As an English lectrice in France, I got a two-week Easter break, where I jetted off to the Balkans in Eastern Europe for the first time. While I’ve wanted to go to more “mainstream” destinations for a while, like Portugal and southern Spain, I figured I should hit my less accessible destinations first. After all, Portugal is much closer to the US than Croatia, and sometimes flying from Boston to Portugal is faster than flying from Paris! (especially for the Azores).
The photos of Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Montenegro seemed stunning, so I decided to visit all three countries while I was in the area. They’re luckily right next to each other, which made getting around easier. I flew into Zagreb, Croatia from Paris, and ended my trip in Kotor, Montenegro, which made it easy to fly out of Dubrovnik, Croatia (the airport is only 1.5 hours away).
Here’s the 2-week Balkans itinerary that I took, based on the loads of research I did before my trip. Note that I went as a solo female traveler, but this itinerary would work for families, groups of friends, and couples too.
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2 Week Balkans Itinerary
Days 1-3: Fly into Zagreb, Croatia
Days 3-4: Visit Plitvice Lakes National Park
Days 4-6: Visit Split, Croatia (visit nearby islands like Brac)
Days 6-8: Visit Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina (take a day trip to the Blagaj Tekija, first photo in this post)
Days 8-10: Visit Dubrovnik, Croatia (visit nearby islands/areas, like Lokrum, Mlini, and Cavtat)
Days 10-13: Visit Kotor, Montenegro (take a day trip to Perast and Budva)
Day 14: Fly out of Dubrovnik (there are buses in the high season for 25 euros, or you can split a cab for 80 euros total)
1. Zagreb, Croatia (2 nights)
Zagreb is the capital and largest city of Croatia at a population of 803,900. Many major European cities offer direct flights here (like Paris, where I was flying in from). While it’s not the most charming of Croatian cities (it’s more modern), there are still lovely corners, and prices aren’t as inflated as those in popular tourist destinations like Split and Dubrovnik. Zagreb is a great starting point for a trip to Croatia: the city is well-connected by tram, there’s plenty of shops and restaurants, and it’s home to the unique Museum of Broken Relationships. You can also easily reach the stunning waterfalls in Plitvice Lakes by bus.
St. Mark’s Church
This is one of the more iconic spots in the city, as the tiled roof is very eye-catching. The church is only open at Mass, so I just came to see the roof.
Museum of Broken Relationships
A concept I could totally get behind. This museum exhibits objects and short stories from real broken relationships around the world. Some are touching, others disturbing, a couple gross (there was a 27-year-old scab on display!), and all very resonant. The exhibits change regularly, so the museum is always a different experience.
2. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia (1 night)
Plitvice Lakes is a Croatian National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you’ll find pristine turquoise waters, awe-inspiring waterfalls, and endless nature trails. Plitvice Lakes is well-suited to all kinds of travelers, whether solo, couples, families, friends—even dogs are allowed!
Where to eat: Poljana, a state-owned restaurant that was surprisingly affordable, and had vegan options!
What to do: hike/walk (no swimming, as it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Where to stay: Hotel Bellevue (50+ euros/night, depending on season)
Both these photos are from the lower lakes near Entrance 1 of the park, the arguably more impressive part. The water is such a stunning color, and the falls are unreal. I started with the upper lakes (the smaller falls, but still charming) and visited the lower lakes on the second day. Check out my Guide to Plitvice Lakes for more info about visiting the park!
3. Split, Croatia (2 nights)
Split is the second-largest city in Croatia, with around 250,000 inhabitants. The city is famous for its coral rooftops and white marble buildings, with ruins from as far back as the Roman Empire. Here, you’ll find beaches, historical sites, and scenic walks along the hills surrounding the city. If nightlife is your thing, there are several bars and clubs you can visit for drinks, music, and dancing.
Where to eat: Was not particularly impressed by any of the food I ate. Prices also definitely got more expensive here.
What to do: Diocletian’s Palace, Marjan Park, Green Market, Bacvice Beach
Where to stay: Cosy Rooms in the Center of Split (24 euros/night); run by the sweetest family
The main grounds are free and are well-integrated into the city, so I passed by several times. If you want to visit the underground part, you have to pay (I didn’t go, so I can’t tell you if it would be worth it).
This was a lovely place for a freezing dip (apparently it was unseasonably cold for mid-April). I appreciated the step ladders that made getting in and out of the ocean much easier.
4. Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina (2 nights)
Mostar was my favorite stop on my Eastern Europe trip—it felt like I was no longer in Europe, especially with the Turkish lamps in souvenir stalls, the mosques in the town, and the Turkish desserts like baklava. The Old Town is incredibly quaint, and there are endless souvenir stalls with handmade copper jewelry, copper dishware, hand-embroidered notebooks, colorful lamps, and even functional items made from used bullets (like pens). After the Bosnian War in 1994 (when Bosnia & Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia), locals took the used ammunition and turned it into pens, sculptures, and other souvenirs. It was both sobering and inspiring to see the reuse of such harmful objects in everyday items. If you buy a bullet pen, just be sure to put it in your checked luggage, not your carry-on!
Where to eat: Food House, a restaurant off the main pedestrian street with vegan options. The veggie plate is AMAZING and very generous.
What to do: visit old town, Karađoz Bey mosque (great view of Stari Most, the famous bridge), trip to Blagaj Tekija, the iconic Dervish monastery at the mouth of the Buna river (first photo in post)
Where to stay: Full View Apartment (10 euros/night); also run by the sweetest family—the mother kept bringing me complimentary homemade food, and took me on a trip to the iconic Blagaj Tekija!
Stari Most, view from Karađoz Bey mosque
Stari Most is probably the best-known landmark in Mostar. Adrenaline junkies might take a dip in the river by diving from the bridge, though it’s generally seen as an unsafe jump. Locals might ask for donations from tourists before taking the plunge themselves, though.
Mostar has a strong Turkish influence, hence all the lamps, intricate dishware, and eye-catching tea sets. I really wanted to buy a lamp and tea set, but they were a little too bulky and fragile for my luggage haha. Souvenir shops overrun the old town, so you’ll definitely have a ton of options. Word has it that you can try some gentle bargaining with the sellers, though I didn’t realize until I left.
5. Dubrovnik, Croatia (2 nights)
Dubrovnik is probably the trendiest Croatian city to visit, especially since it’s known as a Game of Thrones filming location. The Old Town does have a special charm with its white marble buildings (even more impressive than those in Split), winding alleyways, and city walls. If the weather is good, you can visit nearby islands, lie out on one of the beaches, or hike in the hills overlooking the city.
Where to eat: I didn’t eat out in Dubrovnik
What to do: It was rainy, so I didn’t do much; I did hike up Mount Srd, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort, or the cable car price. People rave about Lokrum (island nearby) and Mlini (fishing town) though. I also really liked eating donuts in Cavtat, a fishing town near the airport. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, there’s plenty GOT-themed tours as this is a filming location. You can also pay to walk around the city walls.
Where to stay: near the main bus station, or closer to the Old Town. I stayed in an Airbnb, but wouldn’t recommend it for its location.
One of the most striking characteristics of Dubrovnik were the bustling alleyways. I would’ve loved to stop for a meal in one, though I suppose it’s probably a tourist trap…
6. Kotor, Montenegro (3 nights)
Like the true basic instagrammer I am, I resolved to go to Kotor when I saw stunning shots of the mountains in my feed. Kotor is one of the prettiest towns I visited on this trip—there’s nothing like the misty mountains, turquoise waters, and charming Old Town. The Old Town itself is pretty small though, and there aren’t a lot of great swimming beaches. Luckily, there are plenty of things to visit nearby, whether by boat or ground transport.
This was the last stop on my trip, and it was convenient since Kotor is only 1.5 hours from the Dubrovnik Airport. You can take a bus for 25 euros in the high season, or pay 80 euros for a cab.
Where to eat: Hoste Kotor, a tapas place in the Old Town with veggie options; the owner is happy to accommodate
What to do: hike the city walls, speedboat tour to Our Lady of the Rocks (church on a tiny island) + Blue Cave + Perast (nearby town), day trip to Budva (beach town)
Where to stay: I stayed in an Airbnb 1 mile from the Old Town, but I’d also recommend staying closer to the Old Town. I was worried about noise, but apparently it quiets down a lot at night (at least in April)
I would definitely recommend the hike up the city walls, but 8 euros entry is a little pricey. There’s apparently a free entrance, so try to find that instead. The views are very worth the climb, and there are cute sunbathing cats along the way.
What to Pack for a Trip to the Balkans
There are a couple essentials you’ll need for a trip to these countries, if you’re coming from outside the EU. These links go to Amazon if you’re planning to shop there anyways, but I also want to encourage you to buy from small, local shops, if you can.
- Universal adapter—I used this one during my one-year stay in France, and it worked great during my Eastern Europe trip. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have USB C charging ports, so you’ll need a USB to USB C cable or adapter if that’s what your phone needs.
- European SIM card—I’m unable to find a SIM card that works in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia (most European plans only work in Croatia, of the three). If you want cell service in all three countries, you might have to buy different SIM cards in each one (I went without in BiH and Montenegro). But, if you want cell service upon arrival in Croatia, this SIM card has good reviews overall. I just used roaming in Croatia through Lycamobile, my French plan, so I unfortunately don’t have more insight!
- Water shoes—The beaches in the Balkans are often rocky, and it can be helpful to have something to protect your feet!
What to Know Before You Go
I got around primarily by bus, though I also caught a ride with other tourists once and took a taxi to and from airports. If you’re going in a group, I would recommend renting a car, as the buses can be long and uncomfortable on the winding roads. If you do take the bus, know that you have to pay extra for any luggage stored underneath the bus (around 7 kunas or 1 euro per item).
These countries are on different currencies—Croatia, while a member of the EU, is on the kuna. Bosnia & Herzegovina is on the Bosnian mark, but I got away with using euros in the Old Town, or my card when paying at restaurants. Montenegro, while not in the EU, is on the euro. Most places will take card, but you’ll want cash for market purchases and luggage fare on buses.
It may be difficult to find tasty and filling food as a vegan. I was not particularly impressed by most of the food I had, and it may be partially because a lot of traditional food is meat- or cheese-based. Be prepared to do some scouting!
There is a tourist tax in Montenegro. If you stay in a hotel, the tax (1 euro/night) should be included. If you stay in an Airbnb or Booking.com apartment, you’ll pay your host; make sure your host has you registered, as this is apparently checked at the border. This may not be as strict as online forums make it seem, but I definitely was very stressed at one point.
Culture and Language
Smoking is even more common than it is in Western Europe. People may even smoke in their apartments, so be sure to ask your hosts about their rules if you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke.
There are cats everywhere. Most of them are “stray,” but people will give them food, so many look well-nourished. They’re apparently very friendly in general, and don’t mind a tummy rub or even being picked up.
Locals generally speak English and are very friendly and willing to help. My hosts were very attentive and sweet, a couple of them even welcoming me and taking care of me as if I were part of the family. And when I looked lost in Split, an elderly man asked if I needed help. That said, I did encounter one teenager in Montenegro who told me and an Irish friend I’d made to “get out” and that living in the Balkans was miserable compared to visiting. Be aware of your privilege as a tourist, and know that not everyone is excited about tourism.
Tips for Solo Female Travelers in the Balkans
Contrary to what many people may think, the Balkans/Eastern Europe is pretty safe. Granted, I didn’t really go out at night, so that may color my perspective.
I didn’t feel unsafe at any point of my travels, and as I mentioned earlier, locals were overall friendly. Online sources will warn you about theft and taxi fare scams though, so always be vigilant. Keep your valuables on your person, and make them difficult to access. When you get into a taxi, always ask that it be metered, or decide on the rate beforehand.
I can be a pretty solitary person when I travel, but it was easy to make friends and connect with locals. This is especially true if you stay in a family-run room rental on Booking.com, which are very common in Eastern Europe. I noticed that my Airbnbs tended to be more independent/business oriented, where I didn’t interact much with the hosts. In my Booking.com homestay in Split though, I chatted with my hosts, had dinner with them, and drank coffee with them.
I also was able to make some traveler friends, whether they were staying in the same Airbnb, waiting at the same bus stop and going to the same place, or going on the same tour. I really had no shortage of company on this trip, even as a solo traveler.
Have you ever visited any of these spots? Let me know what you thought, or if there’s a gem that I missed!