The southern Balkans – Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo – is emerging from its troubled past to rebrand itself in its own unique way. Stunning mountainscapes, epic rivers, and tranquil lakes provide the backdrop to historic towns, as the region seamlessly blends a melting pot of ancient cultures with a youthful vibrance.
Touted as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, the ancient yet lively Macedonian city of Ohrid rests on the northeastern edge of one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes (Lake Ohrid).
Start among the central cobbled mazy streets, and wind your way up toward the Amphitheater, while peaking between the gaps in the rustic homes for glimpses of the pristine Lake Ohrid. Then hike up to the imposing Samuel’s Fortress for an epic 360-degree view of Ohrid’s many churches set among the bay.
Next, descend through the pine forest for views of the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon as you weave toward the idyllic Church of St Jovan Kaneo jutting out onto the lake. Fill up on tasty stuffed aubergines and wind down with a shoreside beer in Kaneo, before taking an evening stroll hugging the lakeside, taking in Ohrid’s energetic bar and restaurant scene en route to the port.
Tirana’s communist architecture may seem uninspiring at first sight, but between the large residential blocks and socialist-style administrative buildings is a capital full of surprises.
Start with a hearty meal at the traditional Albanian restaurant Oda, before strolling across to Skanderbeg Square, Tirana’s central plaza, to take in the large National Museum of History. Then head down toward the incongruous graffiti-covered Pyramid of Tirana — one of the stranger sights in the Balkans – a building dedicated to Enver Hoxha, a former leader.
Escape the concrete in the Great Park of Tirana before literally submerging yourself in Albania’s communist past in Bunk’Art, an underground nuclear bunker-turned museum. Spend the evening bar hopping in Tirana’s hip Blloku district, a former residential area for the Albanian politburo.
Albania’s ‘City of Thousand Windows’ is renowned for its white Ottoman houses resting on the banks of the Osum River. Begin by crossing the grand Gorica Bridge to the cuter Gorica side of the town. The stony homes may be less densely packed, but there are picture-perfect vine-covered alleyways winding up into the hillside. It’s also the perfect place to take in the old Mangalem district across the river. Dine on Albanian cuisine with a resplendent riverside view at Antigoni. Next, traverse the suspension bridge toward the tall Sultan’s Mosque. Find the steep trail up to Berat Castle, and explore the Citadel’s extensive ruins while taking in the epic mountaintop panorama, one of the best views in the Balkans.
In this bustling city, start by wandering along Kole Idromeno street, which brims with cute cafes and bright ice cream parlors, before diving into the chaos of central Shkoder. Sample the hectic fish, meat and colorful veg markets in Zdrale district, and then visit the impressive yellow Parruce Mosque. Escape the mayhem for a hike up to Rozafa Castle. As you explore the quarters of these Venetian ruins find the perfect viewpoint to peer down onto the majestic verdant plains of the River Bojana, and across to the prominent Mesi Bridge.
Kosovo’s cultural capital is teeming with excitement during Dokufest, an annual international film and documentary festival held in August, with open-air cinemas and stages dotted across this picturesque riverside Ottoman city. A culture junkie’s dream.
Begin by crossing the iconic Stone Bridge and marveling at the imposing Sinan Pasha Mosque. Lose yourself in the narrow, busy alleyways sampling some Qebapa, before hiking uphill to the Church of Saviour for a stunning and peaceful city view. For sunset, go even higher up to Prizren Fortress, where you can take in the dramatic mosque and church laden cityscape.
Enliven yourself in one of the world’s newest capital cities by sampling a famous Pristina coffee, and then explore the vibrant markets near the commanding Imperial Mosque before strolling down the busy pedestrianized Mother Theresa Boulevard toward the poignant Newborn monument. Then dart down to the Bill Clinton statue before heading across to the unique yet striking chain-esque architecture of the National Library of Kosovo, and the remarkable Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
Next, sample the bars and restaurants on the suave Rekhep Luci and Fehmi Agani streets, before lazing the evening away with a gelato by fountains near the Skanderbeg statue.
Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist and travel writer. He tweets @tejparikh90. Visit his website The Global Prism.