The Best Balkan capitals
It’s no secret that we love the Balkans. Besides incredible geography and welcoming people, the Balkan countries offer a ton of variety within what is a relatively small geographic area.
Similarly, its capital cities are all very different and (mostly) exciting in different ways. Not only that, most are little known by the average traveller and as a result you can expect to have original experiences while getting great value for your money.
This post compares the different Balkan capitals. I also give you all the information your need to plan a road trip comprising the different capitals.
At the bottom of the post I’ll tell you our favorite Balkan capitals.
The most northernly capital in the Balkans, the best word to describe Ljubljana is “charming”. It’s a small city with a pedestrian-only old town, a river that cuts through its center, and a castle that looms over everything. Ljubljana is relaxed, clean, and actually feels more Austrian (the Austrian border is 60 km away) than it does Balkan. I mentioned “great value for your money” up top when generalizing on the Balkans – you can exclude Ljubljana from that. It’s by far the most expensive city on this list.
I think 2 nights is enough to see Ljubljana. There are no standout sights of interest but it’s a pretty and charming place. Ljubljana can also make for a great base to explore Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj, two geographical highlights in Slovenia.
Accommodation: City Hotel Ljubljana – nice, centrally located, and good value (for Ljubljana).
Ljubljana is 2 ½ hours by train from Zagreb which is the next logical stop if working your way through the Balkan capitals.
We’ve been to Zagreb many times on our way to the coast. It’s a pleasant and comfortable city with pretty parks and architecture dating from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Zagreb feels very different from the Croatia that most people associate with Split and Dubrovnik.
The highlights of the city stretch from the beautiful train station, through some city parks, to the upper town. There you’ll find St. Mark’s church and Zagreb Cathedral. It’s worth seeing the National Theatre as well.
Like Ljubljana, 2 nights is enough to see everything you need. Our reflections on Zagreb here.
Accommodation: We only stay in one place: The Palace Hotel. Right between the train station and the main square and facing the park. Perfect for a day or two.
From Zagreb to other Balkan capitals: Sarajevo is 6 hours by bus or 50 minutes if flying (Croatian airlines is the best option). Belgrade is 7 hours by bus or 65 minutes if flying (Air Serbia has direct flights).
Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Sarajevo is different than any city on this list and a ‘must see’ as far as we are concerned. It’s a piece of the Middle East but with a Balkan character – you’ll see people drinking beer and wine, in fact B&H has some of the best wine in the Balkans (made from the Blatina grape found in the Mostar region).
There are 3 distinct zones in the city: an Ottoman-era old town, an area dating from the Austro Hungarian empire, and a modern part of town where you’ll find shopping centers, office buildings and museums. This detailed guide to Sarajevo covers the highlights of the city. Sarajevo unfortunately had a recent war and a popular thing to do is taking a “siege tour” covering the almost 4 years the city was under Serbian bombardment.
Sarajevo is a fascinating city and the Bosnians are among the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. We’d recommend 3 nights here.
Accommodation: I recommend the Hotel Sana, an excellent but good value 4 star hotel right in the center.
From Sarajevo to Belgrade: Belgrade is 8 hours by bus from Sarajevo or 50 minutes if flying (Air Serbia has direct flights).
Note: before moving on to Belgrade or any other Balkan capital, I strongly recommend taking the excellent Talgo train from Sarajevo to Mostar. Mostar is beautiful and is worth at least a day and, worst case if you have limited time, you can do it as a day trip if you take the train (which is itself a great experience).
Belgrade was the capital city of the ex-country of Yugoslavia (which comprised of the current day countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia). It is therefore a large cosmopolitan city with a lot of attractions including the huge Belgrade fortress (which lies at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers) and some beautiful orthodox cathedrals. It is a young, happening city that has gained a reputation as a party city in recent years. People are cosmopolitan, friendly, and there are some excellent bars and restaurants. Belgrade deserves at least 3 nights.
A couple of posts on Belgrade: Impressions and highlights of Belgrade and 27 pictures that will inspire you to visit Belgrade.
Accommodation: if you can, stay at the historic Moskva Hotel (Moscow Hotel).
From Belgrade to Podgorica: the Belgrade to Bar train is one of the most scenic train rides in the world and one of its stops is the Montenegrin capital (and getting out here you won’t miss any of the highlights). If flying, Air Serbia will take you there in 50 minutes.
We’ve only passed through Podgorica on the above mentioned train ride. It’s considered the “most boring” of the Balkan capitals and based on seeing it from a train window it is as unattractive as it is boring.
Montenegro is however home to one of our favorite places: Beautiful Kotor. You can get there within 2 hours by bus from Podgorica and it will make the whole trip worth it.
Podgorica is worth a day at the max and you might want to overnight in between stops.
Accommodation: Hotel Hemera is a traveller’s favorite.
From Podgorica to Tirana: Tirana is 4 hours by bus from Podgorica.
We haven’t been to Tirana, it’s the one Balkan capital we haven’t stayed in or even passed through. It’s known for its Communist architecture, cafés, and colourful buildings. A lot of travellers will find it a bit on the rough side. But it is a city on the rise and definitely off the beaten track (It’s a city we want to see. In fact Albania in general is tops on our list).
You can see the highlights and get a feel for the city in 2 nights.
Accommodation: Hotel Mondial is a top hotel and a landmark in the city.
From Tirana to Skopje: a little over 5 hours by bus.
Skopje (North Macedonia)
Skopje is one of the weirdest cities we’ve ever visited. And I say that in a good way. Huge statues, strange architecture, double decker buses, a Pirate ship in the river…it was all accentuated by the paint-bombing of monuments when we were there.
It’s an interesting and interesting city though with good food and friendly people. We really enjoyed Skopje. I think the city is worth 2 nights.
Accommodation: right on the impressive main square, the large Marriott Hotel is the place to stay.
Skopje to Sofia: there are frequent buses between the 2 cities that take about 4 hours.
Note: Pristina is in neighboring Kosovo, 2 hours away from Skopje by bus. We haven’t been to Pristina but are told that it is an interesting destination and that it should be visited. You’ll see many companies offering day tours to Pristina in Skopje.
We were really surprised by Sofia. It has some interesting attractions and it might be the most attractive of the cities on this list (although some might debate that). It also felt like the richest, with its clean streets, pedestrian-only old town, and modern metro station.
As far as attractions go, it has some fantastic churches (Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Nedelya Church top the list), some impressive Soviet-era buildings (the Largo), Roman ruins, a large pedestrian-only boulevard (Vitosha Boulevard). Besides churches, you’ll see mosques and synagogues. More on why you should visit Sofia.
I recommend 3 nights in Sofia.
Accommodation: The Grand Hotel Sofia (top end) and Sofia Place Hotel (mid range) are both recommended.
Sofia to Bucharest: 7 hours by bus or 50 minutes flying (Tarom, the Romanian airline, has direct flights)
We’ve passed through Bucharest several times but, apart from going to the airport or train station (ugg, hated the train station in Bucharest), have yet to actually see the city. The little we know of Bucharest: it’s a big city and has the largest parliament building in the world. I’ve heard that there have been a lot of changes in Bucharest and that it is a better place to visit than it was just a few years ago. See this post on Bucharest from someone more familiar with it than we are.
2 1/2 hours away from Bucharest is the pretty city of Brasov where we spent a month a few years ago. I wrote about that here. I also recommend a visit to Peles castle in Sinaia which is halfway between Brasov and Bucharest.
Our favorite Balkan capitals?
Lissette and I discussed it and choosing our favorite Balkan capitals wasn’t easy. We agreed on the Top 3 but didn’t necessarily agree on the order.
But we compromised on this ranking:
- Belgrade. Interesting, stimulating city and we’ve met a lot of friendly people on our trips to Belgrade. Some interesting sites including the huge fortress. We debated between Belgrade and Sofia and Belgrade just squeezed ahead…
- Sofia. I actually think Sofia might be just a bit more impressive than Belgrade. A very attractive city and while it doesn’t have a fortress it has a couple of very impressive churches. Most people we’ve talked to don’t agree with our high opinion of Sofia but we really liked it.
- Sarajevo. Very different culturally than any other city on this list. As I say up top, you’ll think you’re in Turkey or the Middle East somewhere. And after a few trips here I can tell you that Bosnians are about the most welcoming people you’ll meet anywhere.
- Skopje. An interesting, quirky city that’s off the beaten track which is why we really enjoyed it. Highlights and attractiveness don’t compare to the top 3 though which is why we list it as #4.
- Zagreb. We’ve been to Zagreb many times and honestly always found it blah. It’s fine for a day…but ultimately we find the city a bit boring and the people not very friendly.
- Ljubljana. A very pretty place as I mentioned up top but it all feels a bit artificial and touristy. We also found locals unfriendly which is odd considering it’s a small city. Most people disagree with us about Ljubljana, it seems to be a favorite of many travellers.
We didn’t feel we could rate the other cities (Podgorica, Tirana and Bucharest) based on our limited experience with these cities. But, based on my reading, none of the 3 serve up much competition to Belgrade, Sofia or Sarajevo.
So, what’s your favorite Balkan Capital?
Related: Our Top “Travel Experiences” over the last 10 years
Related: Is it safe to Travel? The weird and scary from 6 years of full-time travel
Related: The Spomeniks of the ex-Yugoslavia
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Very surprised to see Bucharest described as “not serving up competition” to places like Sofia. When searching online or Quora, I’ve never seen any strong endorsement of Sofia over Bucharest, in fact, most people recommend the latter. Compared to Sofia, Bucharest has:
1. more impressive and varied architecture, and far more opulent buildings
2. more developed infrastructure
3. more things to do or see (given it’s size)
All cities in the Balkans are in a state of urban regeneration, restoration and renovation (of older buildings), so we haven’t witnessed their full potential yet. Going by GDP and economic trends, Bucharest has by far the biggest budget and growth, so as time passes, you can expect Bucharest to pull ahead of the rest in its development and consequently the restoration of its beauty.
Also, I would exclude from this comparison Slovenia, which much more central European and developed.
Thanks Jacob. We always love going to the Balkans so we’ll make it a point to see Bucharest one day. Honestly, haven’t heard many people say great things about it (although the article I posted seems pretty positive on it).
As for Ljubljana, it’s still part of the Balkans so I’ve included (although I hear the same argument from others. But based on that Zagreb also feels more Central European..). But it just shows that economic development isn’t everything – we found Ljubljana pretty but a bit boring.
Thanks for standing up for Bucharest!
Feels odd to classify Sarajevo as Middle East as that’s around 5% of the city, most of it is actually socialist and modern, but tourists often seem to ignore everything behind Holiday Inn and the National Museum, even though the city stretches for many kilometers more down to Ilidža urban neighbourhood.
It’s a “piece of the middle East” in character. Of course there’s more than that but that’s like ignoring Split’s Roman history or Vienna’s Austro-Hungarian history. History is what makes these cities special.
I agree with this point. ….. all too often we (i.e. foreign tourists, etc) come to hazy conclusions about how an entire city is perceived based on short visits to a fraction (usually just the old town) of the entire place. There have been many times that i have cycled (when you move “slow”, you notice things more) through famous cities in France such as Bordeaux, Lyon, Montpellier, etc. where I’ve actually felt like i was going through the outskirts of many north American cities, i.e. souless suburbs, endless highways, traffic, strip malls, cheesy hotels, etc, etc.
Instead of “middle east character” for Sarajevo, how about a “Turkish character”, since the Ottoman empire existed in most of the Balkans, including Bosnia for 300 years.
Definitely Don, the problem with modernity is that most cities almost anywhere in the world are pretty much uniform in their ugliness when you go to the suburbs. I love Mexico and I love visiting my mom there every year – but go outside the city center in most Mexican cities and its just horrible. Like most cities in South East Asia.
I was going for a general description but yes, Turkish if I’m called upon to be precise 🙂
Frank, I have never visited the Balkans, so it is very interesting to read this post. I think we will probably visit it as a road trip by motorhome in the near future. Particularly since Brexit, we are now only allowed to stay in the Shengen area for 90 days out of 180. So the Balkans could be a very good alternative for us. Really enjoyed this post.
I think you’d love the Balkans Gilda. Definitely a bit “rougher” than Western Europe (the further down you get) but there’s so much variety and some really, really stunning landscapes.
Excellent post. I am very glad that Belgrade is your number 1. But you have to see it in spring or in summer, it’s a completely different city, so captivating. I’ve just spent 6 months there and am back in London now, I didn’t want to stay in Belgrade because it’s too cold and even without the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, I felt self-isolated because as of early November, it become impossible to enjoy the city. You simply can’t go anywhere for a coffee or to eat something because they smoke inside. It’s shocking.
The Belgrade Waterfront project is ongoing, they’ve built so much, if you ever go back you will be surprised. I am not entirely sure that I like what they are doing there, perhaps it’s too early to comment, let’s wait to see once everything has been finished. A new square in front of the old railway station also looks very good now, it should be finished by the end of this month.
Also, the Saint Sava church is nearly finished inside and it looks spectacular. The money come from Russia and the Russian Academy of Arts works on the interior. I think that church will attract a lot of people in the future.
Finally, Belgrade is such an excellent value for money, nowhere in Western Europe you can eat and drink so well for so little, amazing.
Keep safe and healthy.
Thank you for the comment Vitko! We had to give Belgrade a special allowance because both times we’ve been there was in the dead of winter. I’m sure Belgrade must be beautiful and vibrant when green and if we liked it in December and January we’d like it even more any other time of year. It’s a vibrant city and the most cosmopolitan of the cities I’ve covered without losing any of the Balkan charm. And we’ve had good food and drink there for excellent value for money as you say.
Thanks for the update on the Waterfront project. Also, about St. Sava: the 1st time we went we saw a bit of the inside. It was huge but there wasn’t much to see. The 2nd time (early Jan 2020) the vault below the church was open to the public and it was very impressive. But the upstairs was completely closed. So it will be interesting to see what it’s like when it’s all completed.
I hope we will be back someday. Maybe our paths will cross 🙂
Take care Vitko 🙂
I love that you’ve been to so many places that we have yet to visit, it broadens my knowledge for potential travel destinations.
We spent 2 weeks in Ljubliana and we actually very much enjoyed ourselves. It is, as you a say, a small city but we found it comfortable, charming and pedestrian friendly. We were fortunate in that we found a beautiful condo on Airbnb, that was actually the owner’s home, just at the edge of the city. We walked everywhere and explored every nook and cranny without wearing ourselves out. I would somewhat agree with your thoughts about the people, they were not the most overtly friendly, but I’d say it was about 60/40 favoring friendly. It was also easy to travel by bus to Lake Bled for a day trip.
We’ve been to Zagreb, as you probably remember, for just for 3 nights and we found that to be a good amount of time to see the city. We enjoyed it. Another very walkable city and we stayed in an apartment/hotel near the train station, but I think Ljubliana stands out more to me.
Maybe one day, when the world is balanced again, we’ll visit some of the other destinations you’ve listed.
Now this is a fun kind of post! Since I’ve spent extensive time travelling in the Balkans since 2007, including multiple trips to several of the cities you mention, i think I’m in a good position to comment. Here goes:
Sarajevo….despite its tragic history, the old turkish town and the nearby “old world” neighborhoods still ooze some charm. If it wasn’t for it’s high winter time pollution levels, i could spend months hanging out there.
Ljubljana. … i haven’t been there in over 10 years, but i remember how pretty it was in that Hapsburg style. Reminded me a lot of Bratislava. I’m not sure how the surrounding area is, probably a lot of the ol’ Yugoslavia communist influence.
Belgrade…. I’ve been through it on several occasions including on bike tour along the Danube. I really don’t like the centre area, lots of new redevelopment taking place arpund the old railway station and along the Sava river. However across the Sava R. in the Zemun neighborhood, now that’s where that old world charm can still be found!
Sofia…. I’ve been there twice, once in summer and once in winter and really didn’t like it either time…… found it too stodgy. I much preferred Plovdiv.
Zagreb…. same as Sofia, been through it several times and i still can’t find the love there.
Podorica….. yeah totally agree…..it’s a fairly blah city.
Tirana…. stayed there twice in some quite rough and authentic neighborhoods. I think i might warm to it one day. I had the best neopolitain pizza in my life there!
Bucharest, Skope….. no comment as i haven’t been to either of these cities
I’m a bit surprised that both you and Gile have been lukewarm about Sofia. When did you go? I think they’ve done a lot in recent years and we were impressed when we were there (in 2019).
Ljubljana is I think a lot more polished than Bratislava. Very pretty place but the center just felt like a movie set. It just didn’t feel authentic to us. Again, maybe it depends when you went?
Belgrade: Yes about the riverside, they’ve been working on that huge development financed by the UAE. Really screwed us up last time when we took the train in from Montenegro and got dumped in the suburbs.
Generally we like the “grit” of Balkan cities, they’re original and most have a lot of character.
you have made me keen to get to Skopje! I’ve been to most of these bar Zagreb, Tirana, Podgorica and Skopje. Although I think I went through Podgorica. The People’s Palace in Bucharest is apparently the world’s biggest building (not tallest obviously). its quite obscene but worth seeing. Bucharest though is not the nicest of cities so I dont blame you for not wanting to get in and see it with any urgency. Loved Belgrade and Ljubljana.
Thanks Andy. Not everyone can claim to have been to Skopje 🙂 Just wish we had also gone to Lake Ohrid.
We agree on Belgrade!
Interesting post as always. I mostly agree with your rating, probably will just put Sofia little bit bellow then you but that’s just my opinion.
Regarding distance between Zagreb and Belgrade I think you made a mistake, it is 400km on highway which can be driven for around 4 hours, I doubt it will take 10 hours by bus.
Greeting from Balkan 🙂
Hi Gile: That’s how long Flixbus takes. But you’re probably right, google tells me 7 1/2 hours. But…have you ever seen a Balkan bus arrive as per schedule? 🙂
You’re a Balkan expert: how would you rate the Balkan capitals?
Ah, I see it now. Flixbus includes a 3 hour connection time.
So a direct bus would take 7 hours.
I have to say I’m still confused regarding that bus ride you mention. Where is that Flixbus connection? I assume it is not logical route, connection is probably somewhere out of the itinery, 7 hours is still way to much. I can see there is direct busses for 5:15 h (check getbybus).
If you see at Google maps that you need 7 1/2 hours I’m sure that you have set you options to “avoid tolls”, if you allow tolls it say 4 hours 17 minutes. There is highway all the way between Zagreb and Belgrade, speed limit is 130 km/h, I know some people manage to do that route for 3 hours but if you drive legally you will do it in 4 hours without problems.
I’m not Balkan expert, I just live here. 🙂 Just kidding, I love hearing you foreigners for an opinion about us. Well I’m unable to be objective in this case but I’ll try. I agree for Belgrade at first place, will put Sarajevo at second. It is hard for me to vote for Zagreb or Ljubljana here because they are too close to me, I’ll skip that. I kind of agree with you for Podgorica. In Skopje I have been just once long time ago as a kid, that was before al that new Disneyland architecture, I’m sure it is completely new city now. I have never been in Tirana so I’ll skip that. You mostly surprised me for ranking Sofia so high because I find it pretty dull, maybe I had wrong impression because I have visited it after Jordan and Israel. 😀 Probably I should give her a second chance. I agree for Bucarest, there is not much to see or do there.
I’m not that surprised, we did a lot of travelling around the Balkans by bus and between stops in little unknown towns, border crossings, and all the windy roads a short trip can take really long. Zagreb – Split takes 6 to 8 hours depending on the bus line and route. I did Sarajevo – Split and it took 7 hours. Zagreb – Belgrade stops in Vukovar, so it really isn’t much out of the way…
We were impressed by Sofia. Maybe they’ve really spruced it up the last few years? We liked it more than Plovdiv which a lot of people rave about. And yes, Skopje is really totally new now. I imagine it would be even more attractive than when we were there because they were cleaning up the river, putting in a lot of plants, etc. They’re really done a lot (although like you say, it is Disney-ish).
Thanks for your opinions Gile. Hope all well with you, I think everyone in travel suffering right now…