Oh The Balkans. I think it’s fair to say I’m smitten…perhaps even low key obsessed. This region is very special to me. I have no family or ethnic ties to it, but for some reason, it speaks to me. I have now spent the equivalent of 3 months in the Balkan countries, including Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria. While these countries are technically in the Balkan peninsula, I feel that those countries are sufficiently large enough not to include in this post. Also, it’s not as easy to visit those countries in conjunction with the ex-Yugoslav countries and Albania unless you have many weeks to travel. This post is meant to give you some practical tips and itinerary for the Balkans.
You can learn more about the other Balkan countries I mentioned here. I’m currently working on a Greece post so subscribe and stay tuned!!
I think that if you are going to spend time in the politically charged Balkans, you MUST learn a little about the history and the current politics. It will help you understand the region better and locals will appreciate you having some knowledge. Don’t be afraid. It’s completely safe. There are few places in the world that I have felt safer, to be honest!
Most of the current Balkan nations were part of the Ex Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia dissolved in 1989, less than a decade after the death of their infamous dictator, Josip Broz Tito in 1980. These countries today are Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Many of you may remember the Balkans wars of the 1990’s that ensued after the fall of Yugoslavia. It was incredibly complicated since despite people being somewhat segregated by their ethnic and religious groups, they were not geographically separated in a way that made the breaking up of Yugoslavia easy.
Slovenia was the first to declare independence in 1991. This lead to the Ten Day War where Slovenia resisted the Yugoslav People’s Army, which had headquarters in the capital, Belgrade. This began the Yugoslav Wars. Slovenia escaped this conflict with minimal casualties. I believe their proximity to western Europe as well as having Croatia as a geographical buffer zone were factors in them being able to break away, especially with the support of the Vatican, Germany and the European Commission. Not to mention that the ethnically Slovenian and Croatian members of the Yugoslav army deserted at this time, leaving mostly Serbs and Montenegrins.
Croatia was the next to declare independence in the same year. The former capital of Yugoslavia was Belgrade (currently Serbia). This was more concerning to Belgrade because of a sizeable Serbian minority there. The siege of Dubrovnik was shortly after. Not going to lie, things became really ugly after this. The entire war lasted from 1991-1995.
Bosnia probably fared the worst in this war, being caught in the middle between Serbia and Croatia and suffering greatly with ethnic cleansing and massacres. There are Catholic Croatian Bosnians, Orthodox Serbian Bosnians, and Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) all mixed in the country now known as Bosnia. Again, it is hard to summarize the entire situation in a paragraph but I want you to have a basic understanding of how bloody, devastating and complex this war was. I believe nationalism, more so than religious differences, played a huge role.
Don’t think of this a war-torn place. You will see remnants of the war in certain places but overall it is not “in your face”. Today, there is peace and families are attempting to move forward. However, the wounds from the 1990’s aren’t that old and it will take generations to truly forgive. Also, don’t let this difficult history make you hesitant to speak with locals. They truly embrace tourists here and are eager to talk about their countries. The Balkans people are very proud and have much to share regarding their culture and history.
Read More: Bosnia, Europe’s Best Kept Secret
Kosovo is the “youngest” country, obtaining independence from Serbia in 1999. This, of course, was not so simple and involved a war that NATO and the United States were very much involved with (that has made the USA popular in some places and not popular in others). I won’t go into that too much here, but it is something I was fortunate to discuss at length with both locals in Kosovo and Serbia. This is a HOT issue so if you decide to discuss this with locals…do more listening than talking!
Read More: Complete Itinerary For Kosovo
To summarize, there were the Balkan Wars of 1991-1995. Then the Kosovo war of 1999. Got it?
Albania was not part of the former Yugoslavia. They had their own communist dictator who truly isolated the country and kept Albanians from exposure to the outside world. His policies also made them one of the poorest countries in Europe. They ended communist rule by democratic election in 1992. In contrast, Tito, of Yugoslavia, allowed his citizens to travel. The communism practiced in the former Yugoslavia was very different than that of the Soviet Union. Tito managed to keep a fine balance of relations with the United States and NATO as well as the Soviets. You will meet many “Yugo-Stalgic” folks, usually from Generation X who think that economically things were better back then.
In Albania more than the other countries, you will be shocked by how empty some truly amazing tourist sites are. They have a stunning coastline, mountains and the people are friendly. They seem legit surprised sometimes by having tourists!
The Slavic countries all share a common language. The official language of the former Yugoslavia was Serbian-Croatian and that is the language still spoken. Slovenia and Macedonia are the two countries whose language has deviated from this and is the most different but they still can mostly understand each other. In Kosovo, the majority of people are ethnically Albanian and therefore speak Albanian.
Albania has its own language, Albanian that doesn’t have roots to any other language.
English is spoken widely in most of these countries with the exception of Albania. Albanians are more likely to speak Italian as a 2nd language. In most of the countries (including Romania and Bulgaria), I was VERY impressed with how well they speak English. In fact, the English spoken in this region is better than what I’ve experienced in Spain, France and Italy. Who knew?
The Balkans are generally cheaper than the rest of Europe with the exception of Montenegro and the coastal areas of Croatia. They each have their own currency but Euros are accepted widely. You won’t be able to use a credit card everywhere. Take out some cash at the airport, train station or bus station upon arrival. Be aware that you won’t always be able to exchange your unused currency from certain places
This is the most challenging part of any trip unless you have a car. If you can rent a car, I would recommend it. Most of these countries do not have a train system so the bus is your best bet for public transportation. If you rent a car, keep in mind that there is often an extra charge for different point of drop off.
How to choose your starting city. This should be somewhere you can fly into easily. Flying in and out of the same city often cheaper but less convenient. Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade are all cities which seem to have the most affordable flights in and out but this changes often based on season, time of booking and the mysterious ways of the airline industry.
In the Itineraries below I will be more specific about how to get from place to place but here are some general rules with common routes.
I recommend this website for planning all transportation between cities, regardless of the mode. It will give you all the possible options with times and prices.
Regarding transportation, Albania was the most challenging country being the newest to the influx of tourists and not having the most extensive infrastructure. The buses were not always reliable when you are outside of the bigger cities like Tirana or Berat.
***Getting From Tirana to Lake Ohrid is a “THING”. Please ask me privately if you are planning to go because it is too much to write here!
Also, you can always hop a flight between capital cities, if you have the cash. Obviously, this is not the most eco-friendly method nor wallet-friendly but if you are really short on time and not in the mood for a 12-hour bus ride…at least you have that option.
Be aware that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a country. This is a very sensitive topic and one to tread upon lightly. I was told that I may not be permitted to enter Serbia if they saw that I had Kosovo stamped on my passport. Some border guards may consider that illegal entry into Serbia. I personally did not experience any problems at the border, nor did others I met. I was also told by a several Serbians that I shouldn’t even mention that I had been to Kosovo when having conversations with Serbians. However, I met many Serbians who loved having in-depth discussions about life and politics and I was able to speak frankly about my experience visiting Kosovo. Serbians have a reputation that I don’t feel they deserve. In fact, it is the country where I felt people wanted to talk to me the most!
It is probably best to visit Serbia first if you are planning to visit both but this is not entirely necessary. The main thing to remember is that if you visit Kosovo first, you cannot enter Serbia directly after that. You must go to Macedonia or another country first. I went from Kosovo to Macedonia to Bulgaria THEN Serbia. No problem.
I highly recommend you try to visit both places. In Kosovo don’t be surprised if people go out of their way to help you. I spoke with other tourists who were offered rides when they missed the bus and things like that. In Serbia, a random couple insisted on paying for my meal because they wanted me (as an American) to have a good opinion about Serbians!
I was continually blown away by the kindness shown to me here.
I want you to have an idea what is feasible to do with various amounts of time in various different locations. You can obviously mix and match as works best for you!
Croatia and Montenegro
Day 1 Zagreb
Day 2 Stop at Plitvice Lakes on way to Split
Day 3 Split Split doesn’t require much time. You can spend half a day and take the ferry to Hvar island or another nearby island such as Brac or Vis. Hvar is the party island. Brac has great hiking. You can decide which best suits your personality
Day 4 Hvar Island
Day 5 Ferry back to Split and drive or take the bus to Dubrovnik
Day 6 Spend the day exploring Dubrovnik. Walk the walls of the city, spend time at the beaches, do a Game of Thrones Tour, walk around the old city.
Day 7 Day Trip to Kotor/Budva
Day 8 Depart from Dubrovnik
*Tips for Ferries in Croatia. In the summer they run more frequently but can be more crowded. Book ahead of time, especially if you are taking the car ferry. Even if you have a ticket, your car may not get on if you don’t get it in line early enough. Drop the car off at ferry line 2-3 hours early and go do something then come back.
Croatia and Bosnia
Day 1 Zagreb
Day 2 Split
Day 3 Hvar Island
Day 4 Dubrovnik
Day 5 Mostar
Day 6 Herzegovina Tour from Mostar
Day 7 Sarajevo
Slovenia and Croatia (this itinerary takes you to the Istria region of Croatia)
Day 1 Ljubljana
Day 2 Lake Bled (You can stay in Lake Bled or do it as a day trip from Ljubljana)
Day 3 Piran, Slovenia
Day 4 Rovinj, Croatia
Day 5 Pula, Croatia
Day 6 Rijeka, Croatia
Day 7 Zagreb
The only town in Istria that has an airport is Pula. You can take ferries from Rovinj and Porec to Venice and fly from there if that works. Or continue all the way to Zagreb for your flight home. Or you could go back to Ljubljana.
You can easily spend one week in any of these places! There is plenty to see.
Slovenia Croatia Bosnia (2 weeks is ideal because you can slow down and really enjoy these lovely cities)
Day 1 Ljubljana
Day 2 Ljubljana
Day 3 Lake Bled (spend the whole day and hike up for fantastic views)
Day 3 Piran (as a day trip from Ljubljana)
Day 4 Zagreb
Day 5 Split
Day 6 Hvar (or another island)
Day 7 Hvar
Day 8 Dubrovnik
Day 9 Dubrovnik (option for a day trip to Korcula Island)
Day 10 Mostar
Day 11 Herzegovina
Day 12 Sarajevo
Day 13 Sarajevo
Day 14 Depart
Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia
Day 1 Zagreb
Day 2 Split/Plitvice Lakes
Day 3 Hvar Island
Day 4 Hvar Island
Day 5 Dubrovnik
Day 6 Dubrovnik
Day 7 Mostar
Day 8 Herzegovina
Day 9 Sarajevo
Day 10 Sarajevo
Day 11 Novi Sad
Day 12 Belgrade
Day 13 Belgrade
Day 14 Depart from Belgrade
Croatia Montenegro Albania (this itinerary will give you beach time and hiking in the mountains)
Day 1 Dubrovnik
Day 2 Dubrovnik
Day 3 Day Trip to Korcula Island
Day 4 Kotor, Montenegro
Day 5 Kotor Hike the walls for amazing views. Explore the Old City
Day 6 Budva Party, enjoy the old town and get some beach time
Day 7 Podgorica
Day 8 Head to northern Albania for hiking in Shkoder
Day 9 HIking Northern Albania
Day 10 Tirana
Day 11 Tirana
Day 12 Berat
Day 13 Berat
Day 14 Return to Tirana for the flight home
Albania Macedonia Kosovo
Day 1 Tirana
Day 2 Tirana
Day 3 Berat
Day 4 Berat
Day 5 Lake Ohrid
Day 6 Lake Ohrid
Day 7 Skopje
Day 8 Skopje
Day 9 Pristina
Day 10 Prizren
Day 11 Prizren
Day 12 Peja (hike the Accursed Mountains)
Day 13 Peja
Day 14 Head back to Tirana for the flight home
Of course you can always combine these if you have more time. If you are looking for more things to do in any of these places, I have provided links when possible to more extensive blog posts about the place.
I stayed in a variety of accommodation from hotels to hostels to Airbnb.
These are the places that stood out to me here for you to consider:
I recommend starting here:
You will not regret a visit to the Balkans, The people are amazing. Hospitable, passionate, hard-working, fun and always ready to pour you some Rakija! Don’t even get me started on the food here. You will definitely gain a few inches with their large portions.
As always, if you have any questions feel free to ask me in the comments below or privately by my contact page. I love to help people travel to places that I love.