Breathtaking Road Trips through the Balkans Mostly Travelled by Locals

The Balkan Peninsula offers some of the most scenic and culturally rich road trips in all of Europe. While popular tourist routes exist, locals in the Balkans know the hidden gems off the beaten path. 

Serbia: The Central Serbian Loop

Serbia is arguably the epicenter of the Balkan Peninsula, and one of the best ways to experience its diverse terrain is via the Central Serbian Loop. This 900-kilometer route passes through the heart of the country, connecting medieval town centers, picturesque villages, cultural sites, and unspoiled nature reserves.

The itinerary begins in Belgrade, Serbia’s lively capital, situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Spend a day exploring bohemian neighborhoods like Skadarlija and the Kalemegdan Fortress overlooking the city. Then, head south toward the town of Kraljevo, driving through rolling plains dotted with orchards and vineyards. Kraljevo itself makes for a nice stopover, with its 18th-century Stone Bridge and traditional Serbian architecture.

Continuing south, the drive winds through the Dinaric Alps into the fertile Mataruška and Šumadija Valleys. Tiny stone villages perched on hillsides overlook emerald pastures and farmland, a quintessential Serbian countryside scene. Consider spending the night in the mountain resort of Kopaonik to experience its cooler mountain air.

From Kopaonik, travel west toward central Serbia’s limestone massifs. In the town of Kruševac, pay homage at the tomb of Prince Lazar, an important figure in Serbian history. As the route swings north, lush vineyards, orchards, and grazing livestock dot the landscape once more. Make a detour to visit the Monastery of Ljubostinja, renowned for its frescoes.

The final stretch leads back to Belgrade via the town of Smederevo and its 15th-century fortress. Along this over 300 km drive, travelers gain meaningful insights into Serbia’s varied topography, traditions, and hospitality – all while rarely seeing another tourist on the road. With well-marked paths and friendly locals, it’s no wonder this circle tour is beloved among native Serbians.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar to Sarajevo

The unique Bosnian landscape offers its own gem of a route linking two of the Balkan country’s most iconic cities – Mostar and Sarajevo. Measuring around 165 kilometers, this route passes through verdant Dalmatian countryside, quaint mountain villages, and scenic valleys along the way.

Leaving Mostar after admiring its majestic Old Bridge and turquoise river, the drive heads north along the sparkling Neretva River Valley. Rolling hills dotted with scraggly pine and olive trees rise up on either side, forming a postcard-perfect setting. After an hour or so, stop in the village of Jablanica to taste traditional burek pastries and Turkish coffee.

Continuing inland, the valley narrows as mountains steepen on the route. Keep an eye out for ancient stone farmhouses and striking limestone formations protruding from pine forest hillsides. Passing through mountain towns like Konjic, drivers feel quite removed from the tourist hordes on the coast. Spend the night in historic Vranduk to soak up village vibes along the river.

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The final stretch of the journey leads into Bosnian heartland, with Sarajevo’s imposing mountains looming ahead. Winding roads ascend to the historic spa town of Ilidža, a sanctuary under green slopes. From here, it’s just a 15-minute drive into lively Sarajevo, passing through suburban neighborhoods and glimpsing landmarks like the clock tower and Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. With scenic valleys, welcoming villages, and two vibrant cultural hubs bookending the route, it’s no wonder locals often make this driving connection.

Montenegro: The Montenegrin Mountain Loop

For travelers seeking jaw-dropping Alpine scenery coupled with a rich heritage, Montenegro’s Mountain Loop is truly unmissable. Stretching over 300 kilometers throughout the country’s dramatic peaks and coastline, this circuit route allows visitors to traverse diverse landscapes while skipping crowded tourist destinations.

Kicking off in the historic Bay of Kotor, spend a morning taking in its Venetian architecture and ambling alleyways before heading inland. Winding roads ascend rapidly into verdant mountains, with the Adriatic glinting in the distance. Tiny villages perched on slopes offer glimpses into a traditional way of life that has been unchanged for centuries.

After a couple of scenic hours, arrive in Kolasin, a chilled-out mountain town surrounded by dark coniferous forests. Spend the afternoon hiking trails winding through weeping birch groves and spots for locally sourced food. Then, hit the road once more, traveling east through the Bjelasica and Sinjajevina mountain ranges.

Passing through the historic mining village of Zabljak and its impressive Peak Miljenik views open up to rugged karst pillars and limestone cliffs dropping dramatically to valleys below. Feeling parched? Stop at any of the many mountain huts along the way for homemade rakija, cheese, and bread.

Continuing northward, descend into Durmitor National Park’s zone of stunning limestone massifs and glacial lakes. Spend the night in Žabljak to take an early morning hike amid the surreal scenery. From here, it’s a scenic winding route west back to the Bay of Kotor, passing through remote river canyons and alpine valleys unique to Montenegro. With top-notch natural beauty, local hospitality awaits off the trodden trail.

North Macedonia: From Ohrid to Albanian Border

Nestled in serene mountain landscapes, Macedonia offers its own enchanting off-the-beaten-path route connecting two key cities. Stretching 160 kilometers from the historic lakeside town of Ohrid up to the Albanian border, this journey highlights Macedonia’s unspoiled nature and cultural melting pot.

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After spending a day exploring Ohrid’s ancient churches, cafes, and coastline views, head west and out of town into woodlands and mountains. Small villages dot rural valleys, where livestock graze, and grapes harvest each autumn. Stop for homemade bread, cheese, and slivo vodka in the hamlet of Velgosti to taste rustic village life.

Continuing through folded terrain, arrive in the town of Debar, nestled against forested slopes. A fortress, mineral springs, and proximity to the Albania and Kosovo borders have long made it a cultural crossroads. Spend the afternoon exploring its Ottoman-era architecture and Albanian influences. Then, hit the road once more toward the mountains.

Ascending into wilder scenery, the road carves through remote karst topography and pine forests inhabited by bears, wolves and deer. Take in craggy limestone massifs towering overhead while crossing between villages tucked away in deep valleys along tranquil rivers.

Reaching the border village of Shtip after a couple of scenic hours, spend the night drinking rakija and dancing traditional dances with locals. In the morning, hike nearby mountain trails before completing the last leg of the journey back to Ohrid, having witnessed the incredible diversity of landscapes Macedonia has to offer off the well-worn track.

Montenegro to Albania: The Morača River Valley

For those wishing to cross scenery-filled landscapes between Montenegro and Albania, a picturesque 185-kilometer route traverses the dramatic Morača River Valley. Winding roads ascend through forested gorges and tiny mountain villages along this tribal borderland region boasting medieval fortresses and traditional mountain culture.

Leaving Žabljak in Montenegro after taking in Durmitor National Park’s surreal karst formations, the journey heads east toward the Albanian border. Ascending into rugged alpine terrain, marvel at towering grey limestone massifs rising dramatically along either side of the deep valley below. Stop to snap photos of the cascading Morača River that carved this geological marvel over millennia.

After a couple of hours, arrive in the strategic medieval town of Plav, straddling the river along the Montenegrin-Albanian frontier. Wander cobbled lanes passing Ottoman-era architecture before fueling up for the final push east. Leaving Plav, continue ascending into truly remote scenery through dense pine forests and ancient stone villages sustaining a traditional way of life for centuries.

Crossing into Albania, descend into the beautiful Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park, whose limestone peaks soar over 3,000 meters. Spend the night in sleepy Theth, nestled deep in a valley, surrounded by shepherds’ huts and patches of wheat fields. The next morning, complete the scenic circuit back to Žabljak, retracing truly awe-inspiring alpine landscapes lacking in other parts of Europe. For those seeking adventures off the guidebook path, this is it.

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