Tips for Traveling in the Balkans

Before our recent trip to the Balkans, we had a hard time finding information about transportation and travel in general in this corner of the world. Sure, there are reviews on TripAdvisor, but you have to know what you’re looking for, and we had no idea. So here is my attempt at a quick roundup of some tips about transportation, what to expect, and also which places to see and which to avoid.

Travel Tips for Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece

  • Learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Surprisingly, many words in the Cyrillic Alphabet are spelled the same as in English, but you’d never be able to read them unless you could decode them. Learning the Cyrillic Alphabet will help you do this, and I can help you learn it.

Related: How to Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet Fast

  • Rent a car. We had heard that the infrastructure and driving was bad in this area and that renting a car was not advised, but honestly I couldn’t disagree more. We should have rented a car, especially since there were three of us and we could have split costs. Public transportation is NOT traveler-friendly in these parts. The pieces exist, but they don’t work together to create logical itineraries. If you don’t rent a car, plan to be spending a lot of time figuring out travel logistics. 

Related: Renting a Car in Europe: 3 Things You Need to Know

  • Allow extra time for public transportation. Don’t plan accommodations too far ahead if you travel by public transport, since you may not make it to your far destinations in one day.
Bus Florina to Kozani
Bus from Florina to Kozani
Related: Getting from Ohrid, Macedonia to Meteora, Greece

  • Download the maps.me app. I recommend this for any trip (there is a free version), but I found it especially helpful in the Balkans. After you get the app, be sure to download the maps for the specific countries you will be visiting.

Related: The Only Map You Need

  • Expect lots second hand smoke. Everyone smokes, and they smoke everywhere. Nate actually developed a bit of a cough the entire time we were traveling through this area due to the smoke.
  • Macedonia is a country, but this is controversial to some. It is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). You can read about the controversy, but I will not get into it any more here, nor will I approve political comments about it, this is simply a heads up that you will hear about it as you travel between them. It has been an independent country since 1991 and is a member of the United Nations as FYROM.
Macedonian Flag
The Macedonian flag flying high above the old fortress in Ohrid.
  • Bring emergency money and try not to get more of the local currency than you will use. I always recommend bringing a stash of emergency cash (US dollars) on any trip, but here you may actually use it. These countries won’t let you use the neighboring countries’ currencies. They don’t get along well, so just don’t expect to be able to use or exchange foreign money in each country. If you do end up with extra local currency at the end of your trip, you can most likely exchange it at your bank in the US for a much better rate than you could get overseas. I bank with Wells Fargo, and they let me exchange my leftover Bulgarian Leva after I returned.

Related: Travel in the Balkans: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Greece
Out of all the places we went on this trip, this is what I think about places to visit and avoid:

Top places to visit and stay:
Ohrid, Macedonia
Meteora, Greece
Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria
Athens, Greece
Places to visit but not stay long:
Skopje, Macedonia
Delphi, Greece
Sofia, Bulgaria
Places to avoid:
Thessaloniki, Greece
 
Related: Meteora or Delphi, Greece
For help with packing, please see:
Ninja Packing Tips: Packing List for Europe with Just a 30L Backpack
Canon EOS M Review: A Digital SLR That Fits in Your Pocket!