Current as of: July 23, 2024 - 09:59

Balkan Explorer

Balkan Explorer Trip Notes

  • Ways to Travel: Guided Group, Private Group Adventures
  • Destination: Bulgaria, Kosovo, North Macedonia
  • Programmes: Culture
  • Activity Level:

    1 out of 7 - Easy

  • 10 Days: Flight Inclusive
  • 10 Days: Land Only
  • Ages: 16+
  • Trip Code: ATO
  • Carbon Footprint: 19kg CO2e

Trip Overview

Discover the cultural highlights of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Kosovo

Unlock the central Balkans, where influences from the East and West collide. This trip showcases the cultural highlights of Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Kosovo, home to an invigorating mix of ancient civilisations, Unesco World Heritage landmarks and laidback cities such as Sofia and Skopje. Additionally, a visit to this region of the Balkan Peninsula would not be complete without experiencing the contrasting natural beauty on offer: national parks, high mountains, fertile valleys, wine regions and the peaceful lakes Ohrid and Prespa – all part of this comprehensive itinerary.

Balkan Explorer

At a Glance

  • Nine nights in comfortable hotels
  • Group normally 4 to 14, plus leader. Minimum age: 16
  • Travel by private air-conditioned minibus
  • Option to travel by train to your adventure

Highlights

  • Discover Skopje and Sofia, two of the most vibrant capitals in the Balkans
  • Visit the Unesco-listed Rila Monastery in Bulgaria
  • Discover the Tikvesh wine region and alluring Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia
  • Explore Prizren, the culture capital of Kosovo
  • Enjoy natural beauty, ancient sites and traditional Balkan cuisine

Is This Trip for You?

This trip has been rated Activity Level 1 (Easy).For more information on our trip gradings please visit our Activity Level Guidelines page. If you have any queries about the difficulty of the trip please do not hesitate to contact us.

This is a cultural discovery trip with some walking required both to access the sites and to make the most of the trip. The city tours are on foot. Travel is by private bus, generally on good roads and there are some long drives due to the distances covered on the trip.

Adult min age: 16

Min group size: 4

Max group size: 14

Itinerary

Balkan Explorer

Land Only

  • Start City: Sofia
  • End City: Sofia

Land Only Itinerary

Day 1
Start in Sofia, Bulgaria

The trip begins in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. We recommend arriving at the hotel before 3pm as the group welcome meeting usually takes place at 3.30pm. Don’t worry if your flight arrives later, the tour leader can update you on the key information. After the welcome meeting, we go for an optional lunch at a nearby restaurant.

After lunch, we have an optional guided walking tour around Sofia (approximately two hours) of the Bulgarian capital, which includes Sveta Nedelya Square, Independence Square with the St Sofia monument, excavated Roman ruins of the ancient Serdica, the Council of Ministers and the former House of the Communist Party, Rotunda of St George, the national theatre, the Russian Orthodox church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Bulgarian Parliament and the monument to the Tsar Liberator.

Accommodation: Hotel Sofia Palace (or similar)

Day 2
Transfer to Melnik, stopping at the Unesco-listed sites of Boyana Church and Rila Monastery. Free afternoon in Melnik

After breakfast, we begin our transfer towards the picturesque city of Melnik. En route we visit the Unesco-badged Boyana Church, a small medieval orthodox church in a suburb of Sofia. Despite the small size of the church, its frescoes are historically significant and part of an artistic movement that started the technique of illustrating biblical figures with emotions and placing them alongside local aristocracy.

The second Unesco site we visit is Rila Monastery, one of the most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments in Bulgaria (approximately a two-hour transfer from Sofia). The combination of arcaded balconies, unique frescoes, gilded iconostasis, and fabulous mountain views make a visit to this 10th-century monastery extraordinary. Our leader reveals its history and there is plenty of time to explore with the option of lunch at one of the restaurants near the monastery complex.

After food, we continue to Melnik, the smallest settlement in Bulgaria with city status, best known for its historic architecture. We have a quick visit to Kordopulova house, the biggest house from the Revival Period built in 1754 by the Kordopul family. Here we become familiar with old Melnik traditions and architecture. The rest of the day is free to explore.

Accommodation: Hotel Melnik (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast

Day 3
Transfer to North Macedonia. Visit the ancient city of Stobi; enjoy wine tasting over dinner in a winery of the Tikvesh wine region

This morning, before we depart for North Macedonia, we visit Kordopulova house, the largest house from the Bulgarian Revival Period, built in 1754 by the Kordopulos family. Here we will become familiar with old Melnik traditions and architecture.

We then head to the Strumica region of southeastern North Macedonia. After 1hr 30min, our first stop is the city of Strumica where we have a short walk around the centre and our first encounter with North Macedonian cuisine with lunch in a nice restaurant.

In the afternoon, we move to the Tikvesh wine region, where we visit Stobi, the largest archaeological site in North Macedonia. The ancient city was first mentioned in 197 BCE but its history started some five centuries earlier, developing from a Paeonian town to the capital of the Roman province Macedonia Salutaris. The preserved buildings include a large theatre, luxurious palaces with fountains, ancient temples, and the oldest Christian church in the country.

In the late afternoon, we check into our hotel-winery outside Demir Kapija and spend an evening tasting a selection of premium North Macedonian wines with dinner.

Accommodation: Hotel Popova Kula (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 4
Drive to Bitola to visit the archaeological site of Heraclea and enjoy a walking tour of the city with free time in the evening

After a relaxed breakfast, we head towards Bitola city (two hours’ drive).

Our first stop is to tour the archaeological site of Heraclea Lyncestis on the outskirts of Bitola. The ancient city was founded by Philip II of Macedon in the fourth century BCE after he had incorporated the surrounding region of Lyncestis into his kingdom. The city was named in honour of the mythological hero Heracles (or Hercules to the ancient Greeks), whom Philip considered his ancestor. With a strategic location, Heraclea became a prosperous city.

In the afternoon, we sightsee in Bitola, the second largest city in North Macedonia. It was a major political, economic and cultural centre in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many foreign countries had their consulates here; therefore, it is also known as the City of Consuls. After lunch in a local restaurant, we join our leader for a guided walk in Bitola centre, seeing Širok Sokak Street, the clock tower, Ottoman mosques, Christian churches and the paved streets of the Old Bazaar.

We have free time after checking into our hotel. You may wish to visit the National Museum, walk the promenade in the nearby park, or enjoy a coffee in one of the many cafes and learn about the coffee culture of Bitola and the significance it has had on this city over the ages.

Accommodation: Hotel Teater (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast

Day 5
Pelister National Park walk, beekeepers farm and lunch in Dihovo, transfer to Lake Ohrid via Lake Prespa and Galičica National Park

This is a day to enjoy nature. In the morning, we go to nearby Pelister National Park to walk The Path of the First World War through pine forests and to learn about the history of the area. Bitola was on the frontline of the Macedonian front during the Great War and war remnants are still found in the surrounding mountains.

We then visit the nearby village of Dihovo, where we can explore the fascinating world of the Macedonian honeybee with a local beekeeper. Protective clothing will be provided and there will be a chance to taste honey from the comb as well as purchase some if you wish. Lunch is arranged in the garden of a local family’s home in the village.

In the afternoon, we continue to Ohrid, enjoying a ride via Galičica National Park. We stop at tranquil Lake Prespa before we start driving the scenic road through Galičica Mountain with short stops to enjoy views of both Ohrid and Prespa lakes. Driving along the coast of the Unesco-listed Lake Ohrid, we reach the city of Ohrid, where we have free time.

Accommodation: Hotel Royal View (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch

Day 6
Full day in Ohrid, a Unesco World Heritage city. Dinner in a family home in Kuratica village

After breakfast, we have a walking tour of Ohrid, the pearl of the Balkan Peninsula. Built on a large hill above the lake, the old town is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe. The sightseeing takes us through winding, cobblestone streets with traditional houses and many Byzantine-style churches, including Hagia Sophia cathedral, the Holy Virgin Peribleptos and St John at Kaneo. We see the Upper Gate, visit the Tsar Samuel’s Fortress and the Ancient Theatre. We have a free afternoon to explore, visit museums, enjoy a panoramic boat ride, or maybe take a swim in the lake.

In the evening, we have dinner in Kuratica village (approximately 30 minutes away), where a local family will prepare a delicious, home-cooked meal in their home, using organic local products.

Accommodation: Hotel Royal View (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 7
Transfer to Kosovo via Tetovo and Šar Planina National Park. Lunch in Varvara and a walking tour in Prizren

After breakfast, we check out and travel from Ohrid to Prizren in Kosovo. We stop in Tetovo (approximately two hours’ drive) to see the Colourful Mosque, one of the most notable Islamic monuments in Europe due to its unique decorative style. From here, we head to the nearby village of Varvara, where the community will prepare a traditional lunch for us on their beautiful terrace overlooking the Polog valley.

Then we continue to Kosovo, where we have a scenic drive (two more hours) after the border crossing through Šar Planina National Park to reach the historic city of Prizren. This medieval capital is known for traditional handicrafts, gastronomy and wines, and for having a wonderful mix of Serbian and Ottoman monuments. The leader takes us for a walk around the city to see the most famous sites, including Shadirvan square, Sinan Pasha Mosque, the Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals, Gazi Mehmet Pasha’s Hammam and the 14th century Our Lady of Ljeviš (part of a World Heritage property).

The evening is at your disposal to enjoy a meal or the sunset view from Kalaja, the fortress of Prizren.

Accommodation: Hotel Centrum (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast, Lunch

Day 8
Visit the Unesco-listed Gračanica Monastery before Skopje, followed by a city tour

We leave Prizren in the morning. Our first stop is King Milutin’s final endowment, Gračanica Monastery, a Unesco World Heritage site in the heart of Kosovo close to Priština, the capital of this disputed territory. The masterfully built monastic church was finished in 1321 and is still a bastion of Orthodox Christianity, since Gračanica is one of the few remaining dominantly Serbian populated areas in Kosovo.

We then head back across the border to Skopje, the North Macedonian capital. We arrive after approximately two hours’ drive and have a sightseeing tour of downtown Skopje in the late afternoon. Skopje valley has been continuously inhabited since Neolithic times and the city has experienced Roman, Byzantine, Slavic and Ottoman rule through the ages. Today it is a bustling, modern metropolis, thanks to redevelopment after a catastrophic earthquake in 1963, with an intriguing mixture of various period sites and architecture styles. Some of them are the Stone Bridge, Macedonia square and street, Mother Theresa memorial house, the Old Railway Station, Stara Čaršija quarter (the Old Bazaar) – which contains numerous Ottoman buildings – and Skopsko Kale, a medieval fortress.

Accommodation: Hotel Tims (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast

Day 9
Osogovo Monastery visit while transferring back to Sofia for a farewell dinner

Today’s drive is dedicated to completing the circle back to Sofia. We break this drive (approximately four hours) with a stop before the border at Osogovo Monastery to visit this historic venue and to have a lunch.

In the late afternoon, we return to Sofia.

In the evening, we can have a farewell dinner of traditional local dishes.

Accommodation: Sofia Place Hotel (or similar)

Meals included: Breakfast

Day 10
End Sofia

After breakfast, we say goodbye to each other and start our journey home. If you’d like to spend a bit more time in this illustrious city, speak to your sales representative about extending your stay.

Meals included: Breakfast

Accommodation

Hotels

Accommodation listed under each day in each location are the standard hotels used. However, there may be some departures where groups stay at similar hotels of the same standard and quality.

Single supplements are available on request.

Single supplement from £ 255

Food & Drink

All breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners are included.

Food in the Balkans is quite varied thanks to the many regional influences – many popular dishes with the same name but often with big taste differences. Dairy products, especially milk and yoghurt, are present in many dishes. Grilled meats are popular with pork and lamb prevalent in Macedonia and Bulgaria. Pastries, pies, salads and fresh vegetable dishes are a staple of the Balkan diet.

Macedonian wine is incredibly good value, especially wines from the Tikvesh region. Rakija, similar to brandy, is very popular and local people often make their own. Mastika, a liquor, is considered the national drink of Macedonia and is usually poured over ice and enjoyed with a selection of small dishes.

Vegetarian and some special dietary requirements can be catered for but options are limited in the Balkans. Please inform us of any specific requirements upon booking.

Transport

We travel by private air-conditioned minibus. All driving is on paved roads; however, the road quality in some areas is not the same standard as you would expect in western Europe.

Weather & Seasonality

The Balkans enjoy a similar climate to most of central Europe – hot summers, cool springs and autumns, and cold winters with considerable snowfall. We schedule trips from May to September, when temperatures will be generally warmer (20C-30C/68F-86F). However, these temperatures will be a little cooler in the mountain areas. In July and August, expect 25C-35C (77F-95F) during the day. The weather in this region can sometimes be unpredictable where Mediterranean and Continental Alpine climates vie for supremacy. The result is an extremely unpredictable climate even in summer. Rain can fall throughout the year, although in midsummer it is more likely to come as short, sharp thunderstorms.

Joining Instructions

Key information

Start hotel: Hotel Sofia Palace, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria, 8 Tri ushi str.
Phone: +359 2 494 2299
Recommended arrival time: We recommend arriving at the hotel before 3pm as the group welcome meeting usually takes place at 3.30pm. Don’t worry if your flight arrives later, the tour leader can update you on the key information
Airport: Sofia Airport (SOF)

Getting to the start hotel

The start hotel is approximately 30 minutes’ drive from the airport. Your options for this journey are:

Take an Exodus transfer
Exodus provides one group arrival transfer from the airport, which is timed to coincide with the arrival of a chosen flight from London, UK. You may join this transfer at no extra cost, provided you can be at the airport before the transfer leaves. Speak to your sales representative for the group arrival transfer times or to arrange a private transfer.

Make your own way
You can reach the start hotel relatively easily using taxis. The official airport taxi operator is called OK Supertrans AD and they have offices in the arrivals halls of terminals 1 and 2. The distance between the airport and central Sofia is approximately 6mi (10km) and a taxi should cost the equivalent of around €6-€8. On arrival at the hotel please make the reception staff aware that you are part of an Exodus group and they will have more details on meeting with your leader and group

If you would like further information on joining this trip, please speak to your sales representative.

Catching your return flight

There’s a group departure transfer to the airport for customers who Exodus booked onto a chosen flight to London, UK. Please speak to your sales representative if you wish to join. If the group departure transfer does not suit your flight time, speak to your sales representative to arrange an alternative transfer.

Full joining instructions including local emergency numbers will be sent to you as part of our Final Joining Instructions. If you do not receive these at least a week before departure, or require them earlier please contact our office or your travel agent.

Location start: Sofia
Location end: Sofia

What To Take

Essential Equipment

  • Small backpack
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Warm trousers (pants) and shorts
  • Refillable water bottle
  • Hat and sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Insect repellent
  • Umbrella in case of wet weather

Optional Equipment

  • Swimwear

Practical Information

Visa

North Macedonia

Travellers from the UK, US and EU normally do not need a visa to enter North Macedonia. Please note, visa requirements often change and it is your responsibility to obtain any required visas for this trip. Therefore, we recommend that you check with the nearest embassy or consulate of your chosen destination(s), including any countries you may be transiting or transferring through.

Some local governments provide guidance on what visas their citizens need. To help, we’ve gathered a selection of useful links below.

Bulgaria

Travellers from the UK, US and EU normally do not need a visa to enter Bulgaria. Please note, visa requirements often change and it is your responsibility to obtain any required visas for this trip. Therefore, we recommend that you check with the nearest embassy or consulate of your chosen destination(s), including any countries you may be transiting or transferring through.

Some local governments provide guidance on what visas their citizens need. To help, we’ve gathered a selection of useful links below.

Kosovo

Travellers from the UK, US and EU normally do not need a visa to enter Kosovo. Please note, visa requirements often change and it is your responsibility to obtain any required visas for this trip. Therefore, we recommend that you check with the nearest embassy or consulate of your chosen destination(s), including any countries you may be transiting or transferring through.   

Some local governments provide guidance on what visas their citizens need. To help, we’ve gathered a selection of useful links below.

Vaccinations and Health

North Macedonia

There are no required vaccinations. However, you may want to consider vaccinations for tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B and rabies. Please confirm with your doctor or travel clinic.

Bulgaria

There are no required vaccinations. However, you may want to consider vaccinations for tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies and tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). Please confirm with your doctor or travel clinic. Additionally, the risk of malaria is slight but you may wish to consult your doctor or travel clinic for further advice.

Kosovo

There are no required vaccinations. However, you may want to consider vaccinations for tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies and tuberculosis. Please confirm with your doctor or travel clinic.

Local Time

North Macedonia's time zone: Europe/Skopje (UTC +02:00)

Bulgaria's time zone: Europe/Sofia (UTC +03:00)

Electricity

North Macedonia's electricity: Plug types C (two round pins) and F (two round pins) – 230V, 50Hz

Bulgaria's electricity: Plug types C (two round pins) and E (two round pins) – 230V, 50Hz

Kosovo's electricity: Plug type C (two round pins) – 230V, 50Hz

Balkan Explorer

Money

North Macedonia's currency: Macedonian denar (MKD)

Bulgaria's currency: Bulgarian lev (BGN)

Kosovo's currency: Euro (EUR)

ATM Availability

ATMs and banks are available throughout the trip in the main towns and cities. You can use credit cards in most shops and restaurants. We suggest you have some cash with you, in some restaurants it is quicker to arrange cash payments and/or card is still not accepted.

Extra Expenses & Spending Money

For meals not included in the itinerary, budget the equivalent of €10‐€15 per meal, excluding beverages.

Beer usually costs the equivalent of €1‐€2, a good glass of wine €2‐€3, soft drink €1‐€2 and tap water is safe to drink in Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Tipping

Although optional, a tip for the leader at the end of the trip is greatly appreciated. As a guideline, we recommend a contribution between €15 and €20 per client per week. It is also customary to leave a tip for the driver. This can be handed to your leader at the end of the trip. For your driver, we recommend approximately €10-€15 per person.

People, Places & Planet

At Exodus we believe in the power of Responsible Travel.

Every time we travel, we are part of a global movement that creates jobs, builds more sustainable societies, encourages cultural understanding and safeguards common natural and cultural heritage. To learn more about what Responsible Travel means to Exodus click here

Important Information

Water safety

This trip includes time by a lake, river or sea, where there may be opportunities to swim. You should always seek local advice before deciding whether to swim. Open-water or wild swim spots should be treated with extreme caution. Information on how to keep yourself safe while swimming is shown here.

Important Information

Your safe participation 

When booking this trip, you should be confident in your ability to participate in all activities described in these Trip Notes. If you have any doubt about your suitability, please call the Exodus office and ask to speak to one of the experts on this itinerary. 

Although our leaders are well trained to deal with different capabilities, if they have any concerns about someone’s ability to safely take part in an activity, or their impact on other people’s enjoyment, we authorise them to take necessary action which, in some circumstances, may involve asking someone to miss that activity. 

By booking this trip you agree to our Booking Conditions which clearly state that our leaders have the authority to do this. In these rare instances we will ensure anyone sitting out is safely provided for and offered alternative options where possible. Refunds will not be provided for activities missed and customers may be liable for additional costs incurred. 

How to Book

  1. Check availability: Go online to check availability, or contact us by phone or email.
  2. Secure your place: You can provisionally hold a place on this trip, usually for between three and seven days.
  3. Complete your booking and payment

When you’re ready to book, go to our website for online bookings, book over the phone or you can complete a booking form (available online or on request by calling us). We accept all major credit and debit cards, or you can pay be cheque.

After booking

You will receive your booking confirmation letter and invoice, which includes extra information and guidance about your travel arrangements.

Full joining instructions, including local emergency numbers and details of how to reach the start point, will be sent to you approximately two to three weeks prior to departure. If you do not receive these at least a week before departure, or require them earlier, please contact our office or your travel agent.

Trip Note validity

These Trip Notes are valid from the “Current as” date on page one. They will occasionally be updated after booking and before departure; if there are any updates that significantly impact the inclusions or itinerary, customers will be written to separately. They will also receive a link to the most up-to-date Trip Notes with their Final Joining Instructions before travelling.

The information in these Trip Notes is given in good faith. Where differences exist between the Trip Notes and our current brochure or website, the Trip Notes supersede the brochure and website. All holidays can be subject to unexpected changes; to enjoy them you should be prepared to be flexible where necessary. Occasionally, it may not be possible to follow the itinerary as planned. This may be for a variety of reasons – climatic, political, physical or other. In these circumstances we will make the best-possible alternative arrangements that maintain the integrity of the original itinerary.

Licensing

Exodus is fully licensed and bonded as a tour operator. We hold Air Traffic Organisers Licence (ATOL) number 2582, issued and bonded with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). We are also bonded to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and we are members of the Federation of Tour Operators (FTO) and ABTA – The Travel Association. This means you can book your Exodus holiday with confidence, as all money paid to us for your trip is fully protected.