Fellow foodies, this one’s for you! Balkan food has become one of my favorite cuisines over the years. While each country has its own traditional dishes, there are others that are staples across the region. They may have different names from place to place, but they’re always amazing!
Main dishes in Balkan cuisine tend to be centered around meat. In countries like Albania and Bosnia & Herzegovina it’s mostly beef, lamb, and chicken. Pork is more common in places like Slovenia and Romania and fresh seafood is abundant along the coasts of the Adriatic and Black Seas. Balkan food does have vegetarian dishes, like stuffed eggplant, and they’re pretty easy to find. For those following a strictly plant-based diet, you may have to seek out specialty establishments.
Locals in this part of the world definitely have a sweet tooth! Sugary treats like poached fruits, cakes, and baklava are all common Balkan foods. Coffee is part of everyday life and sweets are the perfect compliment so you’ll find them everywhere. The Balkan countries also produce incredible local wine and fruit brandy that you don’t want to miss!
In this article, you’ll discover ten of the best Balkan dishes to try as you explore the region. My food-loving heart is so excited to share these with you! If you want more resources for planning your trip to the Balkans, here’s a guide for you.
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#1 Balkan Food to Try: Dolmas
When I think of Balkan food, this is one of the first dishes that comes to mind. You’ll find these stuffed vegetables all across the region. They may have different names like Speca te Mbushur in Albania or Palneni Chuski in Bulgaria, but they’re all very similar. You’ll see a variety of vegetables used in this dish. Onions are my personal favorite, but peppers, cabbage leaves, eggplant, and tomatoes are also delicious. The vegetables are hollowed out then stuffed with a mix of rice, meat, and a blend of savory spices. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
Sometimes the dolmas are served in a shallow dish with a savory sauce and other preparations skip the sauce and highlight the vegetables on their own. In some places you’ll get a dollop of yogurt for a little added tang. I’ve ordered dolmas in all the countries I’ve visited and never been disappointed. Make sure you try these at least once during your visit!
#2 Balkan Food to Try: Burek
Burek is a light and flaky pastry rolled extremely thin, stuffed with filling, and shaped into a spiral. It’s kind of a big deal in Balkan food! There are four traditional fillings for burek: meat (usually lamb and/or beef), potato, spinach, and cheese. Though the flavors are simple, making burek is truly an art form! If you’re a food nerd like me, you’ll enjoy this short video showing the process of making the dough.
Burek is one of the most common and delicious street foods in the Balkans. You can grab it to go from local bakeries or sit down for a meal in one of the small restaurants dedicated to this dish. This staple is totally acceptable for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Some places sell burek by weight -- tell the server how much you’d like to spend and they’ll dish it up accordingly -- or simply trust their standards. Other places offer the pastries in small, single-serving spirals or churro-like sticks.
The traditional method of cooking burek is one of the most fascinating things to see! The filled pastry is spiraled into a massive, round cast iron pan. It’s then placed over hot coals and covered with a pyramid shaped top. When finished, it’s cut into slices, like pizza, and usually topped with yogurt.
Bosnia & Herzegovina makes some of the best burek in the Balkans! One of my friends there jokingly said that if you don’t like burek, you’ll probably be thrown out of the country! Even the guide on our walking tour in Istanbul said the best burek is made in Bosnia. I feel like that makes it official since the dish originated in Türkiye. It doesn’t matter which country you visit, no trip to the region is complete without tasting this Balkan food staple!
#3 Balkan Food to Try: Kebabs and Ćevapi
Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of Balkan food has meat as the star and kebabs are one of the most popular ways to prepare it. All across the region you’ll find different styles of kebabs. It varies most in the cuts of meat, spices, and accompaniments used. You can order everything from elaborate platters in traditional restaurants to grab and go döner kebabs, my favorite street food of all time!
Ćevapi is another way meat is prepared in Balkan food. This dish is made of small, minced meat sausages served inside a light pocketed flatbread, similar to a pita. It came to the region during the time of the Ottomans and has become a staple in Balkan cuisine!
Ćevapi is typically served with raw onions. You may also get ajvar (a red pepper relish) or yogurt, depending on where you are in the region. You can order five, ten, or even fifteen sausages (five is plenty for me!) to go inside your flatbread. Order a salad made from fresh local veggies as a side dish for the perfect lunch or dinner.
#4 Cuisines from Neighboring Countries
Because this part of the world has been a crossroads for thousands of years, many cultures have passed through and left their mark on the cuisine. Some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten outside of Italy was in the Balkans! I can say the same for Greek salads, Turkish sweets, and German-style food. Though they came from outside the region, these dishes have become an integral part of the local cuisine. This variety is one of my favorite things about Balkan food!
Along the Adriatic Coast there’s amazing seafood, pizza, and pasta since Italy is just across the water. In Albania, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria you can get incredible Greek and Turkish food. Romania and Slovenia have plenty of those incredible German-style dishes on offer. Places like Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina are right in the middle and have it all!
#5 Balkan Food to Try: Cream Cake
I first tasted this lovely little custard cake in a small café overlooking Lake Bohinj in Slovenia. It was pouring rain and this tasty little mid-day dessert went perfectly with a cappuccino! Over the coming weeks, I discovered this delightful treat can be found all over the Balkans. While I was introduced to it as Slovenian Cream Cake, it’s known by a number of different names across the region -- kremna rezina, kremšnita, krempita, and cremșnit are a few.
The layers of this cake perfectly compliment each other. Flaky puff pastry makes up the top and bottom while the middle is filled with fluffy custard cream and meringue. Once it’s baked, the whole top is dusted with powdered sugar, giving it an extra decadent feel. The sweetness goes well with a bitter coffee, which seems to be the case for most desserts in the Balkans.
#6 Balkan Food to Try: Baklava
Baklava was brought to the region by the Ottomans and has become a Balkan food staple. You’ll see interesting varieties as you travel through this part of the world. Chocolate baklava is common and you can find others filled with cream!
In Bosnia & Herzegovina, they make baklava with walnuts instead of pistachios and it’s delicious! You’ll see other varieties that look like they’re made shredded pasta, which is actually kadayif dough. The wide range of options is incredible!
Shops specializing in baklava are common and sell many varieties in one place. I highly recommend trying a few! These shops are typically small and may have a couple tables, but they’ll package it to go for you as well. It’s perfect for a picnic, with a coffee, or to enjoy in your accommodation with a glass of local red wine!
#7 Balkan Food to Try: Fresh Fruits & Juices
The fresh fruit in the Balkans is the best I’ve had anywhere in Europe! Open-air markets are easy to find and they’re bursting with bright colors and fruity fragrances. Be sure to try the sun-ripened stone fruits and pomegranates. They’re incredible! The cherries are the perfect balance of sweet and tart and the peaches are absolute perfection. Grab some produce for a picnic in the park or make a lovely fruit plate for breakfast with a couple of pastries from the local bakery.
Fruit juice is a staple Balkan food and you can find it everywhere. Vendors squeezing fresh pomegranate and orange juices are a common sight in the pedestrian areas. You can grab one to enjoy as you stroll and take in the scenery. A glass of fresh pomegranate juice is perfectly refreshing on a hot day!
In the grocery stores, juices are as abundant as soda where I come from. The variety took me by surprise on my first visit! Peach and cherry are two of my favorites and you’ll also see a range of mixed fruit options. I love to try all the different flavors I never see at home!
#8 Balkan Food to Try: Rakije
When you’re ready for a drink at the end of the day (or at lunch, I’m not judging!), try the local liquor, rakije. It’s brandy made from the amazing fruit grown in the region. Rakije comes in a variety of flavors -- cherry, plum, grape, and even quince! Slijva (plum) is my personal favorite and one of the more traditional options.
The first one I tried was made by the owner of the campground where I was staying near Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. I quickly learned it’s common practice to make your own wine or brandy when your fruit trees produce more than you can eat! Since then, I’ve tried as many flavors as I could find and never had one I didn’t like. It’s perfect for sipping at the end of a meal or with a local beer.
This stuff is seriously tasty so be careful because it’s usually the same strength as vodka. I learned that the hard way after a night of revelry with my fellow campers! Most of us were bleary-eyed and fighting a headache the next morning, but it was totally worth it.
#9 Balkan Food to Try: Coffee
Café culture is something you’ll find all across the Balkans. Locals love to spend time sitting outside sipping coffee with friends. The tradition was brought to the region by the Ottomans (notice a theme?) and has become a cornerstone of Balkan food.
Some places have elaborate, Turkish-style presentations and others like to keep it simple. Every café offers familiar options like cappuccino, café americano, and espresso in addition to their specialty preparation. There are usually little treats and desserts you can order to go with your coffee as well.
The experience of drinking coffee in the Balkans is about so much more than the beverage. It’s about taking the time to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life. Make sure you spend some time sitting in a lovely café watching the world go by.
#10 Balkan Food to Try: Local Wine
Surprise, the Balkan countries produce incredible wine! While wine is produced in every country, there are a few standouts. I’m a lover of red wine and Montenegro’s Vranac is one of my absolute favorites. If you prefer white wine, Grasevina is a popular variety that’s similar to Riesling.
While you can build an entire itinerary around wine tasting in the region, simply ask for the house wine with your meal to take your Balkan food experience to the next level! It will usually be served in a carafe, simple and delicious. I always imagine it coming from an old uncle’s wine cave somewhere nearby where it’s kept in a wooden barrel and jugs are filled from a tap.
If you’re up for a different kind of adventure, you can find homemade wine as you road trip through the countryside. In Romania, you’ll see bottles sitting on chairs or small tables along the roadside. Simply pull over and the owner of the house will greet you and invite you in for a taste.
This experiment took my husband and me through a yard full of chickens and into a back room with a humongous wood barrel full of homemade red wine. Our host spoke no English and us no Romanian but we managed to walk out with a gallon jug for about $4. While the wine wasn’t nearly as good as what you get from professional vintners, it gave us a great story that we still laugh about.
Conclusion & Resources
As a food lover, I’m always looking for more ways to find the best eats when I travel. Usually I seek out hole-in-the-wall joints and street food rather than fine-dining. The best way to find these is by asking the locals you encounter. If you take a walking tour, which I highly recommend in any new destination, ask your guide for places they like to eat. Locals working at your accommodation will also point you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to ask! It’s a great way to meet people and find off-the-beaten-path spots.
Here are a few sites that will help with your foodie adventures:
The Balkan Lunchbox site is full of incredible recipes! Once you fall in love with the flavors of Balkan food, you may want to recreate them at home. I’ve made a few recipes from here and they’ve been wonderful!
Taste Atlas has cataloged dishes from around the world and is a great place to get the scoop on local cuisine for any trip.
Google Maps is one of my best resources for finding the good stuff. I’ll search for food in my destination and browse through reviews and menus. Finding the gems requires one part intuition and one part luck. I must have a good bit of both because I’ve rarely been disappointed with my selections!
While Balkan food is the driver of my day when I’m traveling in the region, there's plenty more to see and do. For all the information you need to plan your own trip to the Balkans, check out this guide. If you’re looking for the best foodie destinations, you’ll find my top three choices in this article!
I know that doing all the research and planning can feel a bit lonely sometimes. If you’d like to meet other like-minded travelers to share stories, swap resources, and have fun with, check out the Indie Travel Collective. We have a variety of events each month -- meetups for sharing stories and connecting, Travel Classes for becoming smarter travelers and saving money, and live Q&A sessions where you can get answers in real time. We’d love to have you join us! You’ll get two free weeks to check it all out and make sure you love it. We think you will! 🙂
If your travels are going to take you beyond the Balkans into other parts of Europe, here’s a complete step-by-step guide to planning your Europe trip.
Now get out there. The world is waiting for you!
What are some of your favorite dishes you’ve had while traveling? If you’ve visited the area, what Balkan foods did you love?
Share your favorites in the comments!
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