It’s summertime, and the rising temperatures mean your social media scroll will soon be overrun with infinity pools in Santorini, the cliff-hugging villages of Cinque Terre, and the blooming lavender fields of Provence. Or, if your friends are especially on-trend, the sunburned terra-cotta roofs of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.
“Croatia is huge,” says Andy Ross, head of product for the 40-year-old adventure travel company Exodus Travels. In recent years, he’s seen the country shift from an up-and-coming destination to a “very, very well-known” quantity. It is now the company’s fastest-growing European market.
There’s good reason for that: Croatia has more coastline than Portugal and France combined and more islands than the Maldives. Annual visitors to the country now quadruple the country’s population of 4.2 million.
But the surge in visitation has become controversial. Dubrovnik, Croatia’s most visited city, has become so swarmed with summer sightseers, that it — like Venice and Barcelona — is considering tourism restrictions. (Thanks, “Game of Thrones” fans.)
“It’s [become] hard to find a time of year to have a peaceful, genuine experience in Dubrovnik,” Ross said.
In the neighboring Balkans, the opposite is true: the same, untapped natural beauty, a fascinating mélange of cultures, but few crowds. And despite the region’s complicated war-torn history, the State Department now considers the Balkan states safer than much of Western Europe.
Whether you start in Dubrovnik or head straight off the beaten path, here are the destinations to prioritize — no matter what your travel type.
For families: Lake Bled, Slovenia
While much of the region bakes in the summer heat, Slovenia stays more temperate, thanks to its lake-filled, forest-covered mountains. It also has relatively reliable infrastructure and high-end accommodations. According to Jonny Bealby, founder of the trailblazing travel outfit Wild Frontiers, this accessibility and maneuverability makes Slovenia a “brilliant country for family travel.”
Trip length: Five to seven days.
What to do: Spend a day or two roaming the charming streets of Ljubljana, then head to the fairytale-like Lake Bled. Its 17th-century church, set against the mighty Julian Alps, is one of the country’s most famous sites. But there’s more to the area than churches and castles; nearby Triglav National Park, which is named for the nation’s highest peak, has secret waterfalls, lakes and canyons to explore.
Vintgar Gorge, a milelong ravine with family-friendly walking trails that hang onto limestone cliffs, is also a popular choice. For small children, there’s the Vogel Cable Car, offering jaw-dropping views of the mountain landscape.
Then head to Tromeja, a landmark near the small Alpine village of Kranjska Gora in the north. Adults will appreciate the small-town charm, while kids will get a kick out of stepping across the three-country border at which Slovenia meets Italy and Austria.
For road trippers: Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
This tiny country, roughly the size of Connecticut, is developing an outsized reputation for its stunning Adriatic coastline and varied national parks. Trains are limited and slow-going, so a car is required. But be warned: Many of Montenegro’s guardrail-free, single-lane routes cling to the edges of cliffs. They’re beautiful but not for the faint of heart.
Length: Three to five days.
What to do: Fly into Dubrovnik and wind your way into Montenegro on roads that hug the cerulean Bay of Kotor. Located deep within the massifs of the Dinaric Alps, the fortified coastal town of Kotor has 14th-century ramparts, best explored at sunset, when the golden light bounces off Romanesque churches and into the shimmering waters. Then take a day to hike either of the two looming peaks in Lovcen National Park, where the views of the craggy landscape once caused George Bernard Shaw to wonder, “Am I in paradise or on the moon?”
Along the mountainous country roads that lead to the lakeside town of Pluzine, you’ll find the Ostrog Monastery, a 17th-century Serbian Orthodox Church that was built directly into the rosy rock face of a sheer vertical cliff. Then it’s off to Durmitor National Park, the country’s star attraction. The hair-raising route along the P14 highway weaves along the cliffs of Piva, through agricultural foothills and on toward Crno Jezero, the park’s glacier-formed “Black Lake.” Your last stop: a few relaxing nights on the near-private islet of Sveti Stefan, which was once a 15th-century fortified coastal village and is now a spectacular Aman resort.
Best for culture: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Nearly demolished during the decadelong Yugoslavian conflict and horrific Bosnian War, the historic city of Mostar, a drive of one or two hours inland from the Dalmatian Coast, is emerging as the region’s cultural capital. Today, it’s a place where 16th-century and 17th-century mosques and contemporary street art go hand in hand.
Length: One to three days.
What to do: The recently rebuilt Stari Most, an important example of 16th-century Islamic architecture whose name translates to “old bridge,” is picturesque enough to single-handedly put this city on the map: Its arched point casts a mirror-like reflection into the green waters of the Neretva River. It serves as a beacon of the city’s recovery — unlike some buildings that still have bullet holes to serve as lasting reminders of the ravages of war.
Today, more than 100 murals can be found across the city. Some of the best are at “Sniper Tower,” an eight-story bank building that was once used as a base by Croats and Serbs during the conflict; now it’s an artistic response to the crisis, with emotionally charged graffiti lining its shelled-out interior and pockmarked exterior walls.
Just a 20-minute drive away, along the Buna River, the 15th-century Sufi monastery of Blagaj Tekke offers a respite from all the intensity. It’s also convenient to Restoran Romanca, a traditional restaurant with picnic tables outside, white tablecloths inside and an on-site vineyard.
Best for urbanites: Sofia, Bulgaria
Despite being continuously inhabited since at least 7000 B.C. (and claiming its fair share of Cold War bunkers and Communist-era buildings), Sofia has become a modern destination. With excellent restaurants and shopping, plus an impressive number of public parks, Bealby likens it to Prague, Budapest or Berlin — only quirkier and more affordable.
Length: Two to four days.
What to do: Sofia’s wide boulevards, such as Oborishte Street and Vitosha Boulevard, are lined with cafes, art galleries and fashionable shops — and they double as prime spots for people-watching. Most restaurants offer regional variations on classic Balkan dishes (think grilled-meat platters and oversized salads). Standouts include A:Part:Mental, set in an apartment with a menu of vegetarian and vegan offerings, and Rose, a light-flooded, Pan-European lunchtime spot that transitions to a violet-hued cocktail bar by night.
But Sofia’s history is too fascinating to be ignored. Look no farther than the gold-covered domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the underground catacombs of Saint Sofia and the ancient Roman complex of Serdica, which was restored in 2016. Now the fourth-century ruins are protected by a large glass dome through which visitors can take in the bustling urban activity above.