The Balkan region of Southeastern Europe may be a part of the world you haven’t thought of visiting, but for Game of Thrones enthusiasts or just the adventurous at heart, the Balkans offer an incredible array of mystique, charm and culture laced with just the right amount of weird to keep you on your toes!
Contiki Holidays, the youth specific travel company known for its 18-35 year old group tours, has launched a brand new expedition this summer through the Balkan states (Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia). Travelers now have the option of joining a 12-day Balkan Discovery trek throughout the entire region or opting for the 5-day Mini Balkan tour, which touches on the best of the area.
As Game of Thrones fanatics and travel junkies, MiLLENNiAL leaped at the opportunity to jump on board the first-ever Mini Balkan tour to explore some of the cultural nuances that make the HBO series so epic! It didn’t hurt that we would also discover some relatively untapped gems along the process.
While Northern Ireland and Iceland are responsible for providing the cascading landscapes for Castle Black, Winterfell, and the Iron Islands, Croatia is home to the whimsical settings of Kings Landing, Meereen, and Braavos – all places that can be seen on this tour!
In addition to Game of Thrones filming locations, the natural landscape also caters to those interested in viewing historic Roman ruins, charming cobblestone streets, or scenic country routes.
The Best of the Balkans
DAY 1 – BUDAPEST
Known as one of the most beautiful cities in Central Europe, Budapest is rich in history and sophistication and is the first stop on the Mini Balkan Tour. While you won’t find any Game of Thrones locations here, you will be enthralled by Budapest’s cool vibe.
Divided by the Danube River, the city is split into two sides – Buda and Pest. The two are more notably distinct by their terrain with Buda exhibiting more greenery and Pest more industry.
With mountainous terrain and rolling hills, Buda is much more of a residential, calm, and peaceful side of the metropolis, offering extensive views of the city at large. Pest on the other hand is flat, commercial, and loud. This is the business district of Budapest and has some of the best shopping in the city.
Known for its famous “ruin pubs,” Pest is also home to Simpla Kert, an Alice in Wonderland-esque labyrinth of a bar. Make a pit stop here before leaving the city. The eclectic decor will have you mesmerized all night. Not one table, chair, lamp, or decorative item is the same, and every wall is filled with personal messages from patrons since opening in 2004.
Budapest also sits on 125 thermal springs, making it a hotspot for those who want to partake in “taking the waters” as locals say. The most famous thermal bath is Széchenyi, located on the Pest side. Surrounded by the beautiful City Park, it is believed that Dracula’s castle sits across the street. The moat in front of the palace was recently renovated to offer paddle boating, but you won’t find your typical paddle boat. Instead, they are designed to look like cars.- a tasteful representation of Budapest’s creative community.
The Central Market Hall is also a big draw for tourists and locals alike. Here you can try authentic Hungarian cuisine, buy paprika, and haggle down pricing for all those souvenirs. It was designed to look like a train station and is so big, you can get lost for hours.
DAY 2 – LJUBLJANA
Ljubljana (pronounced: Lubianna) is a Slovenian gem. Expect the best of European small town charm – cobblestone streets, good food, and great wine. You really can’t ask for a better time.
For Game of Thrones fans, this town will wildly amuse your fantastical interest in Targaryen and Dothraki culture. Unassuming yet wonderfully charming, Ljubljana is known as the “Dragon City.” It is believed that after the Greek hero, Jason, slayed a dragon, the people of Ljubljana rose from its ashes. Today, the “Dragon” acts as the city’s symbol and is marked by their famous Dragon Bridge leading to the castle.
Another cultural delicacy Game of Thrones fans may be intrigued by is the city’s appetite for horse meat. You will often find “horse” beef on the menu of many restaurants. If you are so daring, dive into local cuisine and taste customary dishes, otherwise, be careful when ordering a steak, burger, or hot dog.
Ljubljana is a short overnight stop so make the most of this adorable town by touring the quaint streets lining the river and experiencing the 360-degree view of the city from the castle tower.
DAY 3 – PLITVICE LAKES
Crystal clear blue lakes, lush forest, and the sound of birds chirping overhead consume your senses when visiting Croatia’s first and largest national park, Plitvice Lakes. A location that reminds you of the world’s natural beauty, this UNESCO World Heritage site is famous for its 16 terraced lakes joined by an infinite amount of cascading waterfalls.
Travelers can enjoy hours of traversing through this exquisite environment on a variety of hiking trails ranging from two to eight hour-long paths. While the water appears to be turquoise most of the time, various organism and mineral deposits paired with how the sun reflects off the water presents different shades of colors ranging from light to dark blue, green or even gray.
The history of the park is as rich as the biodiversity itself. During the Bosnian war, the park acted as a natural barrier between Croatian and Serbian forces. But since there was no activity for several years following the war, the forest’s ecology began to further develop and enrich itself. Today, the lakes are a natural preserve and are free from human touch.
DAY 4 – ZADAR & SPLIT
As the tour moved from Plitvice Lakes down to Split, Croatia, we made an unexpected but lovely pit stop in Zadar for lunch. The town was once a Roman city with Venetian influences and you could certainly feel the Italian vibe. With cute small streets and Roman ruins scattered throughout the town, this gem of a seaside village offers travelers the chance to experience Croatian charm while feeling the presence of Northern Italian. Even the street signs remind you of Venice.
About an hour south of Zadar is Split, a port city for travelers itching to island hop and discover pristine Adriatic beaches. Before venturing away from the mainland, Split offers a lot of fun and unique shops, restaurants, bars, and historic sites. The city center itself is laced with ancient Roman ruins making it an ideal photo-op spot and a fun place to tour for the day.
Peak into the underground tunnels of Diocletian’s Palace (another UNESCO World Heritage site) where you will find a unique bizarre filled with artisans selling locally handcrafted goods. As a side note for observant Game of Thrones fans, the underground tunnel is where the Unsullied rescue the Meereen slaves. Make your way through the tunnel, which leads right up to the Palace center, and enter into a thriving marketplace surrounded by some of the oldest walls in Split’s history.
Walk along the marina and jump aboard one of the yachts, catamarans, or ferries that await your next adventure.
DAY 5 – HVAR
If you are looking for the party, look no further than Hvar (pronounced h-aar). About an hour boat ride from Split, Hvar is known for some of the best beach clubs in the Adriatic, Hvar is home to Hula Hula Beach Club, Pink Champagne, Kiva and Carpe Diem.
Expect epic views of the bay in the day with yachts consuming the ports and sparkling blue water blinding you with beauty. Charter a boat to take advantage of the paradise islands that are close by or the blue caves that will leave you in awe.
Now for the fun part – the clubs! Best advice? Do them all and thank us later.
To learn more about Contiki, the Balkan tours, or find an adventure that suits you, visit Contiki.com