If you are like me and a fan of off the beaten path places, Albania should be your next trip. I became infatuated with the Balkan region last year and made a point to visit the entire region on my recent European trip. Albania was one of the countries on this list and one that I was both apprehensive and excited about visiting. What I found was an underrated country full of surprises. A gorgeous coastline, ancient ruins, cool Ottoman culture and a vibrant capital city. I’m really excited to share my experiences and tips for visiting Albania.
I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know THAT much about Albania. I saw the movie Taken, where the “bad guys” were Albanian sex traffickers. That clearly didn’t stop me from going. (That movie seriously set back Albanian public relations decades). I was told repeatedly by other Europeans that I needed to be “really careful” in Albania and I honestly don’t want to repeat some of the things I was told. After 3 months in Europe, I can honestly say that the various countries talk more smack about each other than those women on The Real Housewives, and much of it completely unfounded.
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Albania has an extremely rich history that I touch on in various sections below, but Albania was under harsh communist rule from the 1960’s until 1992 when they became the last country in Europe to end Communist rule. People had been so isolated that many Albanians had no idea the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989. Since then they had a period of adjustment, alignment with the west, corruption, human rights reforms and eventually became a member of NATO in 2009. In 2014 Albania was granted candidate status for entry into the EU.
Tirana is the capital and has a commercial airport and central bus station. Most travelers arrive overland from either Kosovo, Montenegro or Macedonia. A few bus routes with approximate travel times and prices are:
I arrived in Albania via ferry from Greece. Ionian Cruises has daily ferries from Corfu to Saranda. The 0900 is a faster boat and takes only 30 minutes. During high season there are later departures but the trip is slightly over an hour.
I recommend you get tickets online if you can. The Ionian Cruises ticket office is not at the ferry terminal like you would expect, but down the street, about 15 minutes walking distance. Once you have your ticket you will find that people are less than helpful. It pains me to say this because I am the Greek people’s biggest fan. Once at the dock, I thought it would be obvious where my ferry was but it wasn’t. I inquired at the little ticket office there and they vaguely pointed and said “go to the end”. What is the end? They also said they have nothing to do with boats going to other countries. Well ok then! I still love you Greece. Our love will never die.
Anyway if you are looking at the water, head all the way to the left. It will be another ten minutes walk to the “end”. There will be a security guard, a gate and a nondescript building. I’m glad I had extra time here because I was really confused. No signs, no employees. I finally just followed the crowd of people showing their tickets to a man and I said “Saranda?” and he nodded.
Yada, yada, the ferry left about an hour late, an event I found to be normal in the world of Albanian transport. It wasn’t very comfortable, but at least it was a short ride. There was lots of smoking, the thing I disliked most about travel in the Balkans and Greece.
Albanian is the official language. Their second language is commonly Italian and there is a sizeable Greek minority. English is becoming more widely spoken among the younger generations. At tourist places such as hotels or hostels, the employees will usually speak very good English.
This is one of those languages (like Greek, Finnish, etc) that is not related to any other. It is the official language of Albania and Kosovo and a sizable minority language in Macedonia. Learn a few words and the locals will appreciate your efforts.
Roughly 59% of Albanians practice Islam which was a legacy of the 500 years of Ottoman rule. As someone who has traveled to many Islamic countries, I call it “Islam lite”. I saw alcohol consumed (much to my delight), didn’t see many women wearing a hijab and didn’t hear the call to prayer blaring from the mosque speakers like in the Middle East or Indonesia.
Christianity is the 2nd biggest religion at 16%. The rest are considered irreligious. Keep in mind the recent history of Albania is one of forced atheism under Communism up until 1991. This has lead to the Muslims being more “cultural Muslims” with few religious practices after decades of religious persecution.
I went as a solo traveler and obviously, I am a female. Several other female solo travelers crossed my path as well! I felt safe, even alone at night. Furthermore, I was never harassed or catcalled by men. I was hardly even stared at, something I’ve sadly had to become accustomed to in other places.
I do these same things everywhere and honestly didn’t do anything different or special in Albania. Don’t leave bags open or unattended. Don’t travel with expensive jewelry or purses. Walk in well-lit areas at night, preferable around other people. Be careful with taxis because there are many unofficial tax services. If you end up in an unofficial taxi, maybe try to get as much info as possible from the car, the plate, maybe even a clandestine photo of the driver and send it to someone. Even better, be friendly and ask the driver’s name! Not quite James Bond stuff, but better than nothing.
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I had two “unfavorable” experiences in the week that I was there, neither of which made me feel particularly unsafe. A grouchy old man grumbled (in Albanian) on a public bus when a fellow American and I were animatedly chatting. Other locals on the bus explained to us that he thought we should have been speaking Albanian. They also chuckled and told us to ignore him. We were a bit perplexed by that interaction but hey, there are grumpy people everywhere! If I had a dollar for every time I heard a non-Spanish speaking Miamian complain about people speaking Spanish, I would not be writing this blog and instead be by a pool being served champagne by a crew of well-trained puppies.
The other not so great experience was when I was crossing the border to Macedonia. I will discuss that in another post. I am not sharing this to make Albanians look bad. This could happen anywhere. I tell it so others can learn from my mistakes.
Saranda (3 nights)- Berat (1 night)- Tirana (1 night)
I spent only 5 nights in Albania and obviously wish it had been longer. I will definitely go back!
This is a great base for exploring the south. You can visit Butrint, The Blue Eye, Gjirokaster, Ksmail islands and a number of other places from here. Plus the town has a few beaches you can chill on. I arrived in the early afternoon via ferry from Greece.
Other than the beaches and visiting the castle ruins of Lëkurësi, there isn’t tons to do in town. On the first day, I spend the afternoon in Butrint.
This UNESCO heritage site is only 18 km south of Saranda and a quick 30-minute bus ride. These stunning ruins were inhabited since prehistoric times and at one time were a Greek colony and Roman city. It’s beautiful, forested and shady and best of all, you will feel like you have it all to yourself.
Few ruins have impressed me this much or made me feel so peaceful. I happily lingered here for hours.
A friend and I rented an ATV/quad (because I was too scared to use the scooter) and drove up the coast from Saranda. Our goal was to get to Himarë, but since the ATV is pretty slow, and the road kind of scary, we didn’t make it all the way. We stopped for beach time and a beer at Borsh Beach which was beautiful and essentially empty at this time in early September, but still warm enough to swim! These pics were from the Vila Beach Bar that has nice changing rooms and WCs as well as friendly staff.
We drove a bit further north to see the Ali Pasha castle. Until 1820 it was the second residence of Ali Pasha Tepelena, the Ottoman ruler of Albania.
Once again, we were the only tourists at a magnificent place.
*If you have more time to spend in Saranda, visit the Blue Eye or Ksmail Islands. Either of these is only half a day’s trip. You can combine Ksmail and Butrint. You can also combine Gjirokaster and The Blue Eye if short on time.
The Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër) is a natural spring with a deep center of over 50 meters. The deep blue surrounded by lighter turquoise gives the appearance of an iris when viewed from above. I didn’t go because I had heard from other tourists mixed reviews…that it was crowded and more importantly the water was freezing. Apparently, there is a constant temperature of 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) Not for this Miami girl!!!
On my third day, I took a day trip to the ancient Ottoman town of Gjirokaster, which is also a UNESCO heritage site. This is the birthplace of the infamous communist leader Enver Hoxha. It is 90 minutes north of Saranda via bus and cost 300 lek ($2.5). This drive was a little scary since the roads are a bit underdeveloped with few safety structures in place, but once I stopped closing my eyes and holding my breath, I enjoyed some gorgeous views.
At the bus stop for Gjirokaster, you can either take a small local bus up the hill to the heart of the old city or walk up. The town is a maze and kind of easy to get lost in. I think 3 hours would be an ideal amount of time to spend here.
Make sure to walk up to the fortress for views of the entire city. Before leaving, take a break with a drink and view at the quiet, shady El Dorado cafe.
I had difficulty getting back to Saranda. The owner of the hostel told me that the last bus back was at 2:30 pm. I was waiting at the stop at 2:00 pm just to be safe. By 4:00 pm I had to give up and hitchhike. Luckily a man and his cute 10-year-old son came by and they had an unofficial taxi business. The boy spoke a little English and I resisted the urge to pinch his cheeks as we negotiated a price. They stopped and randomly picked up some more locals (after asking if this was ok with me) and then the boy and I had a lovely discussion about his favorite music, American hip-hop.
If I were to do this again or give advice, I would suggest that if you are planning to head north, just spend the night here and then continue on your journey. Much easier than going back and forth like I did!
Yes another UNESCO heritage site. I told you Albania was dope! Berat was my favorite place I visited in Albania. It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the 6thcentury BC! Berat was part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, THEN later part of the First Bulgarian Empire and eventually, part of the Ottoman Empire from 1385 until 1912! Whew!
The old city center consists of three parts: Kalaja (the castle area), Mangalem (at the foot of the castle hill) and Gorica (on the left bank of the Osum River, pictured above).
It is called the City of 1000 Windows. Obvy, right?
Berat castle is a nice place to spend the afternoon and watch the sunset. The castle has a little cafe…great for a post climbing drink on a hot day!
In the evening be sure to stroll along the Osum River and see the locals out and about. Stop in one of the many restaurants for dinner.
From Berat to Tirana was a 3-hour bus ride and there were several buses throughout the day. The one I chose was the 1200 bus and it left promptly at 1:30pm. Sigh.
I feel like I say this in many Balkan countries but I want to strangle whoever told me to only spend a day in the capital! Tirana is really cool and I would have definitely enjoyed much more time here! I did the free walking tour (I ALWAYS do the free walking tour). Here are some highlights:
I really love how in one frame you see the statue of Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, the oldest mosque in the city dating to Ottoman times, an Italian Renaissance-style building and some ultra-modern tower.
This is the country’s largest museum. The large mosaic on top is called “The Albanians” and depicts ancient to modern historical figures.
This odd structure was co-designed by the former dictator’s daughter, Panvera Hoxha and at the time was said to be the most expensive structure in Albania. Originally it was the Enver Hoxha Museum, built in 1988. Now some would like to see it demolished and some want it turned into something useful…like an opera house or museum. People often climb it then slide down. I didn’t have the energy this day, plus I was too busy playing with the stray dog that apparently comes along for every tour.
Starting the late 1960’s, the Albania government led by the dictator Hoxha “bunkerised” the nation and by 1983 a total of 173,371 concrete bunkers had been constructed around the country. Hoxha was deeply suspicious of the intentions of his neighbors, Greece and Yugoslavia. Some of the bunkers in Tirana are now used as art galleries. Here in the background is a piece of the Berlin Wall.
This marketplace was close to my hostel and I enjoyed yummy gelato and fruit from the market.
The fresh figs (two kinds) are to die for!
Great!! I would not hesitate to add hiking in Shkoder (in the far north) to your itinerary. I met many other travelers who did this and they all raved about it! It is a moderate difficulty trek to hike between Valbona and Thethi over the Accursed Mountains. Ooh sounds intriguing, huh?
There is a longer version that takes 7 days called the Balkan Peak trail that spans 3 countries, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. In 2 days you can hike between Valbona and Thethi.
Albania is one of the most affordable destinations in Europe for both lodging and food. The customer service is generally very good but at a relaxed pace as is much of the Balkans so prepare to chill if you’re a high strung American like myself. The food can be hit or miss. You can find Greek specialties such as Gyro or Souvlaki, Turkish style cheese pies and grilled meat as well and traditional Albanian specialties like stews, salads and soups. On the coast there is great seafood.
I loved this place. Super clean, cute, great staff, breakfast made to order and only 10 minutes walk to the main square. When I was there a cat and litter of kittens had taken residence, much to my delight.
Probably my favorite meal in Albania. Traditional food showcasing Ottoman roots in a cozy setting in authentic old house. Very affordable and many vegetarian options. Rruga Musa Maci
Located in the Sky Tower featuring exclusive views and local and international menu with reasonable prices.
This is a 5-minute walk from the ferry, across the street from the beach, and has a balcony with great views. Tomi the owner makes breakfast every morning and is literally one of the nicest people you will ever meet! He can often be found offering guests free watermelon or walking lost souls to the bus stop. He goes above and beyond for guests.
You have to enjoy seafood while on the coast. The waiter here took me into the kitchen and showed me every type of fish while pointing out the corresponding words on the menu so I could see the name and price. So helpful! This is the only food pic I have. Rruga Jonianet
This place has a bit of a scene with a nice terrace on the water. I had very good soup here and enjoyed people watching.
I stayed in Berat Backpackers on the Gorica side of the river. They offer breakfast, have a good location, great staff, and offer private rooms with a terrace and view! The only downside is the location on a hill of cobblestone and if you have wheeled luggage…this is not easy!
An alternative on the Mangalem side. I met many people staying here and they seemed very happy with it.
***There is an abundance of small hotels and guesthouses for under $50 per nights!
On the Gorica side. Traditional style house with local food and good views. Rruga Kristaq Tutulani
Interested in more of the Balkan Region? Read More: One Week Road Trip in Bulgaria
The vast majority of people I encountered were nice and as helpful as possible considering the language barrier. As much as I want to tell everyone to go to Albania, I would not recommend it to newbie travelers, especially to those just starting to dabble in solo travel. I am a seasoned traveler but still had my challenges here.
You cannot zip around Albania on a fast train like you would in western Europe. In fact, there is no train. The bus is not the most reliable system. This is all part of Albania’s charm! This may be the first time you hitchhike. It may be done out of sheer desperation, but what a fun story you will have to tell your friends and family.
I will be surprised if Albania doesn’t become a more popular tourist destination in the next decade. It has much to offer at more affordable prices than most of Europe and significantly fewer crowds. For those looking for something different, I hope Albania makes it onto your bucket lists!
Would you visit Albania? Have you already been? Tell me about it below!