When it comes to affordable backpacking trips many travellers immediately think of East Asia and the comparatively low cost of living in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. However, you don’t have to go halfway across the world to seek board for £5 a night and 50p beers because plenty of Europe can be explored on a budget, and you save on the air fares to get there too! The former Yugoslavia is one such region of mainland Europe where travellers can enjoy great value adventures if they know where to look, so here’s a rundown of some of the sights and scenes to enjoy the Balkans on a budget.
Yugoslavia and the Balkans
Among these former republics of the once united Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia are probably the best known as embracing of Western tourism and have firmly established themselves as popular European holiday hot spots. With its stunning Adriatic coastline and over 2,000 lush, sun-soaked islands, Croatia is easily the most recognisably “touristy” of these countries. Slovenia on the other hand, has carved itself out a niche as a largely unspoiled haven of outdoor pursuits such as skiing and hiking. Even looking beyond these better known holiday destinations there’s a whole world of cut price escapades just waiting to be enjoyed in Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
The predominantly Muslim country at the centre of the former Yugoslavia has a rich and diverse history, which is evident in its melting pot of cultural styles. Catholic and Orthodox churches can be found alongside historic synagogues and the minuets of ancient mosques.
Whilst the scars of the Bosnian war in the 1990s are still evident across the country’s cosmopolitan capital, Sarajevo today is so much more than a backdrop to bloodshed and is well worth the visit on any tour of the region. With stunning architecture and a wonderful Parisian style café culture, the city’s real jewel is the old town Baščaršija district with its traffic-free stone streets and Ottoman style bazaar of small friendly traders. This is definitely the place to head if you fancy trying out your bartering skills – don’t even think about paying the advertised price for anything!
You can grab yourself a good meal in a local café for under £5 and a beer shouldn’t cost you much more than a pound, so entertaining yourself in this lovely little spot of the world certainly won’t break the bank. Do be aware of religious and cultural nuances, as some places won’t serve alcohol so it’s always worth checking before placing an order for a Sarajevsko Pivo (Bosnia’s most popular beer).
You should also be aware that in most instances when Bosnians refer to coffee, they mean coffee of the style we’d consider Turkish coffee. Don’t call it that though! Bosnians are fiercely proud of their rich heritage of coffee making and no visit to the country would be complete without a cup of thick, rich and aromatic traditionally-brewed Bosanska kafa. Even in higher end cafes you shouldn’t expect to pay more than a pound for the privilege so do be sure to seek one out.
Where to Stay
If you’ve come to Sarajevo for a taste of its important political history then look no further than the brilliantly themed Franz Ferdinand hostel which offers mixed dorms and private rooms right in the city centre, within easy walking distance of the old town and the famous Sacred Heart Cathedral. Alternatively try the Hostel City Centre, which as its name suggests, is excellently located right in the thick of the action and offers unbeatable value for money.
Once the beating heart of Yugoslavia, Serbia now is a relatively poor and unloved country when compared to some of its neighbours. Entirely landlocked, it doesn’t have the tourist-pulling potential of Croatia or Montenegro’s miles of glorious unspoiled coastline and it can be a little daunting to those unaccustomed to the Cyrillic alphabet (like the Russian’s use).
Serbia’s distinct lack of popularity with tourists and travellers is in many respects its principle selling point when it comes to the thrifty visitor and there are few European capitals that can match Belgrade when it comes to value for money.
That’s not to say that the historic Yugoslavian capital doesn’t have plenty to offer beyond being a cheap destination for the Western traveller and it boasts a rich culture, vivid nightlife and some truly beautiful scenery. It’s also a very safe city with street crime incredibly rare.
Visitors to Belgrade should be aware that local laws do prohibit the photography of certain public buildings. It is also considered disrespectful to snap the decaying remnants of buildings that were bombed during the NATO air strikes – such as the former Yugoslav Ministry of Defence.
Top of any traveller’s list should be the huge hilltop fortress which dominates the city centre skyline. There is much to explore here whether you’re looking to brush up on Serbian history or just after a great spot in which to enjoy a cold beer whilst overlooking the Danube and Sava below. And talking of beer you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere charging more than a pound (approximately 150 Serbian Denar) for a draught or bottled local beer.
It’s difficult to define anywhere in downtown Belgrade as the true city centre. You can often find yourself navigating a pleasant pedestrianised avenue of cool cafes and trendy bars that suddenly comes to an abrupt end. These many pockets of culture, hubbub and nightlife are always worth exploring however and if you’re keen on partying until dawn there is no shortage of raucous nightspots to be enjoyed, particularly along the banks of the river.
The music of choice for locals is a curious genre known as turbo-folk but if that’s not your thing most other tastes are catered for at least somewhere in this vast, sprawling metropolis. Try the trendy downtown Bar Central for upmarket cocktails in a cucumber cool setting, or if you’re after something a little more underground, the wonderfully named Idiot is a lively indie cellar bar with a great vibe.
Where to Stay
Run entirely by volunteers, the not-for-profit Green Studio Hostel & Lounge is situated close to the main central bus and train station, and offers visitors a real insight into the Serbian way of life. The beds are affordable and the Rakija (ubiquitous local grape brandy) is free flowing.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
This fascinating land of lakes and mountains has much to offer the budget backpacker as well as any visitor keen to uncover such a lesser known corner of the continent.
One part of the city where you can escape the towering Brutalist blocks of the 60s and 70s however, is the quaint and pleasant old town bazaar, which has more than a hint of Istanbul to it, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. You’ll find labyrinthine narrow winding streets filled with craftsmen, kebab houses and coffee shops, where Turkish style coffee is popularly served (as in Bosnia). This is also the best part of the city in which to enjoy a refreshing Skopsko, (Macedonia’s favourite beer), and just like in Serbia and Bosnia, it’s difficult to find anywhere serving beer for over a pound.
Dining out is also incredibly cheap. You can get a satisfying meal of grilled meats and traditional Schopska salad, and late night revellers will find options in Skopje and Belgrade. Be aware that local laws prohibit the sale of any alcohol from shops post 7pm so if you’re planning on getting your party on before going out, be sure to stock up early doors. Alternatively just drink in local bars instead – it’s not as if it’ll break the bank!
Try the Old Town Brewery for pleasant summer drinking with a great selection of reasonably priced beers from the onsite microbrewery, or head into the old town for the best kebabs in the city at Gostilnica.
Where to Stay
Despite the niche feel of Skopje as a traveller’s destination it is well served by great local hostels, such as the Art-Hostel Riverside which offers mixed dorms and private rooms very close to the city centre in a colourful and homely environment. Or why not try the quirky Lounge Hostel which offers rooms with balconies overlooking the city’s main central park.
Guest post by Ed Phelan
Thanks to Wikipedia Commons, as well as fish tsoi, Predrag_Bubalo, Andrzej Wójtowicz for the great Flickr pics!