Often mislabeled as dangerous or uninteresting, the Balkan Peninsula has a rich, diverse history dating back to ancient times. It's become quite popular for travellers on a budget, but it has so much more to offer than just low prices. Take a look at our list of the best well-known and underrated Balkan travel destinations. What you find might surprise you.
Albania's coastline has garnered something of a reputation among backpackers in recent years, but not to be missed are some of its inland cities. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Gjirokaster is one of the most well-preserved Ottoman cities in Europe and still retains its local charm. Souvenir shops line the streets, but many of the wares are authentic antiques. Gjirokaster's 12th century fortress is also spectacular with views over the whole city. Sit down for a rakija in the old town, and if you're overheard speaking something other than Albanian don't be surprised if you're invited over to someone's house for a coffee.
Berat is colloquially known as the town of a thousand windows, and looking up at the stacked, Ottoman houses climbing the hills gives the impression that the city is watching you. Berat sits along the banks of the Osum River in central Albania, and its fortress has been continuously inhabited since the sixth century. Here you can find Byzantine churches and many mosques from different religious sects. Plan your visit for May, June or September when the weather is at its best, and you'll be sure to find plenty of accomodation in the UNESCO-protected fortress above the city. Take a day trip to the Cobo winery outside the city and sample some authentic Albanian wine.
Shkodra is Albania's bike city. Almost everyone here cycles, and it's one of the few cities in Albania where it's truly safe to do so. Skoder is surrounded by three different rivers, and is the gateway to the Albanian Alps. Rozafa castle looms above the city and a hike up there will give you a panoramic view. Rent a bike from your hotel or hostel and take a trip to the largest lake in southern Europe, Lake Shkoder (Skadar).
With its rich history, ornate architecture and lively arts scene it should come as no surprise that Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina makes the list. The city itself is an intricate mix of Austro-Hungarian buildings, Yugoslav-era apartment blocks, and a Turkish-style old town. Dubbed "the Jerusalem of Europe," this cultural capital of the Balkans accommodates three world religions. Here you can find Catholic and Orthodox churches, mosques, and synagogues all throughout the city. Try some cevapcici (minced-meat sausages), in the old town and watch the mix of tourists and locals alike go by.
Mostar is another marvel from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its spectacular Ottoman bridge, Stari Most, was restored to its former glory in 2004. If you visit in the summer, you can watch divers stretch and shout and collect money from tourists on the bridge. There's no guarantee that they will actually take the plunge into the icy blue of the Neretva River below, but the suspense is part of the show. The well-preserved old town is full of souvenir shops, many of which sell knock-off Ottoman tea sets and kitschy, creepy engraved bullet casings, but there are some genuine antique places where you can find everything from old coffee grinders to collectible coins. Visit in the spring or early fall when the weather is still warm but the crowds are smaller and you're sure to have a unique experience.