Kosovo as a whole is about as obscure as it gets for travel in Europe. And those that do visit typically stick to Pristina and Prizren. The off-the-beaten-path northwest portion of the country, however, is home to scenic mountains and multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites. Both Peja’s Patriarchate of Peć and the Visoki Dečani Monastery are two medieval monasteries that should not be missed.

Peja

The best base for exploring northwest Kosovo is Peja, the country’s third-largest city. It’s also spelled locally as Pejë, or in Serbian as Peć. Not only is the city home to several worthy attractions, but it also makes for a good base for exploring the region, including hiking in the Rugova Valley.

Around Peja

Peja may not be as atmospheric as Prizren, but the small city of 100,000 is home to an abundance of traditional architecture, while the nearby Rugova Mountains can be viewed from all over town.

Peja Kosovo
Peja Kosovo

Central Peja is centered around its lively Ottoman-era bazaar. Walking around town, you can also find historic mosques like the 15th-century Bajrakli Mosque in addition to the Haxhi Beg Hammam, also built in the 1400s.

Peja Kosovo
Peja Kosovo
Peja Kosovo

The Ethnology Museum

While the hammam is apparently closed to visitors, the local Ethnology Museum, located in the town center, is the best place to get a taste of Ottoman-era Peja.

The museum is situated in a house built in 1800. But believe it or not, its current location is not the original.

First built near where the main post office is now, officials announced plans to construct the new post office there in 1960, resulting in an outcry from local residents to protect the historic structure.

And so, authorities devised a plan to move the entire house, bit by bit!

Peja Kosovo
Peja Kosovo

Entry to the Ethnological Museum includes a tour, and the guide speaks fluent English. You’ll learn about the life of wealthy families during the late Ottoman period in northwest Kosovo while viewing displays of traditional crafts, furniture, costumes and even weapons.

The guide also explained the differences in traditional costumes worn by those living in central Peja and people in the nearby Rugova Mountains.

Peja Kosovo
Peja Kosovo

Patriarchate of Peć

Peja’s top highlight is the Patriarchate of Peć, situated about 20-minutes on foot from the town center. And on the way there, you can enjoy a view of the beautiful Rugova gorge.

First built in the 13th century, it’s been recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with Pristina’s Gračanica Monastery, Prizren’s Our Lady of Ljeviš, and nearby Visoki Dečani Monastery (more below).

Patriarchate of Peć

Note that you must bring your passport and leave it with the security guard outside in order to enter. This is a result of the ongoing ethnic tensions in the region over the last few decades, which unfortunately resulted in some attacks on the monastery.

But as we’ll go over below, the level of security here in Peja is nowhere near that of Visoki Dečani Monastery.

The Patriarchate of Peć was established in 1346, upon which the Serbian Orthodox patriarch came to reside at this monastery, which had already been established the century prior. 

And Peja would remain the seat of Serbian Orthodoxy throughout most of the Ottoman era until the year 1766.

Patriarchate of Peć
Patriarchate of Peć
Patriarchate of Peć

The main church is actually three separate churches connected to one another, resulting in a complicated yet cohesive unit.  Interestingly, the unique structure was painted red as recently as 2008.

The oldest structure, the Church of the Holy Apostles, dates back to the 13th century, and numerous Serbian archbishops and patriarchs were buried within.

While photography is discouraged, the church’s interior is stunning, with many of its vivid frescoes dating from the 14th–18th centuries.

Patriarchate of Peć

In addition to scenes from the life of Jesus, some frescoes depict the Nemanjić dynasty, a prominent ruling family of the Middle Ages. Other works depict Saint Sava, regarded as the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and himself a member of the Nemanjić dynasty. And you’ll also find Arsenije Sremac, the church’s original founder.

Peja Kosovo

The Patriarchate of Peć currently functions as a convent that’s home to a couple dozen nuns. While I’d read that they sometimes ask for a few euro as an entry fee, I wasn’t asked to pay.

Other highlights of the walled complex include the ruins of a 14th-century palace as well as what’s left of a dormitory and refectory from the 16th century. Still standing, meanwhile, are a 20th-century bell tower and the living quarters for the nuns.

Visoki Dečani Monastery

Within easy reach of Peja is the Visoki Dečani Monastery, yet another highly significant Serbian Orthodox church from the Middle Ages. And like the Patriarchate of Peć, it too is a heavily protected site that requires a passport to enter.

From Peja, hop on a southbound bus bound for Gjakova or Prizren, and get off at the town of Dečani, just about 20 minutes away. The monastery is then another 20 minutes or so on foot from the bus stop.

Visoki Dečani Monastery

Disturbingly, the monastery fell victim to attacks from ethnic Albanians who were trying to drive out ethnic Serbs from the region in the late ’90s. And it even faced a grenade attack as recently as 2007.

As such, the isolated monastery is now protected behind layers of KFOR security, the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Visoki Dečani Monastery

After passing a checkpoint for cars (which those on foot can simply walk past), you’ll eventually read the front gate. There, you’ll need to leave your passport with the soldiers (from Austria at the time of my visit). And finally, they’ll call someone inside to confirm that it’s OK for you to enter.

After stepping inside the peaceful monastery, it’s easy to forget the strong military presence right outside.

I happened to be the only visitor at the time – quite rare at a UNESCO World Heritage Site! While some of the resident monks (of about 25) noticed me from a distance, nobody came over, and I was left to explore on my own.

Visoki Dečani Monastery

The monastery was founded in the 14th century by Stefan Dečanski, who’s also buried inside. Sadly for Dečanski, he was murdered by his own son while construction of the monastery was still ongoing! His son would then go on to finish the project.

Despite its dark origin story, Visoki Dečani Monastery is a strikingly beautiful building. Designed by architect Vito of Kotor, the domed church is decorated with pink and white marble and features a spacious five-nave naos. 

It represents a unique mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. 

Visoki Dečani Monastery
Visoki Dečani Monastery

But the real reason to visit Visoki Dečani Monastery is for its stunning frescoes, which mostly date from the 14th-16th centuries. Every bit of the spacious interior is entirely covered in beautiful and impeccably preserved paintings of outstanding quality.

Visoki Dečani Monastery
Visoki Dečani Monastery

In addition to the standard religious scenes from the New Testament and portraits of various saints, depictions of historical battles along with King Stefan Dečanski, Visoki Dečani Monastery’s founder, also makes an appearance.

You’ll also find an ornate wooden iconostasis at the nave. 

Visoki Dečani Monastery Kosovo
Visoki Dečani Monastery Kosovo

Gjakova

Finished with Visoki Dečani Monastery, Gjakova is an easy 25-minute bus ride away. Frankly speaking, Gjakova is far from being the most remarkable town in the Balkans. It does, however, feature an Ottoman bazaar that’s both the oldest in Kosovo and one of the longest in the region.

But first, closer to the modern town center, you’ll pass by a well-preserved Ottoman-era house which now functions as the local ethnographic museum. Built in 1810, the two-story house was constructed by the wealthy Sina family.

Sadly, the museum was closed during my visit, despite being there during the posted opening hours. It did at least look nice from the outside!

Gjakova Kosovo

As mentioned, the main highlight of Gjakova is its bazaar. But it’s so long that many of the shops further from the center are permanently boarded up. But keep walking and things will eventually get livelier.

Accessed via the bazaar is the Hadumi Mosque, the city’s most famous. Constructed in the 16th century, the mosque represents classic Kosovar architecture from the Ottoman era, and it’s only one of a few of its kind still remaining.

While the interior is decorated with intricate floral and geometric patterns, it happened to be Friday prayer time during my visit, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to take photos inside.

I did, however, meet a couple of friendly local kids who spoke great English, and we had a nice time examining some of the ancient tombstones in the cemetery surrounding the mosque.

Gjakova Kosovo

Moving on from the mosque, the remainder of the bazaar is much more active, with trendy cafes and restaurants occupying many of the spaces.

Also near the bazaar is the old Clock Tower, erected in 1597 – shortly after the Hadumi Mosque. Interestingly, during the Balkan Wars in 1912, the tower was damaged and transported to Montenegro. 

The 30m-high tower that stands today, therefore, is a recent reconstruction.

Gjakova Kosovo
Gjakova Kosovo

While Gjakova may not be worth going far out of one’s way for, it’s an easy trip from Visoki Dečani Monastery, while also making for a convenient stopover between Peja and Prizren.

Additional Info

Peja can easily be reached from other cities in Kosovo like Prizren (2 hr) and Pristina (90 min). Kosovo has an organized and well-functioning bus system (a pleasant surprise for those coming straight from Albania!) Buses leave on a set schedule, and most buses in Kosovo are larger coach buses as opposed to cramped minivans.

Peja can also be reached directly from Podgorica, Montenegro.

Additionally, there are a few trains per day running between Peja and Pristina.

Peja is a small city. But in regards to location, those getting around Kosovo via public transport should base themselves within reasonable waking distance from the bus station, which is about 15 minutes on foot from the city center.

As in Pristina, accommodation options in Peja are surprisingly expensive, especially when compared with neighboring countries.

After checking the options on both Airbnb and Booking, I went with the highly-rated Central Hostel. For three nights it cost me €48, or US$56, which was pricier than most of the other places I stayed in the Balkans.

While the location was great, my private room lacked its own bathroom. And most surprising of all, there was no AC or even fan, even during the peak of summer!

Although the heat was bearable with the windows open, the problem was that being in the center of town, things could get very noisy at night. In addition to traffic noise, people would sometimes gather and chat just below my window. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep great in Peja.

But with no cheaper options for a private room at the time of writing, Central Hostel is pretty much the only decent choice if you’re a budget traveler.



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