Since emerging from the shadow of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Balkans -- the title given to southeastern Europe, and named for the Balkan Mountain chain that stretches across Bulgaria and Serbia -- is becoming one of the hottest destinations in Europe. Cities such as Sarajevo and Dubrovnik that were formerly fraught with civil strife are now luring the culturally curious as well as sunshine seekers, as cruises across the Adriatic and Aegean seas offer easy access to coastal destinations.
Curious about what southeastern Europe has to offer? Here are some of the Balkans' best cities.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The capital and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo is a cultural hotspot known for its ethnic diversity. Nearly 500 years of Ottoman occupation has left its mark on the city in the form of mosques and bazaars, while the Austria-Hungarians also made their presence known with magnificent cathedrals. The multiplicity of religions has earned Sarajevo the title "European Jerusalem." Aside from its alluring cultural diversity, Sarajevo's museums and bridges -- including the Latin bridge, the assassination site of Franz Ferdinand of Austria -- add to its historic identity.
This seaside jewel features a fortified and picturesque old city, which offers delicious dining -- seafood is a staple -- and boutique shopping. Aside from walking the well-preserved walls that afford a great view of the town and port, visitors are drawn to the Croatian coastal town for its pristine beaches, clear water, and island hopping opportunities. As it was once Venetian territory, Dubrovnik has a distinctly Italian flare in cuisine. However, unlike neighboring Italy and Montenegro, Croatia is not on the Euro, making it a bit easier on the American wallet.
Located at the meeting point of the Danube and Sava rivers, Belgrade is a city of contrasts. Beautiful fortresses, cathedrals, and cobblestone streets make it wandering the city a pleasure, but decrepit buildings with crumbling walls are a forlorn reminder of NATO's bombing campaigns during the Kosovo War in the 1990s. Belgrade has its fair share of appeal, including delicious Balkan cuisine (typically heavy in meat) and a vibrant nightlife. Hitting the floating bars and nightclubs on the rivers is a great way to take advantage of the city's location.
Kotor is situated on an inlet along the winding coast of Montenegro, which means that that the sheltered coastal town has a nearly 360 degree view of the country's mountainous coastline. The fortressed old town is full of nooks and crannies waiting to be explored, and the smoothly pebbled beaches that line the waterfront provide visitors with excellent places to relax and catch some rays. For those looking for a challenge, a day hike up the mountains behind Kotor affords a great view of the picturesque valley, which includes the gorgeous stone churches and walls of the old town.
Located on the shores of Macedonia's Lake Ohrid, the picturesque town of Ohrid is a Balkanic World Heritage Site. The remaining walls of a fortress constructed in the 10th and 11th centuries provide venues for theatre, summer concerts, and opera. The town is also home to a great number of magnificent medieval churches. While it is mostly noted for its architecture -- featuring a blend of Byzantine and Ottoman influences -- Ohrid's beauty is only enhanced by its proximity to the lake, one of Europe's deepest and oldest.
Sibiu was the former European Capital of Culture, and with good reason. Chock-full of beautiful medieval buildings, Sibiu is also home to Romania's largest German population, which gives the town a distinctly Germanic flair. Flanked by the beautiful Fagaras and Cindrel Mountains, Sibiu's charm lies in not only its geographically beauty but also its relaxed atmosphere. The Germanic style old town's narrow lanes, cobblestone squares, and charming architecture make Sibiu a photographer's dream.