People don’t know much about Kosovo. Those that do probably have no idea about all the great things there are to do in Kosovo. Maybe they remember how NATO came to its aid in the 1998-99 civil war, or maybe they remember faintly hearing about the continued conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. Today, the dust has settled, and while resentments can still run high, Kosovo is not dangerous. But it’s much more than that. Kosovo is a gem of a country… and yes, I consider it a country. You should be aware that many countries in the world, particularly Serbia but also Russia and other countries within the Balkans, view it as a part of Serbia has that seceded illegally.
However, I stand behind Kosovo’s right to independence. As such, I have decided that comments negating its existence as a country will not be published. Another thing you should know is that the majority people of Kosovo identify as ethnically Albanian, and Albanian is the primary language of the country, followed by Serbian. English is pretty widely spoken, and I had no troubles being understood in my eight days traveling throughout the country.
For the few travelers who do visit Kosovo, there’s a tendency to visit Prishtina and then move on. I urge you to look beyond. Prishtina is fun and modern, and though I thought I’d be there only two nights, I ended up having so much fun that I extended my stay to four. But I also loved the beautiful Ottoman architecture of Prizren and the stunning mountain scenery of Peja. There’s so many things to do in Kosovo, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are some of the experiences I think everyone who visits Kosovo should have.
21 of the best things to do in Kosovo:
Visit one of the country’s beautiful mosques
Kosovo is a majority Muslim country, although you should note that it is a very secular society. While you will see some women wearing hijab and dressing modestly, most women prefer to dress in Western styles of clothing. Kosovo has many lovely mosques that are very welcoming to outsiders. In fact, in Prishtina, a group of four men all but pulled us into the mosque to visit – and then insisted on us taking photos of them afterwards.
Pay homage to its newness at the Newborn monument
Kosovo only officially gained its independence in 2008, making it the youngest country in Europe. The Newborn monument in downtown Prishtina was created in honor of that moment. Every year on the country’s anniversary, they repaint it in a different style representing a theme. When I visited this year, the monument was painted blue with clouds and barbed wire, which is said to symbolize its isolation within Europe due to the continued conflict with Serbia.
Air high five Bill Clinton’s enormous hands
OK, you can’t really high five Bill, as the monument is quite huge, but it’s definitely worth a visit. Kosovo feels a kinship with Bill Clinton, who came to their aid and rallied NATO to defend them in 1999, and he is memorialized in downtown Prishtina, just a short walk from the Newborn monument. You can also visit the nearby women’s clothing story called – what else? – Hillary, where I’m certain you can buy a sickass pantsuit.
I should note that I tried to troll Donald Trump with a photo of Bill Clinton’s giant hands, tagging him and hashtagging #shortfingeredvulgarian, but since I have like zero followers on Twitter no one cared. #sadness #whyme
Absorb the coffee culture
All over the Balkans, coffee culture is huge. People often sit for an hour over a single espresso or cappuccino, chatting with friends. One thing I loved is how older people maintain strong connections and friendships. All over Kosovo – especially in Prizren – I saw older men in their 60s and 70s drinking coffee in groups of three or four. The older generation there has such a great sense of camaraderie and connection that I think we lack in North America and Western Europe. Maybe it’s a result of living through so much duress and wartime, but if so, good coping skills.
Check out the cafes and bars on the sidestreets of Prishtina
Raki Street is one of the small streets just to the right of Nene Tereze Boulevard. There, you’ll find better cafes and bars than on the main street, which is where lots of locals go to hang. This was one of my favorite things to do in Kosovo!
Eat 60 cent macarons at Prince Coffee
Do I really need to get into detail about this? Prince Coffee is basically the Starbucks of Kosovo, and in addition to a wide variety of espresso drinks and teas, they also offer the most epic dessert list of all time. Top billing? Macarons which can be had for only 60 cents apiece! They also have Snickers cake, cheesecake, tres leches cake….. basically all that is good and holy in this world. Of all the things to do in Kosovo, this may be the most delicious.
Copy the locals and take a nightly xhiro
The xhiro, confusing pronounced the same way some people say “gyro”, is the Albanian word for the nightly stroll people take through the main pedestrian plaza of whatever town or city you happen to be in. It’s great to stroll there or grab a seat at a cafe and people watch.
Visit one of the world’s “ugliest buildings”
The poor National Library of Kosovo gets quite a lot of flak. It’s certainly not pretty, but I think it’s quite interesting, and maybe not worthy of being on the shortlist for world’s ugliest building.
Talk with the locals
The locals are so incredibly friendly, and they love to talk with outsiders, especially Americans. Most Kosovars are used to Peace Corps volunteers and people from the UN or NGOs living or working in their countries, but they’re a bit perplexed by tourism since it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Tourism is not really that big in Kosovo – there are only six or seven hostels in the whole country, and I stayed at three of them! Don’t be surprised if people ask you “why are you here?” They don’t mean it in an aggressive or foreboding way; they are genuinely curious.
Visit the fortress in Prizren
Prizren is the most picturesque city in Kosovo, with its gorgeous Ottoman-influenced architecture. For the best view, you’ve got to make your way up to the fortress (kalaja) in Prizren, which is free to enter. You’ll enjoy stunning views of red-tiled roofs, minarets, and the Bistrica River that runs through the city.
Experience Prishtina’s nightlife
I didn’t think Prishtina would be as fun as it was, but it was a blast. There’s a lot of fun things to do in Prishtina going on all the time, a lot of it free! I got to see a free ballet performance of Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre, a blues show at Soma (the classiest bar in Kosovo), and a hip hop night at Dit e Nat (the best brunch place in Kosovo). There are also plenty of clubs in Prishtina if that’s your scene.
Drink as much rakia as you can handle
Rakia (or rakija) is a way of life in the Balkans. Some hardcore people even have it in the morning, claiming it kills the bacteria in your stomach. While I certainly believe that (as certain raki have more in common with nail polish remover than any of their fruity origins), I don’t think I’ll be having any rakia with my toast anytime soon. That said, into the night, rakia is the drink of choice. I tried a delicious homemade pear rakia at Dit E Nat that was actually quite pleasant to sip (note that you sip, not shoot, rakia!)
Visit a Serbian Orthodox Church
The Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo are beautiful and historic. Unfortunately, Albanian extremists have regularly tried to vandalize or even destroy these churches due to the conflict. As a result, NATO and local police forces guard many of the churches. At the Peć Patriarchate in Peja (the Albanian word for the town, which is also called Peć in Serbian language), you have to register your passport with the police to be able to enter. It may seem extreme, but it’s worth it to see the incredible beauty of the monastery.
Eat at a qebabtore
Like the rest of the Balkans, Kosovars love their meat, and they love it grilled. My favorite qebabtore (barbecue restaurant, similar to a rostilj in the rest of the Balkans) was in Prizren, at a restaurant called Alhambra. There, you can get an epically large mixed meat plate for a mere 6 euros – plenty for two. Definitely one of the best things to do in Kosovo…. as long as you’re not a vegetarian.
Squee at the Bear Sanctuary
All over the Balkans, bears were kept in cages as entertainment at restaurants. Luckily this practice is now illegal and falling out of favor, and this sanctuary is providing homes in a natural environment to many rescued bears from the region. They have tons of space to roam free, high quality food, and they enjoy taking only-slightly-menacing walks around the perimeter with visitors.
Take a break from grilled meat
If you’ve been traveling the Balkans as long as I have been, you’re probably growing tired of grilled meat. Luckily Prishtina has some delicious international cuisines! There is a Thai restaurant which, pulling no punches, is simply called Thai Restaurant which serves surprisingly legit curries (the noodles dishes, less so). Just across the street, on the second floor of a shopping center, Himalayan Gorka churns out some fantastic Nepali momos, Himalayan curries, and Indian favorites like butter chicken. All are a little pricier than local food, but at under 10 euros a head including drinks, in the throes of serious AFWS (Asian food withdrawal syndrome), it was well worth it.
See the rural countryside
The modern city of Prishtina turns into rural rolling hills quite quickly. You’ll see farmers herding goats and sheep and cows hanging out on abandoned fortresses, such as Novo Brdo. It’s a fascinating contrast and an insight into the fact that Kosovo is a country still modernizing at its own pace.
Visit ancient Roman ruins of Ulpiana
Didn’t know Kosovo had ancient Roman ruins? Yeah, me neither! Just outside of Prishtina, there are some ruins that you’re welcome to visit for free. There’s not a ton of information about them, but they’re fascinating to see nonetheless.
Visit the anthropology museum in Prishtina
This museum is free to all and includes a personal guided tour, often by the curator himself. It’s a great insight into Albanian Kosovars traditional way of life. You get to see what traditional homes looked like, plus you can see wedding dresses, traditional jewelry, and many other fascinating things!
Shop at a traditional bazaar
Need something? Anything? The bazaar will probably have your back. You can buy produce on the cheap, or if you need a deck of cards, hair dryer, iron, whatever, you can probably get that there too
Admire Kosovo’s mountains
Kosovo’s terrain is mountainous and lovely, with tons of potential for hiking. Unfortunately, because the tourism infrastructure is just beginning, it can be a bit difficult to plan hiking trips. There are sometimes buses from Peja bringing you to Rugova Canyon, but they don’t always run. You may be left paying for a pricy taxi or having to hitch (luckily, hitchhiking in Kosovo is commonplace and fairly safe). To see the mountains properly, it may be better to take an organized tour. Be aware that there are still unexploded land mines throughout Kosovo (as with most of the Balkans) so it’s inadvisable to hike off the path.