There’s no place quite like the Balkans. This European destination offers interesting history, rich culture, mouthwatering cuisine, and endless views—all with fewer crowds and a cheaper price tag than the neighboring countries in Western Europe. The region is lesser traveled, which has allowed it to maintain an old world charm you’re guaranteed to fall in love with. There’s so much to see and do, but with countless diverse options, it can be hard to know where to start. Keep reading for the ultimate guide to Balkan travel!
The number one question many travelers have is, "what’s actually considered part of the Balkans?" There’s really two answers to that, but one is more accepted. The first way to distinguish the Balkan countries is geographically. It’s the region in Southeastern Europe around the Balkan Mountains. When going by this definition, Greece and Turkey are included. However, the more common way of thinking considers culture over geography—in this case, Greece and Turkey are excluded, as they each have their own distinct cultures. Most people consider the Balkans to be Albania, Bulgaria, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
When to Travel
There’s no bad time to visit the Balkans, but the summers can get hot and crowded. The shoulder seasons (April-June and September-November) are considered some of the best times to go, as the weather is milder, crowds are smaller, and prices are cheaper. In addition, June and September still have great beach weather in the coastal towns.
Where to Stay
As Balkan travel is gaining popularity, more options for accommodations are popping up. Take your pick from a luxury hotel, cheap hostel, or local bed and breakfasts.
The best way to get around the Balkans, whether you’re touring within one country or moving through multiple, is by bus. Aside from driving, it’s really the only feasible option. Trains are uncommon in the region, and when they do pop up, they’re slow, expensive, and uncomfortable. If you’re planning to travel across various Balkan countries, you might find it worth it to pay a little extra for a private shuttle bus.
It’s also worth noting that although traveling throughout the Balkans means crossing many borders, you’re unlikely to encounter any problems. The only potential hiccup is traveling from Kosovo into Serbia. Serbia doesn’t view Kosovo as independent, while the other countries in the region do. If you arrive at the Serbian border with a stamp from Kosovo, you may have a hard time gaining entry. To avoid this issue, it’s best to travel to Kosovo by way of Serbia.
Almost all of the Balkan countries have their own currency, which can be a real headache! It’s difficult to find places to exchange the local currencies once you leave the country, so to ensure you’re not left with extra money, only withdraw small amounts as needed. However, if you do have a substantial amount leftover, you can always exchange it with other travelers making their way into the country. Slovenia, Montenegro, and Kosovo are the only Balkan countries to use the Euro.
Different languages are spoken throughout the Balkans, and many countries have their own official language. Meanwhile, Serbo-Croatian is spoken in Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia. It’s also an official language of Kosovo (although Albanian is more common).
It’s crucial to be sensitive to the region’s fairly recent history, especially for the countries that comprised Yugoslavia. Although the war was in the 90s, and there is no violence or danger today, it’s still a serious topic and ethnic tensions still exist. Take the time to learn about the complex history of the countries you’re visiting. Although you should always feel comfortable talking freely about your next destination, it’s best to avoid bringing up any heavier topics related to the war.
If you’re used to the hustle and bustle of big city life, then a trip to the Balkans will be an adjustment. Here, the locals like to take their time and enjoy life at a leisurely pace. Time moves slower, and no one is ever in a rush; this includes the staff at restaurants, where you’ll likely have to wait a little while for your food to arrive. To truly enjoy Balkan travel, you must embrace the culture. If you’re always in a rush and stress out over the relaxed lifestyle, you’ll have a miserable time. Balkans are also some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, with no ulterior motives. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the refreshing Balkan way of life.
Food is a huge part of the Balkan identity, and one thing’s for sure—they love their meat! This region isn’t the easiest area to adhere to a vegetarian diet, although touristy areas are starting to have more veggie options. No matter what, the food is flavorful and unique. Some national dishes include Ćevapi (a caseless sausage), Pljeskavica (similar to a hamburger), and of course the beloved Rakija—a fruit brandy that locals will drink at any time of day. Prepare to be offered this delicious beverage often during your travels!
Balkan travel is very safe—even safer than travel to Western European hotspots. Like in any tourist destination, look out for pickpockets and beggars. Stay alert and keep a tight hold on your belongings. But overall, you’re unlikely to ever feel truly unsafe.
With so many places to check off your bucket list, where do you go first? Croatia is a must—it’s one of the most breathtaking countries in the world, and more travelers are starting to take note. Dubrovnik is a popular tourist site, but it’s worth braving the crowds for the views alone. Split is another picturesque seaside city, and Plitvice Lakes National Park is a mind-blowing sight. Other top destinations include Kotor in Montenegro, Lake Bled in Slovenia, Gjirokastra in Albania, Mostar in Bosnia, and Ohrid in Macedonia.