Stand anywhere in Kosovo and you will feel the pull of the mountains. This small, diamond-shaped country is almost completely surrounded by majestic peaks, making it perhaps one of Europe’s most surprising adventure sports destinations. Whether you prefer to take in the scenery while gripping the handlebars of a bike, or while zipping through the air high above a canyon or galloping through a lush mountain clearing, there’s plenty to offer even the most daring outdoors enthusiasts.
In spite of the growing variety of ways to experience Kosovo’s natural beauty, the promotion efforts of its adventure industry have been largely of the word-of-mouth variety until recently. While those in the know might be happy to keep the unspoiled magic of Kosovo’s countryside a secret, we just had to share. Consider this your guide to thrill-seeking in Europe’s youngest country.
Hiking in the mountains of western Kosovo © Bridget Nurre Jennions / Lonely Planet
For most of the people who have walked Kosovo’s craggy perimeter over the centuries, climbing mountains has been an essential way of life, whether that was to reach new plains of grass for animal feed or to trade with a neighbouring village. Thanks to its location along increasingly prominent mega-hiking trails – like the seven-country, 2000km Via Dinarica and the German-backed Peaks of the Balkans trail – a growing number of visitors to Kosovo have also started to claim its multitude of 2500m-plus peaks.
There are plenty of in-country resources about how to best approach Kosovo’s top treks. Local tour operator Rugova Experience has been guiding the Peaks of the Balkans trail since 2013. Creative upstart Balkan Outdoor Experience (boexperience.com) also offers some outside-the-box packages, such as a hiking and yoga trip to the top of the 2403m Hajla peak on the Montenegrin border. The trip includes hearty homemade meals and an overnight stay in a mountain lodge maintained by local mountain expert and environmental protection advocate Fatos Lajçi (+386 49 204 421).
Cycling through a traditional village in Kosovo © courtesy of Catun / Sali Shoshi
What comes up must come down. What better way to descend from your rocky heights than at the helm of a bike? While you can get your mountain biking fix on a visit to the capital Pristina and its 62km Germia Park, you must go further afield to western Kosovo to experience the country’s most heart-pounding routes. Although it’s becoming easier to find marked biking trails, you will likely need the guidance of local experts like Outdoor Kosovo or Catun (catun.net) to find your way as a short-term visitor.
Launched in 2014 by an architect with a passion for cultural preservation, Catun – a variation on the word ‘village’ in Albanian – also offers road biking tours that take visitors through the heart of the Kosovo countryside, past several newly restored 18th-century stone houses known as kullas. To experience true Albanian kulla hospitality, make sure to stop by the home of Isuf Mazrekaj in the small village of Drenoc. Here you can refuel on the layered crepe-like local delicacy known as flija, prepared in the traditional way over an outdoor fire.
Splendid views from Kosovo’s via ferrata © Bridget Nurre Jennions / Lonely Planet
Other mountain adventures
Italian for ‘iron road’, the via ferrata mountaineering technique is best known for its use by soldiers crossing the Alps during WWI. Today, it is an increasingly popular way to reach some of Kosovo’s most splendid views from the top of Rugova Canyon outside the western city of Peja (Peć). The municipality brought in Italian experts to help design the country’s first via ferrata, which built demand for a second in the canyon – as well as its newest attraction: a zipline. Balkan Natural Adventure (bnadventure.com) is the best local resource to book your via ferrata, zipline, caving or rock climbing adventure in the Rugova region. Another local operator, Outdoor In (ibarski-kolasin.org) offers an even more extreme via ferrata in the northern Serb-majority municipality of Zubin Potok.
Horseback riding at Vali Ranch in Kosovo © Bridget Nurre Jennions / Lonely Planet
Not all of Kosovo’s best outdoor attractions are out west. For those drawn to adventures of the equestrian variety, the eastern municipality of Gjilan (Gnjilane) is home to a fully fledged dude ranch: the aptly named Vali Ranch (vali-ranch.com). Catering to various levels of ability, the ranch offers lessons in its arena, as well as longer rides out through the neighbouring wooded hills. With three restaurants, a petting zoo, a spa and a (fairly kitsch) hotel on site, Vali Ranch is a family-friendly escape for all ages.
For a more rustic experience, one must head south – nearly to the Macedonian border – to the mountain town of Brod. Although there have been concerns about animal care in the past, tour operator Traveks (traveks.com) is working with local horse owners to up their standard of care. With more horses than cars in this quiet town (known for producing fresh white cheese), you will fit right in on its winding rocky paths.
Skiing at Brezovica resort in the Sharr (Šar) Mountains © courtesy of Brezovica ski resort
With its ring of mountains, Kosovo enjoys fairly regular snowfall in the winter. Though a €400 million deal to renovate the aging ski resort of Brezovica (brezovica-ski.com) seems to have stalled for the time being, it is still the country’s best option for carving fresh powder when the temperatures drop. The resort usually only has one operational lift, but – for the more adventurous – ski touring opens up endless possibilities to explore the exceptional untouched terrain in this part of the Sharr (Šar) Mountains.
Back in Rugova, Nol Krasniqi and the team at Balkan Natural Adventure also offer snowshoeing tours that will definitely keep you warm during the chillier months. After a full day making tracks through the peaceful forest, reward yourself with a glass (or two) of the local fruit brandy rakija and a warm meal in the home of the Shala family in the nearby village of Drelaj.
Rock climbing in Kosovo’s Rugova region © Bridget Nurre Jennions / Lonely Planet