The Balkans are one of the best places to travel in the whole of Europe. Strategically located, each country in the Balkans possesses a rich history spanning centuries — from ancient time to present day. The Balkan Peninsula lies in Southeastern Europe and is home to the countries comprising former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and Bulgaria. Culturally, ethnically, and geographically diverse, this Balkans travel guide can help you have an incredibly fun and fulfilling experience travelling in this dynamic region.
Travelling in the Balkans can pose challenges that much of the Schengen area countries have managed to eliminate. There are many things to take into account when travelling to this lesser-visited area of Europe — including border crossings, transportation, language, and religion — so we have created this comprehensive guide in order to make sure your trip to this incredible region is as enjoyable and hassle-free as possible!
For the purposes of this Balkans travel guide, we will be concentrating on travel in the following Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. While parts of Greece, Romania and Turkey can also be considered part of the Balkans, they are not included for the purposes of this Balkan guide.
If you already know where you want to visit in this incredible region, then make sure to browse our country-specific articles and guides.
Planning a Balkans Route
Planning a route through the Balkans can be complicated and slightly overwhelming. There are so many things to consider that you don’t necessarily have to when travelling elsewhere in Europe – things like border crossings, sporadic transit and even different currencies make travelling in the Balkans a bit of a challenge.
If you’re trying to map out the perfect route — whether you’re looking to visit a number of countries in the region or want to spend longer exploring one or two countries, then we have you covered.
Browse through the itineraries below to help plan out a logical and dynamic route through the Balkans and ensure that your trip is as seamless as possible.
Places to Visit in the Balkans
Comprising nine countries and countless different cities and climate zones, there are numerous places to visit in the Balkans that can pique anyone’s interest. Because of the diversity and history of the region, the vibrant cities and towns are as distinct as they come.
You don’t have to travel far to feel as if you’re in a completely different world in the Balkans and if you’re wondering where to visit in the Balkans (and what to do while you’re there), then make sure to browse through the articles below to kick start your Balkan trip planning.
Best Time to Visit the Balkans
Figuring out when to visit the Balkans can be just as difficult as planning out your route, which is why we felt it necessary to include it in this Balkans travel guide. A diverse region that encompasses numerous different climate zones and very much experiences all four seasons, it can be tricky to determine went the best time of year to visit the Balkans is.
In our opinion, the best time to travel to the Balkans is in the shoulder seasons of April to June and September to November. However, there are advantages to travelling to the Balkans any time of year! During the shoulder seasons, the weather tends to be mild, more popular cities aren’t as packed, and you can still enjoy some of the coastal destinations in the region.
In the summer months from July to August, beaches are packed with Europeans on holiday, however, this is a good time to visit if you want to experience one of the many festivals that take place during the season. Be ready for high temperatures, however, as many of the inland cities can get unbearably warm in the summer months.
If travelling between December to March, this is a good opportunity to experience world-class skiing in the Balkans at a fraction of the cost of Western European countries. A number of cities across the region also fully embrace the holiday season and you can also experience some of Europe’s best Christmas markets, like the world-famous one in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb.
Because the Balkans are a geographically diverse region, it is impossible to generalise average weather patterns throughout all of these countries. However, it is fair to expect a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters.
Coastal regions in Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania are going to have significantly warmer winters than anywhere in the central Balkans, but don’t go expecting 20+ degree sunshine anywhere in the Balkans in the middle of January.
That being said, if you want to take a gamble and get the best all-around weather while avoiding the crowds that come in the summer, then your best bet is to visit the Balkans in the months of March-May and September-November.
Cost of Travelling to the Balkans
Compared to most Western European countries, the Balkans is refreshingly affordable. Most everywhere, daily costs — including public transportation, accommodation, and food — were largely discounted when compared to other European countries.
While you can pinch pennies and spend very little in the Balkans, if you have a slightly higher daily budget, you can get quite a lot of bang for your buck. Because food and accommodation prices are quite affordable in the Balkans, your money can go a lot further in this region than in many areas in Western Europe.
Something worth noting, however, is that countries that have seen a large increase of foreign visitors tend to have prices that mirror those of Western Europe. Croatia and Slovenia, for instance, are the most expensive countries in the Balkans in which to travel, due largely to the fact that they are members of the European Union.
Cities like Ljubljana, Slovenia and Dubrovnik, Croatia are notoriously pricey and it can prove more challenging to maintain a tight budget while travelling there.
If you’re looking for a more detailed breakdown of prices in the Balkans, please make sure to browse the articles below to ensure that you can adequately budget your trip!
Currency in the Balkans
Unlike Western and Central Europe, where the vast majority of countries use the Euro as a common currency, a key point to keep in mind when it comes to Balkan travel is that nearly all countries use their own unique currency.
Only Slovenia, Montenegro and Kosovo currently use the Euro, while every other Balkan country has its own currency — Albanian Lek, Bosnian Mark, Bulgarian Lev, Croatia Kuna, North Macedonian Denar and Serbian Dinar.
One of the most important tips when travelling the Balkans is that it can be difficult to exchange local currency when you leave the country, so try to not withdraw large amounts of cash at one time. This is particularly an issue for Albanian, North Macedonian, Bosnian and Serbian currencies. If you do end up with a handful of unwanted banknotes, try and exchange it with other travellers that are headed there.
ATMs and cash machines are prevalent throughout the Balkan countries, so it is not a worry to withdraw cash frequently. We would just suggest finding a debit card that has low or no foreign transaction fees so you don’t need to worry about that.
If you’re going on a multi-country Balkan trip, it can also be difficult to keep track of all of the exchange rates. To ensure that you are aware of what you’re spending on how to compares to your home currency, I recommend downloading an app like XE so you can be aware of how much things cost and the current exchange rate.
Sampling the local food and drink is one of the best things about travelling anywhere and it is absolutely essential to include in any Balkans travel guide. While the nuances of regional cuisine can vary from country to country, there are many dishes and one specific drink that are rampant throughout the Balkans.
Something to keep in mind when travelling in the Balkans is that it is a very meat-heavy culture and it can be extremely hard to maintain a vegetarian diet while still trying to eat like a local.
Despite their love of animal flesh, Balkan cuisine is flavourful and diverse. Food in coastal Croatia and Montenegro, for instance, relies largely on their resources from the Adriatic sea and therefore can seem more akin to Italian food rather than that traditionally associated with Eastern Europe.
Food in the central Balkans, however, tends to be where the meat-loving stereotype reigns supreme. Ćevapi, the national dish of Serbia, is a kind of caseless sausage — small cylinders of grilled, ground meat — typically served with a pita-like bread, kajmak (a fermented clotted cream), onions, and sometimes yoghurt and salads. Pljeskavica is another prime example of the Balkan meat fetish and is essentially a regional take on a hamburger.
The most likely constant you will encounter in Balkan cuisine, however, would have to be rakija. A local take on a fruit brandy — oftentimes made at home with anything from plums, peaches, and grapes — it is customary to offer a small glass to visitors. If you stay at locally run guesthouses or hostels, you will almost certainly be offered this intoxicating liquid and it’s important to know how to drink rakija like a local!
If you want to learn more about the food in the Balkans or how to drink rakija properly – make sure to have a look through the articles below.
Transportation in the Balkans
Getting to and around the Balkans can be a whole other kettle of fish, particularly when you are travelling outside of the European Union and Schengen Area, which is why covering all of the nuances of transportation is incredibly important. There are a number of considerations ranging from everything to more complicated border crossings to the best way to get from point A to B.
Getting to the Balkans
First things first, you’re likely wondering how best to get to the Balkans. If you’re arriving from further afield, you will be happy to know that most major Balkan cities have decently sized international airports and serve a number of major and budget airlines such as Ryanair, Wizzair and Easyjet. Some airports in the Balkans are better connected than others, however, so do make sure to check before you go if your intended destination has a convenient flight route.
Arriving to the Balkans from neighbouring countries can be another great way to get there. Whether you’re combining a trip to the Balkans with a route through Central Europe or and excited to hop on a ferry from Italy to Croatia, there are actually countless ways to reach the Balkans overland.
And finally, another thing that you may need to consider before travelling to the Balkans is your visa allowance. If you’re fortunate enough to boast an EU passport or to be a citizen of countries like the USA, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, then you don’t need to worry about applying for visas for any of the Balkan nations in advance.
In fact, if you’re travelling around Europe for an extended period of time, then heading to the Balkans can be a great way to extend your time as the vast majority of countries (excluding Slovenia) are not a part of the Schengen area. Generally speaking, visitors are allowed to stay in any single nation for a total of 90 days out of every 180 days.
Though there are some nationalities that do not require any special visas for tourist entry into them, it is always best to check with the embassy beforehand to ensure that you can possibly and legally travel to these incredible nations.
Getting Around the Balkans
One of the most important things to remember during your Balkan travel is that unlike the rest of Europe where trains tend to be more efficient than buses; in the Balkans buses are nearly always the best way to get around.
This is particularly true for Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo and North Macedonia where the train network is practically non-existent. While there are some trains in Bulgaria, buses tend to be cheaper, more comfortable, and often times faster — particularly in the summer months where air conditioning can be a welcome relief from the Balkan heat.
When travelling across countries in the Balkans, it is worth considering taking a private shuttle bus which can be slightly more expensive than a public bus, but often have fewer hassles as they drop you off door-to-door and have fewer people that need to get across the border.
Renting a car can also be a really good idea if you want a bit more flexibility or want to get to some hard-to-reach areas. If you are planning on going on a multi-country road trip, however, do make sure that you have the adequate insurance coverage for each country that you visit — the rental company should provide this.
If you want to find deals on renting a car in the Balkans (or anywhere else for that matter), we recommend using RentalCars.com. This aggregates car hire options across numerous companies to help you get a low price on your rental.
The other thing that needs to be considered are border crossings. Because these are mostly non-EU countries, borders can be a bit more complex — especially when Kosovo is involved. Generally speaking, border crossings tend to be fairly quick and self-explanatory, but it is always something that you should be aware of.
And if you’re wondering about some of the most popular inter-city routes or how to deal with the complicated matter of entering Kosovo, please make sure to look through the articles below.
Accommodation in the Balkans
Accommodation in the Balkans, especially in the bigger cities, is rampant. For instance, there are a myriad of Balkan hostels to choose from and they’re especially great if you’re travelling solo or on a tight budget.
If you’re planning on staying at hostels in several countries, you can save some money by staying loyal to one of the hostel groups such as the Balkan Backpacker or Balkans Best Hostels, who offer discounts if you stay at several of their hostels.
One of the best things about accommodation in the Balkans is that many places are often run by local staff who have a wealth of knowledge of their respective regions. Speaking to staff is a great way to get a lot of insider knowledge about your destination and find the best local spots!
We’ve opted for Airbnb for the majority of our recent trips to the region and have nothing but good things to say about using the platform in the Balkans. Entire apartments are quite affordable and it can be a great option for those who want to travel on a budget while not sacrificing privacy or a good night’s sleep.
Family-run guesthouses are also a great, budget-friendly choice for those looking for a unique local experience in the Balkans and you can find countless great options on sites like Booking.com. And if your budget allows for it, you will also be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding a nicer mid-range to a high-end hotel, if that’s what you’re after.
Are the Balkans Safe to Visit?
Balkan travel is safe — safer, in fact, than much else of the continent. While instances of petty crime in crowded areas and around bus/train stations do occur, travellers are statistically more likely to be robbed in Paris than they are in Belgrade.
For the most part, if you practice basic common sense — ie. not flashing around cash or valuables, don’t walk home alone while drunk at night — you should have a carefree travel experience.
That being said, take some extra caution when it comes to taxis. It is wise to know which companies are more trusted, make sure the cab is metered (and that the meter is running!), or agree upon a fixed price before entering the taxi. Also, retrieve your belongings before paying cab fare!
Many countries will have some sort of a ride-hailing app akin to Uber (and Uber works in some countries — Croatia being one of them). Do your research beforehand to find which app is widely used in your destination and this will all but eliminate the possibility of a taxi scam.
Another thing to consider when travelling in the Balkans is travel insurance. World Nomads offers flexible and simple travel insurance policies with coverage for more than 150 activities that you can buy or extend while on the road.
If you’re travelling long-term and are simply looking for an affordable travel medical insurance option, then SafetyWing is also an option. Click here to get a quote from SafetyWing.
Language in the Balkans
Theoretically, every country in the Balkans has its own separate language. In practice, however, many of the languages are quite similar. Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin all stem from Serbo-Croatian, which is a Slavic language that was spoken when these countries were united as Yugoslavia and are essentially the same language. Slovene, the language spoken in Slovenia, is slightly different from the Serbo-Croatian languages, however, it also shares some similarities.
Bulgarian and Macedonian are also both Slavic languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet and are very similar to each other, whilst Albanian is a completely separate language that shares no similarity to other Balkan countries.
When travelling through the Balkans, English is widely spoken in tourist areas and most younger locals will have learned English as a second language in school. Older people from Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia might speak some Russian whilst in Albania, Italian is common as a second language.
While you can get away without speaking much of the local language, you will be greeted warmly by locals if you learn some basic words! It’s always good practice to learn a simple “hello” and “thank you” before travelling anywhere in the world and it is especially welcome in the Balkans.
Religion in the Balkans
Religion in the Balkans is a touchy subject and whilst each country has a major religious group, there are often also significant religious minorities. In Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, the predominant religion is Eastern Orthodox. In Croatia and Slovenia, the predominant religion is Roman Catholicism. In Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo the dominant religion is Islam.
These days, violence between religious groups is rare, however, there are undoubtedly still tensions and scars from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. It’s best to avoid getting into in-depth conversations about religion if you’re unsure how the person might react.
It is also worth noting that the vast majority of Balkan nations and citizens are largely secular and religion is more of an identity rather than a core, fundamental belief system.
Visiting the Balkans can be one of the most rewarding and challenging places to visit in all of Europe. Through all of its nuance and diversity, the Balkans is an incredibly engaging region that is an absolute joy to travel through and it is sure to leave you longing to return.