Lying along the Balkan Peninsula in the southeastern part of Europe, the Balkan region remains a relatively-unknown destination. Nevertheless, the area is home to an abundance of breath-taking coastlines, dazzling landscapes, unique architecture, and lots of history as it is a territory with a communist and socialist past. The area nowadays includes the following countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia. Here are the top 10 things you must know before exploring this exciting region:
Top destinations - where to go?
Let’s start off with where to go in the Balkans. Croatia has long beautiful coastlines but remains the top touristic and expensive country in the region. On the other hand, Montenegro offers the same quality beaches and seasides surrounding lovely old towns such as Budva and Kotor at a more affordable travel expense level. Romania is famous for mysterious castles and their associated legends (for example Dracula Castle and Peles Castle). Bosnia and Herzegovina offers pure natural landscapes with dazzling waterfalls (Kravica and Jajce), rivers (Bosna and Neretva), and lakes (Prokoško and Boračko). I found this the cheapest and most diverse country to travel in the Balkans.
Transportation - how to get around?
Getting around the Balkans is not as simple and digitalised as in other parts of Europe where you can keep track of frequent public transportation schedules via online sources. Trains are only commonly used in Romania, Serbia and Macedonia. In other places, bus is the most common means of transportation if you want to go from one country to another. The infrastructure here is not yet as developed as in the northern and western parts of Europe.
It is very common that you would need to purchase tickets in person at the station and call the information desk to ask for the transportation schedule and prices instead of checking them online. You may even get stuck in traffic for hours due to road maintenance. I was lucky to find the site Busticket4 in Montenegro for checking bus schedules and prices online for the whole region. Not all information about the bus connections are available though. Centrotrans is another common site in Bosnia and Herzegovina for finding bus connections. Eurolines’ buses are available in these countries, but for much higher prices.
Accommodation - how to find cheap hostels and get discounts
As Airbnb and Couchsurfing are not the most popular ways to find low-budget accommodation or meet up with locals in the Balkans, I recommend staying in hostels. You will find many travelers coming here with the same mindset of exploring the hidden paths. The Balkan Backpacker Hostel Network, with hostels throughout 28 cities in 10 countries within the region, offers 10% discount for those traveling with their flyer. Collect stamps at each hostel and receive an added bonus (e.g. free night, beer, a glass of the local brandy called rakija, etc.) when you reach the 5th stamp. I found most hostels in their network to be affordable and unique places to stay, especially in Montenegro (for example Freedom Hostel in Budva and Old Town Hostel in Kotor). In addition, the Balkan countries are some of the rare places where you can find hotel deals for as low a price as 20 EUR / 22.50 USD per night.
Money tips for countries not using the euro
Almost every country in the region uses its own currency, except for Montenegro, but you can use euros in many places. Always bring cash with you because the Balkans are all ‘cash countries’. Keep in mind not to bring a lot of money with you for safety reason, as you will not spend so much in any country except for Croatia, the most expensive place in the region. Do not exchange money at the airport if you do not want to get ripped off as a tourist. Supermarkets, mini-markets and many restaurants accept Visa cards. I prefer using cards for my transactions as my bank has a good exchange rate and no commission. Some exchange offices prefer only taking EUR rather than money from other nearby countries, so you may not want to keep lots of BAM when traveling to Croatia, for example. Establishments may not be willing to exchange currency for you.
Packing tips for visiting the Balkans
Most travelers you will find in the region are backpackers, and there’s a reason for that. Backpacking is easier here, in terms of commuting, hitchhiking, staying in hostels, and solo traveling in general. I do not recommend traveling with many bags or trolley luggage as the roads are in bad conditions in many places outside the capitals. Traveling light also makes hiking, biking, and taking part in other sporting activities easier. Some of the must-bring items are an umbrella, warm clothes, a swimsuit and an extra pair of shoes. The weather can be nice but unpredictable around the region. For example, in April 2016 there was snow in Bosnia and Herzegovina and lots of rain in Croatia. So keep in mind that the weather may not be ideal, though warm and sunny days are quite common outside of the winter months (November - February).
Travel safety as a solo female and meeting people- is hitchhiking safe?
Many people assume that it’s not safe to travel in the Balkans because of the region’s economic poverty and recent war. However, I did not experience any significant safety troubles while traveling here. As long as you stick to the main tourist attractions and avoid going out alone at night, it’s absolutely safe to get around on your own including for solo female travelers. Though Couchsurfing and Airbnb are not, as already mentioned, popular sites used for meeting up with locals, you can still give it a try. I was hosted by great people in Romania and Bulgaria, where it’s more common and probably safer to meet strangers. Though it’s a known stereotype that traveling around the area is not safe, many travelers manage to hitchhike. Before giving this a try, make sure you know the highway directions and carry only one backpack.
Learning the culture and history
For those coming to the region with a massive interest in the history of communism, socialism or war, do not miss out Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sofia, with its strong communist-style architecture, is one of the rare capital cities where you can be taken back in time to the days of communist rule. The local travel experts and agencies offer many communism tours in great details. Sarajevo, where people suffered drastically from the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, is also a city of great history to be discovered.
What to eat?
The Balkans are full of meat-eating countries. Vegetarians and vegans may enjoy dishes better in Bulgaria, as there is an increasing number of organic restaurants in Sofia. You would also be surprised to find a free food tour running every day in Sofia at 2 PM. Some of the must-try dishes I enjoyed are burek and cevapi (Bosnia and Herzegovina), local yoghurt and different types of pastry (Bulgaria), and versatile kinds of seafood (Montenegro).
Why now is the best time to travel to the Balkans
Despite having a lot to offer, the Balkans remains an off-the-beaten-path destination, as many people assume it’s poor and dangerous to get around. In the suburbs or lesser-known places, foreigners can rarely be found. Locals tend to be curious and friendly towards tourists. Get away from the tourist crowds to visit the Balkans on a low budget and be lured by fantastic sights, tasty local delicacies, touching history, and local hospitality!
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