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9 Valuable Things to Know Before Visiting Kosovo

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Kosovo is a destination that typically draws one of two reactions. People either wonder where Kosovo is and if its safe, or relish the idea of going somewhere that feels off the beaten path. Chances are if you’re reading this you’re in the latter group, but if not, I have a long list of Kosovo posts to try to change your mind. Because the truth is that my time visiting Kosovo was a thoroughly entertaining and rewarding experience, and one that I wish to encourage others to consider.

Rather than just showing you a long list of Kosovo attractions, I thought it’d be more useful to provide practical advice for travelling to this tiny pocket of the Balkans. Because Kosovo is not your everyday destination. Once you know how to navigate its peculiarities,  I think that you too will find it a terrific place to visit. Below are some of the most important things I think you should know before travelling to Kosovo.

 

1. What Not To Talk About

There’s really no other way to start a discussion on travelling to Kosovo than with a question that always comes up: Is Kosovo a country? To tourists this may seem like an innocent question, but in reality it’s a mighty difficulty subject of conservation. Rather than provide my personal opinion as I’m an outsider to it all, I thought I’d explain why this isn’t a topic you want to bring up lightly while in Kosovo.

Kosovo is what’s known as a partially recognised state or disputed territory.  Once part of Yugoslavia, Kosovo remained under control of Serbia after the country’s breakup in the 1990s. In 2008 Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, an act that had been brewing for decades. Serbia disputes this action and continues to claim Kosovo as a territory. 97 UN states currently recognise Kosovo’s independent status, but as Serbia, Russia and China do not recognise it, Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations.

You can now see why raising this topic while in Kosovo and Serbia may cause problems. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get very different answers and strongly-held beliefs. Matters like this are always a sensitive subject in any part of the world with an unresolved independence movement. People often don’t appreciate outsiders blindly stirring things up for no reason, so it’s best to be mindful of what you say on this matter.

 

2. Entry and Getting There

Understanding the contentious nature of Kosovo’s statehood is the only way to make sense of the challenges tied with getting to Kosovo. Because if people can’t agree on who controls the borders then how do travellers know what they have to do to cross them?

Ultimately, there’s two different scenarios that travellers have to be aware of when they visit Kosovo. One is when they plan on entering from Serbia; the other is if they want to travel from the neighbouring countries of Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

That’s because Serbia won’t recognise any entry/exit stamps for Kosovo provided by Kosovo border points. As such, if you enter Kosovo from Albania, travel through to Serbia and then try to leave Serbia, it will look to them like you’ve entered the country illegally. That’s a headache that you really want to avoid.

If your plans for Kosovo include Serbia, it’s best to enter and leave via Serbia because of the way the borders are recognised. For crossing between Kosovo and Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia, you can mix and match, as these three all recognise Kosovo as an independent state.

As for actually getting to Kosovo, your options are pretty simple. By land you can either drive or use the intercity buses that connect major cities like Pristina and Prizren with elsewhere in the Balkans. Otherwise you can fly to Pristina, home of the main Kosovo airport.

 

3. Getting Around Kosovo

Traveling to Kosovo in the Balkans

The good news is that once you arrive in Kosovo, getting around is a bit less complicated. Kosovo is not a large territory and is roughly the same size as its small neighbour Montenegro. That means you won’t have to travel enormous distances to get about, with most places only an hour or so away.

Getting around with your own car or a rental car is likely the most convenient option, but Kosovo does have a useful bus network. I travelled exclusively via public transport during my time there and found the intercity buses reliable and extremely affordable. With the bus network it’s important to realise that Pristina is its main hub, but you will find other routes, such as Prizren to Peja. Those fine with something more adventurous can also try hitchhiking, which my friend and I had success with in a pinch.

 

4. An Uncrowded Destination

It probably comes as no surprise that Kosovo is a destination not yet struggling with over-tourism. Compared to so many other more popular Balkan destinations, the tourist numbers for Kosovo are a mere drop in the ocean. Sure, part of that is that Kosovo lacks the beaches of Croatia or Albania, and the ski resorts of Bulgaria. But the low tourist numbers actually make it quite a good choice if you’re worried about sustainability and over-tourism.

The places you’re most likely to spot fellow travellers are the cities of Pristina and Prizren. In fact, Prizren is possibly even more popular than the capital due to its historical character and we actually saw a tour group or two there. It was in Prizren that we realised that most of the other tourists in Kosovo we encountered were from German-speaking countries.

We later learned that Kosovo had featured on a popular German travel series. Before that it was surprising to see the overwhelming majority of other travellers being German, especially fellow hikers doing the Peaks of the Balkans. We even got mistaken for German tourists more than once, only to really confuse people when we said we were from Australia instead.

 

5. A Little Language Goes A Long Way

My philosophy when visiting anywhere is to make an effort when it comes to learning the local language. Even mastering the most basic phrases shows you recognise where you are and goes a little way towards making up for them having to help you in your language. To me it’s a sign of respect first, that also can be useful when you can use what you’ve learned. 

The two official languages for Kosovo are Albanian and Serbian, but you’re most likely to encounter people speaking Albanian. Serbian seems to only be spoken in parts of Kosovo where there is still an ethnic Serbian population, such as around Mitrovica, and at holy sites like Gracanica Monastery and Visoki Decani Monastery. Otherwise it’s Albanian you’ll hear, which makes it the more useful of the two to learn a little of. As for foreign languages, English and German are the most useful for easily getting about.

A few basic phrases to get you started include Tungjatjeta which means ‘Hello’; Falemenderit for ‘Thank you’; Ju lutem for ‘Please’; Më falni for “Excuse Me” and Po and Jo for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

 

6. Safety and Friendly People

Visiting Kosovo

Because many people still associate Kosovo with the conflict in 1998-1999 and ethnic violence, one of the most common questions is if Kosovo is safe to visit. This honestly tends to happen a bit throughout the Balkans such as in Bosnia Herzegovina. My guess is that it’s because the news from that period is all people know about the region. Generally speaking, those worries are outdated and don’t reflect the Balkans much at all any more.

So, is Kosovo safe? In my limited experience as a white man, yes. I felt just as safe – if not more so – as anywhere in Europe. I admittedly didn’t experience too much of Kosovo’s nightlife or roam city streets at night. But in terms of everyday safety, it felt no different than what I’m used to.

I will say that I felt there was a really positive attitude to visitors and tourists in general. From random offers for coffee while hiking in the Rugova Valley to overly generous guesthouse hosts, there was certainly a feeling of being welcome in Kosovo.

One note that I should make regarding staying safe in Kosovo has to do with northern Kosovo. Read up on travel to Kosovo and you’ll see warnings for the north around Mitrovica regarding issues in the past of violent incidents. We avoided visiting Mitrovica partly for this reason, but I have since heard fellow travellers say they went without issues. If you want to visit northern Kosovo, do your research and make that judgement call for yourself.

 

7. An Inviting History to Explore

Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

With a place like Kosovo it’s easy to fixate on recent history as that’s what most international visitors are most familiar with. But look past the last thirty years and you learn that the region around Kosovo has quite a fascinating history to explore if you like that sort of thing. No one would fault you for not knowing the history of Kosovo, but it’s easy enough to learn more.

A great place to start is the Kosovo Museum in Pristina, as it showcases artefacts from classical antiquity. There you can learn about the region once known as Dardania and see items from that era. The museum also highlighted Kosovo’s part during World War I, which I also knew little about.

However it’s Kosovo’s time during the Middle Ages and under Ottoman Rule that has produced some of its most impressive attractions. The four UNESCO Medieval Monuments in Kosovo each highlight the region’s importance to Serbian Orthodoxy. Then you have Prizren with its traditional character and its hilltop fortress that had major strategic value for medieval rulers and the Ottomans.

 

8. The Most Affordable Place in Europe

Having travelled through a fair share of Europe at this point, I feel confident in saying that Kosovo is the most budget-friendly destination I’ve been. The Balkans are well-known for being the most affordable region in Europe for backpackers and the like. And yet, Kosovo takes to it a whole other level that is more reminiscent of Georgia and southeast Asia.

Although not a member of the EU, Kosovo uses the Euro as its currency, which immediately makes life easier for travellers.

Now, you might not notice much difference in things like accommodation from elsewhere in the Balkans. But when it comes to food and things like bus fares, it’s hard to believe the value for money. Intercity bus trips rarely cost more than a few euros and you should have no difficulty finding meals for 5-10€. You’ll have to spoil yourself with a nice restaurant to spend more than that.

 

9. More To See Than You Realise

Hadum Mosque Gjakova Kosovo

The last parting piece of advice I have is that there’s more to see in Kosovo than most people realise. I say this for most places I write about, but it definitely stands true here. Many people just don’t make time for it, either prioritising other countries and/or not knowing what Kosovo has to offer. Most only ever see Pristina and Prizren, but there really is so much more to explore.

If you want to see smaller cities, you can look to Gjakova, Peja and Vushtrri. I can’t recommend the hiking experiences up in Bjeshkët e Nemuna National Park highly enough if you don’t mind hills. But there are also smaller spots like the scattered UNESCO sites, the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary and the White Drin Waterfall that are all worth seeking out.

I never knew there were so many places to visit in Kosovo before I went. I’m so glad I allowed the time to explore it in a little more depth and I’m sure you will be too if you do.

 

Resources for Travel to Kosovo

Pristina Library, Visit Pristina

 


What has been your experience when visiting Kosovo? What other advice would you recommend for this Kosovo travel blog post? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Things to Know Before Visiting Kosovo in the Balkans, via @travelsewhere

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