The capital of Europe’s youngest country makes for an unconventional city break. Chris Deliso introduces us to the hip bars and live music venues that live alongside Ottoman-era mosques and bazaars in this cosmopolitan meeting point.
While still a lesser-visited Balkan city that won’t win many aesthetics awards, Pristina (spelled locally as Prishtina) has enough sights – and increasingly tempting dining and nightlife options – to keep you entertained over a long weekend. The Kosovo capital’s youthful population and the continued presence of EU and UN missions also have lent it an unexpectedly cosmopolitan vibe, and visiting the capital of Europe’s newest country does indeed feel like being part of history in the making. Further, the city’s proximity to better-known Balkan getaways, like Belgrade, Dubrovnik, Split and Sarajevo makes Pristina a good (and safe) stopover.
Kosovo’s capital city has come a remarkable ways in a short time, considering that the country was a war zone less than 20 years ago, during NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia. The Serbian government was forced to cede power to a UN and NATO mission that for years exceeded 25,000 international personnel at a time, creating a sudden windfall for purveyors of goods licit and illicit alike. Long after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008, Serbia does not recognize the independence of what it considers a historic province (its position is supported by powerful countries like Russia and China, and several EU states), and political and ethnic differences remain a sensitive subject at times.
However, Kosovo’s de facto independence is understood by all, and things are generally peaceful. A predominantly ethnic Albanian country, Kosovo has a small Serbian minority consigned to a few enclaves, and small populations of ethnic Turks, Roma (Gypsies) and Bosniaks. Modern Pristina’s only remnants of Yugoslav rule are thus its drab concrete apartment blocks and occasional feats of brutalist architecture. This, merged with more recent experiments in reflective blue glass structures and other oddities, as well as historic structures from previous centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, give the city a most eclectic look; Prishtina is indeed a place where you’ll find industrial supplies shops offsetting the occasional five-star hotel, and ramshackle apartments competing for visibility with a faux Statue of Liberty.
Best of the Beaten Track
As a small city, Prishtina is easily navigated on foot, with clusters of small streets jutting from a few boulevards and squares. Strolling the city, you’ll come across monuments that depict quirks of history and national identity. For example, the Skanderbeg Statue depicts the eponymous medieval warrior who battled the Turks, and who is considered the major national hero of all Albanians. And, while the Clinton brand has taken a beating since the 2016 US elections, you would never know it from the Statue of Bill Clinton erected on the boulevard that bears his name in downtown Prishtina.
Bill Clinton’s boulevard intersects with that of another named for an American president (George W. Bush); on their western corner stands one of Kosovo’s newest and grandest sights, the Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa. Consecrated in 2017, this impressive, voluminous structure decorated with murals is named for the famed ethnic Albanian nun born in neighboring Macedonia in 1910. Although the vast majority of Kosovans are Muslim, there is also a historic Catholic presence (the government and the Vatican are keen to point this out as further evidence of Kosovo’s ‘pro-Western’ orientation). A short walk east of the church is the National Gallery of Kosovo, which displays local contemporary art.
More historic structures dot the remnants of an Ottoman ‘old town,’ a 20-30 minute walk northwards from the church through the center. These include the Ottoman Imperial Mosque of Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque, built in 1461. It’s the most impressive of several Ottoman structures that include the nearby Jashar Pasha Mosque, a gleaming Ottoman mosque that was spiffed up by a Turkish-funded renovation in 2015. The latter adjoins the Museum of Kosovo, a stately late 19th-century structure (that as of late 2017 was still semi-closed for renovations, however). Pristina’s most interesting historic attraction is the Emin Gjiku Ethnographic Museum, a three-minute walk north of the Imperial Mosque. Set in an atmospheric Ottoman-era mansion, the museum hosts a fascinating array of traditional items dating from the 15th and the 20th centuries.
One of Kosovo’s most-visited attractions is actually found eight kilometers out of Prishtina, in the Serbian enclave of Gračanica. Built in 1321 by Serbian King Milutin, the Gračanica Monastery is a UNESCO-listed Orthodox Christian shrine notable for its Byzantine domed style and magnificent frescoes, and definitely warrants a side trip.
Whereas Western European countries have turned dilapidated or forgotten spots into hipster havens, Kosovo generally lacks such spots, given that it’s still developing. And, just as its international minders have come and gone many interesting places have closed in recent years. There are some quirks of the local imagination, though, which include the centrally-located ‘Newborn’ monument – a big block-letter construction that spells out the initial euphoria that accompanied Kosovo’s independence declaration in 2008. Although its initial brightness (and optimism) have since faded somewhat as the economy remains sluggish, the offbeat statue represents the local imagination of this youthful city.
Indeed, the gradual departure of most of Kosovo’s international peacekeepers after 2008 meant both a challenge and opportunity for a service sector that had been oriented (often, somewhat tackily) towards an indiscriminate foreign rabble. The departure of these masses, and their cash, created a new DIY mentality. One example of this occurred in 2009, when a shared space was converted into the very popular Dit’ e Nat’ café/bookstore/veggie bar/music venue. A laid-back hang-out for both locals and internationals, this is the place for discussing the latest literature or the Albanian alternative underground in late Yugoslavia over a strong espresso. The café also produces and sells works by local musicians and authors.
Sandwiched between it and the government offices is the popular, creative Soma Book Station, tucked inside a leafy garden. With its lofty wood interior lined with books and historic photos, Soma has great atmosphere. Soma serves as a coffee and breakfast bar by morning, as the day progresses becoming an innovative restaurant with guest DJs, creative cocktails, rare whiskeys and rare vinyl records too.
Experience & Events
The Prishtina Jazz Festival is the top music festival held each fall, featuring prominent international and local musicians. Two more eclectic mixes of local and international live music occur each year, with the DAM Fest for emerging local and international musicians, and the ReMusica Festival for contemporary and experimental music. Meanwhile, the summertime Prishtina Music, Wine and Beer Fest offers up a variety of international and local libations at discounted rates.
Even if you don’t venture inside, do gaze upon the National Library of Kosovo building. One of the final expressions of Yugoslav Communist architecture, it was designed by Andrija Mutnjaković in 1982. Although this Croatian architect probably did not intend to create a multidimensional barbed-wire fence topped by crashed alien pods, that’s one way of describing a building that has had a rather tumultuous history (during the war in 1999, the Yugoslav Army allegedly used it as a secret command center).
When the weather’s warm, locals escape the city smog by taking a short drive out of town to the Germia Park, a leafy expanse with hiking and biking trails, as well as a big outdoor pool and café spots- a good place to unwind and picnic.
Back in the city’s former old town, join the locals again by browsing the bazaar (just west of the main Ottoman mosques and museums) for fruit and veg, bric-a-brac, and all sorts of extras that you probably don’t need… it’s the experience that counts, after all.
Kosovans are also passionate football fans, and you can join the boisterous crowds at the central City Stadium for local and international matches (since 2016, Kosovo was admitted to UEFA and FIFA, allowing it to play other nations for the first time. Tickets are cheap and in the years ahead the city will host more and more quality international matches (see the Football Federation of Kosovo website for updated information).
Kosovo’s modern experience of international officials on lavish expense accounts – and now, an increasing number of curious backpackers and other independent travelers – has bestowed Pristina with an unexpectedly rich variety of accommodation for all budgets and tastes. The three most popular youth hostels in town are friendly and inexpensive. The most centrally-located, Hostel Han, offers newly spruced-up dorms and private rooms, with a laid-back vibe, communal kitchen and friendly staff. It’s located within a residential block above a shop, near the Mother Teresa Square. Second is Buffalo Backpackers, a short walk south of center. While it has dorms only, this friendly place does allow campers to pitch their tents in the enclosed yard, and is a relaxing spot with hammocks and a BBQ at the ready. Finally, the White Tree Hostel, 800m from the center, may be Prishtina’s most chilled-out hostel, with renovated dorms, private rooms and a cozy cocktail bar and terrace.
In the midrange category, good offerings are rapidly increasing. If you want to be based in the older part of town (near the historic mosques and museums), try Hotel Prima, which has a nice summer terrace, friendly service and free parking. A more business-oriented midrange pick is Hotel Nartel, just southwest of Mother Teresa Square in the Ulpiana district.
If you feel like splurging, look no further than the five-star Swiss Diamond Hotel. Centrally-located off of the main pedestrian mall, it boasts opulent rooms, a swimming pool, and a truly lavish buffet breakfast- the kind of place where you might literally run into Tony Blair or visiting Arab royalty.
Finally, if you prefer a more bucolic setting and are keen on visiting Gračanica Monastery, the Hotel Gracanica (500m before the monastery, in the eponymous village) offers spacious rooms and a pool. This is a good place for families, and presents the Serbian side of life in Kosovo (and some good restaurants with hearty grills- ask for the rebra sa kajmak, or ribs drizzled with clotted cream). The hotel offers free shuttle bus service to Prishtina.
Prishtina’s near 20-year international presence and emerging tastes mean you’ll find an intriguing mix of European, Asian and of course Balkan cuisines. There isn’t a ‘street food’ culture per se (more of a fast-food one, though quality is not always assured in the plethora of little shops dotting the town). Plenty of bakeries will set you right with a good breakfast of burek (a sort of flaky phyllo pie stuffed with white cheese, spinach or beef). It’s cheap, usually accompanied by drinking yoghurt, and helps cure hangovers. (Along with good Balkan wines and raki, the regional firewater, Kosovo produces decent beer. The national one, Peja, and the first line of microbrews, from the American-Albanian venture Sabaja). Along with the above-mentioned Soma Book Station, other popular standouts include the De Rada Brasserie, an atmospheric place serving good European fare, just three blocks west of the Museum of Kosovo. Also in the old quarter, the nearby Restaurant Liburnia is a bit pricier but has atmospheric rustic décor and generous portions of traditional and international cuisine. The Osteria Basilico is one of several local Italian places, offering arguably the city’s best pastas. Restaurant Pishat, meanwhile, is a dependable destination for pot-roasted traditional dishes, a terrific lamb, and seasonal vegetable dishes. Finally, a great pick for vegetarians is Babaghanoush, a Lebanese restaurant half-hidden down a central laneway, and highly regarded by locals and foreigners alike.
Pristina’s variety of international residents and its friendly young people make it an unexpectedly fun place for a night out. While there are different tastes, it seems (as you’ll see from this list) that a common affection for jazz is shared by many. The city’s dance clubs tend towards the see-and-be-seen, vaguely-Mafioso vibe; much more fun can be had enjoying live music in several hip bars.
Kosovans are rightly proud of their coffee culture, and one of the best places to enjoy a good macchiato is the centrally-located Prince Coffee. By night, among other popular places is Sunshine Lounge Bar, located just southeast of center and good for an early cocktail. Two of the most popular bars in town include Zanzi Jazz Bar (an exuberant bar/club known for its excellent live music) and Hamam Bar, which has won awards and accolades for its eccentric décor and live music featuring international acts, while also boasting fusion cuisine and a good wine list. Another place with live acts is a rock club established in 2017, Rockuzinë.
Prishtina International Airport gets flights from numerous Western European countries and Turkey, with the presence of budget carriers like Wizzair, Pegasus, EasyJet and Air Berlin bringing good value flights. Alternatively, you can fly into Skopje’s Alexander the Great Airport in Macedonia (which has a wider and sometimes cheaper range of flights) and reach Prishtina by bus, car or taxi from there (1-2 hours, traffic dependent).
Regular buses also connect Kosovo with European destinations and to neighboring cities in countries like Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia cheaply. Buses to Serbia exist but are more frequent from Serbian-inhabited areas like Gračanica and North Mitrovica. Internally, buses and minivans travel regularly to other towns of interest in Kosovo, such as Mitrovica, Peja and Prizren. A daily train also reaches Skopje in Macedonia.
From the airport to the city center, take a taxi (though waiting cabbies might haggle for more, the price is about 15 euros). The bus station is around 2km from town- you can either walk in, or take a cab (3 euros). Although you won’t need a cab necessarily in this small city, if so doing make sure it’s a licensed one, and ask the driver to put the meter on before as Balkan cabbies have all sorts of methods of maximizing their expected profit. There are also inexpensive local buses. The train station is more centrally located, west of Mother Teresa Boulevard and near the major Western embassies.
Because of the political complexities surrounding Kosovo’s status, travelers planning to travel from Kosovo to Serbia may still have to go via a third country due to Serbian restrictions. However, European citizens who can travel freely with their ID cards should not have this problem, since they will not have to show a passport with the Kosovo stamp. Check locally as the situation may change in future.
Useful local sources of information about city include the Be in Kosovo website, which provides both general information and events listings, as well as professional services like guided tours. The Kosovo Guide website also has some useful information. While most travelers don’t need a visa to enter Kosovo, you can double-check on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website here.
Bradt Travel Guides publishes a dedicated guide to Kosovo, while Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe guides contain a chapter on the country. Local author Shefqet Balla’s informative Kosova Guide should be available in local bookshops. Also, your hotel or hostel will ply you with information- more maps, tips and insights than you could imagine, as Kosovans are keen to promote their country.
English-language books that have discussed Kosovo’s tumultuous history include Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: a Short History and Tim Judah’s Kosovo: War and Revenge (both written around the time of the NATO 1999 bombing, and with a certain political agenda). A bevy of other publications guaranteed to put you in a bad mood fixate on war and politics. Far before them, legendary British travel writer Rebecca West swung through Kosovo in 1937 for her influential 1941 work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia.
One useful new book for travelers keen on Kosovo’s Catholic heritage sights is the meticulously researched Catholic Kosovo by Marilyn Kott. You’ll also be sure to find new and different works of various sorts in some of the bookstore-cafés mentioned above.
Countries that have experienced war tend to beget films bout war; nevertheless everyone was surprised when the short film Shok (Friend) was nominated for an Oscar in 2016; shot in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica, this project of British filmmaker Jamie Donoghue chronicled the true story of two friends growing up during the late 1990s conflict period.
Kosovo’s nascent film industry has been re-established in recent years (following an enforced hiatus in the 1990s from Belgrade), with an annual film festival highlighting new productions; some of the best-known Kosovan directors in recent years include Jeton Ahmetaj, Blerta Zeqiri, Ariel Shaban and Isa Qosja, whose 2005 film Kukumi (about the exploits of three mental patients following a foreign liberation) was one of the first post-Yugoslav films made in Kosovo, winning awards at the Venice and Sarajevo film festivals.
Soundtrack to the City
For more city break inspiration check out our full list of Long Weekend guides here.