Kosovo is not a place that many people consider travelling to. Those already in the Balkans may choose to spend a night there to tick it off their lists (I wrote about those people in an earlier post), but for most people, a visit to Kosovo is not even on their radars, because they (wrongly) assume it to be dangerous and not worth the risk.
However, after visiting Kosovo twice and experiencing firsthand the Kosovar hospitality, great food and interesting sights, I highly recommending adding Kosovo to your travel bucket lists.
So, without wasting any more of your time, here is my guide to Pristina, Kosovo (and some cheeky day trips you can make)!
Things You Should Know Before You Visit Kosovo
After declaring its independence from Serbia on the 17 February 2008, Kosovo became Europe’s newest country (it was the newest country in the world up until very recently, when South Sudan took the title) and even just acknowledging it as a country is a political statement in itself.
As of November 2018, Kosovo has only received 116 diplomatic recognitions as an independent state, and Serbia still considers Kosovo to be a part of Serbia. However, as my own country (the United Kingdom) recognises Kosovo as an independent state, and as I have friends from Kosovo, I will continue to refer to it as its own country, and not as a part of Serbia.
Kosovo is mostly made up of ethnic Albanians, with Albanians accounting for more than 93% of Kosovo’s total population. The rest is made up of mostly Serbs (1.5 %), Bosniaks (1.6%) and Turks (1.1 %). The Albanian flag is everywhere and most people speak Albanian (shqip).
Kosovo is a secular state and has been ranked first in Southern Europe and ninth in the world as free and equal for tolerance towards religion and atheism. Although most Kosovars identify as Muslim, everybody is incredibly relaxed when it comes to religion, and their identities lie in their language and ethnicity rather than their religious beliefs.
Kosovars are a very young nation, with 53% of the population being under the age of 25, and the average age in Pristina being just 28!
Is Kosovo Safe?
As Kosovo was an active war zone up until 1999 and tensions between Kosovar-Albanians and Kosovar-Serbs still remain, many people assume that Kosovo is not a safe place to visit. However, the vast majority of Kosovo is incredibly safe, and most tourists will not see any trouble.
Kosovars are a very welcoming bunch, and are often delighted to see foreigners visiting their country. Don’t be surprised if people try to buy you coffee, give you a free ride or strike up conversation with you on the street.
Most Kosovars hold Americans in very high regard after Bill Clinton sided with them and led the 1999 NATO bombing campaign on Serbia that paved the way for Kosovo’s independence. Many American tourists in Kosovo report receiving a King’s welcome, with locals shaking their hands and thanking ‘them’ for ‘freeing’ their country from Serbia.
That said, there are still a couple of places in the North of the country that tourists should visit with caution. Mitrovica is one city that is still very much divided (literally – there is a river separating the Serb and Albanian parts of the city), and although most tourists will be absolutely fine, there is still the chance that protests can turn violent and so you should take care if you see large crowds gathering during times of heightened political tension.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also advise against all but essential travel to the municipalities of Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, as well as the Northern part of Mitrovica.
Getting to Pristina
I took the bus to Pristina from Skopje, Macedonia. It cost me about 5 EU and the journey time was 2 hours. Once at the bus station in Pristina, it takes about 25 minutes to walk to the centre, or you can take a taxi which shouldn’t cost you more than 2 EU.
You can also reach Pristina by bus from nearby countries such as Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. Please note that although it is possible to travel from Serbia to Kosovo, you will have problems travelling to Serbia from Kosovo, as Serbia still sees Kosovo as a part of Serbia, and so a Kosovo stamp in your passport is seen as an illegal entrance into Serbia. To avoid this, travel to Serbia via another country such as Macedonia. You can read more about that here.
If you’re flying, you can fly to Prishtina National Airport or the Alexander the Great Airport in nearby Macedonia. Many budget airlines such as Wizz Air, EasyJet and Air Berlin bring great value flights into Pristina.
Things to Do in Pristina
Contrary to what a lot of travel blogs out there will tell you, there are actually a lot of things to do while in Pristina! The first, and most important IMO is to go and see the NEWBORN monument. NEWBORN was unveiled on the day that Kosovo declared its independence (17 February 2008) and its design changes every year. Back in 2008, it was decorated with the flags of the 99 nations which recognised it as an independent state, and when I visited in 2018, it had the number 10 incorporated into it to celebrate Kosovo’s tenth birthday.
Attending a Free Walking Tour is something I always like to do in a new city, and with its complex history, I was especially eager to do this in Pristina. Our tour guide took us to all of the major sites of Pristina and explained the backstory behind all of them before inviting us all to lunch in a cute restaurant in the centre where we could get to know each other better. I really enjoyed my walking tour in Pristina, and while there is no doubt that I learnt a lot, my one critique is that the tour guide was incredibly biased towards Albanians, and as difficult as it may be for a Kosovar-Albanian not to be biased, I do think that as a tour guide, he should have at least tried to present both sides (you will struggle to find an impartial guide anywhere in the Balkans as things are still so raw).
Of course, Free Walking Tours are tip-based, and I recommend giving a tip of 5 EU to your guide.
The Blessed Mother Theresa Cathedral is one of the newest and most spectacular sights in Kosovo, and is another striking example of the country’s religious tolerance. Erected in 2017, the cathedral pays homage to Kosovo’s historical Catholic presence, as well as honouring Mother Theresa, who was ethnically Albanian.
Another interesting place to visit in Kosovo is the Emin Gjiku Ethnographic Museum which is housed in a majestic Ottoman-era mansion and is home to a fascinating array of traditional items dating all the way back to the 15th century.
For those interested in architecture (and even those who aren’t!), you can’t miss a visit to the National Library of Kosovo, a bizarre piece of brutalist work by Croatian architect, Andrija Mutnjaković. The library has a total of 99 domes of different sizes and is entirely covered in a ‘metal fishing net,’ which our tour guide said was supposed to look like honeycombs, but I’m not so sure. Having been named one of the ‘ugliest buildings in the world‘ by multiple publications, this weird and wonderful building stands proudly, embracing its title. It’s also worth having a wander around inside, as the interior is pretty impressive too!
Just a stone’s throw away from the library is the unfinished Serbian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral that was built before the war for the Serbs to begin imposing their power. Having been built illegally, the cathedral was never completed, and today its shell stands forlornly on the University grounds.
Another middle finger to the Serbians is the Bill Clinton monument, standing tall on the boulevard that bears his name. The 11-foot tall statue waves proudly, holding documents engraved with the date that NATO started bombing Serbia. America is held in such high regard in Kosovo that there are Kosovars named Klinton and Hillari, a boulevard named after George W. Bush after he backed Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, and a Wesley Clark driving school, named after the retired U.S. Army general who led NATO during the Kosovo war.
Another important monument to Kosovar-Albanians is the Heroinat Memorial. Made up of 20,000 bronze medals that come together to form a large 3-D portrait of a woman’s face, the Heroinat Memorial represents the 20,000 women and girls who were raped by the Serbian Army during the war. The Serbian Army used rape as a weapon of war, not only to shame and humiliate entire communities, but also as a means of ethnic cleansing. The artist, Ilir Blakçori, says: “Most of these war crimes remain untried, and some of the victims still live with those horrifying memories and scars, every day and to this day. I took this tragic number of victims and transformed it into medals. Medals dedicated to each and every woman’s contribution and sacrifice for this country, no matter what age.” The Heroinat Monument is a striking testimony to the plight of rape victims in Kosovo, and everybody should go and see it.
If you’re in need of something a little more lighthearted, you’ll want to take a trip down Bulevardi Nënë Tereza, or Mother Theresa Boulevard. This walking street is where Kosovars come together to walk their dogs, people-watch, drink coffee and gossip. Children run around playing, street vendors sell roasted chestnuts and groups of immaculately dressed teenagers strut their stuff. Whether it’s a shot of espresso or raki that you fancy, you’ll find it on Mother Theresa boulevard, the lively hub of Pristina.
The Old Bazaar is another must-visit place in Kosovo’s capital. Tucked into the streets of the Old Quarter, this bustling market is a real glimpse into the lives of ordinary Kosovars, and you can buy anything from homemade raki, feta cheese, pickled vegetables, honey and ajvar to fake Adidas tracksuits, ‘designer’ sunglasses and kitchen appliances. Pristina’s Old Bazaar is truly an assault on the senses, with the smells of fresh vegetables intersecting with cigarette smoke and Turkish tea, where men yell at each other from stall to stall and push carts filled with watermelons down the cobbled streets.
As my friend Sarah and I got deeper into the bazaar, we began to feel slightly uncomfortable with the amount of stares that we were getting from the men (we didn’t see many women at all around the Old Bazaar), but aside from catcalls, nobody did anything, and we never felt as though we were in danger. With our summer dresses and obvious foreignness, it was hardly a surprise, and I noticed that I didn’t get as many catcalls when I covered up*.
Eating and Drinking in Pristina
Pristina has a surprisingly varied foodie scene, and not only are there some world class restaurants here, but the food is super affordable as well.
First, there is a huge coffee culture all across the Balkans, and Pristina is no exception. Prince Coffee House is basically the Starbucks of Kosovo, but don’t let that put you off – from After Eight hot chocolate to banana espressos and chocolate orange coffee, Prince Coffee House has got it covered and their extensive cake menu ensures that Prince Coffee House should be the first port of call for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Another place I frequented for coffee was Ma Belle, which markets itself as a ‘coffee and cake house’ but actually has an extensive food menu as well. I loved Ma Belle as it has a lovely outdoor seating area which is great for people watching and getting some work done (I composed more than one blog post wshile sitting at Ma Belle!).
My favourite lunch spot in Pristina was Te Nazi. Unfortunate though the name may be, Te Nazi serves up generous portions of Balkan comfort food at rock bottom prices. Although the menu is entirely in Albanian, the friendly waiters tried their best to help us translate before just taking us up to the counter and pointing out the various dishes on offer. Some of my favourites were the ‘baked beans’ (much more exciting than they sound) and a kind of chicken and vegetable curry/stew. Of course, like any respectable Balkan eatery, they also make huge amounts of cevapi with ajvar, onion and thick crusty bread. My friend Sarah and I went to Te Nazi almost every day, and our meals (including drinks) never exceeded 5 EU.
For our Asian food cravings (my gosh, is it hard to come across Asian food in the Balkans!), we were pleasantly surprised to discover a Thai restaurant in Pristina named, well, Thai Restaurant. Dubious though we were, we were impressed with the food at Thai Restaurant, which probably had something to do with the fact that one of the owners was actually Thai herself.
However, the best restaurant BY FAR in Pristina (and Kosovo, and the world), is Renaissance. Available by reservation only, Renaissance is so in demand that they have actually had to turn away the President of Albania, not once, but twice! Renaissance doesn’t have a menu – you simply pay 15 EU and eat whatever is put in front of you (but don’t worry – it’s always phenomenal!). With a selection of small plates to start (often including grilled vegetables, baked goat’s cheese, stuffed olives and bread), followed by fresh salad, a selection of meat plates (I’ve had lamb chops, salmon sashimi with avocado, chicken skewers and more) and a dessert to boot, I can honestly say that Renaissance is not only the best tasting food I’ve ever had, but the best value as well. Oh, and did I mention that there is also an unlimited supply of wine and raki (local fruit brandy) included in the price?! I consider the boys at Renaissance to be good friends of mine, but taking my relationships with them out of the equation, Renaissance is still the best restaurant I’ve been to. Ever.
As far as nightlife goes, I didn’t get to experience much of it in Pristina because I was too busy hanging out at Renaissance! However, for my friend Andi’s birthday, a few of us went to local hipster haunt, Soma Book Station. A quiet coffee shop by day, at nightfall Soma Book Station turns into a lively bar where Pristina’s young and beautiful come together to drink cocktails and dance the night away. It is a little more expensive than other places in Pristina, but the electric atmosphere and stunning interior makes it definitely worth it. Soma also boasts an impressive looking food menu, although I didn’t get to try it.
Budget Accommodation in Pristina
I went to Pristina twice, and both times I stayed at Buffalo Backpackers hostel. Buffalo Backpackers is an affordable hostel in the centre of Pristina with a lovely garden area with a bar (when I was there, there was a party to celebrate Pride, held in the garden), free breakfast and friendly volunteers who spend most of their time sitting on the balcony, smoking and drinking beers with the guests.
To book your stay at Buffalo Backpackers, click here.
Day Trips From Pristina
There are a number of day trips that you can take from Pristina to other areas of Kosovo.
The first day trip from Pristina I’d recommend is a trip to the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary, located a short bus ride from Pristina. The Bear Sanctuary is a lovely place to while away an afternoon, and I write about my trip there in more detail here, as well as how to get there, admission fees etc.
Located less than a 2 hour drive from Pristina, Gjakova is also worth visiting. A very pretty town, Gjakova is full of cutesy coffee shops, beautiful restaurants and cobbled streets full of brightly coloured seats, hanging lanterns and flowers in bloom. Buses from Pristina to Gjakova leave every 90 minutes.
My absolute favourite place in Kosovo was the beautiful city of Prizren. While I chose to spend a few nights there, you can easily visit as a day trip from Pristina if you’re pushed for time. Buses are very frequent and take about 2 hours. In Prizren, one thing you absolutely must do is hike up to the fortress to watch the sunset. It doesn’t take long, and the views over the city are stunning. You can also take some time to explore old Ottoman mosques, Serbian Orthodox churches and walk across the Old Stone Bridge on the Bistrica River. Shadervan is the prettiest and most touristy part of Prizren (although it’s still Kosovo, so there’s only so touristy anywhere can be), and I recommend wandering around the cobbled streets, drinking Turkish coffee and people watching, which is exactly what all the locals seem to do.
If you do decide to stay overnight in Prizren, I highly recommend staying at Arra Hostel. Not only is it an absolutely gorgeous building with breathtaking views over Prizren (especially at sunset!), but the two young brothers that own it, Ismail and Ard, are super friendly and really made my stay there special by sharing their raki with me, preparing fresh coffee on the stove, and providing a wonderful free breakfast every morning. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they have an extremely cute kitten who loves a cuddle. To book your stay at Arra Hostel, just click here!
Although Europe’s youngest capital is never going to receive any awards for beauty, I was pleasantly surprised by Pristina, and liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I definitely see Pristina as an up and coming destination for European city breaks, because in addition to being affordable and well-connected with an English-speaking population, Pristina is a city with a surprisingly good culinary scene and crazy nightlife.
The young population and ever-present EU and UN missions give Pristina a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe, with blazers and heels being the uniform of choice for most young women, and the men looking just as immaculate. Added to that, Pristina is easily navigated on foot, meaning that most sites can be reached easily without the need to hire a taxi.
Pristina might not be a picture perfect city, and you may need a filter or two to make it Instagram-worthy, but it is a rough diamond, full of surprises and more valuable than it first appears.
Are you planning a trip to Pristina? Let me know how you enjoy it in the comments below!
*I am aware that to my UK and USA readers, this might seem as ‘victim blaming’ or trivialising ‘street harassment’ but honestly, there are some places where you should just cover up a little to avoid unwanted attention. Catcalling is just part and parcel of some cultures, and while some of my readers may find this offensive, I think that Kosovo and Albania have many more pressing issues regarding gender equality, and it is those that should be take priority when discussing this topic.
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