What countries are in the Balkans?
The Balkan Peninsula makes up the Southeastern corner of Europe, surrounded by the beauty of the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Black seas. When people refer to the Balkan countries, they are talking about a group of nations on the Balkan peninsula.
The lines are blurry on what is and is not a Balkan state, depending on who you speak to. Some people define it purely geographically, some define it historically, and others draw the boundaries around culture.
For the travel-related purposes of this article, we’re focused on the region of the Balkans that people tend to travel within the same trip.
These countries included as part of “The Balkans” are:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- The Republic of Macedonia
While Greece, (European) Turkey, and parts of Romania are also located on the Peninsula, these countries are generally referred to by themselves (at least in terms of travel) and not in a broader sense as part of “The Balkans”.
What are the Top Places to Travel in the Balkan Countries in 2019?
Get into the Slovenian spirit of “enjoying the moment” as you sip local wine by the river in Ljubljana. Or read on the shores of Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. Make sure to stroll through the quaint coastal town of Piran and the beloved Lake Bled, with its church-topped island and infamous cream cake.
The most “western” of the Balkan countries, Slovenia is also the most expensive. But Slovenia’s nature and cities hold their weight in value for money.
Albania’s spectacular beaches, mountain lakes, and natural springs are as unspoiled as it gets in Europe. Not to mention, Albania is one of the cheapest destinations on the continent.
You’ll find abandoned military bunkers beside trendy bars and eateries in the bustling capital city of Tirana.
UNESCO world heritage towns tumble down mountainsides where people have lived within the city walls continuously for thousands of years.
Shkoder, Lake Skadar, Dhermi, Himara, Saranda, The Blue Eye, and Girokaster should all be on your Albania wish list.
The ultimate haven for lovers of history and culture, Sarajevo is one of the Balkans most fascinating capital cities. Bosnia and Herzegovina may not have the coastline or islands of its popular neighbor, Croatia, but Bosnia has personality.
Pictures of the lantern-lit cobblestone alleys and arching bridge of Mostar make for dreamy vacation photos. Not quite ready to jump from the 75-foot high bridge? Check out nearby Kravice waterfalls where you can bathe under the flowing cascades.
What are the Balkans?
The Balkan Countries of the former Yugoslavia
The Balkan countries have a complicated, intertwined history. Many of the Balkan countries were part of the former Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia. These countries include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, The Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
The current Balkan nations have only existed independently since 1991-2 (Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina), 2006 (Montenegro/Serbia split), and 2008 (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia).
Religion: Religious differences were not the main cause of the tensions between the former countries of Yugoslavia, but they do exist. Croatians and Slovenians are predominantly Catholic. Serbians and Montenegrins are mainly Orthodox Christian, and Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. Albania and Kosovo are also Muslim countries.
Politics: Each country went through varying degrees of war and violence to achieve their independence. These wounds are still fresh in the minds of many Balkan people.
This is especially true in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where over 100,000 were killed in the war for independence less than 25 years ago. When talking to locals in the Balkan countries about their neighbors, it’s important to remember the depth of the history between them and to tread lightly.
Another notable point is the contested independence of Kosovo, mostly by Serbia. The recognition of Kosovo’s independence is still a highly sensitive subject today.
Language: The Balkan countries all speak their own languages. All the languages (except Albanian) are derived from one Slavic language and have many similarities.
Beyond language and politics, the biggest similarities you’ll find between the former nations of Yugoslavia are a shared love of Raki (a strong, locally made alcohol) and countrysides overflowing with pristine nature.
The Balkan People of Albania
Albania was a secluded, communist state until the early 1990s. The wars going on in the rest of the Balkan Peninsula were mostly unknown to Albanians.
Today, differences can be felt between Albania and the Balkan countries to the north. The former Yugoslav nations share more similarities in their language and culture than they do with Albania. (Kosovo – predominantly made up of ethnic Albanians – is the exception.)
Homemade Raki, in flavors ranging from plum to chestnut, is plentiful in Albania. But Albania’s culture can otherwise feel more similar to its Greek and Italian neighbors than to the Slavic countries.
Albanian is a very different language to its neighbors. But Albanian is spoken widely in Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and Montenegro as well.
Albania has come a long way since the fall of communism and is rapidly developing into one of the most fascinating countries to visit in Europe.
Bulgaria in the Balkans
Like the rest of the Balkan countries in this article, Bulgaria’s communist government didn’t end until the early 90s. In contrast, Bulgaria’s past conflicts were focused more on neighboring Turkey than the rest of the Balkan countries.
Tourism to Bulgaria is steadily increasing. The capital of Bulgaria, Sofia, is a modern city with a laidback feel. Ultra-wide pedestrian streets run through the center and outdoor cafes are popular in the city’s parks and squares. You can get lost in the many vast green parks surrounding the city center.
Outside of Sofia, Bulgaria has a long coastline on the Black Sea with many popular beach destinations. Rolling green mountains back up directly to the coastline on long stretches of beach. Picturesque gorges and wild rock formations can be found along the coast. Many electric tourist towns are awake with music late into the nights and daytimes are full of beachside, family-friendly activities.
Which Balkan Countries are in the European Union?
Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia are all in the European Union, but none of the Balkan countries are in the Schengen Zone.
Your visa for the Schengen Zone, which consists of the majority of the EU countries, is separate from individual visas to the Balkan countries. US citizens are able to travel freely to all of the Balkan countries, without the need to apply for a visa in advance (not including Turkey).