What are the Balkans, and what are they like to visit?

Beautiful blue seas, rugged hills and a turbulant history. Find out why the Balkans are an increasingly popular holiday destination, and what you can expect from the food, drink and people when you visit.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 6 May 2024

Taking in the present countries of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, the Balkan Peninsula has a history of fluid borders.

As the meeting point between Europe, Asia and North Africa the Balkans have seen their share of turmoil over the centuries, but many Balkan countries are becoming increasingly popular holiday destinations, particularly Croatia and Montenegro. With their stunning scenery, welcoming locals and good weather, it's not hard to see why.

“The Balkans produce more history than they can consume” - Winston Churchill.

Tirana is a capital city working hard to throw off the era of Communism and the memory of hated dictator Enver Hoxha.

Its eclectic collection of buildings, from Ottoman mosques to brutal Soviet monstrosities brought to life with bright paint, forms the backdrop to a city buzzing with crazy traffic and creative energy.

Don’t miss the Bunk’Art, a Cold War bunker that is now a museum of art and history.

Sarajevo’s name is well known from the news but will surprise visitors with its Ottoman influences and mix of religions.

The Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, is a must-see; after, visit the Baščaršija neighbourhood to see historic Ottoman buildings including the lovely Gazi Husrev Bey’s Mosque, then browse the restaurants or shop in the bazaar.

Mostar is famous for the curving Stari Most ('Old Bridge' destroyed in the 1990s and now rebuilt as a symbol of hope.

Try to visit in the evening when the Ottoman Quarter’s cobbled streets come alive with lights.

Sofia mixes Roman remains with Ottoman mosques and Soviet monuments to create an oddly harmonious whole. Large parks, museums, art galleries and fine restaurants deliver a quality of life that might well surprise you.

Rila Monastery attracts around a million visitors and Eastern Orthodox pilgrims annually to see its remote mountain setting, colourful architecture and religious art.

Dubrovnik, the 'Pearl of the Adriatic', has become famous as a set for Game of Thrones and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walk its walls to admire this compact city, or sail out to one of its nearby islands to escape the crowds.

Hvar is an island in the Adriatic dominated by a hilltop fort overlooking 13th century city walls. It’s a summer resort and base for exploring the beaches of the nearby Pakleni Islands by boat.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is a great place to hike or bike, with views of mountains, waterfalls, bright blue lakes and 157 bird species1.

Osijek is a city of Baroque buildings left by the Habsburg Empire, centred on the Tvrda Old Town with its star-shaped fort on the bank of the River Drava.

Prishtina sees relatively few visitors – Europe’s newest country is still disputed by Serbia – but the capital is all the more welcoming to those who do make it.

There is not much to see but life here is more about sitting with a coffee and talking to everyone around you, then enjoying an evening stroll and a jazz bar.

Prizren is surrounded by mountains and sits on a river, with its Ottoman architecture well preserved. Its filigree shops carry on a craft dating back at least 500 years and its cuisine is considered the country’s best.

Skopje, the capital of Macedonia and birthplace of Mother Teresa, has some historic Ottoman and Byzantine architecture, including the Old Bazaar quarter.

Many modern buildings add energy to a city that well repays exploring on foot.

Matka Canyon, an hour outside Skopje, holds a lake popular with kayakers and surrounded by medieval churches. Ohrid is dominated by a hilltop castle, with medieval buildings spilling down to the lakeshore. The pretty cobbled streets are a natural home for restaurants.

Bay of Kotor is one of the most beautiful places on the Adriatic Sea. It boasts the preserved Venetian fortress, old tiny villages, medieval towns and scenic mountains.

Kotor’s pretty Old Town and harbour are almost impossibly romantic and the city makes a great base to explore the nearby Blue Cave on the Adriatic coast.

Ostrog Monastery is built into a cliff and attracts Orthodox Catholics and Muslim pilgrims. A remarkable building in itself, it also enjoys great views over the Zeta river valley.

Belgrade, standing where the Sava and Danube rivers meet is also a meeting point for East and West Europe and still marked by its 200 years of Ottoman rule.

It is a perhaps surprisingly modern city, with the first contemporary art museum in Europe, founded in 1958, and the Nikola Tesla Museum, holding thousands of the inventor’s personal items.

Donji Milanovac is the base for exploring Djerdap National Park, the largest in Serbia. Djerdap’s 'Iron Gorge' is a picturesque spot where the River Danube flows through the Carpathian mountains.

No other region of Europe has so many different peoples but their similarities are also strong. The Romans were the first to control this area between the Mediterranean and Black seas, grasping the strategic importance to trade.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, power shifted back and forth between various players until the Ottoman Turk invasion of 1386, which added Islam to the region’s volatile mix.

Islam was adopted widely due to anti-Rome feeling, a legacy of the split between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Christianity of Constantinople (now Istanbul) whose fault line runs across the Balkans.

Tensions between these three religions underpinned much of the conflict that followed the fall of Communism and the break-up of Yugoslavia.

It was a desire for the creation of a Yugoslav nation by a Serbian nationalist that caused the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, leading directly to World War I.

Most of the region’s problems can be seen as a legacy of outside powers fighting for control of this meeting point between Europe, Asia and North Africa.

That same chaotic history gives the people of the Balkans a sense of living for today, as passionate in love as they were in war. Of course, that immediacy brings its frustrations if you want to plan anything ahead.

Another powerful legacy is the ability to problem solve and adapt that promises well for the future. They are a family whose arguments are bitter but whose underlying bonds are strong.

Most of the languages of this region are variations on Serbo-Croat, with the notable exception of Albania. However, English is widely understood and few tourists will have a problem finding a speaker.

Eastern Orthodoxy is the principal religion in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Roman Catholicism dominates in Croatia and Islam is the religion of Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Despite these religious differences, there are any similarities in local culture, most obviously in the folk music with roots in Byzantine, Roman and Greek music.

The influence of many centuries of Ottoman rule can also be seen in daily life, beyond the obvious one on cuisine.

The café is an important part of social life and the love of passionate argument is more Mediterranean than European.

One of the most common foods throughout the Balkans, derived from Turkish cuisine, is the ćevapi.

This skinless sausage (think kofte kebab) is served with dressings such as chopped onion, sour cream or feta cheese and comes as several pieces on pitta bread or a plate.

Burek – filo pastry parcels filled with meat, cheese or vegetables – are another treat.

The Ottoman influence continues with dishes such as sarma stuffed vine (or cabbage) leaves, moussaka (made with potatoes instead of aubergine), or baklava.

Grilling meat (especially lamb) or fish is a popular way to cook it, with fish obviously dominating near the coast. It is served with rice, potatoes, or polenta.

Those with a sweet tooth will enjoys delights such as tulumbi, tiny fried dough strips soaked in honey and nuts. They go well with the Turkish-style thick black coffee that is a local addiction.

Non-Muslim regions all produce their own version of rakija, a fruit-based firewater. Bars might have dozens of rarities on offer, and everyone has an 'uncle' who makes his own.

The EU has helped bring growing prosperity to much of the Balkans and you will see little signs of its troubled past.

There is a landmine risk in some border areas but you are extremely unlikely to go there as a tourist. Erratic driving is a much greater risk, so be alert if you hire a car.

There are risks in attending some major football games as team support can be a substitute for nationalistic views. A match between Serbian and Croatian teams is considered the symbolical start of the war in former Yugoslavia.

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