Balkan countries are home to about 45 million people and are known for their complex histories, amazing architecture, distinct cuisine, and natural landscapes.
Defining the Balkans
Which countries are part of the Balkans? Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this question that everyone agrees on. The answer depends on whether you’re primarily considering geographic, political, cultural, or historical definitions, and there are multiple answers even within these distinctions.
Below is a map detailing the Balkan Region. It shows international borders between countries that are considered to be part of the Balkans.
The Balkans, also sometimes referred to as Southeast Europe, is a geographical and cultural region in the southeastern part of the European continent. It’s east of the Italian Peninsula in the western and northwestern part of Anatolia.
Some common boundaries used to define the geographic area of the Balkans are the Soca River, the Danube River, the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus in Turkey, and the Ionian Sea.
Balkan Countries List
Countries that are sometimes considered to be entirely or partially part of the Balkans are Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Slovenia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Greece, and Turkey.
Countries whose entire territory is within the geographic area of the Balkans:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- North Macedonia
Countries whose territory is partially within the geographic area of the Balkans:
Italy is also partially located in the Balkan Region, but this portion of the country (east of the Soča River) is so small that it isn’t ever considered to be related to the Balkans.
Why are they called the Balkans?
Balkan is a Turkish word that means something similar to “mountain.” This makes it an appropriate name for the region, as mountains are plentiful in the Balkans. The Balkan Mountains that run through Bulgaria to its border with Serbia also contribute to the name of the region.
What is typical Balkan food?
Typical Balkan food often includes meat and stuffed vegetables. Burek and cevapi are popular dishes, and rakija (fruit brandy) is enjoyed throughout the region. Specific dish preparations vary throughout the region.
Is Hungary a Balkan country?
Hungary is generally not considered a Balkan country. It borders the region of Balkan countries, but Hungary’s territory is not included in almost any geographic description of the Balkans. In the most extensive definitions, the southernmost part of the country falls within Balkan land.
Is Greece a Balkan country?
Geographically speaking, yes, Greece is a Balkan country. The entire country lies within the geographic definition of the Balkans. However, there are fewer cultural similarities between Greece and its Balkan neighbors. Culturally, Greece is more often categorized as a Mediterranean country.
Is Moldova a Balkan country?
In most situations, Moldova is not considered a Balkan country. This is because the northern border of the Balkans is often described as the Danube River, which flows to the south of Moldova. In some cases, however, Moldova is included in the description of the Balkans for its close relationship with Romania.
Is Turkey a Balkan country?
Turkey is included in most definitions of the Balkans, and there is even literature on its government website describing its relationship to the region. It is only the small part of Turkey west of the Bosphorus that is included on maps of the Balkans, but the centuries of Ottoman presence in Balkan countries served to strengthen Turkey’s ties to other Balkan nations.
What country is Thrace now?
The geographic and historical region of Thrace is now split between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. This is the land that was covered by the Roman Province of Thrace.
What is the Balkan Peninsula?
The Balkan Peninsula is a geographical area in southeastern Europe. Its description as a peninsula is sometimes rejected by geographers because it doesn’t fit the classical definition of a peninsula, but there are some generally agreed-upon borders.
The northern border of the Balkan Peninsula runs from the Black Sea along the Danube and Sava Rivers until it reaches Slovenia. From here, it either follows the Kolpa River or the Soca River to the Adriatic Sea. Other borders are the Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean Seas.
2022 Population Estimate: 2,842,000
Capital city: Tirana
Total area: 28,738 km2 (11,100 mi2)
Although the country was in relative isolation from neighboring Balkan countries for 40 years, there’s really no doubt as to its status as a Balkan country. 100% of its territory is located within the Balkans, and it shares cultural and gastronomic similarities with its Balkan cohorts.
The capital of the country is Tirana, and the country’s landscape features beautiful beaches on the Ionian and Adriatic Seas as well as picturesque mountain ranges.
Things to see and do in Albania:
1. Visit gorgeous beaches in Sarande and Ksamil
2. Hike between Valbona and Teth in northern Albania
3. Visit the National History and Bunk’Art 2 in Tirana
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
2022 Population Estimate: 3,232,707
Capital city: Sarajevo
Total area: 51,129 km2 (19,741 mi2)
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a Balkan country located between Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. It is mostly landlocked but has a small coastline surrounding its town of Neum on the Adriatic Sea. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, it has been an independent nation since 1992. The capital and largest city is Sarajevo, which has an estimated population of roughly 344,000.
The three major ethnic groups that live in the country are, by size, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Each of these is recognized in the country’s constitution, and any native of Bosnia and Herzegovina is referred to as “Bosnian” in English, regardless of ethnicity.
Things to see and do in Bosnia and Herzegovina:
1. Visit the Old Bridge in Mostar
2. Visit the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo
3. Raft the Tara Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with cliffs, beaches, and caves
2022 Population Estimate: 6,778,362
Capital city: Sofia
Total area: 110,994 km2 (42,855 mi2)
The entirety of Bulgaria’s territory is located within the Balkans. It has a coastline along the Black Sea and shares borders with five other countries: Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. This puts the country along the eastern border of the Balkans.
Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it uses its own currency, the Bulgarian Lev. Bulgaria is also a member of NATO and the Council of Europe. The capital city is Sofia, which is also its largest, and the next largest cities are Plovdiv, Varna, and Burgas.
The largest ethnic group in Bulgaria is Bulgarian, and over 75% of the population has Eastern Orthodoxy as a religion.
Things to see and do in Bulgaria:
1. Take a free walking tour in Plovdiv
2. See the iconic Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia
3. Hike to the seven lakes in Rila National Park
2022 Population Estimate: 4,029,665
Capital city: Zagreb
Total area: 56,594 km2 (21,851 mi2)
In the northwest area of the Balkans lies Croatia, a country with just over half of its territory located within the Balkan Region. While this Balkan country is part of the European Union, its currency is the Croatian Kuna, but plans are in place to replace it with the euro on January 1, 2023.
Croatia is sometimes considered a meeting point between Central and Southeast Europe, as it has a coastline on the Adriatic Sea and borders Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. It also shares a maritime border with Italy.
There is no official religion in Croatia, though around 90% of its population subscribes to Christianity. Of the country’s Christians, the vast majority are Catholic, followed by Eastern Orthodox.
Things to see and do in Croatia:
1. Take a Cetina River Tour from Split
2. See Plitvice Lakes National Park, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site
3. Visit the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb
2022 Population Estimate: 627,082
Capital city: Podgorica
Total area: 13,812 km2 (5,333 mi2)
Montenegro is located entirely within the Balkans and borders Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania. It is second only to Kosovo as the smallest country in the region with a total area of just under 14,000 square kilometers.
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Montenegro was part of a federation formed with Serbia until it acquired full independence in 2006 after an independence referendum was held. While Montenegro is not part of the European Union, it is a part of NATO, and its currency is the euro.
Montenegro is a popular stop on many cruise-ship itineraries in the city of Kotor, an ancient town located on a bay of the same name. Podgorica is the nation’s capital and is home to about 30% of the population.
Things to see and do in Montenegro:
1. Visit the San Giovanni Fortress in the Old Town of Kotor
2. Admire wildlife at Skadar Lake
3. Marvel at the Ostrog Monastery built into a cliff above the Zeta Valley.
2022 Population Estimate: 1,806,279
Capital city: Pristina
Total area: 10,887 km2 ( 4,203mi2)
Kosovo is the smallest state in the Balkans and the only that is just partially recognized, meaning that not all international governments formally recognize its independence. It is landlocked and borders Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia.
The two largest ethnic groups in Kosovo are Albanians and Serbs, with Albanians accounting for about 88% of the population. Islam is the religion that’s practiced by the most people in Kosovo, with around 95% of the population identifying as Muslim. Albanian is the most widely spoken language in Kosovo, and a large portion of the population is under 25 years old.
Things to see and do in Kosovo:
1. See the free-to-visit fortress in Prizren
2. Visit the Imperial Mosque in the capital of Pristina
3. Go to the bear sanctuary in Novo Selo
7. North Macedonia
2022 Population Estimate: 2,093,221
Capital city: Skopje
Total area: 25,713 km2 (9,928 mi2)
North Macedonia is another landlocked country that lies fully within Balkan territory. The country borders Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece, and its borders pass through Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. The capital of the country is Skopje, which is home to roughly a quarter of its population, and the national currency is the North Macedonia denar.
The ethnic group with the most representation in the country is Macedonian, making up around 58% of the population. The next largest ethnic group is Albanian and accounts for just over 24% of people living in Macedonia.
Things to see and do in North Macedonia:
1. Hike to the top of Mount Ljuboten
2. See Kale Fortress in Skopje, the capital of Montenegro
3. Travel to Lake Ohrid on the border with Albania
2022 Population Estimate: 19,686,609
Capital city: Bucharest
Total area: 238,397 km2 (92,046 mi2)
Romania is the country with the second largest total area in the Balkans, but only 6.5% of this land is located in the boundaries of the region. The part of Romania that is considered to lie within the Balkans is the area between the Black Sea and the Danube River in the eastern part of the country.
Linguistically, Romania is unique in the region because its national language, Romanian, is a Romance language. It is geographically important in part because it is where the Danube River flows into the Black Sea, completing its journey from the Black Forest in Germany.
Things to see and do in Romania:
1. See the Statue of King Decebalus at the Iron Gate from the Danube
2. Visit the massive Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, the capital of Romania
3. Go to Bran Castle, said to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
2022 Population Estimate: 7,218,593
Capital city: Belgrade
Total area: 77,474 km2 (29,913 mi2)
Just under 75% of Serbia lies south of the Danube, and therefore within the territory of the Balkans. With eight foreign neighbors, it borders more countries than any other Balkan state: Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The population of Serbia has been decreasing since the beginning of the 1990s, with death rates exceeding birth rates and high emigration rates. The average age of Serbia’s population is around 43 years, which is among the highest in the world. Over 83% of people in Serbia are ethnic Serbs, and Hungarians make up about 3.5% of the population.
Things to see and do in Serbia:
1. Explore the Belgrade Fortress at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers
2. See the Church of St Sava in Belgrade, modeled after the Hagia Sophia
3. Visit the chilling Skull Tower in the city of Nis
2022 Population Estimate: 2,119,844
Capital city: Ljubljana
Total area: 20,271 km2 (7,827 mi2)
Located along the northwestern corner of the Balkan territory is Slovenia, 26.7% of which is considered within the Balkans. The country is mostly mountainous and forested, and Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is located in the geographical center of the country.
Given its location, Slovenia has historically been a meeting place of Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages and cultures. Today, most of the country’s population is ethnically Slovenian, and Slovene is the official language of Slovenia.
Things to see and do in Slovenia:
1. Visit the beautiful and iconic Lake Bled
2. Hike through the Soča River Valley
3. Stroll through the streets of Ljubljana
2022 Population Estimate: 85,358,440
Capital city: Istanbul
Total area: 783,356 km2 (302,455 mi2)
Turkey is the largest country on this list, but it’s also got the smallest portion of its territory within the Balkan boundaries. Just 3% of Turkey is in Balkan territory; this is the part of the country that lies west of the Bosphorus and is separate from Anatolia.
Although only a small portion of Turkey is geographically within the Balkans, the country shares a history of Ottoman influence with many other Balkan countries. Turkey is home to some of the earliest inhabited regions. Today, around 70% to 80% of people in Turkey are ethnic Turks.
Things to see and do in Turkey:
1. Visit ancient Ephesus
2. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
3. See the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
2022 Population Estimate: 10,383,272
Capital city: Athens
Total area: 131,937 km2 (50,941 mi2)
Although Greece isn’t always considered a Balkan country, it is entirely within the Balkan Region in geographic terms. Culturally, it may be more often associated with other Mediterranean countries. It has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean Basin and borders Turkey, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Albania.
Around 93% of Greece’s population identifies as Christian, of which the vast majority subscribes to the Greek Orthodox Church. About two-thirds of Greeks live in urban areas, and over 90% of the population has Greek citizenship. The official language is Greek, and the official currency is the euro.
Things to see and do in Greece:
1. See the Ancient Acropolis of Athens and the Parthenon
2. Island hop to beaches at Crete, Mykonos, Naxos, and many more
3. Visit the location of the Colossus of Rhodes
History of the Balkans
People have inhabited the Balkans since at least 6000 BC. It is through this region that farming practices used in the Middle East such as growing grains and raising livestock made their way into Europe during the Neolithic Era.
Many different tribes and peoples lived in the area over its long history, including Thracians, Akhaids, Dorians, Illyrians, Scythians, Celts, Lombardians, and more. The Roman Empire dominated the area from the second century BCE for four hundred years until the empire was divided and what is now the Balkans remained under Byzantine rule.
By the end of the 1500s, the Ottoman Empire had expanded from Anatolia through Thrace and into the Balkans, becoming the controlling force in the region for hundreds of years. The majority of the Balkan nations gained independence from either the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Balkan Wars were military conflicts that took place in the region during the beginning of the 20th century between Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The events of these wars were significant on a larger global scale because they led to the Balkan Crisis of 1914, which in turn contributed to the beginning of World War I.
In the First Balkan War, the Balkan countries of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria waged war upon the Ottoman Empire. The result was the loss of the Ottoman Empire’s European Provinces, pushing the westward line of Ottoman control back to Eastern Thrace.
In the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria fought against Greece and Serbia because it was unsatisfied with the amount of Macedonian territory that it would be allowed to retain. While it engaged with these two countries, the Ottoman Empire, Montenegro, and Romania launched attacks on Bulgaria. Bulgaria was defeated on all fronts in this war and suffered territory losses.