Touring the Balkans: Must-see spots in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Croatian city of Dubrovnik can thank Game of Thrones for the tourism boost it’s experienced in recent years. The wildly popular fantasy series shot its fictional capital, King’s Landing, in real-life Dubrovnik, and fans have been flocking to the city for a taste of medieval-infused fantasy ever since.

Each year since 2011, when the series debuted on HBO, the city has continued to shatter its own record for visiting tourists. While impressive, it’s not the only place worth seeing on the Balkan Peninsula. Visitors who love Dubrovnik would be equally enchanted with the region’s many gems, spread across Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For those who want to get as close as possible to the Old Town of Dubrovnik, there are a few options for accommodation. Villa Orsula offers scenic views of the Adriatic Sea and the Old Town from its bedroom balconies. Located within a 15-minute walk of the Old Town, Villa Dubrovnik, which is perched on rocks above the sea, is another top choice.

One popular destination, the Ethnographic Museum, stands out on the narrow Old Town streets. This impressive building, which dates back to the 16th century, was once a granary. In Game of Thrones, it was the brothel where Tyrion Lannister meets Oberyn Martell in season four. In reality, the building’s interior is a lot less squalid, and visitors can stroll through the old hallways while viewing displays of folk costumes, textile handiwork and other cultural artefacts.

For a bit of fresh air, head to one of the most scenic spots in the Old Town: the Pile Gate. Discerning viewers can also spot this site – which formerly served as a transport hub for seafarers – in Game of Thrones as the fictional Blackwater Bay. The real spot in Dubrovnik boasts views of both Bokar and Lovrijenac Fort.

Located just outside the Old Town, Banje Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Dubrovnik. The cliffside Buža Beach is also well worth a visit. There’s no sand, but its rocky embankment offers the best makeshift diving board for more aquatically inclined beach-goers.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, tuck into some traditional Croatian food. It’s similar to other types of cuisine found in the former Yugoslavian region and features an abundance of meat and grilled foods. Barbequed cevapi – a type of skinless sausage – can be found on almost every restaurant menu. For meat lovers, it’s a must-try.

After visiting Dubrovnik, head south to Budva, located on the Adriatic Sea in Montenegro, the last Yugoslavian country to declare independence. The country has recently become a hotspot for European tourists, and Budva is rated the most popular tourist destination in the country.

Budva is full of bars and clubs, and many Europeans come here in the summer for the parties and sunshine. One of the must-visit clubs in Montenegro is called Top Hill. It’s an open-air club that’s located – you guessed it – atop a high hill, and acrobatic dance shows are held during busy hours. Alternatively, there are many cafes in the Old Town that transform into thriving nightlife hubs after the sun sets.

Another must-see site in the Old Town is the Budva Citadel, which now serves as a small museum. After climbing the steps to the entrance, you are greeted by staff in traditional Montenegrin clothing and it costs only €2.50 ($HK22) to wander around. While exploring the halls and ramparts, you’ll stumble across some vantage points with stunning views of the Old Town, bay and mountains beyond.

The Ballet Dancer Statue is another one of the city’s most photogenic spots, mainly for what’s in the background: the monumental walls of Stari Grad – the Old Town of Budva – which was built by the Venetians.

For those looking for a more exclusive stay in Montenegro, the Aman Sveti Stefan luxury resort is our top choice. The resort is spread across the entire Sveti Stefan Island and is named after the land mass, which is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Right next to the isthmus is a public beach with views of the whole island, and resort guests also have access to a private beach.

Several boat trips are available, but the 10-hour trip from Budva to Herceg Novi to Kotor is perhaps most common among tourists. A bus takes you to Tivat, where the boat awaits. The first stop is Herceg Novi, then Zanjice. Tourists can then take an optional ride on a small boat (€3 per person) to the Blue Cave, where you can bathe in the sea.

The last stop, Kotor, is famous for its medieval city walls. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to climb and explore these fortifications before boarding the bus to head back to Budva.

If you’d prefer a shorter trip, there are also boats that go to St Nicholas Island, located just off the coast of Budva.

After enjoying the coast, it’s time to head inland to explore the culture of Mostar, a city and municipality in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. With a population of nearly 106,000, it is the most important city and cultural capital of the Herzegovina region.

Mostar is situated on the Neretva River and was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in medieval times. Built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, the bridge is one of the country’s most famous landmarks and a prime example of Islamic architecture in the Balkans.

Just near the Old Bridge is the Old Bazar Kujundziluk, where shops sell standard souvenirs that can be found around the city, but also a more intriguing selection of paintings, handmade glass and copper pieces.

There is also a vibrant selection of restaurants here, including Sadrvan, which is rated the second best restaurant in Mostar. Let the waiters recommend you something, and you’re bound to be pleasantly surprised. Make sure to request some of their house-made bread – it’s the best in the region.

A good opportunity to learn about Islamic culture is to visit a mosque in the city. Several mosques in Mostar are open to the public, including one in the centre of the Old City. The architecture in itself is a sight to behold, as are the paintings and glasswork inside. While in the Old City, one can take excellent photographs of the Old Bridge from the riverside for a small extra fee.

Kravice Falls is another sight in Mostar that can’t be missed, and the crystal clear waters are especially inviting on a hot summer day.

Before wrapping up your trip, it’s essential to visit the Bosnian capital city, Sarajevo. Because of its rich history of religious and cultural diversity, Sarajevo was called the “Jerusalem of Europe”. It’s the only major European city that has a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue within the same neighbourhood.

In both Mostar and Sarajevo, you can still see the wreckage caused by the Bosnian War. The Sarajevo War Tunnel is a must-see, but it’s all the more poignant if you’ve done some basic research beforehand.

For another piece of history, head to Sarajevo’s Old Town to visit the Bascarsija. It’s home to a number of markets and was also the spot where the Ottomans founded the city in the 15th century. It’s a great place to enjoy authentic Bosnian food and explore the surrounding shops, which sell jewellery, artwork and an array of other goods.

Be sure to walk along Ferhadija Pedestrian Street, which runs the length of Sarajevo’s Old Town. A nice range of cafes, restaurants and shops line the street, but the real treat is the architecture you’ll see along the way. If you start at the western end, it will feel like you’re moving back in time, from the art nouveaux gems built during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the mosques and markets of the Ottomans.

Whether it’s history, architecture or beaches that you seek, the Balkans offer something for everyone. Luckily, you don’t have to choose just one destination. Due to the close proximity of the top destinations, and the reasonable cost of travelling between them, you can do and see it all – and maybe even land a role as a Game of Thrones extra while you’re there.

Text: Xuan Dai

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