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  • Writer's pictureDanae Bianco

20-day itinerary through the Balkans, in Eastern Europe - Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina

Venturing into lesser-visited corners of Europe was something I had been wanting to do for a while.


The opportunity arose, and we set off, in the middle of winter, for a road trip through the Balkans, the European region that encompasses the countries that were once part of Yugoslavia.


Finding information about these destinations in the blogosphere wasn't easy, so here's a series of posts with everything you need to know to visit these Eastern European countries and explore this culturally rich and diverse region.


The former Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991-1992, resulting in six countries today: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and North Macedonia. In addition to these, Kosovo still struggles for independence from Serbia; many countries recognize it as an independent state, but not all (especially Serbia).


Woman with a light winter coat, at a viewpoint overlooking a river with blue waters and mountains. Tara National Park, Serbia.
Tara National Park, Serbia
 

Other posts about travels in Eastern Europe - Balkans:

 

INDEX - our itinerary through the Balkans, in Eastern Europe:

 

Balkans in 3 weeks - itinerary overview


We made this trip in winter, but it can be done at any time of the year.


All the destinations we visited have attractions in every season of the year - in fact, around Kotor, there are great beaches to enjoy if you go during warmer months.


Dia 1️⃣ - Arrival in Belgrade (Serbia), pick up rental car and check-in at the hotel

Dia 2️⃣ - Belgrade

Dia 3️⃣ - Driver to Zlatibor - Tara National Park

Dia 4️⃣- Tara National Park

Dia 5️⃣ - Drive to Zabljac (Montenegro) - Durmitor National Park

Dia 6️⃣ - Durmitor National Park

Dia 7️⃣ - Durmitor National Park

Dia 8️⃣ - Drive to Kotor

Dia 9️⃣ - Kotor

Dia 1️⃣0️⃣ - Kotor

Dia 1️⃣1️⃣ - Budva in the morning, drive to Dubrovnik (Croatia) in the afternoon

Dia 1️⃣2️⃣ - Dubrovnik

Dia 1️⃣3️⃣ - Dubrovnik

Dia 1️⃣4️⃣ - Drive to Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

Dia 1️⃣5️⃣ - Mostar Dia 1️⃣6️⃣ - Mostar in the morning, drive to Sarajevo with a stop at Jaorina

Dia 1️⃣7️⃣ - Sarajevo

Dia 1️⃣8️⃣ - Sarajevo in the morning, drive to Belgrade (Serbia) in the afternoon

Dia 1️⃣9️⃣ - Belgradr

Dia 2️⃣0️⃣ - flight back home


View of Dubrovnik: old houses built on the cliffs of the Adriatic Sea, on a cloudy day.
Dubrovnik

Driving in the Balkans


Driving is an essential part of a road trip, right?


During these 3 weeks in the Balkans, we drove almost 2,000 km (precisely, 1,960 km) through 4 countries: we started in Serbia, passed through Montenegro, then Croatia, reached Bosnia, and finally returned to the starting point in Serbia.


We didn't encounter any issues along all those kilometers.


Except for a short stretch near Belgrade, where we traveled on a dual-carriageway, the rest of the route was all on single-lane roads. The entire region is quite mountainous, so these roads have many curves: it's important to pay attention, keep the speed within the indicated limits, and enjoy the scenery (such beautiful views!)


Driving is on the right side (like in the USA): steering wheel on the left and the vehicle traveling on the right side of the road.


We didn't encounter any tolls on the route, nor police checkpoints, police inspections, or anything similar.


In Serbia and Bosnia, the signs are in both Latin and Cyrillic characters; in the rest of the countries, only in Latin characters.



About border controls:


We didn't have any problems at any of the borders.


We rented a van, there were 7 of us (4 adults and 3 children) traveling with Brazilian, Italian, and Hungarian passports. Nowhere were we asked for additional information or documents beyond "where are you coming from, where are you going." There were no vehicle inspections at any point.


Exit from Serbia, entry into Montenegro:

We entered Montenegro via Jabuka (Serbian side) and Ranče (Montenegrin side). The wait in both cases was short, about 2-3 vehicles ahead of us.


Exit from Montenegro, entry into Croatia:

From Montenegro to Croatia, we went through Debeli Brijeg (Montenegrin side) and Karasovići (Croatian side). The queue for entry into Croatia was huge, with a wait of about 1 hour.


Exit from Croatia, entry into Bosnia-Herzegovina:

There was no border control when entering Bosnia - they only checked our documents when leaving Croatia (at Zaton Doli), but we didn't pass through any border posts when entering Bosnia.


Exit from Bosnia-Herzegovina, entry into Serbia:

We left Bosnia through the eastern border with Serbia (at Sepak), where there were passport controls both when leaving Bosnia and entering Serbia, but in both cases without long queues and without major questioning.


How about taking the opportunity to already get a car rental quote?



Woman wearing winter clothes, sitting on a ledge in the city of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the Stari Most bridge in the background.
Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Where to stay in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina


Throughout these nearly 3 weeks, we stayed in 7 different accommodations. There was everything from traditional hotels, family-run guesthouses, mountain chalets, to rustic Airbnbs.


In two apartments - one rented via Airbnb and the other via Booking - our reservation was canceled last minute by the respective hosts, and we had to scramble to find another lodging option. This had never happened to us before; it might have been just bad luck and coincidence, but in any case, it's a warning to be extra cautious with cancellations in the region and always have a Plan B ready.




Where to stay in Belgrade, Serbia


We arrived at Belgrade, the capital of Serbia on a low-cost flight at 3 in the morning, so when booking, I looked for a traditional hotel with 24-hour reception to avoid any hassle in the wee hours on our first night in Eastern Europe.


It was a great strategy: we stayed at the Belgrade Inn Garni Hotel, in the central region of the city, very close to Republic Square and Kneza Mihaila, the pedestrian street full of shops, bars, and restaurants. The hotel was okay in terms of comfort; the beds were of decent size (although the sheets were small), the breakfast was okay (although it fell short compared to the photos in the Booking listing), the hotel staff was great and even kept the boot I forgot there on the first day and I went to pick it up on the last day of the trip when we returned to Belgrade (yes, I did that, I forgot my winter boot in the first accommodation and went through the entire trip with regular sports shoes).


We returned to Belgrade on the last day of the trip and stayed at the Public House Hotel - for the date, it had a better price than the Belgrade Inn Garni Hotel, and we thought it would be a good idea to stay in another area of the city to explore it better.


It was a great idea: the Public House Hotel is much better in terms of comfort and newer than the Belgrade Inn Garni Hotel. We stayed in a family apartment with 2 bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom, perfect! The location is great, with several shops and restaurants nearby - we went to Njegoseva street for dinner and breakfast. From the hotel, we walked to the Waterfront area, a good and pleasant walk.


Take the opportunity to check availability and prices here:



Small house built on a rock in the middle of a river, surrounded by forests and mountains. Drina River, Serbia.
Drina River House, Serbia

Where to stay in Zlatibor, Serbia


Zlatibor is a small town in the mountains of Serbia that we used as a base to explore Tara National Park. It has a ski resort, being one of the best regions in Serbia for winter sports.


We stayed in a charming chalet, The Crown Lodge, everything was new and clean.

However, we had a major issue with the host, as the listing stated there was a sofa bed in the living room, which didn't actually exist, as well as a jacuzzi, which the host informed us two weeks before our trip only worked during the summer. With no other option, we had to squeeze in, with 1 adult and 2 children sleeping in a double bed, and the youngest child in a crib. The place would be excellent for up to 5 people, maximum - but be aware that there is only 1 bathroom.


In the Zlatibor region, I had pre-selected the Hotel Tara and the Apartments Milic, which were closer to Tara National Park - perhaps we would have had better luck with those? Another option that caught my attention was the Lake House Perucac: a floating house, on the banks of the Drina River, which would have been amazing for a summer trip.


Family (couple + 2 children) by a partially frozen lake, with snowy mountains in the background, in Durmitor National Park, Montenegro.
Durmitor National Park - Zabljac, Montenegro

Where to stay in Zabljac, Montenegro


Arriving in Montenegro, our first stop was in Zabljak, in the region near Durmitor National Park, the main area for winter sports in Montenegro.


We had booked Villa Ama (via Airbnb), but the host informed us a few days before the trip that the house heating had collapsed.


We then booked two chalets at Maple Village; each suitable for up to 4 people. The chalets were entirely made of wood, with a small kitchen and a simple bathroom. Despite accommodating 4 people, we found it a bit cramped, especially the living room and kitchen area. The bathroom was very simple.


Other options I had researched, but were already booked when we had to resort to plan B, were the Holiday Home Vile Calimero and the Guest House Sky Blue.



Kotor, view from the Kotor Fortress on a cloudy day. You can see the old town, the Bay of Kotor, and mountains in the background.
Kotor, view from the Kotor Fortress

Where to stay in Kotor, Montenegro


One of the most beautiful cities on the Adriatic Sea, Kotor is truly worth a few days of your visit.


But there we had another accommodation mishap. We had booked the Guest House Rose, but the host informed us the day before that she had C0V1D and couldn't receive us.


Fortunately, one of the options I had pre-selected on Booking was still available (I always bookmark all the accommodations that seem interesting in a list, either for situations like this or to include in a detailed post here on the blog).


So we went to the Stone House Kotor, where our host Darko was very attentive and helpful. The house faces Kotor Bay, a short walk from the old town, and accommodates a large group like ours well (there were 7 of us).


For other accommodation options in Kotor, check out our post on what to do in Kotor.


Old Town harbor of Dubrovnik, Croatia, at dusk. There are boats in the foreground and city walls, with the old town, in the background
Old Town harbor of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Where to stay in Dubrovnik, Croatia


In Dubrovnik, we stayed in an excellent house, Emma’s Cottage, just a few meters from the walls of the old town, one of the best accommodations of the trip. The host, also named Darko, gave us several tips, including restaurants (unfortunately closed due to the low season) and recommended a parking lot with a very reasonable price.


By the way, if you're traveling by car, when booking accommodation in Dubrovnik, pay attention to the parking issue: it's VERY expensive to park in the city, really expensive. If you're staying at Emma’s Cottage, as soon as you confirm the reservation, get the parking details from Darko and reserve your spot.


Other options to stay in Dubrovnik that I had pre-selected are Villa Ragusa Vecchia and, within the Old Town, Apartment Maru Prestige and Dubrovnik Old Town Apartments.



You can check availability and prices right here:






Where to stay in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina


As I've already mentioned in the specific post about what to do in Mostar, we chose to stay in a hotel on our first stop in Bosnian lands.


We chose the Hotel Sinan Han and I highly recommend it. It's just two blocks from the Stari Most, the city's iconic bridge, and numerous restaurants, shops, and markets; the room is comfortable and clean, and the hotel staff is simply fantastic.


We had booked a family room (deluxe suite) that was supposed to be suitable for 4 people, but the sofa bed was quite small and wouldn't be comfortable for our two pre-teens to sleep on. I asked the reception if it would be possible to add an extra bed to the room, but they offered us a complimentary double room instead! It was perfect. So, if you're traveling with 4 people, I recommend getting 2 double rooms.


In the post about what to do in Mostar, I provide other accommodation suggestions in the town.




Where to stay in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina


For the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we chose a house rented through Booking, Villa Kuna. It's within walking distance of Bascarsija, the central historic area, where you can find the market, the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the Catholic Cathedral, the Orthodox Cathedral, and the Synagogue.


The host was very attentive and arranged for us to use the neighbor's garage since our car was large and it would have been difficult to park it in the house's garage. The house is comfortable and accommodated our group of 7 people very well.


Other options I had selected for Sarajevo were Hotel Aziza, Miaap Apartments, and Hotel Sana, all with great locations.




What to know before visiting the Balkans


Here are some objective pieces of information that might help you when traveling to the former Yugoslavia region:


  • In Serbia, the Cyrillic alphabet is used, similar to that used in Russia. In many places, there is also writing in the Latin alphabet, but not everywhere. Therefore, always travel with an international cell phone chip, as Google Translate will be one of your best allies in the country.


  • In Serbia, smoking is allowed inside restaurants. In Montenegro, smoking is allowed in bars and cafes, but in restaurants only in outdoor areas. In Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, smoking is also allowed in outdoor areas. Therefore, if you (like us) are a non-smoker and are bothered by the smell of cigarettes, be prepared as it can be quite unpleasant.


  • Food wasn't a highlight of the trip for us. The best culinary experiences we had were in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with cuisine that blends Eastern European and Arab influences.


  • Dubrovnik is VERY expensive (compared to other destinations on this itinerary), especially food and tours. Pay close attention to restaurant and cafe menus: check all prices before ordering. Even with a lot of travel experience, we fell for a restaurant scam: there were no prices for drinks and bread on the menu, and when we paid the bill, we found out that the water was €10 and the measly bread was €3 per person - a rip-off! On Stradun (the central street of the Old Town), it was common for an espresso to cost €5.00.



  • Bosnia and Herzegovina was the best surprise of the trip: a country with essence, with unique characteristics, sometimes making us feel as if we were outside of the European continent. On the other hand, the country was devastated in one of the bloodiest wars to occur on European soil, and the scars of war are everywhere, visible to all.


  • Communicating in English was easy throughout the trip. We didn't have any communication difficulties at any point.


  • In Croatia and Montenegro, the currency is the EURO, which greatly facilitates the traveler's life. In Serbia, it's the Serbian Dinar, and in Bosnia, it's the convertible mark, also called the Bosniak.


  • All countries are in the same time zone, GMT +1 (the same as Central Europe), but be aware of the dates when daylight saving time starts.


  • LGBTQIA+: Serbia and Montenegro are known as countries not very open to displays of affection outside the traditional version of a heteronormative family. If you identify with such groups, research specific sources to avoid discomfort while traveling in the region.



Teleférico em estação de esqui em Zabljac, Montenegro
Estação de esqui Savin Kuk, em Montenegro

Traveling in winter through the Balkans


We took this trip in the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, in other words, at the beginning of winter.


We experienced temperatures ranging from 14ºC (in Dubrovnik, one afternoon) to -5ºC (in Zabljac, Durmitor National Park, Montenegro), but both were extreme temperatures.


For most of the time and places visited, temperatures ranged between 2ºC and 8ºC. Cold, but nothing outrageous. However, appropriate clothing is necessary: wind and snowproof jackets, thermal pants, scarves, hats, and gloves were worn daily.


It snowed one day in Zabljac and one day (very little) in Sarajevo, towards the end of the trip - much to the disappointment of the children, who were expecting heavy snowfalls throughout the entire road trip :-)


We intended to ski in Montenegro, at the Savin Kuk ski resort, very close to Zabljak, in Durmitor National Park. We were there in the last days of December, and there wasn't enough snow, the season hadn't started yet. The previous year, the ski resort had opened shortly after Christmas, but when we were there, it only opened in the second week of January.




Map of our road trip through Eastern Europe


Our (almost) 3-week itinerary through Eastern Europe included traveling through 4 countries: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia Herzegovina.


We covered 1,960 km in 18 days (since the first and last days were transit days: airport-hotel-airport).


We rented the car in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. We arrived in Serbia on a flight with WIZZ, an ultra-low-cost airline, which landed (delayed) in the wee hours of the morning. The guy at the rental agency was waiting for our arrival, quickly gave us the keys and some very basic instructions, and as soon as we turned around, he closed the counter.


We returned the car at the same airport to catch the flight that would take us back home after two connections.


In the map below, you can see the details of our itinerary through the Balkans - Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just click and save it to your Google account. When you plan your next trip to Eastern Europe, you'll know where to start ;-)


In this post, I explain how to use Google MyMaps to plan a trip, it's a very useful resource, worth knowing!




How to use this map: Click on the tab located in the upper left corner of the map to access various layers, including points of interest and routes. You can choose which layers to view by selecting them in the corresponding check-box. For additional details about specific points of interest, click on the corresponding icons on the map.


To save this map to your Google Maps account, click on the star icon next to the map title. To access it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, tap on the menu button, go to "Your Places," select "Maps," and you will find this map listed among your saved maps.


Other posts about travel in Europe


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