The Balkans are not usually the first destination that backpackers choose to visit. For many people coming to Europe for the first time, Paris, Rome and London all make the list but Sarajevo, Tirana and Skopje rarely do (that’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia for anyone who’s already lost). Even Brits, who live in such close proximity to mainland Europe, tend to focus on Western and Central Europe, ignoring the Balkans entirely.
Of course I’m generalising here, but you see what I’m saying. The Balkan countries aren’t even on most people’s radars when choosing where to venture to on their summer backpacking trip, and I want to try and change that.
I’ve spent some months now (6? 7?) in the Balkans and have been lucky enough to experience a kind of magic that I didn’t think existed anymore in Europe. I’ve been able to experience a little of what it was like to be a backpacker 20 years ago, before online maps and timetables were a thing (Albania, I’m looking at you), when hitchhiking was a common way of getting around, and when travellers were more likely to get drunk on homemade brandy with an old man in the mountains than on a pub crawl in Prague.
During my time spent in the Balkans I’ve experienced real*, raw travel, where nothing is organised and nothing should work but it somehow does, where local hospitality is still alive and thriving because backpackers haven’t created a bad reputation for themselves yet, and where the cheese that I’m eating was probably made by the goat that’s casually ambling past me as I eat.
The Balkan countries have really stolen pieces of my heart (some pieces larger than others, admittedly), and I want to share with you a few reasons why travelling through the Balkans is such a truly special experience.
Here are my 7 reasons why everybody should visit the Balkans!
So I know that I LITERALLY JUST wrote an article about rakija (homemade fruit brandy from the Balkans), but what else do you expect from an alcoholic blogger (joke, it’s only a problem if nobody’s drinking with you)? I won’t spend a lot of time spelling out all of the reasons why rakija is so incredible as I wrote about 18 of them in my previous post, but the main reason is that rakija brings people together. Balkan people are incredibly generous with everything, but when it comes to rakija they are even more so, making rakija not just a drink but a cultural experience (you think I’m joking). I mean, alcohol is great in every country, but it’s so much better when you’re drinking it on the side of the road with an old man whose wife brewed it in their back yard than when you’re just purchasing it from a corner store.
2. Beautiful Nature
If there is one reason to visit the Balkans, it’s the nature. When it comes to natural beauty, the Balkans will absolutely blow you away. From the stunning waterfalls of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the white sand beaches of the Albanian Riviera, the craggy mountains of Montenegro and the beautiful lakes in Croatia and Macedonia, there will be something in the Balkans for you.
Perhaps one of the greatest things about nature in the Balkans is that because most Balkan countries aren’t overrun with tourists, you can visit some of the most breathtaking national parks and still be the only person for miles around.
Even as a solo female traveller, I have never felt unsafe in the Balkans (with the exception of Split in Croatia). Whether it be walking home alone at night, hitchhiking or asking random people to help me with directions, I haven’t had a single bad experience, something echoed by The Balkanista, who has been living in Tirana, Albania, for over a year. Balkan people are some of the most warm and hospitable people I have ever encountered, and they desperately want to make you feel at home in their country.
Of course crimes do occur, but robberies and random acts of violence are incredibly rare, especially when it comes to tourists: the vast majority of crime in this region is of the organised variety, and so it has little impact on ordinary, law-abiding citizens. I was actually told whilst in Albania that the police are especially harsh on anybody who hurts a tourist as they are trying to improve Albania’s reputation abroad and thus encourage more people to visit Albania.
4. The Balkans are affordable
I said in an earlier post that I find it obnoxious when privileged travellers loudly proclaim how cheap a destination is. There is nothing that makes my skin crawl more than seeing somebody sitting in a restaurant in Albania talking loudly about how cheap it is there, when the person serving them probably makes less than 200 euros a month. That said, in an article about all of the reasons why the Balkans are so wonderful for travellers like me, it would be dishonest if I didn’t mention how incredibly affordable most Balkan countries are to the average traveller.
While there are definitely exceptions (cough, Dubrovnik), most places I’ve visited in the Balkans have been very cheap, with a dorm bed in a hostel usually costing less than 10 euros, beer averaging at 1-1.50 euros and a two-course restaurant meal coming in at less than 10. This of course allows you to travel for longer and see more than you would if you were visiting somewhere in Western Europe.
5. Balkan cuisine
If you’re a meat lover, you will love visiting the Balkans. Cevapi is a kind of kebab made from minced beef or pork, and is served with flatbread, ajvar (a spread made primarily from red peppers), chopped onions, sour cream and kajmak (similar to clotted cream) and it’s almost impossible to avoid in the Balkans.
Another thing you can’t miss is burek, often referred to as ‘homemade pie.’ Burek is a pastry filled with a wide variety of ingredients, from potatoes, to spinach and goat’s cheese or minced meat. Also common are stuffed vegetables such as peppers, cabbage and vine leaves.
If you’re interested in learning more about Balkan cuisine, then Kristal Sajasi over at Pink Pangea has written a great guide which you can find here!
6. Balkan History
The history of the Balkans is not pretty. For hundreds of years the Balkans have been a tumultuous region, with more than one war occurring between Balkan countries just in my lifetime. From the collapse of Yugoslavia to the Bosnian war, the death of communism and the more recent Kosovo war, the Balkans have had more than their fair share of hardships and I wholeheartedly believe that the best way to learn about the history of a place is by visiting it.
I knew next to nothing about the history of this region when I first travelled there in 2017, but thanks to experiences such as my day with a war veteran in Sarajevo and a trip to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, as well as walking tours in each capital city, I now know a little more about the complexities of life in the Balkans, past and present.
7. The People
The hospitality in the Balkans is honestly unparalleled. When I was in Albania, I was constantly being asked where I was from from curious passersby, all of whom took great joy in telling me ‘Welcome to Albania!’ From the woman on the bus to the girl at the flea market, to the countless bemused men sitting on park benches, I was constantly being told how happy people were that I was visiting their country. In Kosovo, two guys I met one drunken night in a restaurant took me on an overnight road trip to meet their Dad and see the Albanian mountains, refusing to let me pay for a thing. In Montenegro a Serbian bartender I’d befriended invited my friends and I to drink at his place one night, and wasn’t satisfied until we’d eaten half the contents of his fridge. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been offered rakija by completely random people!
No matter where you go in the Balkans, people will bend over backwards to help you and make you feel at home, and I haven’t seen this anywhere else in the world.
This concludes my list of 7 reasons why everybody should visit the Balkans. I genuinely believe that this part of Europe is a truly magical place with welcoming people, incredible nature and plenty of hidden gems just waiting to be found. Contrary to popular opinion, the Balkans are not just ex-communist hellholes filled with human traffickers and organ smugglers. They may be poor countries, and their history may be bloody, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting this region. The Balkans are the rough diamonds of Europe, quietly waiting for everybody to discover just how precious they really are.
*I know that ‘all travel is real travel.’ I wrote an entire article about it in fact. I’m no travel snob and I’m not looking down on those whose idea of travel is going to Prague and getting drunk. All I’m saying is that travelling through the Balkans, especially the less developed Balkan countries, really does feel like ‘travel’ in the sense that your bus is probably more likely to have a farmer and his chickens on it rather than free Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. Comprende? Bueno.
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