By far and by large, the most read post on this blog is “15 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Albania” – in fact you’re probably reading this right now as a result of finding that in the first place (thank you, Google). What’s funny is that post was written almost three years ago and the older it has gotten, the more popular it has gotten, though I’m not surprised in the slightest because – simply put – Albania is one of the most intriguing countries in Europe.
After 50 years of complete Communist-imposed isolation from the rest of the world; a rough adjustment period in the late 90s that saw a collapsed economy and all-out anarchy on the streets in many parts of the country; one of the worst (and highly unfair) reputations for kidnapping and drug smuggling on the continent thanks to Hollywood and the few “bad apples” that exist just about everywhere…to say that most of the international press Albania has had prior to now has been fairly negative is an understatement.
Thankfully, though, it seems ol’ Shqipëria has turned a corner in a big way over the past couple of years and a vibrant rainbow – at least touristically speaking – has started to emerge after all this rain. Everywhere I look (like here, here, and here), Albania seems to be making lists as a top destination to visit. And rightfully so.
Its extensive 450+ kilometer Adriatic/Ionian coastline and ridiculously sexy beaches are no longer a secret. Its northern region making waves in the hiking and outdoor activity world with untouched lakes, rivers and the magnificent Albanian Alps. Its off-the-radar UNESCO sites rivaling the best of the best on the continent. Its quirky, colorful capital getting cooler and more cosmopolitan by the day. International connections and infrastructure are slowly but surely improving…I think it is also safe to say that without a doubt, Albania is the most up-and-coming country for tourism in Europe right now.
Yet still, it remains somewhat of a mystery.
I’m sure you’ve read it before – Albania is “insanely beautiful”, “off-the-path”, “waiting to be discovered”, “one of Europe’s best kept secrets”, “dirt cheap” – and it’s all true… but what kind of trip can you expect to have there, really? Three years and multiple trips later, I’m admittedly still trying to wrap my head around the place because there is oh so much more than meets the eye, but the conclusion I’ve come to for now is this: Albania is for travelers.
Foreigners don’t come here for a seamless, mindless holiday vacation (though eventually I’m sure it will get there) – they come here for one hell of a travel experience. Raw, unadulterated adventures. Love it or hate it, it is what it is and not trying to be something it’s not which is in my opinion one of the best qualities anyone or anything can have.
Albania is a goldmine for the explorer type and only those worthy of its discoveries are the ones who can truly appreciate a place for its idiosyncrasies and understand that sometimes the best, most beautiful things in life come in the most unexpected packaging. Or with less than ideal public transportation, often horrendous road conditions, and an excessive amount of Mercedes Benzes…
It’s as safe for tourists as most other places in Europe, perhaps even safer in many aspects, with some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet ready to welcome you. Though it’s certainly not for everyone just yet, everyone that it’s for is usually left with the warmest impression and a strong desire to return for more as soon as possible.
Have I mentioned yet that it is seriously cheap as hell? In comparison to the rest of Europe (especially those countries with a coast), your money can take you far here so even if you are on a budget, you can have a pretty delightful time. And if money is no object to you or you have a decent amount to spend, well then let’s just say you’re going to be eating, drinking, and living it up royally.
While some of Albania’s greatest tourism assets have yet to have had much written about them (hence the “mystery”) or are truly only manageable with private transportation and/or the guidance of a local (particularly if you are on a time constraint), here are some photos and a few words on what you can expect from some of its most popular and easiest to visit destinations. A brief visual vacation, if you will.
Though let’s be real – traveling around Albania you can never really expect anything. Except maybe the unexpected. And it’s absolutely wonderful.
Wild North and the Albanian Alps
My experience with the north is truly limited, only to be backed up by the spontaneous (and surprisingly pleasant) day trip I decided to take to Shkodra last year while I was in Ulcinj, Montenegro and having passed through a couple more times on my way to/from Kosovo, but it is the region of the country I am most eager to explore more of.
According to friends, friends of friends, and random strangers in the know (like these dapper gentlemen I met at a border bar in the photo above) – the Albanian Alps/Accursed Mountains and villages in and around like Theth or Valbona are magical and thankfully already on my agenda for 2015.
Sexy South and the Albanian Riviera
These photos and that water though. Need I say more? Albania’s coastline is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in Europe and its beaches some of the best – especially if you know where to go.
Saranda, Himara, Vlora and even Ksamil are some of the trendiest and easiest to visit. They also make excellent bases for exploring some other nearby points of interest (see section below), but to get to the reeeally amazing beaches in the country you’ll definitely need to have your own transportation, be a seasoned hitch hiker, and/or straight-up boss at figuring out bewildering bus schedules.
Just a word of warning that pretty much goes for most places in the Balkans. While “pristine” exists and the condition of keeping public spaces clean has also been improving the past couple of years, don’t be alarmed by an above average amount of garbage on the side of the roads and unfortunately along some of the busier beaches. It’s a regional epidemic that unfortunately may take a generation (or any sort of law enforcement) to change, but it is what it is and I can’t say I haven’t experienced similar elsewhere around Europe.
If you’re into UNESCO World Heritage Sites, then you will be pleased to know there are two (though really it’s more like three) in Albania along with a whole slew of “tentative” ones.
Butrint, about 20km from Saranda, is the most impressive with everything you can imagine a world heritage site to be and one of the best preserved archeological sites in Europe. If you’re dying to know the specifics of its ancient history, you can read why UNESCO didn’t blink an eye at including it back in 1992 – or just check out some of my favorite photos from a wander around. As I said once before, Albania’s castles are your castles, and its UNESCO sites are no different. Mix that in with barely any other tourists and you’ve got yourself a pretty authentic travel affair.
Though 170 kilometers apart, both of the historic centers of Gjirokaster and Berat are classified as Albania’s second UNESCO site because of their well-preserved Ottoman architecture. Both have cool castles worth climbing up to see and both have incredibly beautiful mountainous surroundings. The only difference that I noticed was Gjirokaster seemed a little more quiet, perhaps more used to day trippers, whereas Berat had more things going on at all hours of the day.
Enver Hoxha, the notorious dictator responsible for Albania’s lonely period and the some 750,000 concrete bunkers scattered around the country, was born in Gjirokaster (above and below) and the city’s Ethnographic Museum stands on the site of his former home. Another quirky point of interest that can be found just chilling on top of its castle is a U.S. “spy plane” that was mysteriously forced down in 1957. Because why the hell not?
Berat, “the city of a thousand windows”, had a lot of construction going on when I first visited and I am curious to see what’s changed – or stayed exactly the same – a year later. No doubt the locals are still doing their nightly xhiro (a little stroll up and down the main pedestrian drag that’s literally translated as “lap”) and the lit up Mangalem Quarter below the Kala (castle) probably looking lovely as ever.
Quirky, Colorful Capital
Tirana has grown on me over the years like you wouldn’t believe. What started off as a huge “WTF?” has turned into an even huger “WTF! But I think I love you”. It’s one of the quirkiest capitals in Europe I’ve ever been to, maybe even the quirkiest, and it’s finally coming into its own in a big way.
I’ve noticed big changes over the past three years with touristic offerings getting better, restaurants and cafes more creative, clubs cooler, colors even brighter (if that’s even possible)…What seemed like just another city is finally turning into a proper, cosmopolitan capital and people are starting to take notice. Very important people.
You tell me in which other European city can you sip rakia seventeen floors above while listening to Muslim call to prayer and then give THE POPE a high-five within the same hour? Maybe I also forgot to mention this too because it always slips my mind – Albania is an Islamic nation. Perhaps the most secular Islamic nation you will ever visit in your life.
(For the record, I didn’t actually give the Pope a high-five when he visited in September 2014, but I’m sure I could have had I stepped a few feet past the sweet, high-heeled policewoman next to me. I’m also sure it would have been just fine.)
Let’s see what kind of post I will be writing three years from now. While the mystery shrouding this European country may be gone by then, I have no doubt that the intrigue will remain. Tourism in Albania is going to grow exponentially from here on out with all the great press and praise it has been receiving as well as increased efforts by the national tourism board, non-governmental organizations, and private business owners to make traveling around the country easier. That it recently became an official candidate to join the EU might help some, too.
For those worried that with an increase in the number of tourists it might all turn trendy and the “unadulterated adventures” will be lost – don’t. There will be new things to discover in Albania for a long time to come and personally, I have my sights set on exploring every square inch of it now that it’s my next door neighbor. Big plans are in the works for collaborations between the two of us including more Balkan tours next year so expect a lot more than just enumerated posts full of generalizations and get ready for more visual vacations. The eagle has landed – or more appropriately – I have landed on the [land of the] eagles.
This post was long overdue and it was also incredibly long so hope I didn’t lose you. Getting very excited because in exactly two weeks I will be leading the first of many intimate group trips through Kosovo & Albania exclusively designed by unë (me). From east to west and then north to south, we’re going to be seeing A LOT so if you’d like to join the party, feel free to check in on Instagram and Snapchat @theblondegypsy or contact me if you’d like to hear what’s on offer through these parts in 2016.
Also, if you have traveled to Albania before or are from there and have suggestions on places for me to visit other than the ones shown or mentioned above – PLEASE SHARE!