It’s hard not to be enchanted by the coastline of Montenegro. It is what I imagine Croatia was 15 years ago, on the cusp of becoming a highly touristed destination, but still a hidden gem. Montenegro is the only country we visited that is on the Euro, making it pricier than Serbia and Bosnia, but still quite inexpensive as compared to its neighbors Croatia and Italy. The food is the best of all worlds: excellent Mediterranean fish, pizzas, pastas, and, of course, bureks.
Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)
Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)
Bay of Kotor (town of Perast)
The only ‘fjord’ in the Mediterranean, the Bay of Kotor, and all of the little towns along the Bay.
Don’t miss: make a dinner reservation at Galion Restaurant in Kotor and sit out on the water for the sunset.
The walled old city of Budva (which is like a mini Dubrovnik) and 3 miles down the Coast, the (now) private island resort of Sveti Stefan, famous as the vacation destination of Elizabeth Taylor and Sofia Loren
Sveti Stefan, private island resort
View of the bay of Kotor from Galion restaurant (town of Kotor)
Word of warning: Montenegro’s “undiscovered” nature lends it to be a tough place to drive/navigate. The roads are unmarked, unnamed, sometimes unpaved, un-railguarded on the sides of cliffs, and one lane for two ways of traffic (particularly in Lovcen National Park).
It’s not a city known for it’s beauty. In fact, it is often referred to as one of “Europe’s ugliest capitals.” But what Belgrade, Serbia lacks in aesthetic, it makes up for in personality. A city whose most recent history includes its dark role as the capital of former Yugoslavia, Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest, and most conquered, cities. (Having been settled by Celts and conquered 38 times – by the Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, Ottomans for 500 years, and Hapsburgs.) It was the perfect start to our Balkans Road Trip.
With a handful of delightful pedestrian boulevards (Knez Mihajlova and the Bohemian Skadarlija in particular) scattered amongst the city’s crumbling Soviet-era cement blocks, Belgrade’s true charm lies in its under-developed tourism (and prices!) and perfectly developed, thriving nightlife.
We arrived for both the largest football match in the city (with riot police lining every street) and the Belgrade marathon (which was drastically different from my favorite day in New York).
What to do in Belgrade:
“Walking tour” There are free walking tours that run daily, or you can do what we did and create your own (click for our map), check out the itinerary below – you can see almost everything in <2 hours. Best of all, nearly all of Belgrade’s attractions are free (and are local, not tourist, spots)
Belgrade Underground – our one paid tourist activity, and glad we did it. A great (and passive) way to discover the hidden underground places from Belgrade’s 38 times being conquered, including Yugoslavian bunkers, ancient Roman ruins, and Ottoman buried wells. 12 Euro.
Serbian Nightlife! See below – don’t miss it!
Eating, Drinking, and Nightlife in Belgrade:
A mix of Eastern European with some Turkish influence, Serbian food is not particularly inspiring. The highlight was the cheese-filled phyllo dough burek pastries, which we lived on the entire weekend. Note: Almost all bakeries (pekaras) are closed on Sunday, which we learned the hard way.
Nightlife starts late in Belgrade. Begin with dinner/snacks at 10pm at a kafana traditional tavern. The best kafanas have live bohemians bands playing Serbian traditional music; increasingly-rowdy tables of guests “order” their favorite sing-alongs. Make sure to order some rakija, the traditional Serbian brandy shots made from various fruit. We had apple, pear, plum, and peach, each less palatable than the one before, but all part of the experience. Reservations for kafanas are required, even if they look empty.
Conclude the night with one (or many) of Belgrade’s clubs. We went to Plastic, which is the most well known in Serbian nightlife. People don’t start arriving until about midnight; the official party closes at 4 and moves next door to Mint, the after-party club with the same owners. As the weather warms, people walk from one to the next of the floating clubs along the river, which boast international DJs and impressive parties. There are no cover fees to enter the clubs, but reservations are required. Drinks are extremely inexpensive – with Rakija/whiskey costing $2-$4 per drink. No wonder the nightlife is so impressive!
Lastly, I have to mention the homemade wine. It’s terribly sour…but apparently it’s Serbian custom to mix it with Coca Cola, which forms a saccharine drink they call “bamboo.” Don’t ask.
Where to stay
Luxe: Located in the heart of the old town, Belgrade’s beautifully designed Square Nine Hotel is an award-winning boutique hotel. Price tag ~ $230/night.
Budget: At $54/night, our AirBNB rental a few minutes walk from the city center cannot be beat for budget travelers.
In 2011, my brother and I spent a magical week exploring souther Croatia: both Dubrovnik and Sipan Island off of the Adriatic Coast. The beauty of the coastline mesmerized us and we ate one delicious meal after another. However, we were less enchanted by how over-touristed Dubrovnik is. We promised ourselves we’d come back and explore the lesser-known parts of the Balkans. And the idea of the Balkans Road Trip was born.
We began in Belgrade, Serbia and ended in Podgorica, Montenegro, the following week. The itinerary combined equal parts history, culture, and off-the-beaten path adventure. Throw in some excellent food and happening nightlife. The ultimate Balkans Road Trip.
I wrote posts on each of the destinations, which you can link to below. With the exception of the treacherous drive from Belgrade to Sarajevo, a road trip was an excellent way to get around the Balkans and experience the region.