous for its 4 fortresses that provide sweeping views of the Adriatic. We literally had the place to ourselves…
4 Nights in Split
Split was a place that we always thought would be a good spot to base ourselves for a while so we were really excited to check in out. Unfortunately, we got quite a bit of rain when we were there so we didn’t really do much touristy stuff. We kind of just hung out in our apartment, catching up on work and explored the old town a bit. Split was really picturesque and had a lot to offer. I definitely think we could go back there for a while.
1 Night in Mostar
After seeing our friends photos of this dreamy little town with its iconic bridge and aqua river, this might have been the spot I was most excited to see. And it definitely lived up to, if not exceeded, my expectations. Its quite a bit touristy but I couldn’t help but love it. It has so much history that we were really eager to learn about. After all, it was the most heavily bombed city in the Bosnian War.
We took part in the free walking tour (of which we were the only ones on) and we really learned a lot about it. It was heart-breaking and crazy to think it was not so long ago as evidence of the war is still visible throughout the city. Seeing photos of what the city looked like before the war, and looking at the same spot today was really shocking. In addition to its fascinating history, we also found everyone there to be so friendly and the food incredible. Its like a meat-eaters paradise. There are so many reasons to visit Mostar.
3 Nights in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik was a place I was really mixed about. I knew it would be an incredible place to see, particularly the old city walls and coastal cliff views. However, I’ve read so much about how its become inundated with tourists to the point its almost not enjoyable anymore. In fact, they are going to begin limiting the number of people they allow into its ancient city very soon in an effort to protect the UNESCO Heritage Site (more about that here). These pictures just look downright miserable…
However, on arriving to Dubrovnik, we were delighted to find how shockingly quiet it was. Don’t get me wrong – we found more people here than any other stop on our trip. But we were actually able to enjoy walking the city walls without bumping into anyone else and we were still able to lose ourselves in the ancient city. It was the most impressive city we visited in Croatia and I would still recommend seeing it – crowds or no crowds. But if you can go in low season, I think it would be far more enjoyable.
4 Nights in Kotor
Kotor is only about a 2-hour drive from Dubrovnik, but we found it pretty crazy how much prices dropped just crossing the border. The drive was beautiful as most of the time we were driving along the Bay of Kotor with beautiful views of the mountains completely surrounding us.
We stayed in a lovely Airbnb with one of the most friendly hosts we’ve had. Again, it was shockingly quiet strolling the alleyways of the old city. Although it was overcast, the steep climb up to Kotor Castle (1355 steps to be exact) provided truly epic views and was well worth it. And another meat lovers paradise (as is all of the Balkans), we had the best meal of our trip – multiple times – at this small, family-run restaurant. Highly recommend!
1 Night in Durmitor National Park
After spending most of our time in cities, we were ready to get out of town and into the mountains. Durmitor National Park in the north of Montenegro came highly recommended by our host in Kotor. Snow was on the forecast which made us a little nervous to drive there, but also made me pretty excited. We had been enjoying beautiful and sunny 60-70 degree weather up until this point but I was itching to see some snow.
The drive to the national park was really scenic. When we arrived, we were met with a true winter wonderland at the Black Lake. We then stayed in these cute little bungalows that allowed us to enjoy the snowfall from the warm and cozy indoors and that just topped off the day.
2 Nights in Zlatibor
We left Durmitor National Park and headed for Zlatibor, a popular tourist resort and ski town. We were told the snow was coming that night so we were anxious to get there before it started. When we arrived, it was raining and absolutely frigid. The snow began that night and when we woke up the next morning, absolutely everything was covered in snow.
I was like a kid at Christmas and couldn’t wait to get outside. It continued snowing the entire day and into the next. This was honestly my most favorite part of the trip (Charlie may disagree). But it was seriously picture perfect and I really didn’t want to leave.
1 Day in Belgrade
We had originally planned on spending a lot more time in Serbia. We wanted to see more of Belgrade, as well as visit Novi Sad (highly recommended by our friends Together to Wherever) and home of some friends that we had just recently met in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had just one night left to spend in Belgrade before making the trek back to Zagreb to return the car. We were able to take part in the walking tour in Belgrade that was really interesting and we found some good eats during our short visit. That makes us eager to return to Serbia and explore some more of it in the future.
Overall, there is nothing about our trip that we would change. It really couldn’t have gone more perfectly. We were sad we missed a couple spots, but we know that it definitely wasn’t our last trip to the Balkans. In fact, I would venture to say it was one of the best trips we’ve had and my favorite region we’ve explored. This wasn’t the end of our European adventures though. We ended up back in Zagreb just as the Christmas markets were starting…that’s a story for another time.
~ Pin for Later ~