Kosovo is a country locked between gorgeous mountains in the middle of the Western Balkans. The youngest country of Europe has a complicated modern history but politics aside, it is safe and absolutely deserves your visit! Its people are generous and always happy to host foreigners. Here is everything you need to know about Kosovo to prepare for your trip.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a bloody war in 1998-1999 and Nato bombings. Today it is recognized by 113 UN members states (that number fluctuates every now and then based on diplomatic moves). Serbia, Russia, China, and five EU member states (among others) do not recognize its independence. The one big consequence of this for people travelling around the Balkans with a passport is the following:
Serbia-Kosovo-Country X: Yes
Country X-Kosovo-Serbia: No
For instance, if you came from Albania, entered Kosovo and then presents yourself at the Serbian border, they are very likely to turn you down. Go through Skopje. On the contrary, if you are done exploring Belgrade and want to try another Balkan atmosphere, make your way down and enjoy the six-hour ride!
Kosovo has an amazing cuisine similar to the rest of the Western Balkans and Turkey. Two of the best culinary experiences of my life were at Sonder’s in Prishtina/Priština and at Tiffany’s in Prizren. Sarma and meatballs are to die for. The diet is definitely meat-based and salads are ordered as a side dish. “Fast food” (understand: Balkan grilled meats of all sorts) is available everywhere. Coffee culture is also very strong here and it is said that the best espresso outside of Italy is to be found in Prishtina. The capital city is just full of amazing places to eat and drink.
Alcohol is available pretty much anywhere. There is even a craft beer from Prishtina/Priština called Sabaja. I like their IPA. The usual commercial lager is called Peja. The village of Rahovec/Orahovac is well known for its vineyards and is working on revitalizing the production. If you are around in September don’t miss the harvest festival!
Best time to visit
From May to October when the weather is nice and dry so you can enjoy drinking coffee outside and discovering the beautiful environment.
Kosovo is underdeveloped, still recovering from having been neglected for decades and from the war of 1998-1999 with Serbia, after which the country declared independence. It is plagued by corruption and nepotism. But it is also growing fast and its youth is extremely active and full of ideas. It is becoming a European hub for software development and ICT in general thanks to the amazing job of organizations like Girls Coding Kosova, Open Data Kosovo and the Innovation Centre Kosovo.
Prices are low, hostels are cheap yet very modern, coffee and alcohol, cigarettes, food, transportation are all cheap for Western standards.
Kosovo uses euros on most of its territory. You can change money in different parts of the city, ask your hotel or hostel where is the best place. If you are withdrawing, know that all the banks will take a 5€ fee (!!!) for any withdrawal. The ONLY ONE that doesn’t do it is the BKT (Banka Kombëtare Tregtare). There are many BKT ATMs in Prishtina/Priština and in all cities.
In the Serbian-dominated part of Kosovo in the North, they still use Serbian dinars.
The majority of the population is Albanian and speaks Albanian but there is also an important Serbian minority. The north of the country is mostly populated by Serbs but there are more Serbs scattered in the rest of the territory. There are also many other minorities as Romani, Gorani, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Macedonians…
Kosovo is mostly a Muslim country but, apart from very specific cases, it is quite an open version of Islam. Most of the Albanians of Kosovo practice a secular form of Sunni Islam.
The country is also home to Bektashi monasteries, a sect of Sufi obedience. Their practice of Islam involves music, dancing and humour, things that are often banned in Islam. The Rufai Tekke in the beautiful town of Prizren is followed by about 100,000 adherents and has been a centre of the revival of Sufism in Kosovo. The Rufai Tekke preach religious tolerance and is known for the ritual every equinox during which men pierce their cheeks and bodies with silver blades
Very hospitable and generous. Never hesitate to ask for directions in the street. People will often go out of their way to help you. Look lost and it is very likely that somebody will stop and ask what you’re looking for. Hospitality is sacred in Albanian culture (and generally speaking in all the Balkans). If someone welcomes you in their home you are like a family member, or even more important. Turning away someone looking for help or not taking good care of a guest would break the rules of Besa (an oath that cannot be broken) and bring shame to the family.
Kosovo is not only the youngest country in Europe but also a young country, period. More than half of the population is under 30! When visiting Pristina, you can really feel
As usual, you should always be aware of your surroundings and be smart. But Kosovo is a safe place. Hostels usually have lockers and people are simply not aggressive. And they love foreigners. I have never witnessed a brawl or a fight in the street. If you are with locals they will never take you to a bad place or put you in a difficult situation as they take responsibility for you and would be ashamed if anything happened to you.
As for the dominated Serbian part in the north, it is usually as calm as the rest of the country. Check the news before you go just in case politics have gotten the best of the people again but the risks of the situation being dangerous for you are very small. I have been in Mitrovica many times, including to report on the political situation that was very unnerving for the citizens and everything was calm.
Security for Women
Street harassment can be annoying for women, especially solo travellers but guys don’t stop you, they catcall, whistle, honk… I just ignore them and with my very limited Albanian, I don’t even understand a thing they say. The organization Girls Coding Kosova even created an app to report sexual harassment and street harassment so you can download it and contribute to the gathering of data on this subject. In any case, it doesn’t feel as bad as France. You might be asked on a date anytime you start talking to a man, but I just decline politely and no one has never insisted after that.
Bus only. There is technically a rail network in Kosovo and the EU has given recently a lot of money to renovate it but I have never seen a train or rails. You can take a train from north Mitrovica into Serbia though if you really want to. But the bus is much faster.
There is a bus station in Prishtina/Priština where you can buy your tickets and wait for the bus. Sometimes you have to pay a few cents to get on the platform, sometimes not, so just ask inside. For connections inside Kosovo, they will tell you to buy the ticket on the bus. For the schedule and the price (çmimi in Albanian) check Gjirafa.
To the north of Kosovo and Mitrovica, the informal stop is outside the station on the curve. Just ask anyone for directions when you are on the boulevard near the station, everybody knows where they are.
Neglected yet amazing. Kosovo is surrounded by beautiful mountains and you can hike, ride mountain bikes, and even ski there. However, I would recommend that only very experimented skiers go to Brezovica ski resort as the slopes and the station are not well maintained. There are revitalisation projects but nothing concrete yet. I visited the Rugova mountains in 2016 and found it incredible. You can hike into Montenegro from there! And the mountains near Gjakova will take you to the beautiful Albanian region of Valbona where you will find a beautiful river and all related activities. Hostels will help you find tours lead by local guides. The view from the fortress in Prizren is spectacular and one of my favourite in the Balkans.
Zero. Unfortunately, Kosovo is terrible when it comes to accessibility and even for me, it’s hard to walk. Most of the sidewalks, when they exist, are run down and taken by cars so it’s all a big annoying maze for pedestrian and impossible to navigate if you are in a wheelchair.
I do not recommend visiting Prishtina/Priština in winter as the level of pollution is quite high due to the old heating system powered by coal and wood and the traffic. The city’s air gets trapped due to geography and the nearby coal-fueled power plant of Obiliq spits heavy smoke into the atmosphere.
Speaking of pollution. Smoking inside is forbidden by law and cafés and restaurants are supposed to have a real separate area (in winter often a covered terrace) for smoking. In reality, most of the places you will hang out at in Prishtina/Priština will respect the law but small local places, bars and restaurants in smaller cities won’t. People are getting there, though.