When venturing to southeastern Europe, let the gorgeous Balkans region be your chosen destination. This expansive territory spans several European countries, each with its own tantalizing culture and charm. In this detailed guide, we will share all the essential Balkan tips to get you started!
From the cheery Balkan people to the picture-perfect Balkan mountains landscapes, there are many good things about this part of “the Old Continent”. With so much to see and do, you’ll need a set of Balkan tips, tricks, and travel suggestions for a smooth, worry-free Balkan Peninsula trip.
The following article will help you elevate your Balkans holiday plans, whether visiting for a short time or tackling a longer two-week Balkans itinerary.
15 Essential Balkan Tips You Need to Know
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Our first trip to the Balkans was in early 2020, and since becoming full-time travelers we often spend months in a row in the region relishing cuisines, learning different cultures, and just soaking in the beautiful landscapes!
We have completed this guide using our experience of the region, so no need to stress or panic about finding a Balkan travel guide that hits all the sweet spots. Here are 15 essential nuggets of useful info to serve as a really useful Balkans tips go-to.
1. Where to locate the Balkans
The Balkan region comprises several different countries. This means you can expect eclectic cultural experiences from different nationalities across a bevy of beautiful smaller destinations and major cities like Sarajevo, Sofia, and Zagreb.
The Balkan countries are:
- Albania (“The Land of the Eagles”)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina (“The Heart-shaped Land”)
- Bulgaria (“The Land of Roses”)
- Croatia (“Our Beautiful”)
- Kosovo (“The Land of Freedom”) – an independent country that self-declared in 2008
- Montenegro (“The Black Mountain”)
- North Macedonia (“The Land Of the Sun”)
- Romania (“The Land Of Count Dracula”)
- Serbia (“Rascia – The Land of the Serbs”)
- Slovenia (“The Sunny Side of the Alps”)
- Turkey (“Anatolia”) and Greece (“Hellas”) – some areas in these countries are considered part of the Balkans
2. What the Balkans region offers
The name “Balkan” itself is a giveaway, as it means “mountain” when translated from Turkish. Naturally, this region abounds in gorgeous landscapes and majestic mountain peaks like the Julian Alps.
You’ll also find wondrous architecture, picturesque coastal hideaways, and fascinating historical towns like Macedonia’s Ohrid. If you enjoy island retreats, the Balkans deliver those, too.
Fun Fact: Thanks to the Balkans’ rich history, dating back to 9th-and-10th-century Bulgaria, we have the Cyrillic alphabet.
3. Check your visa requirements for visiting Balkan countries
Citizens of the United States, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand can visit the following Balkan states without a visa for up to 90 days within six months from arrival:
- North Macedonia
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
What about other travelers and Balkan destinations not mentioned above? Check your applicable travel requirements before departure. Consult the relevant authorities (e.g., the embassy) to get all the necessary information.
Note that countries like Greece, Slovenia, and Croatia are part of the European Union and they follow the Schengen rules (90 days of entry within a rolling 180-day period). Countries like Romania, and Bulgaria do not follow this rule, although they are an EU member.
Furthermore, countries like Serbia allow for visa-free entry for passport holders from India, etc.
4. The best time to visit the Balkans
The truth is the best time to visit the Balkans depends on a few factors, like your budget, how much time you want to spend in the region and your weather preferences.
Generally, the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) are favored. They provide endless opportunities for wild outdoor adventures in places like the Balkan national parks and forests.
Take a look at this snapshot of what each season promises to help you make your choice:
- Spring (April – June): You’ll enjoy pleasant temperatures along the coast and relish plenty of inland activities in countries like Serbia and Greece.
- Summer (June – August): The summer months are peak season, which means busy tourist attractions and higher prices across the board. During this time, the Balkans beam with a warm and dry Mediterranean-style climate. For beach and coastal fiestas and visits to the Balkan peaks, the summer season is your best bet.
- Fall (September – November): For cycling and hiking enthusiasts looking for balmy conditions, travel to the Balkans during the fall. Besides nature’s vibrant bursts of changing colors, you’ll also revel in the cultural events taking place. An example is Croatia’s annual Feast of St. Martin (“Martinje”), perfect for wine lovers, on the 11th of November.
- Winter (December – March): Balkan winters are cold and rainy but surprisingly mild, too, at times. The coldest months are January and February when temperatures can drop as low as -5°C (23°F) in the interiors. The mountains are often covered with heavy snowfall, so be sure to pack lots of layers.
5. Draw up a budget for the cost of your Balkan holiday (it is not soo expensive for a European trip as you might think)
Balkan nations are very affordable, except European Union countries Croatia, Greece, and Slovenia – the most popular tourist destinations in the Balkans. Balkan countries trump Europe’s golden children, like France, Italy, and Spain, for inexpensiveness.
It’s great to save money, whether yours is a short trip or a lavish 10-day European itinerary.
That said, the best places to enjoy budget-friendly Balkan escapades and get good value for money are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria.
These countries offer fabulous food, fun cultural experiences, fantastic accommodation deals, and charming cities with plenty to see and do.
On average, you’ll shell out around $40 – $160 (€38 – €150) per day per person which is cheaper than a Western Europe vacation. A longer time will require a bigger budget.
6. Carry enough of the local currency in cash
Depending on where you’re hailing from, there’s a chance your own currency won’t be helpful in a Balkan country. This is unless you’re accustomed to the Euro — which some of the Balkan countries use.
To help prepare you for the currency you’ll need, here’s a summary:
- Albania – the Albanian Lek (ALL)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina – the Bosnia-Herzegovina Convertible Mark (BAM)
- Bulgaria – the Bulgarian Lev (BGN)
- Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Greece – the Euro (EUR)
- North Macedonia – the Macedonian Denar (MKD)
- Romania – the Romanian Leu (RON)
- Serbia – the Serbian Dinar (RSD)
- Turkey – the Turkish Lira (TRY)
Remember, carrying too much money is never advisable. Around $50 (€47) in cash should suffice. Cash will come in handy for café eats and purchases at markets, souvenir stores, and quaint boutiques during your day excursions.
Work with a budget, plan what you need daily, carry just enough safely, and leave all other valuables at your accommodation.
7. Learn a few phrases in the local language
While not a general rule but more of an unspoken understanding, we all know and appreciate this simple truth. Traveling somewhere new necessitates immersing yourself in the local ways.
One of the most important cultural immersions is learning basic phrases in the native tongue. There’s no common language in the Balkans and Slavic languages are considered challenging, but learn what will get you by.
In a region teeming with different ethnic groups, you’ll feel stoked with yourself when you can exchange pleasantries and ask for help (like directions). This is also part of extending country-specific gestures of respect, kindness, and gratitude where appropriate.
Here are the official languages in each of the Balkan countries:
- Albania – Albanian
- Bosnia and Herzegovina – Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian
- Bulgaria – Bulgarian, with considerable Turkish and Romani spoken in parts as well
- Croatia – Croatian, with a large population of locals comfortable to exchange conversations in English
- Kosovo – Albanian, with a considerable portion of locals speaking Serbian as well
- Montenegro – Montenegrin, with Albanian, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian recognized as co-official languages
- North Macedonia – Macedonian, with Albanian as a co-official language
- Romania – Romanian, with Romani and Hungarian spoken in parts as well
- Serbia – Serbian
- Slovenia – Slovenian (or Slovene), with Italian and Hungarian recognized widely as well
- Turkey – Turkish
- Greece – Greek
8. Packing for your trip to the Balkans
Depending on your travel duration and when you are traveling, it is always a good idea to be well-prepared for your trip to the Balkans. All year round a light scarf, sweater, and a waterproof jacket always come in handy (in the mountains and in most Balkan cities).
Here’s our suggestion for Balkan must-haves:
- Comfortable walking shoes – Comfort is king when walking, touring, hiking, and sightseeing. Get comfortable sneakers here.
- Warm sweaters – It can get nippy in the evenings, especially when visiting the Balkan peaks. Buy warm sweaters here to keep you cozy.
- Sunscreen and hats – Quality sun protection goes a long way, regardless of the weather. Buy sunscreen and find a stylish travel hat here.
- First aid kit – A travel-friendly first aid kit with medical goodies and mandatory OTC items is a no-brainer (did someone say Imodium?). Ensure your medication and prescriptions are valid in your host country. Buy a first aid kit here.
- Camera – Is it a real Balkan quest without pictures as proof? Do one better than your smartphone and take a digital camera to snap marvelous Balkan stills. Shop for a camera here.
9. Be safe in the Balkans
It’s normal to wonder: “Are the Balkans safe?” and the answer is “Yes”; the Balkans are indeed safe to visit. Follow precautions and the host country’s standard rules to enjoy a trouble-free trip.
Like all other tourist destinations, it’s imperative to be on high alert when in public spaces. Watch out for petty crime – like pickpocketing and bag snatching in touristy areas. Taxi drivers can be rumbustious when negotiating to squeeze an extra buck.
This is more than just a Balkans travel tip but something to remember for all international journeys. Most travel guides and warnings stress that the main thing when traveling to a new destination is to keep your wits about you and practice caution while out and about.
Do some research on the area you’re visiting and stay vigilant – particularly in crowded spaces. Familiarize yourself with emergency numbers and the relevant police hotline to report any concerning incidents.
Fun Fact: The 2019 Global Peace Index identified Slovenia as the world’s eighth safest country. Romania is rated 25th on the list, with Albania (51), North Macedonia (65), and Bosnia (81) making the cut of the top 100 safest nations in the world.
10. Scour the food scene and try new dishes in the Balkans
It’s all about long-standing traditions, exquisite food, ample portions, and sharing in the Balkans. Try local specialties such as Bakalar fish and Rožata, a creamy Croatian pudding.
You can also sample Balkan staples like Ćevapi (a tasty sausage dish much-loved in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Rakia (or Rakija). The latter is a delicious, double-distilled fruit brandy. It’s considered the people’s spirit in Serbia, Romania, and Albania.
Try a hearty Albanian Flija (or Flia — a layered pie of batter and sour cream) or a meaty Bulgarian Moussaka meal accompanied by some Rakia. You might even get away with making Rakia part of your holiday five-a-day.
See, this drink features grapes, apricots, and plums with a generous slash of the good, strong stuff, of course. That’s 50%-80% strength to take you to cloud nine — the cheeky Balkans way.
When culinary experiences are at the center of your travels, stick to the coastal countries. Traditional Albanian, Croatian, Greek, Montenegrin, and Turkish dishes and their seafood creations are out of the world.
For travelers who get slightly nervous about unfamiliar foods in new places, remember these Balkan food tips:
- Go ahead and try new dishes; you’re on holiday, after all. But if you prefer not to get carried away, keep it simple.
- Savor each meal by taking your time and staying mindful of new, mouth-watering flavors, scents, food combinations, and ingredients.
- Keep hydrated and opt for bottled water when you’re unsure about the quality of tap water at designated locations like your accommodation.
- Prioritize freshly prepared meals over processed and packaged foods.
- While ultimate fun on holiday is the aim of the game, don’t overdo the caffeine and alcohol.
11. Plan your Balkans transportation
Public transportation, both economical and immersive, is the best way to travel within the Balkans. Buses and trains are efficient, relatively affordable, and easy to use.
We’re talking about 12 countries with varying degrees of public transport safety. On the whole, traveling in the Balkans as a visitor is safe enough.
Travel durations will depend on where you’re moving between, but you can count on reliability and comfort. To gauge pricing, let’s look at the quick examples below.
Depending on the exact time of the year you visit, intercity bus travel in Croatia could range between $20 – $30 (€18 – €28) per ticket. The FlixBus company offers the most impressive services all around and is trusted by many Europe-bound jet-setters.
By comparison, a Mostar to Sarajevo intercity bus in Bosnia and Herzegovina could cost between $13 and $20 (€12 – €18) per traveler. Use websites like Get By Bus to compare cross-country travel prices.
To give you a rough idea, a 7.5-hour, one-way FlixBus ticket from Bulgaria (departing in Sofia) to Romania (arriving in Bucharest) could cost around $16 (€15).
In regards to trains, Eurail passes give you plenty of options and the chance to tailor your Balkans movements as you see fit. We took a train from Poland and explored Central & Eastern Europe before settling in Romania for a few weeks. It is important to stay well-prepared by checking where the train station or bus station you need is located beforehand.
You can also stay ahead of the commuting game by keeping track of bus schedules online and via cellphone apps like the Moovit public transit platform.
12. Driving in the Balkans
The independence private cars enable speaks for itself. However, driving in the Balkans can be overwhelming or intimidating because many roads are narrow and some are run down. Unfamiliar navigation routes are also a headache.
But for the insistent, self-driving die-hards, remember these tips:
- Compare prices from tried and tested car hire companies.
- Google Maps is your friend. Download and use the app to help you understand the lay of the Balkan land.
- Don’t skimp on investing in car insurance and roadside assistance services.
- Remember to double-check the little matters, like petrol stations and the toll road tally.
13. Book a few curated tours and experiences
We strongly believe that a fine mix of independent exploration and guided experiences is what makes Balkan discoveries and sightseeing extra special. You’ll feel safer and well-catered during curated activities, whether you prefer a private tour or group exploits.
You can find incredible Balkan tour packages on some leading platforms by reputable companies. We like G Adventures, Tour Radar, and Get Your Guide for their competitive prices, diverse options, and stellar ratings.
Pro Tip: Don’t be tempted to book a spontaneous tour off the street verbally from an over-zealous stranger, no matter how alluring the deal. Stick to trusted companies and well-known service providers for guaranteed safety and your money’s worth.
14. Add extra time when traveling the Balkans
Regardless of how you travel, you must account for extra travel time when getting from place A to B. Especially when you cross borders, (by private car, bus, or tour) you will have to be patient, ensure your passports and visa are valid, and be ready to answer questions.
When flying from North America, you will also have to account for layovers in Europe before arriving in the Balkans. For example, on our trip, we touched down in Amsterdam and then flew to Zagreb Croatia.
In another instance, we flew to Gatwick-London United Kingdom, and then took a short flight to Sofia Bulgaria.
15. Opt for travel insurance for your trip to the Balkans
The comfort, confidence, and assurance you get from knowing you have comprehensive travel insurance while abroad is unmatched. It can be a lifesaver when disasters strike.
Some of the most common setbacks include falling ill while traveling, losing precious paperwork, facing challenges with your personal cards, or if your valuables are stolen.
We used our travel insurance in the spring of 2020 when we had to re-book our flights as Canadian borders were closing. Trip or flight cancellation insurance is so so handy – we can’t stress it enough.
What qualifies as comprehensive travel insurance, you wonder? Well, here’s what we think you should look out for — based on what you can afford:
- Access to air ambulance services if immediate home returns are necessary
- Car replacements or returns if you embarked on cross-border travels from neighboring countries and got involved in a serious accident
- Dangerous sports and recreational activity coverage
- Flights back home for the body if death occurs in the case of a fatal tragedy
- Flights back home if severe injury or illness occur
- Medical bill coverage
- Pre-existing medical conditions coverage
Balkans Trip Planner – What to do in the Balkans
No travel advice is complete without suggestions for the most popular places to visit, the most enthralling experiences, and must-do activities. Let’s take you through ten of the Balkan Peninsula’s many star attractions.
There’s something for every traveler. There’s Montenegro’s gleaming waters, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s hidden gems, Croatia’s mesmerizing Dalmatian Coast, and more.
Below is what not to miss when visiting the Balkans.
1. Hark back to ancient times in Turkey or Greece
A great place to start amid your Balkans holiday crusade is Turkey or Greece. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is one of Turkey’s most prominent historical, cultural, and religious symbols. Now a museum, you’ll find this architectural stunner in Istanbul’s Old Town.
An even more impressive landmark is Greece’s Meteora, six 9th-century Greek Orthodox monasteries standing as if “suspended in the air” (the literal translation). They’re atop towering sandstone columns.
2. Live it up in Sveti Stefan, Budva, Montenegro
Sveti Stefan, near Montenegro’s Budva, is worth visiting if you adore the idea of a lush island paradise right on the Adriatic coast. Luxuriate in the spoils of soft beach sands with powder pink hues, sparkling waters, and delightful villages along the shoreline.
This year-round Mediterranean-type treasure is best experienced with a guided tour, allowing sightings from exclusive viewpoints if you can’t snag a direct visit as a lodger. Sveti Stefan is now a luxe hotel town that doesn’t allow casual, public, non-guest meanderings.
There are a few tour options. From Tirana in Albania, you could do a multi-stop Montenegro day tour through an outfit like Tour Radar or Get Your Guide.
If already based in Kotor, Montenegro, consider an integrated highlights group tour of the best sights in this region.
3. Savor Balkan culture in Dubrovnik, Croatia
Every Balkans itinerary features a Croatia stop, and Dubrovnik is a big reason why. Its 16th-century stone-walled Old Town is the life and soul of Dubrovnik. Baroque-style buildings and palaces make this one of the country’s most captivating places.
Stradun, or Placa, the limestone-paved main street, is where all the action is. Wander around the boutiques and eateries where you can try local specialties such as Bakalar fish and Rožata (a creamy Croatian pudding).
4. Soak up Belgrade’s history in Serbia
If ancient discoveries and a deep dive into a city’s tales are the main reason you love holidays overseas, then a great way to soak it all up is to go somewhere oozing with history.
Belgrade, once part of Yugoslavia, has seen its fair share of tragedy as a regular bombing site during the Yugoslav Wars. Perhaps this dark history makes it such an enlightening place to visit today.
Do two days in Belgrade, seeing iconic sites like the St. Sava Temple, Kalemegdan Park the grand Belgrade Fortress, and the Nikola Tesla Museum.
5. Discover gems in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The small country of Bosnia and Herzegovina has so many beautiful places that it easily deserves a spot on your Balkans itinerary. It offers staggering gems like Blagaj village along the Neretva River.
What do we admire most about Balkans travel? It surpasses only prioritizing the capital cities. While you can devote one day to Sarajevo enjoying countless splendors, much more awaits in other fanciful locations.
Spend one day in Mostar, an enticing Bosnia and Herzegovina destination full of charm, tourist buzz, and character.
6. Visit Lake Bled in Slovenia
A favorite place for many locals and visitors in Slovenia is Lake Bled, one of the Julian Alps’ headliners and a tranquil place to visit for calm, quiet reflections, and outstanding scenery.
Lake Bled in winter is a cool haven where you can church-and-castle-spot at popular sites like Bled Island and Bled Castle. These destinations deliver spectacular panoramic views, a pretty natural setting, and the bonus of splendid historic architecture.
7. Explore the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia
Dalmatia sits on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea and is one of Croatia’s four historical districts. The Dalmatian Coast stretches extensively from the northern island of Rab to the southern Bay of Kotor in Montenegro.
This dramatic coastline is the place to be during the summer for beach festivities and island getaways. Switch things up if you’re a sucker for national parks, and visit Plitvice Lakes while in Croatia.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the continent’s most cherished parks, boasting caves, teal-colored lakes, and scintillating waterfalls.
Next Read: If the two entries above have left you undecided, double the holiday merrymaking and experience both Croatia and Slovenia in 10-14 days.
8. Enjoy a retreat in the Albanian Riviera
Beautiful beaches adorn the Albanian Riviera along the southwestern locale. This Riviera hugs the Ionian Sea coast and is well-liked by visitors coming from Vlorë and Saranda.
Catch about 93 miles of immaculate seaside scenery and mountain vistas where the nightlife is a total trip, the villages are intriguing, and the ancient buildings are lovely to behold.
9. Embrace border crossings with a Balkan road trip
Uncover the best parts off the beaten path with a Balkan road trip, and we have just the road expedition ideas to help you traverse the Balkans in the most thrilling ways.
Hop into a car, pack sunscreen and your beloved snacks, and hit the road as you embrace border-crossing to quirky places and bountiful Balkan natural spaces.
You’ll feel the unlimited bliss of self-directed exploration while meeting new people, mingling with the good-natured locals along the way, and making timeless memories.
10. Spend time in and around Lake Ohrid
For the hopeless lovers of exquisite bodies of water, Lake Ohrid has your name written on it.
This lake is shared by the mountainous regions of eastern Albania and southwestern North Macedonia. It’s one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe, with hundreds of aquatic species.
Macedonia’s Ohrid, straddling the lake, is a notable town where you can see archaic churches and monasteries in what UNESCO has dubbed a Cultural and Natural World Heritage Site.
It’s the ideal place for recreational activities and festival-hopping if you visit during the summer season. Whether in and out of Macedonia for a quick break or staying for a long time, you’ll be far from bored.
FAQs to help conclude your travel guide
Do you have a lingering question that needs answering? Here are bite-size tidbits of useful info to wrap up your Balkans travel tips.
Which is the best Balkan country to visit?
Although a bit pricier than other Balkan countries, Croatia and Slovenia are breathtaking – with enduring beauty, astonishing views, and compelling sites.
Do you need a visa to visit Balkan countries?
Citizens of the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand can visit the following Balkan states without a visa for up to 90 days within six months from arrival:
- North Macedonia
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
Are the Balkans safe for backpacking?
Yes, the Balkans are safe to visit. Simply follow precautions and the host country’s standard rules to enjoy a trouble-free trip.
Like all other tourist destinations, watch out for petty crime – like pickpocketing and bag snatching in the touristy areas – and rumbustious taxi drivers trying to squeeze an extra buck.
Tips for your Balkans travel guide
No matter what kind of weird, whimsical, or wonderful Balkans travel guide you’re in the process of putting together, now you know exactly what to expect when visiting southeast Europe.
From the best things to do and what to see to travel tips and Balkans-specific suggestions, you’re finally set. You can choose the Balkan country that best suits your style, interests, and curiosities and start anticipating memorable culture trips to Europe’s magnificent Balkan Peninsula.
New Year? New you, right? Get excellent ideas here for Europe’s best places to visit in January.
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