20 Valuable Balkan Tips You Need to Know!
Travelling the Balkans can be a confusing place to a first-time traveller as things work a little different here. When it comes to travelling the Balkans, I like to call it organised chaos. As I have been travelling and living around the Balkans, I would love to give you some handy Balkan tips for you to take forward on your travels.
1. Don’t organise too much
A trip to the Balkans shouldn’t be fully organised because as you will find out, you may love a place more than expected or transport may not work out for your desired schedule. That’s why I always say, have a rough plan but not a rigid one. That is the beauty of travelling the Balkans.
Another reason why you shouldn’t organise rigidly is if you’re relying on public transport. You won’t find exact schedules online, well you might but most likely they are outdated or wrong. Bus schedules can change with a click of the fingers, so it’s best to organise bus trips when you get to the destination rather than trying to organise it before.
2. Travel slower
A common mistake people make when travelling the Balkans is trying to fit too many countries in such a small space of time. Although each Balkan country is similar, they are not the same and all have their unique charm about them.
If you have a couple of weeks, explore 2 instead of 4. Although you can explore 4 of them, sometimes it’s not all about checking off countries. What can you really learn about an entire country in 3 days? Realistically nothing, or at least a ‘fake’ version of it. Spend at LEAST a week in a country before moving on. 2 weeks is ideal, but I understand not everyone has the spare time. This is one of my best Balkan tips!
3. Take time to learn about the country’s history
The Balkans bloody history wasn’t that long ago, which is why many are still so scared to visit this region. But don’t worry, The Balkans is safe to visit. One thing you should do when reaching a new Balkan country is to learn more about history. Each country has a rich and haunting past. You can do this by visiting a museum or taking a walking tour. Usually, a walking tour is a little more interesting if you are not into reading tonnes of information.
If you visit Sarajevo, you must visit the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. Growing up I never knew anything about the genocide of Bosnia and Herzegovina so when visiting this museum, I was shocked.
Another notable museum you should visit in Tirana, Albania is Bunk Art 1 & 2. You will learn more about communism and what the country was like during those times. There’s also another great museum in Tirana called House of Leaves with is also communism-themed and gives you an insight into the equipment used to spy on the people.
4. Don’t shot Rakia
When you are visiting the Balkans, you will notice a common theme when it comes to alcohol – Rakia! Although this is truly a Balkan thing, they do taste a little different in each Balkan country because some use different fruit, so definitely give it a try. Rakia is a fruit brandy which is usually made in someone’s backyard. The alcohol level can be mild, or it can knock your socks off!
But one thing you must not do is shot it like you would with vodka! Rakia is a drink that should be sipped, and even though that might seem incredibly stupid to you, it actually makes it a lot smoother than if you were to chuck a full glass down your throat and burn the entirety of your organs. Just take it easy.
Also, don’t mix Rakia for water in the middle of the night! A lot of the time the real homemade Rakia will come in a water bottle. Whatever you do, do not sit it beside your bed like I have done once and accidentally take a huge gulp thinking it was water. I can still taste the regret!
5. Take cash
A lot of Balkan countries are a cash society so it’s always important to take a little cash with you wherever you go. Here’s a breakdown of the different currencies that the countries use:
Albania: Albanian Lek
North Macedonia: Macedonian Denar
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Lev
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosnian convertible mark
Romania: Romanian Leu
Serbia: Serbian Dinar
Turkey: Turkish Lira
In Albania, for example, they sometimes will accept Euros, as well as a lot of the other countries that don’t use euros. But keep in mind that not all places will accept anything but their currency.
6. Take buses!
The easiest and fastest way to get anywhere in the Balkans is by bus. Taking buses from country to country is essential. Balkan buses can go both ways. They can be amazing, clean and air-conditioned or they can be packed with no aircon and a driver’s smoking cigarettes the whole way. The key is to not have high expectations when it comes to buses.
In most places, you will be charged a little extra (0.50-€1) to have a bag stored in the compartment so always carry a little change with you just in case.
Bus timetables are not 100% certain. You can look at Balkan Viator which has a lot of timetables throughout the Balkans. You can use this as a rough guide but always double-check the time with the bus station or ask your accommodation provider. Don’t rely fully on these timetables because Balkan bus timetables can change in an instant!
When visiting the Balkans at the peak of summer it’s best to book your bus the day before in case they are full, and you will miss out!
7. Be patient
Patience is key in the Balkans. You really must be prepared for anything and just go with the flow. At times you will get frustrated because you will start to compare it to the functionality of your country most likely, but don’t do that. The Balkans is a fast-growing region with still a lot of problems that needs figuring out. If you find yourself getting frustrated, make yourself laugh at the situation and move on.
8. Be respectful
It’s very important to be respectful of the people and cultures throughout the Balkans. The dark history wasn’t so long for the Balkan people and countries are still trying to move past the bloody past. The people you see today have lived through some dark times so when talking about past wars or unrests, ask questions respectfully and just put yourself in their shoes.
Be respectful when visiting memorials and museums! The amount of times I have seen people drinking, sitting on and taking inappropriate photos of various memorials around the world is shocking.
9. Say yes
Balkan people are very hospitable, and you will probably be invited at least once for a coffee with a local or even a traditional meal. Say yes to opportunities like this where you can travel deeper and get a glimpse of local life!
There are so many opportunities where I have said yes, and they have been the absolute highlights of my Balkans travels.
10. Get to know the locals
Quite often wherever you travel to we tend to stick with other travellers but in the Balkans, you should try and get to know the locals instead. The cultures within the Balkans are so rich and are unlike any other region in the world so they have a lot to teach you.
Even though I have lived in Albania for over 2 years now I feel like every day I learn something new that I had no idea about. If I just stayed within a circle of other travellers, I would have never gotten to know the real Balkans.
11. Learn a few words
The locals truly appreciate and are very surprised when you learn a few words in their local language. Balkan languages are not all the same either as some people misunderstand.
Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and North Macedonia all speak languages that come off the Slavic branch. However, in Romania, they speak a romance language, based on Latin.
For me, Albanian was the most interesting language I have come across because it doesn’t relate to any other language in the world. If you talk to the locals, they will contest that Illyrian (which is the ancient Albanian language) is older than the likes of Greek. Albanian is also spoken in Kosovo but in a different dialect (Gheg) than in the middle or south of Albania (they speak Tosk).
So wherever in the Balkans you travel to, try learning a few words. I can recommend downloading a language app on your phone and learning that way. Make sure you have the Google Translate app downloaded on your phone so you can use it in case you need to speak with someone that doesn’t know English.
12. Use maps.me instead of Google maps
If there’s one thing I have learned with travelling in the Balkans, it’s that if you rely on google maps you will most likely end up with your hire car stuck in a mud pit on the side of a runaway. Yes, this is exactly what happened to me in Romania. The number of times Google has failed me in the Balkans is pretty depressing, which is why I recommend using an app like Maps.me. It’s much more accurate.
One of my best Balkan tips is if you want to use Google then use the satellite feature instead of the road view because you can see in the real-life what upcoming roads look like, so you know if they are in fact, roads.
13. Visit out of season
Travelling throughout the Balkans in the summer is awesome, but do you know what is more awesome? Travelling through the Balkans when the weather is still mild and seeing little to no tourists! Sounds way more awesome to me! Although the Balkans are still relatively undiscovered, they are slowly becoming more popular. Popular spots like Kotor (Montenegro), Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Ksamil (Albania) are packed in the summer because of cruise ships.
That’s why I always recommend travelling throughout the Balkans in spring or even Autumn. I have been to many of the countries in winter and had the most amazing time seeing cities like Sofia and Pristina covered in snow. In the offseason, you can experience most places without little to absolutely NO tourists whatsoever. That way you can experience the best of the Balkans and get ingrained in the local culture!
14. Plan to visit Serbia first then Kosovo, not the other way around
This is something I wish was more obvious online because when planning a Balkan trip, you can easily get caught out here. If you want to visit Serbia and Kosovo, you must start in Serbia. You’re not allowed to go from Kosovo to Serbia, only the other way around. They will not let you cross at the border if you try to get into Serbia from Kosovo.
So, either visit Serbia first then Kosovo or otherwise, you will have to go Kosovo-North Macedonia- Serbia.
15. Don’t travel without travel insurance
This doesn’t just apply to the Balkans but everywhere you travel to! Always have travel insurance. Things can go wrong anytime and anywhere which is why when I travel, I always get a travel insurance policy to cover me. It’s not only vital for your own pocket but also your families, if something happens to you.
There are two companies which I recommend and use when travelling:
SafetyWing Travel insurance: This is a fantastic insurance company particularly if you’re a digital nomad as that’s who it’s made for! You can get a plan for $37 which will cover you for 4 weeks. They focus on health insurance but soon they will have more comprehensive plans.
World nomads: I have used World Nomads for years now! They have two plans, a basic and a more comprehensive plan to cover if you wish to do some sporting activities.
Both these plans are made for travellers in mind so you don’t have to be from anywhere particular in the world and you can start the plans wherever you are currently.
16. Join my Travelling the Balkans group
If you are thinking of travelling the Balkans or maybe you are there already, make sure you join my Balkans Facebook group so you can meet other travellers, ask questions and get instant recommendations from others.
This is a group to interact with each other so you can find a lot of useful information and answers to questions that you may have wanted to know but couldn’t find the answer anywhere!
17. Don’t miss the Albanian riviera
If you visit the Balkans, you simply cannot miss the Albanian Riviera. This beautiful coastline stretches from the city of Vlore to Saranda and is known for some of the best beaches in the country and in my opinion, in Europe.
Some notable places you should put on your list are Jal, Gjipe and Dhermi. These three places are worth a visit if you get the time! Dhermi is a great place to base yourself for a few nights to explore the surrounding beaches. The Albanian Riviera isn’t only full of beautiful beaches though. There are some impressive castles like Porto Palermo and Borsh, cute villages like Qeparo and Vuno and ancient UNESCO sites like Butrint to explore.
18. Do the free walking tours available
In all the major Balkan cities there are free walking tours you can join which are usually run by locals. Doing a walking tour is a fantastic way to get your bearings and get some recommendations from the people who live in the city you are exploring.
Just a note, when they say free, they are not usually. You pay whatever you think the tour is worth so it’s always nice to give the guides something, no matter how big or small. However, there is also no pressure for you to pay anything if you feel like it wasn’t worth anything.
19. Look out for wildlife
Within the Balkans, there are many incredible wild animals including brown bears, the Balkan lynx and snakes, just to name a few. When exploring the national parks and wild areas, always keep in mind of your surroundings and if you do bump into a bear, which is incredibly unlikely, but you never know, make as much noise as you can and don’t run. If you run, their instinct is to chase, then you may be in for some trouble.
20. Watch out for landmines
Yes, the Balkans have experienced some pretty horrific events in the past and with that are still reminisce of this today. Within countries like Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia are still unexploded landmines and even in the deep waters of the Adriatic, there are unexploded bombs leftover from World War 2 sitting on the seafloor. In 2013 there was said to still be unexploded land mines and munitions scattered throughout 28,000 locations.
If you are exploring some incredibly rural areas of the Balkans, it’s always best to ask the locals if there is a risk of landmines or look at this map for more information.
Tell me below about your plans to visit the Balkans and let me know which Balkan tips you found the most useful when planning your Balkans travel!
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