Backpacking the Balkans should be a right of passage, as there are so many different opportunities awaiting travellers in this region. From the stunning azure waters of the Adriatic coastline to the wild mountains of Romania and Bulgaria there are so many places to discover in the region!
However, unfortunately, most of the countries within the Balkans aren’t often thought of as holiday destinations and overlooked, thanks in part to the area’s troubled history.
This is a shame because travelling this region is incredibly cheap and easy, with plenty of destinations being accessible by public transport. This article will go through everything you need to know about travelling the Balkans.
This Balkans Travel Guide includes transportation, the best destinations to visit in each country, the different currencies used and top tips to help you enjoy your trip.
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Where are the Balkans?
The Balkan Peninsula is a region located in Southeastern Europe. Much of the area is comprised of the former Yugoslavia and is made up of the following countries:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- North Macedonia
A very small part of Turkey falls within the Balkan Peninsula, but it’s so small that it doesn’t warrant inclusion in this guide. We will cover Turkey in detail at a later date.
How to travel around the Balkans
When it comes to travelling the Balkans, there are a variety of ways to get around, making this area incredibly accessible. You can travel around this region by public transport, as buses and trains between destinations are readily available.
You also have the option to hire a car and go on the ultimate Balkan road trip! Travelling by car or public transport is often cheaper than flying and allows you to see more of the region.
I have backpacked around the Balkans on three occasions and have found the infrastructure to be excellent and travel very cheap compared to the rest of Europe.
Travel by bus
Travelling by bus is a convenient way to get around, although some of the journeys are long. Not only can you take bus journeys throughout a country, but you can also catch international buses which travel across the border of neighbouring countries. This is often a lot cheaper than catching a flight.
However, depending on which country you are travelling through it can be difficult to find timetable information. The good thing is that often bus tickets don’t have to be booked in advance so you can simply head to the bus station, or check with your hotel or hostel if in doubt. Some of the best websites to research and book travel online include Rome2Rio and Balkanviator.
If you are looking to save money on accommodation whilst travelling the Balkans, you can always take an overnight bus to your destination. However, although they are a great way to save money and kill two birds with one stone, they often arrive at places very early – sometimes as early as 4 am.
Here are a few examples of the bus routes I have taken across the Balkans:
- Dubrovnik (Croatia) to Mostar (Bosnia)
- Dubrovnik (Croatia) to Kotor (Montenegro)
- Zabljak (Montenegro) to Sarajevo (Bosnia)
- Ohrid (North Macedonia) to Tirana (Albania)
- Belgrade (Serbia) to Pristina (Kosovo)
- Skopje (North Macedonia) to Sophia (Bulgaria)
- Sophia (Bulgaria) to Istanbul (Turkey)
- Istanbul (Turkey) to Thessaloniki (Greece)
Travel by train
Train travel around the Balkans is also popular as the scenery is beautiful. However, travelling by train is often less accessible depending on which country you are travelling to. The connections between some of the countries in the Balkans are not straightforward, and some don’t exist altogether. For example, travelling by train between Macedonia and Bulgaria, and Croatia and Montenegro isn’t possible.
The main thing to remember is to do your research on train routes before you travel. This way you can work out the simplest route between each country. Websites such as Rail Europe will provide you with plenty of information to help plan the perfect route.
When it comes to cost, there are different rail passes available depending on your home country and where you are travelling to. However, it’s important to note that not all countries in the Balkans are covered by rail passes.
Interrail Pass – The InterRail Global pass is a great way to travel through the Balkans. Travel within the countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia are all included within the trail pass. However, there is a catch. The Interrail Global Pass is not available to non-European residents.
Eurail Global Pass – EuroRail offers two different types of passes; single and multi-country passes. The single country passes allow unlimited travel in the countries of Croatia, Greece, Serbia and Slovenia. The multi-country pass allows travel in three, four, or five neighbouring countries. These types of passes are also available for non-European residents which is the best part!
Hiring a car
Hiring a car to travel around the Balkans is a great way to see the area. It means you have the convenience of stopping off at whichever destination takes your fancy, and also see places that would have been missed if travelling by bus or train.
If you choose to hire a car, it’s important to make sure you have the right insurance and the right driving license. It’s also important to do your research when it comes to which companies to use. Some hire car companies don’t allow you to drive into certain countries with their hire cars, so make sure you look up the rules and guidelines first.
Border crossings between the different countries are incredibly easy. If you are travelling by bus, either you will get off the bus to head to a passport counter, or a guard will hop onto the bus to save you the trouble. Once processed, you will have your passport handed back to you. Sometimes there will also be brief checks of the luggage compartments, or you will be asked to open your luggage.
The one thing to be mindful of is checking where you are crossing the border, and which countries you are travelling to. For example, there are complications that occur between the Kosovo-Serbia border, as Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
It is not possible to enter Serbia from Kosovo if you entered Kosovo from a third country (i.e Albania). Having a Kosovo stamp in your passport can also create problems when entering or re-entering Serbia.
When I travelled to Kosovo in 2010 I was taken off the bus and questioned/searched by Serbian authorities when trying to re-enter Serbia.
Be sure to check the latest travel information as things can change quickly, and there has been some unrest in late 2021.
Accommodation in the Balkans
You can find accommodation to suit your budget and needs across the Balkans. From homestays in Bosnia to 5* Resorts in Montenegro and log cabins in the mountains, there is something for everyone. Below is a small selection of the places I have stayed on my many trips through the region:
Mostar, Bosnia – Hostel Miran – a wonderful hostel a few minutes walk from the centre
Sarajevo, Bosnia – Balkan Han Hostel – friendly hostel with a central location
Kotor, Montenegro – Montenegro Hostel 4 U – perfect location with private lakeside beach
Zabljak (Durmitor), Montenegro – Hostel Hiker’s Den – perfect for wilderness adventure
Ohrid, North Macedonia – Sunny Lake Hostel – great backpackers hostel in the centre of town
Belgrade, Serbia – El Diablo Hostel – fun backpackers hostel centrally located
Tirana, Albania – Jolly City Centre Hotel – very good value, comfortable rooms in a central location
Pristina, Kosovo – City Inn – reasonably priced rooms in the centre of Pristina
Read all about camping in Slovenia!
The currencies around the Balkans
If you are planning to travel to the Balkans, then understanding the currency is important. Of all the different countries within this region, only a few countries use the euro. Here is a list of the different countries within the Balkans, and the main currency they use:
- Albania – Lek (L)
- North Macedonia – Denar (Ден)
- Greece – Euro (€)
- Montenegro – Euro (€)
- Kosovo – Euro (€)
- Bulgaria – Lev (Лв)
- Romania – Leu (lei)
- Serbia – Dinar (din)
- Bosnia Herzegovina – Convertible Mark (KM)
- Croatia – Kuna (kn)
- Slovenia – Euro (€)
ATMs are widespread in major towns and cities. Credit/debit cards are also accepted in popular tourist spots. However, it is a good idea to have enough of the local currency on you when travelling the Balkans as in the smaller towns and villages it will be cash only.
Languages in the Balkans
Most of the countries within the Balkans have their own unique language, however, Serbo-Croat is spoken and understood in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Some countries in the region use the Latin alphabet and others use Cyrillic, so it can get a bit confusing. English is understood in the major cities and tourist areas, however out in the countryside you may struggle to find an English speaker.
The weather in the Balkans
The weather in the Balkans varies depending on which area you visit. The northern and more central part of the Balkans generally has a Central European Climate which is characterised by cold winters, warm summers and plenty of rainfall. These include countries such as Kosovo and Serbia, as the mountains have a big effect on the climate.
The southern and coastal areas of the Balkans tend to have more of a Mediterranean climate with dry, hot summers and mild winters. The countries in the Balkans with this type of climate tend to be the likes of Croatia, Greece and Albania.
The best time to visit the Balkans
The Balkans can be visited all year round, as the region offers something special at any time of year. However, the best time to visit is during the shoulder season period which is from April to June and between September to November. This is because the weather is milder, the more popular spots aren’t as busy and the weather is still warm enough to enjoy the coastal destinations.
July and August are the two busiest months to visit the Balkans, meaning the more popular tourist spots like Croatia and Greece are often packed with tourists. The temperature in some of the inland cities can also be unbearably warm during these summer months.
Safety in the Balkans
As with much of Eastern Europe, the region is generally safe to visit and crime towards tourists is thankfully rare. Some of the countries in the Balkans are a lot poorer than northern Europe and as such petty crime can occur in busy places and on public transport. That being said, I’ve travelled the Balkans many times over the last 15 years and never experienced a problem in this regard.
One of the most important things to be aware of is the unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmines left over from the break-up of Yugoslavia and more recent hostilities in Serbia and Kosovo.
Although minefields were originally mapped, flooding and other natural events have meant that many mines have since shifted and can be anywhere in the countryside across much of Bosnia and Kosovo especially.
Always stick to well-worn (preferably paved) paths and don’t venture off if you do not know if the area is safe or not. Again, this issue is mainly confined to Bosnia and Kosovo, but can also affect parts of Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia. Be sure to check with locals/your hostel etc before venturing off.
When meeting locals, it’s best to avoid talking about the various conflicts such as the break up of Yugoslavia and later hostilities in Serbia and Kosovo.
Top tips whilst travelling the Balkans
- When it comes to currency exchanges, try to avoid them at the border crossings. The exchange rates tend to be awful, and tourists are very often ripped off. Try to exchange your currency at local exchange offices away from the borders.
- Visa rules vary between each country, even though many of them are in the European Union so it’s best to do your research first. It also depends on your own nationality whether you require a visa to visit specific countries.
- If travelling by public transport throughout the Balkans, make sure to carry loose change of the currency.
- Be cautious when travelling anywhere by taxi, as tourists have been known to be overcharged by a considerable amount.
- The Balkans does have a tipping culture, so make sure to leave a tip whilst dining out at restaurants or cafes.
- In general, the WIFI is pretty good in the Balkans however, certain countries do have it worse than others. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to pick up a cheap sim card with data for internet access.
- Be mindful when it comes to political and regional issues whilst travelling through the Balkans.
- Throughout history, some of the countries have gone through political instability and civil war so it’s probably best not to broach the subject.
- It can be difficult to be vegetarian when travelling the Balkans, as the local delicacies all centre around meat. However, times are changing and in the larger countries, more vegetarian and vegan options are being introduced.
The top destinations to visit in each country
The Balkans offer so many incredible countries and destinations to visit. Here is a brief run-through of each country and the most popular spots to visit.
The western Balkan country of Albania is relatively undiscovered when it comes to tourism, but offers so much to travellers. The country is home to incredible Ottoman architecture, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, phenomenal scenery and some of the most beautiful beaches in the region.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Albania:
North Macedonia is located in the centre of the Balkans and until recently, was a very quiet country. However, tourism has started to take off and it isn’t hard to see why. With beautiful natural scenery, wildlife and architecture, North Macedonia should be on any travellers radar.
Here are some of the top places to visit in North Macedonia:
- Mount Ljuboten
- Lake Ohrid
- Mavrovo National Park
Greece is well known as a popular holiday destination across the globe. Whether you want to lounge on its beautiful beaches, explore one of the world’s oldest cities or eat lots of tasty food, the country has plenty to offer for tourists.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Greece:
- Temple of Zeus
Montenegro is one of the most beautiful countries in the region and is a must-visit whilst backpacking the Balkans. Aside from magical medieval towns, the country of Montenegro is known for its scenic national parks, mountain peaks and tranquil lakes.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Montenegro:
- Durmitor National park
- Sveti Stefan
Kosovo is Europe’s newest country after declaring its independence in 2008. Although it has a relatively recent history of civil war and still has its political issues with Serbia, tourists have no issues visiting this gem of a country.
Home to beautiful cities, mountainous terrain and plenty of museums where you can learn about the country’s history – Kosovo should definitely be on your list whilst travelling the Balkans.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Kosovo:
- Gazivoda Lake
- Bjeshkët E Nemuna
Bulgaria is one of the most underrated countries in Europe but offers literally everything a traveller could desire. Depending on which part of the country you visit, you will get to see the beautiful Black Sea, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, snow-covered ski resorts and the oldest inhabited city in Europe.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Bulgaria:
- Rila Monastery
- Seven Rila Lakes
Romania isn’t often the first place on many people’s bucket lists, however, there are so many incredible places to visit. Whether you are a culture buff, nature lover or foodie, this country offers something for every type of traveller.
There are plenty of famous castles and World Heritage Sites to visit, lot’s of opportunities to eat tasty authentic dishes and you can even get to spot bears in the wild.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Romania:
Although Serbia has a complicated political past and a relatively recent civil war, the country itself is generally very safe for travellers. With an array of scenic natural sites, interesting cities and stunning national parks, Serbia is a must-visit.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Serbia:
- Novi Sad
- Ovcar-Kablar Gorge
- Tara National Park
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Much of Bosnia and Herzegovina is considered to be off the tourist trail, making it relatively quiet with a laid back atmosphere. With plenty of authentic cities to visit, stunning national parks and scenic waterfalls, Bosnia and Herzegovina should be on any travellers radar.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Bosnia and Herzegovina:
- Una National Park
- Kravica Waterfalls
Croatia is an overwhelmingly popular destination and although the sites are often packed with tourists, the country is a must whilst travelling through the Balkans. With so many beautiful beaches, breathtaking cities and plenty of national parks to visit, you will never run out of things to do in Croatia.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Croatia:
- Plitvice Lakes National Park
Slovenia is one of the most beautiful countries in the Balkans with scenic alpine villages, towering peaks, emerald lakes, and charming cities. It is a popular destination for hiking and sightseeing, so if you love nature don’t leave this country off your list whilst backpacking the Balkans.
Here are some of the top places to visit in Slovenia:
- Lake Bled
- Triglav National Park
- Škocjan Caves
Does backpacking the Balkans sound appealing to you? Well, it definitely should! This region of the world has so much to offer, and there is something for every traveller. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer to lounge on a beach, cram in as many cultural sites as possible or prefer to hike your way through a country – this region has it all.
When it comes to travelling the Balkans, there are so many incredible sites to see and many of these are easily accessible by public transport. The region is easy to travel through, and you will be astounded by the sights to see, so make sure this part of the world is on your bucket list.
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang, the tropical paradise of Sanya and Hong Kong.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.