The Balkans are easily one of the most underrated parts of Europe. With miles of amazing coast, towering mountains, and a diverse culture, the Balkans offer something for everyone.
It might seem obvious, but it’s important to define what the Balkans are. First, there is the Balkan peninsula. This describes the landmass between Turkey and Italy south of Austria and Hungary. Not all of the countries on this peninsula are Balkan, however. There is a cultural and historical association with that word.
For the sake of this guide, we will be using Balkans to refer to the former Yugoslav Republics. That includes: Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
Yugoslavia dissolved in the 90s. When that happened, a brutal civil war broke out in the peninsula and was particularly damaging for Bosnia. The coverage of this war left many in the West with the notion that the Balkans are dangerous.
The war is now over, and the countries that were involved are now all safe for travelers. There are many people who still find this a sensitive subject, however.
While there are a lot of similarities between the different Balkan countries, there are also man differences. For instance, the status of each country in relation to the rest of Europe.
Slovenia and Croatia are both in The EU, but only Slovenia is in Schengen. Slovenia and Montenegro both use the Euro as their official currency, but Euro is widely accepted in the other Balkan countries.
Each country technically has its own language, but all of the languages are part of the Southern Slavic language family and have a lot of similarities. If you speak English, you will have no problem traveling through the region, but it is still a good idea to learn a little. Dobar Dan or Zdravo mean Hello. Hvala Vam means Thank You.
Renting a Car in the Balkans
The best way to travel through the Balkans is to rent a car and drive yourself. But, the process of renting a car is not as easy as in other places. First of all, many car rental companies have restrictions on which borders you can cross. Getting a rental car across the Albanian border is near impossible unless you are willing to spend a lot of money, for example.
Additionally, there will be huge fees for dropping the car in a different location than you picked it up. For example, if you rent a car in Dubrovnik and drive to Venice, you will spend about $1000 on the car drop fee.
A good way to bring the cost of the rental car down is to start and end in a central location and make a loop from there.
Another thing to note is that if you plan on crossing borders with the car, then you need to make sure you get the Green Card. This is a certificate that proves that the car is insured. Not all border guards will ask for it, but if they do and you are unprepared, then they will make you buy insurance there.
If you rent a car with a different pick up and drop off location, the rental agency should prepare this ahead of time. If you are using the same pick up and drop off, then be sure to let your rental agency know ahead of time that you will need this.
Driving in the Balkans
Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all approach to driving in the Balkans as it is a little bit different in every country. Generally speaking, you want to keep your headlights on at all times when you are driving.
In Croatia, there is an extremely new fast highway that goes across most of the country. This is a toll road, so expect to spend $10-$20 to cross the country. The speed limit on this road is quite high and people go even faster. There are a lot of tunnels. Even when you are not on the highway, driving in Croatia is very easy and predictable.
In Montenegro, the roads are a little bit older. They are more narrow and have more pot holes. The other drivers are extremely aggressive and will pass you even in very narrow sections of mountain road. Additionally, there are pedestrian crosswalks that will cause traffic to halt in a very short amount of time, so be prepared for that.
In Bosnia, the roads are quite poorly maintained. There are a lot of potholes and some very aggressive speed humps. Other drivers have no consistency with regards to speed compared to speed limits. Signs mostly have Cyrillic and Roman characters.
In Slovenia, the roads are nice and modern, but there is a lot of traffic.
Some people consider the Balkans to be a budget destination. While this can be true when compared to places like Switzerland or France, costs can add up quickly in the Balkans.
Croatia, especially Dubrovnik is about as expensive as many western European destinations. There are hostels and places to camp that can bring your costs down. But don’t expect Croatia to be a bargain beach holiday. With that said, Croatia is absolutely amazing and worth the cost.
Bosnia is one of the less expensive Balkan countries. If you are looking for a budget destination, this is the one you should target. You can eat a meal at a good restaurant for less than $10 including a drink. Most of the activities and entrance fees are quite low. However, be prepared to be “nickle and dime’d” over tiny things.
Slovenia is a bit more expensive than Montenegro, but both would be very comparable to Central European countries.
What to do in the Balkans
The Balkans are incredibly diverse, so this section will be broken down country by country.
What to do in Montenegro
Montenegro is an incredibly tiny country, but it is packed with natural beauty. The name of the country means Black Mountain in Latin and has a long history of being a resort destination.
The top destinations in the country all revolve around the natural beauty.
- Bay of Kotor
- Lovcen National Park
- Sveti Stefan
- Durmitor National Park
- Lake Skadar
What to do in Croatia
Croatia is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world, and it is not difficult to see why. Croatia is lucky to have an extremely long coast line along the Adriatic in addition to many islands and mountains.
- Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Istrian Peninsula
What to do in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia has not yet become as popular a destination as some of its neighbors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some amazing things to do in the country. With beautiful mountains that are waiting to be explored and an extremely different culture compared to its neighbors, Bosnia offers some amazing options for travelers!
- Kravica Falls
What to do in Slovenia
Slovenia is probably most well known as being an outdoors and trekking destination. There are some other nice things to do in this tiny country, but the mountains are the show stoppers! A trip to Slovenia will center around the natural beauty of the country.
- Lake Bled
- Lake Bohinj
- Triglav National Park
The Balkans are an amazing, off the beaten path travel destination surrounded by some of Europe’s most popular destinations. If you are looking for an amazing road trip with both great hiking and unbelievable beaches, definitely check out the Balkans.