60-day Balkan Itinerary Istanbul to Ljubljana

Howdy all. So I thought I would take a stab at creating a few itineraries for you as a little change of pace and direction for your Thursday reading pleasure as we take a bit of a break from City Rumbles – fun though they are to write it gets a bit frustrating too for me – but that was my choice! So anyways, the world is full of many destinations and I LOVE a long, multi-country trip. If truth be known I love an itinerary that takes in places thousands of miles apart, but that’s not what this is going to be about, instead it’s itineraries taking in regions and the places I would go faced with the choice and opportunity, which I certainly don’t have right at the present moment.

So let’s start with an exceptional and surprising part of Eastern Europe, mostly the Balkans – that’s the region that encompasses the former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria. Some include Greece in the mix too, I guess technically it is but it won’t be included in this itinerary. I am going to start it in the city that is NOT the capital of Turkey, the city that is on the line between Europe and Asia, Istanbul. I’ve chosen it because obviously of its location, but also it is the best connected city by air in the entire region, even if it’s not technically the Balkans. It is an overland trip though from Greece and Bulgaria, so let’s see what sort of a loop we can do as it will also be the end point as well.

To get there by air you will have a lot of options, and Turkish Airlines is one airline that really services a large number of destinations. With 322 destinations outside of Turkey, Turkish Airlines has the fifth most destinations of any airline in the world and three of the top four are American Airlines, the other is China Eastern. So for a European Airline, no-one has more destinations.

But anyways. This is about the itinerary first and foremost, and I’ve tried to include places I want to go with places I’ve already been in this loop. So let’s see how it all plays out! We are heading west from Istanbul (and technically a little bit north) and I’ve managed in 2 months to squeeze in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Slovenia! So there are a lot of borders to cross!

Day 1 – Arrive Istanbul

Istanbul is an awesome place to start your journey. With the Bospherus Straight dividing Europe an Asia, it is one of the world’s most important cities for many reasons. Not to mention it was the seat of power for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires! It was a bit of a pit stop kind of city for me when I crossed to Europe from Dhaka back in 2004. I do wonder how it’s changed since then as in 2004 it was a very open and liberal place, and I suspect it’s not quite as liberal these days with a hardline government coming into power. Nevertheless, the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque are Istanbul highlights, the Old Town is a wonderful place to stay, and you should check out the Basilica Cistern and the city walls too. There’s heaps more to see, but these are the places that stand out in my memory.

Day 4 – Overnight train to Bulgaria

The overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia is a popular one. When I took it I only went as far as Plovdiv, a delightful little town which I remember for its historic houses, beautifully restored for the tourists, and this Roman Amphitheatre which sits in this position over a highway, which I am guessing they dug for. Onwards to Sofia and you’ll be struck by this lovely city with mosques, churches and synagogues to discover. And the opera – I paid almost nix for a seat not far from the front, possibly the best value ticket to any event I have ever purchased! An easy and recommended day trip is to the Rila Monastery, in the mountains. Stunning! As you move north to the next country, Romania, well, stop at Veliko Tarnovo. It’s another charming medieval town with a large citadel, hills and cobblestones.

Day 12 – Into Romania

The train will take you into Bucharest. You may not want to spend an awful lot of time in Bucharest, it’s rarely anyone’s favourite city, but it does have the Palace of the People, a gargantuan building built by Ceausescu but not completed before his death. It’s certainly an interesting city, parts have wide boulevards, there are loads of dogs too. But I wouldn’t recommend more than a couple of nights to send you into Transylvania.

This is where you’ll probably spend the bulk of your time in Romania. The mountains are breathtaking. Brasov is a nice town, as is Sigisoara, which has a view buildings of interest. Bran is a little village that sees a lot of visitors due to the castle there, and that’s because it’s known as Dracula’s castle. Dracula is the somewhat romantic name for Vlad the Impaler, which in turn is a name built on reputation – Vlad Tepes is the true name. He spent a lot of time in Sigisoara, but there is something about the castle at Bran that looks iconic I guess. Inside it’s okay, but outside has the iconic look. A better palace is the Peles at Sinaia. A tour here is a must, I rated it the best castle/palace I saw in Romania. And I saw a few!

Cluj-Napoca is at the western side of Transylvania. It’s possibly my favourite city in Romania, boasting a lovely Old Town and the friendliest people I met in the whole country. From here I did a day trip to the Turda Gorge and to a salt mine, both of which were very cool. And you can overnight in the mountains in an overnight trip where I hiked to this awesome ice cave.

Day 25 & 26 – Cluj to Belgrade

So I continued by train, and took one from Cluj to Timisoara for a quick overnight stay. The next morning as I remember it I was on a very early train (like 4-5am) to Serbia! Depending on the route of the train you may be able to stop at Novi Sad, well worth a stop for a night or two. A very nice place with a citadel overlooking from a hill on the far side of the river. Belgrade itself is a great city, surprisingly (perhaps) friendly people. Loads of little museums, churches, again a riverside citadel on the Danube, it’s actually one of my favourite Eastern European cities.

Day 28 – Train to Montenegro

Still tied as a country with Serbia in 2004, Montenegro is now independent. The train journey from Belgrade south all the way pretty much to Budva includes incredible mountain views. I didn’t but I would recommend a couple of nights in Podgorica, the capital, because it is surrounded by some stunning mountains and just looks like one of the world’s most beautifully-positioned capitals. Budva is on the Mediterranean Coast and I really liked it there. It was just before summer and there weren’t that many people there. I understand it’s probably become way more popular in the last 17 years though, so you might want to find an alternative. But for a few days beach R&R and indeed, a little partying at night, well, I liked it. A day trip to Kotor is highly recommended, beautiful little town next to a hidden bay. You might consider staying there.

Day 35 – To Croatia

So, I am going to presume it is easier these days to cross from Budva to Dubrovnik. I took a bus to the border, but as it was Sunday there were no buses on the Croatian side, and in the end I hitched and that took three hours to organise. Looking online there is a direct bus it seems today, or at least there was and will be when things are Covid safe again.

Dubrovnik has an amazing Old Town by the sea. With a wall to walk on top of, cobblestones, churches and more, it’s really a gem. I found the town to be really unfriendly, but that was 17 years ago. I reckon getting a boat on the water would be great too.

Day 38 – Bosnia-Hercegovina

This is the tricky bit because I want to swing you back to Croatia, but from here the logical route seems to be to Mostar, with its famous bridge and Old Town. Yes, you’ll need to like Old Towns! Also a day trip to Medjugorje is something I did, a little town where some kids witnessed a miracle on a hill a few decades back now. People flock there as a pilgrimage not just from Croatia (it’s in the Croat part of Bosnia) but even from Italy! It’s something different that needs to be seen to be believed! Also near Mostar is this lovely monastery by a river and cave – Blagaj Tekija.

Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and has charm again and is a very interesting place, worth a few days at least. The Old Town here has a Turkish feel to it. In 2004 you could still see the remnants of the war in many spots around the town, perhaps today less so.

Day 45 – Split

From Sarajevo I suggest going to Split, so back to Croatia. From the information I’ve gleaned this looks like you have to go back through Mostar, all by bus. I don’t know specifics about Split but I have heard that it’s a really lovely city, on the water, so go when it’s warm. From there to the capital of Zagreb, I only passed through with around a couple of hours there but I liked the look of the very little I saw. There is a train from Split to Zagreb, so it’s nice to get back on the rails

Day 52 – to Slovenia

The train to Ljubljana is a few hours, and Ljubljana is the beautiful and friendly capital of Slovenia. We’ll take a few days here before heading to the coast. Again, a castle on a hill, jazz, art, churches, there’s a lot to appreciate in this underrated city.

Slovenia has a very short coastline, Koper is possibly the biggest town there and is a good place to explore and base yourself. Take a boat along the coast to Izola if you want some time on the beach. Not that far away and reached by train is the Skocjan Caves, a huge cave system that you can take a tour through. The train didn’t get me too close and so I walked through the countryside to get there, really a great way to do it.

Our final spot in this tour is Lake Bled. This area is a stunning part of Europe, it’s a fairytalesque location, and the surrounding area has loads of hiking paths through the countryside and into gorges and the like. Slovenia on the whole is a gorgeous country that not that many visit. So you know – shhhh!

And then back to Ljubljana. And then you’ll need to fly out. It’s not a big airport so you’ll be connecting but the good news is, British Airways and Air France do.  KLM and Air Singapore as well, so there are some options – and of course, Turkish Airlines also fly there so if you need to connect back through Istanbul, you can!

That’s a two-month itinerary for you with cities, mountains, beaches and caves. Partying in Montenegro and hiking in Transylvania. What more could you ask for?

Let me know if there’s something you would add, and something you would drop! Thanks for reading as always, take care and May the Journey Never End!

10 thoughts on “60-day Balkan Itinerary Istanbul to Ljubljana

  1. What a whirlwind of a journey! Personally, I last two, maybe three weeks at most with non-stop travel before I need a break and need to return home…so lasting two months on the road would be exhausting for me! All the same, I do enjoy this itinerary you put together for the intrepid traveler, and it definitely hits the hot-spots of the Balkans. I’d like to see more of these itinerary plans from you soon!

  2. I have also been to many of the cities and regions mentioned in this article, on various trips after the civil war, and what I have seen has pleased me and corresponds to what is said here. The mountain landscapes, the stone architecture of several periods in time, the charm of the small villages still living in the past, these are all pleasures offered to the traveller, memories to take with you..

  3. Amazing itinerary! I don’t know if I will ever be able to take that many days off, but it seems absolutely perfect! I guess I will have to visit all of these cities individually! Thanks for sharing 😍

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