Just what is there to do in Pristina, capital of Europe’s newest nation?
Pristina, or Prishtina as it is also known, is Europe’s youngest capital. It’s no Belgrade or Sarajevo but it has an amiable feel to it and is well worth a day or two of exploration. Start with a walking tour of the city’s mosques, churches and streets named after American presidents and beatified nuns (Bill, George Jr and Teresa) before jumping on a bus or taking a taxi to the intriguing Serbian Orthodox monastery in nearby Gracanica.
Map of Pristina
Walking Tour of Pristina (3 to 4 hours duration)
Kosovo’s main drag, Agim Ramadani Street, is as good a place as any to start a walking tour of Pristina. Heading north on Agim Ramadani, the first notable building you come across is the National Theatre of Kosovo. The structure itself is unremarkable but for this young nation it represents an important symbol of artistic and national ambition.
National Theatre in Pristina
Continuing north, the next point of interest is Ibrahim Rugosa Square, where you can snap a photo of the large Skanderbeg monument before crossing the busy intersection and heading into the city’s Old Town.
Dating back to the 15th century, Carshi Mosque (also known as Bazaar Mosque) is the oldest building in Pristina. Opposite the mosque is the Kosovo Museum. Housed in an Austro-Hungarian style building, it was closed for renovation when we were there (April 2015) but was due to reopen not long after.
Then walk to nearby Sultan Mehmet Fatih Mosque and continue downhill in a westerly direction past the clock tower to the bazaar. This old marketplace was the heart of Old Pristina for many centuries but sadly much of it was destroyed in the mid-20th century during a period of heavy modernisation which was coupled with the slogan ‘Destroy the old, build the new’. The bazaar is still interesting however and it’s a good place to people watch and interact with the convivial locals.
Heading out of the Old Town, the Newborn monument on Luan Haradinaj Street should be your next destination. Probably the city’s most famous attraction, the Newborn monument was unveiled on the day Kosovo declared its independence (17 February 2008) and was decorated with the flags of the 99 nations which recognised its declaration. In the years that have followed, the monument has been periodically repainted with street art style flair.
Behind the monument is the humungous Youth Centre Building, which is worth a look if you are interested in Socialist-era architecture.
From the Newborn monument, head up Garibaldi Street and cross over Mother Teresa Boulevard and feast your eyes on the National Library of Kosovo. This wacky building has to be seen to be believed and has been listed as one of the 30 ugliest buildings in the world (along with the Slovak Radio Station in Bratislava) by The Telegraph newspaper.
It is worth going inside the building, where design-wise it is actually quite conventional. It’s also worth wandering over to the unfinished Serbian orthodox cathedral which is in the same grounds as the library. Construction of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral (to give it its official title) was abandoned at the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1998 and only the shell remains. You can go inside but there isn’t a great deal to see. The church is a poignant reminder of the religious and ethnic tension that is still commonplace in the region today.
Over the road from the library (on Mother Teresa Boulevard funnily enough), is the Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa. It’s an impressive building but not yet finished. It is sometimes possible to climb the bell tower, although this wasn’t an option when we visited.
Getting back to the centre of the city on foot from here is simple; alternatively it is a little over 2km to the bus station should you decide to head out of the city to explore further afield.
What to See on a Day Trip from Pristina (approximately 2 hours to visit)
The town of Gracanica, 10km east of Pristina, contains an important and controversial Serbian Orthodox monastery with UNESCO World Heritage status. The interior of the church is impressive and the grounds that surround it are peaceful and relaxing. There is no entrance fee.
There’s not much else in this small town but with your back to the monastery, if you take a right and walk up the road for approximately 5 minutes you will come across the Missing monument which is covered with photos of Serbs, missing as a result of the conflict.
Gracanica is easy to reach. The simplest way is to take a taxi from Pristina, ask the driver to wait whilst you look around the monastery (45 minutes is ample time) and then take you back again. Bank on about €15-20 for the return journey. Alternatively any Gillian-bound bus from the bus station will drop you off outside the monastery. Buses (€0.50 one way) run every 30 minutes or so and the journey takes around 15 minutes.
You should be able to flag down any bus travelling on the main highway to the south-east of the National Library of Kosovo and save yourself the 2km plus walk to the bus station. There is an unofficial bus stop on the roundabout near the University for Business and Technology but it’s more straightforward to head to the terminal and pick up the bus there (*). It also means you get the opportunity to head down Bill Clinton Boulevard (check out the statue) and stroll through some intercity housing estates which are quite interesting in their design.
(*) Alighting at the roundabout and walking back into the city centre is much easier.
Because Gracanica is a predominantly Serb town in the heart of Kosovo, there are rumours that the bus drivers won’t let you board the bus if you tell them where you are heading. Lonely Planet says ‘be discreet’ but how discreet can you be? In a hushed tone; ’I wanna go to Gracanica Monastery, nudge, nudge, wink, wink but keep it to yourself mate’ kind of way? We told the conductor on our bus where we were heading and he didn’t have a problem with it so, by now, people probably realise that visiting tourists don’t have a hidden political agenda.
Where to Stay in Pristina
We stayed at the Hostel Han in Pristina in a private twin room with shared bathroom and simple breakfast and paid €30 per night. Although these days we tend to stay in apartments in Europe and stay away from hostels, it was a good place to stay and I would recommend it. On the plus side, the staff were friendly and there was plenty of information available (bus schedules, where to eat, etc). The kitchen was excellent and the living room was a relaxing space in which to meet fellow travellers. We had no problem getting a shower when needed as the hostel was less than half full during our stay but had it been busier then I think it would have been a problem as the number of cubicles was limited. The location was very central (just off Agim Ramadani Street) but you did have to walk up several flights of stairs to reach the entrance as there wasn’t a lift. As (reasonably) early risers, the biggest annoyance for us was that breakfast wasn’t available until 9am. My advice to fellow early risers would be to forgo the breakfast if you want to get going and grab something from a cafe or bakery – the provided breakfast wasn’t up to much anyway (muesli and milk and dry toast) and you can make coffee and tea in the hostel at any time of the day.
And one final thought …
Keep in mind that Kosovo’s independence is not recognised by Serbia. If you plan to continue to Serbia from Kosovo it is necessary to exit Kosovo and enter Serbia from another country (such at Macedonia). It is no problem entering Kosovo from Serbia. If you were previously in Serbia and entered Kosovo from there, it is fine to return to Serbia.