Europe

A Travel Guide for Visiting the Balkans


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The Balkans* are a group of countries in southeastern Europe, named after the mountain range that runs through the area. Whilst the recent history of the area is chequered by several major wars, the Balkans are extremely safe to travel to and perfect for those looking for history, culture, adventure and gorgeous scenery.

From orthodox churches and mosques to castles and fortresses, you’ll find stunning architecture all throughout the Balkans. And along with gorgeous mountains, canyons and lakes, there’s a long coastline meaning that everyone, from hiking enthusiasts to beach lovers, will be happy. Plus, travelling here will cost a fraction of the price of western Europe. Have we convinced you to visit yet?!

*When we refer to the Balkans we refer only to the countries listed below. Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania and even Turkey are sometimes considered part of the Balkans although we haven’t included them in this destination guide.


Visa requirements

Currently, most nationalities (including British and EU citizens) can enter each of the Balkan countries for up to 90 days visa free.

At the moment none of the Balkans are in the EU or Schengen zone (although Croatia is due to join in 2023) meaning that British citizens and most other non-EU nationalities can stay in the overall region for over 90 days without needing to get a visa.


Getting around

Having your own car would be ideal for travelling around the Balkans and would allow you to visit more remote places, however, all of the places below are connected by bus. Whilst most bus schedules can be found online, the bus network in some of the Balkan countries (Albania I’m looking at you) isn’t as advanced as you might be used to, so it may sometimes be a case of turning up at the station and being prepared to wait a bit.

There are a limited number of train lines, with the most notable being between Mostar and Sarajevo. Not only is this train cheaper and faster than the bus, it provides fabulous views of the Bosnian countryside.

If you wanted to search for flights then have a look on Wayaway. For trains and buses consider looking on Omio, as well as Flixbus. You may not find every connection you’re looking for through these sites, but certainly some and it’s a good way to look at prices.


How long do you need

The Balkan countries are relatively small and transport between major places shouldn’t take more than half a day. It’s definitely possible to hit the main cities of all the countries in a week or two, but if you have the time then 3-4 weeks would be ideal to be able to see more of each country and go at a more relaxed pace.


Where to go in the Balkans

Croatia

Probably the most well-known and most visited country within the Balkans, Croatia’s popularity has surged in recent years, no doubt helped by its starring role as the location of “King’s Landing” in the popular Game of Thrones TV series. But its popularity has caused an increase in prices, and Croatia is now undoubtedly the most expensive country to visit within the Balkans.

Croatia has a whole host of stunning places to visit and you could easily spend weeks here travelling the mainland and hopping around the islands.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Explore the capital of Zagreb.
  • View the stunning waterfalls and lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.
  • Visit the coastal city of Split and take a boat trip to the nearby island of Hvar.
  • Wander the Old Town and walk atop the city walls of Dubrovnik, one of the best preserved medieval cities in the region. If you just want to incorporate just one place in Croatia as part of your wider Balkan trip, Dubrovnik is the most logical, being between Bosnia and Montenegro. From here you can easily get buses and tours to nearby places.

Currency: Croatian Kuna (although this will change to the Euro when Croatia officially joins the European Union in 2023)

Views of Dubrovnik during the summer
Image by @mikecleggphoto

Montenegro

Previously overshadowed by its neighbour Croatia, Montenegro is becoming more and more popular for those seeking the beautiful rocky coastline and old walled cities of Croatia but with less of the crowds. You’ll also find nice beach destinations to relax at such as those at Budva.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Admire the beautiful Bay of Kotor from the top of St John’s Fortress.
  • Get away from the coast and go hiking in Durmitor National Park.
  • Enjoy the beach and the nightlife of the old town of Budva.
  • Head up above the clouds and view the whole of Montenegro from Lovcen National Park.

Currency: Euro

Kotor skyline and mountains
Image by @mikecleggphoto

Bosnia & Herzegovina

When people think of Bosnia they unfortunately first think of the war which took place there in the early 90s. Whilst this is undoubtedly a huge part of the country’s history, Bosnia is extremely underrated, with lots of natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Visit the small city of Trebinje and walk up to Hercegovačka Gračanica, a beautiful orthodox church perched on a hill with amazing views over the city.
  • Watch people jump from the iconic old bridge in the pretty town of Mostar.
  • From Mostar take a day trip to Kravice Waterfalls and Blagaj Monastery.
  • Take a walking tour of the capital of Sarajevo to learn more about the war and Bosnian history.
  • From Sarajevo take the cable car up to Trebevic Mountain where there are numerous hiking trails and you can view the bobsleigh track from the winter Olympics.

Currency: Bosnian Mark (BAM). It is pegged to the Euro at approximately 2 BAM : 1 Euro.

Waterfall at Blagaj
Image by @mikecleggphoto

Serbia

Slightly more developed than its neighbours, Serbia is a lively country with lots going on. Known as being a hub for art and culture and for its hedonistic nightlife scene, if you’re looking for good food, good drinks and good times then this is the place to visit.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Enjoy the charming city of Novi Sad which won the European Capital of Culture in 2022. Make sure to catch the sunset from Petrovaradin’s Fortress and relax by the Danube at Strand Beach.
  • Go wine tasting in Sremski Karlovci, the home of Serbian wine just outside Novi Sad.
  • Hike through the woods and around the numerous monasteries in Fruška Gora National Park.
  • Go partying in Belgrade, the nightlife capital of the Balkans.
  • Enjoy a boat cruise on the Danube River.
  • Visit the Temple of St Sava in Belgrade,the biggest Orthodox Church in the Balkans.

Currency: Serbian Dinar.

The Victor Monument in Belgrade at Sunset
Image by @mikecleggphoto

Kosovo

Another Balkan country unfortunately known more for the war that happened there, Kosovo is still struggling to be fully recognised as an independent country. However, despite its problems, it has some beautiful scenery and interesting cities which make it worth including on your Balkan itinerary.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Explore the city of Prishtina and take a photo of the Newborn Monument signifying Kosovo’s independence.
  • Take a day trip to the Bear Sanctuary and Monastery Gračanica, just outside Prishtina.
  • Go hiking among the beautiful mountains around Peja.
  • Visit the historical sites and cultural attractions of Prizren.

Currency: Euro

Gracanica Serbian Orthodox monastery
Photo © milosk50 | depositphotos.com

North Macedonia

Macedonia is a hidden gem amongst the Balkans. It’s still very much off the beaten path but is a great place to visit, with absolutely stunning natural beauty, a cool capital city, and a great mix of Balkan and Mediterranean cultures.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Go statue hunting in the capital of Skopje. Macedonians like to joke that there are more statues than people and when wandering the city you’ll soon see why!
  • Take a day trip to the beautiful Matka Canyon where you can hike, kayak or take a boat trip to enjoy the stunning scenery.
  • Enjoy the UNESCO world heritage site of Lake Ohrid. With its crystal clear water and pretty old town it’s one of the top natural places to visit in the Balkans.

Currency: Macedonian Denar.

Matka Canyon in Macedonia
Photo © uskarp | depositphotos.com

Albania

A few years ago a lot of people couldn’t even tell you where Albania was on a map, let alone have visited it. But Albania is becoming more and more popular, especially for those seeking the gorgeous beaches of Greece for a fraction of the price. With the secret out, Albania is looking at becoming the next Croatia, so visit soon whilst crowds and prices are still low.

Highlights and top places to visit:

  • Learn about the communist history of Albania at the many museums in the capital of Tirana.
  • Get out into the mountains in the small village of Theth where you can hike the Valbona Valley, one of the best one day hikes in the Balkans.
  • Visit Berat, the “Town of a Thousand Windows” and one of the most beautiful towns in Albania.
  • Wander around the castle of Gjirokaster for amazing views of this UNESCO town known for its beautiful Ottoman architecture.
  • Go to the beach! Visit the beaches of the Albanian Riviera, a gorgeous stretch of coastline consisting of sandy beaches, pebble coves and crystal clear turquoise water. Base yourself in the chilled out
  • Himare, the more bustling Sarande or the hotspot of Ksamil and take boat trips along the coast.

Currency: Albanian Lek

Albanian Riviera and landscapes
Photo © lukaszimilena | depositphotos.com

Summary

A trip around the Balkans is one of the best (and cheapest!) multi-county trips you can do within Europe. The countries are small and easy to get around and lack the crowds of popular western Europe hotspots, but what they certainly don’t lack is a rich culture, interesting history and stunning natural beauty. From cities to mountains to beaches, a trip around the Balkans has something for everyone.

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Author

Written by

Sophie Small

Sophie has been travelling around the world since September 2019. Originally from London, she lived and worked in Vietnam for 4 years before deciding to pursue her passion for full time travel. She loves exploring new destinations, adventure activities and sampling local cuisine. Sophie has travelled all over Central and South America, Asia, Europe and many other regions. She shares her pictures on her Instagram and her portfolio sophiesmall.contently.com. [Read full bio]

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Image credits
Article main photos via depositphotos.com. Read more about where we source images.

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