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Home » Albania Road Trip Guide: A Grit and Glory Journey

Albania Road Trip Guide: A Grit and Glory Journey

Imagine a place tucked between emerald mountains and a soft, inviting sea that lures you into its warm embrace for half the year. A land punctuated with ancient ruins that whisper tales of yore, valleys draped in silver-leafed olive trees, and Ottoman masterpieces that stand as testament to time. It’s Albania, an enigmatic underdog that was once a void in the wandering spirit’s atlas, now blossoming into a travel darling in the most delightful of ways.

Google Map with sights

Before we dive in, here’s the highlight of this guide – a comprehensive Google Map pinpointing all the attractions, eateries, and points of interest.

Albanian Odyssey: From Age-old Tribes to the Dance with the EU

Over two millennia ago, Illyrian tribes roamed these lands, living in a society defined by its tribal roots. They are the forebears of the Albanians we meet today. Yet, Albania’s journey through the corridors of time was far from a solitary endeavor. It was part of the grand narratives of multiple empires, trading sovereignty for imperial protections.

Back when Alexander the Great spun tales of bravery in Macedonia, the lands that would one day be Albania were his domain. Then came the 2nd century BC, when the crimson standard of the Roman Empire fluttered over these lands. As the sun set on the Roman era, much of Albania found itself embraced by the Byzantine Empire, a union that would persist for centuries.

The fortress of Rosafa in Kruja was already in the 4th or 3rd. Century BC BC founded by an Illyrian tribe. Photo: Fabian Kühne / Unsplash.com

The relics from antiquity here may be scarce, a testament to Albania’s peripheral role in the Greco-Roman world. Albania, you see, has seldom been at the pulsating heart of European civilization, more often lingering around its edges.

Following the Byzantine era, the baton passed to the Republic of Venice and later, to the Serbian state. In the 13th and 14th centuries, an Albanian Kingdom emerged, though intriguingly, not under Albanian rule but under the thumb of French and Italian crusaders. What emerged next was the Albanian Principality, steered by the homegrown Topia clan during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is this very principality that today’s Albanians regard as the birthplace of their national identity.

As the 14th century folded, the Ottomans arrived. Their presence was a seismic shift that would echo through Albania’s timeline until the early 20th century. The Ottoman Turks were in their ascendancy, gobbling up Byzantium, recasting Constantinople as their stronghold, and sewing the entire Balkan Peninsula into the fabric of their vast empire.

The 15th century saw Albanians rise up against their Turkish overlords, often with success. Their resistance found a figurehead in Prince Skanderbeg, or Georg Kastrioti, whose name has become a symbol of Albania’s struggle for freedom. His story is echoed through the land in the form of monuments, street names, and the hearts of the Albanians. Raised as a hostage by the Turks and forced into Islam and Ottoman military service, Kastrioti harbored a grudge that fueled his lifelong quest for revenge and liberty.

Monuments for Prince Skanderbeg, the national hero and symbol of the struggle of the Albanian people against the Turks, were erected in many cities in the country. Photo: Ergys Temali / Unsplash.com

Returning to the lands of his ancestors, George embraced Christianity and seized the reins of the resistance against the Ottomans. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Poles, Hungarians, and Venetians, he led military campaigns, spawned a guerrilla movement robust enough to make any oppressor lose sleep, and ultimately attained a fiercely fought independence for Albania. This victory was acknowledged by both the mighty Ottoman Empire and the power players across Europe. Mirroring the fate of Alexander the Great, his death came not on the battlefield, but from the grasp of malaria, a disease rampant in Albania until the mid-20th century.

With the fall of this iconic leader, Albania’s short-lived independent glory was snuffed out, replaced by the shadow of the Ottoman Empire. Over the centuries, Albania’s identity began to meld with that of Turkey. Travelers to these lands in the 19th century would have been greeted by the sight of mosques peppering the landscape, a testament to the successful conversion of much of the population to Islam by the Turks. The use of Arabic script, prevalent in Turkish until the early 20th century, decorated signs and engravings. Asian bazaars and tea houses completed the picture, making Albania a vibrant extension of the Asian-Muslim world. This era left an indelible imprint on Albania, the Oriental nuances of which continue to permeate its towns and the everyday lives of its people.

Albanian cultural resurgence began to stir in the 1870s. It was during this period that the Albanians began to establish literary standards for their language and toyed with the idea of autonomy. As the 20th century dawned, the once mighty Ottoman Empire began to crumble, presenting the Albanians with an opportunity to reclaim their statehood.

The proclamation of Albania’s independence came in 1912. In the ensuing century, the country’s political landscape underwent multiple shifts. From 1914 to 1925, it wore the crown of a principality, before morphing into a republic for the next three years, and then transitioning into a kingdom from 1928 to 1939.

Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years, making it very similar to Turkey. The photo shows Albanian Muslims in a mosque in Shkodra, 1917. Source: fortepan.hu

From 1939 to 1944, Albania found itself in the clutches of foreign powers – first under the iron heel of Italian fascists, then ensnared by the German Wehrmacht. It was the communists who finally swept away the invaders, liberating their homeland. It’s a curious footnote in history that in many of the Eastern European nations that later embraced socialism, the local left-wing factions often failed to overthrow Hitler and seize power without external assistance, usually from the likes of Stalin and the Red Army. Yet Albania bucked this trend. Their communists, in a display of audacious self-reliance, ousted the oppressors without any need for Soviet boots on their soil. A feat that ensured that Soviet forces never made a footprint on Albanian land.

The Enver Hoxha Epoch: Suppression, Iron Curtain, Paranoia, and Grinding Poverty

In the aftermath of the war, Albania metamorphosed into a nation unlike any other. It was as if it had been sealed within an impenetrable bubble, cut off from the rest of the world. Foreigners were denied entry, and its citizens were barred from crossing the border. For decades, Albania existed in splendid isolation, akin to the North Korea of today.

The man at the helm was Enver Hoxha, the first secretary of the party’s central committee. An ardent communist, Hoxha was a severe, ascetic figure, uncompromising in his vision which echoed that of Joseph Stalin. While the Soviet Union experienced a softening of socialism after Stalin’s reign ended in 1953, Hoxha maintained his iron-fisted rule over Albania until 1985, guided by the “Stalinist playbook”. This was reminiscent of the early Soviet Union – marked by mass industrialization, eradication of religious edifices, and brutal suppression.

The upside, if one could call it that, was an unexpected curb on Islamic radicalism. In today’s Albania, the populace tends to identify with a specific religion in name only, and are, in fact, largely atheistic. Even though Albanians have historically prioritized their national identity over religious affiliation, this state of affairs is still pertinent today.

Scanderbeg Square and Town Hall in Tirana, 1963. No cars on the street because private cars were banned in the country for a long time Photo: fortepan.hu

Up until 1985, life under Hoxha’s rule was reminiscent of the Soviets’ existence in the 1930s. Commodities were scarce, the menu at most eateries offered only basic fare, and homes were spartan to the point of appearing impoverished even for the standards of the ’70s and ’80s. Home conveniences like washing machines and refrigerators were an alien concept to the majority. Recreational stays at sanatoriums were a privilege enjoyed by a tiny elite, similar to the Soviet Union in Stalin’s era.

International travel was an impossible fantasy for Albanians. Perhaps the most stark feature of socialist Albania was the prohibition on private vehicles. In the twilight years of Stalinism, the USSR was already pushing car sales to its citizens. Meanwhile, Albanian city streets remained eerily devoid of traffic to the point that most locales had no use for traffic lights. The majority relied on public transport, while rural folk used horses and donkeys as their primary means of travel.

Despite its meager size and modest population of two million, Albania made a gallant attempt at self-sufficiency, developing its own education, infrastructure, and domestic goods – a rare feat for such a small state. Investments poured into railroads, train stations, and tracks, leading to almost universal literacy. Albania proudly manufactured its own TV sets, radios, and apparel. With the advent of open borders and capitalism, however, much of this production halted. Today, Albanians mostly use imported goods.

An idiosyncratic political course bolstered Albania’s unity. It managed to foster strained relationships not only with capitalist nations, but also with Eastern Bloc countries. Remarkably, Albanian leaders found themselves at odds with the Soviet Union, China, and neighboring Yugoslavia.

Enver Hoxha’s reign ended with his death in 1985, coinciding with Gorbachev’s rise to power in the USSR and the beginning of the end for the Eastern Bloc. With Hoxha’s demise, the “local year 1937” – marked by his execution decrees – also came to an end, and the repression eased substantially.

The Present-Day Albania

The wheel of change spun rapidly in Albania between 1990 and 1992 as capitalism and multi-party governance took root. Mirroring the tumultuous transformation experienced by the former Soviet Union in the ’90s, Albania was rattled by hyperinflation, skyrocketing crime rates, and the birth of private entrepreneurship. Thousands of Albanians, unable to secure jobs within their homeland, sought opportunities abroad – a migration that, unfortunately, included elements of the criminal underworld. Thus, the grim specter of the Albanian mafia emerged in numerous European crime narratives. During these years, the borders may have been open, but the waves of tourists were minimal. The absence of infrastructure coupled with the prevalent banditry did little to lure foreign visitors.

However, the turn of the century ushered in a period of rapid advancement for Albania. What used to be a land bereft of personal transportation is now choked with endless streams of vehicles. Cramped high-rise dwellings have given way to modern, spacious apartments that are more widespread in coastal cities compared to the areas marked by socialist construction. Retail deserts have blossomed into bustling hubs of commerce, with supermarkets sprouting at every corner. And the iron curtain of isolation has been replaced with a welcoming banner that attracts thousands of foreign visitors seeking a sunny coastal vacation.

In 2014, the European Union recognized Albania’s progress, awarding it candidate country status. Official negotiations discussing Albania’s ascension into the EU began in earnest in 2020.

Negotiations on Albania’s accession to the European Union have been going on since 2020, but the EU flag is often next to the Albanian one

Public Transport in Albania

The excellent public transport infrastructure typical in most European countries – where modern trains and spacious, amenity-equipped buses maintain regular schedules, and where ticketing and travel information can easily be accessed online. But that’s not the case in Albania.

Air Travel: Domestic flights are non-existent in Albania. It’s too small.

Railways: While a network of trains linked many cities during the socialist era, by 2023, passenger rail traffic had all but halted. The decay of the rail infrastructure has been so severe that the station building in the capital, Tirana, was torn down, and the tracks leading from the former station towards the outskirts of the city have been turned into makeshift dumps.

Buses: The disarray extends to the bus stations too. The main bus station in the capital is located at a road junction leading to Durres and Shkodra (Shkodër). Here, there’s no semblance of a station building or waiting area, and passengers are left to perch on their own luggage. Essential facilities such as currency exchanges, ticket booths, and cafes are missing, and information on bus schedules must be gleaned from the drivers who mostly speak only Albanian.

A typical bus station in Albania looks like this

The main bus station resembles a simple paved parking lot, teeming with dozens of minibuses and a handful of large buses catering to international travelers. These vehicles typically depart when they are full rather than at fixed times, and drivers vie for passengers by calling out their destinations, much like an Asian bazaar.

When a foreigner arrives at a bus station, they are immediately approached by drivers or ticket sellers who, communicating solely in Albanian, guess at their destination. Thankfully, Google Translate can handle Albanian and assists in breaking down language barriers. No tickets are issued; the driver simply collects the fare. Notably, most buses lack seat belts, and safety isn’t a top priority.

Payments can only be made in cash; cards are not accepted, and online ticketing is unavailable. Though bus schedules can sometimes be found online, they are often inaccurate and predominantly in Albanian.

While buses from Tirana to other cities run with some regularity, travel between provincial towns is less frequent, with only a handful of shuttle buses operating daily. Without a personal vehicle, hitchhiking is often the only option.

The scene is repeated in other Albanian cities. Buses and other means of transport depart from squares, bus stops, or specific streets, with no signage to guide commuters. Locals are the best source of information.

Shared taxis, offering a pricier but more convenient and faster alternative to buses, operate from Tirana to many cities.

Car Rentals and Traffic Regulations

The most convenient way to explore Albania is either by rental car or taxi. Many taxi drivers in Albania offer not just short rides but also long-distance journeys to rural attractions, seaside resorts, or the airport, even waiting for an hour or two if needed.

Upon arrival in Albania, car rental services are immediately available at the Tirana International Airport, where offices of more than a dozen companies, including Avis and Sixt, can be found. For a wider variety of vehicle options and more competitive rates, consider booking through local rental agencies such as Localrent.

However, it’s important to be aware that adherence to traffic rules is not very rigorous in Albania. Instances of drivers overtaking on solid lines, using sidewalks and curbs, not respecting speed limits, or failing to signal are not uncommon. Pedestrians are also often expected to yield to cars, even when using crosswalks.

As for fuel, petrol stations are widely available on main roads and in large cities, but be aware that many close at night. It’s also worth noting that the quality of fuel at smaller, provincial petrol stations can be suspect.

Used German Mercedes are very popular in Albania

When it comes to vehicle requirements, winter tires aren’t mandatory even though the mountainous regions may see snow in the winter. Drivers are expected to use low beam lights only at night or in poor visibility conditions. For passenger safety, children under 12 years old and/or shorter than 1.5 meters are required to use a child seat. The maximum allowable blood alcohol content for drivers is 0.1 ppm.

The speed limits for cars and motorcycles are as follows: 40 km/h within towns, 80 km/h outside of towns, 90 km/h on highways, and 130 km/h on freeways.

Exploring Albania: A Journey from Shkodra to Gjirokastra

Shkodra → Northern Albanian Alps Lezha Kruja Durres Apollonia Vlora Saranda Xamil Butrinti Gjirokastra

Shkodra: A City of History and Culture

Population: 135,000

When you’re wheeling out of Montenegro and hitting the Albanian tarmac, Shkodra greets you first. It’s a strange beast in the Albanian landscape, a mutt with diverse heritage, its DNA heavily infused with Ottoman and socialist traits. You’ll find most Albanian towns either echo the minarets of Turkey or exude the austere gruffness of the former USSR.

Shkodra, however, sticks out. Its charm is like a whispered secret, slowly drawing you into its historic European-style center. A series of pedestrian avenues spread out, draped on either side by two-story buildings boasting restored facades and quaint tiled roofs. It’s a slice of the continent far from its siblings.

The historic center of Shkodra is built in a European style atypical for Albania. Photo: ShkelzenRexha, Adam Jones / Wikimedia.com

Day-trippers from Montenegro could be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled upon a small piece of Europe tucked away in Albania’s embrace. But if Shkodra is your final bow after a tour of the country, its overt European-ness, in stark contrast to the rest of Albania, will make your eyebrows arch in pleasant surprise.

The European threads in the city’s fabric trace back to the 19th century, during Albania’s dance with the Ottoman Empire. This was when a sizable population of Albanian Catholics, and Orthodox Serbs, added their influence to the city’s cultural tapestry, distinct from the Muslim-majority central and southern regions.

Architectural gems are strewn across the city. The St. Stephen Catholic Cathedral, a grand dame from 1867, is a must-see. This beauty was sadly reduced to a Sports Palace in the socialist era but reclaimed by the devout in the early 1990s. Then there’s the 1905 Franciscan Church, another testament to the city’s rich history.

And when you’re done soaking in the historic center, the Rozafa fortress waits patiently on your itinerary. Its ancient stones whisper tales from the 4th or 3rd century BC, when it was the stronghold of an Illyrian tribe. Over the years, Romans, Byzantines, Serbs, and Ottomans have each left their mark on the fortress, shaping and reshaping it. A living, breathing testament to Albania’s layered history.

Rozafa Fortress offers excellent views of Shkodra, the Drin and Buna rivers with their many islands, Lake Skadar and the surrounding mountains: Xhulio Gjecaj / Unsplash.com

Ascend to the Rozafafortress and you are rewarded with a panorama that’s nothing short of breath-taking. The city of Shkodra spreads out beneath you, an urban mosaic nestled within the grand sweep of Albania’s wild beauty. You can see for miles around, the sinuous curves of the Drin and Buna rivers, jeweled with a scattering of islands, the glassy surface of Lake Skadar, and the mountains standing sentinel around it all.

Get off your ass and explore. Step by step, let the fortress pull you in. The ascent is a fair deal, but it’s worth every pant and bead of sweat. Climb the ramparts, walk through the small history museum, and pay your respects to the 13th century Stephanskirche ruins that have witnessed both the cross and the crescent.

Perched on a mountain to the city’s south, the fortress stands as a testament to the city’s past, visible from almost every corner of Shkodra. While there’s an official entrance, you can also hoof it up, a mere four-kilometer stroll. City buses run routes to the fortress as well. Pack a picnic, grab a spot with a view, and let the Albanian sun warm your skin.

In Shkodra’s heart, you’ll find a hidden gem, a Venetian Carnival mask factory. The masterpieces they create here are exported to Italy and beyond. Wander through their mini museum and get lost in a world of whimsy. You can even snag a piece of Venetian magic for half the price you’d pay in Italy.

Seven kilometers north of the city center, the Masi bridge arches over the landscape. Built in 1770, this stone bridge with its thirteen arches is a nod to Ottoman architectural prowess and a silent witness to centuries of history.

The Mesi stone bridge, which translates from Albanian to “ The bridge in the middle ”, is a typical example of Ottoman architecture. Photo: Ergys Temali / Unsplash.com

Northern Albanian Alps

Ah, the Northern Albanian Alps, or Bjeshkët e Nemuna as the locals know them – these are the proud and lofty titans of Albania. This breathtaking massif straddles three countries: Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo, with the apex, Jezerca, piercing the sky at a staggering 2,694 meters, nestled firmly in Albanian territory.

Now, you wouldn’t want to tread here during the chill months. This isn’t like the forgiving lowlands, which can dish out winter charms. No, up here, winter doesn’t mess around. Roads surrender to snow, isolating places like the mountain hamlet of Theth, a hot spot on any traveler’s agenda. Sure, Theth itself only perches at a moderate altitude, ranging from 750 to 950 meters, but it’s hemmed in by the towering might of 2,000-meter plus peaks.

Getting to the popular tourist resort of Teti can be difficult in winter because many roads are closed due to snow. Photo: Ergys Temali / Unsplash.com

When the world thaws, Theth transforms from an inaccessible snowy fortress to a relatively easy jaunt – a mere 75-kilometer skip from Shkodra. In years gone by, this place was the definition of the middle of nowhere. Intrepid travelers would pitch tents under the stars. But now? Theth’s blossomed, teeming with lodgings for all types of wallets.

For those who prefer their walks long and landscapes dramatic, the international “Peaks of the Balkans” trail snakes its way through the mountains from Theth. Within Albania, this route invites you to a feast of approximately 50 kilometers of wild, craggy beauty interspersed with quaint settlements. The path takes you through Rrogam, Valbonë, Çerem, Balçina, to Dobërdoll. You’ll find accommodations dotted along the way, so there’s no need to trudge with a loaded pack.

And, remember, the Peaks of the Balkans trail isn’t your only option. The Open Street Map lays out a web of hiking trails, lookout spots, waterfalls, and gorges. You can plot your own journey, using one of these mountain villages as your base, and let Albania unfold under your feet.

The Northern Albanian Alps are the highest mountains in Albania, with the main summit Ezerza reaching a height of 2,694 meters. Photo: Oleg Gratilo / Unsplash.com

Lezhë

Population: 18,000

Around 40 kilometers south of Shkodra, nestled on the Adriatic’s shimmering coastline, you’ll stumble upon the quaint city of Lezhë (Lezha). This place has a history that echoes back to ancient times, yet, in recent centuries, its pace of development has been something of a leisurely stroll, maintaining a rather intimate size of 18,000 inhabitants.

Despite its size, Lezhë’s coastline offers a grand vista, where kilometer after kilometer of sun-kissed beaches unfurl in all their golden glory. There are several trails etching their way through this coastal spectacle.

The city of Leža is located directly on the Adriatic Sea and the beaches stretch for many kilometers. There are several different beach trails along the coast. Photo: Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs / Wikimedia.org

Start with the first trail, a six-kilometer saunter that kicks off from the mouth of the Drin River, flowing through Lezhë’s heart. It concludes in the neighborly embrace of the town of Tale, offering plenty of opportunities to plunge into the Adriatic’s cooling waves or enjoy a leisurely lunch at a cozy café.

Alternatively, a path meandering along the beaches escorts you to the tranquility of Cune Island. Here, you can bask in the peace and quiet, soak up the natural beauty, and enjoy the sea away from the bustling throngs. The third trail tempts the more adventurous, leading you north along the sea, on a journey through sparsely populated beaches, lively hotspots peppered with hotels and bars, all the way up to the Montenegrin border.

Lezhë’s town center sits a little inland from its beachfront, about five or six kilometers. Dominating the skyline is the fortress perched upon a hill, a site with a heritage stretching back to the Illyrians, later leveraged strategically by the Romans, Venetians, and Ottomans.

The ruins of the Leža fortress offer a view of the city, the coast and the neighboring villages. Photo: Gertjan R. / Wikimedia.org

As with most fortresses, it’s not the crumbling walls that captivate but the breathtaking views unfurling from the top. Feast your eyes on an unbroken vista sweeping over the city, beachside hotels, surrounding villages, and patchwork fields.

The city center itself isn’t rich with historical landmarks. Up until the 20th century, Lezhë was a humble place, and it sports an architectural mix of socialist and modern styles. However, it does house the Selimiye Mosque, which started its life in the 15th century as St. Nicholas Church, final resting place of Skanderbeg, Albania’s revered national hero. Upon the Turks’ arrival, they desecrated Skanderbeg’s grave, transforming the church into a mosque in the early 16th century. During the socialist era, it was repurposed again as a memorial to Skanderbeg, with the hero’s grave symbolically restored and topped with a bust. The exterior sports a unique blend of the ancient and the new, as the ruins are protected by a modern roof, a nod to preservation in the face of destruction.

The Skanderbeg monument looks unusual – to avoid destruction, it was covered with a modern roof. Photo: Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs / Wikimedia.org

Kruja

Population: 20,000

Just at the fringe of Tirana, ensconced in picturesque mountains, rests the charming city of Kruja – a gem amongst Albania’s settlements. The city unfolds in narrow, cobbled streets meandering up the slopes, revealing panoramic vistas of mountain peaks and the sparkling Adriatic Sea.

At the heart of Kruja, like many Albanian locales, lies the enduring allure of the old fortress. Beyond its ancient, time-worn walls, the fortress houses an ethnographic museum and a Sufi-Tekke Dervish lodge (circa 1779-1780), featuring old graves and Turkish baths. What’s left of the 15th-century Sultan Mehmed Fatih Mosque are the skeletal foundations and the minaret’s remnants.

The main attraction of Kruja, like in many Albanian cities, is the old fortress. Photo: Ergys Temali / Unsplash.com

As the birthplace of Albania’s towering national hero, Skanderbeg, Kruja is rightfully proud. A grand monument to this prince and warrior stands in tribute, housed within the fortress grounds, there’s also a dedicated Skanderbeg Museum. This isn’t merely a tribute to one man, but a chronicle of Albania’s tumultuous history, showcasing weapons collections, large-format paintings, and bas-reliefs that narrate the nation’s trials against the Ottomans, alongside Skanderbeg’s sculptures.

Rruga Kala, one of Kruja’s main arteries, snakes its way from the bus station to the fortress. It’s dotted with quaint cafes and restaurants, all boasting panoramic terraces offering splendid views of the surrounds. An array of hotels and hostels populate the area, with the Panorama, a four-star establishment, offering a view to die for. Overlooking the castle and the cradling mountains, it’s a sight that’ll leave you breathless. The fortress area also provides spectacular viewing platforms to relish a meal or a night’s rest.

Many restaurants and hotels in the fortress offer a great panorama of Kruja

The heart of the city’s souvenir trade thrums in the vibrant bazaar. Nestled in an old cobblestone street, the bazaar offers a riot of color and an abundance of well-preserved historical residential architecture. Come high season, this place buzzes with bus-loads of tourists fresh from the sea. But from October to early summer, it adopts a more leisurely pace, where you can explore every stall, try on traditional costumes, snap photos, and the laid-back vendors won’t mind – there are seldom any customers to attend to anyway.

In the area around the Kruja bazaar, the historical residential architecture has been best preserved: the old cobblestone street looks colorful and colorful. Photo: Xhulio Gjecaj / Unsplash.com

A distinct mark of Americana is etched all over Albania, including Kruja, with the Star-Spangled Banner waving from petrol stations, hotels, cultural centers, and even government offices. Kruja proudly boasts an unconventional nod to America with the George W. Bush Bakery, a place the former president himself once graced. This visit left such an impression on the owners that they promptly renamed the bakery and adorned the walls with snapshots from that historic day. To this day, they serve their baked goods wrapped in envelopes bearing the name “George W. Bush.”

A short trip to the neighboring town of Fushë-Krujë rewards you with another Bush tribute – a monument sitting smack dab in the center, impossible to miss as you navigate the road from Tirana to Kruja.

The Albanians love America; in the city of Fushë-Krujë there is even a memorial to George Bush

Durres

Encompassing a population of around 113,000, Durres is Albania’s second-largest city, standing out as an important urban center right after the capital, Tirana. Durres gracefully splits itself into two distinct realms – the antique heart of the city and a bustling resort section teeming with inviting hotels and sprawling beaches. Bridging these two contrasting worlds is the country’s largest seaport.

Durres’ roots stretch back to the 7th century BC when it was established by the Greeks. Even the legendary Cicero once called this city home. But don’t walk in expecting an echo of Italian charm. The cityscape predominantly boasts modern structures, rising in the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the occasional whisper of old architecture nestled in between. This blend of old and new is a common thread that weaves through most Albanian cities.

Durres amphitheater, a testament to ancient Rome’s love for gladiatorial battles, could seat between 15-20 thousand spectators. Photo: Karelj / Wikimedia.org

Durres’ crown jewel of historical significance is the decaying Roman amphitheater dating back to the 1st-2nd century. It could house between 15 to 20 thousand spectators, a site where the thrill of gladiatorial battles once echoed, much like other arenas in ancient Rome.

What’s unusual about this spectacle is its location. Contrary to most such ruins ensconced in archaeological reserves, this vestige of an ancient civilization finds itself cocooned amidst towering modern structures and residential areas.

Another major historical magnet of Durres is the city’s castle, constructed in the 5th century by the Byzantine emperor Anastasios I Dicor. This stronghold has been a silent witness to the city’s changing hands over centuries, from the Byzantines to the Serbs, Venetians, and the Ottomans. All that remains of this majestic structure today is a sturdy defensive wall and a Venetian tower, hemmed in on all sides by the city’s dense urban development.

The city’s castle now stands besieged by dense modern structures, with only its defensive walls and the Venetian tower still standing tall. Photo: LediK / Pixabay.com

The crown jewel among Durres’ many cultural offerings is undoubtedly its Archaeological Museum. Sheltered within a hulking, three-story edifice that’s a relic from the socialist era, this museum is the largest archaeological institution in the country. It serves as a treasure trove of over 3,000 artifacts that encapsulate the grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome.

Striding parallel to the azure sea is Rruga Taulantia, a bustling boulevard that’s perfect for a leisurely stroll. Modern architecture finds a happy harmony with trendy bars, inviting restaurants, and the city’s finest hotels along this lively avenue.

Running for 13 kilometers along the coast, south of the city center and the seaport, you’ll find the vibrant resort area of Durres. Teeming with hotels and beaches, it is a testament to the country’s economic transformation in the past 15-20 years, considering that no major seaside resorts existed during the era of socialist Albania.

Durres’ resort area hums with life during beach season. Come October through late spring, the hustle subsides as many hotels halt operations. Photo: wal_172619 / Pixabay.com

The resort area of Durres basks in the full swing of life during the beach season. However, the hustle begins to ebb from October to late spring, turning the area into a tranquil retreat as many hotels cease operations. If a beach vacation in Durres is on your agenda, the resort area provides an ideal base with easy access to the city center via buses and reasonably-priced taxis. However, if your visit falls in the winter months, it’s wise to book accommodation on or near the vibrant Taulantia Street to keep the boredom at bay.

The Archaeological Park of Apollonia

Nestled in the heart of modern Albania, Apollonia was an Illyrian port city that thrived long before the Greeks and Romans ever set foot on these lands. While the city wasn’t directly on the sea, its connection to the wider world was secured through the intricate network of waterways.

Apollonia boasts ancient ruins including a theatre, columns, and two-thousand-year-old foundations. Photo: Pudelek / Wikimedia.com

The 3rd century marked an abrupt end to the flourishing era of Apollonia. A powerful earthquake forever altered the course of the river that was the city’s lifeline, snuffing out its significance as a port. The surrounding regions of Apollonia fell victim to marshy conditions, becoming a breeding ground for malaria mosquitoes. By the 4th century, the city was abandoned, with its inhabitants fleeing to the nearby city of Vlora (then known as Avlona). Apollonia’s once majestic structures lay deserted for centuries, forgotten by time.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that the area saw excavation efforts, uncovering its ancient glory. In 1958, the Archaeological Park of Apollonia was established, a museum under the open sky that pays tribute to a forgotten era.

Here, you’ll find the remnants of an ancient theatre, the foundations of buildings, columns, and fragments of walls, all dating back two thousand years. Restored to their former grandeur by meticulous archaeologists, these ruins narrate the tales of a bygone era. The museum’s collection is housed in the picturesque former St. Mary’s Monastery, where ancient bas-reliefs, statues, mosaics, and wine containers bear silent testimony to a civilization that once was.

Vlora

79,000 Inhabitants

For many, Vlora is a sun-drenched playground—a place to dip in the sea and bask on sun-kissed beaches. In recent years, the central promenade (Rruga Cameria) has morphed into an architectural gem, showcasing multi-story apartments boasting enormous balconies, fringed by palm trees along the beach. These buildings are connected by kilometers of tiled sidewalks, crowned by stylish street lamps.

Vlora's central promenade: a spectacle of towering apartments with vast balconies, palm trees lining the shore, and sprawling tiled walkways. Photo: Planeti / Wikimedia.org
Vlora’s central promenade: a spectacle of towering apartments with vast balconies, palm trees lining the shore, and sprawling tiled walkways. Photo: Planeti / Wikimedia.org

Venture further south along the promenade, and the terrain shifts. Here, you’ll discover a hilly landscape adorned with striking cliffs that echo the majesty of Antalya’s Turkish coast. Along these undulating terrains, a sequence of chic hotels, each flaunting its outdoor pool, unfurls. The reward? A panoramic spectacle of mountains meeting the sea.

But head north of the main promenade, and the scenery changes. The beaches here seem forgotten—litter-strewn and flanked by a motley collection of run-down prefabricated structures.

Another of Vlora’s star attractions is the decaying ruins of Kanin Castle. A drive up a well-paved road will take you there. The ruins, with their crumbling, weathered walls, may not be an architectural marvel, but they offer a spectacular perch from where to watch the world. As the sun sets, the city, the Adriatic Sea, and the surrounding peaks are all bathed in a burgundy glow, a sight that’s worth the journey.

Ismail Qemali Boulevard, Vlora’s main artery, is lined with apartment blocks. Wide sidewalks teem with locals scurrying about their day, while numerous cafes and shops offer respite. The boulevard, bustling with life, runs perpendicular to the sea, morphing into a palm-laden pedestrian zone at the southern end and culminating in the historic center at the north.

Vlora's old center—a charming pocket of beautifully restored streets. Photo: Albinfo / Wikimedia.com
Vlora’s old center—a charming pocket of beautifully restored streets. Photo: Albinfo / Wikimedia.com

Vlora’s old center is a compact cluster of streets. Once in a sorry state, it has seen a wave of restoration efforts in recent years, albeit with pockets of decay lingering in the alleys. Nestled within these winding paths are the 16th-century Muradiye Mosque and the imposing Independence Monument, a relic from the socialist era, situated at Flag Square.

Vlora’s train station stands like a forgotten sentinel, its windows boarded up and surrounded by unappealing structures. Grass and shrubs have claimed the spaces between the tracks, serving as a grazing ground for goats. The railroad, nearly extinct in Albania, serves as a stark reminder of a socialist era that has long since passed.

Saranda

20,000 Inhabitants

Meet Saranda (Sarandë), the swanky, modern seaside haven that’s undergone a dramatic transformation over the past two decades. No longer a sleepy town of the socialist era, Saranda is now a beacon for beach enthusiasts, thronging here from every corner of Europe. Blanketed with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, it basks as a year-round tourism hotspot. During the off-peak season, Saranda’s vibe switches gears to a more laid-back tempo.

Saranda—where the sun doesn't take a break, offering over 300 days of golden rays a year.
Saranda—where the sun doesn’t take a break, offering over 300 days of golden rays a year.

Perched atop a hill, surveying the city like a guard on watch, sits the Old Fortress of Lëkursi. While the fortress may not wow you with its architecture, the panoramic vista it offers is a different story. At sunset, the restaurant sharing the fortress’s name sees an influx of patrons, all chasing a taste of the spectacular views, which may mean a bit of a wait for your order.

In Saranda, the seaside promenade is a mosaic of small, unpretentious beach sections. Smack in the city center, you’ll find a charming Friendship Park, standing shoulder to shoulder with the remnants of a 5th-century synagogue. Today, only the building’s foundations remain. The city’s bus station is conveniently located here. Compact yet brimming with character, Saranda’s center is an explorer’s delight that can be uncovered in an hour or less.

Saranda's promenade: A collage of quaint beach sections, each with its own unique charm.
Saranda’s promenade: A collage of quaint beach sections, each with its own unique charm.

Day-trip to Syri i Kalter National Park, home to the popular tourist attraction, Blue Eye, is highly recommended. It’s a brief drive from either Saranda or Gjirokaster. This stunning natural location is worth a visit, and you should definitely allocate at least 2-3 hours for it. If you’re interested in exploring this spot, take a look at this comprehensive Blue Eye guide.

Ksamil and Butrint

3,000 Inhabitants

Ksamil, a darling of Albania’s seaside retreats, dazzles with its stunning beaches adorned with white, fine pebbles and inviting soft, blue water. The resort plays host to four islands, each boasting its own beach, located directly off the coast. The two nearest islands are accessible by a leisurely swim or on foot, while the more remote duo require a boat or catamaran trip. Both boat rental and taxi services are available to cater to this adventure.

Ksamil island, a vision in white pebbles and gentle blue waters. Photo: Polina Rytova / Unsplash.com

Near Ksamil lies Butrint, an intriguing archaeological reserve that ranks among Albania’s most renowned. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site only adds to its allure. Founded in the 7th century BC, this ancient city is a time capsule featuring an amphitheater, city walls with gates, a Byzantine basilica, and ruins of public buildings and houses. From the 14th century, Butrint came under the rule of the Republic of Venice, leaving a significant mark on the city’s architecture and fortifications, including a formidable defensive tower and a fortress on the opposite bank. The city was abandoned in the 16th century, succumbing to swampy terrain and an infestation of malaria-spreading mosquitoes, only to be rediscovered with the start of archaeological digs in the early 20th century.

The ancient city of Butrint, a historical gem dating back to the 7th century BC, now stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: Robs123, USA travel blogger / Pixabay.com

Today, Butrint is a well-trodden tourist destination, attracting not just vacationers from neighboring Ksamil but also from across the entire coastal stretch. Interestingly, until recent history, reaching Butrint was quite a task. The road from Saranda to Butrint wasn’t paved until 1959, a project initiated by Enver Hoxha to showcase the site to Nikita Khrushchev during his official visit to Albania.

A mere four kilometers separates Ksamil from Butrint, with buses plying every hour. Spending a few hours immersed in the archaeological reserve is time well invested, after which you can catch a ferry to the impeccably preserved Venetian fortress from the 14th and 15th centuries, sitting on the other side of the canal. The ferry, which also accommodates vehicles, is not only a gateway to the fortress but also a lifeline connecting the southernmost villages of the country. It even ferries passengers to Greece.

Travel two kilometers across the canal, connecting the Ionian Sea with Lake Butrint, to reach the fortress of Ali Pasha. Photo: Bleron Salihi / Unsplash.com

Another nearby must-visit is the Ali Pasha Fortress, a boat ride of two kilometers from Butrint. A boat excursion on the canal, linking the Ionian Sea and Lake Butrint, is a rewarding experience. A legacy of the Ottoman era, it dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries. These boats drop tourists at the island housing the fortress, allow them to explore and photograph the site for an agreed-upon duration (15-60 minutes), and then ferry them back to Butrint.

Lying in the vicinity of the ancient city is Hotel Livia. With a limited offering of just 11 rooms, it’s advisable to book ahead during peak season. The hotel also features an Albanian restaurant.

The Shell House, located on the banks of Lake Butrint, serves shells sourced from the lake—an industry that’s been thriving in the region since the socialist era.

Gjirokastra

23,000 inhabitants

Gjirokastra is a well-preserved snapshot of Albanian life under Ottoman rule. This old Turkish city has retained its original character almost untouched, leading to its historic center being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of its preservation can be credited to the sentimental regard Enver Hoxha, the leader of the Albanian people, held for his birthplace.

Gjirokastra, almost untouched, owes its preservation to the fondness that Enver Hoxha had for his birthplace.

The city’s modern section stretches along the road leading from Tirana. While it lacks historical attractions, it does offer inexpensive shops and cafes for the convenience of locals and tourists alike. Ascend higher up the mountain, and you find yourself in historic Gjirokastra, a picturesque tableau of old houses, winding, narrow, unpaved streets, and stone-paved sidewalks.

The 12th-century fortress, an incredibly photogenic and impeccably preserved site, is the main tourist attraction of Gjirokastra.

The crown jewel of Gjirokastra’s tourist attractions is undoubtedly the 12th-century fortress, a relic that’s as photogenic as it is well-preserved. Another slice of history resides in the Bazar mosque from the 18th century, a rare surviving example of Albania’s old mosques, most of which were demolished during the socialist era. Several historic residences (Skenduli, Zekate), which once housed the affluent, now serve as museums, showcasing the everyday lives of Albania’s wealthy from centuries past.

If you venture a little farther from the city, you’ll come upon the Ali Pasha Bridge, an Ottoman-era construction from the 18th century. The journey rewards you with picturesque local landscapes and pastoral scenes of grazing sheep on the hillside.

Gjirokastra has a number of national-style hotels, replete with historic elements. The competitive hospitality industry in the area has resulted in some very affordable options for travelers. Resort Kerculla, perched at the mountain’s summit, houses a restaurant and freely accessible grounds that command a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding mountains. From the city center, prepare for a 40-minute trek up the steep hill to reach this scenic spot.

Berat

36,000 inhabitants

Berat is a strong contender to Gjirokastra for the title of Albania’s most authentically historic city. Here, too, the streets have remained almost unaltered since the Ottoman period, earning Berat its place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The captivating low-rise buildings in Berat hail from the Ottoman era. Photo: Johnny Africa / Unsplash.com

The history of Berat mirrors that of many old Albanian cities. In ancient times, it was inhabited by Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, and in the 15th century, it served as the capital of several principalities (Muzaki and Arianiti). The subsequent 500-year Ottoman rule, lasting until the 20th century, saw the construction of the charming low-rise buildings that draw in tourists today.

Starting your visit with a systematic walk through all parts of the old town is a must. It’s a leisurely hour-long stroll through narrow, winding streets, and vivid courtyards that occasionally offer a glimpse into their interiors. Inside, you might find an exhibition, a souvenir shop, or a guest house. Perched on the mountain, as is typical in Albania, you’ll find a 13th-century fortress.

Like most of Albania, Berat features a 13th-century fortress on a mountain. Photo: Pixabay.com

In contrast to the usual practice in Albania, where fortresses are often converted into museums, Berat’s fortress is an active quarter where people continue to live in their private residences. Among the oldest religious structures in the city center are the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae (13th century), the royal mosque (15th century), the Lead mosque (16th century), and the Halveti Tekke (monastery) (1782).

To fully immerse yourself in local ambiance, consider staying in a guest house or hotel situated in a traditional Ottoman building, complete with white walls and red-tiled roofs, such as Berat Castle Hotel.

The modern city center is just a stone’s throw from the old town, where you can explore the numerous soviet-style apartment blocks that are a common sight in Berat. Antipatrea street, the heart of socialist modernist architecture, is a thoroughfare worth exploring. You can walk all the way to the river and then return via the promenade. A new, grand and somewhat expensive hotel, Colombo, which bears a slight resemblance to Washington’s White House, has recently sprung up on the riverbank.

A day hike from Berat provides a nice change of pace. Start by crossing the bridge over the Osum river to reach the historic Gorica neighborhood, located opposite the fortress. It may not compete with the city center in grandeur, but it offers a few picturesque streets. A stone bridge, a century-old construction, spans the river in this area.

The century-old stone bridge in Berat over the Osum river. Photo: Pixabay.com

Next, you need to take a steep path up to the television tower, with routes indicated in the Organic Maps app. Further up, you’ll find the village of Drobonik, situated on the forest edge overlooking an abyss. An interesting natural phenomenon here is the crooked forest, where trees, shaped by strong winds, seem to grow horizontally rather than vertically. The village provides a unique insight into typical Albanian provincial life, untouched by touristic influences.

For the return trip to Berat, choose a different route. Descend from Drobonik towards the Osum river, cutting through olive groves. Along the way, consider stopping at Castle Park Berat restaurant for lunch or dinner.

Tirana

550,000 inhabitants

Tirana is the capital and largest city of Albania. The historic center of Tirana is relatively small, but the city is well known for its expansive squares, wide avenues, monumental landmarks, and socialist architecture.

The Haji-Ethem-Bey mosque in central Tirana remained closed until 1991 and was only reopened following mass protests by local Muslims. Photo: Mario Beqollari / Unsplash.com

In Tirana, you’ll find something truly unique – the Albanian interpretation of Stalinist classicism. The Blloku government district houses buildings that closely resemble Soviet architecture, serving as residences for high-ranking party members and state leaders during the socialist era. Nowadays, the neighborhood is vibrant and bustling with trendy bars and nightclubs, a far cry from its rigid past. Whereas the area was once scrutinized by numerous security guards, today it’s teeming with carefree, lively youth.

This district also houses the impeccably preserved residence of Enver Hoxha. Regrettably, visitors can only view the exterior of the building as entrance to the interior is prohibited.

Hidden at the rear of Tirana’s Art Museum (Shëtitorja Murat Toptani, 2) are three unexpected monuments – one of Lenin and two of Stalin. The gallery has been closed for renovations since 2017, but one can either sneak into the courtyard unnoticed or ask the security guard for permission to enter.

Monuments of Lenin and Stalin in the backyard of Tirana’s Art Museum

Close by, you’ll find an unusual pyramid-shaped building that served as the Hoxha Museum for several years following the leader’s death. With the advent of democratization, the museum was closed, and the building now stands abandoned and boarded up. Albanian children often climb to the top of the structure and then slide down on their bottoms.

The Hoxha Pyramid Museum couldn’t withstand democratization and remains abandoned to this day.

The Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit is the capital’s main street. Here you’ll find the aforementioned pyramid, the modern Rinia Park, the monumental Mother Teresa Square, and, of course, the central Scanderbeg Square, which at times may have more camera-wielding tourists than locals. The main square hosts a monument of the great Albanian hero on horseback and a complex of administrative buildings in Italian style, constructed between the First and Second World Wars, a time when socialism had not yet arrived in Albania.

The Italian-style buildings in central Tirana were built between the First and Second World Wars when socialism had not yet arrived in Albania

Enver Hoxha’s paranoia, which is still evident today, is showcased by the lack of house numbers on the streets of Tirana. During socialism, houses weren’t numbered – ostensibly for security reasons, to confuse potential enemies and complicate the work of spies. Hence, house numbering is now only present in official documents. Most people either don’t know their house numbers or simply don’t use them. When locals hail a taxi, they tend to give directions like, “The house to the right of the former Hotel Sheraton, please,” or “The house behind the cafe, you know, the one near the second-hand market, where a tree burned down two years ago.”

Next to the square is the historic center with narrow streets that once housed a fortress. Little of the fortifications remain, but in recent years, the area has evolved into a trendy pedestrian zone frequented by young people and street musicians.

The tomb of Kaplan Pasha, one of Tirana’s rulers who died in 1819, is incorporated into the architecture of the TID tower. Photo: Alexandr Bormotin / Unsplash.com

The Lana River cuts through the city and is lined with well-maintained pedestrian paths. However, few people enjoy strolling along the riverbank due to the unpleasant smell caused by wastewater being discharged into the river. When it comes to recycling, water purity, and ecology, Albania is one of the lagging countries in Europe, only outperformed by Turkey, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. Trash can often be found on Tirana’s sidewalks and courtyards, sometimes piled up several meters high.

For a more pleasant outdoor experience, the central park is a better choice. It has many trees, manicured avenues, a beautiful lake, and views of the surrounding mountains.

On the outskirts of Tirana, two noteworthy attractions should be on every “Top” list. These are the Dajti Ekspres cable car and the Enver Hoxha bunker.

The cable car ride spans 4670 meters and takes 20 minutes. The cable car doesn’t ascend immediately, but moves almost horizontally for quite some distance. A kilometer above Tirana, the journey transitions from the summer heat to pleasant coolness, and in autumn, to a world of yellow and orange leaves, while the landscape remains green below, even in October. The cable car’s mountain station features a viewing platform offering breathtaking views, a hotel, and a rather expensive restaurant.

Ascending a kilometer above Tirana, you transition from summer’s heat to pleasant coolness, and in autumn, to a world of yellow and orange leaves. Photo: Leeturtle / Wikimedia.org

Tip: Consider taking a walk along the asphalt road that leads from the mountain station to Tirana. Along the way, you’ll find several panoramic restaurants offering the same view, but at lower prices. Plus, without the tourist crowds, the service is quicker.

The most visible result of Hoxha’s paranoia is the 173,371 bunkers built throughout Albania in anticipation of an attack by a supposed enemy. It’s joked that every Albanian family had their own bunker. These concrete hemispheres have now become a symbol of the country, with images of them used in the production of magnets, postcards, and clothing. You’ll find small bunkers in parks, on sidewalks, in courtyards, along highways, and on the coast. However, many of the thousands of bunkers in the country are uncared for, either filled with trash or repurposed as barns. Two of the larger bunkers in Tirana now house interesting museums.

Today, the thousands of bunkers in Albania, built in anticipation of an attack by a supposed enemy, are neglected – they’re either filled with trash or used as barns.

Bunker Bunk’Art 1 is a massive underground refuge meant for the country’s leaders. After socialism fell, it was abandoned for a while, but was transformed into a museum in 2014.

Here, you can wander through the dark concrete corridors, explore the living quarters of the military and Albanian leaders, and even see Enver Hoxha’s own office. Some rooms feature exhibits of everyday items used by ordinary Albanians during the socialist era: furniture, a television, a stove, a kitchenette from an apartment, and shop shelves bearing a sparse selection of goods.

Another similar venue, located in central Tirana, is called Bunk’Art 2. It’s another Cold War bunker that has been turned into a museum. Here, too, long, dark corridors can create a gloomy atmosphere. The exhibits delve into life during the socialist period, with an emphasis on police enforcement and repression. One interactive experience invites you to locate a listening device in one of the rooms, which is designed to resemble an Albanian apartment’s interior. The second bunker is much smaller than the first, but if you take the time to examine the exhibits and read the explanatory panels, you could easily spend hours there.

The exhibition at Bunk’Art 2 focuses on life in socialist times, particularly highlighting the roles of the police and repression.

Albania’s Gastronomy

Long years under the rule of the Ottoman Empire have left a savory mark on Albania’s culinary landscape. A unique blend of Turkish delight interwoven with Mediterranean freshness. Every mealtime here feels like diving into a centuries-old symphony of flavors. The Albanians, they do have a thing for their rice and meat, harking back to their Ottoman roots, perhaps.

And the salads? Oh, the salads! Each one is a painter’s palette of raw, fresh Mediterranean veggies – plump tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and olives glistening with a touch of dew. These aren’t merely salads; they’re landscapes carved from edible summer itself.

In the impromptu markets of Albania, fruits and vegetables are sold with the day’s stories

Those with an inclination towards the audacious will find a friend in the lamb stew, locally known as tavë kosi. Or maybe you’re more of a schumlek person, that homely kettle goulash that feels like a warm hug on a cold night. If you’re looking to venture further into the culinary narrative, Qofte, essentially meat sausage, speaks volumes of the Turkish influence. Kukurech, a somewhat adventurous lamb intestine dish, loved by the Turks, might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but promises a journey like no other, replete with a characteristic flavor profile that is as intriguing as it is divisive. The herbs, though, like the soothing mint and aromatic basil, coupled with a dash of black pepper, lend the meat an earthiness that’s simply soul-stirring.

Lovers of Neptune’s bounty can revel in a bowl of peshku soup, an oceanic delight starring sea bass. Baked shrimp are frequent showstoppers, too. And bread? Oh, there’s more to Albanian bread than the usual wheat suspects. There’s a rusticity to their cornbread that’s irresistible.

As for dairy, the love for cheese runs deep. But what steals the show is their white, unsweetened yogurt that becomes the canvas for the refreshing tarator soup, a medley of finely chopped cucumbers and nuts.

But a culinary exploration of Albania is incomplete without a taste of Rakia. This fruit vodka, made from grapes or plums, is the backbone of the Balkan’s spirit-scape. And for those less alcohol-inclined, Albanian coffee is no less intoxicating. Coffee shops are scattered throughout the country, ranging from the humble nooks to the trendiest of joints, serving this national obsession in all its steamy glory.

Language Barriers and Cultural Nuances in Albania

When globetrotting across northern or central European countries, grappling with the language barrier seems a worry one rarely confronts. In places like the Netherlands or Sweden, almost every random passerby could fluently parley in English. Even in France or Germany, where English isn’t as ubiquitous, it is still prevalent enough to facilitate a comfortable journey through these lands.

Albania, on the other hand, is a different ball game altogether. Pretty much no one outside of Tirana speaks English. Here, the air resonates with the unique cadence of the Albanian language, a tongue so distinct that prior linguistic expertise will do little to help decipher it. The socialist years shrouded Albania in an isolationist bubble, where foreign languages were deemed unnecessary, given that international travel was largely prohibited. Consequently, the older generation remains predominantly monolingual.

Photo: Juri Gianfrancesco / Unsplash.com

As Albania paves its way towards a future in the European Union, the mastery of European languages still remains quite rare. In the cosmopolitan bustle of Tirana, you’ll encounter a fair number of younger, educated individuals who can converse in English. However, venture into the more provincial territories and English speakers become a rare breed, confined mostly to the tourism sector. The language barrier might even challenge you while checking into a posh, highly-rated hotel, leaving you to rely solely on the electronic linguist in your pocket – Google Translator.

Choosing the Ideal Time to Visit Albania

Albania, with its versatile offerings, is a destination you can consider throughout the year, the season you choose simply depends on your itinerary.

If your heart yearns for a splash in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, then the warm months of June through September are ideal. During this period, the waters dance between 22-26 degrees Celsius, and the country’s tourist infrastructure buzzes with vibrant life. Beware though, the peak months of July and August can bring some intense heat as is typical for coastal resorts.

The months from mid-September to mid-October offer a welcome respite from the heat and the influx of tourists. The coast is awash with sunshine, the waters are still relatively warm at around 20 degrees Celsius, and the beaches become more secluded. The prices of hotels take a plunge, although by October, many of them close for the season.

From November through May, the sea might not be warm enough for most to bathe, dipping to around 18 degrees Celsius and below. Yet, the coast still retains its charm with pleasant weather even during the New Year’s celebrations.

Winter in Albania. Even in Tirana, nestled at the foothills of mountains, December and January boast temperatures around 10-18 degrees Celsius, with plenty of sunshine making an appearance. It’s an excellent period for city tours and nature walks. The downside, however, might be occasional spells of chilly rainfall in late autumn and winter, but these are rarely protracted.

Venture into the mountains during winter and you’ll find snow and ice in abundance. Yet, most of the attractions lie in the warmer regions of the country, where temperatures rarely dip below freezing throughout the year.

It’s worth noting, though, that many apartments and hotels in Albania don’t have heating. It might be warmer outside than inside during the cooler months. Therefore, make sure you carefully scrutinize customer reviews, particularly from those who have stayed during the winter, before booking your accommodation.

Even in winter, snow is an uncommon sight in Albania. Away from the mountains, temperatures usually remain above freezing for the entire 12 months. Photo: Endri Killo / Unsplash.com
Even in winter, snow is an uncommon sight in Albania. Away from the mountains, temperatures usually remain above freezing for the entire 12 months. Photo: Endri Killo / Unsplash.com

Tips

  • The Albanian Lek is the official currency here, but don’t be surprised if you find the Euro equally welcome at hotels, eateries, and that tourist trap of a shop that somehow always finds a way into your itinerary.
  • If you’re one to romanticize over the cost of living, you’ll be chuffed to hear that Albania has the humblest price tags across all of Europe. However, it’s not just the economy that’s easy on the pocket, the unpretentious charm of the local people is a treasure in itself. These folks are just as open-hearted and hospitable as their Balkan neighbors, if not more.
  • Soaking up the sun on a sandy beach is just one part of the Albanian holiday tale. This little nation has its fair share of grandeur to boast about. Majestic mountains dominate the landscape, just begging for you to set your wheels in motion or lace up your hiking boots. And then, there are the architectural wonders, a blend of Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman genius, scattered across its geography.
  • The golden season to surrender yourself to the call of the sea runs from the early blush of June to the fading summer in late September. But if you ask the locals, they’ll tell you – you can swim from May to October, provided the chilly winds are not gusting. The highland areas though, draped in a white blanket from mid-November to April, turn somewhat recluse. Traveling between smaller settlements becomes a challenge but don’t worry, the bustling cities and major attractions remain accessible all year round.
  • And as if this wasn’t enticing enough, Albania serves as a springboard to its neighborly delights. You can venture out visa-free to Macedonia and Montenegro for a day or two, or explore Kosovo and Greece with a Schengen visa in hand. This little-known paradise on the Balkan peninsula promises more than you’d expect – and delivers.

Watch before the trip

Check out this YouTube travelogue by Roads We Take


Author: Martin Valentine

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