Sofia Adventures

I first visited the Balkans in 2016 and promptly fell in love with the region…. so much so, that I actually moved here as a result of that first Balkans trip. Between the mountains of Montenegro, the coastline of Albania, the lakes of Macedonia, and the architecture of Serbia, I couldn’t get enough of the region.

Balkans travel is unique, unlike traveling anywhere else in the world. It’s full of contradictions. Its history is both triumphant and tragic, long and recent.

1. You’ll find some of the best scenery in Europe when you travel the Balkans

The Balkans are home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Europe. It’s home to the southernmost fjord in Europe, the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, which looks like a postcard come to life. Montenegro is also home to the second longest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon, the Tara Canyon, which is absolutely stunning.

The sparkling turquoise sea all along the Albanian Riviera has some of the warmest, bluest waters you’ll find in Europe, but the coastline everywhere from Croatia down to Greece is absolutely stunning. Even landlocked countries like Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia have stunning rivers and lakes, the gem of which would have to be the stunning Lake Ohrid on the border between Macedonia and Albania.

Macedonia - Ohrid - Church of St. John the Theologian

The beautiful Lake Ohrid, the pride of Macedonia

If you’re a fan of mountains, the Balkans won’t let you down: this region is incredibly mountainous and beautiful. The Dinaric Alps range from Slovenia all the way down to Albania and are absolutely stunning: I especially love Durmitor National Park in northeastern Montenegro. The tallest mountains in the Balkans are located in Bulgaria, with the tallest being Musala Peak in the Rila Mountain range.

But even Balkan cities are nestled in the mountains, with the best example being Sofia with Vitosha Mountain being a quick 20 or 30 minute drive from the city center.

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

Vitosha views in the winter

2. Traveling the Balkans is incredibly affordable compared to Western Europe

The Balkans are one of the cheapest places to travel in all of Europe. Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria offer especially great value for travelers. Expect to pay about $5-10 for a dorm room, $15-20 for a private room, filling breakfast pastries for 50 cents, fancy sit down meals with plenty of drinks for $10-15, less than a dollar for inter-city public transport, and $5 for long intercity bus rides,

Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, and to some extent Montenegro are slightly more expensive than the rest of the Balkans. Still, “expensive” in the Balkans is still going to be cheaper than Western Europe by a long shot.

Albania - Berat - House on the Osum River

Albania is one of the cheapest countries to travel in all of Europe, with average travel costs under $30 per day.

3. The Balkans are home to some of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth

The Balkans have a long and rich history that encompasses several empires. Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria, has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years. It was originally settled by the Thracians; later, it was ruled by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, and countless others. Vestiges of its history are everywhere, such as the Roman amphitheater in the heart of town which was built in the 90s AD.

Bulgaria - Plovdiv - Eastern Gate of Philippopolis

A glance at the Eastern Gate of Philippopolis in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Ohrid in Macedonia also holds the honors of being one of the longest-inhabited cities in Europe’s history. And when you visit the beautiful Lake Ohrid, more than 3 million years old, you’ll see why settlers stayed and never left the stunning natural beauty of Ohrid.

4. You’ll find plenty of gorgeous monasteries and churches while traveling the Balkans

While there are several major religions in the Balkans, Christian churches and monasteries make up the majority of historic religious buildings. In Croatia and Slovenia, you’ll see the influence of the Catholic church, whereas in Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, and Macedonia, you’ll see more architecture in the Eastern Orthodox style.

Romania - Bucovina - Voronet Monastery

The stunning “painted church” of Voronets Monatery in Bucovina, Romania

No matter what your religion, it’s indubitable that these visiting these churches are one of the best highlights of Balkans travel. There are no buildings quite like them anywhere else that I know of.

5. You’ll also find some of the most beautiful mosques in Europe

Religion in the Balkans has been shaped by a number of occupying forces over the years. The Ottoman Empire’s rule left certain countries, such as Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, with Muslim majority populations.

Plus, Istanbul is technically part of the Balkan peninsula, and it’s home to some of the most stunning examples of Islamic architecture on the planet.

Turkey - Istanbul - Mosque

The most famous mosque in Istanbul

6. Locals are genuinely happy to see and help tourists

In general, the Balkans are not a rich region. While certain countries in the Balkans have done a great job at marketing themselves to tourists, particularly Slovenia and Croatia, others are lagging behind. 3 of the top 10 least-visited countries in Europe are located in the Balkans (Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina). Having been to all of them, I can safely vouch that tourists are missing out.

Bosnia - Mostar - Old Bridge of Mostar

This is what you’re missing if you don’t visit the Balkans

I’ve never been in a region where I felt my presence was more appreciated by locals than when traveling the Balkans. I was poured rakia after rakia all night in Trebinje, Bosnia, never being allowed to touch the bill. When hitchhiking in Milot, Albania, the guys who picked us up literally went an hour out of their way, crossing an international checkpoint, in order to drop us off to our destination in Kosovo. I was gifted jars of ajvar in Lagadin, Macedonia and lost count of the cups of coffee bought for me along the way.

Tourism in the Balkans is underdeveloped, and many locals see the influx of tourism bringing growth into countries that have dealt with high unemployment and poverty rates that have marked this region since the transition from communism.

7. Balkans travel is extremely safe for solo and female travelers

Stephanie and I have both solo traveled through the Balkans extensively, totaling at least a year between the both of us (not counting the fact that we both now live in Sofia). Honestly, I would say that traveling the Balkans is right up there with traveling Southeast Asia when it comes to safety for solo female travelers. Street harassment is simply way less of a problem in the Balkans the way it is in many other countries I’ve visited. I can literally count the uncomfortable experiences I’ve had with men in my entire time traveling the Balkans on one hand, and not even use up all my fingers.

Montenegro - Durmitor National Park - Bobotov Kuk

Traveling solo in Montenegro

While it is very safe for solo travelers, it is at times confusing. Language barriers are high outside of the larger cities, and simple tasks like taking a bus can become hilariously complicated in countries like Albania. That said, if you can handle a bit of adventure and don’t mind things not always going exactly as planned, you will be perfectly happy with Balkans travel and all the adventure it brings.

8. It’s so easy to get off the beaten path in the Balkans

One thing I love so much about the Balkans is that tourism there is still in its beginning stages. Cities like Kotor are quite built up — but visit nearby Ulcinj or Zabljak and you’ll find hidden gems everywhere you look. Mostar is huge with day trippers from Dubrovnik — but quiet Trebinje is stunning with only a handful of foreigners visiting at any given time. Buzzing Belgrade is well-loved by many for good reason, but quiet Novi Sad just an hour north is even more beautiful.

If you’re planning a trip to the Balkans, I urge you to think outside just the capital cities and tourist favorites, and add a few lesser-visited towns to your list.

Bosnia - Trebinje - river

Trebinje is one of the most beautiful towns I visited in the Balkans

9. The Balkans are perfect for history lovers

The Balkan peninsula is one of the most historically rich regions of Europe, with countless empires converging and fighting for dominance, shaping the culture, language, and history. Where else can you find prehistoric artifacts, Greek and Roman ruins, Ottoman relics, and Communist monuments all in one region, let alone city?

I can think of precious few other places where the history is so rich and layered as in the Balkans.

Bulgaria - Plovdiv - Bulgarian National Revival Style House

Plovdiv in Bulgaria offers all that history in a tiny package

10. The produce in the Balkans is insanely fresh and almost always organic

I’ve never had fresher-tasting salads than when in Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. These countries are largely still very agricultural outside of the main cities. As a result, you’ll find incredible salads all over the Balkans, with the ripest, most delicious tomatoes on earth.

Albania - Balkans travel

A fresh, delicious Greek salad in Albania, which cost about $2

My favorite is the shopska salad, well loved in both Macedonia and Bulgaria — chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and peppers, sometimes olives, all laying atop a heavy, heavy coating of fresh briny feta-like cheese called sirene.

11. And the Balkans is heaven for meat lovers, too.

While there’s a lot that differentiates the countries in the Balkans, a few important things unite them, the number one probably being the Balkan love for grilled meat. The mixed grilled meat plate is inextricable from Balkans travel, all barbecued and spiced perfectly, served with different salads and tons of fresh bread.

Serbia - Novi Sad - cevapi grilled meat

Lunch in Serbia be like…

Vegetarians will have a bit of a hard time here, but there’s always burek — flaky, fattening pastries stuffed with cheese, potatoes, spinach, or a variety of other fillings, most of which are usually vegetarian.

And obviously, whatever you end up eating, you’ve got to wash that down with some…

12. Rakia.

It’d be impossible to write a piece about traveling the Balkans without, at some point, mentioning rakia. Just as the love of grilled meat unites the Balkans, so too does rakia (though there is sometimes bitter competition about where the best rakia comes from. The best answer is always the country you’re in…. which is a good general rule of thumb for Balkans travel).

Rakia is an incredibly strong fruit-based liquor, most often made from grapes, plums, apricots, or other similar fruits. It’s often homemade, poured from suspicious-looking former plastic water bottles. If someone offers you rakia, always accept: it’s usually the start of a raucous night out.

Serbia - Rakija

Balkans travel: powered by rakia

For those who wish to destroy their liver at a slightly slower rate, the beer and wine scene is strong in the Balkans, too. What can I say? This region likes to drink, and even a Balkan grandmother will likely drink you under the table.

13. The National Parks in the Balkans are some of the best in the world

One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been is Durmitor National Park in Montenegro, a stunning park full of gorgeous hiking trails, pristine lakes, and stunning mountains formed from melting glaciers. The hike to the top of Bobotov Kuk, the highest peak in Durmitor, was the hardest but most rewarding challenge I’ve ever undertaken.

Montenegro - Durmitor National Park - Bobotov Kuk

Atop the highest peak in Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

Rila National Park in Bulgaria is another favorite, and while I’ve yet to visit Theth National Park in Albania, I have every reason to believe it will completely and totally blow my mind.

14. … but the Balkans are pretty even underneath the ground

I’ve visited some incredible caves in Bulgaria and Steph raves about the caves in Slovenia. (Just don’t visit a salt mine in Romania.)

Saeva Dupka in Bulgaria is one of the most beautiful caves I’ve been to… and I’ve been to a fair number, because I’m a weirdo geology nerd. Bulgaria is also famous for Prohodna Cave, aka the “Eyes of God” for its strange formation that makes it look as if there are two eyes forming a window to the sky.

Bulgaria - Saeva Dupka

The stunning Saeva Dupka cave in Bulgaria

15. For long-term travelers, most of the Balkans is safely outside the Schengen zone

With the exception of Slovenia and Greece, all of the Balkan countries are outside of the Schengen Zone. There are 3 Balkan countries which are part of the EU, but not covered under Schengen: Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Croatia - Zagreb - Saint Mark's Square

Stunning European architecture – without the pesky Schengen visa restrictions

Because the Schengen visa only allows you 90 days out of every 180, it is common for long-term Europe backpackers to spend time outside of the Schengen zone enjoying the relatively lax visa rules (and the cheaper prices).

16. Adventure enthusiasts will have their adrenaline soaring in the Balkans

The Balkans are perfect for adrenaline junkies. Whether it’s hiking the highest mountain in the Balkans peninsula – Bulgaria’s Musala Peak – at nearly 3,000 meters, rafting through the deepest canyon in Europe in Montenegro, bungee jumping off the Tara Bridge, or paragliding over Bosnia, the Balkans are a haven for lovers of nature and the adventure that comes with them.

Albania - Himara - boatplane

Although I do not recommend flying over the beach in a home-crafted Albanian boatplane.

17. The Balkans are a winter wonderland, with tons of skiing and snowboarding opportunities

If you’re craving a ski holiday that’s slightly different than the norm, the Balkans offers countless opportunities for ski and snowboarding lovers. You can combine a city break with a ski trip in Sofia and get the best of both worlds.

Bulgaria - Pirin - Flying over the Pirin Mountains

Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains, as seen from a plane

But for those craving a more nature-oriented experience, cozy cabin and all, there are fantastic ski resorts all over the Balkans. A few of the most popular resort areas include Zabljak in Montenegro, Bansko in Bulgaria, Poiana Brasov in Romania, and Brezovica in Kosovo.

18. Meanwhile, summers bring stunning beaches

The Balkans are one of my favorite places to be in the summer — even landlocked countries like Macedonia are amazing with gorgeous lakes. Romania and Bulgaria have the Black Sea, which is so large that you actually get proper sandy beaches.

Greece and Croatia have always been well-loved for their beaches, but I’m of the opinion that the Albanian Riviera is home to some of the most stunning beaches in all of the Balkans.

I mean, just look at this.

Albania - Himara - hidden beach

The stunning hidden beach of Himara, Albania

19. Sunsets in the Balkans are like no other

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never seen more beautiful sunsets on an average day than when I’ve been visiting the Balkans. Living in Sofia, I’ve noticed that this city is home to some of the most spectacularly vibrant city sunsets I’ve seen.

Bulgaria - Sofia - Central Market Hall sunset

A sunset in Sofia, Bulgaria

Meanwhile, all up along the Adriatic coast, you’ll find beautiful beachside sunsets as well, including some of the best I’ve seen in Corfu, Greece.

20. Street art in the Balkans is unique and expressive

The Balkans is home to some intriguing, up-and-coming street art scenes. Belgrade’s is probably the most well-known of all of them and is certainly the most developed. The Exarcheia neighborhood in Athens is also highly regarded for its politically charged street art.

But even lesser-known cities have some interesting street art scenes, such as Mostar in Bosnia, where an abandoned bank tower that was once used by snipers during the war is now host to anti-war, pro-tolerance art.

Bosnia - Mostar - graffiti sniper tower

The graffiti in Mostar, Bosnia

21. Nightlife is fun, unpretentious, and affordable.

Fact: Young people in the Balkans love to party. Also fact: The latest I’ve ever stayed out in my life was in Belgrade, Serbia. Coincidence? I think not.

No matter what kind of nightlife you prefer, the Balkans has got you covered. Whether you prefer hipster-y craft beer bars or nightclubs with throbbing bass into the dawn, you’ll likely find it in any major city in the Balkans. We’ve gathered our favorite bars in Sofia, but we’ve also found Athens, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje, and Tirana to have great nightlife scenes.

Bulgaria - Sofia - Hambara Bar

One of our favorite bars in Sofia – Hambara, a secret bar lit only by candles

Extra bonus? Going out for a night in the Balkans is incredibly cheap. In Sofia, I spend an average of $2 per beer or glass of wine and $5 for a fancy, upscale cocktail. Prices are pretty much the same in the rest of the Balkans, though you’ll pay more in Greece, Croatia, and Slovenia.

22. Young people are super optimistic

Traveling through the Balkans, I’ve been really impressed with the dedication and optimism of young people towards their cities and countries. Rather than leaving to countries with more job opportunities, many young people are staying or choosing to getting educated abroad then coming back home to open businesses. As a result, small businesses are thriving all over the Balkans, headed by well-educated young people with enormous passion for their country.

Bulgaria - Sofia - Drekka Coffee Shop

A gorgeous small business coffee shop in Sofia, Bulgaria

23. Parts of the Balkans feel like a time capsule

Traveling through the Balkans at times feels like a blast from the past. While the WiFi is brand new and blazing fast, certain infrastructure — like old vintage trams — is dated. Communist architecture in certain parts of the Balkans looks straight out of decades gone past, whereas the Orthodox churches in others almost feel like they’re from another century. Meanwhile, parts of Bosnia such as Mostar still very much carry the scars of the war in the 1990s, with bombed out abandoned buildings alongside a bustling shopping area in Mostar’s Old Town.

You’ll find goats and Old cars like the ubiquitous Soviet-era Lada are not uncommon, and you’ll find open-air markets throughout the Balkans selling Communist paraphernalia, rotary telephones, black and white framed family photos from the 1920s and 30s, and other such oddities of a bygone era.

Bulgaria - Sofia - Tram in front of Sveta Nedelya

A vintage tram in Sofia

24. But it’s also changing rapidly

In addition to lightning fast WiFi rapidly spreading throughout the Balkans (with Romania and Bulgaria boasting some of the fastest internet in Europe), other aspects of Balkan life are also quickly changing. Sofia’s vintage trams are slowly being phased out with newer ones taking their place. You’ll find hip new foodie hotspots next to dusty old taverns, and gourmet soup bars next to basement-level klek shops.

Bulgaria - Sofia - Klek Shop

A klek shop in Sofia, Bulgaria, which is slowly being phased out as the city modernizes

And that’s not just Sofia but virtually all cities in the Balkans. As the countries modernize, they’re sure to change, and I think there’s a lot to be said for traveling the Balkans before they lose their unique, distinct character that they have at this present moment.

25. And it’s never been easier to get to the Balkans

Budget airlines serve virtually every major city in the Balkans. Wizz Air flies to every capital city in the Balkans as well as a few other large cities. Ryanair and easyJet also serve many Balkan countries, and both airlines are expanding in the region quickly. Buses between the countries, while not fast, are cheap and reliable, making overland Balkans travel relatively simple.

With roundtrip flights starting around $25 from many countries in Europe, you’d be foolish not to consider the Balkans on a future Europe trip.

And with views like these… why wouldn’t you?

Albania - Himara Albanian Riviera - Gjipe Beach

The beautiful Albanian coast

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