That Time I Ended Up Hitchhiking from Albania to Kosovo

As I stood on the side of a highway in Middle of Nowhere, Albania, waiting for the perfect moment to run across it, I thought to myself: so maybe I had gotten a bit cocky.

Everyone told me that public transit in Albania was a mess. I had just been bragging about how I didn’t find it that hard to get around in Albania. Sure, there’s no Googleable information, but all you have to do is ask any Albanian. Even if they don’t know, they won’t rest until they find someone that does.

The closest thing to a bus station I encountered in Albania... which is why hitchhiking in Albania is so huge
The closest thing to a bus station I encountered in Albania

I was in Shkodra, Albania, and my initial plan was to go to Lake Komani, take the ferry, and do the epic daylong hike from Valbona to Theth. I couldn’t have been more excited. But then the rain hit — and hit, and hit, and hit.

Conservative weather reports estimated four days of rain; more apocalyptic ones, eight. So clearly a 7-hour hike through the (yes, this is its actual name) Accursed Mountains (also known less menacingly as the Albanian Alps) was probably unwise.

The calm before the storm in Shkodra, Albania
The calm before the storm in Shkodra, Albania

So, as one does in the Balkans, I improvised. Together with an Australian couple, we asked the people who ran Wanderers Hostel for advice on where to go next, and we decided on heading to Prizren, Kosovo. The weather would still be crummy there, but less so, and with beautiful surroundings plus lots of cafés and museums.

Getting there, in theory, was simple enough: take the bus to Tirana, ask to be let off at Milot, then wait about an hour to catch the bus heading to Prizren. No problem.

Prizren seemed like the perfect place... We got there hitchhiking in Albania
Prizren seemed like the perfect place to while away some rainy days

Except that despite having told the bus driver multiple times we needed to get off in Milot, we found ourselves hurdling past the red pin I had dropped. By the time we finally managed to communicate that we needed to get off, we were about four kilometers away from where we needed to get the bus.

So, run across the highway we did, which sounds more dramatic than it was in theory, as we were able to stop in the middle and time things properly. We tried to flag down some cars, failed, then succeeded in flagging down a bus, who happily dropped us back in Milot town proper without charging us a single lek.

RELATED: 75 Reasons to Travel to Albania ASAP

So we waited at the “bus station” in Milot, and I use those air quotes with purpose, because in reality, we were just standing next to a dumpster in the middle of an open air market. We asked a woman if we’re in the right place, and after learning that yes we were, she proceeded to try to hand us generous fistfuls of the cake she was holding. But since the dumpster/squat toilet smell was churning all of our appetites, we declined politely, and she walked off looking only slightly wounded.

After waiting for a bit over an hour, we grew bored and restless. We decided, well, why not at least try to hitch? Hitchhiking in Albania is common and safer than it is basically anywhere in the world. The clouds which had been flexing their muscles ominously looked more inclined to pour down upon us by the minute, so we decided to make a sign. Finding a piece of cardboard laying next to the dumpster because, well, Albania, we took a Sharpie that my new Aussie friend had been smart enough to bring with him, wrote Prizren on it, and went for it.

I never thought of a Sharpie as a backpacking essential, but I do now.
I never thought of a Sharpie as a backpacking essential, but I do now.
Obviously the prettiest one of us should hold the sign!
Obviously the prettiest one of us should hold the sign! (sorry Luke, the honor goes to your girlfriend)

Not even ten minutes later, a car stopped for us: a gorgeous 1998 Audi with two young college-age guys in it. I spoke no more than five words of Albanian; these guys spoke a little English. After some halting communication, we were able to ascertain that they’re going to Kukës, a town on the Albania-Kosovo border. We decided that that was better than nothing — at least we’d be closer to Kosovo, where it’d be easier to hitch or bus the rest of the way there.

The rumors about Albanians are true: they drive like maniacs. The driver, a muscular twenty-something guy studying law, remarked proudly that it only takes him one hour to drive the 150 kilometers from Kukës to Tirana. He regularly drifted into the other lane to overtake slower cars, skillfully but terrifyingly maneuvering the car. After many white-knuckled miles, he asked if it’s okay to stop for a cigarette break. Happy for a break, we said of course, and they pulled over.

This is more like what an Albanian bus station looks like.
Perfect place for a bus station… if you’re in Albania

Here comes into play the other rumor about Albanians: they are insanely hospitable. Things got momentarily heated when they insisted on buying us all sodas, despite our protestations that we wanted to buy them drinks. They shared a delicious cornbread-style cake topped in cheese, cucumber, and tomatoes they had bought in Milot. We each took a piece, and then they passed it around yet again, insisting we take more. I won their favor by happily taking another piece.

We continued on, passing through beautiful mountains draped in fog. Mercifully, he slowed the car down to a responsible speed as we made our curving path through what felt like clouds. We arrived in Kukës and quickly passed it. A sick feeling hit my stomach for a moment as I glanced at the blue dot quickly leaving the town I thought we were getting dropped off in. We began to murmur.

Noticing our quiet nerviness, the driver turned around to say “we take you all the way.” And we’re all floored. These guys not only picked us up, bought us sodas, and fed us — now they’re willing to cross an international boundary and travel 40 minutes out of their way, just to make sure we get to our destination? We emitted a flurry of thank yous and faleminderits, and the guys drove on, chatting to one another in Albanian as we marveled in the backseat at our luck.

We got to Prizren after starting hitchhiking in Albania
Beautiful Prizren, Kosovo!

They dropped us off right in the center, and we tried to insist on buying them coffee or a beer before they drove back to Albania. They rebuffed every offer we made, accepting only a firm handshake in return, and drove off into the rainy mist.

21 Awesome Things to Do in Kosovo, Europe’s Newest Country

People don’t know much about Kosovo, let alone visit Kosovo – in fact, one of the most commonly Googled things about it is “where is Kosovo?” (hint: it’s in Europe). Those that do know about Kosovo 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 Kosovo 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, as it’s counterproductive to what I’m trying to do: to prove that Kosovo is not a dangerous, conflict-riddled place. While I won’t deny there are problems that still need to be worked out, these involve communities within Kosovo and Serbia — not tourists. As a tourist, you’ll have no problems if you visit Kosovo today.

Kosovo’s primary language is Albanian due to the fact that most people from Kosovo are ethnically Albanian. There is a large Serb ethnic minority, who speak Serbian as their first language. English is pretty widely spoken by the younger population (and half the country is under 25!). I had no trouble being understood in my eight days traveling Kosovo. So without further ado, enjoy this quick Kosovo travel guide – and feel free to ask me any questions in the comments.

21 of the top things to do in Kosovo – Pristina and beyond

For the few travelers who do visit Kosovo, there’s a tendency to visit Kosovo’s capital, Pristina (also written Prishtina in Albanian language – I’ve used the two interchangeably here) and then move on, skipping Kosovo destinations like Prizren and Peja. 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 are so many things to do in Kosovo, it’s hard to know where to start, but here are some of the best Kosovo travel destinations and experiences you should add to your bucket list!

1. Visit one of the country’s beautiful mosques

The gorgeous main mosque in Prizren, Kosovo

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 Kosovo’s capital, 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!

2. 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 that year’s theme.

When I visited in 2016, 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. An odd but important Kosovo tourist attraction.

The Newborn nonument, unveiled in 2008 upon declaring independence
The Newborn nonument, unveiled in 2008 upon declaring independence

3. 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, another very famous Kosovo attraction. 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

visit clinton's statue - things to do in Kosovo
Rock on, Bill.

4. Absorb the coffee culture

All over the Balkans, coffee culture is huge. Kosovo 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 my time visiting 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.

enjoy coffee - things to do in Kosovo
Make like the locals and enjoy some coffee and the view!

5. 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!

If you’re in need of a boost, Prince Coffee is basically the Starbucks of Kosovo. 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, all for under 2 euros (most closer to 1!). Of all the things to do in Kosovo, this may be the most delicious.

Three for me....
Three for me….

6. Check out the hostel scene

Not many backpackers travel Kosovo. It takes an intrepid and curious spirit to visit a country that there is so little information about. As I was traveling solo through Kosovo, I opted to stay in hostels – even though the hotels and Airbnbs were so cheap – just to meet other travelers. And good thing, too — I met so many amazing travelers who I really connected with.

In Prishtina, I stayed at Buffalo Backpackers and loved it — the people were incredible with advice about what to see in Kosovo and it was just the right kind of social where you could sleep easily or go hang out with everyone outside by the nightly campfire. They also arranged some day trips to places that would have been difficult to get to independently. You can also check out Han Hostel instead, which I also heard great things about. Buffalo is a little more party (though still mellow), Han is a little more upscale and boutique, so pick what suits you.

 

In Prizren and Peja, you’ll be a little less spoiled for choice. I stayed at Driza’s House in Prizren, which is one of the most beautiful places in Kosovo, and absolutely loved it. While a little more expensive than most hostels in the region, it offered a delicious free breakfast and free coffee plus the cutest puppy ever — Nano — although sadly he’s fully grown now! As of the time of writing, Peja only has one hostel – Hostel Sarac – and it is excellent as well.

7. Copy the locals and take a nightly xhiro

Kosovo isn’t exactly known for its tourist spots or “top 10s”, so some of the best things to do in this country are just people watch and experience the culture the way the locals do.

The xhiro, confusingly pronounced the same way some people say “gyro”, is the Albanian word for the nightly stroll Kosovar people take through the main pedestrian plaza of whatever town or city in Kosovo you happen to be in. It’s great to stroll there or grab a seat at a cafe and people watch.

8. 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. Definitely one of the quirkiest points of interest in Kosovo.

visit the national library - things to do in Kosovo
Interesting or terrifying? Your call.

9. 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 Kosovo tourism since it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Tourism in Kosovo is not that big – 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?” when visiting Kosovo. They don’t mean it in an aggressive or foreboding way; they are genuinely curious why you have chosen to travel to Kosovo!

talk with locals - things to do in Kosovo
The aforementioned adorably enthusiastic Kosovar men checking their photo in Prishtina

10. Visit the fortress in Prizren

Prizren is definitely one of the most picturesque places to visit 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. Definitely one of the best tourist attractions in Kosovo.

views over prizren - things to do in Kosovo
Prizren is beautiful, even on a cloudy, drizzly day

 

11. 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. Kosovo nightlife is pretty much limited to Prishtina – you won’t find that much in the way of bars or clubs in other smaller cities.

A live blues show on Saturday night in Prishtina
A live blues show on Saturday night in Prishtina

12. Drink as much rakia as you can handle

Rakia (or rakija) is a way of life in the Balkans and a pretty much unavoidable part of Kosovo travel. Some hardcore Kosovar 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!)

13. 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 – a true Kovoso must-see. Of all the things I saw in my week visiting the country, I’d say that hands down the Peć Patriarchate is one of the best places to visit in Kosovo.

The gorgeous red monastery in Peja
The gorgeous red monastery in Peja

14. 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.

meat - things to do in Kosovo
A well-rounded meal

15. Or indulge in surprisingly good Asian food

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 Kosovo 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.

16. Go caving in Peja

Give it time and Peja will become the adventure hotspot of Kosovo’s tourism sector. The nearby Rugova Canyon is gorge-ous (pardon the pun) and there’s plenty of fun adventures to be had there.

Explore the crystals, stalactites and stalagmites while searching for underwater waterfalls and lakes in this cave that was only discovered in 1990! While this excursion would cost you a fortune elsewhere, when you travel to Kosovo, you can get a day trip for an incredibly cheap price here — check today’s cave tour prices.

17. 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. If you’re an animal lover, this is a definite must see in Kosovo. They have tons of space to roam free,

The bears have tons of space to roam free, high quality food, and they enjoy taking only-slightly-menacing walks around the perimeter with visitors. One of the more unique places to visit in Kosovo!

As adorable as he is terrifying, but at least he's happy!
As adorable as he is terrifying, but at least he’s happy!

18. 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.

Cows hangin' on a fortress, just as they should be.
Cows hangin’ on a fortress, just as they should be.

19. 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! A must if you visit Kosovo.

Visit a little slice of the past in Prishtina
Visit a little slice of the past in Prishtina

20. 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!

The bazaar in the Old Town of Prishtina
The bazaar in the Old Town of Prishtina

21. Admire Kosovo’s mountains

Kosovo’s terrain is mountainous and lovely, with tons of potential for hiking. Unfortunately, because Kosovo 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 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.

That’s why even though I’m a very independent-minded traveler, I prefer to travel with a guide. Luckily, guided tours of Rugova are quite cheap and can be booked online – check the lowest prices here.

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, which is why it’s often best to go with a tour.

Tip: Make sure that you travel with travel insurance when in Kosovo. It’s a safe country, but lack of infrastructure means you want to be extra careful. I use the World Nomads Explorer Plan to cover me from anything from diving to mountain trekking to caving at affordable prices. Get a free rate here

Where to Stay in Kosovo

Prishtina: For those on a budget, I stayed at and recommend Buffalo Backpackers. However, Han Hostel is also highly recommended and is in a more central location. For a luxury option, check out Swiss Diamond Prishtina.

Prizren: Prizren has a few good hostel options, but I wouldn’t stay anywhere but Driza’s House – the staff is so lovely and the hostel is modern and comfortable. For a mid-range option, try Hotel Kacinari

Peja: In terms of hostels, Hostel Sarac is your only option as far as I know. For a mid-range/luxury option, check out Hotel Dukagjini — bonus that their restaurant is amazing and serves some of the best food in Peja!

things to do in Kosovo
These views are walking distance from downtown Peja!

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Kosovo only officially declared its independence in 2008, making it the youngest country in Europe and second youngest in the world. It may be a tiny, landlocked country, but there are so many amazing things to do in Kosovo. Here are just 21 ideas!

 

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