If you’re looking for a unique trip to Europe, the Balkans are a wonderful place to explore! As you venture into the Southeastern part of the continent, there are a handful of Balkan tips that will help you create a memorable and smooth experience in the region. This part of Europe is often overlooked, but it’s the perfect place for an indie travel adventure!
The Balkans have something every type of traveler will love! It has quickly become my favorite part of Europe and I can’t stop going back! Now that I’ve been to more than half the countries on five separate trips, I’ve learned a lot of helpful information for visiting the region. In this article, I’ll share my best Balkan tips for independent travelers so you can have the most amazing experience!
If you want to know where to go, check out this article to see my top destinations for breathtaking nature, fascinating history, and delicious food! In this article, you’ll get all the information you need to plan your own trip to the Balkans. Now, let’s get to it!
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Balkan Tips: Understanding the Culture
The Balkans are unique because of the shared history, but each country has its own distinct culture and way of life. A trip to the Balkans will provide a delightfully different experience than visiting countries further west on the continent!
The rich culture is one of my favorite things about the Balkans. Since the Greek empire, this part of the world has been a major crossroads between Europe and Asia. No matter which country you visit, you’ll see and taste the influences from centuries past. The mix of architectural styles is beautiful, the food is incredible, and the slower pace of life is a welcome respite from the hustle many of us are used to.
The Balkans are religiously diverse. In some places, you’ll find a mosque just a stone’s throw away from Orthodox or Catholic churches. Most of the places of worship are open to visitors outside of service times. They all tend to be conservative, and covering bare shoulders and legs is expected.
Café and Pedestrian-Friendly Culture
Café culture is something you can find all across the Balkans. Locals enjoy spending leisurely hours sipping coffee with friends. Smoking both indoors and outdoors is common in the Balkans. You’ll find ashtrays on most tables and no one thinks twice about lighting up. Most restaurants and cafes have outdoor seating so you can avoid the smoke if it bothers you.
When the weather is nice, everyone seems to be outside. The cities are pedestrian-friendly with many places to have a lovely stroll. The urban centers are lively late into the evening as families and friends spend time together outdoors. As a woman who’s traveled solo in many of these places, I feel totally safe being out and about after dark.
Balkan Tips: What to Expect From Balkan Food
Oh lord, just thinking about all the amazing Balkan food has my mouth watering! Each country has its traditional dishes, plus cuisine from neighboring regions. For example, Albania has incredible pizza. I ate more pizza during my two weeks in Albania than I have in the last three years combined, and it was glorious!
In the Western Balkan countries, you can enjoy flavors we typically associate with Italy, especially along the coast. Further south, it’s easy to find traditional Greek and Turkish dishes on offer. When visiting countries at the northern end of the peninsula, the cuisine offers more hearty options reminiscent of Czechia and Hungary.
You’ll find seafood and Mediterranean influence in the coastal regions. Further inland, much of the traditional cuisine is centered around meat. If you follow a plant-based diet, you’ll be able to find incredible fresh produce at the open-air markets and plenty of restaurants catering to this lifestyle.
Balkan Tips: Language and Communication
In many countries that were formerly part of Yugoslavia (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia), you’ll find most locals speak Serbo-Croatian. The rest of the Balkan countries have their own language, though you’ll find some cross-over in countries that share borders. For example, in Kosovo, both Albanian and Serbian are official languages.
Most locals who work in the tourism industry speak English. The younger generations also tend to speak English well. Important signs around the cities and information inside the museums typically have an English translation in addition to the local language. Most restaurants have menus in English too. The few words I learn in the local language are usually food-related, but it’s nice to be sure what I’m ordering!
Taxis are the only place I’ve run into a real language barrier. Usually, a younger person translates directions to an older taxi driver. Just in case, I always have my destination marked on Google Maps to show them. I’ll follow along as we drive to ensure we’re going to the right place, which has always managed to get me where I want to go.
If you get off-the-beaten-track, you may find it harder to communicate in English. Some locals speak German or one of the neighboring country’s languages. You can communicate more than you think with pointing and facial expressions! I managed to get a load of laundry complete in the Croatian countryside with a German washing machine and a host that only spoke Croatian.If you’re really concerned, the Wordless Travel Book is a great resource with pictures of all the different things you might need. Google Translate is also an option, though you’ll need wifi or data to access the features.
Balkan Tips: Time is Flexible in the Balkans
One of the biggest surprises on my first trip to the Balkans was this flexibility. Coming from the US, time feels rigid. We expect activities, transportation, and events to begin and end as scheduled. You’ll find time to be more flexible when traveling in the Balkans. Knowing this in advance can help you avoid confusion and frustration.
Plan for things to begin as scheduled, but know it may not happen that way. If you’re taking a bus, it will probably leave on time, if it’s the first one of the day. However, it’s unlikely you’ll arrive at the time stated on your ticket. To avoid mishaps, don’t schedule time-specific events too close together. If you’re taking a bus from Montenegro to Croatia, don’t book a tour for an hour after your scheduled arrival.
Personally, I love this leisurely approach to life! The best way I’ve heard it described by a local gentleman I met was, “All the important things will get done, but first let’s have a coffee.” Spending an hour doing absolutely nothing but sipping a beverage and watching the world go by feels luxurious to my American brain. It’s wonderful not to have the clock driving your days. Embrace it!
Balkans Tips: Accessing and Using Money
Plan on using cash for your purchases in the Balkans. Though some places do accept credit cards, don’t count on it. Most taxis are cash only, so be sure to get local currency when you arrive in a new country. You’ll find ATMs in all the airports and bus stations, making it easy to get cash. Some accommodations are also cash only, most commonly when booking an apartment with a local. Traditional hotels will usually accept credit cards.
To avoid extra fees from your financial institution, minimize your visits to the ATM by taking enough cash to last a few days. Your bank will calculate the exchange rate and charge you a fee for using an ATM that’s not in their network. You can find more details about accessing your money while traveling in this guide to planning a Europe trip.
Currently, only Slovenia and Montenegro use the Euro. Every other country has its own currency. You’ll find plenty of places to exchange money that charge minimal commission. If you have cash left over from the last country you visited, be sure to exchange it in the neighboring country. Once you get further, you may find that they won’t take it.
When I left Albania, I forgot to make the exchange in Montenegro, and when I arrived in Croatia they wouldn’t exchange Albanian currency. Now I’m the proud owner of about $20 worth of Albanian Lek. The bills are pretty, so at least I have them for a souvenir!
Balkan Tips: Getting From Place to Place
If you’re planning a multi-destination itinerary, you have a few options for getting from one stop to the next. Bus is the best and most efficient option for public transportation. Unlike Western Europe, trains aren’t wide-reaching and only connect the major cities. You can purchase bus tickets in advance and print them to take with you. If you’re going from country to country, you’ll likely have to stop at border control where you’ll exit the bus and show your passport. It’s super easy!
Road tripping is my favorite way to get around the Balkans! It offers the ultimate flexibility and you can usually rent a car for less than $20 per day. If you want to visit multiple countries, you’ll have to go through border control except between Slovenia and Croatia. Check with the rental car company to find out which countries you can take the car into and to make sure you have all the necessary paperwork.
Now that you have a better understanding of what to expect when visiting the Balkans, I hope you’re ready to start planning! Check out this article to discover my top destinations for nature, history, and food. This article is a full guide for planning independent travel in the region. You’re on your way to an amazing experience, my friend!Let’s stay in touch! If you enjoyed this post, sign up for emails and I’ll send articles, travel deals, and more directly to your inbox. You can also join me over on Instagram where I share travel tips and European destinations you’ll love.
If you have specific questions about planning your trip to the Balkans, you can schedule a one-on-one Travel Planning Session with me here. I’ll share all my insights and make sure we get all of your questions answered. You’ll also get an email with a recap of our conversation and any additional resources I have to share with you.
What other questions do you have about traveling in the Balkans? Leave them in the comments so we can find the answers you want!
Have you visited the Balkans? What tips do you have to share? Leave them in the comments!