From the dramatic Dalmatian coast to Transylvania's quaint towns, the Balkan Peninsula has become a tourist magnet in recent years. But there are plenty of sights in between that still have yet to experience their 15 minutes of fame. These towns across the region are definitely worthy of a detour.
Albania's coastline has garnered something of a reputation among backpackers in recent years, but its inland cities to the south have just as many wonders. The UNESCO World Heritage city of Gjirokaster is located in a valley between two mountain ranges in southern Albania.
This Ottoman city is one of the most well-preserved in Europe and still retains its local charm. Souvenir shops line the streets of the old center, but many of their wares are authentic antiques. Locals still gather in the afternoon for rakija or konjak, and it's impossible to have a bad meal in Gjirokaster. The city's 12th century fortress offers spectacular views over the whole city, and its well-curated museum is full of historical anectdotes and artifacts.
Another Albanian World Heritage Site, Berat has existed since the 6th century BC. It's 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 indeed watching. Berat sits along the banks of the Osum River and is an easy bus ride from Tirana.
Byzantine churches and a plethora of mosques from different religious sects can be found at every turn, and its hilltop fortress is one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in Europe. Guesthouses abound in the fortress, and it's the perfect place to experience Albanian hospitality at its best. For something a little different, visit the Cobo winery just outside the city to sample some of Albania's finest 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. Shkodra is surrounded by three different rivers, and is the gateway to the Albanian Alps. Rozafa Castle looms above the city and offers panoramic views of the town's waterways.
Lake Shkoder, the largest lake in Southern Europe, is just a short bike ride away, and offers verdant, scenic views that are wildly different from Albania's dry, rocky south.
Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Head to this small Bosnian town outside of Mostar to step back in time. The beautiful monastery beneath a cliff in Blagaj was first built in the 1500s by the Dervish cult, a branch of Sufi Islam, and rebuilt in the 19th century. The nearby bridges of Karadoz-beg and Leho were built in the 16th century, and have remained nearly unchanged since then. This is also where the Buna River begins, springing from a cave beneath a limestone cliff. The area makes for spectacular hiking and can easily be explored in a day.
Visegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Any Balkan history buff will want to stop in Visegrad to complete their tour of the region. When Yugoslav author Ivo Andric won the Nobel Prize in 1961 for his novel The Bridge on the Drina, the town was briefly thrust into the spotlight due to its spectacular Ottoman bridge and the story crafted to go along with it. The Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge with its 11 arches is still one of the town's main attractions, although not its only.
Tours of the lengthy, winding Drina River itself are also popular, as the postcard-perfect scenery lends itself to amazing photographs. Also, its historic significance as a natural border between the many empires that have moved through the region make it an important stop on any tour of the Balkans.