Albania is a small nation in the Balkans of Southeastern Europe. It has a fascinating history, with decades under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and a recent break away from communism. Despite its diverse natural landscapes, Albania doesn’t typically come to mind as a top tourist destination. Well, it’s time to get to know this beautiful country.
It may have a complicated past, but what is Albania famous for these days? More importantly, why should you visit? This Albania travel guide will answer your questions and teach you about all the cool things in Albania that you’ll be dying to check out for yourself.
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How to get to Albania
With a spot on the map next to Greece and the south of Italy, Albania tends to be forgotten about. However, this prime position also means it’s not too far out of the way. A direct flight with Aegean Airlines from Athens to the capital city Tirana takes only one hour and 20 minutes. If you’re already planning on being in Southeastern Europe, why not make the short trip? You can also get to the south of Albania via the international airport on the Greek island of Corfu, then take a 30-minute ferry ride over to Sarandë.
What to expect in Albania
One thing to expect in Albania is a cultural barrier. Albanians, as well as many other Balkan citizens, have a different take on verbal communication. Here, nodding your head up and down means no, while shaking it means yes. While this will be utterly confusing to you, it can be quite amusing when this miscommunication happens. Fortunately, English is widely spoken here, particularly by the younger generations. While the official language is Albanian, you’ll find many Italian and Greek speakers here too. Everyone here is friendly, so aside from the initial cultural differences, you’ll be greeted warmly and made to feel at home.
The currency in use is the Albanian Lek. One euro currently equals about 125 leke. You can expect very inexpensive prices, with a meal at an average restaurant costing around 600 leke. While Albanians themselves don’t leave tips, tourists are expected to leave a little extra at restaurants. There’s no 10% rule, but rounding up the bill is considered generous. As always, tip according to your means and how you felt about the service. It is very rare to tip taxi drivers, but again, you may feel inclined to round up the fare if they have been particularly helpful.
If you love nature, you’ll be delighted by Albania. The country is home to 15 national parks, so come with an adventurous spirit and excitement to see the great outdoors.
How to get around Albania
Taking the bus is the best way to travel between Albanian cities, though it can be frustrating to get around if you don’t have patience. Local buses are known for not running according to any timetable and leaving when they’re full. In any case, the warm hospitality by the locals will alleviate any annoyances caused by a lack of schedules.
Taxis in Albania rarely use metres, so if you need to use one, be sure to negotiate the fare beforehand. However, you won’t need to worry about taxis when getting to and from the airport. There’s a great shuttle bus available that takes only half an hour to reach the city. The airport bus operates from six in the morning to six at night and costs only 250 leke for a single fare.
You may also be wondering, is Albania safe to travel around? While precautions always need to be taken, this country is considered very safe and welcoming of tourists. In fact, it’s one of the safest countries to visit in Europe. No conflicts are going on, and violence isn’t high. Since it’s not a typical tourist destination, the locals want you to enjoy their country and have a wonderful time. For this reason, you don’t have to worry about petty theft or being taken advantage of. If any locals approach you, it is generally out of curiosity and a place of hospitality.
The best time to visit Albania
While there’s never a wrong time to visit Albania, you’ll want to take advantage of the expansive coastline and go while the weather is warm. Albania is a fantastic place for a summer vacation if you’re going to avoid packed beaches and find some secluded spots instead. June to September sees the least amount of rainfall.
Temperatures reach 30 degrees Celsius in July, perfect for spending your days at the beach. If you want warm days without the extreme heat, September is ideal. Although winters are mild compared to other parts of Europe, there aren’t as many things to do in Albania during the cold weather. As mentioned earlier, Albania isn’t a big tourist destination, so there isn’t a busy season you need to worry about avoiding.
Things to do in Albania
There are a number of things to do in Tirana. There’s a fantastic coffee culture here, and you’ll see it’s a part of everyday life in Albania. Many cups of espresso are enjoyed slowly and socially. This is very much the opposite of other cultures who rush and take their morning coffee to go. If you’re a fan of Turkish coffee, it’s trendy here to thanks to the long Ottoman ruling.
Once you’ve enjoyed your morning drink of choice, it’s time to explore the quirky architecture. The buildings here are colourful and vibrant, so wander the tree-lined streets of downtown Tirana by foot. If you want to get to know Albania’s complicated past, visit the National Museum of History. The Pyramid of Tirana is a unique and fascinating attraction, and the National Museum of Fine Arts has some superb contemporary pieces to look at. The 18th century Et’hem Bey Mosque is also worth visiting. Not only is the architecture remarkable, but the mosque represents religious freedom following the fall of communism.
Right outside Tirana is Dajti, a mountainous national park with gorgeous waterfalls and canyons. You can get to the top by cable car, known as the Dajti Ekspres, in only 15 minutes. There are many activities you can do here, including mountain biking, paragliding and hiking. Alternatively, you can appreciate the scenery from the viewing platform and have a meal at the Ballkoni Dajtit Restaurant.
Places to visit in Albania
Everyone knows about the French, Italian and even Turkish rivieras, but what about the Albanian Riviera? Most travellers have never heard about this idyllic coastline. Nestled between the Ionian Sea and the Ceraunian Mountains, it’s as remarkable as any other top European beach. In fact, it’s one of the most underrated places in all of Europe. What’s even better is that it sees only a fraction of the foreign visitors that nearby Croatia, Italy and Greece get.
Ksamil, Palasa and Bunec are all glorious beaches with white sand and clear turquoise seas. I’d also suggest Porto Palermo in Himarë, where you can explore an ancient castle. If you want a peaceful and relaxing summer without being trampled by fellow tourists, head to the Albanian Riviera before the secret gets out.
Other than Tirana, Korçë, Durrës and Shkodër are fascinating and unique cities to visit. The star of Korçë is the Resurrection Cathedral. The entire town is incredibly charming, with cobblestone streets and an open bazaar. You can get a sense of daily life in Albania around Boulevard Republika, where there’s an array of bakeries, cafes, shops, and friendly locals.
What to eat in Albania
Albanian cuisine is heavily influenced by its Mediterranean neighbours. A typical breakfast and dinner will involve fresh bread, cheese, eggs, homemade jam, tomatoes, cucumbers, and of course, olives. Grilled meat, referred to as zgara, is everywhere, and beef, lamb and veal are commonly consumed. When you’re by the coast, fresh fish is plentiful and traditionally served whole.
In Tirana, you’ll want to try a popular dish called fërgesë. It’s made from red capsicum peppers, tomatoes and cottage cheese. Another beloved dish is tavë Kosi, made with rice, eggs, lamb and yoghurt.
If you’re familiar with Turkish treats, you’ll be happy to find a lot of börek (known here as byrek), halva and baklava. For a genuinely Albanian dessert, try a popular sponge cake called trilece. If you’re around during Albania’s Summer Day festivities, you can try their national cookie called ballokume.
Unfortunately, you will likely have a hard time in restaurants if you’re vegetarian or vegan. While it’s not impossible to have a decent meal, it’s likely that locals won’t understand your choice not to eat meat. Grilled vegetables aka perime ne zgare are common, but usually as a side dish or appetiser. Luckily, you’ll be able to enjoy the abundance of fresh fruit grown in Albania. Figs, oranges and pomegranate are some of the local favourites.
Where to stay in Albania
Since Tirana is centrally located and home to the only international airport in Albania, you’ll end up staying at least one night there.
La Boheme is a luxurious yet affordable option within Tirana. Single, twin and double beds are available, some with stunning balcony views of the city. Each room features classic silver and gold paisley wallpaper and is equipped with everything you need. There’s a sauna, spa and fitness centre at the hotel, and a highly rated restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor.
For an even more fantastic stay, look no further than the Xheko Imperial Hotel. It’s a one-of-a-kind hotel you won’t find anywhere else in Albania. The rooms are spacious and so stylishly decorated that there’s a chance you’ll never want to leave. It’s conveniently located to everything in the city, and only a few hundred metres from the Great Park of Tirana.
In Sarandë, Harmony Inn is a welcoming place to call home while exploring the south of Albania. The white and blue decor of the rooms reflects the Mediterranean influence in the area, as does the cozy outdoor restaurant. Enjoy a bite of seafood here, then be at Pulëbardha Beach within two minutes. This is the place to stay if you’re looking to relax and take it easy.
Tours to do in Albania
Head to Shkodër, less than two hours north of Tirana, and take an affordable tour of Rozafa Castle. It sits atop a rocky 130-metre hill, and the view at sunset is not to be missed. There’s an eerie urban legend about the castle’s construction, but I’ll leave that to the guide to tell you about!
One of the top Albania points of interest is the Blue Eye. This gorgeous water spring is a must-visit when in Albania. It’s of the way, so it’s worth booking a tour with Saranda Summer Tours to get there. They can take you to the ruins of Buthrotum and Lëkurësi Castle too, with all-inclusive tours up to six days long.
Most major cities have free walking tours, and Tirana is no exception. What better way to explore all the Albanian attractions mentioned earlier (and more) than with a local?
Day trips in Albania
There are many exciting day trips to go on in Albania, particularly if you’re interested in seeing ancient ruins. Choose Balkans is a fantastic company offering one day tours around many of Albania’s cities and towns. Get lost in the stone city of Gjirokastër, and explore the UNESCO-listed Ottoman town of Berat. The ruins of fifth-century Krujë Castle are marvellous and can be seen in only half a day.
You could also spend a day at Lake Ohrid, about a two-hour drive from Tirana. It’s the oldest lake found in Europe and is shared with bordering Macedonia. On the Albanian side, the lake is surrounded by quaint villages like Lin and Pogradec. Ohrid Holidays can also help you explore the Macedonian side, including the resort town of Ohrid itself. The area is full of remarkable monasteries, Byzantine churches and luscious green hills.
There are many beautiful things to see in Albania, and I hope this guide has inspired you to one day book a trip. At the very least, spend a few days there before or after your holidays to neighbouring Italy and Greece. You’ll thank yourself for venturing away from the more popular spots for a little while!
Recommend budget tours in Albania
- Tirana and Kruja Full Day Tour
- Berat Full Day Trip from Tirana
- Albania Hidden Gems 8 Days Tour
- Shkoder Day Trip from Tirana
- Krujas Castle Half Day Tour from Tirana
- Buthrotum, Saint George Monastery, Ksamil and Lekursi Castle from Saranda
- River hiking and Osumi Canyons Exploration
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