Croatia is one of the best places to visit in the Balkans. Photo / Mj; Unsplash
Meg Prendergast suggests visiting the Balkans for a charming but inexpensive stay vacation. As tour manager for Contiki and Trafalgar, she should know that.
Most travelers know the the must-see places in Europefrom Italy to Greece, from France to Spain.
But if it is pristine beaches and bustling markets, authentic European culture and beautiful coastal towns, the Balkan region has what you need, with fewer tourists and cheaper prices, says a travel expert.
You learn a lot about a region when you work as a tour manager for Contiki and Trafalgar, which is why Meg Prendergast is something of an expert on the Balkans; an area she believes many travelers overlook.
However, the charm and beauty of places like Bosnia, MontenegroSerbia and Slovenia are gradually attracting attention and tourists should visit them before they become another stop on the well-trodden tourist route.
There is currently no official agreement on which countries make up the Balkans, but the general consensus includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.
Herald Travels asks Prendergast for expert advice on visiting this booming region.
Why do you think the Balkans are becoming more and more popular with tourists?
THE history of the Balkans spans thousands of years and the region is rich in cultural diversity and historical attractions thanks to Ottoman, Venetian, Slavic and Austro-Hungarian influences.
However, the relatively recent history (the breakup of Yugoslavia around 30 years ago) means that tourists have been slow to return, so Balkan countries are generally not tainted by excessive tourism and not durable.
People are starting to discover how great it is; it becomes more accessible via major airlines but still much more affordable than other tourist regions in Europe.
TikTok and Instagram have allowed people to replace this old, scary image of the Balkans with what it actually looks like today. It has everything from the sparkling waters of the Adriatic Sea to the national parks and lakes of Macedonia and Croatia, to the stunning forests and mountain ranges of Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
What do your travelers love most about this region?
How different it is. It’s a little quirky and a little off the beaten path, but still affordable, safe and super authentic.
There are old towns with their winding cobbled streets, but you don’t need to fight huge crowds to get to the local markets and bazaars. There are some of the most pristine beaches in the world, with almost no people.
We have the impression of seeing the most “real” side of these countries. Many guests say they didn’t know what to expect before arriving and are blown away by what they experience. This definitely sounds like Europe’s best kept secret.
What are your three favorite places in the Balkan region?
This town in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the epitome of cultural diversity. As you walk along the main street of the old town, you will see the minarets of Islamic mosques standing out among the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
I’m a big fan of history and highly recommend visiting the abandoned Sarajevo Winter Olympics bobsleigh track, learning about the Siege of Sarajevo in one of the many museums, and visiting the site where the First World War world has begun.
This country is by far the largest tourist site in the Balkans thanks to Game Of Thrones. Although this place is not as cheap or untouched as the rest of the area, the nightlife here is incredible. You can visit Revelin in Dubrovnik (a great club located in a medieval fortress in the old town) or head to the party island of Hvar, which offers outdoor activities. bars and nightclubs (which Prince Harry visited, diving fully clothed into the nightclub pool). On a cooler night, you may want to visit one of the lively wine bars and restaurants overlooking the sunsets. And for those looking for a cheaper version of nightlife, Budva is nicknamed “the Miami of Montenegro” and is one of my next favorite places for nightlife.
3. Lake Bled
This Slovenian lake is less than an hour from the capital Ljubljana and looks like a fairy tale, with Bled Castle on the cliffs and the Church of the Assumption of Mary on an island in the middle of the lake. I recommend hiking to Ojstrica (about a two-hour round trip) for its lake views.
Are the Balkans safe for travel?
When Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s, war broke out across the Balkan Peninsula, and those who remember seeing the conflict in the media may be nervous when it comes to security.
However, nowadays you can feel even more comfortable in Ljubljana than in Vienna Or Paris. The 2022 Global Peace Index ranked Slovenia as the 7th safest country in the world and Croatia as 15th. It is behind New Zealand (2nd) but ahead of Norway (18th) and even Australia (27th).
Having traveled to the Balkans with my guests and as solo female travelr, I always felt very safe.
However, war leaves lasting trauma, so I remind guests to be respectful and tactful during their visit, especially when speaking with locals.
What are your favorite street foods in this region?
Each Balkan country has its own culinary differencesand the Ottoman, Mediterranean and Eastern European influences are all very clear.
The region is very meat-focused and cevapi is the most famous example. These little beef sausages are served with charred bread, thick cheese, pepper, onions and cabbage. My favorite topping is avjar, which is a dip/hummus made with roasted red pepper and eggplant. This phenomenon is said to have originated in Serbia and spread throughout the peninsula when the two countries were connected in Yugoslavia.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, trying coffee is a must. It is brewed in traditional copper pots and served with sugar cubes, but without milk or cream. Many of our customers who don’t usually like black coffee are discovering a fondness for the bold Bosnian flavor and a slow, relaxed practice of drinking it while sitting outside local markets and people watching.
If you’re in one of the Balkan resort countries like Montenegro or Croatia, a black risotto with squid ink makes a perfect dinner. Part of the fun is turning your teeth all black from the ink, but if you don’t want to leave stains, you can wash them with a glass of local Posip. White wine.
The Balkan countries are vast. To start, Air New Zealand connects Auckland to Dubrovnik, Croatia, with two stopovers: codeshare via Los Angeles and Frankfurt, or Singapore and Zurich.