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10 reasons the Balkans should be your next destination (and why you need to go now)

If I’ve met you or seen you at any point in the last three months, it’s very likely you’ve heard me talk about the Balkans. I’ve fallen in love with this part of the world and whether it comes up organically or not, I’ve made sure to let everyone know it’s amazing. Now I realize there’s some more info missing on what’s so great about it. I guess “IT’S AWESOME YOU NEED TO GO NOW” doesn’t do much to much explain why this region is so special :) Everyone loves a good list, so in continuing on my crusade to convince everyone to visit the Balkans, I’ve come up with 10 reasons this region should be part of your next trip.

First things first, and it’s a really important one. One of the many questions I get when talking about the Balkans is “where are the Balkans”? Bless their hearts. I would cringe at first, but I’ve realized it's a totally fair question. The Balkans doesn’t get the attention it deserves and we rarely hear or talk about it. Here’s the cliff notes version before we get started:

The Balkans consist of the region in Eastern Europe that surround the Balkan mountains and stretch from the Serbian-Bulgarian border to the Black Sea. Within the region you’ll find a mix of languages (mostly Slavic, plus Romance, Greek, Albanian, and Turkish) and alphabets (latin and cyrillic). This includes countries that are wholly or partially within the region:

- Albania

- Bosnia and Herzegovina

- Bulgaria

- Croatia

- Greece

- Kosovo

- Macedonia

- Montenegro

- Romania

- Serbia

- Slovenia

- Turkey

- Moldova (Balkan classification varies depending on how you define the Balkans, which can be slightly subjective. For the purpose of this post, I'm including it.)

As you can see, the Balkans is a pretty substantial region with many countries and several languages. All the countries have a common thread, however you’ll find cultural nuances that make each one unique.

Now that we have some more context, let’s get to it!

1. The Food

This should really read: THE FOOD (!!) because man is the food delicious, and quite veg-friendly, if that’s how you roll. Balkan folks love to grill and you’ll find the most delicious grilled vegetables and meats all through the region. The freshness of the produce and the soft, fluffy, fresh-baked bread in this region will make you want to cry tears of joy (or maybe that just happened to me). Other specialties include shopska, a fresh cucumber and tomato salad with kalamata olives, topped with tons of shredded feta; tavche gravche (Macedonia), which is a pot of delicious baked beans; ferges (Albania), a blend of tomatoes, peppers and feta-like cheese perfect for dipping fresh bread in; and the holy grail- BUREK. Burek can be found in any Balkan bakery and just slightly different in each country, but mainly consists of a flaky dough stuffed with either spinach and cheese, olives and cheese, seasoned potatoes, or sometimes seasoned ground beef. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of and just when you think you’ve gotten tired of it, you realize that’s impossible and go for another. You’ll also find fantastic wine in almost all of the Balkan countries (I found Macedonia, Moldova, Bulgaria, and Bosnia to have especially good ones) and you can get a great quality bottle for about $5 USD.

Macedonian feast:roasted veg, fresh bread, tavche gravche, and shopska salad.

Burek

Seasoned potato burek in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Can't ever go wrong with a salad covered in fresh cheese.

Fresh, affordable produce in Tirana, Albania

2. It’s Safe

As in most cases when you’re traveling, common sense goes a really long way, but I found the Balkans to be especially safe. I never felt the threat of being mugged or pick-pocketed, felt safe as a female traveling solo on buses and trains, and met countless of fellow travelers with a number of hitchhiking stories or stories of locals offering to help. I often found myself traveling by bus at night and was typically the only non local, english speaker around. Kind of like that one time I crossed the border into Kosovo at 2am and was left to figure out I needed to walk across, only after realizing our bus had left back for Serbia. This lead to just a minute or two of panic until some Albanians explained where I need to go and walked with me as I shlepped my massive backpack across the border. The idea of crossing any border by foot at 2am sounds like something straight out of the movie Taken, but border crossings happen at night all the time and you’ll realize you’re fine and they’re NBD.

Shkoder, Albania

3. History

The history of the Balkans, and the countries that formed the former Yugoslavia, is COMPLICATED to say the least. You have old wounds, and some fresh wounds from conflicts that ended just 20 years ago. Depending on where you’re from you might be more familiar with conflicts like the Bosnian war or the more recent conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. Being from the US, I realized how little these topics were taught or even talked about, and you can't begin to educate yourself on something you didn’t even know happened. Being in the Balkans is the perfect place to start to learn about the history of these countries and form your own your opinions. You’ll find fantastic museums (the ones in Sarajevo were eye-opening) and walking tours in each country which allow you to get different perspectives. As outsiders, I think it’ll be impossible to ever fully understand the deep-rooted reasons for these conflicts, but being open to learning and hearing from people’s experiences is a start.

Brasov, Romania

Colorful Prizren, Kosovo

A bank that was used as a sniper tower in Mostar, Bosnia (now used to see a full view of the city during sunset).

Beautiful Mostar, Bosnia

4. It’s affordable

Once you start to move away from northern and western Europe you’ll be shocked by the prices in the Balkans. Hostels rarely topped $10-14 a night (and usually include breakfast), bus tickets to get you to another country can cost around $10-$20, depending on the distance, and a substantial meal can be had for around $4. In Shkoder Albania, I had the most delicious and gigantic pizza (there’s a huge Italian influence in Albania), salad, and two great glasses of wine for $7. In Macedonia, I had a Shopska salad, a huge plate of roasted vegetables, bread, and a beer for less than $4. I can go on and on. The Balkans are perfect for anyone traveling on a budget or for anyone looking to just get more bang for their buck.

5. Rakia

This local liquor (reminiscent of grappa) is found all over the Balkans is inescapable. You’ll find locals and hostel owners offering rakia (sometimes called “raki”) during pretty much any meal of the day. Many people distill it at home and you’ll often be poured a shot of it (but sip it, k?) out of a recycled plastic soda bottle. It seems to look and flow like water- except it has the unique characteristic of burning more the further it goes down (which is no surprise since most are 40-60% alcohol, and usually more). I know I’m not selling anyone on it but it grows on you and it something so ingrained in Balkan culture, you’ll be sipping rakia with locals before you know it. Try the different flavors which range from plum to apricot, grape, and many others.

6. It’s a nature lover’s paradise (but the cities are vibrant too)

The nature and landscapes you’ll come across going through the Balkans will leave you shocked and wondering how you’ve never heard about it (and that’s why I’m here!). In southern Albania you’ll find coastline that will leave you thinking you’re in Greece and you’ll hear that it's what Croatia was like 10 years ago before tourism really exploded. In Northern Albania and driving through Bosnia you’ll see mountains and beautiful green rolling hills that will make you want to live in the countryside. A trip to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia will seem like a vacation on a private, rocky beach. There are beaches, many many options for hiking, lakes, rivers, and more. If you’re not feeling like hiking, walk up the local churches, mosques, or fortresses in the older cities to get a great view. If you’re a city lover, Skopje (Macedonia’s capital) and Tirana (Albania’s capital) have a lot of history, decent nightlife, and a trendy bar and dining seen filled with young trendy locals. If you really want to go hard, Belgrade is the place for you and you’ll likely hear about the nightlife from other travelers on the Balkan trail.

Views over Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

Full city views atop the old fortress in Kotor, Montenegro.

7. It’s a passport stamp collectors dream

Nowhere near as exciting as the food or rakia, but if you’re like me and get a thrill from every new stamp in your passport, then the Balkans are for you. Being outside the Schengen area in Europe (where you can move freely without a passport if you’re European), you’ll get a fresh new stamp with every country you visit. And with the number of countries in the Balkans, you’ll be filling up those passport pages in no time.

8. Getting around is easy

I’ll preface this with the major caveat that most of your travels will be overland, especially by bus, but that’s what makes it so easy! Buses run often between most of the towns and cities so you can give those pesky airline baggage fees the finger (I’m still bitter about a few experiences on Air Asia) and take a long nap on the bus to the next country over. Going back to how affordable it is, you can even share a cab to get you from one place to another (a shared 3 person cab to get us from Ohrid, Macedonia to Tirana, Albania in less than 4 hours cost just $25 USD. In some places, like in Romania, Bulgaria, and Bosnia you can take the train. I highly recommend taking the train from Mostar to Sarajevo in Bosnia, or from Bucharest to Brasov in Romania. The trains are new, cheap, and very comfortable.

9. It’s less crowded than Western Europe

Sure, you might need to explain to a few people where Sarajevo is (or that Moldova is in fact a country), but avoiding the massive crowds is way worth it. You won’t being fighting to get a bed in a hostel, or pay crazy hotel prices year around. You’ll have less tourists photobombing your pictures while they take selfies and most importantly you’re more likely to get the true, authentic essence of the region.

10. The people

Lastly, but arguably one of the most important reasons to go- the people. It’s true that there are kind people everywhere (something I’ve learned well from traveling), but the people in the Balkans are extra special. You’ll find they’re incredibly open and willing to share about their history and culture (especially when you might not know much to begin with) and are typically always willing to help. I had people help me with injuries (long story short, don’t climb the pyramid in Tirana), share very personal, difficult stories of war times, offer me a place to rest when I didn’t want to pay for a night in a hostel but couldn’t bear the weight of my backpack anymore, volunteer their whole day to show me around when they’ve known me for mere minutes,…the list goes on and on. And then every now and then you’ll get a driver who decides to blast traditional serbian turbo folk music (go YouTube it now) for 7 hours at full volume even though you want to sleep/blow your brains out. You win some, you lose some.

Hopefully I’ve finally convinced you about the Balkans and why it’s a place worth adding to your travel list. While tourism is growing slowly, the word is getting out and you’ll find this in the small towns that now have menus in english for tourists, or through the daily, massive cruise ships docking in Montenegro dumping loads of tourists out for a few hours of exploring. While tourism will hopefully help the locals and continue to aid the local economies, going to visit the Balkans soon will ensure you get the best the Balkans has to offer and give you a taste for how special this part of the world is.

Looking for more travel inspo for your next adventure? Follow me on Instagram @wherealexwent for more pics of the Balkans and other fun destinations.

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