It’s been ten years since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. I wish I could write how well Kosovo has been doing since then, but things are not that simple. The war might be over, but migration, unemployment, mixed international recognition, unresolved war crimes and tensions between the Serbs and Albanians remain.
Still, the young nation where 53% of the population is under the age of 25 is proud of its independence and hopeful for a better future. And there is no reason to believe that with this youthful spirit the country can not progress and overcome it’s challenges. Despite it’s problems, Kosovo is safe and a great destination for backpackers. Where else can you witness history in the making first hand?
In my latest trip to the Balkans I made sure to include a week in Kosovo, but was not sure what to expect. It turned out to be a rewarding experience. Kosovo’s pleasant cities of Peja, Gjakova, Prizren and Pristina offer a range of exciting daytrips to Kosovo’s incredible nature and old monasteries. Tourism is still developing so things are cheap and people are friendly and welcoming.
Backpacking Kosovo: A travel guide with a one week itinerary
Gjakova: Kosovo’s foodie capital (suggested time: 1 day or long lunch stop)
Our trip started in Albania where we took a minibus from Valbona to Gjakova in Kosovo. Surprisingly, the border was one of the easiest border crossings of our trip in the Balkans.
As we pass by several villages a young girl next to us informs us that this area, with mostly Kosovar Albanians like herself, was heavily affected by the war and a large number of people that lived here fled to Albania or Europe. Still fearing the Serbs, those that returned rebuilt their homes close together in clusters rather than return to their old homes that were interspersed with large farmlands in between.
Our first stop in Kosovo is the small town of Gjakova with the oldest and longest bazaar in Kosovo. The town’s old bazaar was destroyed during the war in 1999, but has now been renovated in its original state. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed and there are plenty of young people willing to talk about their city.
Gjakovars make some of the best meat and food in the country. The amount of cafes and local restaurants certainly live up to that name. You should at least consider a lunch stop en route between Prizren and Peja (both 1 hr away).
Don’t miss the old hadum mosque and if you have more time you can hike up the cabrati hill and have a wonderful view over the city
Logistics: Buses to Prizren, Peja and Pristina (1 – 1.5 hours) leave almost every hour during the day. To go to Valbona in Albania you can take a mini bus to Bajram Curri (Albania) and from there to Valbona.
Peja: the gateway to Kosovo’s mountains (suggested time: 2 days)
Did I already say that Kosovars are friendly people and very happy to talk to foreigners? We were looking for the bus station in Gjakova when a taxi driver decided to help us out. He didn’t bring us to the bus station, but parked his car in front of the bus that had already left and was just passing by.
Our next stop was Peja. Another friendly town with a cosy old bazaar, but this is not the main reason to come here. Peja is the gateway to Kosovo’s mountains that offer scenic hiking trails that are part of the Peak of the Balkans trail and the long distance hiking trail of the Via Dinarica. Peja is the perfect base to explore the Accursed mountains.
Logistics: Buses to Prizren and Pristina (2-3 hours) leave almost every hour during the day.
Daytrip 1: Rugova Canyon and Prokletije mountains
Nearby Rugova canyon is one of the deepest and longest canyons in Europe. Through our hotel we booked a taxi. Something that is normally out of my budget, but in Kosovo still a reasonable option.
It’s not far to get to the actual canyon where we stop to take some pictures. We then move on to Prokletije national park. Part of the Accursed Mountains covering Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. This is hiking in Europe off the beaten path through wild mountains where bears and wolves still roam.
We go till the end of the road to a village called Kuqishtë. From here you can hike to Leqinat Lake. Unfortunately we did not have the time to do so, but at Floating my Boat you will find a well written blog post about this trek. A dirt road continues till the village of Bogë from where we do some small hikes to enjoy the views.
Logistics: It’s probably best to hire a taxi, but there are 1 or 2 public buses a day from Peja to Bogë.
Tip: The patriarchate of Pec
At the entrance of the Rugova canyon lies the patriarchate of Pec. One of the most important medieval monuments and the center of the Serbian church. It’s secluded location adds to its tranquility. The pleasant gardens and beatiful frescoes make it a must see. Because it lies at the entrance of the Rugova canyon it is easily combined with a daytrip to Rugova. Otherwise it is a nice 15 minute walk from the centre of Peja.
Daytrip 2: The monastery of Decani
The monastery of Decani in Kosovo is not without controversy. The monks belong to one of the oldest dioceses of the Serbian orthodox church and it was built by a Serbian king in the mid 14th century. Therefore, the monastery is of great importance for Serbia that does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.
Kosovar Albanians have showed their discontent about the monastery multiple times. Because of the continuing tensions it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage in danger list. The monastery is still guarded by KFOR UN soldiers although things have calmed down in the recent years. Our taxi first passes through a checkpoint way before we see the barbed wired walls of the monastery. The interior of the church is full of wonderful fresco’s and well worth the time and effort.
Logistics: Hire a taxi or take a bus from Peja to Decani and walk 2 kilometers to the church. You could also stop here on your way from Peja to Prizren.
Prizren: The heart of Kosovo (suggested 1-2 days)
Prizren was my favourite city in Kosovo. It reminded me a bit of Sarajevo in Bosnia, because of its strong Ottoman influences and its multicultural nature with the different houses of faith that dot the landscape. Mosques stand alongside Catholic and Orthodox churches, but at the bazaar you will feel the eastern atmosphere.
However, unlike Sarajevo, tensions between the different groups are still more tangible. The old Serbian churches are guarded after several attacks and attempts to burn them down. Its hard to reconcile this with the warmth and hospitality of this city.
Prizren is not a big town and it is easy to see everything in one day, but the friendly atmosphere might keep you longer here. The city is best explored on foot and I used this self guided walking tour from Jetsetting Fools. It will pass by most important sights such as the sinan pasa mosque, the old hamam and the church of our lady Ljevis.
It was summer and many Kosovars from Europe came back for holidays or weddings. We saw several wedding couples and the shops were full with extravagant wedding dresses and traditional Albanian costumes. Needless to say it was a joy to wander around Prizrens streets. For the best views on the city and the best sunset finish your day with a walk up the Prizren fortress.
Logistics: Buses to Peja and Pristina (1 – 2 hours) leave frequently from the bus station.
Daytrips: Prizrens mountain scenery
Prizren also offers some exciting daytrips in the surrounding mountains. We liked Prizren so much that we spent all our time in the city, but the Visit Kosovo itinerary of wanderlustingk mentions some interesting options.
Pristina: street art and cafes (suggested 1 day)
Pristina is Kosovo’s young capital. Maybe i was spoiled by the charming old towns of Gjakova, Peja and Prizren, but Pristina wasn’t my favourite place in Kosovo. It missed the personalities that made the other cities welcoming and charming, although there was some quirky architecture and street art.
In one afternoon we walked around to see the bill clinton statue, the newborn monument, the unfinished serbian orthodox church and the brutalist structure that is now the library.
With the summerheat most people stayed indoors during the day and it was sometimes eerily quiet on the streets. It was only at night when the Nena Thereza boulevard became alive.
On our second day we were honestly not sure what to do. We already saw everything that was in our guidebook. I decided to visit the local market in the older part of town near the clocktower and the mosque. The colourful and lively bazaar selling fresh fruits and vegetables was the first place in Pristina where I felt Kosovo’s unique atmosphere. The mix of Turkish and Eastern European Balkan vibes. Even though the bazaar is not as beautiful as the other old towns this is the place to go in Pristina.
To end with a positive note. I also liked Pristina’s great cafe’s. I spent the rest of the day in Soma’s book station. The combination of books, great food and healthy smoothies always does well with me. Kosovo has great coffee too and other great cafes are Dit e nat, Liburnia, Che bar and Prince coffee house.
Daytrip 1: Gracanica monastery
I honestly did not see Gracanica monastery because its beautiful frescoes were in the process of being renovated while we were there (august 2017), but hopefully this will be finished by the time you read this. It is just 8 kilometers from Pristina and it is an easy 15 minute busride away. The Giljan bound buses leave every 30 minutes.
Kosovo’s restaurants offer huge portions of delicious meals. Kosovar cuisine is influenced by both Turkish and Balkan food. This means a lot of meat and fresh salads. The plentiful kebaptore provide grilled meats for little money.
Other dishes worth trying are stuffed peppers, sarma (grape leaves filled with minced meat) and different types of bean stews. The summer brings heaps of fresh watermelons that are a welcome respite from the heat.
I already mentioned that Kosovo is cheap. There are great affordable hotels in Peja, Gjakova, Prizren and Pristina and some great options with Airbnb. Hostels are also coming up in the main cities. Because I used Air bnb I havent stayed in the hostels below, but they have good reviews from other travellers.
Peja: Sarac Hostel
Transport and logistics
Kosovo has frequent bus connections between its cities and with the neighbouring countries Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. Travelling to and in Kosovo is easy and convenient.
However, Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo. This means that you can travel from Serbia into Kosovo and back into Serbia (for Serbia you simply haven’t left the country), but not enter Kosovo from a different country and then travel directly to Serbia. Complicated isn’t it! Luckily distances are not that big. From Pristina we first travelled to Skopje in Macedonia and then took a bus to Nis in Serbia. The other option is to go through Montenegro.
Read more on Backpacking Montenegro: a wild beauty.