Kosovo probably doesn’t top the list of top places to go in Europe for many people. It is a rather obscure and unknown part of the continent where its primary claim to fame is the Kosovo wars of the 1990s. However, if you find yourself in this part of the Balkans, I would highly recommend stopping into the second newest country in the world. Nowadays, there are numerous direct flights from European capitals into Pristina making the country an easy weekend stopover for many.
I came here on a road trip around the South Balkans visiting Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. I actually tried coming to Kosovo awhile back as a long weekend trip from Frankfurt but the airline in question went bankrupt and the trip never came to fruition!
For the purpose of this post, I will go into detail about my experience traveling through Kosovo as well as how to plan your own itinerary. If you are planning to visit the nearby countries as well, make sure to read my South Balkans post in detail. If you are planning to visit Kosovo by itself or just want to see some pretty pictures of the country, then this post will be for you!
History of Kosovo
Normally I don’t write too much about histories of places I go. This subject can be much better articulated on Wikipedia and often times it just gets way too repetitive and a bit boring. This is normally because history centers itself around events that happened hundreds of years ago with wig wearing men. However, Kosovo which of course has interesting history largely tied to that of Albania, warrants discussion because it is its recent history that makes it so interesting.
Everyone over the age of 30 probably remembers something about the Kosovo wars in the 1990s. Even though I was barely a teenager, I remember it being on the news constantly. Kosovo was prat of Serbia during for most of the 20th century and was part of Yugoslavia. When all hell broke loose in the 1990s, Kosovo was also on edge as the majority of Kosovo is speaks Albanian, and is Muslim whereas Serbians speak a different language and are Orthodox.
Kosovo wanted to separate because that’s pretty much what everyone was doing and Serbia was not happy as I learned they saw Kosovo as an ancestral homeland, and crazy leaders just want to expand their empire. After the Bosnian genocide, things turned to Kosovo with Serbs on the verge of doing the same thing again in the late 1990s. The big powers that be saw what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda and said no more, and intervened in Kosovo much earlier. Although lots of people still died and war happened, the worst outcome was largely avoided. Much of the main cities were destroyed and a lot of what you see in Pristina is newly built.
Nowadays, the big issue is recognizing Kosovo as its own official country. If you look at Google Maps, Kosovo’s borders with Serbia are not a solid black line, but rather dashed. This is because many countries in the world still don’t recognize Kosovo’s claim for independence. Of course you can expect Serbia to refute this claim very strongly as well as countries like Russia and China. Most of the EU accepts Kosovo as its own country but there are detractors like Spain who doesn’t want to stir up more Catalonian independence sentiment than it already has.
Rent a car or take a bus?
Getting around Kosovo is quite easy. The country itself isn’t so big and the attractions you’re interested in are quite close to the capital. If you want to do a lot of hiking or drive into Albania or Macedonia next door, a car might be prudent. However, if you’re only in Kosovo for 3-4 days and are planning to only see the sights in Kosovo, there probably is no need.
There are regular bus connections that connect Pristina and Prizren and Peje. If these are the main places on your list, then I can recommend just taking a bus the entire way. You can get from Pristina to Prizren for €4 or so.
Where does this itinerary go?
Kosovo doesn’t have as many sights to see as other countries I’ve been to. You really need no more than a week in the country and I think 4-5 days is more than enough. I focused primarily on the three main cities of Kosovo in Pristina, Peje, and Prizren (the three Ps).
The distances between these places are short and with the beautiful new highways of Kosovo, you can get around quite quickly. Here is the map of where you will be going.
The capital of Kosovo, Pristina is a town with a small but growing population of just over 200,000 people. It’s likely where you will be starting off your trip.
Pristina was also much different than my expectations. Having gone through a heinous war only 25 years ago, I just figured the city would still be recovering from the effects of that. As Kosovo consists largely of Albanian people, I figured the city would be more grungy like Tirana.
However, I was mistaken. The city feels much more built up and modern than I figured. It was surprisingly clean and more orderly than other Balkan capitals, especially when compared to Tirana. The city isn’t very “charming” as far as European cities go. The old parts of town are almost non-existent and for a Muslim country, even the Mosques aren’t that grand here.
I only stayed here for a day so I didn’t get to explore it in detail but it also felt like there was slightly less character than the hip neighborhood of Blloku in Tirana for example or the remnants of its old town in comparison to Skopje.
Walk down Mother Teresa Boulevard
The Mother Teresa Boulevard is the main pedestrian street of Pristina and it is full of restaurants, hotels, and cafés. Walking under the pouring rain, we could only imagine how lively the terraces must be in summer and spring.
It is the best place to watch people and have one of the fabulous Kosovar coffee. It is definitely the place to observe local life.
The Mother Teresa Boulevard has some statues that represent great citizens of the past and other buildings that are essential to the Kosovar self-conception as a nation. Statues include the personalities of Mother Teresa, the most cherished saint in Kosovo and Ibrahim Rugova, first President of the young Kosovar nation.
Pristina free walking tour
I also took the free walking tour in Pristina which I can recommend. There really aren’t a whole lot of “must see” sights in Pristina as much of it was destroyed and most of the city is quite new.
However, what interested me in Pristina was not its medieval history but rather its modern history. I learned quite a great deal talking to my guide about the Kosovo war. Since it was so recent, anyone over the age of 30 remembers in great detail exactly what went down in the late 90s. He recounted how life was in those dark times which really put it in perspective, similar to my tour guide in Kiev talking about the revolution in 2014.
Some of the things that you must see (and will see on this tour) are the following:
- The Newborn Sign – As discussed already, Kosovo formerly declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The Newborn sign was created upon independence and was a symbol of the progress Kosovo has made. It’s a sign that’s become synonymous with the cit.
- The Bill Clinton Statue: If you’re American, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, you’ll want to visit this statue if not just for the pure entertainment value. Like him or hate him, Bill Clinton is one of the most respected figures in all of Kosovo because he was the President that orchestrated the intervention in the war. He has his own little statue and his own street in Pristina (and other parts of Kosovo) called Bulevardi Bill Klinton (with a K yes).
- Mother Theresa Street – this mostly pedestrian-only street is where the young students, schoolchildren, and gossiping old ladies hang out. Clothing shops, banks, and convenience stores line the streets. Street vendors here sell snacks and Yugoslavian-era souvenirs. It’s a great place to sit and people watch, and get a feel for what it’s like to be a local Kosovan!
- Visit the Church of Christ the Savior, which is an unfinished Orthodox Serbian Christian church, which was abandoned when the Kosovo War started. It was an unwelcome construction project that started when Serbs were trying to take over (take back?) Kosovo. The church was being built on the campus of the University of Pristina. Many Kosovans today want this building torn down.
- The National Library of Kosovo is probably the most famous building in Pristina. It’s certainly the most unique looking thing that you can find in Kosovo. It was created during Yugoslavian times and although most people found it quite ugly, it is now part of the University
- The Old Bazaar – This was a great place to be transported back in time. Here there were the usual market stands with fruits, vegetables, bags, shoes, and bags of grain and herbs. But further in the back there were tough-looking men selling electronics – old headphones, cassette players, bits and pieces of radios and televisions.
Eating and Drinking in Pristina
Kosovars love to party hard and you’ll find no shortage of nightlife in Pristina. People are out and about in full force all throughout the night in the main square as well as the Fehmi Agani street. As well, the food in Kosovo was the best I had on the trip. If you are looking for delicious grilled meats and crispy burek, you’ll get the best of both in Kosovo!
For cocktails, I’d highly recommend a visit to Soma which is an industrial looking building with a wood heavy interior design. They made the best cocktails I had in the Balkans.
Peje and the Rugova Valley
From Pristina, it’s an easy bus to get to the mountain town of Peje. Peje is the third biggest city in Kosovo and is set on the background of the beautiful Rugova mountain valley.
The city of Peja reflects the different styles which ruled Kosovo. The Serbs built some of the most important monasteries in the Orthodox church. Under the Ottoman rule, Peja took on a more oriental character with the construction of narrow streets, old-style Turkish houses, and mosques. There are even traces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th century with impressive buildings in the city center. Finally, you can also spot several massive socialist buildings and apartment blocks.
The main city center of Peje is a big Bazaar like neighborhood filled with shops and restaurants, similar to that of the one I saw in Skopje. I heard it gets quite lively here during summer months but it was not so much the case in early May. Nevertheless, the city enjoys a beautiful mountain backdrop.
The mountains here are beautiful. There is ample hiking to be done here as well as zip-lining. However, in this itinerary will be a visit to the Valbona and Theth mountain ranges in Albania. If you’re visiting Kosovo only, then definitely make it out to this part of the country. However, if you are going to Valbona, I would give Peje and Ragova a skip even if it is just for a half day. Instead, focus your energy on Prizren.
From Peje, you can simply just take a cab out to the valley for €15-20 for an hour or so.
Prizren is the old and traditional town of Kosovo. It was the capital during olden times before moving to Pristina. It’s a rather large town but with a small and historic old town where you will likely spend most of your time in.
The old town is picturesque and features a big mosque and an old Ottoman bridge that really reminds me of the Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a great place to take photos especially around sunset.
As for the old town, there really isn’t much to explore. It is quite tiny and you can walk from one end to the other in five minutes.
The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, and shisha lounges. At night, it turns into a huge party as it seems like the whole town descends into it. Mixed with tourists, and you are assured a big night out every night.
Hike to the fortress of Prizren
Sitting atop the hill overlooking Prizren town is the old fortress. It’s a quick 15 minute hike from the old town and is worth it for the panoramic views over the town. The fortress itself is very impressive. Built during Byzantine times, it was further developed during the Serbian and Ottoman empires. There is no entrance fee.
Along the way, you’ll pass through an old Serbian Orthodox church perched up on the hilltop overlooking the town. It’s an unfinished church which I’m sure was started sometime during the Yugoslavian times. I’m sure there is no shortage of debates about what to do with it among the Kosovars.
What to eat in Prizren
There are tons of restaurants in Prizren including countless Qebaptores (grill houses), Furra (bakeries), and bars. The best restaurant in town is without a doubt the restaurant at the Tiffany hotel. This restaurant serves very traditional oven baked Albanian dishes that I did not find anywhere else during my trip. Make sure to try the Elbasan lamb!
Prices in Kosovo are amount the cheapest I’ve ever seen in Europe. So cheap that I didn’t even bother with credit cards because it felt silly to pay a few euros with a credit card. An espresso at the trendy Gatsby bar next to the Bridge is €0.50 euros and a lunch of Qebapa is €2-3 euros.
Kosovo has some of the best burek in the Balkans so make sure to stop in at the Sarajevo Bakery in the old town right in the entrance. It’s unassuming but they make delicious meat and cheese bureks.
Continuing on After Kosovo
From Kosovo, it’s easy to continue on towards Albania or North Macedonia if you have extra time. I would recommend going from Prizren to the town of Shkoder in Albania to continue onwards to the famous Lake Koman Ferry where you will have the best mountain views of your life.
From there, it’s an easy bus ride to the Valbona National Park. There are daily buses that go from Prizren to Shkoder.
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