I Just Spent A Whole Day In One Of Europe’s Poorest Countries And I Was Shocked By What I Saw
I just spent a whole day exploring one of Europe’s poorest countries, where there are no shimmery Eiffel Towers, Mediterranean sunsets, or wide leafy boulevards lined with designer shops – and I almost couldn’t believe I was still on the same continent.
Comprising Southeastern Europe, the Balkan Peninsula is officially home to 12 nations, which all share a common culture and an intertwined History. It is also my go-to destination, home to gorgeous beaches and UNESCO-listed sites, the tastiest food, and beautiful, incredibly affordable cities yet to be discovered, far away from the Instagram hordes.
Welcome To Kosovo, Europe’s Youngest Nation
Out of 12 countries that are either fully, or partially Balkan, the small, newly-independent Kosovo was the one nation I kept avoiding as I country-hopped across the peninsula. While I had the opportunity to visit twice since first arriving in the territory all the way back in 2019, both misinformation and misleading travel advisories always discouraged me.
Although it is certainly not fighting a full-fledged war, at least not anymore, Kosovo is yet to establish amicable relations with Serbia, from which it declared independence unilaterally in 2007. The latter has repeatedly refused to accept Kosovar sovereignty, and to this day, some maps include Kosovo as a Serbian autonomous province.
But why does Kosovo’s independence claim continue to be challenged by Serbia more than a decade later?
Why Is Kosovo Still Claimed By Serbia?
For most of the 20th century, these two countries formed the now-defunct federal entity of Yugoslavia alongside Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Beginning in the 90s, Yugoslavia began to crumble, and one after the other, the federal republics within it seceded, rejecting Serbian rule, though not without struggle.
Carrying the scars of the 90s war, responsible for re-shaping Balkan borders and establishing at least six new countries, and expressing a strong will to re-assert its Albanian identity, Kosovo was the last former Yugoslav territory to hold an independence vote only 15 years ago: Europe’s youngest (partially recognized) nation.
Regrettably, the Kosovar referendum was deemed illegal by Serbian lawmakers on the basis that Kosovo was never a constituent republic within Yugoslavia, unlike Croatia, Slovenia, or the others. Fast forward a decade, and the legal imbroglio continues to have repercussions, with Kosovo’s international recognition being limited and disputes extending well into 2023.
There are four main reasons why the people of Kosovo do not feel attached to Serbia and may want to untangle themselves from the persisting ghosts of the Yugoslav era:
- Kosovo is inhabited by Albanians, who form the vast majority of the populace (92%)
- Naturally, the most widely-spoken language in Kosovo is Albanian, an Indo-European language markedly different from Serbian
- The most followed religion in Serbia is Eastern Orthodoxy (69.9%); Kosovo is 95.6% Muslim
- For most of the 20th century, the Kosovar demand for more autonomy within Yugoslavia was largely overlooked and violently repressed by Serbian-controlled Yugoslav forces, giving rise to a strong anti-Serbian sentiment within the territory
Now that you know why Kosovo’s status is disputed, it is time we understood how actually underdeveloped it is as a nation standing on its own and why that came to be:
Kosovo Is The Third Poorest Country In Europe
Due to its complex recent past, assuming that it is independent from Serbia, Kosovo has been named the third-poorest country in Europe, with almost 30% of the population, or 550,000 Kosovars, falling below the poverty line. In 2016, it had an unemployment rate of 34.8%, and a majority of families earned less than €6,000 per year.
In addition to a low Human Development Index, Kosovars struggle from:
- Not being members of the European Union and having their movement in Europe severely restricted
- Not being a part of NATO, which puts them at an increased risk of attacks by neighboring belligerent countries
- Having the weakest passport in Europe; as of 2022, Kosovo passport holders need visas to enter most European countries, and they are only granted visa-free access to 41 countries worldwide
- Refused admission in countries that do not recognize Kosovar independence and thus Kosovar-issued travel documents (Georgia, Moldova, Cuba, and others)
Kosovo, and the wider Balkan Peninsula, are indisputably European, being an integral part of the continent’s multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith character. However, they are a different flavor of Europe, lying outside the Brussels sphere of control and occasionally resembling Western Asia in terms of urban planning, culture, and infrastructure.
For the most part, there are no wide, tree-lined Belle epoque boulevards to be found here. Instead, you should expect streets crammed with overhead power cables and overflowing garbage in the style of Latin America’s run-down hoods. Additionally, Kosovo isn’t the ideal destination for tourists looking for the quintessential European sightseeing experience:
Several historical buildings in Pristina have either been destroyed or heavily damaged by bombing, and what’s left are a handful of medieval mosques and Serbian Orthodox Churches, modernist apartment blocks evocative of the communist years, and war memorials paying homage to the Kosovar Albanians who lost their lives fighting for autonomy.
So why, then, is Kosovo worth visiting?
Six Reasons Why Kosovo Should Be On Your Radar For 2023
Incredibly Welcoming Locals
The hospitality of Albanians precedes them, and upon arriving in Pristina, my first destination on this day tour, I was reminded why they have a reputation for being one of the most friendly people in Europe. Whether you’re shopping for souvenirs or simply asking for directions, you will feel their warmth and be greeted by genuine smiles.
From the few interactions with Kosovars I had during my excursion, I felt as if they were as elated as they were puzzled I was traveling there in the first place. Locals will go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome, be it eagerly sharing their customs and traditions, or pausing whatever it is they’re doing to help a tourist in need of assistance, without expecting anything in return.
We must remind ourselves this is a newborn country hosting less than 200,000 foreign tourists on average per year, and ensuring tourists have a good impression is in their best interest.
It Is Home To Beautiful Historical Sites
Kosovo may have been ravaged by war, and it’s true several of its historical monuments are either undergoing reconstruction or were razed to the ground, giving way to modernist buildings that wouldn’t be totally out of place in the bygone Soviet Union, but this does not mean there’s no architectural beauty to be found here, or an inestimable cultural value at that.
The Balkans are perhaps the most History-charged region in all of Europe, and Kosovo is no exception. One of the main points of interest in the country is the beautiful 14th-century Serbian Orthodox Gracanicka Monastery. Embellished by vibrant frescoes and atmospheric candles, it is one of a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kosovo.
Yet another example of Orthodox architecture that’s been enlisted by UNESCO is the Patriarchal Monastery of Pec, located near the city of Peja, famous for its striking red exterior. Elsewhere in Kosovo, visitors can also admire the remnants of well-preserved 18th and 19th-century Ottoman houses.
Wandering the cobblestone streets of Prizren to the bewitching chants emanating from the nearby minarets, you will be transported back to the Anatolian heartland of Turkiye. Distinctly oriental in character, Prizren features an old Ottoman bridge arching over a clear river and imposing mosques glistening white against the surrounding green hills.
Some call it the prettiest city in Kosovo, and one of the prettiest in Southeastern Europe.
Kosovo Has A Burgeoning Art Scene
It must be something in the water… In recent years, Kosovo has been spawning an impressive streak of pop stars that are crossing over to the mainstream and making it big in America. Two of the most easily recognized artists whose families hail originally from here are the multi-platinum British artists Dua Lipa and Rita Ora.
Dua is, in fact, one of the most successful female artists of the streaming era with several top ten hits under her belt – Don’t Start Now, Levitating, New Rules, Physical, you name it – and other successful collaborations with world-renowned DJs and industry veterans like Elton John. She’s been credited for ‘putting Kosovo’s name on the map‘ and reviving the country’s cultural scene.
Now, visitors to Pristina can attend an annual international music festival held in summer organized by Sunny Hill Foundation, headed by Dua Lipa herself and her father, Kosovo-born businessman Dukagjin Lipa. While she’s on tour, the singer is usually included in the line-up, which includes other international acts and local Albanian artists.
It Is Incredibly Cheap By European Standards
Out of all 37 European countries I have set foot in, Kosovo has to be the one where my tourist dollars stretched the furthest. Even if you’re ready to splurge after being locked down at home for nearly three years, and you’re ordering every possible appetizer on the menu, getting a bill of more than 20 euros per person at a mid-range restaurant will be virtually impossible.
Additionally, entry to cultural attractions is, on average, €2 to €5 (such as the Gracanicka Monastery), making it incredibly affordable to explore over a few days or even a longer period of time. On average, the cost of living in Kosovo is 61.68% lower than in the United States, with monthly expenses without rent estimated at €359, or roughly $382.
An important piece of info: Kosovo has no official currency of its own, and they have adopted the euro unilaterally. It is by far the most widely accepted currency in the country, though it may be possible to find businesses that accept or exchange U.S. dollars, British pounds, or other popular currencies.
It’s Every Foodie’s Idea Of Paradise
Albanian food ranks among my favorite in Europe, mainly because it resembles other ethnic dishes concocted by the Turkish or the Greek, with ingredients that are always fresh, melt-in-your-mouth meat rolls, soup rich in spices and unique Balkan condiments, and a wide assortment of locally-sourced fruit and salted, soft cheeses.
Whether you’re in Kosovo, Albania, or any other Albanian-majority region of North Macedonia or Greece, rest assured you will be well looked after by your Albanian hosts. Some of my favorite picks are:
- Fergese, a flavorful paste made mainly of tomato sauce, cottage cheese, green peppers, and garlic, served traditionally with bread
- Byrek (the Albanian equivalent to the pan-Balkan burek), a flaky dough pastry filled with potatoes, spinach, meat, or cheese
- Tarator, a cold soup containing sour yogurt, shredded cucumber, a few squeezes of lemon, and several teaspoons of salt
- Speca te mbushura, rice-stuffed green peppers. In some Albanian regions, chopped lamb and/or tomatoes can be added
- Qofte, meatballs that can be grilled, fried, or baked
- Tave kosi, lamb baked in a melting pot of homemade yogurt, rice and eggs
Kosovo Is A Unique Country To Explore
Having traveled Albania extensively, I had the impression it borrows heavily from Italian and Greek cultures, resting cozily in its Southern European, Adriatic nook. To all effects, the Republic of Albania effortlessly fits all the Mediterranean criteria: pristine beaches, freshly caught seafood, Greco-Roman monuments, and laid-back vibes throughout.
Kosovo, on the other hand, is landlocked, and not only its cuisine but the locals’ way of life as a whole is entirely defined by its geographical features. You will not find an abundance of seafood here, though the traditional meat-heavy shqiptarë diet remains a defining trait, as does Albanian folklore and ethnic attire.
At the same time, it has incorporated other Turkish and Slavic influences, having spent centuries under Ottoman rule, and later in a state union with the South Slavic communities. The constant redrawing of the borders and influx of immigration from neighboring countries has given rise to a unique Kosovar identity that is closely related to Albania’s, but not exclusively Albanian.
This small, overlooked territory is, in essence, the Balkan Peninsula and all of its contrasting identities in a nutshell.
How To Get To Kosovo In 2023
Notably, there are no direct flights from the United States or Canada. Reaching Pristina from the Americas, U.S. travelers must change flights at least once. When it comes to one-stop connections, options are limitless: most of Europe’s major transit hubs, such as London Heathrow, Vienna, and Frankfurt, have established year-round air links to Kosovo.
Geographically, the closest country Americans can fly into is, ironically, Serbia. Belgrade is served by direct Air Serbia flights leaving from New York (JFK), with one-way fares starting at $618 this winter. Landing in Serbia, Kosovo-bound travelers are required to travel via land to the disputed territory (which Serbia continues to claim as its own).
Alternatively, international buses to Pristina depart from Skopje, in North Macedonia, and Tirana, Albania, as well as other select cities in the Balkans. Timetables may change depending on the date of the week, and tickets are normally purchased from the ticket office at bus stations. Fares range between $25 and $30 for return trips, though they can be more expensive depending on the transportation provider.
If you’re planning on taking the bus from Belgrade, the journey is usually hassle-free for those entering Kosovo after crossing into Serbia first. Americans who first cross into Kosovo, either via Pristina Airport or any other border crossing points with North Macedonia or Albania, and continue traveling onward to Serbia, will be barred.
The Problem With Entering Serbia After Crossing Into Kosovo First
As Belgrade considers Kosovo an integral part of its territory, border authorities have ruled that all non-Serbian nationals entering from the latter without a valid Serbian stamp on their passports will have crossed into Serbia illegally. Americans attempting to do should expect to be turned away at the border unceremoniously.
- Traveling from Serbia into Kosovo with Serbia as the initial entry point: perfectly legal in Serbia’s view (the same applies to re-entering Serbia after visiting Kosovo)
- Traveling from Kosovo into Serbia without an initial Serbian entry stamp on your passport: illegal on Serbia’s part
Unless you are planning on visiting Serbia after Kosovo, you should not worry about these border disputes and complex technicalities. However, if you’re backpacking across the Balkans, and you would prefer not to get on the wrong side of a Serbian immigration officer, you must ensure you are stamped by them first.
To the best of my knowledge, previous visits to Kosovo that did not involve an accompanying visit to the northern neighbor should not pose an impediment for entry into Serbia in the future, unless you’re unlucky enough to run into hostile border staff, who may take their time questioning you over a fading stamp.
Want To Avoid All These Confusing Border Rules? Consider Booking A Private Tour Of Kosovo Instead
As I booked a private day tour of Kosovo leaving from Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, located a short one hour and a half away, I entered via a land crossing point. The experience was rather smooth, and my incredible guide, Smile, from Skopje Daily Tours, handled all border formalities so I could worry about appreciating the scenery.
I am not an enthusiast of guided tours myself, particularly those involving a group. Personally, I prefer exploring new destinations at my own pace instead, and usually over a longer period of time. Unfortunately, this time round, I would be flying out of the Balkans on the very next day, and being so short on time, booking this private visit was the right call:
- It is considerably more expensive than an excursion, but you have more freedom to personalize your itinerary and get to know your driver/guide a little better
- Guides working for Skopje Daily Tours are Historians, or Geopolitics experts with extensive knowledge of Kosovo – and you’re free to ask them any questions you may have about the Balkan conflict
- Traveling by car with an authorized guide, there is less waiting at land borders – buses are normally checked thoroughly to ensure there are no smugglers and that they meet certain standards until they are allowed to cross
- No stops at the usual tourist traps or overpriced souvenir shops: your guide will ensure time is optimized and that you have the best possible experience, eating in reasonably-priced restaurants and seeing truly relevant sites
Prices for a private day tour of Pristina and Prizren, two of Kosovo’s main cities, start at €55.
Reading travel advisories on Kosovo, I’d be surprised if anyone decided to visit at all. In general, Western countries make notes on the unsolved Serbo-Albanian quarrel, warning their citizens of higher crime levels, ‘high tensions’ along the border with Serbia, and the threat of terrorism and violent demonstrations.
Kosovo is indeed a country with deep-rooted issues that is yet to fully achieve peace and normalize relations with its Slavic neighbor, but visiting the main tourist zones, namely the cities of Pristina and Prizren, phone in hand and speaking English unashamedly, I felt as safe here as anywhere else (in the Balkans).
Walking in Pristina, my limited knowledge of Albanian was my only concern being approached by friendly, smiling natives at local cafes or shops, who seemed as delighted to be running into a foreign guest as I was for visiting. One must bear in mind Kosovo is definitely not one of these European hotspots suffering from overtourism – on the contrary.
With that being said, I refrained from touring North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan, where confrontations between Albanians and Kosovo’s ethnically Serbian residents have been known to erupt with little warning and restricted my movements to Pristina’s city center and the Old Town in Prizren, popular sightseeing areas.
On top of that, I was accompanied by an experienced guide who ensured I would not deviate from the touristic path and put myself in harm’s way. Unless you are directly involved with paramilitary groups or extremist organizations, and you’re not actively looking for trouble (e.g. wandering heavily patrolled borders), trouble will not come to find you.
Rules For Entering Kosovo In 2023
Kosovo has removed all of its Covid entry requirements since May 2022.
- Vaccination is no longer a prerequisite for entry
- There is no testing regime in place prior to, upon, or after arriving
- Travelers are not expected to stay in isolation for a period of time after arriving
- There are no online forms or pre-flight registrations to be made flying to Kosovo
This tiny, newly-independent state, plagued by ethnic conflicts and that’s yet to fully recover from a bloody war, is finally finding its footing as an off-path tourism hub. Although it is quite a way-off from other more developed neighbors, it has a lot of unexplored potential to charm tourists who usually flock to Western Europe.
Yes, it has somewhat of a reputation for being a little rough around the edges, but Kosovo is a beautiful place to explore… If you know where to look.