We finally made it to Kosovo! Not only is it the youngest country in Europe, it was the last one on our list to visit. Of course, we’ve explored the Balkans on a few occasions, such as our Eastern Europe by Rail Adventure, and again on a road trip along the Adriatic Coast. However, we never made it into Kosovo. That all changed when we booked a cheap flight on Adria Airways out of Munich direct into Pristina. While we would have preferred a longer vacation, we enjoyed our weekend exploring the capital, Pristina, along with a few places outside the city. As one of Europe’s newer countries, it still seems to be finding its way and reminded us of places like Macedonia and Moldova. Although we had some doubts about the tourism infrastructure in Kosovo, we found it to be ready and open for business.
Travel to Kosovo
Once we had our air tickets booked, we started planning our time. Normally we don’t like to cram too much into a day of touring, but we knew we had to be as efficient as possible with only two full days in the country. We were pleasantly surprised when we started looking for what to do in Kosovo. There are UNESCO World Heritage Sights, mountain top fortresses, Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, and even a bear sanctuary. It is possible to get around using local transportation or hire a taxi for the day, but we always prefer the independence and convenience of having our own car. Renting a car was the right choice for us, especially since we knew we wanted to see more than Pristina. Driving was very easy, and it gave us access to the few other things we really wanted to do, like visit those world heritage monasteries.
Kosovo 2 Day Itinerary
Our flight landed at midnight on Friday night. Not really any time for much more than getting to the hotel, checking in, and getting to bed. Late arrivals are never fun, and in most smaller countries, can make for some added challenges. For this reason, we arranged for airport transportation with our hotel. Our taxi was waiting for us at the nearly deserted airport and soon we were speeding into the city. The hotel was dark when we arrived, but, no worries, the desk clerk was expecting us and we were in bed and asleep in no time.
Map of Our Route
Day 1 – Prizren and Peja
Waking up on Saturday morning, we knew we had a lot on our plates but we were determined to get out of the city to some of the further destinations. This would be our driving day, so after a quick breakfast in the hotel (typical Balkan with tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, and bread) we walked down to the rental car office at 9:00 AM, and we immediately set out for Prizren which we’d heard was a fantastic place to visit. Driving in Pristina was easy with good traffic signs, well maintained roads, and light traffic on a Saturday morning. Soon we were driving through the outskirts, past flashy new supermarkets and car dealers, and cruising down the R7 Autostrada heading southwest to Prizren (about a 1.5 hour drive).
What to See in Prizren
We knew we had to make our way to the old town, but found very few signs directing the way. Google maps would have led us right up to the fortress we had plugged in as our destination, if the final stretch hadn’t actually been a hiking trail. Instead we started looking for parking along the river, with no luck. Finally, we found a parking spot right in the middle of town at the Hotel Theranda. We paid the parking attendant about two dollars, stopped in the hotel for a bathroom break and then walked over the Bistrica River stone bridge, and into the old town. It’s a very small area with several restaurants, local handicraft shopping, tea houses, and hotels jumbled into warren of cobblestone streets with large leafy green trees.
Plan for two or three hours in Prizren as part of your two day Kosovo itinerary. This allows for strolling through the shops, walking up the steep trail to the fortress, taking in the important historical sights, enjoying a lunch of local specialties, and even a ride on the tourist train. We visited the Sinan Pasha Mosque, the Emin Pasha Mosque, the Cathedral of our Lady of Perpetual Succour, the shopping street, and took the short, but entertaining tourist train on its 20 minute run. We also ate a fantastic lunch, dining al fresco, at the Besimi-Beska where we enjoyed some lamb kebabs and salads, finished off with some cay (tea) before getting back on the road to go to Peja.
Next Stop – The Patriarchate of Peć, World Heritage in Kosovo
Back in the rental, we backtracked a little up Kosovo highway R7 to the M9 and then further west to the small town of Peja. We still had plenty of daylight left in our day trip from Pristina and were confident we could easily find the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Patriarchate of Peć, just outside of the city. Here we did find clear and obvious traffic signs leading us through the city towards the stunning mountain backdrop and the beautiful Rugova river gorge.
Our map app showed where the monastery should have been, but as we drove slowly past all we saw was a tall stone wall with one military checkpoint gate. We drove past the complex once, then turned around to investigate. We turned back after a short drive along the river, convinced the monastery must have been behind the stone wall. Pulling up to the armed guards at the gate was a little scary, but they merely asked us why we were there, checked our passports, and then raised the gate.
We parked the car in the large lot outside the complex and had a chat with the security guard. He was also curious about where we came from, why we came to Peja, and would have kept us there talking for even longer if another group hadn’t pulled up and diverted his attention. He seemed bored but friendly, and his interaction with us told us more than anything else we’d encountered about the current state of things. As a Serbian Orthodox church, the Patriarchate of Pec was under the protection of KFOR, he had been at this post for a year and, aside from the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, he had little to do other than chatting up the tourists. After a parting goodbye, we entered the monastery complex through the old gates and made our way to the bell tower. It took a few minutes for the sister with the keys to open up the souvenir shop, but she was friendly enough as she collected our two dollars and set the audio guide to English for us.
A Peaceful Monastery
The monastery at Peć has been in constant operation since it was established in the 14th century and the grounds are still peaceful and well maintained. We had the entire area to ourselves. There was only one other small family there, which made it easy to take some gorgeous shots. The complex is spread out and you can see how it was completely self-sufficient. We wandered among the archaeological ruins as well as up near the gardens and beehives.The medieval churches are simple, yet elegant, but the real beauty lies inside. Every inch of every wall, ceiling and dome is painted in rich hues depicting various saints, patriarchs, and biblical scenes from Serbian Orthodoxy. The audioguide explained the history of the monastery, the stages of development, and the painting styles of the frescoes. It went in to perhaps more detail than most visitors may need or want, but it certainly made the visit much more informative than had we skipped getting it.
We spent nearly two hours strolling through the monastery gardens, gawking at the amazing artwork in the church, and listening to the audioguide. But by now the day was getting on and it was time to head back to Pristina. We decided, however, to drive just a little further up the Rugova canyon road before we went back to the highway. If we had more time, this would certainly be an area to explore further. There is a 650 meter long zipline that takes adventurous tourists from one peak, down into the gorge and along the river. It certainly looked fun and is on our itinerary for a return visit, someday. More natural beauty can be found further into the canyon like waterfalls, caverns, and alpine mountain hiking.
Eventually we had to turn the car around and drive back to Pristina. The highways in Kosovo are as good as most in Europe with little traffic and no tolls. We were back in Pristina before nightfall and heading out of the hotel for a tasty dinner at the traditional Balkan restaurant, Liburnia. After a pleasant meal of lamb stew and local wine it was time for bed. This was a long day, but the driving was low stress and the weather was simply perfect. If we had a three day weekend for this vacation we would have broken this day in two. One day spent in Prizren and the other in Peja.
Day 2 – Gracanica and Pristina Sights
We only had two days, however, and there was more to see and do in this tiny little Balkan country. We didn’t have as much driving today, so we were able to take our time leaving the city. We chose to go on a “windshield” tour of Pristina. Sunday mornings are usually great for this in most cities, and Pristina was no exception. The traffic was practically nonexistent so we were able to drive around and see some of the interesting street art, statues, and buildings.
We drove around for about an hour, past the cathedral, the national Library, and then stopped for a photo op at the Bill Clinton statue on Bill Clinton Boulevard. In some ways this city is a bit surreal. It wasn’t all that long ago that the majority Albanian population was being forcefully moved out of their homes and out of the region. The United States was one of the few countries to back the Kosovo independence movement, and President Clinton has become something of a hero here.
Kosovo World Heritage Sites – Gračanica
The monastery at Gračanica was the second of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites we visited in Kosovo. The church here is one of the most stunning examples of the Byzantine style that we’ve come across. The fact that the medieval structure have survived so long is a testament to the importance the Serbian and Kosovan people place on their past. This is a small complex but we were there on a Sunday and mass was taking place. The angelic voices of the choir and the smoky, aromatic incense worked to give the monastery an air of mystery.
Ulpiana Archeology Park
This small, newly developed archeology site lies about ten minutes driving out of Gračanica where a once thriving Roman town once stood. Now there is little more than building foundations, but the path through the park makes for a nice walk. The site is well signed, explaining the purpose of some of the buildings. While this isn’t really enough of a draw by itself to make a special trip from Pristina, it is certainly worth exploring these Roman ruins coupled with a visit to Gračanica.
Pristina Bear Sanctuary
We continued on our drive, out to the east along the Badovac lake and stopped at the Bear Sanctuary. In the past, restaurants and other business used bears as an attraction to draw curious visitors into their establishments. The bears were kept in small cages, fed scraps, if at all, and generally mistreated. The practice was eventually outlawed and the bear sanctuary came about as a response to this, providing a safe place for the bears to roam about in a much more natural environment. The enclosures are quite large and the bears are being treated much better than in the past.
We continued our drive through the countryside, along back roads, through villages and farming communities and eventually back into the city. We had just enough time for a visit to the Kosovo museum where we learned more about the history of this controversial country. The museum is small but has a good collection of artifacts on display from early history and the more recent Kosovo war. It does an excellent job of explaining and documenting the events that unfolded in the early 21st century. Our flight left that evening at 6:30 P.M. so after the museum we were off to the airport.
This itinerary seems like we were packing in the sights, but it’s a very small area and we easily visited the few places we wanted to go without any stress. We left after breakfast and got back easily before the sun set to have dinner in Pristina. We also had planned to drop our car off at the airport, so we had complete control over our comings and goings. Two full days may not seem like enough time in Kosovo, and I’m sure there are plenty more things to see, however we feel we got a good taste of the country, its sights, its food, and its people.
World Heritage in Kosovo
We wanted to visit the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo. The sites are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under Serbia because the United Nations has not recognized Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. We visited only two of the four, the Patriarchate of Pecs and the Gracanica Monastery, the others were in areas that were not recommended for tourist travel at the time. Both the sites we visited were equally impressive, well signed, and pristinely maintained.
Getting Around Kosovo
Our car rental was only 34 euros per day, so for us there was no question. Our reservation was booked ahead of time through Hertz and we picked up our car in their downtown location. We didn’t need an International Drivers Permit; our valid stateside licenses were enough. We were able to drive everywhere we needed to go and drop off the car at the airport on our way out. Perfect! For those without a car, getting around in Pristina is best done by taxis that are cheap and reliable. As in most places, travelers should verify meter charging or fixed price (agreed upon before departure). We tend to stick with meter only taxis, but your hotel can help arrange fixed price taxi if needed. There is train service between Pristina and Peja, but buses are the best intercity travel method otherwise. Buses tickets are made at the central bus station.
General Travel Advice for Visits to Kosovo
There is still unrest among the various religious and ethnic groups in Kosovo and long standing disputes with Serbia that can flare up, especially in the north. It’s never a bad idea to check the current country conditions through the US State Department International Travel Information before you travel. US Citizens don’t need a visa to travel to Kosovo, but stays are limited to 90 days in any six month period. Kosovo is not a Schengen treaty country, so visits there will not count against your Schengen time.
There are a large variety of hotels in every range in Pristina. Most are good quality and tend to be cheaper than in other European countries. There is good value to be had in hotels in Kosovo. Of course, Pristina is the capital and there is a large expat and transient community so prices in the capital are slightly higher than the rest of the country. We stayed in a budget hotel, in the old town in Pristina. The Hotel Prima was clean, comfortable and friendly. They arranged our late night airport pick up and gave excellent advice on where to eat and what to see in Pristina.
Have you been? What would you recommend as the best things to do in Kosovo?