My overwhelming thoughts on the Balkans are much like my main conclusion after traveling around most of the former republics of the Soviet Union: what an incredibly diverse place, both physically and culturally.
The Balkans, or the Balkan Peninsula as it’s also known, is a geographic area in southeastern Europe. Although there is disagreement of the exact definition, territory, and meaning, the region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch throughout the peninsula.
Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and the European part of Turkey are generally included in the Balkans but for this article, I am specifically talking about the countries of the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Before 1992, the aforementioned countries made up Yugoslavia. Today, different regions of these now independent countries have different ethnic makeups and very different histories. Traveling from the very Ottoman-influenced Sarajevo and Mostar to places near Lake Bled and the Julian Alps that could be mistaken for Austria, you can witness the differences in architecture, religion, and landscape.
In Istria (Croatia), the influence of the Venetian Empire is noticeable when compared to Dalmatia, further down the coast. The contrast of brutalist buildings in Skopje versus the Roman remains of Pula is striking. These cities and regions have been shaped by their former rulers, from the Romans, to the Venetians, to the Austro-Hungarians, to the Ottomans, to the Communists. Each has left their mark.
This long and at times turbulent history provides us travelers with a richer experience. We taste the foods, climb the bell towers and minarets, and hear the stories of locals who lived through the war and genocide of the 1990s.
A gruesome conflict played out from 1993-1995. All sides endured casualties but Bosnia & Herzegovina took the brunt of death and destruction. For me, learning about this war was an important part of traveling here.
Did you know that 5,434 civilians died in Sarajevo during a 1,425-day siege? Today, along with elegant bridges, mosques, and churches, cemeteries dot the city. Try wrapping your head around the fact that more than 8,000 Bosniaks were systematically killed during the genocide in Srebrenica. In 1995! In Europe! There’s a whole museum dedicated to it in Sarajevo.
I seek out information and stories on this war not to depress myself on vacation, but to try to understand what these people went through. Most of all it has left me in awe of the resilience of Bosnians, and how seemingly well they have recovered.
Superficially they have rebuilt their homes and cities. I can’t imagine the deep emotional trauma that has been ingrained in their psyche. Those who I talked to are beyond holding grudges and holding on to hatred. The Bosnians I met rank up there with the friendliest people in the world.
I love this part of the world. It is far from perfect but perfection would be boring. I love the diversity of cultures, foods, religions, architecture, and history. Figuratively speaking, the Balkans has a foot in many corners of Europe.
Traveling in the Balkans today you can witness this diversity firsthand. You get a little taste of everything if you piece together a trip through all the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Over the past five years, on five different trips, I have traveled through each of these countries. Most recently I road-tripped through the Balkans for three weeks.
Slovenia is an interesting mix of the influences of the power cultures that surround it. The Slovenes are Slavs, but that only tells part of the story. As you travel towards the northwest of the country, to the Julian Alps, the landscape looks like Austria and Slovenes share traits of Germanic people. But they’re also an equal part Mediterranean culture with their small coastline and proximity to the Adriatic. There is also influence from deeper in the Balkan peninsula and Slovenia was briefly part of the Ottoman Empire. The food is a mix of these cultures as well.
Today Slovenia looks and feels like a wealthy country. You could mistake being in Austria or Italy except it’s slightly cheaper than either.
Croatia is the tourism darling of the region. This is home to the Dalmatian coast and a multitude of gorgeous beaches, splendid coastal villages, and historic port cities. The Istrian Peninsula with its Venitian history, is also a highlight. Zagreb is often overlooked but has great museums. If you go to the wrong place at the wrong time, Croatia will be crowded and expensive. But with a little research and planning, you’ll experience the best of Croatia at a reasonable price. My favorite spots are the Istrian Peninsula, Rovinj, Split, and Korcula.
Croats seemed to be laid back in a good way: relaxed in attitude but you can still expect things done properly and in a timely manner. I like that about them.
If you can be open-minded and hold off on casting judgment on the Serbians as ethnic cleansers, you’ll be better off for it. Serbia has a lot of history to explore and some interesting cities like Belgrade, Subotica, Novi Sad, and Nis. Serbia is the largest and most populous of the former Yugoslav republics. It’s not on most travelers’ Balkans trip but it is a great place to start for understanding the region.
Bosnia & Herzegovina has a much different feel than Croatia or Serbia. There is rich Ottoman history here and over half the population is Muslim. Minarets and their calls to prayer are very distinct reminders that you are in a unique part of Europe. After the war, the country has opened to tourism and the resilience and friendliness of Bosnians is overwhelming.
If big plates of grilled meat are your idea of a good meal then B & H will delight you. Mostar or Sarajevo is where most travelers begin their journey into this part of the Balkans and with good reason.
Montenegro means Black Mountain and much of this country’s interior is mountainous. But the majority of travelers come away from Montenegro with its spectacular Bay of Kotor on their mind. The Montenegrin coastline isn’t too shabby either. Those who do make it into the rugged interior are rewarded with beautiful natural beauty and an untouristy look at the country’s culture.
Most tourists arrive in Kotor by cruise ship and leave within a matter of hours. Do yourself a favor and stay a few days along the Bay of Kotor and enjoy this area with locals and tourists-in-the-know.
Kosovo has been independent since 2008 but is only recognized by 97 countries. It emerged after the war with Serbia and most of the population is ethnic Albanians after many of the Serbs departed. Kosovo is mountainous and landlocked. Very few tourists make it to Kosovo, but those who do, enjoy the historic city of Prizren. Most of Prizren was spared destruction in the Kosovo War and there are old stone bridges, mosques, Ottoman houses, and a fortress above the city.
North Macedonia just settled a naming dispute with Greece. The conflict started because Greece didn’t want another country to call itself Macedonia because they already have a region called Macedonia which they think is the one and only real Macedonia. I have only been to Skopje and what a weird and wonderful city it is. Skopje has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years and has a lovely old town with a stone fortress, Ottoman mosques, and excellent marketplace. The weirdness of the city’s development comes in the last couple of decades when the mayor erected ostentatious statues, bridges, and public buildings. They are worth seeing just for their awe-inspiring gaudiness. Also, don’t miss Lake Ohrid, a tourist favorite in the southwestern corner of North Macedonia.