The Balkans is such a diverse concept that changes it’s meaning when you put it in different geographical, historical or political concept. Travelers visiting the southeastern Europe are often confused by the large number of nations living here and the complex relations between them. As local experts, we have put together a complete list of Balkan countries to end the confusion once and for all.
HOW DID THE BALKAN PENINSULA GOT ITS NAME?
First thing’s first. The concept of the Balkan Peninsula was created by the German geographer August Zeune in 1808, who mistakenly considered the Balkan Mountains the dominant mountain range of Southeast Europe spanning from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. Today we know that is not the case and the that Balkan Mountains “only” stretch from the Serbian–Bulgarian border throughout the whole of Bulgaria to the Black Sea coast (check out the map below). In Bulgarian, the archaic word balkan was borrowed from Turkish and means “mountain” which may have ultimately derived from the Persian bālkāneh or bālākhāna, meaning “high” or “above”. Now you know.
BORDERS OF THE BALKAN PENISNULA
The Balkan peninsula is a complicated area and so are its borders. At least the northern one. Most geographers agree that the border runs from the Black Sea along the river Danube to Belgrade (in Serbia) and from there along the river Sava to Slovenia. That is where things get tricky. Some agree that the border runs from Sava along the Kolpa River, which represent the natural border between Slovenia and Croatia; meaning Slovenia is geographically completely cut off from the peninsula. Other draw the line along the Soča River on Italian border, as seen on the right.
Other borders are not disputed and run along the coastline of the Adriatic (to the west), Black (to the east), Aegean and Ionian Sea (to the south).
According to these borders we have seven Balkan countries that lie on the peninsula 100%, but when we count all the political and cultural factors, the number expands to ten, eleven or even twelve. Confused? Keep reading.
Map source: www.sovereignlimits.com
Check out the complete list of the Balkan countries
Let’s start from the north, although Slovenia has never been keen on being associated with other Balkan countries in the first place. This little nation on the border with Italy and Austria has been historically more connected to Central Europe since it was long part of the Habsburg Empire. After WWI Slovenia found itself in the company of other South Slavic nations which formed the new country of Yugoslavia. However since the break-up in 1991, Slovenia quickly re-reconnected with the West and became the first former Yugoslav state to enter the EU. As you can read above, Slovenia might not even be part of the Balkan peninsula in geographical terms, at least not entirely. However, no one can deny its historical and cultural ties to this area. Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, Slovenia is incredibly diverse, as is lies right on a crossroads of four geographical terrains.
|Area: 20,271 sq km||Capital: Ljubljana|
|Population: 2,095,861 (2020)||Currency: Euro|
Like Slovenia, Croatia too has been trying to make it on its own since the collapse of the Yugoslavia in 1991. And – not surprisingly – is doing pretty well at it. Croatia’s most important feature is the long and gorgeous Adriatic coastline which proved to be the key in establishing a massive tourist industry welcoming 20 million guests per year. That is quite an achievement for a nation of only four million people. In the past, Croatia hosted mostly summer holidaymakers from Central and Eastern Europe, but in recent years it became a prime tourist destination offering high-end services for more demanding visitors from all over the world. It is no secret that Hollywood stars and first-class football players like to spend their summer vacation in Dubrovnik or Hvar. But Croatia is more than just its islands and beaches. It has numerous charming historic towns and great nature protected by no less than eight national parks.
|Area: 56,594 sq km||Capital: Zagreb|
|Population: 4,058,165 (2020)||Currency: Kuna|
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
Bosnia and Herzegovina might be the vey first of the Balkan countries you think about. Unfortunately, even to this day its name still brings negative connotation to the foreground, as the country was the epicenter of the gory Yugoslav Wars which led to the break-up of Yugoslavia. One of the reasons for the terrible outcome lies in the incredible ethical diversity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its three main national and religious minorities lived in peace with one another since the establishment of the common country, but things got messy after the rise of nationalism. The war didn’t bring any major solutions, but it seems that Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Ortodox Christians), and Croats (Catholics) found common grounds and a way to coexist in the otherwise fascination country full of fresh water supplies, high mountain ridges and delicious gastronomy. Bosnia should definitely be on your travel wish-list if you are looking for authentic experiences.
|Area: 51,129 sq km||Capital: Sarajevo|
|Population: 3,301,000 (2019)||Currency: Convertible mark|
The Balkans are unique and authentic region to visit
Just like Slovenia, Montenegro too is recognized for being small, but at the same time incredible diverse. Most people appreciate Montenegro for its Adriatic coast with spectacular beaches of white pebbles and azure waters, elegant Venetian towns of Kotor and Perast, extravagant places such is the ex-fishing-village-island-turned-into-a-luxurious-hotel at Sveti Stefan and of course the tourist mega-center of Budva. But there is also another part of this Balkan country – the rugged mountains that scratch from the coast inland and provide amazing landscape full of hiking opportunities, crystal-clear lakes, divine rivers and incredible historical sites such are the Ostrog Monastery or the mausoleum of king Petar. Those of you deciding to visit Montenegro, will quickly find out there is something for everyone in this tiny Balkan country just waiting to be discovered. Hurry up, before the secret gets out!
|Area: 13,812 sq km||Capital: Podgorica|
|Population: 622,359 (2018)||Currency: Euro|
Once the most influential of all the republics in the old Yugoslavia, Serbia found itself somewhat isolated after the gory war, especially after the horrific NATO bombing of its capital Belgrade in 1999. The international community forced the Serbian government to pull their military from the neighboring Kosovo which finally brought peace to the Balkans. There are still tensions regarding the independence of Kosovo which Serbia is not recognizing, but in recent years this Balkan country started reconnecting with the world and is making big steps towards joining the European Union. Despite being an underdog when talking about traveling to the Balkans, visiting Serbia can be an authentic experience. It is especially popular with young travelers, as Belgrade is often nicknamed the party capital of the Balkans and Exit festival in Novi Sad was named best of its kind in the whole of Europe.
|Area: 77,474 sq km||Capital: Belgrade|
|Population: 6,963,764 (2019)||Currency: Dinar|
Welcome to the youngest country not only in the Balkans, but in the whole of Europe! Its status is still disputed and Kosovo is only recognized by a rough half of the UN member states. However, since its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, this tiny country in the heart of the Balkan peninsula has come a long way and is developing rapidly, mainly due to the considerable support from the international community, especially the EU. For those of you, unaware of the relations between the nations, let us explain that population of Kosovo mainly consist of Albanians (88%) and Serbs (7%). If you take a walk through the vivid streets of Priština – the newest addition to the list of Balkan capitals – you can feel the excitement and hope for the brighter future. That said, Kosovo is definitely one of the most authentic and off-the-beaten-path places to visit in the Balkans.
|Area: 10,887 sq km||Capital: Priština|
|Population: 1,873,160 (2020)||Currency: Euro|
Which of the Balkan countries would you like to visit the most?
Until recently simply known as Macedonia, this small landlock country in the Balkan peninsula changed its name to North Macedonia in February 2019 after reaching an agreement with the neighboring Greece. The dispute has been dragging on since the country’s independence in 1991 when it separated from Yugoslavia. In a nutshell: Macedonia is also the name of the Greek region boarding the state of North Macedonia and Greece was afraid their neighbors to the north might get unjustified territorial aspirations sometime in the future if the problem is not solved soon. That is why Greece was blocking Macedonians from entering the European Union and NATO until they renamed their country. However, there is another diplomacy war going on with Bulgaria who claims that Macedonian language is just a dialect of the Bulgarian. Yes, it seems there is always something going on in the Balkans.
|Area: 25,713 sq km||Capital: Skopje|
|Population: 2,077,132 (2019)||Currency: Denar|
Now it’s time to move to Albania, which unlike the seven Balkan countries mention above, was never part of Yugoslavia. instead, Albanians found themselves under the harsh communist regime of Enver Hoxha who came to power after WWII. During his rule, Albania was virtually cut from the rest of the world and influences of those politics are still very much visible today. The long isolation made travelling to Albania a unique experience as this Balkan nation can be considered “North Korea of Europe”. Especially interesting are the numerous bunkers built by Hoxha and can be found all over the country. Among the natural sights worth checking out is the gorgeous Ionian coastline and the three great Balkan lakes, all partly owned by Albania: Skadar, Ohrid and Prespa. It is worth noting that Albanians are not Slavic as most of the nations in the Balkans, and their language is much different that any other in the region.
|Area: 28,748 sq km||Capital: Tirana|
|Population: 2,845,955 (2020)||Currency: Lek|
Despite being part of the South Slavic family and speaking a very similar language than Macedonians, Bulgarians were not part of the Yugoslavia. Their genes are a mix of three ethnic elements which include Thracians (a native ancient Balkan Indo-European culture), Slavs (which migrated from North-East Europe into the Balkans in the 6th century) and Bulgars (a semi-nomadic conglomerate of tribes from Central Asia who arrived in the 7th century). Their cultural influence on other Slavic nations is especially evident through the introduction of Cyrillic script developed in the time of the Bulgarian Empire before it fell under Byzantine and later Ottoman rule.
Fun fact: the highest mountain of the Balkans (Musala, 2925 m) is located in Bulgaria.
|Area: 110,993 sq km||Capital: Sofia|
|Population: 6,951,482 (2019)||Currency: Lev|
Explore the incredible diversity of the Balkans with local experts
Despite sitting on the very south of the Balkan peninsula and being entirely part of this geographical concept, Greece is sometimes taken out of the group of the Balkan countries. As “cradle of the western civilization” this Mediterranean country has stronger ties with the West and has joined the European community back in 1981 when other Balkan nations were still living in socialism or communism.
Nowadays, Greece with its ancient temples and numerous islands is a tourism powerhouse. Visitors from all over the world flock here to enjoy the turquoise waters of the Aegean and Ionian Sea, rent a private gulet for a week, or take a luxury cruise among the Greek islands. There are several options, among others we offer one-way cruise from Athens to Dubrovnik (and vice versa).
|Area: 131,957 sq km||Capital: Athens|
|Population: 10,724,599 (2019)||Currency: Euro|
As successor to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey played an important role in shaping the Balkans for centuries. They brought Islam to the region and Slavic Muslims are still found in Bosnia and Herzegovina, southern Serbia, south-west Bulgaria and North Macedonia. However, only one part of Turkey is considered do be geographically part of the Balkan peninsula – the so-called Eastern Thrace stretching from Bosporus to the border with Greece and Bulgaria. The region accounts for 3% of Turkey’s land area but comprises 14% of its total population. It also includes a large chunk of Istanbul, with almost 9 million inhabitants living on the European side making it by far the largest city in the Balkans.
The area and population information below apply to East Thrace only, not to the whole Turkey.
|Area: 23,764 sq km||Capital: Ankara|
|Population: 10,620,739 (2021)||Currency: Lira|
If you take a look at the map of the Balkan countries at the top of this page, you will notice that Romania lies on the northern bank of the Danube River and therefore is not part of the Balkan peninsula; at least not in a geographical way. However, we believe that since its historical and cultural ties with this region are very strong, Romania deserves at least a honorable mention on our list of the Balkan countries.
Travelers visiting Romania often do it in a combination with Bulgaria and consider them to be sister states. However, they are much more different that one might think. Romanians belong to Romance ethnic and language group (similar to Italian and Spanish), while Bulgarians are a Slavic nation. They do share religion (Orthodox Christianity) and they joined the EU at the same time in 2007.
|Area: 238,397 sq km||Capital: Bucharest|
|Population: 19,317,984 (2020)||Currency: Leu|
Did we get you exited about travelling to the Balkans? As local experts we will be more than glad to invite you to this amazingly diverse region. Send us an email at ➨ email@example.com and our knowledgeable agents will help you put together an unforgettable tailor-made itinerary full of unique travel experiences. Trust us, personalized private trips to the Balkans are our specialty. We are the locales and we know all the secrets.
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