Sleeping

Every budget is catered for in the Balkans, from rural campsites and Soviet-era eyesores, to frilly-pillowed private rooms and five-star palaces.

Price Ranges

The price indicators used in our reviews refer to the cost of a double room in high season, including private bathroom (any combination of toilet, bathtub, shower and washbasin), but excluding breakfast unless otherwise stated.

It’s not possible to accurately introduce a uniform price range across this diverse region; see individual countries for more information.

Seasons

Rates often plummet outside of high season (typically July to August), sometimes by as much as 50%. In places that cater to business travellers, prices are more expensive during the week and cheaper over the weekend.

Reservations

Booking ahead is a good idea in high season and during key events. Reservations can usually be made by phone, and sometimes online. Where there are tourist offices they sometimes provide reservation services (some for a small fee), but don’t expect the same efficiency of service here as you would in Western Europe. In parts of the Balkans, there is a shortage of good-value mid-range options, meaning that you may get stuck staying below or above the standard you are looking for.

Camping

Camping is generally your cheapest option but the trade-off may be that you are far away from things you want to see. Before you commit, check out public transport connections and times to and from campsites and towns. Some camping grounds may be geared for motorists, though there’s generally also room for backpackers with tents. Many offer on-site basic cabins, caravans or bungalows that may be cheaper than hostels, though not always. Don’t count on these being free during high seasons.

The standard of camping grounds varies enormously throughout the region. Croatia’s coast is lined with nudist camping grounds (signposted with FKK, the German acronym for ‘naturist’); these can offer delightful secluded locations for campers sans clothing.

  • Camping grounds may be open from April to October, May to September, or perhaps only June to August, depending on the category of the facility, the location and the demand.
  • A few private camping grounds may be open all year.
  • Camping in the wild is usually illegal; ask locals before you pitch your tent on a beach or in an open field.
  • In some places you may be allowed to build a campfire. Always ask first.

Farmhouses

‘Village tourism’, which means staying at a farmhouse, is highly developed in Slovenia. It’s like staying in a private room or pension, except the participating farms are in picturesque rural areas with outdoor activity options nearby. See World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org) for information about working on organic farms in exchange for room and board.

Guesthouses & Pensions

Small private pensions are common in parts of the Balkans. Typically priced between hotels and private rooms, pensions sometimes offer basic breakfast at small on-site restaurants. Pensions are smaller and more personal than hotels, which can amount to a bit less privacy.

Homestays & Private Rooms

When you arrive in some towns, people will approach you offering private rooms or hostel beds. Some carry clipboards and pamphlets; others are little old ladies speaking halting English or German. Taking up these offers can be a good or bad experience; it’s impossible to say until you do it. You may be lead to a pristine room in the centre of town, or to a cupboard in an outer suburb housing project. Obviously then, don’t commit until you’re comfortable with the place and clear on the price. It may be unwise to leave your valuables behind with strangers.

Agencies or intermediaries sometimes facilitate stays in private rooms and can offer some level of quality control. Alternatively, look for advertisements yourself; knock on the door or call when you see a Zimmer Frei (German) sign advertising availability of private rooms. In Croatia, taxation has made private rooms less attractive than before, but it’s still better value than a hotel.

Staying with friends in the Balkans will be a wonderful experience given the famed hospitality of the region. Bring some small gifts for your hosts – it’s a deeply ingrained cultural tradition throughout the region.

Hostels

You don’t have to be a ‘youth’ to be apart of the sociable hostel scene in the Balkans. Hostels vary enormously in character and quality. Many are part of the Youth Hostel Association (YHA), which is affiliated with Hostelling International (HI; www.hihostels.com).

  • Hostel cards are rarely required, though may give you a small discount.
  • Hostels give you a bed for the night, plus use of communal facilities.
  • Facilities often include small kitchens where you can do your own cooking.
  • Some hostels require that you have a sleeping sheet; if you don’t have one, you may be able to rent one.
  • Not all hostels are open all year round.
  • Many hostels accept reservations, but not always during peak periods. They may be able to hold a bed for a couple of hours if you call from a bus or train station. You can also book hostels through national hostel offices.

HI offers listings online (and in print) for all countries of the Balkans, with the exception of Kosovo. The hostel bible Europe is widely used.

Hotels

At the rock bottom end of the scale, cheap hotels may be no more expensive than private rooms or guesthouses, while at the other end you’ll find unimaginable boutique luxury. In both cases, you get what you pay for.

  • Often you pay for the room and not by the number of people staying in it, so singles may be pay almost as much as for a double.
  • Particularly in older hotels, cheaper rooms may have washbasins but the toilet and shower may be down the corridor.
  • Breakfast may be included in the room price; in the accommodation section of each individual country’s directory we note whether breakfast is generally included and note exceptions in reviews when it isn’t.
  • Cheap, basic hotels are often clustered around bus and train transport hubs.

Rental accommodation

In some cities, depending on how long you plan to stay, renting an apartment through a reputable website or local agency can be a good option. Renting an apartment can cost much less than you'd pay for an equivalent stay in a hotel, and lets you to cook for yourself.

  • The quality and location of rental accommodation varies considerably, largely depending on their size and location and your budget.
  • Generally, the longer you stay, the more you can negotiate.
  • Some local agencies operate independently and sometimes only quasi-legally, meaning you may have no recourse in the event of a dispute; only go for those of good repute.
  • When dealing with agencies online, never send money unless you are certain that the agency is genuine.

University accommodation

Some universities (notably in Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia) rent space in student halls during July and August. Accommodation will sometimes be in single rooms, but more commonly in doubles or triples with shared bathrooms. Basic cooking facilities may be available. Ask at the college or university, at student information services or at tourist offices.

Eating

The cuisines of the Balkans mix and match Mediterranean, central European and Turkish influences. Though heavy food may make you feel as though you’re packing an artery with every meal, the produce is largely organic. In most meals, superb use is made of produce from this agriculturally rich region. There’s a legion of local cheeses barely known outside the immediate area, and an excellent range of fresh fruits in season. In colder regions cabbages, walnuts and root vegetables such as turnips are used. Local dishes tend to be fairly simple, relying on abundant quality produce to create tasty meals.

Price Ranges

The price indicators used in our reviews are based on the cost of a main course. It’s not possible to accurately introduce a uniform price range across this diverse region; see individual countries for more information.

Where to Eat & Drink

There are many local terms for restaurants and eateries, from Croatian gostionica (restaurant) to Albanian byrektorë (bakeries selling burek, stuffed filo pastry), and Serbian pekara (bakeries selling almost everything), which provide a range of sweet and savoury snacks. Eating hours across the region are much the same as in the rest of Europe.

Staples & Specialities

Burek or byrek, with a range of fillings including cheese, meat, potato, spinach and mushrooms, is the classic Western Balkans snack. It’s often enjoyed with yoghurt for breakfast.

Meals usually begin with spongy Turkish bread slathered with kajmak – a salty curd. Appetisers include locally smoked hams, pickled vegetables and feta-style cheeses. For lunch and dinner, the most common restaurant dishes are grilled meats such as ćevapčići (grilled spicy kebab fingers), ražnjići (shish kebab, called qebap in Albanian areas) and pljeskavica (spiced mixed meat patties). Kebabs are often served with Turkish-style bread and sliced onions. Stews are popular, often cooked slowly over an open fire, with favourites such as bosanski lonac (Bosnian stew of cabbage and meat) or kapama (lamb stew). Where it’s available, peppery riblja čorba fish stew is not to be missed. Goulash made with paprika is a hearty dish found in regions bordering Hungary.

Coastal Croatia, Albania, Montenegro and the littoral of Slovenia are a dream for fish-fans; grilled fish, shellfish, scampi, calamari, sea bass, bream and hake are drowned with garlic and olive oil. Fried mussels in Albania’s Saranda are a treat. Pastrmka (trout) is widely available, and usually arrives grilled with a zesty sauce on the side. Macedonian skara (barbecue) includes fresh fruit and vegetables.

Salads with diced cucumber and tomato drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with herbs accompany many main meals. Meals often end with seasonal fruit, or far less healthily with baklava (nut-filled pastry heavy with sticky syrup), stuffed palačinke (pancakes, which if you’re not careful can also constitute a main) and hurmastica (syrup-soaked sponge fingers, urmašice in Serbia). Cakes and ice creams are also common.

In addition to local fare, ubiquitous Italian food (pizza and pasta) is much loved by locals and international cuisine can be found in larger cities throughout the region.

Drinks

Every country has its favourite locally made beer (pivo or piva in Slavic languages, birra or birrë in Albanian), challenged on the shelves by major international brews such as Heineken and Fosters. Local beers worth looking out for are Karlovačko from Karlovac in Croatia, Nikšićko from Montenegro, and Korca from Korca in Albania. Most beers are lagers, though there are some dark stouts and ales available.

There is also an incredible array of spirits distilled from a variety of fruits; these are called rakija in Slavic tongues and raki in Albanian. The alcohol content is generally between 40% and 70%, so not surprisingly it’s drunk as a shot from special little glasses after meals and for toasts. Macedonia’s local variant is žolta (yellow) rakija with wheat added during a secondary fermentation – even more than most rakija, it kicks like a mad mule. The most common fruit rakija is made from plums, and is variously called šljivovica (Croatia, BiH, Serbia and Montenegro) or slivovka (Slovenia). This is the national drink in Serbia, where something like 70% of the plum harvest goes into its production. The drink appears at any excuse for a celebration, from Christmas to birthdays to anniversaries. Albania’s liquor of note is Skënderbeu konjak, a surprisingly smooth and subtle brandy. The region also has a range of herbal liqueurs, from Albania’s very curious Fernet to Serbia and Croatia’s rather medicinal-tasting pelinkovac.

More and more, the region is a great one for wine lovers. Wine routes are increasingly being pushed to travellers in the region and yield some splendid surprises both in terms of the wine and the scenery it hails from. Wine connoisseurs should particularly seize the opportunity of being in the Balkans to sample offerings from monastery wineries.

Slovenia alone has something like 400 wine producers, most with less than10 hectares of vineyards. Slovenian wines are fairly similar to northern Italian and Austrian wines, with an emphasis on aromatic dry whites. Many Slovenian towns have a vinoteka (wine shop) selling local varieties such as Sipon, Traminec and Beli Pinot as well as better-known varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The late harvest or izbor dessert wines are more expensive but can be spectacular.

Croatia’s wine producers are divided into the inland Slavonia region (mostly white wine) and coastal Dalmatia (mostly red wine). Graševina, a gentle golden-hued white similar to riesling, is the most widely grown variety in Slavonia. The Dalmatian coast wineries are increasingly growing merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and some other unusual varieties. The wine routes of Croatia’s Istria region are becoming increasingly popular for wine lovers and foodies, who are also starting to flock here for prized truffles and olive oil.

Serbia’s workhorse red grape is prokupac, a dense, robust red with high sugar levels, often blended with French varieties such as gamay, merlot and pinot noir. In Serbia, the Fruška Gora region is a major wine producer – and an extremely pretty one. Bermet is a traditional Vojvodinian dessert wine worth trying in these parts.

Some fine wines are also coming out of Macedonia, which is putting its endemic grape varieties to good use with vranec, stanošina and temjanika. Boutique wine producers such as Bovin have taken root in Macedonia’s vineyard heartland in the Kavadarci-Negotino region. The Tikveš wine region of Macedonia is worth a visit for its scenery as much as its top-notch wines.

Hercegovina’s wine route offers fine žilavka (white) and blatina (red). Domaći (house) wines served in restaurants in BiH can be a nice alternative to imported wines on the menu. Many blatina reds are rich and well-balanced, and Stankela white (a prize-winning žilavka), from Međugorje, is crisp and fresh.

Albania’s wine industry is fairly small, but offers some curiosities like red kallmet from the northern Shkodra region. The Cobo winery near Berat in central Albania is also well worth visiting.

Besides alcohol, coffee is the main social catalyst. The Ottoman aristocracy introduced caffeine in the 16th century, and coffee houses have been pillars of local communities ever since. Turkish-style coffee is the traditional staple, though younger urban clientele opt for Italian- and Austrian-style brews. Turkish coffee (which is not always acknowledged to be Turkish) is prepared by heating finely ground coffee beans and water for several minutes and served in a small cup with a glass of water and a biscuit or Turkish delight on the side. In Serbia, Kosovo and Albania the custom is to mix sugar with the coffee powder and water as well.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Vegetarians may get frustrated on occasion; it pays to learn some key food phrases in each country, so you can explain what you don’t want to appear on your plate.

There are some delicious Turkish-style vegetable dishes to be had, such as roast peppers and aubergines (eggplants), cauliflower moussaka and vegetarian burek, which can be filled with cheese, potato or spinach.

Many entrées are vegetarian as well, such as ajvar, but ‘vegetarian’ soups are sometimes flavoured with smoked ham. Top-end restaurants and those in international hubs are getting more veggie-savvy, but if all else fails you can always fill up on salads: generally a fresh mix of chopped tomato, onion and cucumber, sometimes with grated white cheese and peppers as well. Or enjoy starters tapas style; fried peppers and aubergines, goat cheese and olives can be a happy substitute for a main.

Vegans, good luck. On the upside the region is agriculturally rich and doing your own shopping in produce markets will be a joy.

Feature: Flavours to Savour

Had any ajvar with a glass of salep lately? A few regional rarities to watch out for:

Ajvar Macedonia’s national relish, made from red peppers, aubergine (eggplant), paprika, olive oil, onion and garlic.

Hurmastica A Bosnian dessert made from filo pastry with cream and lemon.

Jukvi A breakfast pancake made from semolina, which is cooked and dried, then recooked with water and milk.

Kajmak A dairy dish made from clotted cream, ranging from buttery when fresh to like a soft cheese when matured. Very popular in Serbia – incredibly rich and strangely addictive.

Kukurec A rather fearsome dish made from sheep intestines stuffed with chopped liver.

Raca Pig’s head or knuckles, fried in herbs and served cold in slices. A real man’s food.

Riblji paprikaš A spicy Slavonian fish stew flavoured with paprika.

Salep A drink made from powdered wild orchid root and hot milk, quite hard to find.

Sheqerpare Balls of sweet dough baked in butter, popular in Kosovo and Albania.

Tartufe Truffles from the hinterland of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, sold sliced or prepared into oils and pasta sauces.

Tufahija Apples filled with walnuts and almonds, doused in syrup, dusted with cinnamon and topped with kajmak.

Sidebar: Tito's Cookbook

Tito’s Cookbook by Anja Drulović lets you recreate the meals Tito shared with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Saddam Hussein, Winston Churchill and Stalin.

Sidebar: Crljenak

California’s popular wine grape zinfandel descends from the ancient Croatian varietal crljenak, which now exists in such small numbers that no pure crljenak is made.

Sidebar: Rakija

Serbs sometimes call a dose of potent rakija ‘a glass of chat’, and back it up with the old saying ‘Without rakija there is no conversation’.

Activities

The varied landscape in the Balkans makes it an ideal region in which to hike, ski, climb or parasail off mountains, paddle on lakes and rivers, kayak through canyons, or sail on or dive in seas. Some outdoor activity hubs draw big crowds, but some less known spots are only just emerging.

Cycling

There are some confronting hills and mountains to conquer in the Balkans. Some inclines can be heavy going, but this is offset by the scenery. The Danube Bike Path in Serbia is great for relatively easy cycling through the Vojvodina plains and Djerdap National Park.

Hiking

Every country in the region offers excellent hiking, generally with public transport to trail heads, well-marked trails through forests, mountains and national parks. Chalets and mountain huts dot the paths in Slovenia, offering basic meals and dormitory accommodation. The 1930km Via Dinarica hiking trail links eight Balkan countries, from Slovenia to Macedonia, while the 192km Peaks of the Balkans is a circular route through Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo.

The best months for hiking are from June to September, especially late August and early September, when the summer crowds will have largely disappeared.

Popular hiking destinations include:

  • Julian Alps of Slovenia
  • Velebit and Biokovo mountain ranges in Croatia
  • Theth and Valbone National Parks in Albania
  • Sutjeska National Park in Bosnia & Hercegovina
  • Durmitor National Park in Montenegro
  • Tara National Park in Serbia
  • Rugova Mountains in Kosovo
  • Šar Mountain in Macedonia

Skiing

Skiing is becoming big business in the Balkans, but still remains the most cost-effective you’ll find in Europe. The season runs from early December to late March, give or take a month depending on altitude. January and February tend to be busiest from a snow reliability point of view.

Ski spots in the Balkans include:

  • Julian Alps in Slovenia
  • Bjelašnica, Jahorina and Vlašić in Bosnia & Hercegovina
  • Durmitor in Montenegro
  • Kopaonik in Serbia
  • Šar Mountain in Macedonia
  • Brezovica in Kosovo

Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Water sports are possible from March to October on a growing number of scenic spots, including:

  • Slovenia’s Soča River
  • Croatia’s Mljet island, Tragir, Rovinj, Pula and Hvar
  • Montenegro’s Tara Canyon in Durmitor National Park and the Bay of Kotor
  • The Vrbas River and the River Una near Bihać in BiH
  • The Drina, Uvac and Ibar rivers in Serbia
  • Vjosa and Osumi canyons in Albania

Diving

The sparkling waters and varied marine life of the Adriatic support a vibrant diving industry. Explore caves and shipwrecks along the coast in Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, as well as Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid.

Yachting & Sailing

Yachting tours, classes and rentals are available throughout the region including in Croatia and Montenegro. The passage between the rugged islands off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is particularly popular. Sometimes crews are looking for another couple of members to join. Sailing trips generally are not for travellers on a budget.

Extreme Sports

Extreme sports are becoming increasingly popular in the region.

Bovec in Slovenia is a hotspot for hydrospeeding, canyoning and paragliding. For a quick adrenalin fix you can jump off the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH).

Birdwatching & Wildlife-Watching

Some unusual bird species can be spotted in the region, including the endangered Dalmatian pelican around Lake Skadar in Albania and Montenegro or the griffon vulture in Serbia's Uvac nature reserve.

Good locations for bear-watching include Mavrovo and Pelister National Parks in Macedonia, Tara National Park in Serbia and Notranjska region in Slovenia.

Thermal Baths

There are thermal baths scattered through the region that are open to the public, including affordable options in Slovenia and Serbia.