Every week I get lots of messages asking about Balkan travel. In light of the recent events all over the world and safety concerns that many of us have it seems like the Balkans are top travel destination these days. And I totally can understand that!
Balkans are safe, affordable, interesting, rich in history and culture, delicious and most of all stunning! The region has been one of my favorite places for years, I travel there on regular basis (I just can’t resist all the cheap flights there) and it’s about time I share with you all my knowledge about Balkan travel! Hopefully you will find it useful when planning your own trip around the region!
Table of contents
- 1 Where to go during your Balkan travel
- 2 When to go to the Balkans
- 3 How to get to the Balkans
- 4 Crossing the borders in the Balkans
- 5 How to get around the Balkans
- 6 Where to stay in the Balkans
- 7 What to eat in the Balkans
- 8 Is Balkans safe
- 9 Solo female travel in the Balkans
- 10 Is Balkans expensive
Where to go during your Balkan travel
Now that’s the most difficult question. Every country has some amazing places that you should visit and everything depends on how much time you have and how well you want to get to know the Balkans.
The most basic Balkan travel route is: Kotor (Montenegro) – Dubrovnik (Croatia) – Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina) – Split – Plitvicke Lake (Croatia) – Ljubljana – Lake Bled (Slovenia). All those places are incredible and definitely worth a visit but they are also super crowded, especially with day trippers.
If you can stay in those towns overnight already in the late afternoon you will see a totally different, much better face of those places. And then you will understand why they are so popular as during the day you might actually hate them a little bit ;) Just few days ago I was walking through Kotor Old Town at 4:30 am and was almost hyperventilating at the beauty and charm of it, with literally no one around me.
Once you do the basic route you might want to do more of Balkan travel – I know I did. I still haven’t been to all the places I wanted to but here is my personal list of destinations you might want to check out, in random order:
- Slovenia: Lake Bohinj, Maribor, Celje, Ptuj, Postojna Cave, Bovec
- Croatia: Zagreb, Sibenik, Krka National Park, Primosten, Pula, Makarska, Hvar, Krk, Rovnij, Trogir, Opatija, Karlovac, Varazdin, Osijek, Vukovar
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce, Blagaj, Pocitelj, Trebinje, Visegrad, Bihac, Konjic, Lukomir
- Montenegro: Lake Skadar, Durmitor National Park, Tara river canyon, Ostrog Monastery, Lovcen, Cetinje, Stari Bar, Ulcinj.
- Serbia: Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Zemun, Zlatibor, Petrovardin, Sremski Karlovci, Derdap NP, Novi Pazar, Palic, Golubac, Smederevo
- Kosovo: Pristina, Prizren, Gjakova, Mitrovica, Peja, Prokletije Mountains
- Macedonia: Skopje, Canyon Matka, Ohrid, Bitola, Mavrovo, Krusevo, Prespa, Tetovo
- Albania: Tirana, Berat, Gijokastra, Ksamil, Valbona, Shkodra, Butrint, Vlore, Theth, Lake Komani, Korca
…and many, many more! I’m sure I still haven’t found out all amazing destinations in the Balkans either but recently I asked fellow travel bloggers of their favorite places and we came up with this list of Balkan highlights!
For my Polish speaking readers: be sure to check Karol’s post “Czarnogóra. Top 10 miejsc”, for my non Polish speaking readers – check this post too, the pictures there are amazing!
When to go to the Balkans
To be honest I would never dare to travel to Balkans in the summer time. It’s too hot and too crowded! I really like spring there when everything is green and blooming and the air smells like flowers (and grill). I also like early autumn although the weather might be more tricky then. Basically from end of March till mid June and from September till late October you should be fine travelling in the Balkans.
How to get to the Balkans
Fortunately recently low cost airlines (Ryanair, Wizzair, Easyjet) started flying to the Balkans, making everything so much easier. I usually fly from Berlin and most often I can get the return flight for 20€. Even with getting to Berlin from Warsaw it’s worth the time and money as I most likely won’t find a better deal from Poland.
Berlin isn’t the only airport in Europe serving the Balkans, you can get there also from other German cities as well as Hungary, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Slovakia, UK, Poland, Belgium, Spain, Malta, Norway, Italy, Cyprus, Ireland, Switzerland. Balkan airports where you can fly to are: Ljubljana (Slovenia), Pula, Rijeka, Osijek, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik (Croatia), Tuzla, Sarajevo (BiH), Nis, Belgrade (Serbia), Skopje, Ohrid (Macedonia), Pristina (Kosovo), Tirana (Albania), Podgorica, Tivat (Montenegro). Those are just the low cost airlines I’ve mentioned above, there are also regular airlines serving all the Balkan countries.
I usually just visit SkyScanner and search for the best deals for Balkan travel, they have this great option “everywhere” as the destination and “the cheapest month” as the date.
Very often the biggest problem is not getting to the Balkans but getting out of the airport. The public transport is very often nonexistent and taxis are overpriced though might be your only option.
In Podgorica for example there is a train station some 1km away from the airport but the train stop very rarely there (if you are lucky you can get to the city for 1€, you can check the schedule here). The taxis try to charge you 15€ and it’s not even 10kms ride! If you’re good at haggling you can find the car for 10€, last time it took me three attempts to find the driver willing to take me to the bus station for that price. It’s usually much easier in another direction.
There are also bus and train connections from neighbouring countries (Austria, Hungary, Greece) but since those take hours and are rather expensive I’ve ditched them altogether.
Crossing the borders in the Balkans
Crossing borders during your Balkan travels shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Sometimes you might encounter a queue on more popular routes in the summer season so be prepared for that.
I’ve crossed the borders when travelling by bus, by car, by train or simply walking and I’ve never had any problems or never was questioned.
The only border that might give you a headache is Kosovo as it’s really tricky and can get confusing as Serbia doesn’t recognize it as the independent country. When you enter Kosovo from Serbia you are free to go anywhere forward. But when you enter Kosovo from any other country Serbia sees it as illegally crossing their border and if you continue onward to Serbia you might get lots of troubles.
Couple of my friends were refused the entry to Serbia because of Kosovo stamps in their passport, others had lots of issues but eventually were let in… No one that I know managed to visit Serbia with no issues when having a Kosovo stamp but internet knows such stories, I just can’t vouch for them.
Some countries allow to enter most of the Balkan countries with the national ID so this might be an option too. For example with Polish ID I can visit every Balkan country but Kosovo where only passport is allowed (but apparently if you national ID is biometric you can also use it for entering Kosovo) – what I do is using my ID every time I visit Serbia to avoid troubles.
How to get around the Balkans
The easiest would be your own / rented car but keep in mind that the drivers are pretty crazy there and the roads are often pretty challenging – narrow, in the poor condition, leading through the mountains (you really need to have a solid stomach to survive all those turns and serpentines).
Trains operate only very few routes so your best option are buses. They are unfortunately not the cheapest and often slow but usually there is at least one connection per day between places of your interest.
The best website to check the bus connection is Balkanviator although it’s also not perfect (but at least can give you the vague idea of connections). Always double check at the bus station and get the ticket in advance if you can – buses can get crowded especially in the season (although it never happened to me that there were no seats).
In most of the countries they also charge you a small fee if you have a bigger piece of luggage that need to go to the trunk – in Bosnia and Herzegovina for example it was 1mark (~0,50€).
The most challenging country to travel around is Albania where the public transport is based on furgons (mini buses) and usually there is no fixed schedule or even bus stations. But don’t worry, locals are always willing to help and you don’t need to look too much for your bus, the driver will somehow find you!
Last time I was in Tirana trying to find the furgon to Pogradec the driver approached me on some random street next to some blocks of flats and shortly after I was already on the way to my destination.
Some example routes with times and prices:
- Ljubljana – Lake Bled: from 6am till 9pm at least one bus per hour, 1h20min, 6,30€ one way / 11,30€ return
- Ljubjana – Zagreb: 12 connections per day, 2h20minutes, 9€ one way
- Zagreb – Plitvicke Lake: 12 connections per day, 2h20 minutes, 10-13€ one way
- Plitvicke Lake – Zadar: 8 connections per day, less than 3 hours, 12-14€ one way
- Zadar – Split: at least one connection per hour, 3 hours, 12-14€
- Split – Dubrovnik: 13 connections per day, 4h30min, 15-17€
- Dubrovnik – Kotor: 4 connections per day, 2-3 hours, 18€
- Dubrovnik – Mostar: 3 connections per day, 3h20min, 16€
- Mostar – Sarajevo: 10 connections per day, 2h30min, 10€
- Mostar – Kotor: 2 connections per day, 9 hours, 38€
- Sarajevo – Belgrade: 4 connections per day, 7-8 hours, around 15-20€
- Skopje – Ohrid: 10 connections per day, 3 hours, 8€
- Skopje – Pristina: at least one connection per hour, 2 hours, 5€
Some hotels and hostels offer transfer between most popular destinations that are not so easily accessible by public transport. It’s always good to ask at the place you’re staying. I know in Kotor 360Monte agency offers transportation to Mostar and Tirana, both faster and cheaper than by public transport.
Where to stay in the Balkans
As the region is becoming more and more popular in most places you have lots of accommodation options to choose from, something for each taste, from fancy hotels to dorm rooms in hostels. I usually try to stay at family run businesses, either guest houses or apartments as not only this way I’m helping directly local people but usually those offer amazing hospitality.
The good thing is that out of summer season it’s very easy to find an excellent place to stay for a really good money. So far my favorites are:
- Villa Tarja in Mostar – run by young family who will do everything to make your stay as perfect as possible. When I asked about the tours to nearby Blagaj and Pocitelj they arranged a private one for me for half the price those tours usually are. They took me for a walk to show less know sights in Mostar. And don’t get me started with breakfast – so good, so enormous! The guest house is located just few minutes away from the Old Bridge, in the center of Mostar. I can’t recommend this place enough! Check the availability and current rates here!
- Villa Dudinka in Ohrid – perfect location, very friendly owners and spacious rooms with the view of Lake Ohrid. I loved it there! Check the availability and current rates here!
- Palazzo Drusko in Kotor – how often can you stay in a traditional, 600 years old palace? Not too often I guess. Fortunately in Kotor you have a chance at Palazzo Drusko. I really loved my stay there, all the rooms (I peaked around a little bit before people checked in ;)) are decorated with beautiful antiques that let you transfer back in time. Location also couldn’t be any better, in the heart of the Old Town. Check the availability and current rates here!
- If Palazzo Drusko is out of your price range or you want to socialize with fellow travelers then you can try Old Town Hostel, also located in the traditional buildings just 3 minutes away – I stayed there during my first visit in Kotor couple of years ago and really enjoyed it! Check the availability and current rates here!
- Apartment Frida’s place in Sibenik – lovely apartment in the old town of Sibenik, few steps away from more or less everything. A perfect place to stay for a couple of days to enjoy the town and surroundings. Check the availability and current rates here!
What to eat in the Balkans
The Balkans are food heaven for all the meat lovers. Some places, especially in Bosnia, even smell like grilled meat! Then those located along the coast are known for excellent fresh fish and seafood. One thing is for sure – no matter what you choose you won’t be hungry in the Balkans. Some of the most popular dishes you might want to try include cevapi, cevapcici or pljeskavica.
Vegetarian in the Balkans
I must admit being vegetarian in the Balkans is pretty challenging but it’s also slowly changing and many restaurants, especially in more touristy places, offer vegetarian options. You can often get grilled vegetables and salads which are to die for! Everything is so delicious and so fresh, the taste I remember from my childhood!
Other solid options, which you can almost always count on, are pizzas and risotto which – thanks to the Italian influences – are very often really decent.
And in case of emergency there are always bakeries everywhere, just look for the “pekara” sign. And there you can find burek which is one of the best things you can eat in the Balkans! A filo pastry filled with feta cream cheese, cheese and spinach or potatoes (the second one is my favorite).
The best drink to accompany burek is always a yogurth. You can see lots of people eating this combo directly in the bakery.
The most challenging country for me, food-wise was Serbia, with BiH on the close second place.
Is Balkans safe
Yes! I never felt any danger there and everyone I know can share this opinion. People are super friendly and will try their best to help you, even when you don’t need it!
Of course in bigger and more popular places you should be more careful – I, for example, lost my passport in Sarajevo (when walking in Bascarsija in the evening, I think I know when that happened but then I didn’t catch anyone opening my backpack so I can’t be sure). But even with this story I think Sarajevo and the Balkans are really safe, definitely safer than Western Europe. And the passport could have been stolen everywhere, just the other day my friend lost the camera in Naples, Italy.
Actually there is only one really uncomfortable story when, together with my friend Kinga, we arrived in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina late in the evening and the owner of the guest house we were staying at picked us from the airport. It was dark night, we were speeding through Bosnian countryside and suddenly he started telling us his opinions about many subjects, the “highlight” being how Hitler did really good job with death camps and killing Jewish people… We were both speechless but he didn’t mind and just kept talking this bullshit. We were both really relieved when we arrived to his guest house and could leave the car but probably even more relieved when we departed early in the morning (me to Travnik, Kinga to Mostar). Still, it wasn’t really dangerous, just really uncomfortable and awkward.
As you probably know in the 1990s there was a cruel war in the Balkans. You still see the remnants, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the tension is still there but it doesn’t affect tourists at all so you don’t need to worry about it. Just be careful when hiking or going freely in BiH as there are still landmines hidden in the countryside.
Solo female travel in the Balkans
The majority of my trips to the Balkans were solo (although I often tend to meet Kinga there, who also travels just by herself). I can’t count how many times I’ve been to the region by now as I usually just go for short trips up to one week, and there are lots of them per year. But I can’t recall any situation when I was really in danger. I’ve never even been harassed or bothered by anyone!
If you’re a solo traveler and thinking about any Balkan travels there is really nothing to worry about! You can always write to me and ask some specific questions, I will do my best to help!
Is Balkans expensive
It all depends what you want to do and where you want to stay during your Balkan travel but in general I’d say prices are moderate, definitely cheaper than in Western Europe. If you travel off season you will have no problems with finding affordable accommodation, in touristy places you should get lunch or dinner for less than 20€, drinks included. Entrances fee are also rather reasonable, usually couple of Euros. Unfortunately Dubrovnik is an exception here as prices are just extraordinary there!
I found Macedonia and Albania to be the cheapest countries while Croatia is the most expensive one, the rest is simply fine. The only thing I found rather expensive is transport between the cities I feel like 20 marks between Mostar and Sarajevo or 7€ between Podgorica and Kotor is rather much but maybe I’m just spoiled by the cheap bus connections we get in my part of Europe.
By the way, the useful info you might want to know: Kosovo, Montenegro and Slovenia use Euro as their currency.
So yes, that’s probably all I know about Balkan travel. If you have some questions and want to know something I haven’t covered here you’re more than welcome to join my Facebook group about travel in this region – there is always someone who knows answers to all kind of questions! Happy Balkan travels!
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