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Undeveloped Mediterranean beaches await footprints, reimagined streets meet with Ottoman heritage, and the war bunkers are being turned to art galleries. Then how about islands, castles, gregarious locals and an immersive atmosphere everywhere you turn?
Tirana Kruja Castle, Albania.
It only takes a moment to fall in love with Albania. Azure lakes lost in valley folds, Ottoman relics in an evocative state of ruin, grand snow-dappled mountains and some of the Mediterranean’s best and least-developed beaches. Most visitors wonder how or why they have not discovered Albania sooner. Many wish they had longer time here, instead of a quick jaunt on route to better-known neighbors. Everyone basks in the hospitality they receive. The word has trickled about, and Albania is in the process of transformation, going from off the beaten track gem to a revered Eastern European destination.
Croatia went through the same transformation more than a decade back, and the similarities are hard to ignore. Breathtaking inland landscapes, pristine coastline, architectural wonders and the quiet pace of life; Albania is even more laid-back and authentic. Long decades of isolationist rule mean the country does not quite fit with the rest of Europe. Customs and culture seem to come from a bygone era while language and architecture are halfway to the east. Exotic and enchanting, this is a country where you are never quite sure what’s going to happen next, but you know that everything that happens is going to provide wonderful, long-lasting memories.
Landscapes are breathtaking throughout Albania.
The challenge to traveling here is the same as the reason to come here: isolation and a European land that’s so far avoided tour buses and summer crowds. If you go to the effort of reaching Albania it seems odd to cut the journey short. Sleepy hilltop towns are untouched vestiges of Ottoman times. Long immaculate beaches are dotted by tiny villages, some of which only received electricity in the last 15 years. Infectious energy carries you through capital city Tirana, where jazz bars and chic restaurants juxtapose the peculiar colors of communist apartment blocks. Then there are the mountains, rugged and resplendent, little populating them except herds of fluffy goats. Throw in interesting Cold War history and art, along with monasteries and fortresses and you’ll see why visitors wish they had more time.
Albanian people are the real highlights. From decades of political and social isolation, the country has evolved with free-minded liberalism, where it’s perfectly okay to invite strangers into your home. The people want you to discover the true Albania. In contrast to so much of Europe, Albanians are very keen for visitors to see what Albania is really like. Especially in the summer months, this is a wonderful contrast to Western Europe’s atmosphere and tempo, an experience you might expect in a lost part of Asia or South America, but not what you would imagine in Europe.
Albania borders Greece to the south. Although the country’s recent history does not make for good reading, it’s always important to differentiate the beliefs of a people with the direction of a past political regime. As you explore you start picking apart the country’s idiosyncrasies, admiring how some regions have held true to glorious Ottoman and Roman histories, while other areas have taken a free-flowing and creative Albanian culture into the 21st century.
Colorful apartments in Tirana.
Trendy bars continue to appear along the street corners with jazz music seeping out from their smoky interiors. Old Soviet-style blocks have been painted various colors, an essential part of Tirana’s modern style. Neighborhoods once exclusive to dictator Hoxha’s henchmen have morphed into leafy downtown suburbs with fashionable boutiques and broad parks. All around you sense a rapid rate of transformation. The call to prayer rings out from a beautiful old mosque. Avenues lead towards stunning odes to the 18th and 19th centuries. Tirana is a city of juxtapositions riding the wave of monumental change, making it one of Europe’s most fascinating places to be right now.
Scenic mountains at Gjirokaster Lake.
Unknown and mostly unseen, Albania’s mountains remain much of a mystery. Turquoise lakes glisten beneath peaks that are shrouded in snow throughout winter. Hiking trails cross-vast national parks that border with Montenegro and Kosovo. Perhaps this is why the locals know them as the Accursed Mountains, or it could be that their remarkable natural beauty is the curse. Either way, that folklore is long gone and the Albanian Alps provide an adventure playground that’s becoming increasingly rare to find in Europe. Just make sure you are with a good guide as small picture-perfect lakes are not the easiest to find after you have crossed Lake Koman and entered Valbonë Valley National Park.
Ottoman Heritage in Berat and Gjirokaster
Berat Castle, Albania.
Ottoman heritage spreads far and wide in the area where Europe meets the Middle East. There are few places where it has been protected as flawlessly as in Albania. Elsewhere you can admire grand Ottoman art and architecture. In Albania, you walk through untouched Ottoman towns, where the atmosphere quickly takes you back to a distant time. Berat and Gjirokaster feel like open-air museums, and they are both on the UNESCO World Heritage list. As they remain free of mass tourism, it can feel like you have stepped through a time capsule. These two small towns escaped destruction during communist times, and there is real warmth to the welcome. Spend a morning walking around the sights then spend an afternoon mingling with local people in the many cafes.
The Ionian Coastline
Traditional houses on Berat's coast.
Craggy mountains provide a backdrop to images of pure Mediterranean bliss. The blue-green waters, empty strips of sand, and lack of crowds are what make the coastline so ideal for a vacation destination. Times are changing, especially now this coastal region has been nicknamed the Albanian Riviera, but it is still wonderfully quiet and escapist. You will need a sense of adventure, as the tourist infrastructure is not fully developed beyond Saranda. The rewards are memorable, and there is always a smug feeling when you find a beach all to yourself. For those that need a break from every day, a detox from the modern stress, Albania’s Ionian Coast is this and more. All roads converge on the most developed beach town of Saranda, but a jaunt into the mountains will cause you to discover a different stretch of sea and sand.
The Easy Sense of Adventure
Gjirokaster UNESCO World Heritage Site, Albania.
For a small country, Albania is big on highlights. It was only 30 years ago that the borders were closed to almost everyone, and only a decade ago that the first visitors starting trickling in. Now is very much the time to be here as a wonderful sense of adventure remains, yet it is easy to obtain, especially on a privately guided trip across the country. Perhaps the atmosphere will change in the future, especially with the country now in negotiations to join the European Union (2018). Albania is a country that’s imploring people to come to explore, and it feels like the locals have the red carpet out wherever you go in a way that makes you realize that luxury is in the adventure.
Theth houses in a picturesque valley in Albania.
Compare Albania to most of Europe and the country is a unique experience. Merely stepping foot inside Albanian territory comes with an inimitable feeling. Spending enough time in the country to unpick the idiosyncrasies is another highlight. Even the main destinations remain off the beaten track, and they are just the start of what this small Balkan country has up its sleeve.
Reinvented War Bunkers
Once unsightly war bunkers cover Albania, hiding places for a war that never came. Estimates vary as to how many there are, but whether you believe 175,000 or 750,000 it’s always a staggering number. Some of these bunkers have received a new lease on life. They have been converted into something more appealing than a reminder of a paranoid dictator. Hamburger stalls, cocktail bars, boutique hotels, Christian shrines, tattoo parlors. After all, why destroy an eyesore when it’s so structurally sound? The most famous of the conversions can be found in Tirana, two art galleries housed in what used to be dictator Hoxha’s atomic bunkers.
Castles From the Past
Shkoder Rozafa Castle.
Each of Albania’s castles tells a different story, emerging from a contrasting time with a new set of heroes and villains. Petrela Castle is an easy morning trip from Tirana, and the uphill walk to its summit is almost like a scene from the latest Star Wars movie. Rozafa is a captivating stop on the road north to Montenegro, while Berat and Gjirokastra are dominated by their fortresses. For a real immersion in Albanian history and folklore make a stop in Krujë where Skanderbeg Castle brings tales of resistance and revolution. Like all the others, it’s not just the thick stone that impresses, but also the panoramas that flow from your elevated vantage point.
The Ruins of Butrint
Butrint amphitheater remains of ancient baptistery from 6th-century archeological site world heritage site.
Butrint is a poignant example of Albania standing amid the great civilizations of human history. A Greek acropolis waits, fortified by both walls and forest. Standing in the theatre you can almost feel the atmosphere from 2,300 years ago; certainly, imagine it at the Cyclopean wall and ornate Greek inscriptions. There are also odes to the Roman period as well as geometric mosaics, basilicas, and evidence of the city’s Byzantine history. It was all abandoned for over a millennia but has been neatly restored, giving a strong sense of past glory.
Fulfilling many impressions of a tropical island fantasy, the Ksamil Islands are just one of the attractions on the Ionian Coast. Relax on rocky-forested islands fringed by slithers of golden sand, while gazing out across evocative sea colors. To give an impression of the location, the easiest way to get here is to fly to Greek Corfu then take the ferry to Ksamil. While they are developing into popular destinations (understandable if you take one glimpse at a Ksamil Islands photo) there’s a still a sense that you’ve found a piece of Europe’s coast that very few others know about.
Albanian villages cling to their old customs and traditions. Locals dress in their traditional garments and tend to the fields, while life moves on slowly until the call to prayer rings out and there are brief few moments of activity. Then it’s back to the sedate pace of yesteryear. Isolated villages are found all across the country, and they are a great way to understand the day-to-day life of a nation that’s proud of its past and traditions. While Tirana has become a thriving and trending metropolis, it is in the villages where you really connect with the locals.
Old Mes Bridge, Albania.
The best time to visit Albania is now. It’s the sweet spot between limited tourism but just enough amenities to make a stay calm and comfortable. With ascension into the EU on the cards and the recent exponential increase in visitors, Albania may not provide the same experience a decade from now.
As for the time of year, like the rest of the Balkans, Albania is best from April to October. The mountains are accessible, and it’s warm enough for the beaches. Plus the days are long, and you can get to know the country before dusk falls and already quiet towns shut down for the day. May and June are ideal, with warm days and not many other tourists around.
As per the rest of Europe, peak season is in July and August, although you won’t experience the same dramatic surge as in nearby countries like Croatia. This is a time when the Albanians go on vacation; so do not expect the beaches to be empty. You will, however, have an opportunity to strike up a conversation with local people visiting the coast. September is another excellent time to visit; good weather, hardly any tourists, opportunity to explore far and wide.
November to March is the slow season, and you can go days without seeing another tourist during these months. The weather is not unpleasant, but it is far from sunbathing climate. Mountains and lakes can become inaccessible due to snowfall and the ferry services shuts down as well. Plus, with the shorter days, it’s harder to go on a good hiking adventure.
Saranda Resort, Albania.
Albania’s tourist infrastructure has only just emerged from its infancy stage and this should be noted when you plan a visit. There is not a huge choice of five-star hotels and levels of luxury are not on the same level as other countries in Europe. Most upmarket establishments are newly built, leaning on the recent upsurge in visitors, although a few quirky refurbishments can be found in painted communist blocks. Small-scale tourism is reflected in the small size of the hotels. Albania is not where you will find large resort-style accommodation and it seems fitting to use the word boutique, especially at the family-run establishments in rural parts of the country.
Tirana has a number of good hotel options while the towns of Berat and Gjirokaster provide cute accommodation in period buildings; these destinations are the mainstay on most guided itineraries. The lack of large-scale accommodation is part of the appeal on the Ionian Coast; do not expect fast WiFi or opulent facilities, this is a rustic part of Europe and almost all visitors prefer it this way. There are some excellent home-stays in other parts of Albania, along with accommodation that provides a welcoming, homely feel.
While Albania has not typically been a family destination, it’s becoming a hit as part of multi-trip journeys through the Balkan region. You may prefer sticking to the route through Tirana and Berat, but more adventurous families can enjoy good cultural experiences in villages and off the beaten track destinations. For something unique but not necessarily glamorous, consider a night in one of the reconverted bunkers, including those built straight onto the sand.
Albania is welcoming visitors to come to enjoy the waters of the beautiful Ionian sea.
After its years of isolation, Albania has opened its doors as wide as possible. Almost any nationality can enjoy a visa-free stay here, with U.S. nationals allowed to stay for a full year. It’s 90 days for everyone else, including EU nationals. If you need and have obtained a visa for travel in the Schengen Area, the U.K. or the USA, you will also be allowed to enter Albania without any need for a specific Albanian visa. This is very much a country that has opened to the world and is seeking to fast-track its ascension into the European Union.
Albanians will warmly welcome to enjoy your visit to their country.
You will find Albanians to be amongst the friendliest and hospitable people on the continent, especially in the capital city itself. Both the U.K. and U.S. foreign offices declare that crime specifically targeted towards tourists is very rare.
Tirana can be a little daunting to the first-time visitor. It certainly runs in its own rhythm, and you should remember all the basic travel precautions, such as not overtly advertising your wealth. It’s a lively city after dark, and you should feel safe walking around or taking a taxi. Your guide can provide more localized information based on where you are staying. It’s not recommended to hire a car in Albania as the road system is far below European standards, from potholes and poorly paved roads to the lack of streetlights and confusing traffic lights.
It’s wise to take some basic health precautions, as the standard of facilities won’t be up to what you are used to at home. Guides will accompany you to hospitals and clinics, as it’s unlikely that the doctors who see you will speak English. The tap water is not considered safe to drink even though it is consumed by locals. Bottled water, however, is readily available throughout the country.
A mosque located in Tirana.
Albania makes a mockery of the religious challenges facing many nations around the world. The peace in which Islam and Christianity come together does not make international news, but it should. There is a harmony of religions and beliefs, a general feeling of acceptance that’s diametrically opposed to the narratives of fear that have seeped into a wider Western culture. Undoubtedly the country’s history has something to do with this, a long and brutal communist isolation now replaced by a freedom that has many connotations. You will feel at ease here, and that’s always a good way to start a vacation.
Few countries are so easy-going regarding customs and etiquette. Attitudes towards Western countries are overwhelmingly positive everywhere you travel here. In some places, English-speaking locals will be eager to take their chance to converse with foreigners. There’s a sense that the country wants to learn from those that visit, so do not be afraid to share stories; after all, cultural dialogue thrives on this.
The challenge is finding a common language. More Albanians speak Italian than they do English, and senior generations are unlikely to know anything beyond a hello or how are you. More and more people are learning English and it is now a part of their school curriculum. Younger generations, particularly in Tirana, are increasing in their confidence and use of English.
Albania is a developing country, and you should be aware of how to access your money. Visa and Mastercard accepting ATMs are bountiful in Tirana, but this financial infrastructure is not widespread across the country. Forex offices are more common – both U.S. dollars and Euros are readily exchangeable – so it’s worth carrying some cash which you at all times.
Visit Saranda port on the beautiful Ionian sea.
Albania is made for handcrafted tours. And that’s the Zicasso way. We connect you with the world’s best tour operators, including those that have pioneered the development of tourism in Albania. It could be an Albanian vacation, a Balkan adventure, or a quick Albanian excursion amid a longer visit to Europe. Whatever your idea of a dream Albanian itinerary, we’ll connect you with specialist tour operators that can make it happen.