Things to consider when you choose your itinerary
Designing a multi-stop itinerary for our 14-day Balkans road trip was tedious and difficult. But as many of you know, the secret of a successful journey lies in those long hours of preparation and research that you spend prior to setting foot on the plane. While beautiful images, documentary movies, books and travel magazines will help ignite your desire and curiosity to visit new places, they will give you very little clues about what’s involved and what you can expect when taking a road trip. You have to factor in not only your time and budget, but also your physical condition and capacity to assimilate what you see.
When I started planning our 14-day Balkans road trip I knew very little about the countries we visited. It took me a few good weeks to put together our itinerary: reading blog posts, researching points of interest, checking rules and regulations for border crossing, hotel locations and reviews, and car rental prices.
After reading other people’s reports, it became obvious to me than spending more than 2-3 hours on the road between destinations will not only take time away from visiting them, but will also make us too tired to enjoy what we see. I made maps, calculated driving time and distances, checked weather and road conditions and considered the minimum number of days required to explore each place, based on our family’s interests.
Our Balkans road trip itinerary
If you are planning a Balkans road trip along the Adriatic Coast and decide to take this route, here are the highlights of our itinerary:
- Day 1: Maribor, Slovenia
- Day 2: Lake Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia
- Day 3: Kobarid, Slovenia
- Day 4: Pula, Croatia
- Day 5: Opatija, Croatia
- Day 6: Plitvice, Croatia
- Day 7: Trogir, Croatia
- Day 8 & 9: Split, Croatia
- Day 10 & 11: Dubrovnik, Croatia
- Day 12: Kotor, Montenegro
- Day 13: Budva and Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
- Day 14: Zadar, Croatia
Day 1: Maribor, Slovenia
Maribor, Slovenia’s second biggest city, is famous since Middle Ages for producing wine. In fact, the oldest noble-variety vine in the world can be found in Maribor. It’s more than 400 years old and still bearing fruits nowadays.
The town has many historic buildings, including Europe’s second oldest synagogue and a church built in the 14th century.
Day 2: Lake Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia
This stunning alpine town is one of Slovenia’s most popular travel destinations year round, the ideal place for relaxing and outdoor activities. Of course, if you decide to spend a few days here, you’ll find plenty to do. The area offers many hiking opportunities, as well as other sports such as mountain biking and canoeing. But if you only have a few hours to check it out, that will work too. You can walk around the lake, visit the fairytale medieval castle perched up high, overlooking the calm waters, take a cruise to the small island that is home to a beautiful church, and maybe even rent a kayak. What I can assure you of is that no matter how much time you will spend here, you won’t get bored.
Ljubljana, the compact and beautiful capital of Slovenia, is just a short drive away from Lake Bled. A day or two will give you plenty of time to see the city’s top attractions, which are concentrated in a small pedestrian area around the beautiful Ljubljanica River. Ljubljana is quite small and very easy to explore. If you want to experience some great views, take the glass funicular up to Ljubljana Castle, where you can also dine in two of the city’s top restaurants. Just beneath the castle lies the Old Town, with its beautiful 19th-century wooden shop fronts, quiet courtyards and cobblestone streets. Here you can stroll or take a boat ride along the Ljubljanica river, cross the Triple Bridge (a group of three individually unique bridges clustered together), or relax in one of the lively riverside cafés and bars.
Day 3: Kobarid, Slovenia
Visiting Kobarid is definitely a great choice for a day trip if you are in Slovenia. There are some really wonderful attractions in the area, like the beautiful Soca river, the world renowned World War I Museum in Kobarid, and the photogenic Kozjak waterfall (approximately 30 minutes walk from the main road in Kobarid), famous for its underground chamber with a pool of emerald water.
Also, if you have some money to spare, you can try Ana Roš’s cooking at her Hiša Franko restaurant in Kobarid. The newly crowned World’s Best Female Chef (who also has her own episode on Netflix’s series Chef’s Table) will make sure you are impressed. But if you find yourself in Slovenia and want to try some good traditional food at more reasonable prices, be sure to check Lisa’s recommendations about Slovenian food.
Day 4: Pula, Croatia
If you like archeology, Pula is your best bet. If you take a shovel and start digging just about anywhere in Pula you’ll most likely discover some ancient ruins. The city is home to the best Roman ruins in Croatia and to one of the largest and best preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world.
And Roman ruins are not the only thing that will make you fall in love with Pula. This nice town at the tip of the Istrian peninsula has some of the most stunning pebble beaches in Croatia, with crystal clear waters and beautiful coves.
Day 5: Opatija, Croatia
This beautiful coastal town on the Adriatic Sea marked with belle-époque villas and boutique hotels was a fashionable resort since the 19th century. Its most popular attractions is the Lungomare promenade, that curves along the coastline, offering views of the town and neighboring islands.
One day will give you plenty of time to walk the 12 kilometers promenade, admire the famous Maiden With The Seagull statue, visit Villa Angiolina and its beautifully manicured park and stop for lunch or dinner at one of the fancy restaurants in the tranquil fishing village of Volosko.
Day 6: Plitvice, Croatia
As cliché as this may sound, not visiting Plitvice if you are in Croatia would be a crime. No picture or movie can do justice to Plitvice Lakes. There is a reason why this national park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Do not plan this just as a short stop on your way towards coast, but rather as s full day excursion.
Plitvice consists of a series of 16 terraced lakes joined by waterfalls, extending into a limestone canyon. The mineral-rich waters flowing over the limestone for thousands of years have created gorgeous waterfalls, caves and coves along the way. The park is laced by miles of wooden walks and great viewpoints from where you can admire panoramic views of the waterfalls.
Tip: Avoid the high season and organized tours at all cost if you want to really enjoy the surreal beauty of Plitvice Lakes.
Day 7: Trogir, Croatia
Set on a small island and surrounded by medieval walls, Trogir will steal your heart right from the start. Its maze-like narrow streets lined up with tiny souvenir shops, ice cream parlors and unassuming restaurants have an irresistible charm. Trogir is only a 25 minute drive from Split and is quite small, so a day trip there is an ideal way to see it.
The old town still has many intact buildings from the 13th and 14th centuries. For magnificent views over the entire town and the surrounding sea, climb up the town’s beautiful clock tower.
Day 8 & 9: Split, Croatia
Split is one of those must-see cities in Croatia. The “Mediterranean Flower,” as it is also called, is jam-packed with history, beautiful architecture and a walkable coastline that runs the all along the city. Split’s main attraction is Diocletian’s Palace, the core upon which the city grew. Built between 298 and 305 AD, the Roman Emperor’s palace complex is a small city in itself, with a maze of marble alleys and buildings containing shops, cafes and bars.
Just half an hour drive from Split, you can visit the majestic Klis Fortress. Aside from its more recent celebrity as a filming location for the Game of Thrones, this incredible fortification was built to guard Western Europe against the Ottoman Turks. Klis Fortress was the barricade that protected everything that defines Europe today: its history, culture and religion.
Day 10 & 11: Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik was the highlight of our Balkans road trip. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful medieval towns on Earth. That’s partly due to its fantastic location on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. Add to the mix the red roof tiles, the fortress and defensive walls, the limestone streets, and you’ll have the perfect fairy tale tourist destination.
Two days in Dubrovnik will give you enough time to walk the 2 km loop of the City Walls; visit the Dubrovnik Cathedral, the Franciscan Monastery and the Rector’s Palace; walk around the Old Town and browse through the little boutiques and art galleries;, hike up to Fort Lovrijenac (also know as St. Lawrence Fortress) and admire the City Walls from a distance; take the cable car up to Mount Srđ (at 405 meters) to visit Fort Imperial and enjoy the panoramic views of the city.
Day 12: Kotor, Montenegro
The Bay of Kotor is Montenegro‘s most photographed spot and once you see it you’ll understand why. If you’re driving from Dubrovnik to Kotor, the narrow windy road around the bay will take you by the small village of Perast and the two tiny islets of St. George and Our Lady of the Rocks, which you should stop to visit. But if you want to make it quicker, you can take the ferry between Lepetane and Kamenari (takes about 5 mins, costs €4 per car and runs every 15–30 mins).
Kotor is the ideal base if you are planning to visit the coast of Montenegro. The city’s Old Town is lovely, although not as polished as its neighbors in Croatia. Right above the Old Town, the Fortress of Kotor will offer the most stunning views to those who dare climb its 1355 steps. The steep and strenuous one-hour hike is the only place from where you can get a bird’s eye view of Kotor and also take the beautiful “wish-you-were-here” image above. Looking down upon Kotor’s terra-cotta rooftops and the entire bay from that height is worth every drop of sweat (and knee pain) this hike may cost you.
Day 13: Budva and Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
Budva can’t beat Kotor’s attractiveness, but Kotor can’t beat Budva’s location –right on the water. Surrounded by the city walls, Budva’s old town treasures 2500 years of history. Walking through the Citadel and admiring the sweeping views from its walls is perhaps the best thing you can do in Budva. There is also a small library within the walls of the Citadel.
Just down the coast from Budva, Sveti Stefan has a reputation for being stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately, for most people the fortified island village will only remain a distant image. The island is owned by the luxurious Aman Resort and is actually closed to the public. So unless you are ready to pay €800 per night to rent a room at the resort, you’ll just have to settle for a quick snapshot from the road.
Day 14: Zadar, Croatia
Zadar was our last stop on the return from Montenegro. Although it’s the second largest city in Dalmatia, Zadar is actually very easy to explore. That’s in part due to its many pedestrian-friendly streets, but also to the fact that most of its attractions are concentrated in the Old Town area. One day is not enough seemed way too short to see all the beautiful sites in Zadar, but if that’s all you have you can still cover a lot of territory. Don’t miss the Sea Organ, the Greeting to the Sun, the Forum, Zadar Cathedral, People’s Square and the Five Wells Square.
Fourteen days may seem like enough time for a road trip, but when you visit so many fascinating places time goes by in a flash. I hope I provided you with some good information about what you can expect to see if you decide to tale a Balkans road trip along the Adriatic Coast.