The Balkans travel guide

This Balkans travel guide focuses not only on the Balkan region but also, for the main part, on holidays that take you to more than one country here. The first question on most people’s lips is: where exactly is the Balkans? Well, it comprises one of Europe’s three main peninsulas (the other two being the Italian and Iberian peninsulas). And the word Balkans comes from the Turkish for ‘mountains’, because although the peninsula is surrounded by four seas, namely the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean and Black Sea, there is also the most colossal collection of mountain ranges running through it.
The Balkans are not just former Yugoslavia, with faded 50s glamour usurped by a faded dictator. They are all now countries in their own right. Fascinating, fun and the antithesis of faded.
The most prolific are the Dinaric Alps, which stretch down the Adriatic coast like an additional decorative ribbon to the already exquisite package consisting of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. These countries, along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia make up one big load of Balkans.

Balkan holidays are...

for the most part, small group tours taking in a combination of countries.

Balkan holidays are not...

for fly and flop travellers. History and culture, adventure and architecture are what make them so very appealing.

What we rate & what we don’t

Underrated

Cycling

Cycling in the Balkans does require a bit of puff, even along the Dalmatian Coast, but regular cyclists should have little difficulty. You’ll stay in smaller locally owned properties, and because these trips visit out-of-the-way rural locations, they can create employment opportunities and boost income in communities that have seen significant falls in population as people move away to find work.

Balkan wine

The Balkans were making wine even before the Romans turned up. Quantity overrode quality during Soviet times, but today there is something of a renaissance and many Balkans tours will pause for visits to wineries as they go along. Watch out for the organic and biodynamic wines springing up, and particularly the reds of North Macedonia.

Drvengrad

Also known as Mecavnik, this traditional village in the hills outside Belgrade is actually quite new, built as a film set and today functioning as a kind of living museum. Besides hosting several cultural festivals (there’s a statue of past visitor Johnny Depp) the village has attractive log cabins, a dairy farm and a juicery, which make an interesting contrast to the mini ski resort and helipad.
Rated

Sarajevo

“In the Balkans, you have many different ethnic groups, many different religions, and then also people identify with different countries and ideologies,” says Chris Ellis, from our partner Explore. “And nowhere is this better exemplified than Sarajevo, the crossroads, the Jerusalem of Europe. Nowhere encapsulates the diversity of the Balkans more.”

Multi-country tours

Most Balkans holidays take in at least a handful of countries. Because the Balkans are so bunched together, it’s easy to cross borders, and by seeing several countries in one go you can get a deeper appreciation of their similarities and differences. North Macedonia, for instance, is all about the ancient Roman ruins, whereas in Albania the main draws are walking, cycling and definitely the food.

Café culture

One thing all the Balkan countries have in common is a passion for coffee, which dates back to Ottoman times. Turkish – unfiltered – coffee, is drunk throughout Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina the drinking of coffee is practically a daily ritual. Stopping off for a coffee and a people-watch at a café feels almost mandatory.
Overrated

Coastal hotspots

As beautiful as Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is, in the summer months it can get ridiculously busy. Instead, we recommend island-hopping offshore, with plenty of sailing boats and small ship cruises stopping in crowd-free bays and lesser-visited harbours. Alternatively, consider the inexpensive Mediterranean resorts of Albania that see far fewer holidaymakers.

Floating resorts

On most days in the peak summer months, huge cruise ships disgorge thousands of people into Dubrovnik in Croatia and Kotor in Montenegro, causing crowding, strain on the lives of residents, and a depleted experience for everyone. What’s more, tourism from big cruise ships does very little for the local economy. Abandon ship, and make for the lifeboats of staying longer and staying and eating in locally owned businesses.

Vegan cuisine

The vegan traveller in the Balkans faces many challenges, especially outside cities, where the diet tends to be heavily skewed towards meat and dairy. In restaurants, cafés and shops, your options are often limited to ‘accidentally vegan’ meals or side salads. That said, the situation is improving, and we recommend downloading the Happy Cow app because there are more places offering animal-friendly cuisine each year.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Balkans or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking in the Balkans

Health-kickers head for Kosovo, where the most popular traditional drink is rasoj, a juice made from, er, pickled cabbage, that is nevertheless said to be stuffed with vitamins. Rasoj is often served as a chaser to a shot of rakia, the fruit brandy that you get everywhere in the Balkans.

Coffee, and the café culture where it flourishes, is ubiquitous in the Balkans, where the drink dates back to the Ottoman period. Be warned that smoking is still legal in Balkan kafanas and coffee bars.

Balkan cuisine, as you’d expect from a region with such convoluted ethnic and cultural mixing, is immensely diverse. But think European, especially Mediterranean, with a generous side-helping of West Asian. Spicy, richly flavoursome and notoriously not vegan-friendly. A popular street delicacy is burek, a savoury pastry that comes with meat, cheese or spinach fillings.

Despite being endangered through overfishing and poaching, Lake Ohrid trout is still often seen on the menu in lakeside restaurants, with fisherman sailing out before dawn. Give it a miss, as this species urgently needs an opportunity to recover.

People & language

The Balkan peoples are Greeks, Macedonians, Albanians, Romanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Bulgarians and Bosnian Muslims, along with smaller, stateless groups such as Roma and small pockets of Hungarians and Turks.

During the Yugoslav Wars and in their aftermath, entire populations either fled to neighbouring countries where they felt safer, were uprooted against their will, or were resettled as a result of the peace agreements. There are still simmering tensions in several countries between majority and minority groups that are worth keeping in mind while travelling to avoid causing any unnecessary offence.

Slavic languages, spoken by Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Macedonians, have much in common with Russian and Polish, while Romanian is more like other romance languages such as Italian and French.

The various Balkan languages may not share much of the same vocabulary, but as you travel between them you will notice similarities in the rhythms of their grammar.

Gifts & shopping

While the lavender fields of Provence are internationally famous, Bulgaria is a serious rival. Bulgarian lavender tends to have a deeper fragrance but otherwise the two are virtually indistinguishable. Used in honey, as well as perfumes and cosmetics, lavender production is becoming a major source of employment for Bulgarians.

Handicrafts are popular souvenirs from the Balkans and can often be haggled for in markets. Potential gifts include beautiful handmade rugs from Albania, Ottoman-influenced metalwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and ceramic jugs, candle holders and bowls from Bulgaria.

Balkan honey (med) is delicious and easy to come by. Small-scale beekeepers abound, often selling their wares by the roadsides with honesty boxes for payment.

A brief history of the Balkans

Attempting to summarise the history of the Balkan region can be difficult given the region’s convoluted past . Balkan is the Turkish word for mountain, and in a way the peaks and troughs of the mountain ranges that carve up and compartmentalise southern Europe’s easternmost peninsula are symbolic of the tumultuous ups and downs that its many peoples have endured.

Most of the Balkan states were formed between the 19th and early 20th centuries as they took their leave of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Romania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and parts of Greece and Turkey have some or all of their territory on the peninsula. Imperial rule had meant substantial mixing of ethnic groups, and in this grab-bag of divided loyalties within hastily created nation states are the roots of many of the region’s problems. Read more
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Boudewijn Boer] [is/isnt: Charlie Phillips] [Underrated: David Marcu] [Rated: ADEV] [Overrated: Elion Jashari] [Eating & drinking in the Balkans: Marco Verch Professional Photographer] [Gifts & shopping: Nikolay Hristov]