Shhh... Don't Tell The Other Tourists. But Europe's Best Kept Secret Is The Former Yugoslavi
"Chey. Eastern Europe lah. I was thinking what big secret you talking about."
But no, Yugoslavia isn't Eastern Europe. What is Eastern Europe anyway?
As far as Europe is concerned, almost everyone we know refers to any European country they aren't too familiar with, as "Eastern Europe".
The Czech Republic? Oh, that's Eastern Europe. Croatia & Hungary? Also "Eastern Europe".
But Vienna sits further East than Prague does, so why is Prague widely considered "Eastern Europe" while Vienna is not? Most of Croatia is also further West than Vienna is. But Croatia is referred to as "Eastern Europe" yet Austria is "Central Europe"?
Geographically, the above doesn't make sense.
I know what your thinking. Perhaps from a historical point of view, Eastern Europe would be the countries under the USSR. Allies = Central "Safe Europe". Communists = "Dangerous Europe", aka "Eastern Europe".
Well, Yugoslavia was largely communist, but they were ruled by "Tito", and not part of "Stalin's fearsome USSR". So historically, Yugoslavia isn't the stereotypical "Eastern Europe" as well.
So the next time, before you say the words "Eastern Europe", think about what or where that really is. To be honest, I don't have the answer either (what exactly is Eastern Europe is a widely debated topic), and that's what makes it interesting.
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Now that we've established that the former Yugoslavia is NOT Eastern Europe. Here's what it really is. Yugoslavia used to make up a portion of the Balkan Peninsula. If you'd like, you could call this particular region "South-Eastern Europe" (yeah, like the "South of France").
In this post, we'll be covering the 9 points below, so read on.
1. What Was Yugoslavia?
2. Yugoslavia Today
3. Individual Country Breakdown
5. Getting Around
7. Key Attractions
8. Planning & Getting Started
9. Final Thoughts
What Was Yugoslavia?
Image Credit: Home of Postcards.blogspot
Well, we've all studied about the "Cold War", the "Allies", the "Soviets", the "Warsaw Pact". Heck, the PC game "Red Alert" was hugely popular during my school days. Yugoslavia back then was like Switzerland today, it was neutral and was made up of 6 Socialists Republics (basically 6 states).
Under "Tito" (a communist dictator), the Yugoslavian economy was great. After his death, the 6 states, with no true leader to unite them, were further separated when elections took place. Tensions were high; and coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union, (which meant no more money flowing in) the economy tanked. A combination of ethnic tensions, a fight for independence and territory, on the back of a failing economy, lead to the eventual break up of Yugoslavia.
Today, the former Yugoslavia is made up of 6 countries (no longer states);Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro.
At the peak of its economic success, Yugoslavia was probably the most developed of all communist states. Fast forward 27 years in 2019, things have taken a turn for the worse. With the exception of Slovenia and Croatia, the remaining 4 countries are still struggling economically and have among the highest unemployment and lowest GDP in Europe.
In short, as far as European vacations are concerned, it's way more affordable to visit the former Yugoslavian republics as opposed to "touristy Europe". Also, in these countries, you get to experience a very different side of Europe.
There are no (or few) skyscrapers. Castles, which most people think are easily found all over Europe are almost non existent in the former Yugoslavia.
So then, what exactly is there to do or see here?
Country Break Down
Lake Bled with the Julian Alps in the backdrop; Slovenia
"The Girl" & I found Slovenia the most beautiful among the 6 former Yugoslavian republics.
We would highly recommend Slovenia to those of you who enjoy visiting a country for it's natural beauty, as opposed to tourists who's idea of a vacation are shopping malls and luxury goods.
Go skiing or rafting down the slopes and rivers of the Julian Alps. Explore the Škocjan Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site or hike through the country's beautiful Alpine valley's and gorges. And in Lake Bled, Slovenia is home to what is arguably Europe's most beautiful lake.
Appreciating the natural beauty of the Slovenia during a hike through Vintgar Gorge.
Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital in the evening
With the strongest economy in the Balkan Peninsula, Slovenia uses the Euro and is the most expensive to visit among its former Yugoslav neighbors. It is of course still way cheaper than the rest of "tourist Europe". Visit Slovenia soon though. It's already very popular among European tourists and I can only see the cost of vacationing in this country shooting up.
The view of the Bay of Kotor.
Visiting the country of Montenegro, is pretty similar to visiting Croatia, just that you pay a lot less. Yes, Montenegro is cheap, way cheaper than Croatia (which has become an overrated tourist hot spot).
Here you can enjoy wandering around medieval old towns, sunbathe along some of Europe's best beaches, and explore beautiful national parks just like those in Croatia but without the tourists hordes.
Montenegro's Tara River Canyon offers some of the continent's best water rafting opportunities, and the coastal town of Budva is the Miami of Europe. The country's key attraction is the Bay of Kotor, where in one destination, visitors get to experience the country's coast, medieval towns, and mountains.
Part of Budva Town, not the time of the year for sunbathing of course.
The tourists aren't totally here, period.
Many visit Budva for cheap partying but in general, the country is still pretty untouched, and by European standards, it doesn't cost anything to visit Montenegro. We could get a steak for 6 Euros, a hostel bed for 7 euros, pizza and a coke for 2 Euros in total; European beach destinations don't get better than Montenegro.
And, there's more to Montenegro than just beaches.
"Kings Landing in Game of Thrones", Dubrovnik, Croatia
Alright, I'll come out and say it. I'm not a fan of Croatia.
Yes, I enjoy watching the Game of Thrones. I also do agree that the beaches, national parks, waterfalls are some of the best preserved in Europe. It's beautiful, Croatia really is.
What I don't like? The hordes of tourists. There are way too many tourists. Thanks to the tourist hordes, prices are close to those seen in Central Europe (a meal at a restaurant costs 15 Euros on average), the country charges central European prices for attractions (15 Euros to walk the city walls of Dubrovnik...roll eyes), and.....need I go on?
Of the 6 former Yugoslav republics, Croatia is of course the most "recognizable".
All I'm saying is that Croatia's other neighbors offer almost as much in beauty but at a fraction of the cost.
I'll move on to the next country on the list. You can read more about Croatia at the next travel fair.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
"Stari Most", the famous icon of Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
One of the coolest and most interesting of the 6 Yugoslav states is Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Bosnia is a predominantly Muslim country with a melting pot of cultures, and offers a very different sort of European travel experience (as opposed to the typical shopping and churches).
History buffs will enjoy a vacation in Bosnia. "The Girl" and I are not exactly the museum/history sort, but when we were in Sarajevo (Bosnia's capital), we found ourselves spending hours in the museums, reading, and going to one historical site after another. It was just so fascinating.
Typical bullet riddled buildings through Bosnia & Herzegovina
The thing that stands out the most in Bosnia, are its bullet riddled, half bombed out buildings, many of which are still standing. Yes, and people actually still live in them.
A museum in Sarajevo depicting living conditions during the Bosnian War
If you enjoy shopping in Bangkok, you'll love shopping in Sarajevo. Like Bangkok, the bazaars sell pretty much anything, and yes, bargaining is key here. In Mostar, you'll see the legendary old bridge where you can watch the locals take a leap off into the sparkling waters below.
Waterfalls, mountains, bullet riddled buildings, museums, war tunnels, Ottoman styled architecture, great food, and a fascinating history. That's what a vacation in Bosnia is about.
The streets of Belgrade, Serbia
Serbia was once the largest republic in Yugoslavia.
Today, Serbia is relatively poor. They don't get a lot of tourists because the country seems to lack the "star attractions" like Croatia's Plitvice National Park and Slovenia's Lake Bled. Being a landlocked country, Serbia doesn't have beautiful white sand beaches to boast either.
Street bazaar shopping in Belgrade
So what does Serbia have to offer?
For a start, it is really cheap. And the nightlife in Belgrade (Serbia's capital) is once of the most vibrant in Europe if you consider the fact that that partying in Belgrade happens to be very good value for money. Let's just say you could party the whole night away without really bothering to check the prices on the menu. Yes, it's that cheap (compared to the rest of Europe).
Church of Saint Sava, one of the largest church buildings in the world
Serbia is a paradise for hipsters and young backpackers on a budget. Football fans can enjoy European quality football on the cheap (Red Star Belgrade is here). Families can look foward to exploring Belgrade Fortress which overlooks the Danube River, chill in the parks, explore some impressive churches (no entrance fees required), fortresses and more fortresses, and visit National Parks.
Sounds boring? Well, you do these stuff as well when vacationing in England or France don't you? The difference? Price.
The Church of St John at Kaneo, Lake Ohrid; Macedonia
We loved Macedonia.
Like the rest of the Balkan Peninsula, Macedonia is home to beautiful lakes and amazing National Parks. There aren't many tourists (mostly European tourists), prices are similar to Bosnia's and pretty close to costs in Serbia. Macedonia was home to Alexander the Great and over the years have had many different empires settle in, resulting in a very interesting history and varied architecture. As a tourist, you'll be wowed by structures from various civilizations since the start of time found throughout the country.
The Neo Classical style of renovation going on in Skopje in a bid to increase tourism and promote nationalism
Note the statues (the huge one of Alexandar in the back) and old world architecture that make up a modern capital
Macedonia is an up and coming travel destination as far as European tourists are concerned. In Central Europe, travel agencies tout Macedonia as the next "To Go" destination in Europe.
Its capital Skopje, ranks as one of the most fascinating capital cities we've ever visit, and that's saying a lot. The Macedonian government has rebuilt the capital to resemble an ancient civilization. Imagine a capital city that resembles a movie set in "Troy" or "Game of Thrones", except it isn't a movie set, it's real. Looks ancient, but actually modern.
Bars and cafes in the capital of Skopje
The "tourist puller" in Macedonia is Lake Ohrid. The town around the lake is a mix of Ottoman and Byzantine styled buildings. With the lake as it's backdrop, this region is one of the postcard perfect destinations in Europe.
Why Macedonia isn't as popular as say Croatia, it really beats me.
An example of one of the hostels we stayed at in Sarajevo, Bosnia
We've visited the former Yugoslavia twice, and both times, we stayed in mostly hostels and apartments because of the cheap prices.
There are of course, modern, upmarket hotels.
But to enjoy the "feel" of it all, to experience a different side of Europe, we'd suggest staying in local apartments. Many cheap hotels or hostels are situated in these old communist styled apartment blocks. And private rooms here start from as low as $25 SGD!
An example of one of the hostels we stayed at in Maribor, Slovenia
Above is an example of a hostel we stayed at in Slovenia. The standards of accommodation in Slovenia are really high. Unless you're really hard up for a swimming pool or room service, the general standards in Slovenia should sit well with most people.
The train from Mostar to Sarajevo, old school, but a really fun experience
For the Croatia and Slovenian leg of our trip, we rented a car. We got from country to country via minivan and train. If we had to do it again, we'd travel totally by train and buses, which are really cheap and offer a cool experience.
We'll share more about transport in the "Planning section" later on in the article.
At a "meat shop" ordering lunch in Belgrade, Serbia.
In the Balkan Peninsula, food is very cheap.
What you'll likely be eating most often are Cevapcici, a kind of ground meat sausage eaten together with pita bread. It costs as low as 3 Euros, tastes great and will absolutely fill you up.
You simply go into one of the meat shops, point at the meat you want, and they'll throw it on the grill.
Another popular dish is Burek (above), a sort of pie filled with meat. It didn't really sit with us, but it's the most popular snack in the region. There are of course many other dishes but Cevapcici and Burek will be what you'll probably eating most of the time.
In Montenegro, steak cost us 6 - 7 Euros, freshly caught fish cost us 8 Euros in Macedonia and in the picture above, a huge slice of pizza and coke cost just 2 Euros. Food is more expensive in Croatia and Slovenia, averaging 12 - 15 Euros if you wish to dine in a restaurant. In Slovenia, visit "Hot Horse", they serve huge horse meat burgers and taste absolutely delicious.
The following are the Top Must See/Do's in each former Yugoslav Republic
(obviously there are more attractions, but then i'd have to write a book)
1. Explore Plitvice National Park (Croatia)
2. Visit the coastal cities of Split + Hvar (Croatia)
3. Game of Thrones Locations, main one in Dubrovnik (Croatia)
4. Row a boat in Lake Bled (Slovenia)
5. Hike the Julian Alps (Slovenia)
6. Bay of Kotor (Montenegro)
7. Sunbathe and party along the beaches of Budva (Montenegro)
8. Cross the bridge "Stari Most" in Mostar (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
9. Visit the Museums and walk through the War Tunnel in Sarajevo (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
10. Clubbing/Nightlife in Belgrade (Serbia)
11. Checkout the Neo Classical extensively renovated capital of Skopje (Macedonia)
12. Chill and explore the ruins and cathedrals by Lake Ohrid (Macedonia)
Planning & Getting Started
First, you need a Multi City Air Ticket.
The cheapest airport to fly into is Belgrade. So however you're planing, start or end with Belgrade.
Don't fly into the smaller countries like Montenegro or Macedonia or you'll be paying extra.
Next, decide on the standard of accommodation you prefer and whether you want your accommodation inside the old towns or outside (obvious price difference). We suggest staying outside the old town and walking in for expensive cities like those in Croatia. In cheaper countries like Bosnia or Macedonia, it doesn't make much of a difference.
You can't possibly experience everything. List out the 2 or 3 things you really want to do in each place.
Transport is reliable enough that you don't need to waste days catering for unforeseen screw ups. This isn't Africa, it's Europe. There are many bus or train timings that can get you from each key attraction to another, so getting around isn't an issue. You can also buy tickets straight at the terminals, there will surely be a seat.
It's been at least 3 years since we wast wrote about the Balkan's. Check out our previous posts for ideas on the Balkans and Eastern European region.
When most people plan their dream European vacation and wish to experience cool weather, castles, snowy mountains, picturesque old towns, and beautiful lakes, most just bother to check out Scandinavia, the UK, or Central Europe.
For those on a budget, Asia comes to mind.
Why not combine all these wonderful things?
Europe + Beauty + History + Affordability can all be had in the Balkan Peninsula.
"The Girl" and I never paid a dollar above S$3,000 when we visited this particular region.
Tear up your existing travel plans. It's time to visit the former Yugoslavia next!