The Balkans: Europe’s true hidden gem, a treasure of breathtaking Mediterranean coastline and sheer mountains. As my Serbian friend once said, “you can’t face any direction in the Balkans without seeing beauty”. And it’s true.
So after completing a magnificent 8-day road trip across Croatia, I was convinced – there’s a lot to see here. So I made my way to Belgrade, Serbia for what ended up being one of my favorite road trips ever.
Featured in this article:
- Best route to cover 4 Balkan countries in less than one week
- The highest rated budget, midscale, and luxury accommodations in Belgrade, Serbia
- How to rent a car cross country in the Balkans, including Kosovo
- Lake Ohrid: the gem of the Balkans
- Our choice of best bang-buck accommodation in Skopje, North Macedonia
- The ultimate off-the-beaten-path hidden Serbian canyon (and the best place to enjoy it)
The interior Balkan countries you wish you hadn’t missed
Most explorers love to flock to Croatia, Montengro, and Albania for their epic Mediterranean beaches and fantastically cute towns.
But this road trip is different. Here, we will take you to more off the beaten path interior countries offering incredible castles, intriguing monasteries, stunning mountains, magnificent lakes, spectacular waterfalls, and quintessential Slavic cities.
These are the countries covered:
- Serbia: Land of Castles, Fortresses, and Rivers of Beauty
- North Macedonia: Magnificent mountains, monasteries, and a giant lovely lake
- Kosovo: a quirky capital, cool cave, epic waterfall, and lovely people
- Montenegro: a brief drive through magnificent mountains
- Serbia (again): the most beautiful river valley you’ve ever seen, and a hipster town to finish
Related: One Awesome Day in Bucharest – The Ultimate Layover
The Ultimate 6 to 7 Day Balkans Road Trip Itinerary Summed Up
We have a lot to cover in 6 days. This jam-packed itinerary ensures you see the best of these Balkan countries in the most efficient of ways:
This itinerary was curated to cover the most ground in the most efficient way, with evenly split driving times and allocated time for border crossings. It assumes an arrival by mid-afternoon on day 1 and departure after late-afternoon on day 6.
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- Day 1: Arrival in Belgrade (BEG), and seeing Serbia’s splendid capital
- Day 2: Headed to Nīs, with incredible medieval fortress and monastery visits & a secret cave
- Day 3: Crossing into North Macedonia, with a fabulous hike, ancient observatory, and golden wine on the way
- Day 4: Two of the most beautiful lakes in the Balkans: Ohrid & Matka. Ending in Skopje, North Macedonia’s Capital
- Day 5: Exploring Kosovo’s absolutely unique intricacies, then continuing to a fabulous Serbian river canyon
- Day 6: Having an awesome Serbian morning, and flying home in the afternoon
- Optional: extending your Balkans trip by a day and exploring the hippie town of Novi Sad
This is the best 6-7 day interior Balkans road trip route:
Here are the highlights for an awesome 6-7 day road trip across the Balkans:
- Belgrade, Serbia
- Golubac Fortress & Manasija Monastery
- Nis, Serbia (overnight)
- Kokino Megalithic Observatory
- Marko’s Towers
- Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia (overnight)
- Lake Matka
- Skopje, North Macedonia (overnight)
- Pristina, Kosovo
- White Drin Waterfall
- Uvac, Serbia (overnight)
- Novi Sad, Serbia
Renting a car in the Balkans: everything you need to know about cross-border travel (including Kosovo)
When it comes to renting a car in Belgrade, you’ll want to stick with a solid rental car company that allows cross-border travel.
Though the “Green Pass” used to be an insurance requirement to cross borders in the Balkans, you may now obtain insurance at each individual border crossing (if you are not insured). With the rental car company we chose, we were already insured across every country and did not need to pick up insurance at the borders.
We recommend using Hertz for a quicker, easier time renting a car in both drop off and pickup.
A note about driving your rental car into Kosovo
This itinerary does pass through Kosovo, as we did on our trip, but it is not a requirement if you wish to avoid it. At this time, any border conflicts are in the northwest corner of the country, far from the proposed route. There is zero expected impact.
You may need to have your own supplementary insurance, or verify that your own insurance (from your credit card or regular car insurance) covers your car in Kosovo, as most insurances by rental companies do not cover Kosovo. This is due to vandalism in the past that is mostly rectified now thanks to a change in license plate requirements. At the border, you will be given white stickers to hide the Serbian part of your license plates.
Surprisingly, Kosovo actually had the best roads we encounter in the Balkans, and some of the friendliest people.
Note: you cannot enter Serbia from Kosovo. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a country. This is why this itinerary is built to cross into Kosovo from North Macedonia and exit Kosovo into Montenegro.
Day 1: Arrival in Belgrade, Serbia
Maximizing your first day in Serbia:
- Walking around the medieval Belgrade Fortress
- Exploring Old Town Belgrade
- Getting electrified by Serbia
- Serbia’s best restaurants for dinner
- Why Belgrade is the Balkan center for nightlife, and where to go for a fun night out
- Where to stay in Belgrade, Serbia
This itinerary assumes you are landing around midday. If earlier, we recommend also visiting the lovely hip town of Novi Sad.
The first stop is, of course, Belgrade itself. As the capital of Serbia, there is a lot of history, some epic dining, and excellent views. I found it as thrilling to visit as Bucharest, which I visited earlier this year.
Starting your day in Belgrade with amazing food
After a long journey, you’ll likely be hungry. We found an absolute incredible Vegan restaurant that you’ll love – even if you love meat.
It’s called Rai Urban Vege and not only is the food (and coffee) amazing, it’s location is perfectly situated next to the Belgrade Fortress.
After eating, it’s only a 5 minute walk to the Belgrade Fortress. From there, you can continue walking towards the Old Town, passing through the elevated Kalemegdan Park with the best city views in Belgrade.
In the fortress area of Belgrade, you’ll also find:
- A Military Museum,
- The Ružica Serbia Orthodox Church
- Old Defense Towers
- Incredible parks bustling with families enjoying this amazing city.
🎶 Making my way downtown, walking fast 🎶 : Old Town Belgrade
Though it’s a long walk (1-3 hours), we highly recommend continuing through the park straight into the Old Town of Belgrade, and perhaps taking an Uber or bus or tram back to where you parked. Alternately, you can attempt to park near the Old Town, but good luck finding a spot.
Must-see places in Old Town Belgrade include:
- The Old Palace
- Historical Museum of Serbia, or the National Museum
- St. Mark Orthodox Church
- Kneza Mihaila, a gorgeous street
- Saint Sava Temple
Make sure to stop at Bubamara Gelato for amazing ice cream on a hot day!
Quintessential Serbia: the Nikola Tesla Museum
It’s a little know fact that Nicola Tesla is actually from Serbia! There’s a museum dedicated to him in the center of town, the Nikola Tesla Museum.
The Museum is a fascinating tribute to this incredible scientist and his contributions to the planet.
You’re reading this thanks to him (and me).
Dinner plans after the museum
Surely, you’ve worked up an appetite after all that walking and learning.
Luckily, the Tesla Museum is located next to Vaçar, a neighborhood filled with the top restaurants in Belgrade.
Our selection for dinner here would have to be Botako for some of the best pizza of your life.
Serbia: the hotspot of European nightlife
Looking for post-dinner plans?
Did you know that Serbia is known as a European hotspot for its hip clubs and nightlife?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Move Belgrade as an excellent place for a nightcap and festivities. It’s a club located right on the Danube offering a thrilling experience and a great way to close out the day.
Best accommodation in Belgrade, Serbia
There’s no shortage of fine accommodation options in Belgrade for every kind of budget. To make it easier for you, we’ve hand selected the best of the best in each price range.
Budget Accommodation in Belgrade
The hippest (and nicest) hostel in Belgrade: San Art Floating Hostel & Apartments
This awesome Hostel is literally situated on the river, on a floating dock. This is the true Danube experience! Highly rated and offering apartments for those who aren’t inclined to the bunk bed experience, staying at the San Art Floating Hostel couldn’t be a cooler Serbian experience.
Midscale Accommodation in Belgrade
The Hotel Moskva Belgrade offers 4 star luxury and amenities at discount prices. I highly recommend it as an amazing first night in Belgrade.
Ultimate Luxury Accommodation in Belgrade
Pure luxury, with the best guest reviews of any hotel in Belgrade: The Square Nine Hotel Belgrade. With a sauna, steam room, rooftop terrace, and spa, you’ll be sure to live your best life here.
Day 2: a very Nis day to explore Serbia
Today features a sample of castles, fortresses, monasteries, caves, lakes, rivers; time to delight yourself with the true Balkan countryside experience.
- Driving to incredible Golubac Fortress
- Enjoy an off the beaten path Serbian wonder
- Stare at a monastery
- Best accommodations in Nīs, Serbia
First, we’ll start with a short drive to the beautiful Golubac Fortress.
You can actually visit the Fortress, and there’s even a visitor center and coffee shop onsite.
The complex opens at 10AM, so make sure to head there early enough for the rest of the day. Enough time to grab breakfast before starting your drive.
Hiking with magnificent Fortress views
If getting fresh air and exercise interests you more than the Fortress, make sure you check out one of the plentiful hiking paths surrounding Golubac.
And locals here love swimming in the Danube on a hot day. In fact, the riverfront cities remind me of many beachfront cities in Croatia! Great way to cool down after a hike.
Cave into true Serbia
Next up is an absolutely incredible cave with crystal clear turquoise water and some delightful fresh fish.
Krupajsko vrelo is located deep in the Serbian countryside, but not so deep that you can’t access it. In fact, you can drive basically right up to the cave. There’s even a local restaurant right with delicious fresh fish right from the river!
Stare at the monastery
The Balkans don’t have any shortage of monasteries. But trust me, this one is worth a visit.
The Manasija Monastery, dating all the way back to 1418, sits nestled in green Serbian mountains on top a hill exposing its incredible beauty to the surrounding villages.
Niš: why it’s a great Serbian road trip stop
Though there are plentiful flights from Belgrade to Niš, this road trip will demonstrate just why it’s better to explore by land. And I’m saying that as a pilot!
Niš (pronounced Nish) has a beautiful walled old city, as well as an electric and party-ful new city. The night life here is truly Serbian – that is to say wild!
So whether you’re looking for a fun night or, or just want to kick back and relax, there’s something for you in Niš.
Best hotel accommodations (with parking) in Niš
Parking in Niš can be super tough, especially on a weekend. But luckily, we found a hotel with complimentary parking that had room on perhaps the busiest day of the year. And it was actually quite nice, yet cheap!
We stayed at the New City Hotel, located in a great location near the excitement of the new town and right across the river from the walled old town, offers a good product at a great price.
Another choice for those who desire a more elevated experience is the Ambasador Hotel, a 5 star luxury hotel with amazing service and amenities.
Day 3: Ohrid – The most beautiful lake in the Balkans?
Buckle up, today is gonna be a long – and great day.
- Have a Niš Breakfast
- Cross into North Macedonia
- Enjoy one of the worlds oldest observatories
- The cheapest and one of the best lunches in the Balkans
- An incredible hike at Marko’s Towers (medieval)
- Lake Ohrid: the gem of Balkan lakes
- Best accommodations in Ohrid, North Macedonia
Your first Balkans border crossing, your longest driving day, and likely your most rewarding. Just wait until you arrive at Lake Ohrid right for sunset. The splendor will overwhelm you.
But for now, it’s time to check out of Serbia – and starting checking out North Macedonia.
Breakfast in Niš
Make sure to wake up early and take full advantage of the wonderful day ahead.
As breakfast at the New City Hotel was not included, we made our way towards the old town and found a ship restaurant right on the Danube – called Porto Nuovo.
It was a great place to grab some energy before walking around the walled Old Town of Niš for about an hour before starting the exciting road trip ahead.
Crossing the border from Serbia to North Macedonia
We found it extremely straightforward to cross from Serbia to North Macedonia. Just make sure to respect the car lanes - do not block the trucks and buses from using the right lane. I learned this the hard way!
Admittedly, this was our longest border crossing. We went on a holiday during a splendid, warm day in the heart of summer.
But despite all that, it maybe took an hour and a half. Pack a book, or download a podcast.
North Macedonia Rocks!
Next up is the Kokino Megalithic Observatory. This place has fascinating megalithic rock formations and great views on the valleys beneath.
Entrance is 2€ per person. It’s worth it – NASA lists Kokino as one of the world’s oldest observatories, dating from the Bronze Age!
For those tight on time, you can elect to skip this. We finished lunch after 330PM, and this was the part we decided to jettison.
An excellent small hidden gem of a restaurant for lunch
Since it took us so long to cross the border, we were hungry. And hangry.
We found a truly phenomenal hidden gem right off the highway on the way to Marko’s Towers. The food was of excellent quality – much like what you’d get in Italy. But the prices were fantastic. Close to 5€ for a main course.
And of course, the golden wine was great too. 😉
It’s called Avra Restaurant & Cafe.
Marko’s Towers: a must-do hike
However, there is a hike I recommend not skipping – Marko’s Towers.
Not only is it a fantastic hike, it’s interesting to explore an old medieval fortress.
The incredible 360 degree views on the cities, valleys, mountains, and rock formations all around make this a winner. You can actually drive up most of it if you wish!
It’s a 20-60 minute hike depending where you start (each way). You can drive pretty far up before the potholes get too huge.
Lake Ohrid: the gem of Balkan lakes
We truly loved North Macedonia, and indeed there is so much to love here. But the absolute gem of North Macedonia is a massive lake located in the southwest corner of the country: Lake Ohrid.
Surrounded by incredible mountains, lined with gorgeous beaches and clear water, harboring magnificent monasteries and fantastically beautiful medieval towns, Ohrid was the highlight of our trip. Indeed, tens of thousands of visitors flock here from all Europe every year.
Where to stay in Lake Ohrid
As such a popular destination, it can be tough to find a place to stay here. Luckily, one can snag an excellent place for a great price if you look carefully.
We fell in love with our apartment overlooking the water at Villa St. Sofjia, a brand new hotel with amazing rooms and even better, exceptionally friendly customer service.
They even upgraded us for free to a balcony room.
So go ahead, enjoy the beautiful sunset over the lake, go for a stroll around town, you won’t regret it.
Day 4: Time to Explore the best of the Balkans
You’re going to want to wake up early for this one. No – it’s not a terribly long day – but trust me. The sunrise over Lake Ohrid is sublime and you won’t want to miss it.
- A delightful morning at Lake Ohrid
- Xhamia e Larme: A stop you mosque visit
- Matka: a gorge-ous place to kayak and swim
- The local spot for epic Macedonian sunset views
- A top recommendation for awesome Balkan dinner
- Best accommodations in Skopje
Enjoying a delightful Ohrid morning
The best route is walking out towards the Church of Saint John the Theologian, and enjoying the Old City park. It’s probably the most magnificent place to spend a morning in Ohrid. Feel free to explore, go to a secluded beach here and swim, or even go for a job on one of the plethora of paths here.
Next, walk down along the waterfront Ohrid boardwalk towards Канео Летна Бавча и Ресторан for a charming waterfront breakfast. It’s a great time to replenish for a wonderful day ahead.
After a breakfast and coffee, make your way towards the old town. Make sure to see:
- The Paper Factory, specializing in the old technique of making paper adorned with all sorts of art. There are even ancient maps for sale.
- A Roman Empire amphitheater next to the St Mary Cathedral
- The Old Bazaar street, filled with cafes, restaurants, shops, and gelato!
There’s even more to Balkan beauty than monasteries
Though the monasteries in the Balkans are astounding, there’s another place of religious worship you’ll want to visit.
Catholicism may be the biggest religion in the Balkans, but Islam is a close second. As such, there are some gorgeous Mosques you really Mosque see.
One of these is called Xhamia e Larme, located up in Tetovo. This also makes a great lunch stop on your way to the next adventure in the outskirts of Skopje.
Kayak, canoe, boats, and a massive gorgeous lake
It’s true there are many places in the world you can go kayaking. But there’s something special about the Matka Canyon in the outskirts of Skopje.
This absolutely enormous reservoir extends for over 20 miles towards the south, located in a massive canyon.
There’s no entry fee, and renting a kayak here is really cheap. We had a kayak for 20€ for an hour. There are actually 2 vendors, and you have to walk pretty much as far south (even past the dam) to get to the second one. It’s so, so worth it.
Lake Matka’s waters are surprisingly turquoise and clear – and shockingly cold. Even in the heart of summer, the water stood at 8°C, or a frightening 46°F.
Did I go for a swim?
Did I know it was that cold before I went in?
But I enjoyed it so much, I actually jumped back in a second time.
You can kayak down to the Vrelo Cave, one of the world’s deepest underwater caves. It’s pretty far, but luckily you can take an organized tour by motor boat as well. Additionally, there’s also an old monastery (of course), or you can just enjoy the views of stunning mountains and cliffs surrounding you.
Enjoy sunset views over Skopje, North Macedonia like the locals do
If you still have time after all this adventuring, make sure to drive up to Sredno Vodno for epic mountaintop views over the Skopje valley.
It’s an amazing place for an overview of one of the most beautiful Old Towns I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the golden sunset glow lighting up the monasteries, mosques, bazaars, alleyways, and eclectic mix of old & new, surrounded by magnificent mountains, you will love it.
One of my best meals ever: Skopje & its food scene
My partner chose this one, so I cannot take credit.
We made a somewhat haphazard stop at one of the Vegan places in town, Dren Restaurant.
Both of us were shocked by the phenomenal flavors, incredible freshness, and amazing taste of our meals.
So even if you’re a meat lover – prepare for a culinary surprise.
The absolute best places to stay in Skopje, North Macedonia
There are tons of choices for hotels in Skopje. Many are good, few are great, and some are to be avoided.
We wanted to stay somewhere nice near the Old Town, yet budget friendly.
After coming across the highly-rated Hotel Premium, we decided it would make a great place to rest after a lot of adventuring.
Day 5: 4 Balkans in one day
- Walking around the incredible town of Skopje, North Macedonia’s historic capital
- Entering Kosovo, the highlight of the Balkan disputes
- Fascinating sights of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina
- Why you’ll fall for Kosovo
- The most epic border crossing in the Balkans
Prepare for a lovely day filled with plenty of border crossings to keep you entertained. Luckily, none of them are terribly difficult.
After enjoying your free (early, 7AM) breakfast on the top floor of Hotel Premium, with incredible views on the Skopje valley, you’ll have a bit of time to walk around an explore.
Best walking tour of Skopje, North Macedonia
Here’s how you can get the most out of a short walking tour around Skopje.
1. First, enter the Old Bazaar through the side gate near hotel premium.
2. Start your morning with some incredible Turkish coffee at Ottoman Caffe.
1.5 On your way there from the hotel, stop to admire the eclectic mix of cathedrals, mosques, shiny jewelry shops, cafes, museums, and unique culture.
3. Afterwards, head towards the old Stone Bridge to see where old meets new. This area is breathtaking, with massive statues including the wonderful monument to mothers, and epic valley views. It’s a rich, vibrant area where you truly feel like you’re in the middle of history in it’s making.
4. Cross the bridge, walk through a bit of the new town along the river, then head back to the hotel via the Mother Teresa Square.
5. Get ready to strap in for an adventure.
Kosovo: Visiting the Balkan Center of Dispute
The border between North Macedonia and Skopje is super close to Skopje. A mere 30-40 minutes and you’re there.
Our experience crossing the border into Kosovo was strangely easy, even with a rental car. We were told our insurance was still valid there, but there was one thing we were asked to do;
Cover any part of our license plate showing it was licensed in Serbia. Luckily, the border police hands you perfectly sized blank stickers that do the job perfectly.
After that, you’re on your way towards Pristina! The next thing you’ll notice is just how incredible smooth roads in Kosovo are. They’re the best we encountered in the Balkans!
Brace for a long drive – our destination is all the way in Uvac, Serbia.
Cave Lovers Rejoice!
Right on the drive is the Gadima Cave known for its epic limestone formations and mineral crystals.
The Strange but Interesting Sights of Pristina, Kosovo
I didn’t find Pristina very interesting, but there are a couple particularities / oddities worth seeing.
For one, there’s a life sized Bill Clinton statue in the heart of town. Thanks for recognizing Kosovo!
Then there’s an abandoned National Library that looks like it belongs in a Marvel movie, next to an abandoned beautiful mosque located in an abandoned-feeling park.
And there’s particularly great food. We had literally the best food of the trip here at Thana Rostoçeri.
How you’ll fall for Kosovo
Our next stop before one of the most beautiful border crossings I’ve ever done is the White Drin Waterfall. It’s an absolutely incredible clear water massive waterfall, totally accessible.
Make sure to buy some fresh strawberries and raspberries from one of the local vendors!
Crossing into Montenegro: the most beautiful border crossing
We found the border crossing at Kufiri to be super easy. On both sides, it’s a tiny station with very few cars waiting ahead of you.
And the 20km of “no-man’s land” between leaving Kosovo and entering Montenegro is one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever driven. Pine trees, flowers, colossal mountains, and huge boulders make it feel like the Alps.
However, the road on the Montenegro side is in horrific shape. Expect massive potholes, lots of construction (and accompanying construction trucks and equipment)… This part is slower than Google Maps accounts for…
The crossing back into Serbia is very straightforward thereafter.
Uvac: the ultimate off the beaten path stop in Serbia
Another 1.5-2 hours of driving brings you to the final rest stop: Uvac, Serbia. Luckily (for you), we saved the best for last.
Uvac is a hidden treasure, one that took a lot of research to find, and one we are extremely thankful we found. This ancient river canyon is farrrr off the beaten path, located deep in farmland. But that’s what makes it oh—-so—-special…
Think you’ve hit a pot of gold yet? Just wait until you check out the lodge..
Hand built cottages located on the edge of a massive cliff overlooking the canyon, with nothing around for miles and miles.
A pair of brothers living in this rural farmland set out the construct their epic dream in possibly the most beautiful location of Serbia, one that none has heard of, and I can say one thing: they were successful. It was our favorite accommodation of the entire trip.
The name? Etno selo Molitva.
The final frontier (Day 6)
It’s a 4 hour drive from Uvac to Belgrade International Airport for your flight home (or onwards), so factor that in. If you have an extra day (for a full week) and you haven’t checked it out yet, make sure to stop in Novi Sad.
Considered the cultural hotspot of Serbia, this hippy, vibrant town is full of life.
But whether you’re headed to the airport or exploring more of Serbia, this is what you won’t want to miss:
- The main viewpoint, or observation deck of the Uvac river canyon
- Delicious, fresh breakfast at Etno selo Molitva
Most of the trip back to the airport is very smooth highway, but plan ahead for any extra traffic. We did not have any issues, and ended up with enough extra time to head back to Rai Urban Vege to reinvigorate our taste buds one last time.
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