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Balkan Travel Guide: What to Expect When Traveling in the Balkans
The Balkans, or the Balkan Peninsula, is a distinct, and rather large, part of southeastern Europe. It takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that extend between the border of Serbia and Bulgaria all the way to the Black Sea. The region comprises many countries. Some definitions consider up to a dozen nations to be entirely or at least partially located in the Balkans. Most often, however, the definition—or public perception—is limited to the ex-Yugoslavian countries, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. It’s always up for debate.
As we at Chasing the Donkey focus on the western Balkans, we’ll zoom in on that particular area within the Balkans. This article talks about what to expect when traveling in the Balkans, more specifically in the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro (we’ll soon as more so if you have any tips let us know!)
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 Balkans are somewhat of a blank spot on the map for many Western European and North American travelers.
It’s not a stretch to say that a lot of Westerners don’t know much about the region. That is, of course, with the exception of the Balkan War, which devastated the region in the 1990s. Now twenty years ago, this war still seems to linger in people’s minds. If you’re one of those people who still associate the word “Balkans” with war and refugees, you really need to visit this gorgeous region. Things have improved and changed a lot.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a cultural difference, though. Western tourists used to 24-hour shops, overfriendly service and a speedy way of going about things might be disappointed. The Balkan people still very much like to take their time. 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.
There are two ways to deal with this. One is to get frustrated and, by doing so, spoil your own trip. The second is to accept these “differences”—because that’s all they are, and move on. And if you get to know the locals, you’ll quickly find out that they’re often surprisingly amiable and open. Sometimes, there simply 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 do meet and even exceed those standards. Rather, be open and flexible. Immerse yourself in the local 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 was between Yugoslavian countries and was initiated by free elections held in 1991 in Croatia and Slovenia to become independent nations. The Yugoslavian army stepped in and tried to suppress these newly emerging opinions of freedom. The two countries declared independence anyway, which was followed by the Ten-Day War in Slovenia and the Croatian War of Independence that would last until 1995.
In the following years, all the other countries in Yugoslavia gradually became independent. Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nation with large populations of Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs, was heavily affected by the conflict. The war eventually resulted in U.N. and NATO interventions. Both the Croatian and Bosnian wars ended in 1995 while the conflict in Kosovo lasted until 1999.
Nowadays, the Balkans are a safe region for travel with Croatia leading the way with a booming tourist industry.
In fact, the local life in the Balkans 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 quite a rural region, the Balkans are home to vineyards, olive groves, truffle forests, goat farms and honey farms. If you’re a foodie looking for organic, local cuisine, this is a superb destination.
It must be said, however, that the Balkan people love their meat. Meat—beef, lamb, pork, chicken and of course, fish—is a prominent feature on any menu. Vegans might face a challenge when traveling part of the Balkans.
Balkan Travel Guide: What to Eat in Slovenia. Photo Credit: Vida Dimovska
Only two countries in the western Balkans use the euro. Those are Slovenia and Montenegro. Croatia, even though it’s part of the European Union, still uses the Kuna while Bosnia-Herzegovina uses the convertible mark.
At every border crossing, you’ll find places to exchange currency. Those places, however, 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. Try and take out the exact amount of money you think you’ll need—nothing more—so that you’re not left with a bunch of Kuna when heading into Slovenia, for example. It’s also worth noting that many places do accept euros. Not all do, though, so make sure you always have some local cash on you.
What About Visas?
If you’re from a country in the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the United States, you can enter Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro without a visa.
The allowed length of your stay does differ between those countries, though. Slovenia is the only country that’s part of the Schengen Zone, which allows free travel and a 90-day stay in this multi-country zone in Europe. This also means that a visit to Croatia, 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 three countries 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 the majority of 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 change all of the time.
An Overview of Countries
We’ll finish this article about what to expect when traveling in the Balkans with an overview of the four countries featured most on this website. This includes a brief intro to each particular country’s culture, characteristics, and highlights.
Slovenia may be small, 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 as a Central European country rather than a Balkan country, Slovenia has more in common with Austria and Italy than with Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is a place dotted with onion-domed churches, where geraniums adorn wood-beamed houses and characterized by a disciplined mindset.
Boasting one of Europe’s greatest coastlines, Croatia is one of the most popular beach destinations in southern Europe. The Dalmatian coast, especially, attracts thousands of tourists each year with its stunning 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 of Zagreb and the Dalmatian islands.
There are numerous attractions all over this amazing country, but you should focus on Plitvice National Park, Dubrovnik, Split, Zagreb, Krka National Park, Rovinj and the islands of Hvar, Brač and Korčula.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most culturally and religiously diverse country in the Balkans. Home to several ethnic minorities, such as the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, this is a true crossroads country. This is a close as you can get to the Middle East and Muslim culture without leaving Europe.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, cityscapes are dotted with both church spires and minarets. It’s one of the very few countries in Europe with a Muslim majority, which makes 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, but also allow time to go whitewater rafting in the Bihać, Banja Luka or Foča and explore little towns such as Trebinje.
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.
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. Additionally, Montenegro also has vibrant coastal towns. The most well-known one is Budva, one of the Adriatic epicenters of luxury and beach travel.
A relatively unknown and unexplored country in the heart of the Balkans, Albania oozes culture and history. In fact, this is one of the oldest regions in Europe—if not in the world—sharing basically 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 do 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 when it comes to accommodation). Albania is a country boasting striking landscapes and wonderful 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.
Bulgaria is more or less the very 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 long history, Bulgaria has been the home of the Thracians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Goths, Huns and Ottomans.
Needless to say, the mix of cultures, architectural and artistic styles is sensational. This fantastic heritage is reflected in the country’s ten different UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which include not only several amazing ancient sites but also a few breathtaking natural areas.
There’s plenty to see and do in Bulgaria, but 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.
Bulgaria Travel Blog Posts
- Best Places in the Balkans To Go Hiking
- 18 Places That Must Be on Your Balkans Travel Itinerary
- Chasing Famous Waterfalls in the Balkans
- Things To Do In Bulgaria
- Things To Do In Sofia
- Things To Do In Varna
- Best Day Trips From Sofia
- Bansko Ski Resort
- Bulgarian Festivals
- Rent A Car Bulgaria
Just like its western neighbor Albania, Macedonia can trace its origins back to even before antiquity. The oldest settlements date from as far back as 7,000 BC, but it’s not until the 4th century BC that it becomes the Kingdom of Macedon. Macedonian culture and heritage is a mix of local and foreign influences, much like most other countries in the Balkans. Note that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as the country is officially known, is not the same as the historical region of Macedonia, which as much larger and spread out across three of its neighboring countries as well. (There’s still a dispute with Greece about the use of the name “Macedonia”.)
A landlocked country, Macedonia is a rather 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 Macedonia itinerary should contain at the very least Lake Ohrid, Matka Canyon, Mavrovo National Park and Skopje.
One of the largest countries in the Balkans, Serbia is the only country in Europe that uses both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Its capital city of Belgrade is one of southeastern Europe’s largest and oldest cities, home to striking Communist-era buildings and Belgrade Fortress, just to name a couple of highlights. Belgrade’s Stari Grad is where you’ll find mansions dating from the 1800s as well as the iconic National Theater.
Outside of the capital, numerous historic towns and archaeological sites dot a 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 either.
Absolute highlights include Fruška Gora National Park, the amazing 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.
Do you feel like you now know what to expect when traveling in the Balkans?