A first-time guide to Albania

Albania has never been more popular with travelers than it is now. Joel Balsam, author of the Albania chapter in the new Western Balkans guidebook, shares his expert tips for exploring this singular country.

Is it just me or does it feel like everyone is talking about traveling to Albania? It’s been like that for a few years, and it’s easy to see why.

TikTok-adored Adriatic beaches with turquoise-painted water line the southwestern coast, the Albanian Alps provide perfect hiking terrain, there’s amazing ancient architecture, and Albania is far cheaper than nearby Croatia, Greece and Italy.

But for every positive pitch about why you should book a trip to Albania right this instant, there are its detractors – some seem to think that Albanian gangs elsewhere in Europe represent the average person in Albania. In short: they don’t, and the locals you’ll encounter in Albania are honest, curious and welcoming.

Here’s what you should know for your first time visiting Albania.

When should I go to Albania?

Europe’s obsession with lazy beach days and cheap flights make Albania’s best accessible beaches, Ksamil and Saranda, good and truly swarming from June through September. If you want a little more peace and quiet, plan a visit in May, though the sea will be chilly. Better yet, go between September and December, which are probably the best months to visit Albania overall as the weather is still lovely and there are fewer visitors.

If visiting in winter, stick to Tirana, the capital city, where you can warm up in its many atmospheric restaurants and bars like Komiteti, which serves many different flavors of rakija (fruit brandy). Activities in much of the rest of the country shut during winter.

A woman sits on the edge of a hiking trail in the Albanian mountains
Allow more than a week to take in Albania’s highlights, including the Accursed Mountains © Andrii Marushchynets / Getty Images

How much time should I spend in Albania?

If you only have a weekend, fly to Corfu in Greece and take the ferry over to Saranda to see the Albanian Riviera. Or land in Tirana to enjoy the capital’s terrific food and historic sights.

If you have time for a road trip, you can cover Albania highlights like Tirana, a beach on the coast and one of Berat or Gjirokastra in a week. Allow for more time if you want to hike in the Accursed Mountains or if you plan to take public transport – Albanian buses are notoriously unreliable and slow.

Is it easy to get in and around Albania?

There’s just one international transport hub in Albania at Tirana International Airport. But if you want to visit the southwestern beaches it’s better to fly to Corfu and take the short ferry ride over.

Once inside Albania, getting around is, sadly, very challenging. Communist-era furgon shared minibuses that run between towns belong in a museum and don’t have consistent timetables. They also have a bad habit of breaking down.

Driving is more convenient, though it comes with plenty of warnings. Many complain about Albania’s aggressive drivers and speedy sports cars (likely to be a Volkswagen or Mercedes). Personally, I don’t find driving in Albania to be that bad, especially on the main highways – and you really should stick to the highways as country roads aren’t always well maintained.

Hiring a car is also a headache, with international brands charging a premium and only maintaining offices at Tirana airport. Local car hire companies are cheaper and can be found outside the airport, but you’ll have to pay cash or bank transfer, meaning you won’t be able to use insurance protections from your credit card if it comes with those.

A Roman amphitheater with a handful of tourists admiring the architecture
Tear yourself away from the beach in Ksamil to visit the nearby ancient Greek and Roman city of Butrint © trabantos / Shutterstock

Top things to do in Albania

Enjoy Albania’s beautiful coastline

You may have seen it on Instagram – now’s your chance to swim from Albania’s picture-perfect beaches. Ksamil, the country’s most popular beach, is indeed gorgeous, but more expensive than anywhere in the country and stupidly crowded in summer – there isn’t even room to put down a beach towel. Travel up the coastline to find quieter beaches in and around Himara and Dhërmi and take a boat tour to “secret” beaches inaccessible to cars. 

If you do go to Ksamil, don’t you dare miss Butrint, a jaw-dropping Greek and Roman city.

Bar hop in Tirana’s Blloku neighborhood

During Albania’s communist era from 1946–1991, Tirana’s Blloku neighborhood was blocked off to the public as a private residence for party officials. When Albania’s democratic revolution finally toppled the regime, the gates to Blloku swung open and the neighborhood has since become a place to see and be seen. Hip cafes and bars with plant-filled terraces line the streets, and there are plenty of cool clubs as well. My personal favorite is Radio Bar.

Stone castle with a tall clock tower
Gjirokastra is one of Albania’s UNESCO-recognized “museum towns” © dinosmichail / Shutterstock

Visit the “museum towns” of Berat and Gjirokastra

For amazing architecture, travel to Albania’s UNESCO-recognized “museum towns”. In Berat, explore a city-sized castle atop the hill and wind through tiny stone alleyways. Don’t miss the city’s prized windows, which are best viewed from across the Osum River.

In Gjirokastra, the architecture is no less remarkable. Walk up the hill (you’ll be doing a lot of that here), to see ancient homes with heavy stone tile roofs and its impressive castle. Underneath the city, wander through communist-era bunkers – there’s a huge one beside the town hall.

My favorite thing to do in Albania

What truly won me over in Albania is the country’s mountainous north, starting with Shkodra. The artsy student city is easily the most bike-friendly place I’ve seen in Eastern Europe and a great base for exploring nearby peaks.

In three days, you can take a ferry to Valbona, hike a section of the Peaks of the Balkans trail linking Albania with Kosovo and Montenegro and jump into cobalt “blue eye” ponds in Theth. Accommodations in Shkodra can organize the circuit for you.

How much money do I need for Albania?

Few places in Albania accept card payments. You can take out local currency, lek, from ATMs, with a steep transaction fee or exchange cash at money changers. At the time of writing, €1 equals 100 lekë.

  • Hostel room: 1500 lekë
  • Basic room for two: 5000 lekë per night
  • Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): 5000 lekë per night
  • Ticket for a bus in Tirana: 40 lekë
  • Inter-city bus: prices vary. A trip between Saranda and Tirana is 1600 lekë
  • Coffee: 100 to 200 lekë
  • Sandwich: 600 lekë
  • Dinner for two: 2000 lekë
  • Beer/pint at the bar: 300 lekë

Is Albania safe?

Contrary to what many say, Albania is safe. Pickpocketing barely happens, and crime associated with Albanian organized crime elsewhere in Europe has little to do with the average traveler’s experience.

Is Albania religious?

Most Albanians identify as Muslim, but you’ll rarely see locals display their faith in public with traditional clothing. You will, however, see plenty of mosques as well as a lot of churches. 

Despite Albania appearing quite secular, it’s still respectful to dress conservatively outside of Tirana and the beaches. If entering a popular mosque, there should be extra clothing to cover up during your visit.

Is it worth visiting Kosovo while in Albania?

A visit to Kosovo, Albania’s neighbor to the east, is easy, and border guards will rarely even stop you to check your passport. The two countries are strongly linked, with the vast majority of people in both identifying as ethnic Albanian – their division is a result of border lines drawn by Western European powers.

In Kosovo, you’ll find prettier mountain trails along with historic Prizren, with its many gorgeous places of worship and castles. Also, check out burgeoning Pristina, which looks more like a Western European city by the day.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top