Ahh, the Balkans. It’s one of those corners of Europe that still doesn’t get as much love as it should!
It’s actually an amazing region to travel, especially if you’re on a budget or backpacking trip. It’s less expensive than others parts of Europe and, being generally less-visited, it retains a strong sense of authenticity.
I’ve gone backpacking in the Balkans many times now. I’m still working on visiting all of the Balkan countries (sorry Bulgaria, I’ll come back for you!) but I’ve been to many, and some more than once. Here, I’ve compiled everything you need to know for a first-time Balkans backpacking trip.
Where are the Balkans?
The answer to this is actually not so straightforward! Many definitions of this region of Europe are used, which can be a bit confusing.
Depending on who you ask, even Moldova or (parts of) Turkey get lumped into this region, though this is less common.
Geographers never really settled on where to draw the lines. But broadly speaking, the Balkans refers to the southeastern part of Europe.
The region is named after the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria.
Why go backpacking the Balkans
Whichever way you slice it, the countries of Southeast Europe are ideal for a backpacking trip. I love backpacking in the Balkans mainly for two reasons: a) it’s extremely diverse and interesting and b) it’s very budget-friendly!
A few parts, like the Croatian coast, have become expensive over the years. But in terms of food, accommodation, and other travel costs, most of the Balkans is surprisingly cheap — especially when compared to Western Europe.
I think backpacking is fun in regions like the Balkans where you don’t have to count your every last cent. When you don’t have to constantly worry about your daily budget, it’s easier to travel in more spontaneous ways.
Parts of the Balkans are a bit less developed, which adds to the charm and fun of traveling in this region. There is a wonderful sense of hospitality to experience and as I backpacked around the Balkans I certainly met my share of interesting characters. Perhaps you’ll end up in a village somewhere drinking raki (a strong spirit) with the locals. (Warning: they do like to drink in the Balkans!)
The region remains somewhat less-visited and the hostels often have a real ‘traveler’ atmosphere. Many hostels are local businesses and run by families, providing not only a homely atmosphere but a real connection with the country. The same goes for many guesthouses or local hotels.
To top it off, the Balkans are a collection of diverse cultures within a fairly compact region. You can travel short distances and get a ton of variety within one backpacking trip. Due to it being a compact region, it can often feel like a ‘small world’ when you stay in hostels, as you see the same faces pop up in different places every time.
What to expect of the Balkans
The Balkans are perhaps not the most famous part of Europe. Whereas places like Rome or Paris are extremely well known through pop culture and media, you may not quite know what awaits you in the Balkans.
But this element of surprise is exactly why you should go!
There is so much geographic and cultural diversity in the Balkans. One reason for this is that, through the ages, several empires fought over this region, each bringing different influences to it.
Take the food, for example. It’s typically a blend of Central European with Turkish or other Western Asian influences — and it’s delicious.
The languages are a mishmash as well, some being Slavic, others being Latin, and some (like Albanian) being completely unique.
Religion is equally diverse with Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Islam being the most prominent. An interesting place in this regard is Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, where all the various places of worship have co-existed for centuries within the same districts.
Then there is the stunning nature of the Balkans. Along the coast, you’ve got Mediterranean beaches, islands, and epic bays (like Kotor Bay). The mountainous interiors are home to impressive peaks as well as Europe’s deepest and longest canyon. Further inland, countries like Romania have preserved some of Europe’s last true wilderness, with its forests home to wolves and brown bears.
Whether you’re looking to go island hopping and party in the sun, or want to get to know a fascinating part of European culture and history, the Balkans has it all.
Best time to go
Any time of the year works fine for travelling the Balkans — in theory. But it depends on what you’re looking for.
Summer is always a popular time to go. You’ll enjoy much longer days and can easily mix cultural sightseeing with relaxed days at the beaches or rivers.
Just be warned: if you don’t like crowds or high prices, avoid the Croatian and Greek coasts in August! Even during the covid-19 pandemic, this rule has held true, with popular tourist spots booked out and accommodation prices as much as tripling compared to other months.
The reason is that many European families can only take time off in August, which causes many places to get packed. Huge cruise ships dock in Croatia and Montenegro during this time as well. I think this makes August the worst month to go, though admittedly crowds are much less of an issue during this month when you go to places that are away from the coast.
If your work or studies only allow a summer holiday in August, then go for it of course. But I do like the shoulder seasons a lot, such as September-October and April-May. You’ll enjoy great weather but not too many tourists.
Winter in the Balkans is a bit of a mixed bag. Don’t bother with the Croatian coast during this time. I once did it and everywhere felt super empty and even a bit depressing. The coasts are 100% about the summer and there was no real upside in trying to be ‘original’ and exploring it in winter.
For a much better winter experience, consider going to the cities and interior areas. Take Romania for instance — it has lots of fairytale-like towns, castles in the snow, and markets with mulled wine. Perfect winter material.
Balkans inland vs the coast
Your Balkans backpacking experience will often depend greatly on, well, just how close you are to the sea. The coastal and inland Balkans each have their own vibe.
The Croatian coast has been absolutely booming as a summer holiday destination, so the scene can be a bit different there. The hostels in Croatia have a more varied crowd — some backpack-wearing wanderers but also quite a lot of wheelie-pulling holidaymakers. In a seaside city like Split, many tourists are there for a week or two of partying and beach-bumming.
This is true to an extent as well for specific locations in Montenegro and for the islands of Greece, which are definitely known mainly as holiday places. Good fun but it can be a different atmosphere.
The interior of the Balkans is much more about discovering the old towns, the capital cities, exploring nature, and getting to know the culture. I’m biased as these areas really tickle my travel bone! I especially love backpacking in countries like Albania, Romania, and Bosnia. These destinations remain a lot more off the beaten track. The hostels there also have a greater share of long-term travelers which helps to create more of a backpacker culture.
Whatever vibe you are after though, you can find it in every country. You can spend your time on party boats and at techno festivals in Croatia, but equally find some of the best hiking trails and most authentic towns there.
When creating your Balkans itinerary, I think it’s fun to try and include a bit of everything; coastal tourist hotspots as well as more ‘cultural’ places in the interior.
How to plan your route
Unlike other backpacking regions in the world, the Balkans doesn’t really have one specific route that everyone follows (such as the ‘Gringo Trail’ in South America).
Fortunately, it’s quite easy to make your own route and improvise along the way. Simply make a wishlist of places and see if you can string them together.
If you have several weeks: then don’t go overboard with your itinerary! The region may be fairly compact, but it’s still nice to pace yourself. If you are on a 2- or 3-week trip through the Western Balkans, I think it’s ideal to pick just two or three countries you like most.
At least, I recommend this if you want to see a diverse set of areas (coast, mountains, countryside, cities, etc.). It’s certainly also possible to spend several weeks in the Balkans covering many more countries, but then you’ll inevitably be mostly hopping from capital to capital. This is cool if you love cities, but you’ll be missing out on other things.
If you are backpacking long-term: then have fun and enjoy the ride! The Balkans have at least a good 2 months’ worth of solid highlights, but there is always more to discover — even more so if you include peripheral countries like Greece.
Unless you travel in the peak month of August, it’s usually easy to book hostels or hotels a day or two in advance. You can make plans on the fly if that’s how you like to travel, though it’s always helpful to have a rough idea of where you want to go.
As I said, there is no standard way of traveling around the Balkans, so you can get a bit creative with your Balkan backpacking route. Here are a couple of ideas:
Itinerary 1: All along the Balkan coast
Start your trip in Zagreb, Croatia. Visit the stunning waterfalls of Plitvice, run down the Croatian coast, and spend a few days island hopping or enjoying the charms of the coastal city of Zadar. Consider a side-trip to Mostar in Bosnia.
Head onwards via Dubrovnik, Kotor Bay in Montenegro, Tirana and Gjirokastër in Albania, then visit the monastery of Meteora in Greece. End your trip in Athens with a visit to the epic Parthenon.
Itinerary 2: Through the heart of the Balkans
Fly into Romania and run a circle around the Transylvania region, which is filled with colorful Medieval towns such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara.
Head to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital known for its buzzing nightlife. Dip down into Montenegro to see the impressive Kotor Bay, then end your trip exploring the unspoiled mountains and beaches of Albania.
Itinerary 3: City hopping through the Balkans
Start in Ljubljana, the laidback capital of Slovenia. Then jump over to authentic Zagreb, Croatia, followed by the exciting multicultural capital of Sarajevo in Bosnia.
Continue to Serbia’s capital Belgrade and finally to Skopje in North Macedonia. Take a trip out to the beautiful Ohrid Lake.
Tip: always put Serbia before Kosovo in your itinerary if you want to visit both. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a country, so they won’t let you through if they see a Kosovo stamp in your passport.
Practical issues in the Balkans
Traveling the Balkans isn’t that difficult per se. Still, it’s a bit different from, say, Western Europe or North America in some ways that are useful to know.
Firstly, lots of different currencies are used in the Balkans. Only three countries use the Euro (Kosovo, Montenegro and Slovenia) while the others use their own local currencies. Card payments are often accepted, but you will likely have to use cash a lot too.
To reduce transaction fees, take cash out from ATMs in larger batches and from official banks (not from ATMs placed in grocery stores and such). Keep in mind the local currencies often can’t be exchanged in another country. Spend your cash before crossing borders, or trade your leftover cash with other backpackers who are traveling the opposite way.
Speaking of borders, there are a lot of them in this highly fragmented region. Only a handful Balkan countries are part of the European Union and only one (Greece) participates in its Schengen open-borders agreement. Luckily the border crossings are typically hassle-free, though queues can sometimes lead to delays.
Each Balkan country has their own entry visa requirements, though if you have an ‘easy’ passport such as EU, US, Canada, or Australia, you can get visa-on-arrival almost everywhere, which will usually be good for 3 months in that country. If you are travelling long-term around Europe and you’re not from the EU, it’s useful to know that all the non-Schengen countries in the Balkans don’t count towards your 90-day limit on the Schengen visa (this is the visa needed for countries like France, Germany, etc.).
There are very few trains in the Balkans so you’ll need to travel mostly by bus. Some things can be a bit more basic in the Balkans. For example, if you’re used to receiving digital tickets for your train or bus, you may find it’s still paper-based. Not all transport connections can be found online, so it’s always worth inquiring at hostels or hotel receptions how best to get from A to B.
Most young people speak English, but not so for the older generations, so there is occasionally a bit of a language barrier.
Safety in the Balkans
The Balkans are a very safe part of the world to travel, including travelling solo and including for women.
The region does have some negative stereotypes, which probably still stem from the turbulent years in the 1980s and 90s during the fall of communism and the Balkan War. These days, though, there is peace in the Balkans and crime statistics are pretty similar to the rest of Europe.
Of course, pretty crime such as pick-pocketing does exist as it does almost anywhere else. In Romania, you may sometimes get hassled by Roma (gypsy) people who are often professional beggars — this is just a bit annoying.
But as long as you keep common sense, you should have little to no issues in the Balkans.
In Bosnia there are still many landmines left from the war. What this means is just to stay on the paths and roads in Bosnia and don’t go playing in the woods or something. All the normal places have been cleared of mines.
Despite the good safety levels, I recommend having travel insurance while backpacking the Balkans. This will cover you in case of theft, medical issues, cancellations, or other unforeseen situations. I personally use Heymondo which offers affordable and comprehensive travel insurance, as well as an app through which you can easily get assistance anytime while you’re on the road. You can get 5% off Heymondo by using this link.
Unlike other insurers, Heymondo has absolutely zero deductibles or excess, so there isn’t an amount you have to pay first before the insurance starts to pay you. I advise getting a quote for one of their packages before setting off on your trip.
Pssst, don’t forget your travel insurance!
Traveling Europe for a while? Then get Heymondo. It covers you for medical emergencies, theft, delay, cancellation, lost luggage, and much more. (If your trip is under 60 days, consider their affordable Annual Multi-Trip Insurance which covers trips up to this length.)
Balkans backpacking costs
The Balkans are very cheap overall, especially if you travel backpacker-style. Drink the local beer, sleep in dorms, eat where the locals eat, and you can surely manage on anything between €20 and €30 a day.
In countries like Bosnia, Serbia, or Albania you can easily find breakfast for around €2.50 or meals for €5. Street food is a big thing throughout the Balkans and it can power you through the day if you’re not too picky.
In countries like Romania or Albania, it’s not difficult to find dorm beds for about 8 Euro a night, or private budget rooms for about double that amount.
One part of the Balkans that’s definitely expensive is Croatia’s coast. And it just seems to be getting more expensive all the time. Last time I was in Split I paid €14 for a fairly underwhelming burger with chips at the bus station. This would have probably cost just €4 in Albania or Bosnia.
Kotor Bay in Montenegro is also a bit more expensive than elsewhere, though luckily not as extreme as Croatia. Greece is quite an affordable country overall if you travel inland and not just to the most touristy places, though accommodation prices explode in July/August and on the Greek coast and islands.
More Balkans inspiration
In this article I’ve covered some of the practical issues to know about before planning a trip to the Balkans. But there is, of course, a lot more specific to say about the countries and the destinations within them. For more, check out these deeper travel guides:
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