Discovering the Balkans

Outside the historical cities in the Balkans, pristine nature beckons travelers; pictured here is the River Una near Bihac.

If your clients want bragging rights to a unique European destination, suggest they visit the Balkans. If their perceptions of the region have been tainted by the conflict the area faced 15 years ago, remind them that the Balkans are once again the go-to spot for a value-for-money exotic vacation. They can shop in cosmopolitan cities, hike and camp in ancient forests and mountains, and go boating on the Adriatic or the Mediterranean. The most popular Balkan destinations are Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Croatia, where Dubrovnik has been a popular tourist retreat for years.

Melissa Snape, executive vice president of product at Collette Vacations, says demand for Croatia has been growing steadily the last few years. “It  is becoming a mainstream European destination,” she says. “Clients choosing Croatia are usually more experienced travelers. They have been to Europe before, and have traveled to some of the more classic first-Europe-trip destinations such as Italy or England. They are drawn to Croatia because it is a bit more undiscovered and off the beaten path, but it still has that Old World charm.” She says visitors are attracted to “the romance of Dubrovnik, spectacular natural sights like Plitvice lakes, and a stunning coastline.”


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We spoke with Kathy Kutrubes, owner and manager of Kutrubes Travel in Boston, which sells tours throughout the Balkans.

“It’s a new destination for Americans, but definitely worthwhile,” she says. “It’s come a long way—they had their problems...but they’re very welcoming.” Kutrubes calls Croatia “fabulous” as a vacation destination. “It’s got history, culture, and the food is spectacular.” Sarajevo, she says, “was home to three cultures—Christian, Muslim, Jewish. In the museum, they have the legendary Sarajevo Hagaddah. I have done FITs for Jewish people to that region, and that was a must on their list. It’s got everything: Roman ruins, synagogues, Dubrovnik and medieval cities.”

Almost everybody knows Dubrovnik, she notes, but there are medieval towns and islands along the coastlines, “and you do find more people venturing to Sarajevo and Mostar and to the northern part of the region like Banja Luka. For hotels in Sarajevo, Kutrubes recommends the Holiday Inn.


For its Croatia tours, Collette uses the Golf Hotel in Bled, Hotel Jezero in Plitvice  and Hotel President in Split. In Zagreb, the capital city, visitors stay at the five-star Westin hotel.

History buffs will want to spend some time in Sarajevo, which has a range of museums showcasing both ancient and recent history, art and culture. Suggest your clients pay a visit to the Museum of Sarajevo, the Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which houses the priceless and near-legendary Sarajevo Haggadah.

Boating enthusiasts will want to head to Croatia this year: Construction of the first mega-yacht marina on the Adriatic has begun in Mandalina near Šibenik. The marina, which will accommodate 79 large yachts, should be completed by June.

Diane McGuinness, operations manager for Europe and Morocco at Gap Adventures, says that the most popular tourist destination in the Balkans is Dubrovnik. “That tends to be the city they’ve heard of most,” she says. “But when they get there, they fall in love with some areas they weren’t aware of.” The cities of Sarajevo and Mostar, for example, both have plenty to recommend, especially for history buffs. “It’s a combination of beautiful historical town and turbulent recent past, which helps them understand European history,” says McGuinness.

Gap Adventures  uses small, family-run hotels wherever possible. “By American or Canadian standards, they’re small,” McGuinness says. “But they’ve got character. We choose small, simple, clean hotels in a good location.”

For first-timers, McGuinness recommends  packing light as many historical buildings—including hotels—may not have elevators, and carrying luggage upstairs can be a challenge. Also, driving from city to city along the winding roads might take longer than it looks on the map, she added.

There are many hotels and resorts in Dubrovnik, but we’ve heard the most good things about the Radisson Blu Resort & Spa, which has a private beach with plenty of water sports.

Croatia’s Dubrovnik
Croatia’s Dubrovnik has been a popular tourist retreat for years.