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7 Reasons Why Everybody Should Visit the Balkans!

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.

visit the balkans

Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

 

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.

tirana albania visit the balkans

Tirana, Albania

 

Here are my 7 reasons why everybody should visit the Balkans!

1. Rakija

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.

rakija, sarande albania, visit the balkans

Morning shots of rakija. Sarande, Albania.

 

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.

lake skadar montenegro, visit the balkans

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

 

pocitelj, bosnia and herzegovina, visit the balkans

Pocitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

3. Safety

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.

ljubljana, slovenia visit the balkans

Ljubljana, Slovenia

 

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.

Gjirokastër albania visit the balkans

Gjirokastër, Albania

 

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!

balkan cuisine, ljubljana slovenia visit the balkans

Ljubljana, Slovenia

 

montenegro visit the balkans

Montenegrin prosciutto, or ‘Crnogorski prsut.’

 

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.

gjirokaster fortress albania visit the balkans

Gjirokaster Fortress, Albania

 

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.

kosovo, kosova, visit the balkans

Friends from Kosovo/a

 

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.

Kotor montenegro visit the balkans

Kotor, Montenegro

 

*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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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Visiting the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina – Travelling Jezebel
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  • Reply
    Shantelle
    January 12, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    Wow need to add this to my travel list!

  • Reply
    Julie
    January 12, 2019 at 3:05 pm

    Great read! Hope I get to know more of the Balkans this year:) It’s really a part of Europe I’ve been missing out on so far.

  • Reply
    Flora Baker
    January 14, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    Ahh I LOVED my time in the Balkans! It was ten years ago now though, and I only managed to visit Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia. I’ve been meaning to head back there to explore Albania and Macedonia – this might be the kick I’ve needed to really get planning 🙂 Lovely article!

    • Reply
      Travelling Jezebel
      January 14, 2019 at 5:12 pm

      Albania was probably my favourite country so you will definitely not miss out if you head back there! I think things have unfortunately changed a lot in the last ten years (especially in Croatia) but Albania is still relatively unharmed by tourism 🙂

  • Reply
    Tamara
    January 24, 2019 at 11:43 pm

    Your blog was just shared on the Serbia subreddit 🙂 I enjoyed reading about all the diverse reasons why one should def try rakija, haha. Well written. And from there I read through several more of your posts and really appreciated your insights. It’s nice to see how much thought you’ve put into writing them! Anyways, I came here to say that you should definitely visit Theassaloniki in Greece if you get the chance! Judging by your likes, I think you’ll love the place! Do stay at one of the hostels in the Old Town (Ano Poli), my personal favourite is Arabas, but Little Big House also seems nice 🙂

    Also, not sure if you’ve visited lake Ohrid in Macedonia, but if not, it’s a magical place!

    Finally, being from Belgrade myself, I totally get why it would make your list of least favourite cities. I can only say that if you do return here, I do hope that you’ll discover some cosy corners and parts of town, like Zemun for instance. Novi Sad, the second biggest city, is definitely worth visiting as well!

    Wishing you wonderful travels in 2019!

  • Reply
    Kev Buxton
    March 8, 2019 at 1:51 pm

    A great read. Have only just discovered The Balkans myself, having motorcycles there from the UK 3 years ago. All the countries are different and have their own identity. I loved Albania and I think that there is a big possibility that it will become a massive tourist hotspot in the future. It’s a pity that it will probably be ruined by ‘package beach holidays’ in the future!

    • Reply
      Travelling Jezebel
      March 10, 2019 at 5:20 pm

      I agree with you about Albania, and sadly you can already see it happening. I was in Ksamil in September and the beaches were just full of sun loungers 🙁

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