I spend way too much time on Quora. Does anyone else have this problem?
Randomly, I stumbled upon a thread where someone asked “what country is the best country in the Balkans to visit?”
Even more shocking to me is that people as well are asking what is the best country in the Balkans to live.
Hmmm… is the Balkans about to be the next great expat and digital nomad scene? Well anyway, if you are one of those people wanting to live in the Balkans, be sure to check out my Balkans Expat Guide once you are done here.
But back to the best country to visit in the Balkans….
The term “the best” is so subjective and hyperbolic. Each country in the Balkans is spectacularly similar to its neighbors–red rooftops, rocky mountains, the greenest rivers, walled old towns, rakia for toasts and extremely welcoming (and tall) locals. The region as a whole is heartwarming, yet each country is varied enough from its neighbors that they are distinguishably unique.
Which is why I have created…
The Best Country in the Balkans Awards, a.k.a., The Balkies!
I decided the only way to help people searching for the Balkans’ best country is to help them learn which country is the best at a particular objective for their specific traveling needs.
So without further ado, let’s get this award show rolling!
The award for the best country in the Balkans with the most spectacular beach goes to…
Yes! This is real life! This is Croatia’s Makarska riviera.
There are so many amazing beaches in the Balkans. But my criteria for “the best Balkan beach” is determined by how unique and scenic it is because anyone can see a beautiful beach ANYWHERE in the world.
How many places in the world however can you experience a beach where gigantic mountains pretty much sit right on the water? This is why hands down, the most scenic beaches will be found along the Makarska riveria where you have a backdrop of the Biokovo mountain range reaching almost 6,000 ft. (1,800 m).
Here I am marveling in the town of Tućepi–about a 10 minute drive from Makarska.
In the Makarska riviera, you can in one moment be at the beach, and in 10 minutes be high up into the Biokovo mountains by scooter. It’s insane. It’s shocking to me that Dubrovnik, Split and Hvar continue to see more western tourists than Makarska year after year. If they only knew!
You Might Also Like: Makarska Riviera Guide: The Stuff the Internet Forgot to Tell Me
The award for the best country in the Balkans for a super cheap cultural vacation experience goes to…
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH for short)
That one time… I went to Mostar, sat on a restaurant terrace with a beautiful view, drank a local beer and ate a traditional meal for only 5 euros!
When I did a summer trip to the Balkans in 2016, I found myself running out of money. I was in Montenegro and felt like the uber-touristy towns of Budva and Kotor were starting to burn a hole in my wallet. I freaked out and decided to seek refuge in Mostar for half a week, and my God did it save me money.
All the Balkan countries are cheaper compared to Western countries, but many travelers agree that they saved the most money in the Balkans when they were in BiH. The Herzegovina region is where things tend to get extra cheap, which is ironic because this is the part of the country where you have Mostar, as well as BiH’s little sliver of beach real estate in Neum.
That’s right. One of the cheapest places in all of Europe has many world heritage sites, yummy food, great nightlife, hundreds of excursions and tours and a beach resort town. When I was in Mostar, I was able to go to brunch, dinner and a night out spending no more than 15 euros a day or less.
The award for the best country in the Balkans for a super cheap beach vacation experience goes to…
Yet another picture of beer! I’m more of a gin and tonic kind of gal. But I kept drinking beer because it was so cheap. Here’s one of my favorite photogenic beer spots at restaurant Limani in Sarandë.
If your idea of a vacation is going to the beach, sipping coctails and cold bears, with a dash of water sports and a chill seaside vibe, then Albania is definitely the cheapest option. The most organized seaside town in Albania is Saranda at the very bottom of the country. A taxi to get around should be no more than 5-7 euros. You can go to some nice restaurants overlooking the sea with a view of Corfu, Greece just across the way and spend no more than 15 euros. It’s easy to walk everywhere as well and take cheap transfers to nearby historical sites like Butrint and slightly calmer beaches like Ksamil.
If you head up the coast and stop in beach towns like Dhërmi, Himarë or Jala, the beaches are even less populated. Getting around by bus is not as simple, and buses can be infrequent, but if your goal is to relax and do nothing, then you will have no problem.
The award for the best country in the Balkans for nightlife goes to…
Hands down, it is Serbia because of its capital city, Belgrade. Of all the Balkan cities, it is Belgrade that most frequently lands on lists for the top 10 and top 20 best nightlife cities in Europe. So many seasoned Balkans travelers agree that this city is one of the sexiest, variety-filled, endless-options-to-explore nightlife cities in Europe.
The Savamala district near the river is great for bar hopping. The glamorous boathouses, or splavovi as they are called in Serbian language, sit along the river Sava as the biggest clubs in the city with a scenic backdrop. In the city center, you have hip districts and neighborhoods like Dorćol, Cetinjska and Vračar for slightly more alternative scenes. And then there are many kafanas (a kafana is like a modern day, more fashionable version of a saloon) where you will find live bands performing traditional Serbian folk or pop music. And the greatest thing is: Belgrade has so many happening places every night of the week, not just on the weekends.
Here is one of my favorite travel bloggers Stop Having A Boring Life showing what a varied experience you will have in just ONE NIGHT in Belgrade.
The award for the best country in the Balkans for “off-the-beaten-path travels” goes to…
The term off-the-beaten path is overused at this point and it really annoys me. However, I know there’s a niche in the traveing community where people want to feel like they exploring a not-so-overly traveled destination, and if you are one of those people, Albania will do it for you.
Why Albania, when all the countries have so many undiscovered places? Well, no offense to Albania, but its transportation infrastructure still needs a lot of improvement and thus it is literally more difficult to get around in Albania as opposed to the other countries, making it less traversed by foreigners.
A deserted, stoney beach in Drymades, Albania. Many of the beaches between Saranda and Vlorë have this peaceful look. (Photo cred: Amara Travel)
Albania is also out of the way. Southern Albania contains all the beautiful vacation destinations, and yet it doesn’t have an airport. To visit the riviera of beautiful beaches, you have to fly into the capital Tirana and take a three hour bus ride just to reach the top of where the riviera starts to get good (in Vlorë). Your other option, which I did, is to fly into Greece’s Corfu island and take a 40 minute ferry to Sarandë (Saranda), Albania’s southernmost town and largest holiday destination. Clearly making it to Albania is in itself an accomplishment on its own, which is why you will pass fewer Western tourists in the streets.
Albania also has the most infrequent bus schedule despite having riviera appeal. Renting a car will be ideal. If you are in smaller beach towns like Dhërmi or Jala, be prepared to work around busses that only come once or twice a day to other parts of the country. Albania has “off-the-beaten-path” written all over it, but it’s getting more and more found out every year.
You Might Also Like: Albanian Beach Holiday Guide: The Stuff the Internet Forgot to Tell Me
The award for the best country in the Balkans for the most scenic drives goes to…
Montenegro is one of the smaller countries in the Balkans—well… They’re all quite small. But Montenegro is one of the quicker ones to drive through from top-to-bottom, or bottom-to-top. Every inch of the main highway that stretches along the coast overlooks the Adriatic sea. You will feel like you are in a dream! I’ve never seen a country where every nook and cranny is so mesmerizingly picturesque.
Every inch of Montenegro during your bus or rented car route pretty much looks like this!
The award for the best country in the Balkans for the most crowded beaches goes to…
This obviously HAS to be Croatia! It is is hands down the most touristy country in the Balkans. I know many travelers like to think that even if they travel to places that are not called Split or Dubrovnik, that they are visiting “less traveled” places in the country. But even tourist towns like Makarska or Zadar that aren’t as obvious to tourists from English-speaking countries have already been found out by Germans, Russians, Poles, Aussies and Czech Republicans (I don’t think thats how you refer to someone from the Czech Republic, but, it’ll have to do).
When I was in Makarska, I didn’t meet a lot of of native English speaking foreigners, but there were a lot of tourists from Eastern European countries. The main beaches were packed as you can see in minute 00:31 from my video below from my time in Makarska.
The award for the best country in the Balkans with the most incredible fortress goes to…
Tie (sort of): Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria
This is really impossible to answer. The only reason I am answering this is to play along with this silly awards ceremony I created.
There is no best fortress in the Balkans. All of the countries are littered with amazing fortresses, especially in Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina where you will come across so many epic jaw-dropping fortresses that overlook the Adriatic sea! By the way, if you want some fortress inspiration, check out my Epic Balkans Fortress Series Guide!
It’s impossible to choose, so I will just choose my favorite that I have visited so far and my favorite that I am dying to visit. Those are:
Bulgaria’s Belogradchik fortress…
…and BiH’s Srebrenik fortress which I am dying to visit.
I felt like a picture wouldn’t do this fortress justice.
These fortresses have a very secluded vibe to them and don’t see as much tourism, and yet, they are so eerily, and lonesomely incredible. That’s what makes them so special. They have glorious architecture in the middle of nowhere when put into perspective of the more touristy scheduled stops of Balkans travelers.
The award for the best country in the Balkans to feel at home and relaxed with the locals is…
There is something about Macedonia and Macedonian people that is just so chill, so easy going and so normal. If you are looking to travel to the Balkans and make social connections, go out to where the locals go, and just blend in, Macedonia will do that for you.
In a lot of the Balkan states, people will remind you that you are a tourist by going out of their way to treat you extra special once they hear your accent or see that you’re visibly not a Balkan person. This is not a bad thing of course. But in Macedonia, everyone is just so even keel about your presence. They’ll invite into their inner circle as if you’re just another Macedonian. People are welcoming, pleasant, helpful, and excited to have you visit their little country, but they’re very normal about communicating with you and hanging out with you. In other countries, I think locals can become somewhat overexcited to meet people from other countries and treat you like you are a super human! But to Macedonians, you will just be a human, human enough to just hang out and do non-touristy things with them.
The award for the best country in the Balkans for fashion and beautiful women goes to…
There’s a lot of discussion and debate as to where the most beautiful women in the world are. Many say it’s Brazil. Others say it’s Russia.
Of course, “most beautiful” is a very subjective term. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And if your ideal beauty is a tall, supermodel looking woman, then the Balkans is a perfect place for you. All the women in most of the countries are tall, brunette and slim as they live off a pretty natural diet, don’t eat too much fast food, and thus maintain their genetically tall and slender frames.
So why Serbia as a opposed to the other countries? Of course, all the women in all the countries are so beautiful, naturally, but in Serbia, you have the fashion capital of the Balkans in Belgrade. Not only are the women naturally so beautiful, but walking through the streets of Belgrade can feel like watching a fashion show.
There are a lot of videos on Youtube dedicated to how beautiful Serbian women are. This is one of my faves created by my friend Erik of Belgrade Beat.
The award for the best country in the Balkans with the most Western Europe infrastructure goes to…
Tie: Romania and Bulgaria
They’re both part of the EU. And they both have capital cities with a metro—A METRO! That’s so cosmopolitan.
Romania’s language is also not Slavic. So particularly with Romania, there are a lot of aspects to Romania that don’t feel so Balkan.
I’m still not completely sure if Romania is even part of the Balkans, but I know many Romanians like to think of it as being a part of the Balkans.
I should say that Croatia has a strong infrastructure too. It just doesn’t have the modernity of a metro, which is where it lost some points. But it’s bus and tram systems are very, very proficient.
The metro in Bucharest…. take notes rest of the Balkans. Hell. Take notes major cities of USA! (Photo cred: Jurnalu)
The award for the best country in the Balkans for the most unspoiled and not so crowded beaches goes to…
As I wrote above, it is not so easy to get around in Albania. In Croatia, there are numerous busses per day going to the next beach town. But this is not the case in Albania. The nicest beaches are also places where you will find wealthier Albanians. Due to these situations, you will discover a lot of secluded and peaceful beaches in Albania with few western tourists taking up all the space in their sun chairs and umbrella shades.
The award for the best country in the Balkans with the best castle goes to …
The notorious Bran Castle near Brașov (Photo cred: Bran Castle Romania)
There aren’t so many castles in the Balkans. There are hundreds of fortresses and fortification ruins. But castles… that’s so central Europe. You can occasionally see a castle or two in the Balkans, but nowhere as much as fortresses. So it is Romania’s responsibility to be the best Balkans destination for castles. It has many castles that have legendary ties to Dracula. One of the most notable ones is the Bran castle.
The award for the best country in the Balkans for charming, old, stoney bridges…
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Oh how it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. You know you have to have the most beautiful and scenic bridges when one of your most visited towns is called Mostar, a name that literally translates to “bridge” in English. BiH, being the country with the most Islamic converts when the Ottoman Empire invaded the Balkans, naturally has the most epic old Turkish bridges.
The view of the Mostar bridge from the humble beach below.
Mostar is the most visited bridge in all of the Balkans, but there are so many more to check out in BiH if you are a fan of beautifully constructed bridges from centuries ago. Here are a couple more towns with beautiful bridges worth visiting.
Beautiful Višegrad (Photo cred: Turisttrade)
The modestly gorgeous Arslanagica bridge in Trebinje (Photo cred: Aren Tours)
The award for the best country in the Balkans for seafood goes to…
You might be surprised to learn how underwhelming the seafood game is in the Balkans, despite four of the countries touching the Adriatic sea. If you are thinking Montenegro, Croatia or Albania could give you a similar Mediterranean eating experience to what you would find in Italy, Spain or Greece, think again. They won’t. None of them will, but your best bet is Croatia.
Croatia has an advantage in this department because it has been in the tourism game for a longer period of time compared to its neighbors. It has had plenty of time to make strong relations for importing the best seafood for its restaurants marketed to tourists, on top of its own local delicacies.
The award for the best country in the Balkans for really excited people goes to…
I know a lot of people like to travel to meet the locals, and integrate with the native way of of life. And hands down, the country with the most excited people to meet travelers is Kosovo.
But you must know, for those of you that are Balkans newbies, that Kosovo is kind of not even a country depending on who you talk to. It is barely legal! It gained independence from Serbia 10 years ago, however a little over half of the countries in the world even recognize its independence. So keep that in mind.
The main population in Kosovo is Albanian, so not only is Albania itself still acclimating to growing tourism attention every year, but its little brother Kosovo is even more so under-marketed for visitors to the Balkans. This is why locals here are very taken by surprise to see foreigners in their country. In all the countries in the Balkans, I felt like Kosovar were most aggressively social towards me, which was overwhelming at times, but super fun!
Have you been to the Balkans? What do you think about these awards? Which ones do you agree or disagree with? Let me know in the comments below. And if you have any questions about traveling to the Balkans, feel free to message me on Facebook or Instagram! I’m happy to help!