Three weeks is nowhere near enough to explore the Balkans. However, it is more than enough to fall in love with the place, its abundance and diversity. I read that tourism has seen a substantial increase since 2007 so pack your backpacks whilst it’s still cheap and not too crowded.
I won’t be able to tell you about everything or even half of it but I will give you a couple of practical tips. When I think about the Balkans I think about brutalist architecture and scenic nature (and rakia of course). I certainly have more experience with the Balkan cities and I’ve yet to properly explore what Mother Earth has to offer there but I can already tell you it’s immense.
I visited 4 countries within the Balkan region plus Romania. I went with my friend and the route was as follows Croatia -> Bosnia and Herzegovina -> Serbia -> Romania -> Bulgaria. Time was limited but I’m definitely going back (Montenegro I’m coming for you!).
The Balkans have been through a lot. The war ended only 17 years ago and there are still visible signs of it. If you are coming from Eastern Europe (for instance from Poland like myself) you might experience some sort of nostalgia. I found myself thinking about all the stories from post war Poland told by my parents and grandparents. It is enough to cross the border where you still get a stamp there.
Tip no. 1 - make sure you do get a stamp so that you don’t get questioned how you entered the country when you leave.
Here is a little story for you. Custom officers occasionally do not give stamps and basically let their mates on the other side make some extra money. If you don’t have a stamp they might charge you an extra fee (aka bribe) as they have no confirmation that you entered the country legally.
From what I was told this used to happen in Poland too, well, “the beauty” of post war politics. The Balkans are developing like crazy and I’m sure this kind of stories will be history soon but just bare that in mind for now.
I will tell you that one of the reasons I personally wanted to penetrate this part of the world asap (apart from its charms and beauty) is the post war leftovers which can be seen in various corners. For those who enjoy a bit of history, The Balkans are just perfect.
No. 2 - Safety
The Balkans are safe. Really. I read that a lot of people worry about this so let me tell you that I have noticed absolutely no difference to any other place I have visited (15 countries so far). I’m an eyes-wide-open kind of person and follow general safety rules, however, I do this everywhere I go. Common sense is always advised but the Balkans are safe.
No. 3 - Public transport
Buses are a good and cheap option to travel within the countries. However, international connections can get tricky and you won’t know until you get there (adventure!). Politics are to be blamed for this. Occasionally there are disputes between governments which results in temporarily cancelled train connections.
One solution to this can be hiring a driver which isn’t necessarily expensive. I paid 30 euros from Sarajevo to Belgrade. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this until I got there which is why I didn’t include, for instance, Montenegro or Albania whilst planning the trip as according to the information I found online at the time there were no quick connections. It’s good to know that private cars are an option.
Here, a little story from the road for you. We decided to go to Romania from Belgrade and faced some obstacles. The bus reached as far as the border which we had to cross on foot. On the other side there were never ending fields and a village (1h away on foot). There we found out that there is a train to Timisoara, however, not for another 8 hours. I spoke to the staff and asked if perhaps there is a local person with a car who would like to make some money. There was a kind gentleman who agreed to give us a lift. We didn’t have a language in common, however, he played some local tunes of his radio and it was just perfect.
No. 4 - Accommodation
Me and my friend stayed in both hotels and hostels depending on the country. There are some really nice hostels in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia and there is plenty to choose from on www.hostelbookers.com or www.airbnb.co.uk (I tend to use those websites). We stayed in hotels in Bulgaria as they were dead cheap.
No. 5 - The Locals
I always think it’s worth using every opportunity to interact with the locals just to get to know the culture better as there is no better way. Luckily, a lot of both young and older people speak English to various degrees. This is because English courses were not only popular but also free after the war.
Here, another story for you. We landed in Serbia at midnight. The airport was being closed and we soon found out that there seems to be no transport other than overpriced taxis. We spoke to a lady there who just finished her shift and she offered to show us the way to the city centre because she happens to go that way and from there we’ll be able to grab a bus. Perfect! We enjoyed chatting with her and got lots of advice.
P.s. Three-finger salute anecdote. You can see me doing this in the picture. Well, I thought I was just saying "Hi" in Serbian as that's what the gesture used to mean, however, I later learned that it has some bad connotations these days. Some politicians and nationalist groups use the gesture to signal ethnic Serbs which Croats, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians find provocative due to past conflicts (urgh them nationalists ruining things as always).
No. 6 - Rakia (+ more)
Once you interact with the locals there is a high chance you’ll be offered rakia.
Rakia is a local drink and basically a type of fruit brandy (served in a cool shot glass as you can see in the picture). If you are a craft beer fan, there are plenty of pubs that will serve you right in Sarajevo and Belgrade ;). Red wine is also a tasty option.
No. 7 - Local food
I can’t call myself a specialist on the Balkan cuisine as most of the traditional dishes are meat based and I’ve been a vegetarian for many years. I can however tell you that there is a variety of options for both meat/fish eaters and vegetarians. This is due to diverse demographics of the Balkans with a substantial Turkish background.
P.s. Let me know if you want specific recommendations for hostels / hotels / pubs / museums / locations / etc. There is so much!