by Harmony Difo for LonelyPlanet.com
Hopping in the car and going on a drive through the stunning landscape of the Balkan Peninsula or along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea is a fantastic way to explore this part of southeastern Europe. Read ahead for road trip inspiration with four scenic drives showcasing the region’s immaculate beaches, epic mountain ranges, ancient castles and idyllic valleys.
Croatia and Montenegro: Dubrovnik to Lovćen National Park
Begin this cross-border trip through the breathtaking Dinaric Alps by taking the D8 from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Perast, Montenegro. While these neighbouring countries share the gorgeous Adriatic coastline, prepare for a change of scenery as the fairly flat topography of Croatia’s southern corner turns into the dark, craggy peaks of Montenegro.
When you arrive at the quaint town of Perast, anchored on the Unesco-listed Bay of Kotor, you will be enchanted by its peaceful atmosphere, baroque palazzi and 16 stunning churches. The top attractions are Gospa od Škrpjela and Sveti Djordje, which you’ll find floating just offshore in the middle of the aquamarine bay. Both islands are accessible by boat (€5 return).
Hop back in the car and drive 30km down the road from Perast to the bay’s absolute highlight, the city of Kotor. Dive into medieval history by climbing the city walls to St John’s Hill – a fun though rigorous hike up the ancient fortifications dating back to the 9th century.
Those looking for incredible views from heights of up to 1749m should complete their drive on the serpentine road, which leads up a steep mountain from Kotor to one of Montenegro’s finest natural marvels, Lovćen National Park. This drive boasts 25 hairpin turns and mind-boggling mountain views. Your entire trip can range from four hours to three days depending on the length of each stop.
Bulgaria: Plovdiv to Veliko Tarnovo
Heading north along Route 55 from Plovdiv, this drive begins with bucolic views of Bulgaria’s heartland. A wonderful stop on this particular journey is Dryanovo, a small town located at the base of the Balkan Mountains. This charming village is home to the cliff-backed Dryanovo Monastery dedicated to St. Michael. The building’s origin dates back to the 13th century and has a long past of destruction and revolution. The church was burned down to the ground twice during the years when Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but was rebuilt in the 17th century and stands to this day. The newest restoration is quite remarkable.
Continuing north on the highway toward Veliko Târnovo, this last 30-minute leg is consistently ranked as a top scenic drive in Europe – the views are truly spectacular. You will meander through the sprawling Valley of the Roses, a lush area banked by two river valleys that grows some of the rarest varieties of roses in the world. If you are lucky enough to be visiting in May or June when the flowers are in full bloom, open your car windows all the way, take a luxurious inhale and enjoy the heavenly scent for the entire stretch of the valley. Other charming stops along this drive include the Russian-styled golden-domed church in Shipka and the town of Tryavna, known for its centuries-old woodcarving tradition.
Albania: Vlora to Himara via the Llogara Pass
Hikers, bikers, beach lovers and history buffs alike will enjoy this drive’s sweeping views of the Dukat Valley to the north and the Albanian Riviera to the south. From Vlora head south on SH8, a smooth roadway cut directly into the mountainside. In addition to the stunning beaches below, other delightful sights may include a herd of goats walking casually down the road with their shepherd, or locals riding mules or donkeys.
Noteworthy stops along SH8 are the beautiful beaches of Orikum and Dhërmi. Between these two beaches you will also find Llogara Pass National Park – home to some of the finest hiking trails in the country. The park combines fresh high-altitude mountain air with the upstream breeze from the Ionian Sea and is an excellent site for some outdoors adventure or a simple family picnic.
Finish your drive with a visit to Himara, one of the most pristine beaches along the Albanian coastline. Himara’s serene oceanfront also has plenty of seafood restaurants, and beach bars to try – for something truly local, have a shot of rakia, a popular fruit brandy native to the Balkans.
Bosnia and Hercegovina: Sarajevo to Kravica Waterfall
Highway E73/M17 runs parallel to the turquoise Neretva River, which cuts through Bosnia and Hercegovina and Croatia, on its way to the Adriatic Sea. The river successfully irrigates one of the most fertile and ecologically diverse valleys in the Balkans. Travelling from Sarajevo to Mostar you will pass the historic town of Konjic, home to a beautiful six-span stone bridge. However, this leg of the drive is so magnificent you may not want any interruptions!
Upon arrival in Mostar, visit the old town and its charming cobblestone streets lined with markets selling local jewellery, pottery and flatware. The city has distinctly Ottoman architecture including delicate mosques with minarets so tall they seem to touch the clouds. Stari Most, a bridge renowned for both its turbulent history and its incredible view, is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. After you stroll over its graceful arch, you will surely see why. For multi-day travellers, Mostar is also the perfect overnight stop.
On the drive from Mostar to Kravica Waterfall you will pass the Imperial Vineyards. Unknown to many, Hercegovina provided wine to the royalty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during its peak. Stop for a glass of local wine among vast fields of perfectly manicured grapevines.
As a perfect finale to a wonderful drive, you will be thrilled by the view of your final destination, Kravica Waterfall, at close range. Enjoy lunch and a swim in its emerald waters while gazing up at one of the finest examples of raw natural beauty in the Balkans.
Article first published January 2019, last updated February 2021.
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