Some of Europe’s most scenic spots lie in wait in the Balkans. From historic monasteries hidden in the mountains to the enchanting coastline along the Adriatic, you’ll find beautiful, budget-friendly destinations all over this region. Oh, and also some of the best wine and cheese you’ll ever have! In this post, we highlight several countries of the Balkans and why you should travel to each one of them!
We’ll also share some tips to make your trip smoother and save you money as well! We hope you learn something from our mistakes and have an even better time than we did! And, of course, we’ll talk about some must-try food in each country!
It’s worth noting that the name “Balkans” isn’t a true geographical term (referring to the Balkan Peninsula) and there are different meanings to the name. Essentially, the Balkans refer to Southeast Europe, although that’s not a perfect term either. Regardless, we use both names to refer to this region throughout this article.
How to Get Around the Balkans
Getting around Southeast Europe can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be!
Of course, if you go in without a clue like we did then you’re in for a surprise! The staple modes of transportation are all there: car, bus, train, and plane. However, not all of these are equal and we want to share our experience to hopefully save you time and money and some headaches!
Let’s start with the transportation that Europe has mastered: trains!
While it’s true that most European countries have amazing train travel, we found better ways of getting around the Balkans. There are trains available; however, they tend to be more infrequent and more time-consuming.
For example, using the train in Romania to get from Bucharest to Transylvania was perfectly fine. But crossing borders was going to take just as long as a bus and more expensive!
Since train travel can be hit and miss in this region, it’s good to be open-minded about how you get around. Always check train times and prices to compare!
We strongly recommend renting a car when you can. You’ll see parts of the country that most tourists never do, and you have the freedom to explore on your own. We almost always use Kayak to find rental car deals.
Most of the countries in this region are not part of the Schengen area, which means you will be stopping at border crossings. The lines shouldn’t be too bad, but if you’re driving into Croatia in the summer, a very popular spot at this time, expect a bit of a line!
Pro Tip: Manual cars in Europe are cheaper to rent than automatics. Don’t fret if you’re uncomfortable driving a stick; it’s not impossible to find a sweet deal on an automatic. We drove around Bulgaria one day for just $20!
We spent several months around this region and the bus was the best way to get around. Maybe it wasn’t always the most comfortable but it was the most practical and affordable! From Slovenia down to Albania, there were so many buses heading just about anywhere.
Our favorite place to buy bus tickets in Europe? Flixbus! Granted, traveling in the Balkans isn’t like traveling elsewhere in Europe. You may not find bus tickets easily accessible online for places like Skopje (North Macedonia) or Tirana (Albania). If that’s the case, going to the local bus station or asking your Airbnb host or Hostel/Hotel staff will be a great help.
Not having convenience at your fingertips, like buying tickets online, may sound pretty frustrating (we definitely got frustrated!), but it’s part of what makes these destinations special!
We’ve written articles about how to get around specific places in Southeast Europe and we’ll share those below!
Lastly, getting from country to country by plane is an option but one that we never used! Planes were always more expensive than any other kind of travel in the Balkans. So, use Google Flights to check for cheap deals (read how to use Google Flights!). You might get lucky!
Where to Stay
There are a lot of factors that go into finding that perfect place to stay but we think two things are most important: location and price! In most destinations, keeping a travel budget in mind, we recommend finding a sweet spot of good location and price. Maybe sacrificing that super central location for a cheaper local neighborhood apartment that’s close to transportation.
That said, when talking about the Balkans, the more central you stay the better! It can be hit or miss on city public transportation in this region. Some cities have a great subway, like Sofia, Bulgaria or Bucharest, Romania, but others are lacking in this department (think Tirana or Skopje). Therefore, we highly recommend staying at a place that’s within walking distance to the main sights. Trust us, it will make your life a lot easier!
Of course, you can always taxi or rideshare, which is very affordable in this region. It really depends on your plans! We can say that wandering aimlessly through cities like Skopje or Tirana on foot is a lot of fun but for those sticking to an itinerary and limited on time, you’ll really want to research where your stay is located!
If you’re having trouble finding a place to stay, be sure to check out Airbnb. We stayed in Airbnbs only during our many months in the Balkans and loved all but one of them, in which we stayed much too far from the center! Check out our pros and cons of Airbnb to see why we recommend homestays when traveling!
Other Things to Note about Traveling in the Balkans
Paying for things
Credit and debit cards are becoming more and more accepted but there are still a few destinations, like Croatia or smaller towns, where you’ll have a harder time finding restaurants and shops that accept credit cards. It’s best to have a no ATM fee and no foreign exchange fee debit or credit card.
Pro Tip: It’s never a good idea to carry lots of cash at one time. That’s just more money for you to lose or for someone to steal!
Food and Drink
Each country in the Balkans has a specialty when it comes to cuisine. That said, there are many foods and drinks that are a staple across the region. Types of lamb and minced meat, cheese and alcohol (rakia!), are famous throughout the Balkans.
We provide some must-eats and drinks for each destination but note that some of them will have similar dishes. A lot of the food influence in this region has to do with history and a mixture of many cultures, including centuries of Ottoman rule for some of these countries. Regardless of similarities in cuisine, every meal is a delicious adventure!
For example, we could mention coffee (heavily influenced by Turkish rule) or rakia (a strong alcohol) under just about every country. Just know that some things we recommend can be found elsewhere in the Balkans!
The best part about eating in the Balkans is how tasty and affordable it is! The Balkans are a great budget destination, which gives you even more reason to travel here!
Walking Tours Are a Must!
We’ll mention some specific sights to see below, but we want to take a second to be cheerleaders for walking tours.
You’ll find free walking tours in major cities throughout the Balkans. We highly recommend doing these! Not only will you meet a local with tips for a better stay, but you’ll walk away from the tour knowing so much more about the place you are visiting. Knowing the history behind your travels will drastically improve your experience!
To find a free walking tour, simply search “Free walking tour” with your destination. We link below to other posts we’ve written and they have more details regarding these walking tours!
The best part? They’re free! Technically… Feel free to tip your guide as much as you want; there is no required amount. We never pay less than 10 euros per person. That’s a steal!
People ask about safety for seemingly every destination in the world. While we haven’t been everywhere yet, we have toured the Balkans extensively and can say that this region is safe! Of course, that doesn’t mean you should act like an obnoxious tourist and draw attention to yourself. Unless you want to have your belongings stolen.
As is the case with anywhere in the world, be a smart, aware, and kind traveler!
Travel Guide to the Balkans (Southeast Europe)
Without further ado, let’s talk about where to travel in the Balkans!
One could argue that Croatia is the most beautiful country in this region and all of Europe, for that matter. We’re not here to debate that, we’re just here to tell you that you need to visit! The beaches, breathtaking nature, and cities teeming with old architecture, travelers to Croatia are in for a real treat.
In our opinion, don’t go during the peak tourist season! This is true for many popular destinations around the world, but seriously, try to time your visit in the shoulder season!
For example, we visited Split in mid-August and the best time to explore the city was from 6-7 am. After that, cruise ship crowds would pack the city for the entire day! But regardless of the crowds, everywhere you look in Split is gorgeous. That’s Croatia. Check out our itinerary for a fun couple days in Split!
In addition to popular cities like Split and Dubrovnik, there are far quieter destinations located in this country, even during the summer. Baska, for instance, was much less crowded and one of the most peaceful places we visited in Europe. We stayed the last week of August into September so that’s right on the edge of the summer season.
- Zagreb (Capital City)
- Krk Island
What to Eat and Drink
- Ćevapi – You can find this meat throughout the Balkan region but it’s great on the beach!
- Prosciutto (will be included in a meat/cheese sampler)
- Burek – an amazing pastry served savory or sweet! A must-try
- Seafood – That’s very broad but truly, all seafood here will be amazing!
- Anything from the Istria region!
- Rakjia – Strong Balkan alcohol (you’ll find this in every Balkan country!)
- Grappa – Strong Italian alcohol, which we found plentiful on the coast
- Split’s historical center (Diocletian’s Palace)
- Dubrovnik’s Old Town
- The entire coastline (road trip!)
- Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Old churches (they’re everywhere!)
- Beaches – There are so many but Vela Luka is our favorite!
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Photo by Torsten Muller on Unsplash
Bordering Croatia to the south is Bosnia and Herzegovina. This Balkan beauty boasts UNESCO heritage sights and some untouched nature for outdoor lovers. Explore the capital city of Sarajevo via its Old Town (really old!) and see where the event that sparked WWI took place. We also recommend Gallery 11/7/95, a must-visit museum in Sarajevo.
In addition to important historical places and their events, Bosnia and Herzegovina is packed with untouched nature and wildlife so grab your backpack and get ready to explore!
- Sarajevo (Capital)
What to Eat and Drink
- Ćevapi – kebabs again!
- Dolma – stuffed eggplants or peppers
- Tufahija – very sweet!
- Kravice Waterfalls
- Sarajevo (Old Town)
- Old churches and mosques (there are a lot!)
- Mostar Bridge
- Tara Canyon
A country known for its scenic coastline dotted with old, historic towns, Montenegro is a traveler’s paradise. Like Croatia, history meets nature along the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic.
With medieval villages, mountains (glacial lakes!) and breathtaking coast, Montenegro will be one of the most memorable Balkan destinations.
- Sveti Stefan
What to Eat and Drink
- Ćevapčići – like Ćevapi in Croatia, kebabs!
- Burek – yes, it’s a traditional dish here, too!
- Seafood – Again, very general but along the coast it will be bountiful and fresh
- Pršut – Smoked prosciutto from Njeguši
- Wine – Try a Vranac for an authentically Montenegrin wine
- Rakjia – Different spelling but same strong Balkan alcohol
- Old Towns – There are many! Like Kotor, Budva, Herceg Novi, etc…
- Lake Skadar
- Durmitor National Park
- Ostrog Monastery
- Blue Grotto
Albania is a truly unique destination. Getting around is an adventure in itself, the countryside is breathtaking, the capital, Tirana, is a clash of cultures, and the food is to die for. Oh, and the coastline, especially the south riviera, is stunning.
Add Albania’s tumultuous history into the mix with some cool castles, mosques and thousands of bunkers and you’ve got quite the travel destination. It’s one of our favorites in the Balkans!
- Tirana (Capital) – check out our guide to Tirana!
- Durres – a great day trip destination!
What to Eat and Drink
- Lakror – leek/spinach pie
- Burek – There it is AGAIN! It’s amazing in every country
- Lightly fried cheese with jam
- Stuffed eggplant
- Berat – “The City of a Thousand Windows”
- Skanderberg Square – (in Tirana)
- Bunk’Art 1 and 2 (Bunkers in Tirana)
- Albanian Alps
- The Albanian Riviera
The Republic of Kosovo is a very new country and one that you’d do well to visit!
Centrally located in the Balkan Peninsula, Kosovo is easy enough to fit into any Balkan itinerary. In terms of nature, Kosovo is a goldmine. Summer and winter outdoor enthusiasts will be pleased no matter when they visit. Lakes, canyons, mountains, there is a plethora of activities to be had!
- Pristina (capital)
What to Eat and Drink
- Sarma – any mix of meat, veggies or rice rolled in grape or vine leaves. One of our favs!
- Ćevapčići – kebabs!
- Ajvar – a pepper relish that’s delish. Can be mild or hot!
- Vranac wine – our favorite in the Balkans!
- Try the coffee!
- Prizren fortress
- Imperial Mosque (in Pristina)
- Rugova Canyon
- Greet Bill Clinton (in Pristina)
Another young country, North Macedonia just recently underwent a name change. And while there is plenty of controversy to be had, as travelers, there are some amazing experiences to be had here too.
We spent an entire month in North Macedonia and fell in love with this small nation. From the many statues in Skopje, both serious and quirky, to finding peace in picturesque, lakeside towns, North Macedonia awaits!
Like Kosovo, North Macedonia is completely surrounded by fellow Balkan countries so it fits perfectly into a Balkan adventure!
- Skopje (capital) – See our complete list of things to do in Skopje
- Stobi (Roman ruins and winery!)
What to Eat and Drink
- Shopska Salad – The definition of “fresh” in the summer
- Stuffed peppers
- For some tips on where to grab some of this good stuff, read up on some great restaurants in Skopje!
- Macedonia Square (in Skopje)
- Old Bazaar (in Skopje)
- Matka Canyon
- Lake Ohrid – Read up on our trip to Ohrid but we recommend staying longer!
- Mavrovo National Park
- Kartal Winery – where hospitality, good food, and great wine meet!
Bulgaria, like many other countries in this region, has been through many changes since it’s beginning. Sofia, the capital city, is the ideal spot to get a taste of Bulgaria’s long and complex history. A great example is the Church of Saint George, which was originally a Roman bathhouse, then converted into an Eastern Orthodox Church, and then surrounded by Soviet government buildings during the communist regime.
The best part about Sofia is stumbling on the ruins of the city of Serdika, and there are many since the city sits at a major crossroads for the region. Constantine the Great even considered moving the capital of the Byzantine empire there instead of Constantinople.
In addition to the capital city, find peace in Bulgaria’s mountains and stumble upon the famous Rila lakes or take a holiday along the Black Sea.
- Sofia – Sample our fun-filled Sofia itinerary!
What to Eat and Drink
- Mekitsa – Fried bread topped with powdered sugar. You can find it at a small bakery outside Rila Monastery
- Shopska Salad
- Rakia – we sampled Rakia from all over but it was the best in Bulgaria!
- Tarator Soup – A refreshing summer treat!
- Rila Monastery – Read our Rila Monastery guide before you go!
- Seven Rila Lakes
- Plovdiv Old Town
- Vitosha Mountain
- Black Sea
Serbia is home to spas, numerous archeological sites, monasteries, and mountains. It was also the home country of Nikola Tesla and where he was laid to rest. In this Balkan country, there’s no lack of things to do whether you’re looking for a fast-paced, laid-back, or something in-between trip. Its central location makes it an easy stop for travelers exploring the Balkan region.
- Novi Sad
What to Eat and Drink
- Pljeskavica – spiced meat patty
- Karađorđeva šnicla – rolled meat (usually veal), breaded and fried. Yum!
- Shopska salad
- Belgrade Fortress
- Temple of Saint Sava
- Lepenski Vir (archeological site thought to be the cradle of European civilization)
- Nikola Tesla Museum and Resting Place
- Vrnjačka Banja Spa
The first thought that comes to mind when you think about Romania is probably vampires. Thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the beautiful region of Transylvania increased in popularity but there’s more to this country than just blood-suckers.
Romania’s capital, Bucharest, boasts architecture inspired by Paris, some of the best food you’ll try in the Balkans, and Therme (a huge spa complex and water park located on the outskirts of town).
If visiting in the summer then a trip to the Black Sea is in order. Romania’s oldest continuously inhabited port, Constanța, is a great city to visit for culture and beaches. Romania, compared to the other Balkan countries, is very large. There is a lot to see here!
- Bucharest (Capital) – Read up on why you should visit Bucharest!
What to Eat and Drink
- Tripe Soup – do your research before eating tripe soup! It can either be really good or really bad depending on how the tripe was cleaned before cooking. This restaurant in Brasov has amazing tripe soup.
- Papanași – Romanian donuts smothered in sweet cheese and jam
- Mici – Another dish similar to kebab
- Polenta – Try it with sour cream and cheese!
- If you’re looking for food in the capital then check out some of our favorite restaurants in Bucharest.
- Palace of Parliament (Bucharest)
- Therme (Bucharest)
- Bran Castle
- Black Church
- Peles Castle
- National Parks – There are so many in this country. Enjoy!
Greece – Special Mention
Depending on who you ask, Greece is either considered part of the Balkan region or it’s not. That’s why we’re including it as a special mention. The Northern regions (think Macedonia, Epirus, Thrace, and Thessaly) share borders and cultural similarities to the rest of the Balkans. Don’t expect this region to be like Santorini, Athens or the rest of Southern Greece. You’ll see more mountains, ottoman influences, and beautiful beaches along the Ionian coast.
Slovenia – Special Mention
A small chunk of Slovenia lies in the Balkans, so one could claim it belongs on this travel list. Again, the Balkans’ geographical border isn’t set in stone. Slovenia is a country where we spent so little time but wish we had spent so much more! Ljubljana, the capital city, entices visitors with its castle on the hill, its scenic river and iconic dragons. But venture out from the city and discover even more castles and some amazing natural wonders, like the Postojna Caves.
Balkans Travel Guide Summary
We hope we’ve inspired you to visit somewhere in this wonderful region of Europe. There’s an eclectic mix of cultures, all contributing to the food and people’s way of life here. Add the fact that these destinations are budget-friendly and you have no excuse to not visit the Balkans!