I spent a little over a month backpacking around the Western Balkans last summer, and it is an amazing, often overlooked, chunk of Europe. Although the area is notorious for the bloody civil wars of the 1990’s, it is now a peaceful and welcoming place and a new tourist destination ideal for young travelers. Here is my list of the top five reasons the Balkans are a great destination for twenty-something travelers:
- Sun and Surf- The sunny islands of Croatia are fairly well known by now, but Slovenia, Montenegro and Albania also have sunny beaches that aren’t yet overcrowded by cruise ship tourists. The Adriatic water is a clear, clear blue. The scary kind of clear where you see something swimming below you and can’t tell if it is thirty feet below or about to brush your foot. The beaches here are a cheaper, less crowded alternative to the French or Italian Riviera.
- Crazy Nightlife- Belgrade is the current party epicenter of Eastern Europe. There is a constantly changing rundown of hot new clubs and bars and party boats park out on the river every night of the week. Sarajevo, Budva and the Croatian island of Hvar are also happening party spots (Paris Hilton actually owns a house on Hvar). The best way to power up for a night out partying is by sampling some of the local Rakia, a fruit brandy that is brewed throughout the Balkans. Some hostels will offer a complimentary shot of it upon check-in. Careful though, it is potent!
- Adventure- GoNomad.com recently had a great post about white water rafting in Bosnia. This is only one of the many possibilities for outdoor activity in the region. The Julian and Dinaric Alps offer terrific skiing opportunities (Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984). There are opportunities for hiking, canoeing and horseback riding throughout the region.
- Cheap Prices (for now)- Eastern Europe is still significantly cheaper for travelers than Western Europe, with Southeastern Europe being cheapest of all. Within the region Serbia Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania are generally less expensive then the more popular Slovenia or Croatia. In my experience a typical night in a dorm will run you $15-$20 and a bottle of Sarajevsko beer is about $2.
- This traveler’s advantage won’t last of course, it never does. Although it’s not super popular yet, once people start to discover what they are missing the tourist infrastructure will grow, as will prices.
- Perspective- Personally, I find it can be hard to fully grasp the atrocities of World War One, or The Vietnam War- conflicts that took place before I was even born. The wars in the Balkans are thankfully over but, in the minds of the people and the streets of the cities, still recent and fresh. Standing in the streets of Sarajevo and taking in the hillsides full of uniform white tombstones really made the conflict real for me. As did walking by the boarded up US Embassy in Belgrade (shuttered do to the recent riots over Kosovo) and as did seeing the sidewalk riddled with bullet holes in Mostar.
- These things aren’t meant to be looked at with vicarious thrill, but to remind you that this kind of war can still happen. In Europe, in our lifetimes. People are willing and eager to talk about their experiences in the 1990’s. Everyone I met was so friendly and eager to have tourists returning to their country. They are proud of their countries and want to be known for more than conflict.
I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful cultures, the epic ruins from both the Roman and Ottoman Empires or the beautiful churches and mosques. I will be talking about my experiences in more detail on this site over time. Of all the places I’ve been some of my very favorites were in this region, and I’m looking forward to exploring Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia on my next trip to Eastern Europe. In the meantime I just want to encourage people to look a little closer at this rapidly rising part of Europe.