10 of the Balkans’ Most Beautiful Small Towns and Underrated Cities

Step off the beaten track in the Balkans, a more affordable, lesser-visited alternative to Western Europe. Taking you from Bulgaria to Bosnia and Herzegovina (via Croatia, and Albania), we’ve picked out the region’s most charming alpine enclaves, under-radar cities and island towns lapped by the Adriatic Sea.

There's more to Europe's Balkan Peninsula than its star cities of Belgrade, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, et al. Venturing away from the fray, you'll reach medieval citadels framed by the Albanian Alps, progressive post-Soviet cities and vineyard-strewn island towns where a glass of grk wine pairs well with views across the Adriatic.

A more affordable, lesser-visited alternative to Western Europe, these camera-ready small towns and underrated cities are as perfect for pit-stops on a Balkan road trip as they are a few days away.

The best of the Balkans: 10 small towns and under-radar cities to visit now



In recent years, Ohrid has stolen the shine from the Balkans' sparkling Adriatic coast - without doubt thanks to the town's namesake lake. Navigate the bougainvillea-strung Old Quarter to the 13th-century St John at Kaneo church for waterside views before renting a boat and making ripples. See the town at its most lively during August's Ohrid Summer Festival of music, art and theatre, or use it as a launchpad for natural immersion; Ohrid sits at the intersection of three national parks. The city of Bitola is a great day trip from here.

Stay: Apartment Fantasy

Velika Planina


Does Europe's largest shepherds' settlement classify as a small town? For beauty's sake, we say: yes. Catch the cable car from Kamniška Bistrica and let city stresses melt into the thin Alpine air as you sample the simple life (along with sour milk and žganci, a buckwheat mush) between 140 shingle-roofed huts and jangling cowbells. It's a great starting point for meadowy hikes and mountain-bike rides, too. Like this? Check out Lukomir in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Theth, a remote herders' settlement hugged by the Albanian Alps.

Stay: Chalet Zlatica Velika Planina


Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cradled by mountains and crowned by its famed Old Bridge, Mostar is the rightful darling of Bosnia and Herzegovina - but it doesn't need anyone else to shout about it. Instead, set your sat nav 40 minutes' drive north to Počitelj. Currently on the Unesco Tentative List, this medieval walled village is a warren of crumbling stone houses tufted with pomegranate bushes. Visit the Hajji Alija Mosque before gawping across the Neretva river from the ruined Gavrakapetan Tower.

Stay: Anna Maria Medjugorje



Where town meets country, Peja (or Peć) is a city for lovers of the great outdoors. It's backed by the ominous Prokletije Mountains, so nature never feels far - even when you're having a nosey in the Bajrakli Mosque or perusing the bazaar, downing Turkish coffee and a slice of byrek (a traditional Balkan pie of spinach and cheese). The unspoiled Rugova Canyon - one of Europe's longest and deepest of its kind - is a mere 3km away. Venture into its Gryka e Madhe (Great Canyon-cave) for pictures you'll want to show off later.

Stay: Resort Ujevara e Drinit



Jutting out of Slovenia's short but stunning Adriatic coast, this traffic-free medieval city has soaked up the charm of its Italian neighbours - from here it's a 45-minute drive to Trieste and just over two to Venice. That being said, Piran is something of an antidote to tourist-heavy La Serenissima. A lunch of salty-fresh sea bass will fuel your wanderings through the colourful Tartinijev Trg and up a hilly alley, stopping at St George's Church before reaching the city walls. On a clear day, you'll spot the Dolomites across the gulf.

Stay: Art Hotel Tartini

Korčula Town


Often bypassed by travellers schlepping between Split and Dubrovnik, Korčula is the sixth-largest of Croatia's sun-soaked islands, where dense forests of oak and cypress give way to quiet coves, sleepy villages and sprawling vineyards of pošipa and grk grapes that are catching the noses of discerning oenophiles. Get your culture-fix in Korčula Town (Icon Museum is a highlight) before a lunch of local pasta, žrnovski makaruni, and a dip at Pupnatska Luka beach to the south.

Stay: Lešić Dimitri Palace​

Veliko Târnovo


The magnificent Tsarevets fortress is the focal point of Veliko Târnovo, one of Bulgaria's oldest towns. Framed by a kink in the Yantra River, along with forested hills beyond that, this medieval spot was given a splendid revamp during the 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival - spy its telltale architecture as you mosy around. Souvenir hunters should make a beeline for the Samovodska Charshiya handicraft market.

Stay: Rooster Hostel



Scottish novelist William Boyd wrote: "God made the world in six days, and on the seventh day, he took his time and created this fjord under Lovćen." Indeed, while many travellers flock to Montenegro's summer playground of Budva, those after a more ethereal trip wash up in the Bay of Kotor. Its banks are sprinkled with camera-ready medieval towns, of which Perast is perhaps the prettiest and most unspoiled. Though it only has one main street, this pocket-sized spot is home to 16 churches and 17 palazzi fringed with wild figs and other such flora. From here, take a water taxi to Perast's storied islet, Our Lady on the Rocks.

Stay: Hotel Heritage Hotel Leon Coronato



Tirana might be Albania's capital, but it's stayed well under the radar of most travellers - for now at least; this thriving city is undergoing a cultural evolution, so plan a visit before others catch on. What it lacks in oh-so-obvious beauty, it makes up for with multicultural charm. Relics of the Tirana's Ottoman, Italian and communist heritage (don't miss the Pyramid) can be found on its mural-flecked streets. Good food comes cheap (try the beefy local dish of fërgesë), café culture is buzzing and nightlife in the Blloku district is wild.

Stay: Hotel Stela Center



Niš may be Serbia's third-largest city and the birthplace of three Roman emperors, but it's often overlooked by travellers hell-bent on happening Belgrade. Niš's heritage doesn't make for light viewing - sites of interest include the Ottoman Skull Tower and Serbia's most notorious Nazi concentration camp, Crveni Krst (Red Cross) - but its sombre past has given way to a curiously cultural present in which cars share roads with Roma in horse-drawn carriages and the music scene rivals that of Novi Sad.

Stay: ArtLoft Garni Hotel

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