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Guide To Balkan Countries: All About Traveling The Balkans
The Balkan countries occupy a distinct and significant part of southeastern Europe, also known as the Balkan Peninsula. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains extending between Serbia and Bulgaria’s border to the Black Sea.
The region comprises many countries. Some definitions consider up to a dozen nations entirely or at least partially located in the Balkans. Most often, however, the report—or public perception—is limited to the ex-Yugoslavian countries, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. It’s always up for debate, and the question “what countries are in the Balkans?” may have a different answer depending on who you ask.
As Chasing the Donkey focuses on the entire Balkan Peninsula, this article talks about what to expect when traveling in the Balkans, in the widest sense of the word. Specifically, we’ll cover the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Kosovo, Greece, and Turkey. We’ll provide an excellent overview and list of the Balkan states, so you can quickly learn about this beautiful and diverse part of Europe.
Balkan Countries Travel Tourist Expectations Vs. Local Customs
This is a relatively undiscovered part of Europe. Much less visited than, for instance, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, the British Isles, and France, the Balkan countries are somewhat of a blank spot on the map for many Western European and North American travelers.
It’s not a stretch to state that many Westerners don’t know much about the region. That is, of course, except for the Balkan War, which devastated the area in the 1990s. Although decades ago, people still ask us if the Balkans is safe. We can tell you, yes, 100% of the Balkans area is safe. The war is over.
If you still associate the word “Balkans” with war and refugees, you need to visit this gorgeous region. Things have improved and changed a lot.
That’s not to say there isn’t a cultural difference, though. Western tourists used to 24-hour shops, over-friendly service, and a speedy way of going about things might be disappointed. Restaurant service may be slow; stores may be closed in the middle of the day; people living in popular tourist hotspots may not be inclined to greet every obvious tourist with a smile. The people of the Balkan countries still very much like to take their time.
There are two ways to deal with this. One is to get frustrated and, by doing so, spoil your trip. The second is to accept these “differences”—because that’s all they are and move on.
If you get to know the locals, you’ll quickly find that they’re often surprisingly amiable and open. Sometimes, there is a natural skepticism toward tourists, which is understandable.
Realizing that you’re visiting a distinctly different cultural region in Europe will help make your trip all the more enjoyable. Don’t expect Western comforts all the time—although many places meet and even exceed those standards. Instead, be open and flexible. Immerse yourself in the local Balkan culture and inform yourself about local customs.
The Balkan War
The Balkan War was an incredibly complicated conflict. Sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late-1980s, this war was the only exception to the peaceful transition from communism to capitalism in Eastern Europe.
The war between Yugoslavian countries was initiated by free elections held in 1991 in Croatia and Slovenia to become independent nations. The Yugoslavian army tried to suppress these newly emerging opinions of freedom. The two countries declared independence anyway, followed by the Ten-Day War in Slovenia and the Croatian War of Independence that would last until 1995.
In the following years, Yugoslavia’s other countries gradually became independent. The conflict profoundly affected Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nation with large populations of Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs. The war eventually resulted in U.N. and NATO interventions. The Croatian and Bosnian wars ended in 1995, while the conflict in Kosovo lasted until 1999.
Nowadays, travel is safe in the Balkans. The region is war-free. Croatia is leading the way with a booming tourist industry.
The local life in the Balkan countries is virtually unaffected by mass tourism—with some exceptions in the popular coastal cities on the Adriatic Sea—and the locals are among the most welcoming and friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
An authentic and quiet rural region, the Balkans are home to vineyards, olive groves, truffle forests, goat farms, and honey farms. This is a superb destination if you’re a foodie looking for organic, local cuisine. The list of typical Balkan dishes is much longer than the Balkans countries list. Each country has several national specialties.
It must be said, however, that the Balkan people love their meat. Meat—beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and fish—is a prominent feature on any menu. So, vegans might face a challenge when traveling part of the Balkans (but if Croatia is your destination, we have a handy vegan guide for you!).
On the entire Balkan country list, only three use the Euro. Those are Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. Bosnia-Herzegovina uses the convertible mark.
At every border crossing, you’ll find places to exchange currency. Those places tend to be major rip-offs, taking advantage of unwary tourists. You should try to exchange currencies at local exchange offices away from the border if you can. Better even is to budget your visit to each specific country.
Visas In The Balkan Countries
Suppose you’re from a country in the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, or the United States. In that case, you can enter Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Croatia without a visa.
The allowed length of your stay does differ between those countries, though. Slovenia is not the only country part of the Schengen Zone now, allowing free travel and a 90-day stay in this multi-country zone in Europe. From 1 January 2023, Croatia entered the Schengen Zone and there are no land or sea port border controls. From the 26 March 2023, airport border controls will be abolished. This also means that a visit to, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and/or Montenegro does not affect the time you can stay in the Schengen Zone.
This is particularly important for long-term travelers as the days spent in those two Balkan nations are not included in the 90-day Schengen Zone limit. Moreover, if you spend a significant amount of time in those countries, your Schengen stay might even be renewed when reentering one of the zone’s countries.
This is complicated stuff, not relevant to most people visiting the Balkans. For most travelers, it is enough to know that you do not need a particular visa to spend time in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro as a tourist.
Just be sure to check with your local embassy before your trip – these things constantly change.
Balkan Countries List
We’ll continue this article about what to expect when traveling in the Balkans with a list of Balkan countries featured on this website, as backpacking through the Balkans is popular and will likely include these fantastic destinations. This is where you’ll find precisely what are the Balkans countries, again in the widest sense of the word, including the entire region. Here’s the list of the Balkans nations:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- North Macedonia
The following Balkans guide briefly introduces each country’s culture, characteristics, and highlights.
Map Of The Balkan Countries
Balkans Travel Guide: Where To Travel In The Balkans
With soothing scenes of beauty, beautiful beaches, snow-capped mountains, links to ancient history, pristine lakes, buildings of medieval architecture, well-known and small unspoiled islands, and idyllic villages, the Balkans is one of the most beautiful places in the world I love to visit.
Popularly known as The Balkan Peninsula, it is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and the Marmara Sea to the south, the Adriatic Sea to the west, and the Black Sea to the east. The rivers Danube, Sava, and Kupa are usually referred to as their northern boundary. It is endowed with natural beauty and has umpteen numbers of pristine beaches, mountains, and historic settlements. In short, it is a traveler’s paradise with much to offer in terms of exquisite holiday memories.
Did you know: One of the most famous personalities to have come out of the Balkans is Mother Teresa, now referred to as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She was born in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital before moving to India.
Now that you know the Balkan countries’ names let’s talk about each country individually. The following list of where to travel in the Balkans describes all Balkan countries and some of their top destinations and attractions.
An Independent Country Since: 1991
Slovenia may be tiny, but it’s packed with attractions. You can drive across in just a couple of hours, yet there’s everything from towering mountain peaks to historic cities, UNESCO-listed caves, and a spectacular coastline.
Often considered a Central European country rather than a Balkan country, Slovenia has more in common with Austria and Italy than Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is a place dotted with onion-domed churches, where geraniums adorn wood-beamed houses and are characterized by a disciplined mindset.
Population: 2,095,861 (2020)
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Top Destinations In Slovenia
A medieval Bled Castle overlooking a serene lake in the backdrop of snow-capped mountains offers you a magnificent panoramic view of the Julian Alps and the entire surrounding area.
- Triglav National Park
- Lake Bohinj
- Postojna Cave
- Skocjan Caves
An Independent Country Since: 1991
Croatia is one of the most popular beach destinations in southern Europe, boasting one of Europe’s most magnificent coastlines. The Dalmatian coast attracts millions of tourists yearly with its dazzling beaches, clear water, scenic islands, and historic towns. Croatia also features exceptional natural attractions, from gorges and mountains to thick forests, rivers, and lakes.
Croatia is a varied country. There’s the Italian-feeling Istrian peninsula in the north, the rural inland areas, the Dinaric Mountains just inland from the Adriatic Sea coast, the capital Zagreb, and the Dalmatian islands. Scattered within these regions, world-renowned UNESCO Heritage sites are not to be missed.
There are numerous attractions all over this stunning country. Still, you should focus on Plitvice National Park, Dubrovnik, Split, Zagreb, Krka National Park, Rovinj, and the islands of Hvar, Brač, and Korčula.
Population: 4,058,165 (2020)
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Top Destinations In Croatia
Besides great beaches and breathtaking landscapes, Dubrovnik in Croatia boasts many old buildings and is protected by UNESCO. The oldest arboretum in the world, Arboretum Trsteno, is situated here and dates back to before 1492. It has many Renaissance buildings that are considered architectural heritage. Apart from this, the city also has walls and is dotted with towers and turrets, but don’t worry; there are also loads of places to sleep close by.
While in Dubrovnik, do not miss a chance to sample some local delicacies served in the city’s exotic restaurants. If summer finds you here, you will surely fall in love with some of the enchanting beaches (head to Orebic) in the world as you savor sunrise and sunset in the most ethereal manner. Beaches such as Copacabana Beach, Lapad Beach, and Cava Beach are just a few that will not make you forget this city. After a day of exploring, maybe you’d like to stay in nature and go glamping or one of these unique Croatian hotels.
An Independent Country Since: 1992
Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most culturally and religiously diverse country in the Balkans. This is as close as you can get to the Middle East and Muslim culture without leaving Europe. This is a true crossroads country home to several ethnic minorities, such as the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, cityscapes are dotted with both church spires and minarets. It’s one of the few countries in Europe with a Muslim majority, making this a fascinating place to visit.
Combining a rich cultural heritage with beautiful nature, Bosnia-Herzegovina has a variety of attractions. Make sure you visit Mostar and Sarajevo and allow time to go whitewater rafting in Bihać, Banja Luka, or Foča and explore little towns such as Trebinje.[/su_box]
Population: 3,301,000 (2019)
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Top Destinations In Bosnia-Herzegovina
An Independent Country Since: 2006
In terms of landscapes, Montenegro is one of the world’s most spectacular countries. Its name meaning literally “Black Mountain,” this is a place of magnificent coastal hills, sandy beaches, rugged inland mountain ranges, deep canyons, and shimmering lakes.
Additionally, Montenegro also has vibrant coastal towns. The most well-known one is Budva, one of the Adriatic epicenters of luxury and beach travel, with loads of excellent hotels. Its hospitable people make this one of the most enjoyable places to visit in southern Europe, especially if you’re after an off-the-beaten-track outdoor adventure.
Population: 622,359 (2018)
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Top Destinations In Montenegro
If you are one of those who like just to put up your feet and look out on vast expanses of water, then Sveti Stefan is just the place for you. A beautiful island resort on the Adriatic, Sveti Stefan boasts soft pink sandy beaches, historic villages, and crystal clear water.
Ever wondered why this region is one of the most advertised tourist destinations in the world? It is because of the serene environment and the majestic landscapes found here.
If you love to walk along beautiful, long, stoney, or sandy beaches, consider heading to Bar, a picturesque, historic town on the Adriatic coast. And there is no better way to get there than hopping on to train The Balkan Express and then taking the ride from Belgrade to Bar.
This route is considered one of Europe’s most beautiful train routes passing through idyllic villages, mountains, and valleys that are soothing to the eye. When in Bar, don’t miss the 2000-year-old Old Olive Tree of Mirovica, King Nikola’s Palace, or any of the many fortresses, or stroll through the old town of Bar.
An Independent Country Since: 1912
A relatively unknown and unexplored country in the heart of the Balkans, Albania oozes culture and history. This is one of the oldest regions in Europe—if not the world—sharing the same history as Greece and Italy.
Albania lies between Macedonia, Kosovo, Greece, and Montenegro in a quiet corner of Europe. However, although it gets only a fraction of the crowds that visit Croatia, Greece, or Italy, those who go there often find themselves surprised by its wealth of ancient sites, beautiful architecture, and vibrant culture.
This is as off-the-beaten-path as you can get in southern Europe, making it great for budget travel (especially regarding accommodation). Albania boasts striking landscapes, incredible national parks, glorious beaches, and handfuls of historic towns and villages. Don’t miss Berat and Gjirokastra, the capital of Tirana, Theth National Park, Shkoder, and the Albanian Riviera.
Population: 2,845,955 (2020)
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Top Destinations In Albania
Dhermi is a relatively small, nondescript village with a turquoise coastline and is built on a slope of the Ceraunian Mountains. You could stroll through the magnificent beaches or see one of the churches. Apart from the tranquility, this village now also offers some exciting nightclubs to keep you entertained.
- Shodra Lake
- Butrint National Park
An Independent Country Since: 1908
Bulgaria is more or less the region where our ancient ancestors arrived in Europe. It is, therefore, one of the oldest inhabited regions on the continent, featuring several significant archaeological sites from the Neolithic period. Throughout its history, Bulgaria has been the home of the Thracians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Goths, Huns, and Ottomans.
The mix of cultures, architectural, and artistic styles is sensational. This extraordinary heritage is reflected in the country’s ten different UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including several unique ancient sites and a few breathtaking natural areas.
There’s plenty to see and do in Bulgaria. Still, major attractions include Sofia, the Ancient City of Nessebar, Central Balkan National Park, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo, Pirin National Park, the Seven Rila Lakes, the Rila Monastery, and the Madara Rider.
Population: 6,951,482 (2019)
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Top Destinations In Bulgaria
An Independent Country Since: 1991
Just like its western neighbor Albania, North Macedonia can trace its origins back to even before antiquity. The oldest settlements date from as far back as 7,000 BC, but it was not until the 4th century B.C. that it became the Kingdom of Macedon. North Macedonian culture and heritage are a mix of local and foreign influences, much like most other countries in the Balkans.
Note that the Republic of North Macedonia, as the country is officially known, is not the same as the historical region of Macedonia, which is much larger and spread across three neighboring countries. (After years of dispute with Greece, the country changed its name from “Macedonia” to “North Macedonia,” while a northern Greek province officially became “Macedonia”)
A landlocked country, North Macedonia, is a relatively mountainous place. Its landscapes are rugged and wild, characterized by mountain ranges, valleys, and large lakes. As you can imagine, its cities and cultural attractions are old—if not ancient. Any North Macedonia itinerary should contain, at the very least, Lake Ohrid, Matka Canyon, Mavrovo National Park, and Skopje.
Population: 2,077,132 (2019)
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Top Destinations In North Macedonia
This place is captivating because Ohrid is one of only 28 sites that are part of UNESCO’s World Heritage, which are Cultural and Natural sites.
Ohrid is interestingly referred to as the Jerusalem of the Balkans and once had 365 churches, one for each day of the year! Situated on the crystal-clear emerald lake called Ohrid, this town also boasts several ancient monasteries. This is one of the top places to visit in North Macedonia, if not in all the Balkan countries.
- Sar Mountains
An Independent Country Since: 2006
Novi Sad Serbia” width=”900″ height=”600″>
One of the largest countries in the Balkans, Serbia is the only country in Europe that uses Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Its capital city, Belgrade, is one of southeastern Europe’s largest and oldest cities, home to striking Communist-era buildings and Belgrade Fortress, just to name a few highlights. Belgrade’s Stari Grad is where you’ll find mansions dating from the 1800s and the iconic National Theater.
Outside the capital, numerous historic towns and archaeological sites dot the countryside made up of mountain ranges, plateaus, and rivers. While there’s a wealth of culture and history to be soaked up in Serbia, people who like being outdoors won’t be disappointed.
Absolute highlights include Fruška Gora National Park, the attractive Drina River, the Nikola Tesla Museum, the Stari Ras and Sopoćani complex, Derdap National Park, Belgrade Fortress, and the Studenica Monastery. Besides these, there are many other nature parks, ancient monasteries, fortresses, and old towns to visit and explore.
Population: 6,963,764 (2019)
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Top Destinations In Serbia
- Fruska Gora
- Novi Sad
- Tara National Park
An Independent Country Since: 1877
A large country in the northwestern corner of the Balkan Peninsula, Romania is known mainly for its numerous spectacular castles, epic landscapes, and beautiful towns. Arguably its most popular destination is Transylvania, a forested region with various hills and fortresses. Its most notable landmark is Bran Castle, associated with the legend of Dracula.
The well-preserved medieval town of Sighisoara is absolutely worth visiting as well. For more urban attractions, Bucharest’s capital city has several of those, most notably the enormous Communist-era Palace of Parliament.
The towering Carpathian Mountains flank Transylvania, a wild landscape home to wolves and brown bears that attract adventure seekers like hikers, campers, winter sports enthusiasts, rock climbers, and photographers alike. Yet another remarkable natural feature in Romania is the Danube River, which flows into the Black Sea in Romania. The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve is a prime location for wildlife watching, scenic bike rides, drives, and boat excursions.
Population: 19,317,984 (2020)
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Top Destinations In Romania
If you would like to take a walk back in time, then you should think of spending a few days in Maramures – or any place in Romania. This area offers picturesque sceneries and is home to many villages where century-old traditions are still followed.
The rural culture and crafts of the Romanian Dacian ancestors have been preserved to a great extent by the intimate villages. Simply put, it is here that you’ll get the closest to uncovering the true heritage of Romania.
- Danube Delta
- Bran Castle
An Independent Country Since: 2008 (not recognized by Serbia)
A landlocked country surrounded by Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia, Kosovo is a partially recognized country in the Balkans. Although some nations still don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence, it is a separate, although small, region in southeastern Europe with a distinct culture.
This fascinating new country has much going for it, including its obscurity. Because many travelers don’t know much about it, it has the unique potential to surprise and overwhelm unsuspecting visitors completely. Kosovo, after all, is gorgeous. It’s home to beautiful domed Serbian monasteries dating from the 1200s, picturesque mountain towns, and world-class hiking trails.
Despite its turbulent past, Kosovo is perfectly safe to visit now. Yet, it does remain one of the last off-the-beaten-track destinations in Europe. Like its neighbor Serbia, from which it declared independence in 2008, Kosovo is somewhat of a cultural crossroads in southern Europe, with Christian and Muslim influences.
However, its spectacular natural scenery is Kosovo’s most significant touristic resource. Home to towering mountains dotted with canyons and lakes and crisscrossed by rivers, this small country is an outdoor lover’s paradise. You can go hiking, cycling, whitewater rafting, fishing, boating, skiing, and snowboarding.
Population: 1,873,160 (2020)
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Top Destinations In Kosovo
Known as the Albanian Alps, the Rugova Mountains are a proclaimed National Park and are very popular among winter sports enthusiasts. The abundance of waterfalls, canyons, lakes, valleys, caves, and tall peaks offers incredible views to hikers, climbers, and backpackers.
Whether you are the hiking or hunting kind, Rugova in Kosovo has got you covered. The cool ambiance is enough to help you make some unforgettable memories.
- Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park
An Independent Country Since: 1830
Occupying the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula, Greece is arguably the most historical country in the world. It was one of the most influential regions in ancient times, showcased by lots of remaining structures and ruins to this day. This is, after all, where modern democracy originated, the very “cradle of Western civilization.”
The capital of Greece, Athens, is home to important landmarks dating as far back as the 5th century B.C. Its most iconic ancient attraction is, without question, the Acropolis, topped by the Parthenon. Other ancient locations in Greece worth visiting include the Palace of Knossos in Crete, the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, the Olympic Games birthplace in Olympia, and the island of Rhodes. On the other hand, Thessaloniki is Greece’s second-largest city and a former commercial hub in the Byzantine Empire.
Additionally, Greece is also famous worldwide for its thousands of islands that dot the Ionian and Aegean Seas. It’s a super-popular beach vacation destination, thanks to iconic places like Santorini and Mykonos.
Population: 10,724,599 (2019)
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Top Destinations In Greece
Metéora literally translates to “middle of the sky” or “in the heavens above.” Huge monolithic pillars and rock formations abound here. Want to experience a slice of heaven in the Balkans? Meteora is your best bet.
One of the most visited sites around Greece is the six monasteries built on natural conglomerate pillars at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and the Pindus Mountains. The view of the mountains from these monasteries certainly makes it a must-see destination.
An Independent Country Since: 1923
The crossroads of cultures, the meeting point of continents, Turkey lies in Europe and Asia and has historical and cultural connections to countless other regions. Influences range from Greek, Roman, and Persian to their own Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Visitors can find fascinating historic buildings, ancient ruins, and centuries-old heritage throughout the country.
Although not the capital of Turkey (that’s Ankara), the country’s largest city by far is Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium, this massive metropolis is home to some of the world’s greatest buildings. In the city’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can visit iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and Topkapi Palace.
Elsewhere in Turkey, other major tourist destinations include the “fairy chimneys” in Cappadocia, the underground towns of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, the ancient ruins of Ephesus, and the remains of Troy. Natural highlights range from Pamukkale’s phenomenal travertine hot springs and the Turquoise Coast’s gorgeous beaches and Turkish Riviera.
Population: 10,620,739 (2021)
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Top Destinations In Turkey
Ani Ghost City
A magnificent medieval city that was abandoned and forgotten and is now in ruins. Known as the City of Thousand Gates and City of Forty Gates, Ani has much to offer in terms of beautiful churches and minarets dating back to 961.
Local volcanic basalt, a sort of tufa stone, was used in the construction of all the structures you find in this city. Apart from the fact that it is easily carved, it also comes in various vibrant colors, from creamy yellow to rose red, to jet black, which makes the structures look beautiful.
The Balkans offers tourists an amazingly wide variety of choices to pick from. This list mentions only a few of the best places to stay and explore in the Balkans. If you plan your next holiday, consider the Balkans, and you will realize that it is indeed one of the most diverse parts of the world.
So tell us, after learning what countries are the Balkans, which one of these tremendous Balkan countries will you visit first?Share