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 & 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 & 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!
NickAugust 10, 2015 at 5:01 pm
I’ve been dreaming about a big Balkan trip for the past few years (settling for the time being for a New Years/Christmas holiday in Sarajevo and Belgrade this year), and every time I think I’ve settled on the destination I’m most excited about, I read a random article or a post like this and it flips me right around again.
I love how this part of Europe has that ability to keep me dazzled and disoriented – even when armchair traveling.
Thanks for sharing!
LarissaAugust 14, 2015 at 11:12 am
Thanks for the comment! Sarajevo and Belgrade got me first hooked on the Balkans way back in the day so I’m certain it will be just the first of many trips. You could travel this region for the rest of your life and I’m pretty sure still be able to find something new and wonderful to see every time – especially in Albania.
LaurenAugust 10, 2015 at 8:44 pm
I recently discovered your site and have loved your stories! I’m headed on a Balkan roadtrip with a friend in a couple weeks (Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania), and I’ve gotten to excited, mostly based on your photos and reviews! Thanks for sharing all this great information. Can’t wait to discover these places for myself.
LarissaAugust 14, 2015 at 11:07 am
Love hearing that! Believe me, it’s all way better in real life. Very excited for you, road trips are the best – wish you a wonderful time and safe travels!
AshleyAugust 11, 2015 at 10:14 am
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of visiting the Balkans for a while now, and this post is just adding to that obsession! Although, because I usually travel solo and prefer not to rent a car, the lack of public transportation makes Albania seem like it would be one of the trickier countries to visit in the region.
LarissaAugust 14, 2015 at 11:05 am
It indeed has its challenges, but it’s not impossible. Just requires a ton of patience and more time if you are trying to get around with public transportation. Renting a car isn’t that crazy of an idea either if you are an experienced driver and just prepared for anything and everything. I’ve traveled through there solo and had a great time. I say you just do it – you won’t regret it :)
StephanieAugust 11, 2015 at 4:33 pm
Great post! My husband and I have lived in Albania for over a year now and we are loving it here (and in the rest of the Balkans in which we have traveled). Love to read your posts as we add more sights to our road trip list! Happy Travels!
LarissaAugust 14, 2015 at 11:02 am
Wow, where exactly are you living? Glad to hear you are loving it :) Give me a shout if you encounter any amazing new discoveries over there – will add them to my To Do list!
kamiAugust 13, 2015 at 10:25 pm
I seriously need to see more of Albania! Have been only to Berat and I’m dying to get back there! That’s definitely in the agenda for 2016!!
LarissaAugust 14, 2015 at 10:59 am
Another chance to meet up then! Much more to Albania than Berat, but definitely a cool place to start.
Shaun's Cracked CompassAugust 14, 2015 at 2:02 pm
Well that was a short post :P Seriously though, what an amazing write up. You can tell you put a lot of thought in to it. I feel as if I’ve seen the same things you wrote about. And I’m a total feet-photographer. Glad I’m not the only one.
I have plans for my next trip to come up the coast starting in Greece probably ending in Ljubljana, but we’ll see where it takes me. Looking forward to Albania even more now.
LarissaAugust 18, 2015 at 7:03 pm
Haha, thank you! I actually I started writing it about two months ago but travels got in the way so I stopped noticing how much I was adding each time I’d work on it. I do indeed have a lot of thoughts on Albania and so happy that my mission was accomplished then if you feel like you had any sort of taste.
Greece to Slovenia would be an amazing trip so hope you get around to it and ask away if you need any recommendations.
Justin UrbasAugust 20, 2015 at 1:49 pm
Well, i was thinking of a Balkan trip for a very long time. But was unable to get a spot from my work schedule. I must say after reading your blog and seeing those splendid images. I am thinking of finding an escape all over again. :)
LarissaSeptember 1, 2015 at 9:26 am
Sounds like a great idea to me!
NatalieSeptember 10, 2015 at 4:47 am
My grandma is Albanian and I’ve always been curious about going there. I have been to Croatia and loved it. I am planning a Balkan trip next summer 2016 so I will definitely be visiting your blog to get ideas of where to go. I studied the Balkans in college so it makes me happy that you are a Balkan connoisseur and are shedding some light on the beauties of that area. Thank you for this blog!
LarissaSeptember 18, 2015 at 2:27 pm
Thank you and please do some back! :) Lots more to come as I just spent most of August there and will be spending more time this fall. Far cry from Croatia in terms of infrastructure, but more than worth it!
ShilaNovember 9, 2015 at 5:12 pm
I am travelling from Greece to Albania to Croatia. In Albania I plan to stay around a week and wish to explore Gjirokastër and Valbona. What is the best way to get from Sarande to Gjirokastër and from there to Valbona?
LarissaNovember 10, 2015 at 1:25 pm
Renting a car would be easiest but otherwise a bus. You will have to check in Saranda how to get to Gjirokaster and then from Gjirokaster to Bajram Curri/Valbona. I imagine you’ll have to make a couple changes on the last one but I’ve never done it so have no exact information for you. Enjoy your trip!
ShilaNovember 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm
So you rentet a car? Where and how much? And did you have to return to the place you rentet the car?
LarissaMarch 20, 2016 at 1:07 pm
No, I visited with someone who had their own car. Really not sure but imagine you might be able to rent one in Saranda as it is a larger city and eventually drop it off in the capital, Tirana. Rates can be anywhere from 25-50 euros a day I believe.
LiseMarch 16, 2016 at 8:39 pm
Any suggestions for a place to stay on the coast in between Saranda and Tirana? I will be travelling by bus. Thinking Himare or Vlore maybe. Thank you :-)
LarissaMarch 20, 2016 at 11:03 am
Yes, I mentioned above Himare and Vlore are perhaps the easiest to get to if you are using public transportation. Would chose Himare over Vlore (Vlore is a much bigger city, similar to Saranda) for sure and maybe from there you can ask the people wherever you are staying how you might be able to get to the smaller beaches to the north and south also by bus or they can arrange a taxi which shouldn’t be too expensive. Dhermi, north of Himare, is one of my favorites along the coast but sadly I have no idea how to get there by bus.
TatjanaMay 15, 2016 at 11:13 pm
Amazing post Larissa. I come from the south of Albania (Saranda) and sadly haven’t visited many places as there is never anytime for tourism. Albanian parents never cease complaints about neglecting them and living abroad. I am sure you understand:P
LarissaMay 17, 2016 at 12:25 pm
Thank you! And completely get that but good news is it should all still be there when you finally have some time to travel around :)
BSJuly 14, 2016 at 12:52 pm
hahaha BG that first photo in the blog is my homeland , my family roots there are 800 years old hahhaha i was so surprised to see that photo , thank u for all good words
LarissaOctober 4, 2016 at 5:39 pm
Really? On the road in Somewhere, Albania?? That’s awesome. Albania is an amazing country, hard not to write good words.
LuleJuly 21, 2016 at 4:14 pm
Hello Larissa, i come from Albania and live in Germany since 1994. I love your photos. Thank you so much. You are beautiful and your work to. I will this year visit my family and i want to visit some Places on your Photos. If i was in Albania last years, i only visited my family. Now I want to see more ;o).
LarissaOctober 4, 2016 at 5:50 pm
Thank you for the very nice comment :) So much to see there so definitely hope you get to do some more traveling around your homeland :)
PiniAugust 5, 2016 at 10:45 am
I enjoyed reading and see the photos on both of your Albania blogs.
Very good photos !
I already traveled almost all of the Balkan including Kosovo but had not been in Albania yet.
I plan to do this in near October with a rented car for 10 days.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts !
LarissaOctober 4, 2016 at 5:59 pm
Hi Pini, thank you and I’d say you are in for a real treat. Albania is amazing and totally different from the rest. Safe travels and enjoy!
Hamz ASeptember 7, 2016 at 12:25 am
If you can, try to catch a game of football out there. The crowds are smaller than I’m used to in England but so much more passionate!
LarissaOctober 5, 2016 at 2:15 pm
Even just catching one in a bar can be a fun experience – you are dead on about the passion!
DarkoSeptember 26, 2016 at 6:31 pm
Dear Blonde Gypsy
There is no such thing as an “incredibly long” blog when it is so wonderfully informative and thorough. We are going to take a drive. :)
LarissaOctober 5, 2016 at 2:21 pm
That makes me feel good to hear, thank you. And enjoy the drive! :)
Debbie KincannonFebruary 26, 2017 at 9:50 pm
Hello! Have you already done a tour around Albania? I am very interested! What is your email? Thanks!