Europe’s newest country, Kosovo is a fascinating land at the heart of the Balkans rewarding visitors with welcoming smiles, charming mountain towns, incredible hiking opportunities and 13th-century domed monasteries brushed in medieval art – and that’s just for starters.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and while it has been diplomatically recognised by 111 countries. No matter what many people who’ve never been to Kosovo might tell you, it’s perfectly safe to travel here. Despite this, Kosovo remains one of the last truly off-the-beaten-path destinations in Europe.
Top experiences in Kosovo
Picturesque Prizren, with its charming mosque- and church-filled old town, shines with an enthusiasm that’s infectious. It’s Kosovo’s second biggest city and most obvious tourist town and is well worth a day or two’s lingering exploration. The castle high above the city is a must-see and there’s a museum or two, plus the town can be used as a base for day trips to the Shar Mountains. Prizren is equally known for Dokufest, a documentary film festival held each August that attracts documentary makers and fans from all over the world. The city’s young population means that in the evenings the old town buzzes with revellers and enjoys a very sociable air.
The Rugova Valley
The Rugova Valley and the mountains that hem it in are Kosovo’s adventure playground. The serpentine valley itself winds westward out of Peja and climbs steadily upwards toward the border of Montenegro. Narrow side-roads spin off this main route, giving access to high-mountain pastures, glacial lakes and fairy-tale pine forests. Activities include caving, rafting, via ferrata, zip-lining, skiing and snowshoeing, but it’s the hiking that really makes this a standout tourist destination. This knot of mountains (which also extends into parts of Albania and Montenegro) is one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Eastern Europe and remains deliciously unspoiled. Slowly, though, facilities for trekkers are increasing. The world-renowned Peaks of the Balkans long-distance hiking route crosses through the heart of these mountains, and throughout the area, hiking trails are becoming better way-marked.
Pristina is a fast-changing city that feels full of optimism and potential, even if its traffic-clogged streets and mismatched architectural styles don’t make it an obviously attractive place. While the city does have a couple of worthwhile museums and galleries, and serves as a base for interesting nearby sights, for most visitors Pristina is a place where the atmosphere is as much an attraction as any classic tourist sight.
Outside the crowded city centre, with its international restaurants and smart cafes, you’ll find yourself in the quaint Turkic hillside neighbourhoods that have defined the city for centuries, where the call to prayer still sounds from minarets overlooking the city’s terracotta roofs and where the bustling bazaar remains the focal point of daily life.
In a remote, forested spot beyond the village of Mramor, this sanctuary houses European brown bears that were rescued from captivity by the charity Four Paws. All the bears here were once kept in tiny cages as restaurant mascots, so although they’re hardly out free in the wilderness, the spacious, semiwooded enclosures of today are a million times better than the conditions they were once kept in. You can learn more about the bears at the impressive new visitor centre.
From Pristina, board any Gjilan-bound bus and ask to be let off by the Delfina gas station at the entrance to Mramor. From there, follow the road back past the lakeside, and then around to the right. It’s a 3km walk, and the gorgeous countryside and lake make a great spot for a picnic afterwards. Otherwise there’s a decent terrace restaurant within the sanctuary (mains around €5.50).