At the Crossroads of Europe & Asia

Field Notes: Just Back from Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina

Dubrovnik rooftops by Gerald Smetana
Dubrovnik rooftops. Photo credit: Gerald Smetana

MIR Travel Designer and Balkans Expert Lisa Peterson recently returned from Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia. Both Balkan nations are among those Lisa recommends most highly, and especially right now.

“I’ve traveled to Croatia 21 times now and this most recent trip was one of the best. The great vibe has returned, but the crowds have not yet, and this combination makes the perfect travel window of opportunity.”

Want to know what it’s like traveling in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina now?  Read on.

1.  Why were you traveling to Croatia & BiH and what was your itinerary?

I try to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Croatia as much as possible! This was actually my 21st trip to Croatia since 2003. I had planned to go in 2020 to visit my friends and do a little travel research, but that trip was delayed, like so many trips, for obvious reasons. So this was my make-up trip–and it was an absolutely perfect time to go! 

Whenever I head over to Croatia, I always take the opportunity to go to some places where I have not been before–so I included some areas in BiH on this trip, such as Visigrad, Banja Luka and Trebinje.

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My itinerary on this trip featured: 

  • Sarajevo
  • Day trip to Visigrad and Eastern Serbia to go to Drvengrad
  • Sarajevo to Banja Luka and on to Zagreb
  • Then to Dubrovnik with a day trip to Trebinje to see the old town, a visit to my favorite winery in Bosnia, The stecci in Stolac, and then on to Mostar.

This region of Herzegovina is one of my absolute favorite areas in the Balkans. It will definitely start growing in popularity, as we hear there are plans in the works to build an international airport there. The area has a ton of potential, and the Ottoman ruins seem quite untouched by tourism. Another major plus: the wine industry in this region has been quite a happening scene of redevelopment in recent times, and many locals are returning from abroad to open restaurants and run wineries.

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2.  How were the conditions on the ground? Were they any different from previous trips you’ve taken in the past?

It was really back to “normal” in BiH and Croatia. I did notice that lots of small shops had closed as new shops are opening in their places. And there is a big push for independent shops to open that feature local Balkan artisans more prominently. So overall, little things seemed a bit different, yet very much familiar at the same time. 

All the destinations seemed to be busy, but none felt overcrowded. And this was what stood out to me the most compared to trips in recent pre-Covid years. Especially Dubrovnik. I used to spend summers studying Croatian language and history in Dubrovnik and the crowds in summer could be overwhelming.

Dubrovnik's Old Town. Photo credit: Lisa Peterson
Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Photo credit: Lisa Peterson

This time, it was bustling and lively, but not overcrowded. On trips a few years back, where they needed police to guide foot traffic, this time around I could easily find spaces at cafes and restaurants. Where in the past, the port was stacked up with cruise boats and passengers were constantly flooding the central area, this time there were still a good number of cruise ships in port, but the cruise ships were reported to be only at 50-60% capacity, so it never really felt like the city was overwhelmed with cruise ships like it almost always did in the past. This made for an amazing experience that made me fall in love with Dubrovnik all over again.

Dubrovnik main street Stradun. Photo credit: Gerald Smetana
Dubrovnik’s main street Stradun. Photo credit: Gerald Smetana

Also, I noticed many other positive developments. Some of the historical sites were given grants for making improvements. For example, one of my favorite stops is at Radmilja just outside of Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This site is home to a number of stecci (medieval Bosnian tombstones). Maja Lopin, the Director of the site, showed me all of the improvements they have made to the infrastructure and the new educational programs the staff were able to develop during the Covid-induced shutdown. 

I was also thrilled to see the new bridge that will connect mainland Croatia to the tip of the Pelelisjac Peninsula. This bridge just opened at the end of July. So visiting the wine country and all of the sleepy villages that had required a bit of transport wizardry in the past, will be much easier to do now when traveling from Split to Dubrovnik. Or from Sarajevo, for that matter.

3.  Were there Covid restrictions to enter or travel between countries?

Any Covid-era entry restrictions have been dropped. There were no restrictions at all to move throughout the region between the countries. All passport control stops went very well (except when I went to Serbia: the officer wanted to know why I had a Russian visa!). Masks are only required at hospitals and pharmacies. 

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4. What was it like to fly through Istanbul and on Turkish Air’s new Seattle-Istanbul service on this trip? Did you experience delays with your flights or luggage?

I flew on the brand new, non-stop Turkish Air service from Seattle to Istanbul that launched just in May of this year. And from Istanbul, I connected to Sarajevo. The flights went very smoothly, with no delays. There were no issues at the Istanbul Airport, and my luggage was actually delivered to me within 15 minutes of arriving in Sarajevo!

This was a significant contrast to my experience just a few months earlier when I flew through Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt. Then, I had a much different experience, including waiting in long lines, and massive confusion among ground staff and travelers, resulting in me almost missing my flight back to the U.S. despite my well-planned, three-hour layover. By contrast, everything with Turkish Air including the Istanbul transfer was as easy as it should have been–and the new Istanbul airport is beautiful! 

Travelers should know that with Europe being so overbooked, it’s best to avoid the major European air hubs if at all possible (Frankfurt, London, Paris) and connect further east, such as Istanbul or via Middle Eastern hubs like Doha or Dubai. These air travel hubs are simply not experiencing the staffing issues, flight and baggage delays of their European counterparts. Turkish Airlines has excellent connections from gateways across the United States and Canada into all of the Balkan nations including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia.

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5. Why should people travel to Croatia now?

Back in the early 2000’s, the Croatian Tourism Board promoted Croatia as “The Mediterranean As It Once Was.” I felt like this could be the slogan again today. Croatia, as amazing of a destination as it is, had become so overcrowded that it was necessary to avoid travel to Dubrovnik in certain cruise-popular months altogether. Traveling this summer was no longer about long lines and cruise ship crowds. In my experience, it was very much about simply enjoying being in this naturally and spectacularly beautiful locale. It was only about what I wanted to be experiencing: leisurely and enjoyably visiting sites, sampling the local seafood and spirits, and soaking up some much-missed time in the Mediterranean sun. I can’t imagine a better time to be here. I say get here this season and see it for yourself. And the great thing is these countries can be visited year-round, so they’re the perfect choice whenever you’re wanting to travel.

Photo credit: Croatian National Tourist Board

Travel to the Balkans with MIR

MIR has over three decades of Balkans travel experience, with on-the-ground support and guides and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Whether you’re thinking of traveling sooner or later, don’t miss out on the uncrowded treasures of Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Check out all the travel options for yourself.

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PUBLISHED: November 8, 2022

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