Route: Budapest to Budapest
Duration: 20 days / 19 nights
Countries Visited: Serbia,Kosovo,Macedonia,Albania,Montenegro,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Croatia,Slovenia,Hungary
Accommodation: 8 nights 4 star hotel
Introduce: The Balkan countries of south eastern Europe have been dealt a generous hand by nature, with imposing mountain peaks blanketed in deep green forests, crystal clear seas fringed by long white beaches, sparkling rivers and thermal springs. During this month-long tour you'll have plenty of opportunities for exciting outdoor activities, as well time to soak up the cultural highlights of the region.
Route: Budapest to Budapest
Arrive in Budapest
The first day of your tour is simply an arrival day with no pre-organised activities. In order to allow time to relax and see some of the sights you may wish to add pre-tour accommodation. Budapest, Hungary's stylish capital is known as the 'City of Spas' for its abundance of natural thermal springs.
Straddling the Danube River, the city is comprised of two very different historic cities, Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank. Highlights here include Castle Hill, Matthius Church, Fisherman's Bastion, the Liberation Monument, the fabulous St Stephen's Basilica and the much photographed Parliament Building.
Terror Haza (Terror House) is a popular museum recounting stories of espionage and atrocities committed during World War II and during the communist period. During your optional visit you can view very moving testimonial footage from survivors and visit old jail cells, torture chambers and interrogation rooms.
The Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and features stunning decorations. You can also wander around Central Market Hall and enjoy the intoxicating sights and smells of'Budapest's pantry' and get an idea of Hungary's food culture - you can even buy chocolates by the kilo!
The perfect place to relax after a day of sightseeing is in a traditional bath. The Szechenyi Medicinal Baths are one of the city's more famous Neo Baroque-style baths with indoor and outdoor pools, thermal pools, saunas and massages in a beautiful setting. After a nice soak you can visit numerous restaurants and bars to visit on Liszt Ferenc for an enjoyable evening's entertainment.
Serbia's cultural centre, Novi Sad, is overlooked by the magnificent Petrovaradin Fortress. Built during the 18th century, the fortress was repeatedly attacked but never taken by an enemy. Although it has long since lost its strategic military value, since 1951 it has been an important cultural centre and one of the largest art colonies in the world with over 88 art studios. Visitors can buy art, talk with the artists and feel the atmosphere of studios while works of art are created. There are also three interesting restaurants, a museum, catacombs, great views of the Danube. Novi Sad is also known for its international music festivals, underground military galleries and above ground, such as the International Street Musicians' Festival in September offering diverse music genres, funny instruments, jugglers, street shows and acrobatics
Located at the crossing point of the Sava and Danube rivers is Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, where you will have plenty of time to explore. In the course of its long history, Belgrade has been captured 60 times, burned down around 40 times, and has risen like a phoenix from the ashes every time.
We have the opportunity to explore the military museum inside the fortress. The view of the city from the fortress is fantastic and not to be missed. If time allows it is definitely worth a visit to St Sava Church, one of the largest Orthodox churches in world. The city itself offers excellent shopping opportunities, from luxurious upscale boutiques through to an enormous bazaar and a Saturday farmer's market at Zeleni Venac selling an assortment of seasonal produce.
When you're ready for a break, you can relax on the beach at 'Belgrade Hawaii', Ada Ciganlija, an island in the middle of the Sava River. During the summer the island attracts hundreds of thousands of people looking for a place to cool down, so it can be crowded on hot days. Belgrade is very well known for its nightlife and is a major draw card for Europeans looking for a party. There are countless nightclubs, bars, and cafes that stay lively into the wee hours of the night, many of which are located on river barges.
Today we are travelling to Pristina, Kosovo but first we visit Devil's Town in Serbia. The natural phenomenon, whose real name is Djavolja varos, got it's unique name to the strange formation of of soil pyramids. Wander amongst the stone-capped pillars, whose appearance is due to a rare from of erosion.
We then continue our journey to Pristina. Europe's youngest capital, it has a buzzing energy and a small but fascinating number of attractions to see. Visit the Ethnographic Museum for exhibits on life in Kosovo between the 15th and 20th century and marvel at the iconic design of the National Library. Wander down Bill Clinton Boulevard and wave back at the 3m-tall bronze statue of the former president, before stopping for one of Pristina's famous coffees in any one of the number of cafes found here.
CIn Skopje, Macedonia's capital, you can enjoy 2,000 years of history spanning Oriental and Western cultures, neatly divided by the Vardar River through the centre of the city. Skopje has many historical monuments including the Kale Fortress dating back to the 6th century and the Daud Pasha Amam, a 15th century bathhouse now converted into the city art gallery. You can also see the Mustafa-pasha's mosque, the 16th century Clock Tower and the Kamen Most (Stone Bridge) over the Vardar River.
Before heading to Lake Ohrid we can enjoy a visit to the Matka Canyon. Cruise down Matka lake admiring the large rock walls towering beside the water. Keep an eye out for the fascinating caves that are found within the canyon.
Once we have collected our bags from the hotel, we then travel on to the gorgeous lake side town of Ohrid, perched on the border of Macedonia and Albania. This unassuming, picturesque settlement has been the setting of thousands of years of human history and the ancient churches, fortress walls, bazaars and old quarters are testimony to its past.
Lake Ohrid itself is Europe's oldest lake having formed over three millions years ago. Wander the streets and squares of its compact centre before hiking up to the ancient walled fortress that overlooks the day to day life of the city and explore the famous old churches, monasteries and basilicas.
On the way to Kotor we stop off at the small town of Kruja. Built on a mountainside, you can discover the old town and explore Kruja Castle where we include entry to the Skanderbeg Museum located inside. Skanderbeg was a war hero of Albania, helping defeat the Ottomans, and this museum focuses on his bravery and importance to Albania.
After spending the morning exploring Kruja, our group will move onward to our next destination - the picturesque town of Kotor in Montenegro. It is a walled city nestled at the bottom of Europe’s deepest fjord. Experience Stari Grad, the old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with it’s tricky labyrinth of cobbled alleys, squares and ancient churches, including St Tryphon's Cathedral built in 1166.
The steep mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to this beautiful town and you can admire them from the waterfront. You could spend the day drinking espresso in the shade of the medieval walls watching people go by, or if you are feeling more adventurous try climbing the walls of the ancient fort of Sveti Ivan which spans some 4.5 kilometres above the city on almost vertical cliffs. Your efforts will be rewarded by an excellent view of Kotor and the bay.
With a paved town centre enclosed in fortress-like 13th century stone walls, the city is easy to explore on foot and is full of character. A great start to your exploration of Dubrovnik is with an included walk around the city walls. Stretching almost 2 kilometres around the old town, the walls offer stunning rooftop and city views out to the turquoise blue Adriatic Sea. Founded in the 7th century, for a time in its glorious past the city was a serious rival for Venice in terms of maritime trade. It is hard to believe now but in 1991, two out of every three buildings were damaged during the bombardment of the Yugoslav War. Since then the buildings and walls have been painstakingly restored to pristine condition and represents one of the most beautiful and solid fortress systems on the Mediterranean. There are several other historic attractions worth a visit near the main street (Stradun), such as the 14th century Franciscan monastery which houses a treasury full of sacred art and artefacts, as well as one of the oldest continually working pharmacies in the world, dating back to 1317.
Crossing the border into the 'heart-shaped land' of Bosnia and Herzegovina we visit the capital Sarajevo, a fascinating mixture of western and eastern cultures. Known as the 'Jerusalem of Europe', the city was once famous for its religious diversity, with people of Islamic, Orthodox Christian, Catholic and Jewish faiths coexisting relatively peacefully for centuries. The atmosphere of calm and tolerance changed dramatically when violence erupted in the mid-1990s and the city underwent the longest siege in modern military history during the Yugoslav War.
Today the city is largely recovered and is packed with fascinating museums bazaars, markets and bridges. During your time here you could explore the cobbled streets, mosques and Oriental style shops of the Old Town, visit the Bosnian Historical Museum to learn about the siege of Sarajevo and discover the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum, the tunnel which was used to ferry supplies into the besieged city during the conflict, next to the airport. For history buffs a must see is the “Latin Bridge" spanning the river in the downtown area. The bridge bears a plaque commemorating the assassination of Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, the event that sparked the beginning of World War I. Today the city is largely recovered and is packed with fascinating museums .
Widely felt to be the prettiest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina Mostar is situated on the Neretva river and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (natively: mostari) who kept the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over Neretva river. The city is particularly famous for this beautiful single span bridge, Stari Most, which collapsed into the Neretva River during the Yugoslav War in 1993. Built in 1556 by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Great, Stari Most had been a globally recognised landmark and a national symbol for Bosnia-Herzegovina. It had survived centuries of conflict including both world wars and proved that, whatever happened, the mainly Christian west bank and mainly Muslim east remained united. The destruction of the bridge was a huge blow to the local people, but in 2004 the bridge was rebuilt as a replica of the original using pieces of masonry salvaged from the riverbed. Its reopening represented the hope that Muslims, Croats and Serbs could once again live side by side and that Mostar would be healed after a decade of ethnic division.
On the way to Croatia, we stop off at the Kravice waterfalls, located on the Trebiat river in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A popular swimming area, you will have time to enjoy the water before heading to Hvar Island. Boasting more sunshine hours than any of the other sun-soaked Dalmatian islands, Hvar Island offers fairytale Venetian architecture, a waterfront promenade fringed by palm trees and centuries old walls. With all of this and an historic fortress overlooking it all, it's no wonder picturesque Hvar Town is considered a chic destination for the rich and famous, and you may be lucky enough to see one or two familiar faces here.
Built by the Venetian Doges in the 13th century, Hvar Town is a maze of cobblestone streets and sunny squares bordered by al fresco cafes and restaurants. The most important sights such as St Stephen's Cathedral, Clock Tower and the Arsenal flank the main square, while a picturesque expanse of terracotta-roofed houses and tiny streets cover the hill behind. One of the simplest pleasures on the island is to take part in the evening stroll around the town and take in the views - don't forget to buy an ice cream from a local slasticarna, the Croatian equivalent of the Italian gelateria. You may also enjoy a stroll around the harbour, which is often filled with multi-million dollar yachts, a reflection of the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy visitors to the island. You will have time to explore smaller villages of Stari Grad, Jelsa, taking in lavender fields, Vrboska and Brusje, wineries, eco villages and experiencing the local culture
We then take the ferry and arrive late morning at the coastal city of Split, built around the remains of the Diocletian Palace which dates back to the Roman era. Wander inside and take in Peristil Square where you can see an original Egyptian sphinx which was brought from Egypt by Roman emperor Diocletian. Another sphinx can be found near St John's Church, which was originally a Roman temple. We take an included tour of the Diocletian Palace or climb the campanile bell tower next to the palace's mausoleum for spectacular views from the top.
If you want to relax there are plenty of al fresco bars and restaurants to choose from along the seafront, as well as gelati bars and cheaper pizzerias off the main roads. There is plenty of delicious Italian-influenced local cuisine to choose from, often at very reasonable prices. If you want to hang out with the locals, head for the beach at Bacvice. There are many cafes and places to eat icecream and it's a great place to get a feeling of 'real' Croatia as the vast majority of people who go there are from Split.
Continuing our diverse journey through Croatia, our next stop is to explore Plitvice National Park, a beautiful reserve featuring 16 spectacular blue lakes surrounded by forest.
The lakes are linked by natural dams which create beautiful low level waterfalls joining one lake to another. Due to the varying mixtures of minerals in the water, each lake has a distinctive colour ranging from azure to green, grey or blue. The surrounding forest features a mix of beech, spruce, and fir trees and is home to 126 species of birds and a number of rare animals including European brown bears, wolves, eagles, wild cats and eagles. Due to its natural beauty and significance, the park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979. The entire park can be seen in about 4 hours and you can get beautiful views from almost any vantage point. Don't miss the Veliki Slap, 50 metre wide waterfall surrounded by boulders - a great place for photos.
After our time exploring the national park we continue to the Croatian capital of Zagreb, a vibrant cultural centre with a long history, located on the crossroads of important routes between the Adriatic coast and Central Europe. Originally established as two fortresses on two neighbouring hills in medieval times, the city has withstood numerous invasions, earthquakes and political upheaval to grow into a prosperous centre of industry. In your free time you can explore Ban Jela?i? Square surrounded by grand buildings or visit the Zagreb Cathedral with its fountain of Madonna surrounded by golden angels. You can visit colourful open-air markets such as Dolac Market and discover the historic Upper Town with its palaces, monasteries and churches from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are also dozens of museums, theatres, galleries and art collections to visit, or take a tram to the medieval fortress of Medvedgrad on the southern side of nearby Mount Medvednica for beautiful views over the city including Museum Mimara. Another interesting museum to see is the City of Zagreb Museum covering every facet of its long history. You could take a picnic to Maksimir Park about 3 kilometres from the city centre.
Crossing into Slovenia we visit the capital Ljubljana and enjoy a city tour of the main sights. In your free time you may enjoy a visit to the botanical gardens, Dragon bridge, Tivoli park, Ljubljana city museum, Ljubljana castle (Ljubljanski Grad) on Castle Hill and the viewing tower in the castle courtyard for views across the Old Town. When you need to relax, sit down at one of the many outdoor riverside cafes in the Old Town, check out the Habsburg and Baroque architecture and enjoy the young fun vibe of Ljubljana's large student population.
During our time in Slovenia we take a day trip to Bled, a magical little town about an hour and a half from Ljubljana, set near an emerald green lake. Perched on a cliff high above the lake is the Bled Castle, dramatically framed by the snowcapped peaks of the Julian Alps. Dating back to the 11th century, Bled Castle is the epitome of a medieval fortress and has a fairytale appeal, with towers, ramparts, moats and a terrace offering magnificent views. Part of the castle houses a museum with an interesting collection of armour and weapons, carvings, jewellery, tapestries and paintings which trace the history of the castle from the Bronze Age to the 19th century. A walk around Lake Bled (about 6 kilometres) shouldn't take more than an hour or two, including a short climb to a viewing point. The most romantic way to enjoy it is to hire a boat and row over to the island in the middle of the lake or for the non-rowers of the group you can take a Pletna boat and be taken across. On the island you can visit a small 17th century Baroque church called Church of the Assumption, complete with a'wishing bell' which you can ring to ask a favour. If time permits you can also visit Vintgar Gorge, a raised timber walkway that tracks the gorges river for 1.6 kilometres to a beautiful waterfall
We then return to Budapest,'The Queen of the Danube', where you will arrive in the evening to soak up the nightlife of Hungary's stylish capital. With travel times sometimes extended due to delays, you may want to book post-tour accommodation to make sure you have enough time to see all the sites of this fascinating and beautiful capital city.
Your adventure of a lifetime comes to an end today. If you have a late flight or have lengthened your stay by adding post tour accommodation you will have more time to explore the sights.