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10 Reasons to Visit the Balkans

10 Reasons to Visit the Balkans

Europe is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. However, while most tourists and travelers head to Western Europe for holiday and backpacking adventures, cities like Venice, Paris, and Rome among others are suffering from “overtourism,” which results in extremely crowded streets, high prices, and a generally not-so-good travel experience. Yet, despite the overtourism happening in Western Europe, there are large areas of Europe that do not get the massive amount of tourist traffic that the more traditional vacation hot spots tend to get.

The Bay of Kotor in Montenegro

One area of Europe that is usually skipped over by many visitors are the Balkan countries. The Balkans are located in southeastern Europe within the Balkan Peninsula. The Balkans are traditionally listed as the countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and the western part of Turkey. I’m extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit all of these places except Slovenia, and I can personally vouch and guarantee that these countries are absolutely worth visiting if you want to see something different.

While it is true that the Balkans had a tumultuous and violent history, especially in the 1990s, those days are long gone, and the region has become a vibrant area with a lot of activities that can appeal to all kinds of tourists, travelers, and visitors.

Please enjoy the photos! All photos were taken by me using a DSLR and iPhone.

1) Cheaper than Western Europe

A mix of Balkan currencies

By most standards, Western Europe is not cheap. That is especially true in the tourist centers of the major cities where high prices are generally the norm. However, a majority of the countries of the Balkans are much more affordable to the budget traveler. Aside from Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Greece, which use the euro, the other Balkan countries use their own currencies which tend to be weaker. This definitely lets your money go further than it would in other parts of Europe.

Because the cost of living is also cheaper in the Balkans than in Western Europe, all kinds of travelers with different budgets can travel and experience the region comfortably without worrying about breaking the bank. It is very easy to find not only 5-star hotels in the major cities but also comfortable hostels and other types accommodations for the budget-minded traveler.

2) Beautiful Nature

View of Perast, Montenegro

The Balkans are famous for the beautiful nature that is found throughout the area. Many of the countries in the region are famous and well-known for their nature and natural sites. Croatia is known for it’s marvelous coast that borders the Adriatic Sea and islands whereas Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are well-known for the many mountainous areas that have lakes nestled between them in the valleys. The mountains and lakes of the Balkans are magnificent and provide breathtaking vistas that will allow for some wonderful photos.

For those who enjoy mountain climbing, hiking, and trekking, the Balkans will provide many opportunities for that. This can provide an excellent way to explore a lot of these countries in-depth and get to know the locals outside of the major cities.

3) Mix of Cultures

The Citadel of Pocitelj in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Balkans are known for the wide mix of cultures and religions that live in the region. The area is inhabited by over a dozen different ethnic groups. In addition, there is no overwhelmingly dominant religion. Instead, the Balkans have a mix of Christians, who adhere mainly to Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism to a lesser extent, and Muslims. Because of the mix of religious faiths, it is not uncommon to see churches and mosques within close proximity to each other.

Of course, while there have been conflicts between the religious and ethnic groups in the past, those days are mostly gone, and a vast majority of the people who live in the region get along and coexist peacefully. When a visitor to the Balkans comes, they will have the opportunity to see a rather fascinating mix of cultures living together in harmony.

4) Interesting History

The Veliko Tarnovo Tsarevets in Bulgaria

Because of the mix of cultures and religions in the region, the Balkans have a relatively interesting history that differs from the rest of western Europe. There were times when the dominant groups were Christians and then Muslims, and then there were times when different ethnic groups within the region interacted and tried to gain superiority. In addition to the internal history of the area, countries from outside of the region also played a role in the history of the region, such as the Venetian Republic and its interaction with the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) as trading partners.

When a traveler visits the Balkans, it will definitely be a fascinating and living history lesson to see how these different groups evolved together. In addition, it is possible to see the sites where a lot of these actions took place which makes history come alive.

5) Game of Thrones Filming Locations

Dubrovnik, Croatia (King’s Landing) at sunset

One of the key reasons to visit the Balkans is because significant parts of HBO’s Game of Thrones were filmed in the region. It is well-known that the city of Dubrovnik, which is in southern Croatia and one of the rare cities of the Balkans suffering from "overtourism," served as the setting for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. It is even possible to do “Game of Thrones” tours in the city where guides will show you where different scenes were filmed.

For any Game of Thrones fan, this is a great reason to visit the Balkans.

6) Unique Traditions

Even though the Balkans are part of Europe, they differ in several major ways from the rest of Europe. Because a majority of the Balkan countries tend to be Orthodox Christian, they often celebrate different holidays, such as Christmas and Easter on different days. These celebrations also entail a lot of different rituals that would not be typically seen in other parts of the world. For instance, since Serbia is mostly Orthodox, the Christians of Serbia celebrate Christmas on January 7 and not December 25 like Latin-rite Catholics. Another example is in January when many of the Orthodox faithful dive into freezing cold water to retrieve a cross to celebrate Epiphany.

Because the Balkans is a region that is full of culture, folklore, and tradition, it is entirely possible to find a secular or religious festival happening at any time of the year.

7) UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Berat, the City of Windows, in Albania

While there are UNESCO World Heritage Sites all over the world, there are over 30 UNESCO sites just in the Balkans alone, so an intrepid traveler can spend their time trying to visit all of them. These UNESCO sites range from nature preserves to historical to cultural sites, so there is always something that can appeal to all kinds of different visitors.

When I had the opportunity to visit the Balkans, my absolute favorite place was Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. Not only has Lake Ohrid been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it is a fully-functioning ecosystem that has many different species of plant and animals.

Lake Ohrid is a wonderful place to spend a few days if you are interested in history, water sports, or hiking.

Church of St. John at Kaneo at Lake Ohrid in Macedonia

8) Excellent Language Learning Opportunities

For travelers and visitors who want to expand their mind and horizons in a bit of a different way, it is very possible and easy to enroll in a language course in Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Greek, Bulgarian, Slovenian, or Romanian. While it would be ideal to spend a month or more learning these languages at a language school in the country, it is probably possible to enroll in intensive courses in your chosen language for a shorter period of time of maybe two weeks or so if time is not on your side.

Church of St. Florian in Varazdin, Croatia

If you were to enroll in a course in Serbo-Croatian, you will be able to communicate with people in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This would give a wonderful opportunity to communicate with millions of people throughout the Balkans. This can also be immensely helpful in learning more about the history and culture of the region in depth.

In addition, learning a language can certainly open up new career opportunities. Who knows? If you’re able to learn one of the Balkan languages, it could lead you to a new career you never thought possible and maybe a new life as an expat in a foreign country?

9) Balkan Cuisine

Foodies and other visitors interested in Balkan cuisine will be in for a treat. Every country is different with regional differences, so there will always be something new for the taste buds.

Because of the many different ethnic groups and religious groups, the cuisine often reflects these different cultures. However, it is important to note that a lot of Balkan cuisine tends to be very heavy on the meat, so if you’re a vegetarian, it might be a little bit of challenge.

10) A Photographer’s Dream

Rural Albanian landscape

Finally, because of the historical, cultural, and natural attractions that are found throughout the Balkan countries, a photographer will have no end of beautiful photo ops. Of all the places I have been thus far, the Balkan countries have always provided me with beautiful photographs that are easily some of my favorites. In fact, some of the most magnificent scenery I have ever seen has been in the Balkans.

Overall, aside from Dubrovnik, which is a very heavily-touristed city, the Balkans provide fertile ground for exploration since many parts remain relatively unexplored. Because of their unique history, mix of cultures, and huge dearth of attractions, the Balkan countries have something that will appeal to all visitors.

Have you been to the Balkan countries? What did you think of them?

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