When we think Europe, metro cities like Paris, London and Rome come to mind. But there’s an undiscovered gem a little further east. Here are 6 reasons the Balkans should be your next European destination!
It was a hot afternoon in Rome as I contemplated my next adventure. I stumbled upon a cheap flight to Dubrovnik, and thought what the hell, let’s spend a few days overlooking the Adriatic. Little did I know, those few days would turn into 3 months, 6 countries and 22 cities… whoops!
- Croatia: Dubrovnik, Mljet Island, Split, Šibenik, Zadar, Senj, Livade and Istria
- Montenegro: Kotor, Cetinje, Njegusi, Perast and Risan
- Albania: Shkoder, Theth and Tirana
- Macedonia: Ohrid, Negotino and Skopje
- Bosnia: Mostar
- Slovenia: Triglav and Ljubljana
If You Want Authenticity
We’re part of a growing trend where travelers are looking for authenticity and immersive cultural experiences. Personally, I’ve found this to be the hardest part of travel since most of our resources are bombarded with Top 10 lists and big city ad dollars. But fear not! Authenticity awaits if you know where to look…
The Balkans are rich with small, tourist-free villages. Nature is untouched; local cuisine is abundant; transport is rugged and unpredictable; online sources are minimal (if at all). The Balkans force you to live like a local – learning only through experience, and relying on native guidance to get you places. It forces you to go out of your comfort zone and approach your day with no expectations. Which allows you to learn about your town (and yourself) in the purest form possible.
That’s not to say that the Balkans don’t host their fair share of tourism; southern, coastal Cities of Croatia were some of the most saturated crowds I’ve seen! But comparatively, the proportion is small. Making NOW the best time to visit before tourism takes over.
If You’re on a Budget
Once you’re in the Balkans, it’s easy to live on a budget. Your major travel expenditures – accommodations, transportation, and food – are a fraction of the cost than other European cities. Variable costs are also more affordable: alcohol, attractions, taxis, and groceries. Making the Balkans a budget travelers DREAM!
This excludes major tourist destinations like Dubrovnik or Kotor (though budget options are available), as well as big resorts or national parks. But overall, I find the Balkans to be incredibly affordable and a place to save money you’ll otherwise need in larger cities.
- Accommodations: $10-15/night
- Site/Attraction entry fees: $2-20
- 1 week of groceries: $20-30
- Meal: $3-5
- Beer: $1-3
- Taxi: $2-5
If You’re a Foodie or Drink(ie)
There’s nothing better than greasy, aromatic meat wrapped in flaky phyllo dough, washed down with cool, tangy yogurt (called kefir). It’s not a combination many of us are familiar with, but one you’ll quickly become addicted to. The food in the Balkans is a mix of grilled meats, vegetables, breads, cheeses, and Mediterranean inspired dishes.
- Börek: Described above in decadent, greasy goodness. Common varieties include meat, cheese or spinach.
- Cevapi: Popular grilled dish of minced lamb, beef or pork often served with fluffy flatbread (called lepinja), onions and ajvar.
- Ajvar: Beautifully roasted red peppers often blended with eggplant, chili or garlic and used as a spread for just about anything.
- Šopska Salad: Cold salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and a heaping pile of feta-like cheese (called sirene).
- Sufllaqe: Albanian fast food with kebab-style meat, salad and onions, sauce, and FRENCH FRIES wrapped in flatbread.
- Trilece: Sweet nectar of the gods. Trileche, a not-so-healthy sponge cake, is soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream and drizzled with smooth caramel.
- Wine and Rakia: Some of the best wines and rakias in the world with many varieties. (Ljubljana also has a growing beer scene; don’t miss it!)
If You’re a Nature Lover
There are three regions whose nature brought me to my knees: the United States, Patagonia, and the Balkans (with more to be explored!). It would take months, or years, to explore the beauty of the Balkans. But these are my favorites so far:
- Triglav National Park, Slovenia: There are numerous hikes in Triglav National Park ranging from beginner, single-day hikes to more advanced, multi-day treks. Put the 7 lakes circuit on your list!
- Lake Bohinj, Slovenia: Overshadowed by its busy brother, Lake Bled, Bohinj offers an opposite experience. Pristine waters untouched by modern construction.
- Lake Skadar, Albania: There’s a beautiful viewpoint on the Montenegrin side (42°21’47.1″N 19°03’38.0″E). But also visit Virpazar, a local town that offers boat tours at the base.
- Theth, Albania: What a gem! A near impassable road brings you to the valley village where just a few B&B’s reside. Make a trek to the Blue Eye…
- Odysseus Cave, Croatia: An experience I’ll never forget. Cool, open waters that glow blue with each beam of sunshine.
- Canyon Matka, Macedonia: The more touristy on the list, but beautiful nonetheless. Grab a kayak and paddle to Vrelo Cave, one of the deepest known caves in the world!
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia; Lake Prespa, Macedonia; Skocjan Caves, Slovenia; Vintgar Gorge, Slovenia; Istria Wine Country, Croatia; Negotino Wine Country, Macedonia
If You Value True Hospitality
Hospitality, in this case, doesn’t mean the clerk saying, “hello” as you walk through the hotel’s double doors. Genuine warmth comes when you’re not paid to smile. And I found that plentiful in the Balkans.
My first clue was from a small B&B in Albania. I’d paid $10 for a night in Shkoder as I made my way to Theth, a small mountain village in the Albanian Alps. I arrived at the property in 90’F weather, sweating my ass off from lugging bags through the unmarked streets. The mother had a room prepared with air conditioning, water, and homemade teas and breads. The next morning, the same, with added cheeses, meats and jams. We met her young son who managed the B&B as well as her husband, a paralyzed man who communicated only through smiles. I was gifted a silver bracelet and bid farewell. None of this was expected of course (certainly for this price or this short of stay). In less than 24-hours, they’d shown me the true meaning of “hospitality”.
Experiences like these were common in the Balkans (which is incredible considering a more prominent language barrier). People were genuinely interested in what brought me to their country; they wanted to share their stories, their friends, favorite places and eateries. It was a culture so refreshing and so unique to the region.
If You’re Looking for a New Perspective
It’s true – the Balkans suffered a horrendous war from 1991-2001, the fall of Yugoslavia. It’s hard to imagine visiting an area of such recent violence. But I encourage you to. I’ve felt more safe and welcomed here than other places I’ve visited.
Many of the people you’ll meet will have experienced the war first-hand. Their stories are raw, fueled by emotion still fresh in their memory. But this is the first step to understanding what they went through, why, and how far they’ve come. Familiarize yourself with local museums and photo exhibits (my favorites: War Photo Limited, Dubrovnik and Bunk’Art, Tirana) for a humbling look into life outside our save havens.
Want to get started? Learn how I traveled Croatia and Slovenia for 6 weeks on $30/day!