Sofia Adventures

We are obsessed with backpacking the Balkans! As two American girls who have relocated to Sofia, we’ve done our fair share of Balkan backpacking, going on everything from quick two-week stints through Greece and Serbia to multi-month long backpacking trips through every country in the region. And while we have an advantage of being just a bus ride away from many of the peninsula’s best cities, the region is so large that after being here for over two years, I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface. Here’s everything you need to know to start backpacking the Balkans so that you can fall in love with the Balkans, too!

 

First, What Countries are In the Balkans?

Serbia - Belgrade - House of Flowers and Museum of Yugoslavia Map

The Balkans are the countries located on the Balkan penninsula…which is a lot bigger region than just the former Yugoslavia

 

I’m in multiple groups on Facebook about traveling the Balkans, and one thing I find amusing is how many western travelers conflate the term “the Balkans” with the former Yugoslavia. The Balkans has different geopolitical and cultural definitions, and there are small disputes at the margins about which countries count as “Balkan.” Essentially, the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania are often referred to as the Western Balkans, but the peninsula is much larger than this.

There are twelve countries which lie partially or entirely on the Balkan peninsula:  Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Albania, Greece, and Turkey.

Note: Not every nation (and certainly not Serbia) recognizes Kosovo as a country. Whatever your opinions about its political status, it’s definitely located on the Balkan peninsula. 

Read: These Are the 12 Balkan Countries & the Top Reason to Visit Each One

Yes, Seriously Turkey and Greece are Part of the Balkans and they Make Great Places to Start (or Finish) Your Trip

Greece - Crete - Bus from Chania to Heraklion

Anyone who’s taken a bus in Greece knows that its quintessentially Balkan

 

Mainland Greece and the city of Istanbul lie on the Balkan peninsula. While these cultures aren’t Slavic, the term is based on geography and not heritage. Additionally, anyone who’s been to Athens or Istanbul can see how these cities are integrally intertwined with the culture of the rest of the region.

Starting a trip by flying into Athens or Istanbul will give you a great overview of this phenomenon. From religion to food to architecture, Greek and Turkish culture are as important to the Balkan way of life as any other part of the region.

You Can Cover a Lot of Ground

Serbia - Belgrade - Old Train Station

Zipping from Sofia to Belgrade to Zagreb is a piece of cake

 

A lot of country counters love visiting the Balkans because they can add a lot of countries to their list in a matter of weeks. Common bus and train routes between major cities mean that you can go from Sofia to Belgrade, Belgrade to Zagreb, and then Zagreb to Ljubljana without too much hassle. You can even base yourself in cities like Bucharest or Dubrovnik, and take day trips to sites in other countries since everything is so close together.

 

Read: 25 Reasons You’ve Got to Travel the Balkans

But Don’t Go Too Quickly!

Romania - Ciocanesti - Painted House

So many people travel the Balkans quickly, but we find it’s best to dive deeper into a place before moving on. For example, we never would have seen the painted houses in Ciocanesti, Romania if we had just flown to Bucharest and then moved on.

 

I see people post questions online that look like this:  I have ten days to travel the Balkans and I want to see twelve cities in five countries. What’s the best itinerary for this?

To which my answer is always: Don’t do this. You’ll hate your trip. You’ll spend half the time on buses, and you won’t see anything. Slow down.

My rule of thumb for the Balkans (or any trip really is) that it’s always better to go deeper into a single place than try to spread yourself too thin. Here are my recommendations for the maximum number of times you want to switch cities or countries:

 

One Week Trip: A maximum of two cities plus a day trip. Stick to one or two countries. One city is better than two if you want to get to know the place.

Two Week Trip: A maximum of four cities plus one or two individual day trips. Stick to three countries or less. One or two cities is better than more if you want to really see everything.

Three Week Trip: A maximum of five cities plus day trips. By week three you will be exhausted and ready to slow down. Stick to a maximum of four countries, but less is better!

Four Weeks or More: Keep your itinerary loose and give yourself the option to slow down. You may fall in love with a city and want to spend more time there. My first trip to Athens I stayed for a month, and I still didn’t do everything I want. Don’t expect to cover the entire peninsula in a month.

 

Personally, I like to be based in a city for at least a week (preferably two weeks) and take a few day trips instead of moving on.

Remember that every time you switch countries, you’ll spend time in transit, getting a new sim card, picking up the local currency, and learning local customs. 

Read: The 10 Balkans Itinerary Commandments Plus Sample Itineraries

 

Not Every Bus Route Listed Online is Accurate

Albania - Ksamil - Lemon Tree

Getting from Ohrid to Ksamil meant relying on the info at the bus stations since everything listed online was wrong. Plus, the bus left hours later than even the bus station estimated.

 

It’s really common for bus routes online to be wrong, especially when it comes to seasonal information or local schedules between cities. Don’t rely solely on bus times you see online. Always go to the bus station yourself, call and ask, or ask a local. Unless you can physically purchase your tickets online, there’s a chance that the online schedule posted isn’t up to date.

And Sometimes the Best Bus Routes aren’t Listed at All

Bulgaria - Bus from Sofia to Belgrade - Passenger with accordion

The bus from Sofia to Belgrade was a pleasant surprise. Accordion player not always included.

 

We thought for years that the only way to take a bus from Sofia to Belgrade was to go through the city of Nis, Serbia. But Allison tracked down a direct bus that included USB charging outlets and even played one of my favorite movies during the ride. However, this bus route wasn’t listed on any of the typical places we look for timetables. In Sofia alone, there are dozens of bus companies. Many of them don’t have websites in English, and their information hasn’t been picked up by Rome2Rio yet. So if there’s a bus route you can’t find that you think logically must exist, ask a local or go to the station yourself.

And Sometimes Even Google Maps is Wrong

Serbia - Fruska Gora - Driving

You can’t always rely on Google maps for the best (or the most legal) routes.

 

When I was trying to plan a bus route from Visegrad in Srpska (an autonomous region in Bosnia and Herzegovina) to Prishtina in Kosovo, Google Maps had the rules for traveling between Serbia and Kosovo wrong. If you see an insanely circuitous route on Google Maps while in the Balkans, double check with a local.

Expect for Most Bus Rides to Be at Least a Half-Day Affair (or Longer)

Serbia - Belgrade - Bus Passengers

The six-hour bus ride from Belgrade to Sofia started at 4:30 am and left us emotionally drained for the entire day.

Another reason you shouldn’t over plan your time in the Balkans by putting too much on your itinerary is that journeys between places can take a very long time. It’s common for routes that you can drive in four or five hours to take between six and eight hours by bus. Combine that with odd travel times, overnight buses, and the unexpected delay (like getting stuck behind a car wreck on tiny mountain roads in Montenegro or behind a combination political protest / inexplicable sheep situation in Romania), and expect that you won’t be at your most energetic or fresh when you arrive. I don’t like to have anything on my itinerary after I arrive in a city by bus or by train except checking into my accommodations and enjoying a cozy meal.

 

Trains (Where they Exist) Can Be a Great Option…But Check for Seasonal Route Changes

Bulgaria - Ruse - Crossing the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria

The train from Sofia to Bucharest is pleasant…but it can take three hours longer than is listed on their website.

 

There simply aren’t enough train routes in the Balkans. There are some great scenic routes like the narrow gauge train to the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria and the Sargen Eight from Belgrade to Mokra Gora in Serbia. However, there just aren’t as many practical train routes in the Balkans as many would like. While the major routes in some places are available, like Belgrade to Zagreb and Sofia to Bucharest, in other parts they just don’t exist. And train routes that are relatively simple in the summer can get brutally complicated in the winter, when they change to their non-summer schedules. When booking travel by train, I like to rely on the advice of friends or other travel writers who have made the journey. For this kind of info, I like to find specific posts from blogs where they detail the journey, but I also like to check the advice from Facebook travel groups that are explicitly about traveling in the region.

 

Pro Tip: Never Get on a Balkan Bus (or train) without bus snacks!

 

And Cheap Airfare Basically Doesn’t Exist

Serbia - Gardos - Stephanie

Backpacking the Balkans always makes me happy, but I’ll be happier when we get more budget flight options in the Balkans!

 

Looking for a budget flight from Sofia to Bucharest or Sofia to Belgrade? Good luck, and please do let me know when you find it. While I can fly from Sofia to Berlin or Budapest for under $35 USD, it costs over a hundred to get to either Bucharest or Belgrade. The major budget airlines like Ryanair and Wizz operate in most of the major cities in the Balkans, but these flights don’t go to other Balkan cities. Flights within a country tend to be good, so Sofia to Varna isn’t expensive, but it wouldn’t be economical for me to fly to many Balkan cities. The major exceptions are Athens and Istanbul, who have good deals with local carriers. A cheap option to fly between Sofia and Ljubljana just opened up, so hopefully, this is a good harbinger or more cheap flights to come.

Whatever You Do, Do Not Overpack!

Serbia - Gardos - Backpack

When backpacking the Balkans…do not over pack!

 

Since your stuff will be shoved under buses, onto the backs minibusses, schlepped up hilly and mountainous cities, and potentially crammed into hostel lockers, you want to make sure you don’t overpack. Even if you plan to be based in a single spot, you’ll want to have room for souvenirs since shopping in the Balkans can involve such enticing deals. Since my first Balkan backpacking forays, I have sized down my luggage tremendously. I now prefer to travel with a 48L backpack and this smaller laptop backpack as a day back. You’ll thank me when you find out your hotel is at the top of a hill, with only cobblestone roads, no cars allowed, and it’s over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit outside. (That one might just be me).

 

Read:  Soveneir Guides for Serbia and Romania

Pack Layers Since the Weather Can Be Fickle

Bulgaria - Devin - Horses in the Rain

A late spring rainstorm in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria made me happy I had a real jacket with me.

 

The weather in the Balkans can be fickle. While in general, the seasons bring the weather you would expect (hot summers, cool autumns, snowy winters, etc), there are always flashes where they change. Even in the height of summer, where temperatures can easily be over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll be happy to have a jacket that can handle the sudden rainstorm and leggings that will keep your legs warm when the cool night air rolls in. In autumn and spring, you’ll find warm days and cool days mixed together. For example, this week alone I’ve needed a leather jacket one day and sandals and shorts on another day. Since a traveler can’t pack for every potential situation, your best bet is to bring layers that you can add and subtract as needed.

 

And Make Sure You Bring Comfortable Shoes

Serbia - Belgrade - Someone Lost their Shoes?

Bring comfortable shoes…just don’t forget them on the bus!

 

Old stone roads built by the Romans? Check. Slippery wet hills and mountains? Check? Walking around bad city sidewalks for days on end? Check. There’s no end to the abuse that travelers inflict on their feet while in the Balkans. So while one of our favorite pastimes is getting the odd inexpensive massage, the best thing to do is bring a pair of comfortable, functional shoes for hard days and another pair of open-toed sandals for days when your feet need a break.

 

The Balkans have Four Distinct Seasons…and There’s a Reason to Travel Each One

Bulgaria - Sofia - Sveta Nedelya in front of Vitosha in Winter

Every season in the Balkans offers something unique.

 

Everyone knows to come to the Balkans in the summer, but some of my favorite trips in the Balkans are in spring and autumn when the weather is cool and the streets are empty of tourists.

Winter is the time when people are the most curious about if they should come here. I love the Balkans in winter! That being said, we’ve seen some weird travel advice out there about the Balkans, but one of the weirdest pieces of advice I’ve seen is to travel to Bulgaria in winter to save money. Besides getting a few dollars off your hostel, coming to the Balkans won’t necessarily save you any more money than coming here during the rest of the year. In fact, you might end up spending more trying to stay warm by doing more indoor activities and spending less time walking around the cities for free!

However, we still think that the Balkans in winter are magical. There are snow-capped mountains and churches, skiing and winter sports, and warm Balkan cuisine tastes even better when it’s cold outside!

 

Read:  11 Magical Things to Do in Sofia in Winter

Balkan Food Can Seem Similar from Place to Place, But There are Differences

Serbia - Novi Sad - Srpska Salad - Serbian Food

A Srpksa salad is just a Shopska salad without the cheese

 

If you travel around the Balkans for long enough, you’ll probably start to feel as though you just can’t eat another plate of grilled Balkan meat even if you try. But wherever you go, there are local delicacies and other traditions that differ from place to place. Sirene is Bulgarian feta cheese, and it has a distinctly different taste than Greek feta. The further north you go in Serbia, the more you’ll see Hungarian influences and items on the menus. You can even find Hungarian langos for sale in the town square in Subotica. Wines taste differently across the region, too, with Turkish, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Serbian wines all being delicious in their own unique ways. Look beyond the common items you see everywhere, and you’ll find dishes local to the country, or even just that region.

 

Read:  The Best Balkan Food You Need to Try

 

You’ll Eat Local When You’re in Small Towns and Villages

Serbia - Novi Sad - Serbian Food Restaurant

Enjoying local Serbian food in Novi Sad

 

There are many times when you’ll need to eat local food. While on day trips, group tours, or other prearranged meals, the fare will most likely be local. While traveling around Romania for two weeks, we were served polenta approximately one billion times. You’ll also mostly find local food when in small towns and villages where there aren’t many international restaurants. Take these opportunities to dive in and learn what the area’s food is all about. You’ll leave loving some dishes and respectfully passing up seconds on others, but it’s an important opportunity to learn about the local culture.

So Feel Free to Enjoy the International Cuisine in the Big Cities

Serbia -Belgrade - La Taqueria Tacos

Scoring tacos in Belgrade, made by a Mexican who moved to Serbia and imports his own corn from back home!

 

If you’re backpacking the Balkans, you’re likely coming for more than a few days and will be seeing many different places while you’re here. If you find you spend a lot of time in smaller towns, then you’ll be thrilled to enjoy the nice restaurants that exist in every capital city on the peninsula. Don’t be ashamed if there’s something you miss from home. Allison and I spend quite a bit of time looking for Mexican food here, and we’ve found some pretty awesome spots. There’s also great Vietnamese food, Indian food, Italian food, etc. in every major city. So if you only come to the Balkans for a quick city break, stick to more local food even in the capitals. But anyone here for more than a week should sample some of the amazing international cuisines and appreciate that it costs half of what it might back home.

 

Read:  The Best Restaurants in Sofia, Bulgaria

 

Try the Local Liquor, But Know Your Limits!

Serbia - Fruska Gora - Probus Winery Rakia

We couldn’t turn down our host’s homemade rakia…and we didn’t realize until too late that she wanted us to drink all three varieties.

 

Rakia, rakija, raki, ouzo, palinka, tuica…traveling around the Balkans can be a whirlwind of local (and homemade) liquors to try. We love trying new local liquors, but we have come to accept our limits. Most people from the Balkans can drink us under the table. These local drinks tend to be 40% ABV and can be over 50% ABV if homemade. So politely accept something offered (if you drink), but don’t get tempted to try to best your host. They have a lot more practice than you.

Be Sensitive to Regional Politics

Serbia - Belgrade - House of Flowers and Museum of Yugoslavia Lenin and Marx Statues

The legacy of communism…and how it was overthrown…can be touchy subjects. Approach with caution.

 

It may be one region, but there are millions of different political opinions here. Thousands of years of conquering, rebellion, oppression, occupation, and wars created a tinderbox that literally lead to the start of World War I. Between the different feelings about the fall of communism, Kosovo independence, the Balkan wars, and how Yugoslavia came apart, we find that it’s better to listen and learn than to interject. If you pay attention, you may find things are always more complicated than they appear on the surface.

Educate Yourself through Red Tourism…But Be Respectful

Serbia - Belgrade - Sajmište Concentration Camp Spomenik

A Yugoslav memorial to concentration camp victims.

 

Some of our favorite sites in the Balkans are monuments and building created by Communist governments. These architectural and artistic styles are so foreign to how I grew up in America, that I enjoy seeing them and learning about the cultures that created them. That being said, these are not playgrounds. If you’re visiting a monument, be cognizant of what that monument is designed to memorialize. Many of the most beautiful and interesting pieces of Social Realist artwork commemorate victims of World War II, especially those who died in the Holocaust and partisans who fought against the Nazis. Appreciate the artwork, but you also need to assess the messages individually. If the monument is commemorating people who sacrificed their lives or who were brutally oppressed, then keep your yoga poses and Instagram selfies for another spot.

 

Leave Your Preconceived Notions Behind

Bosnia - Mostar - Bridge

You just don’t know what you’ll learn about a place until you get there.

 

Unless you have a really good grasp of Balkan history, it’s likely that your ideas about the place will be completely uprooted after you travel here. This is a part of the world where groups of people have been pitted against each other for centuries. I doubt you’ll leave feeling there’s only one set of right and wrongs here. For my part, I always leave feeling more conflicted, never less.

Go Deep When Doing Trip Research

Serbia - Belgrade - Western City Gate

Belgrade’s Western City Gate wasn’t on my to-do list until I got there

 

There are very few places in the Balkans where a top ten list of things to do will suffice. There are so many places that don’t get covered well by a travel blogger just passing through. If someone only sees a city for a day or two, they will likely miss things. Whenever I plan my itineraries for a new place in the Balkans, I scout five websites or more just to see what there is. Then I take stuff off my list because you can’t do everything. Even after two and a half years in Sofia, there’s still more that I want to see here. That’s why our list of things to do in Sofia has over a hundred items. We don’t expect someone coming to the city for a few days to do all of them, but we want them to know what is out there so they can choose what interests them the most. And since we’ve done them, we know what the value of each of the activities is.

When I plan a trip to a new destination, I’ll check out the major travel websites, regional Facebook groups, and big websites like Atlas Obscura. If I’m traveling the former Yugoslavia, I’ll look at the Spomenik database. I also like to check out some regional experts, like Yomadic and The Bohemian Blog, who write about places in the Balkans that are under-covered by the major travel sites.

Don’t Just Stick to the Big Cities

Serbia - Subotica - Lake Palic

Some of the best places in the Balkans are far away from the big cities.

 

If you just do the capitals,  you’ll miss out on some amazing places! Some of my favorite places are the smaller towns and villages, like Subotica in Serbia or Devin in Bulgaria. If you don’t get away from the big cities, you’ll miss out on so many Balkan gems, both cultural and natural.

But Don’t Ignore the Cities Either!

Serbia - Belgrade -Manufaktura Umbrellas Restaurant Selfie

We love the bustle of Belgrade!

 

However, don’t just stick to the villages! The cities are cosmopolitan and vibrant. If you think that the “real Balkans” only exist in the towns, you’ll miss a whole side of the region that lives for good food, beautiful fashion, and fun nightlife. The Balkans are not your time capsule. You need to experience both sides of life here.

Expect to Find a Lot of English Speakers in the Big Cities

Serbia - Belgrade - Street Art

You’ll hear (and see) a lot of English in the larger Balkan cities…especially from people who work in the service and tourism industries.

 

The rule of thumb for most of Eastern Europe is that until the fall of Communism, Russian was the most common foreign language taught in schools. After the fall of Communism, most schools switched to teaching English. Thus if someone is under thirty, it’s likely they at least studied English at some point. People in large cities who work in the service and tourism industries tend to speak good to great English since they use it so much. However, for the rest of the population, they may or may not use much English so it may be rusty. Be patient and learn a few words of the local language as a courtesy.

But You May Not Find Much English Spoken in the Smaller Towns

Serbia - Zlatibor - Pixabay

You’ll find less English spoken the more off-the-track you get.

 

The smaller and less touristy the town, the less likely you’ll be to run into English menus and English speakers. This is one reason we always recommend getting a local sim card and having Google translate on your phone.

Sim Cards Do Not Work Between Countries

Serbia - Subotica - Telenor SIM Card

Our Bulgarian Telenor Sim Cards shut down as soon as we crossed into Serbia

 

Since most of the Balkans aren’t in the European Union (more on that below), you’ll need to get different sim cards when traveling between them. I’ve picked up sim cards in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Serbia. Each experience has been pretty painless, but each country has its own quirks. For example, I had to list my father’s name to get a sim card in Athens, despite the fact that I am over thirty years old!

If you’re used to getting cheap rates all over the EU when you roam, note that using roaming in countries not in the EU can incur insane charges. Since data is so cheap, we recommend getting new cards rather than roaming through an EU plan. For example, we paid 300 RSD (about $3 USD)  for Serbian sim cards with 3 GB of data. If you don’t have an unlocked phone and use international roaming from the US or Canada, the plans will work. Just note that it may cost you significantly more than getting your company to unlock your phone ahead of time.

And Expect to Change Money as Often as You Change Countries

Euro Notes - Pixabay

You can only use your Euros in Slovenia, Greece, Montenegro, and Kosovo

 

My first trip to Bulgaria, I made a huge mistake. I grabbed a fifty Euro note instead of a fifty Bulgarian leva note and hopped into a cab ride. My taxi driver didn’t speak English, so when he refused to take it, I thought it was because he didn’t have change. But nope, I’d given him the wrong currency. Since I didn’t have any leva on me or the ability to get any out at the moment, I had to part with my fifty euro note, paying him roughly twenty times what the ride should have cost.

That expensive lesson has stuck with me, and I try to make sure I always have the right Balkan currency on me and leave currency from other places back in my hotel so I don’t get stuck again.

Money in the Balkans can get tricky. I had an ATM in Kosovo spit out Serbian dinars, which no one in Kosovo would take. I left Macedonia with extra cash and couldn’t find an exchange in Albania who would make the trade. I once exchanged money with a hostel employee who gave me Serbian dinars for my Bosnian marks at a fair rate, since she was going home to Bosnia for the weekend.

Throughout the Balkans, you’ll find the Romanian Lei, Bulgarian Lev, Croatian Kuna, Bosnian Convertible Marks, Albanian Lek, Turkish Lira, plus the four places which use Euros. It’s a lot to keep track of, and you’ll have a lot of opportunities to run into bad exchange rates or to pull out the wrong cash.

Read: Balkan Currency Guide: What You Need to Know about Balkan Money

 

If You Plan to Rent a Car, Call Ahead about Border Crossings

Serbia - Lake Palic - Allison Rental Car

If you plan on renting a car in the Balkans and driving across a border, you have to call ahead and check with your rental company.

 

Last summer, I scheduled a rental car for three weeks with the intention of taking it from Sofia to Ohrid to Sarande to Kotor to Prishtina and back. Oh, how naive I was! When I called ahead to check, they told me they only allowed border crossings into Serbia, Romania, and Greece. Luckily I was able to cancel and did the trip by bus instead.

Now I know that it’s easier to get permission to take a rental wherever you want if you start in Skopje, that taking a rental into Kosovo is a nightmare regardless of where you start or end your trip, and while driving in Serbia is delightful the gas prices there can blow a hole in your budget.

While I think doing a road trip through the Balkans is always fun and eventful, it’s a lot more complicated to plan than if you stick to one country.

To Visit Kosovo and Serbia Back-to-Back, Start with Serbia

Kosovo - Monastery - Pixabay

Want to visit Serbia and Kosovo on the same trip? You have to start with Serbia.

 

So many people have this one backward, so let’s clear it up. If you want to visit Serbia and Kosovo on the same trip back-to-back, you must start with Serbia. You’ll get a Serbia entry stamp on your passport. Then you can cross the border into Kosovo. If you start with Kosovo, you won’t get a Serbian entry stamp and Serbia will consider you to have crossed into their country illegally. Regardless of your political beliefs about Kosovo, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of the Serbian border control.

If you want to visit Kosovo, leave via Kosovo back to Montenegro or Macedonia, and then visit Serbia, this is technically fine since you won’t get a stamp at all. I haven’t personally done this route, but technically you should be fine.

If you choose to visit Serbia, then Kosovo, and then head to another country without crossing back into Serbia, you risk Serbia considering you to have overstayed your visa and not letting you back into the country down the road.

Knowing a Bit of Cyrillic Goes a Long Way

Serbia - Fruska Gora - Krusedol Souvenir Shop

Being able to read Cyrillic comes in handy in the Balkans.

I lucked out and studied Russian in college. So while I can barely put a Russian sentence together, I can read and write the Cyrillic alphabet easily. There are places in the Balkans where not being able to read Cyrillic would be maddening. If you can’t read Cyrillic (and don’t have time to learn) at least screen shot the alphabet and keep it on your phone in case of emergency.

 

…But Cyrillic Isn’t the Same Everywhere

Serbia - Subotica - Street Sign

Cyrillic can be slightly different from place to place.

 

I learned Russian Cyrillic, which is slightly different from Bulgarian Cyrillic. However, my first trip to Serbia blew my mind. They use J’s! They have a letter that looks like a cross between an H and a T! What was happening?!?

It broke my brain for the first few days until I got used to it.

If you want to know your various Balkan Cyrillic alphabets, here’s a great overview of the differences.

But Be Aware that there are Three Alphabets Commonly Used in the Balkans

Serbia - Belgrade -Sign in English and Serbian

You’ll see multiple alphabets as you backpack the Balkans.

 

You’ll see Serbian commonly written in Latin and Serbian Cyrillic. The Greek alphabet was the inspiration for Cyrillic, but many letters are different. Turkish and Albanian are similar to the Latin alphabet used for English but have additional letters and diacritical marks. Croatian and Slovenian are Slavonic languages that were originally written in Glagolitic (the precursor to Cyrillic), but they shifted to Latin letters during the Hapsburg empire. Between the three alphabets and all of the different letter combinations and diacritical marks, don’t get too comfortable with your pronunciations until you’ve been there a while.

 

Balkan Taxi Drivers are Notorious

Bulgaria - Sofia - Taxi

Always register your ride in the Balkans whenever possible!

 

Balkan taxi drivers have gained a reputation for a reason. While most are kind people doing honest work, there are enough scam drivers (and entire scam taxi companies) that you should be warned. We like to use whatever taxi app is the most common for a city (Uber in Bucharest, TaxiMe in Sofia, CarGo in Belgrade, etc). Where taxi apps aren’t possible, it’s better to follow these three simple rules:

  1. Register your ride by calling and ordering the taxi or having someone at your accommodations or restaurant call on your behalf.
  2. When it’s not possible to register a ride, keep your eye on the meter to make sure it starts, stops, and doesn’t jump rates on the way.
  3. Carry small cash bills so you can pay without having to worry about getting the correct change.

 

We’ve run into so many different issues in Bulgaria that we put together a whole taxi guide for Sofia. The more you know how taxis work in an area, the less likely you are to be scammed!

But TaxiApps are Common in Larger Cities

Serbia - Belgrade - Taxi Selfie

This is how much we love Car.Go

 

In the big cities, there is usually a taxi app available. While Uber is not in many Balkan cities (and it’s been kicked out of Athens since my first trip there in 2016), there’s usually another alternative. In Sofia, we use TaxiMe and Yellow Taxi. In Belgrade, we use local startup CarGo. In Zagreb you can use Radio Taxi Zagreb. Etc. Etc. Like everything else in the Balkans, you just have to switch from place to place and be aware ahead of time what to use. For now, Uber is still in Bucharest and Istanbul, so that’s something!

And You Can Always Get a Local Business to Assist

Serbia - Nis - Florentina Bus

After arriving in Belgrade, we used a local hotel to call us a taxi instead of risking an unregistered ride.

 

The hardest taxi to get anywhere is your first one. At that point, you’ve usually arrived at either an airport, bus station, or train station. You may never have been in the city before or know what to avoid. And it’s the moment you’re the least likely to have data. So unless there’s wifi, you might not be able to use an app even if you have one. You’re a sitting duck, and every taxi driver in the line knows it. Even in highly regulated places like the Sofia Airport, I’ve heard horror stories of taxi drivers telling my friends the trip cost three to ten times more than it should.

If you’re at an airport, check to see if there’s wifi. If not, register your ride with the taxi stand instead of going directly to a taxi. If you arrive in town at a station, walk to find a hotel or restaurant and ask them to call on your behalf.

 

Is it safe to Backpack the Balkans? Yes, Just Use Common Sense

Serbia - Belgrade - AirBnB Flowers

Even when we accidentally left our AirBnB door open, we didn’t get robbed. We don’t advise doing that, but it’s a sign that the Balkans aren’t scary the way people think.

 

Allison recently wrote about Serbian travel safety, because so many people erroneously think the Balkans are unsafe places to travel. After living and traveling around here for years, I can honestly say that I feel safer here than I did while living in Philadelphia or Oklahoma. For example, I’ve never heard gunshots living or traveling here.  There’s significantly less terrorism here than Western European cities, and the majority of crime that affects tourists is the kind of pickpocketing that happens everywhere. Use common sense and always be aware of your surroundings, but note that backpacking in the Balkans is no less safe than backpacking anywhere in Europe.

Solo Female Travel in the Balkans is Safe, Too

Bosnia - Mostar - Stephanie Landscape

It was scary handing my phone to a stranger to get this pic, but it was worth it!

 

I’ve never been hassled in the Balkans for being a woman traveling alone. Unlike Jordan, Belize, the Netherlands, parts of America, etc. I don’t get harassed here. No catcalling or even bullying to try to get me into a market or store. Being a woman traveling alone anywhere can be challenging at times, but I’d recommend the Balkans as one of my favorite places to solo travel. Of course, I am a white cis-gendered woman, and I speak from a place of privilege. I cannot speak to personal experiences traveling as a woman of color or LGBT traveler.

 

Most of the Balkans are Outside of the Schengen Zone…So Leave a Lot of Room in Your Passport

Bulgaria - Border Crossing - Passport Control

Prepare to add a lot of stamps to that passport!

 

The only countries in the Balkans which are in the Schengen Zone are Slovenia and Greece. This means that every time you switch countries, you’re going to need an exit and entry stamp. This eats up passport pages quickly, so make sure that you plan ahead and don’t start a Balkan backpacking trip without enough blank pages in your passport! You don’t want to get yelled at by Romanian border control when you run out of room (not that I would know anything about that…).

 

This Means They Also Have Their Own Visa Rules

Albania - Himara - hidden beach

An American can hang out on the Albanian Riviera for up to a year on just a tourist visa!

Since only Greece and Slovenia are in the Schengen Zone, the rest of the Balkans is a maze of visa rules. This can be a godsend or a nightmare, depending on which country your passport is from. I love that I can be in Bulgaria ninety days out of every six months and that none of these days count against time I can spend in the Schengen zone. However, for travelers who need to apply and pay for visas, having to get them individually to each country is a bureaucratic and budgetary nightmare.

 

Regardless of Your Expectations Before Arriving, Prepare to Need to Return…Immediately!

Serbia - Novi Sad - Stephanie Selfie at Petrovaradin Fortress

For me, one trip to the Balkans would never be enough!

 

There is so much to do here that unless you settle in for six months of backpacking, I know you’ll leave wanting more. Maybe you’ll want to take a break from the grilled meat and rakia for a bit, but there’s always another Balkan country or city you’ll want to explore. For me, the deeper I travel here, the more I want to keep going. And since getting a cheap flight here is pretty easy from most of Europe, you’re next Balkan backpacking adventure is always just one Skyscanner or Google Flights session away!

Finally, Don’t Leave without Travel Insurance!

One last note: make sure you always travel the Balkans with a valid travel insurance policy. The region is a very safe place to travel, but accidents or theft can easily ruin your trip if you don’t have the travel insurance coverage to recover the losses. Recently my aunt fell on a train in France and needed surgery, but luckily her travel insurance covered the costs in full. Thank goodness!

For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.

Get a travel insurance quote for your trip here.

 

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Planning a Balkans trip? This comprehensive post of Balkans tips comes after we've traveled the Balkans for over 2 years. Everything you need to know for your Balkan itinerary, whether you're backpacking the Balkans or traveling independently on a larger budget.

Have you backpacked the Balkans? Are you planning a trip to the Balkans soon? Leave any questions and your best Balkan backpacking tips below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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