Balkans Holidays: Guide to the Top 10 Balkan Countries

February 24, 2020

balkan holidays

I’m often asked what my favorite European country is. That’s a tough one, but I can at least narrow it down by region…Balkans holidays have been my favorite destinations. Each country is amazing and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.  And while each country offers its own rich history, fascinating culture, stunning nature, and delicious local cuisine, I particularly fell in love with…

  1. Croatia
  2. Albania
  3. Romania

The Balkans are one of the best places to visit in Europe!

The Balkans at a Glance

  • Area: 181,468 mi²
  • Population: 55 million
  • Location: Southeast Europe
  • Peak: Musala (Bulgaria)

Pronounced BAWL-kənz and taking its name from the Balkan (“mountains”) Mountains that stretch throughout the region, the Balkan Peninsula lies in Southeastern Europe and is home to the countries comprising former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria. Bordered by the Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean Seas, each country is culturally, ethnically, and geographically diverse. Balkan holidays can be a ton of fun and fulfilling vacation, from the more popular cities to the less-traveled countryside.

When to Go

Like most of Europe, the Balkan Peninsula is very crowded in the summer. I like hot weather, but if you do not, it does get quite warm in the summertime. In the spring months of March through June, it’s green, flowers are blooming, and the weather is mild. Autumn can get chilly but from September through October traveling in the Balkans should be pleasant and less crowded.

Safety

In a word, yes, it’s safe to travel in the Balkans.

I traveled solo to some of the Balkan countries and I never felt I was in any danger. About the “worse” issue was in off-the-beaten-path places where English was not widely spoken. But even so, I found the locals to be extremely friendly and eager to help.

Having said that, when you’re in the more populated cities, you should use the same common sense and precautions that you’d use in any other tourist city around the world. Pickpocketing and scamming (particularly the gypsies) are the main troubles and can impact even a savvy traveler like me. In Ukraine had my smartphone pickpocketed and my companion had her backpack unzipped (luckily we caught him doing it).

If your trip includes riding a night train, be aware that like most of Europe, bag snatching robberies frequently occur.

I highly recommend you read this article I wrote: Pickpocketing in Europe: How to Avoid It and What to Do if it Happens.

Ethnic tensions still run high between many of the countries that were involved in the tragic (former) Yugoslavian war in the 1990s, but that doesn’t affect tourists.

Not really safety but more convenience, timetables can be an issue. Public transportation information is often difficult to find and departure times are not reliable. Renting a car can be a good option if you plan to see a lot of each country or your itinerary includes traveling in multiple Balkan countries.

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Currency

Unlike much of Europe that use the Euro nearly all of the Balkan countries have their own unique currency. Only Slovenia, Montenegro and Kosovo currently use the Euro.

Aside from keeping track of all the different conversion rates, be advised that in the Balkans it can be difficult to exchange back the local currency when you leave so it’s prudent not to convert larger amounts of cash than you will need.

Having said that, one of the most positive aspects of traveling in the Balkans is how affordable it is compared to Western European countries.

Culture

The Balkans have been inhabited since the Paleolithic Era and are the route by which farming from the Middle East spread to Europe during the Neolithic (7th millennium BC).

The identity of the Balkans is dominated by its geographical position; historically the area was known as a crossroads of cultures. It has been a juncture between the Latin and Greek bodies of the Roman Empire, the destination of a massive influx of pagan Bulgars and Slavs, an area where Orthodox and Catholic Christianity met, as well as the meeting point between Islam and Christianity.

Currently, all of the states are republics, but until World War II all countries were monarchies.

Religion

Religion in the Balkans can be a touchy subject thanks to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. While violence is rare, it’s best to avoid getting into in-depth conversations about religion with locals or even other tourists.

Cuisine

Sampling of traditional specialties and street food is such a fun thing to do while in a foreign country! While there are specialties in every country, there are also shared dishes.

Cuisine in the Balkans is fresh and delicious. Inland, it’s a carnivore (yes, please!) paradise with grilled meat such as lamb and beef served as the main staple of every meal along with cheese, so if you’re a vegan, dining may prove difficult for you. Along the coastal areas, daily-caught seafood and crustaceans are superb.

Traditional local dishes include:

Burek – similar to a Greek spanakopita, it’s thin, flaky phyllo pastry filled with of meats, cheeses, fruits, and/or veggies

Cevapi – caseless sausage grilled and served with a pita-like bread, kajmak (Balkan farmer’s cheese), and onions

Pljeskavica – regional take on a hamburger consisting of spiced meat patty mixture of pork, beef, and lamb

Tavë Kosi – “soured milk casserole” consisting of lamb and rice baked with yogurt

Lángos –deep-fried flatbread topped with cheese, meat, garlic butter, or powdered sugar

Baklava – a sticky, highly sweet pastry made from layers of phyllo dough, honey, and nuts

Rakija – a strong fruity brandy made with plums, peaches, and grapes.

Language

While every country in the Balkans has its own specific language, many of them exhibit similarities. Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian, and Macedonian are all considered Slavic. Albanian, however, is a unique language that shares no similarity to other Balkan countries.

You’ll find that English is widely spoken in tourist areas, especially with young people who are taught English as a second language in school. It’s highly likely that some of the older people in countries like Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia will speak some Russian.

As with most foreign countries, if you learn some basic words to say to locals it will be greatly appreciated.  Please, thank you, hello, goodbye, help, yes, no, may I have, how do I, is it possible to, how much does it cost, and of course, bathroom are great words/phrases to know.

Insurance

Important: Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014. Use the form below to get a FREE, no-obligation quote.

Where to Go

Where you choose to go to the Balkans will depend on your preferences and interests. Some countries offer stunning tropical beaches; others have no coastline but are scattered with mountains and canyons; others offer castles; many have rich and/or troubled history of Roman, Ottoman, and Yugoslavian invasions.

1 Albania

albania

Albania, on Southeastern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, is a small country with Adriatic and Ionian coastlines and an interior crossed by the Albanian Alps. The country is very diverse, with beautiful beaches, castles, archaeological sites, and Europe’s oldest vineyards and wineries.

Contrary to what many people think, Albania is completely safe and welcoming of tourists and it’s one of my very favorite countries.

  • Population: 2.9 million
  • Area: 11,100 sq mi
  • Currency: Albanian Lek
  • Language: Albanian
  • Religion: Mostly Islamic; some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox

Top Destinations:

Tirana – Albania’s cosmopolitan capital on sprawling Skanderbeg Square

Gjirokaster – an Ottoman influenced town at the top of a high hill with a magnificent fortress, charming old town, and open-air market

Albanian Riviera – coastal Albania beaches are gorgeous and affordable, with the nearby ruins of Butrint, and the Blue Eye natural phenomena.

2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

mostar

Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to medieval villages, rivers, and lakes, as well as the Dinaric Alps. The capital is Sarajevo, which has a well-preserved old quarter, and the town of Baščaršija, with landmarks like 16th-century Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque. Charming Mostar is the most photographed place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The infamous Ottoman-era Latin Bridge is the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which ignited World War I.

  • Population: 3.5 million
  • Area: 19,741 sq mi
  • Currency: Bosnian Mark
  • Language: Bosnian
  • Religion: Predominantly Islamic; some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox minorities

Top Destinations:

Sarajevo –the capital has a beautiful Ottoman-influenced Old Town with a rich and troubled history

Mostar –the iconic and often-photographed Stari Most (Old Town)

Blagaj – a tranquil monastery near Mostar

Kravice Falls – stunning waterfalls near the Croatian border

3 Bulgaria


balkan holidays

Bulgaria has a diverse terrain encompassing the Black Sea coastline, mountainous interior, and is traversed by the Danube and other rivers. It’s a cultural melting pot with Ottoman, Persian, Slavic, and Greek influences. Bulgaria has a rich heritage of traditional costumes and dance, and music. Beneath Vitosha Mountain, the capital of Sofia, dates back to the 5th century B.C.

  • Population: 7 million
  • Area: 42,854.9 sq mi
  • Currency: Bulgarian Lev
  • Language: Bulgarian
  • Religion: Predominantly Eastern Orthodox

Top Destinations:

Sofia – Bulgaria’s charming and historic capital

Plovdiv – Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city including the Thracian ruins

Sozopol – a sleepy fishing village on the southern coast with white sand beaches

Veliko Tarnovo – a university town in the mountains with a thriving nightlife and rich history

4 Croatia

dubrovnik

Located on the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is my favorite European country!  To say it’s stunning simply does not do it justice. Croatia was Travel + Leisure’s Reader’s Choice Destination of the Year in 2016 because of the crystal-blue beaches, rich and sometimes tumultuous history, magnificent national parks, limestone cliffs, vineyards, and olive groves, as well as ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

It’s a land where ancient culture, fairytale castles, and walled seaside towns share their fame with delicious cuisine and wines.

Nowadays, Croatia is most famous due to the filming sites in Dubrovnik and Split for HBO’s acclaimed series, Game of Thrones.

  • Population: 4.3 million
  • Area: 21,851 square miles
  • Currency: Croatian Kuna
  • Language: Croatian
  • Religion:  Roman Catholic; Eastern Orthodox minority

Top Destinations:

Dubrovnik – arguably the most stunning fairytale town in the Balkans and site of Game of Thrones’ King’s landing.

Split – Croatia’s second-largest city is one of the most beautiful cities in the Balkans

Dalmatian IslandsHvar, Korcula, Vis, Mjet are a must-do!

Plitvice Lakes National Park – one of the best national parks in Europe consisting of a network of crystal-clear lakes and stunning waterfalls.

Trogir –preserved old town, known for its mix of Renaissance, baroque and Romanesque buildings

5 Greece

athens

Considered the cradle of Western civilization, philosophy, literature, and democracy Greece has had substantial influence since ancient times. Athens, its capital, is home to the 5th-century B.C. Acropolis citadel with the Parthenon temple. Greece is also known for its beaches, from the blue domes of Santorini to the wild parties of Mykonos.

  • Population: 10.7 million
  • Area: 50,949 sq mi
  • Currency: Euro
  • Language: Greek
  • Religion: Eastern Orthodoxy

Top Destinations:

Athens – the iconic capital and home of the Acropolis

Meteora – known as “in the heavens above” has 1000-foot breathtaking cliffs with historical monasteries that are perched along the summits

Santorini – the gem of the Aegean, the island is known as being one of the most romantic destinations

Corfu – an island with breathtaking views, enchanting towns, museums

6 Kosovo

balkan holidays

Kosovo is a landlocked and partially-recognized state in the Balkans, still involved in a territorial dispute with the Republic of Serbia. Kosovo has a lower-middle-income economy but has enjoyed solid economic growth over the last decade, making it a less expensive option in the Balkans.

  • Population: 1.8 million
  • Area: 4,203 sq mi
  • Currency: Euro
  • Language: Bosnian; Turkish; Romani
  • Religion: Islam

Top Destinations:

Pristina – Kosovo’s capital with a youthful, bustling atmosphere, cafes, restaurants, and festivals

Prizren – has a lovely Ottoman- influenced old town filled with history, fortresses, mosques, and churches, mosques

7 Montenegro

montenegro

Montenegro (“black mountain”) has dramatic beauty, from its towering rugged mountains, pink sand beaches, medieval villages, and world-class eateries. The Bay of Kotor, resembling a fjord, is dotted with coastal churches and fortified towns. Durmitor National Park has limestone peaks, glacial lakes, and the Tara River Canyon.

  • Population: 631,219
  • Area: 5,333 sq mi
  • Currency: Euro
  • Language: Montenegrin
  • Religion: Eastern Orthodox; Roman Catholic and Islamic minorities

Top Destinations:

Kotor – UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing a labyrinth-like Old Town, medieval history, and hikes with spectacular views over the bay.

Perast – picturesque seaside village near Kotor

8 Macedonia

macedonia

Once part of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia declared its independence in September 1991. Macedonia has witnessed the world’s greatest empires come and go over its turbulent 2,500-year history. It claims Alexander the Great as one of its own.

Macedonia has a rich culture displayed through its Ottoman-inspired architecture, churches, monasteries, castles, music, poetry, art, and delicious cuisine.

  • Population: 2.1 million
  • Area: 9,928 mi²
  • Currency: Macedonian Denar
  • Language: Macedonian
  • Religion: Eastern Orthodox; significant Islamic minority

Top Destinations:

Skopje –Macedonia’s quirky capital with several neoclassical style buildings and controversial statues

Matka Canyon –popular outdoor destination and home to several medieval monasteries

Lake Ohrid –lakeside resort with medieval monasteries, open-air ruins and traditional houses with red-tiled roofs

9 Romania

romania

Famous for Transylvania and its notorious and legendary vampire, Dracula, beautiful Romania is another country I adore. It certainly has its share of medieval castles surrounded by spooky forests, monasteries and fortified churches, and cobblestone old towns. Surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, Romania has diverse natural beauty.

I loved driving the Transfăgărășan – an adrenaline-laced white-knuckled drive across the mountains filled with switchbacks and hairpin turns. It earned the distinction of being called “the best road in the world” by Top Gear.

  • Population: 19.53 million
  • Area: 92,046 square miles
  • Currency:  Romanian leu
  • Language:  Romanian
  • Religion: Romanian Orthodoxy

Top Destinations:

Bucharest – the country’s capital and site of the gigantic, Communist-era Palatul Parlamentului government building

Sibiu – founded by 12th-century Saxon settlers, includes medieval walls and towers, and a 13th-century Council Tower

Sighişoara – medieval birthplace of Vlad the Impaler – inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Transylvania – home of Bran Castle, a Gothic fortress associated with the legend of Dracula

10 Slovenia

balkans holidays

Independent from the former Yugoslavia since 1991, Slovenia is considered a gem of the Balkans known for its spectacular Alpine scenery, craggy mountains, and shimmering lakes. On Lake Bled, a glacial lake fed by hot springs. In the countryside, the stunning landscape is full of rolling hills sprinkled with ultra-charming colorful houses.

  • Population: 2.1 million
  • Area: 7,827 sq mi
  • Currency: Euro
  • Language: Slovenian
  • Religion: Roman Catholic

Top Destinations:

Ljubljana – the capital’s baroque facades mix with the 20th-century architecture

Lake Bled – The country’s top tourist destination – an iconic medieval castle sits atop a small island floating on the lake

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.

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