Thousands of people include Europe in their travelling plans. Yes Italy, Spain and Portugal are absolutely beautiful but there are lots of places in Europe that are often overlooked. Emma Nelson recently travelled through Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania on a visit to the Balkans, before finishing in Dubrovnik. She wants to share her experiences why this part of the continent needs to be on the top of your list.
1. What attracted you to visit the Balkans?
Well to be honest, the photos I saw of the locations, and the blogs I read about it! There seemed to be so many really beautiful places in the Balkans with a good range of activities for everyone. I love a mixture of city, countryside, mountains and the coast and a visit to the Balkans seemed to tick all those boxes. It also hasn’t been hit by mass tourism just yet (except Dubrovnik!). I really wanted to explore while the places were still relatively quiet. Not having to avoid selfie sticks made the trip that more fun for sure.
2. What were some of the highlights? Anything underrated that people should explore?
Kosovo was definitely a highlight for me as I didn’t really know what to expect, which made it all the more exciting. We took the bus out to Prizren and climbed the hill to the fortress which had lovely views of the city and was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
I also loved Lake Ohrid, it was very serene after all the city walking tours we did! Macedonia as a whole I think is underrated and if people are in the region they should definitely try and visit. You have Matka Canyon just outside Skopje and then you have the capital itself which I absolutely loved. It was so culturally vibrant and interesting. They have statues all over the place. No matter where you turn there is something fun to see. Then you have the old Bazaar which made me feel like I just stepped into Turkey, it was incredible!
Budapest is also amazing. From the castle to the ruin bars to the spas, I could spend days just walking the city! But I wouldn’t say it’s underrated, it gets the attention it deserves.
3. Do you have any tips for people visiting Europe? What to bring, what to see?
Good walking shoes! Most of the destinations provide free walking tours which can last up to three hours. You will get a real insight into the city and way of life there as well as an in depth history lesson. If you want to reach some of the castles and fortresses, you will also need to do a bit of hiking in order to enjoy the views.
I would also suggest to at least learn how to say hello and thank you in each place you visit. We had great fun showing off our language skills to taxi drivers and even when you can barely communicate it gives both of you something to laugh about. It’s just that bit more respectful to at least try! What to see….well there is way too much to fit it all in. The great thing is all the highlights are included in the tour so I don’t think I missed out on anything. All I would say is if you visit Pristina in Kosovo, you must get a bus to Prizren! And the same with Skopje, if you go there you must get out to Matka Canyon!
4. What was the food like? What can you recommend? Which countries stood out in particular?
The food is always a highlight for me when travelling, even just walking around a supermarket to see what weird and wonderful things they sell is fun. Other people do that right? I didn’t really know what to expect but I was so surprised and loved all of it. Being vegetarian I was preparing to live off salads (although I definitely could have lived off Shopska salads!) but they had so much more. One of my favourites was called Tavche Grache, which is a bean stew with tomatoes and onions, flavoured with spices. It sounds basic but I found myself ordering them whenever I could. I am currently trying to find recipes online to re-create it too…
They also add cheese to everything which makes it even more delicious. I ate my body weight in fried, baked, sliced and everything in between local cheeses. As a vegetarian, I didn’t pay much attention to the meat dishes but there are a lot available and everyone else seemed to love them. I can safely say there is something for everyone! It’s also important to mention the local wines, they were amazing! I was sad I could only fit two bottles in my luggage…
Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo stood out the most for me overall. You can get very high quality for the price and some of my favourite meals were had there. By the time you get to Montenegro and Croatia, while the food is still very good you are looking at double the price.
5. Would this tour appeal to various age groups? Can you describe some of the activities that may appeal?
There is definitely plenty to enjoy for all ages. If you like history and culture, and are partial to a fortress or two with an incredible view then you can’t go wrong. Since the countries are relatively small, you can easily get round the region at a reasonable pace without spending all day travelling, which I think appeals to everyone! There is a big party scene in the capital cities, especially Budapest and Belgrade, so it’s not just all castles and culture which makes it that bit more appealing to a wider age range.
It’s perfect for everyone interested in history and local knowledge. In Ohrid and also once you get to the coast there are endless water based activities such as boat rides and kayaking, and there are also countless opportunities for hiking and cycling. We also did a few wine tasting and winery tours which seem to be popular in the area! The tour and region is definitely suited to people who love being outdoors, whether you are exploring the Old Towns, walking city walls or relaxing on the shores of a lake.
6. When is the best time to visit the Balkans?
At the start or end of the summer season if you can. I traveled in May and the weather was warm enough but not too hot that it’s uncomfortable, and I imagine it would be much the same in September. Having traveled previously to Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in July, the height of the season, I know how hot it can get! Obviously there are also more tourists in the main cities around in July/August too, meaning longer queues and generally hiked up prices!
7. How much spending money would you recommend
The Balkans in general is cheap. You can expect to pay anything from 5 euros upwards for a main meal. I had glasses of wine that cost 2 euros or less! The most important thing is not to blow your budget before you reach Kotor and Dubrovnik. These are the most expensive places and you can expect your meal prices to skyrocket.
Local buses are also very inexpensive. If you want to take a day trip anywhere, and in general entry to attractions is a lot lower in cost than in Western Europe. There is a lot included in the tour price, which means less to pay out on the road, such as the city pass in Dubrovnik which gets you transport and entry to the city walls.
I personally spent about €300 over the two weeks. This went mainly on food (and maybe wine) so I think that is pretty good value! I’m not a souvenir kind of person though so when I say it all went on food and wine…it’s true. If you want to shop you definitely need more!
8. If you could only pick one Balkan country to return to, which one would it be?
I would have to choose Albania as I would love to explore more of the coast and beaches, oh and the mountains! It probably has one of the darkest histories in the Balkans and it’s really transforming into something special. The locals were welcoming and friendly, the food was great. I could just tell it had so much more to offer than Tirana, the capital city. I would love to see more of the countryside and get really off the beaten track there!
9. Any final comments?
Get in there while you can! I think over the next few years we will really see the Balkans appear more on tourist’s radars. It has already started in Dubrovnik and parts of Montenegro and when people learn how beautiful, cheap and safe the neighbouring countries are everyone will be visiting.
Emma went on our Budapest to Dubrovnik tour which you can view here