Albania has natural beauty in such abundance that you might wonder why it took 20 years for the country to take off as a tourist destination since the end of a particularly brutal strain of communism in 1991. So backward was Albania when it emerged blinking into the bright light of freedom that it needed two decades just to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe. Now that it has arguably done so, Albania offers a remarkable array of unique attractions, not least due to this very isolation: ancient mountain codes of behaviour, forgotten archaeological sites and villages where time seems to have stood still are all on the menu. With its stunning mountain scenery, a thriving capital in Tirana and beaches to rival any elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Albania has become the sleeper hit of the Balkans. But hurry here, as word is well and truly out.
Albanian food, a combination of Mediterranean and Turkish influences, is generally excellent, with largely organic and fresh ingredients used. While you have to really search for the best cooking on offer, the general standard of food is excellent. Restaurants can be found almost everywhere, from fancy Tirana gastronomy spots to simple grills by the beach where the catch of the day is cooked right in front of you.
In many towns nightlife begins with the traditional xhiro, an evening walk often taken with the family along a busy pedestrian route. After that, it’s to cafes or bars, where beer and cocktails are the order of the day, though also coffee – some Albanian Muslims don’t drink alcohol, though most do. Tirana has a particularly lively scene after dark in and around its famous Blloku neighbourhood.
Hotels and guesthouses are easily found throughout Albania, as tourism continues to grow and grow. You will almost never have trouble finding a room for the night, though seaside towns are often booked out in late July and August.
Homestays abound in Theth, while the number of camping grounds is increasing; you'll find them at Himara, Livadhi, Dhërmi and Drymades. Most have hot showers and on-site restaurants.
Jun Enjoy the perfect Mediterranean climate and deserted beaches.
Jul–Aug Albania's beaches may be packed, but this is a great time to explore the mountains.
Dec See features and shorts at the Tirana Film Festival, while the intrepid can snowshoe to Theth.
Albania offers a remarkable array of unique attractions, not least due to this very isolation: ancient mountain codes of behaviour, forgotten archaeological sites and villages where time seems to have stood still are all on the menu. With its stunning mountain scenery, a thriving capital in Tirana and beaches to rival any elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Albania has become the sleeper hit of the Balkans. But hurry here, as word is well and truly out.
Nënë Tereza International Airport is a modern, well-run terminal 17km northwest of Tirana. There are no domestic flights within Albania. Airlines flying to and from Tirana include Adria Airways (www.adria.si), Alitalia (www.alitalia.com), Austrian Airlines (www.austrian.com), Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com), Olympic Air (www.olympicair.com), Pegasus Airlines (www.flypgs.com) and Turkish Airlines(www.turkishairlines.com).
There are no passenger trains into Albania, so your border-crossing options are buses, furgons (minibuses), taxis or walking to a border and picking up transport on the other side.
Montenegro The main crossings link Shkodra to Ulcinj (via Muriqan, Albania, and Sukobin, Montenegro) and to Podgorica (Hani i Hotit).
Kosovo The closest border crossing to the Lake Koman Ferry terminal is Morina, and further south is Qafë Prush. Near Kukës use Morinë for the highway to Tirana.
Macedonia Use Blato to get to Debar, and Qafë e Thanës or Tushemisht, each to one side of Pogradec, for accessing Ohrid.
Greece The main border crossing to and from Greece is Kakavija on the road from Athens to Tirana. It's about half an hour from Gjirokastra and 250km west of Tirana, and can take up to three hours to pass through during summer. Kapshtica (near Korça) to Krystallopigi also gets long lines in summer. Konispoli (near Butrint in Albania's south) and Leskovik (between Gjirokastra and Korça) are both far less busy.
From Tirana, regular buses head to Pristina, Kosovo; to Skopje in Macedonia; to Ulcinj in Montenegro; and to Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece. Furgons (minibuses) and buses leave Shkodra for Montenegro, and buses head to Kosovo from Durrës. Buses travel to Greece from Albanian towns on the southern coast as well as from Tirana.
Travellers heading south from Croatia can pass through Montenegro to Shkodra (via Ulcinj), and loop through Albania before heading into Macedonia via Pogradec or Kosovo via the Lake Koman Ferry or the excellent Albania–Kosovo highway.
To enter Albania with you own vehicle you'll need a Green Card (proof of third-party insurance, issued by your insurer); check that your insurance covers Albania.
Heading to Macedonia, taxis from Pogradec will drop you off just before the border at Tushemisht/Sveti Naum. Alternatively, it's an easy 4km walk to the border from Pogradec. It's possible to organise a taxi (or, more usually, a person with a car) from where the Lake Koman Ferry stops in Fierzë to Gjakova in Kosovo. Taxis commonly charge €40 from Shkodra to Ulcinj in Montenegro.
Two or three boats per day ply the route between Saranda and Corfu, in Greece, and there are plenty of ferry companies making the journey to Italy from Vlora and Durrës. There are additional ferries from Vlora and Himara to Corfu in the summer.
Cycling in Albania is tough but certainly feasible. Expect lousy road conditions including open drains, some abysmal driving from fellow road users and roads that barely qualify for the title. Organised groups head north for mountain biking, and cyclists are even spotted cycling the long and tough Korça–Gjirokastra road. Shkodra, Durrës and Tirana are towns where you'll see locals embracing the bike, and Tirana even has bike lanes!
Bus and furgon (privately run minibuses) are the main form of public transport in Albania. Fares are low, and you either pay the conductor on board or when you hop off, which can be anywhere along the route.
Municipal buses operate in Tirana, Durrës, Shkodra, Berat, Korça and Vlora, and trips usually cost 30 lekë.
Despite severe neglect under the communists, nowadays the road infrastructure is improving; there's an excellent highway from Tirana to Kosovo, and the coastal route from the Montenegro border to Butrint, near Saranda, is in good condition.
Tourists are driving cars, motorbikes and mobile homes into the country in greater numbers, and, apart from heavy traffic and bad drivers, it's generally hassle free. One hassle is the huge number of traffic cops running speed traps. If they stop you for speeding, you'll have to pay a 'fine' in cash (around €20).
Off the main routes a 4WD is a good idea, especially if you want to go to Theth, for which it's essential. Driving at night is particularly hazardous; following another car on the road is a good idea as there's rarely any road markings or street lighting. A valid foreign driving licence is all that's required to drive a car in Albania.
There are lots of car-hire companies operating out of Tirana and Saranda, including all the major international agencies in the capital. Rates are low and quality generally good: hiring a small car costs as little as €30 per day. Rates include third-party insurance, with extra charged for full cover.
There are petrol stations on almost every road in Albania, but fill up before driving into the mountainous regions. As the range of cars being driven around Albania increases, so does the availability of spare parts, but it almost goes without saying that if you're driving an old Mercedes-Benz there will be parts galore.
Drinking and driving is forbidden, and there is zero tolerance for blood-alcohol readings. Both motorcyclists and passengers must wear helmets. Speed limits are as low as 30km/h in built-up areas and 35km/h on the edges, and there are plenty of traffic police monitoring the roads. Keep your car's papers with you, as police are active checkers.
Lek (plural lekë); the euro (€) is widely accepted.
Spend a day in busy Tirana, checking out the various excellent museums as well as the Blloku bars and cafes. On day two, make the three-hour trip to the Ottoman-era town of Berat. Overnight there before continuing down the coast for a couple of days on the beach in Himaraor Drymades. Loop around for one last night in charming Gjirokastrabefore returning to Tirana.
Follow the first week itinerary and then head north into Albania's incredible 'Accursed Mountains'. Start in Shkodra, from where you can get transport to Koman for the stunning morning ferry ride to Fierzë. Continue the same day to the charming mountain village of Valbona for the night, before trekking to Theth and spending your last couple of nights in the beautiful Theth National Park before heading back to Tirana.
If you decide to go away, book your hotel, flights and activities through our trip concierge for discounts and benefits. We offer free upgrades, free breakfasts, free hotel credit and VIP gifts at many luxury hotels for the same price as the hotel’s own websites. (Book direct and you don’t get these benefits so why would you?). Our packaged vacation prices tend to be considerably cheaper than flight and hotel prices available online.
Albania's population is made up of approximately 95% Albanians, 3% Greeks and 2% 'other' – comprising Vlachs, Roma, Serbs, Macedonians and Bulgarians. The majority of young people speak some English, but speaking a few words of Albanian (or Italian and, on the south coast, Greek) will be useful. Like most Balkan people, Albanians shake their heads sideways to say yes (po) and usually nod and 'tsk' to say no (jo – pronounced 'yo'). The Ghegs in the north and the Tosks in the south have different dialects, music, dress and the usual jokes about each other's weaknesses.
Albanians are nominally 70% Muslim, 20% Christian Orthodox and 10% Catholic, but more realistic statistics estimate that up to 75% of Albanians are nonreligious. Religion was ruthlessly stamped out by the 1967 cultural revolution, when all mosques and churches were taken over by the state. By 1990 only about 5% of Albania's religious buildings were left intact. The rest had been turned into cinemas or army stores, or were destroyed, though many are slowly being taken back over by their original owners. While Albania remains a very secular society, Ramadan is widely observed by Muslims and Islam does seem to be enjoying a significant comeback among younger people.
The Muslim faith has a branch called Bektashism, similar to Sufism, and its world headquarters are in Albania. Bektashi followers go to teqe(templelike buildings without a minaret), which are found on hilltops in towns where those of the faith fled persecution. Most Bektashis live in the southern half of the country.
One Albanian writer who is widely read outside Albania is Ismail Kadare (b 1936). In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for his body of work. His books are a great source of information on Albanian traditions, history and social events, and exquisitely capture the atmosphere of the country's towns, as in the lyrical descriptions of Kadare's birthplace, Gjirokastra, in Chronicle in Stone (1971). Broken April (1990), set in the northern highlands before the 1939 Italian invasion, describes the life of a village boy who is next in line in a desperate cycle of blood vendettas.
During Albania's isolationist years the only Western actor approved by Hoxha was UK actor Sir Norman Wisdom (who became quite a cult hero). However, with so few international movies to choose from, the local film industry had a captive audience. While much of its output was propagandist, by the 1980s this little country was turning out an extraordinary 14 films a year. Despite a general lack of funds in the post-communist era, two movies have gone on to win awards at international film festivals. Gjergj Xhuvani's comedy Slogans (2001) is a warm and touching account of life during communist times. This was followed in 2002 by Tirana Year Zero, Fatmir Koci's bleak look at the pressures on the young to emigrate. Lorna's Silence (2008), a film about Albanians living in Belgium, was awarded in the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, while Amnesty (2011), a drama about two spouses making conjugal visits to a prison together, was Albania's most commercially successful film of all time.
Blaring from cars, bars, restaurants and mobile phones – music is something you get plenty of in Albania. Most modern Albanian music has clarinet threaded through it and a goatskin drum beat behind it. Polyphony, the blending of several independent vocal or instrumental parts, dates from ancient Illyrian times, and can still be heard, particularly in the south.
One of the most delicious Albanian art treats is to be found in Berat's Onufri Museum. Onufri was the most outstanding Albanian icon painter of the 16th and 17th centuries, and his work is noted for its unique intensity of colour, derived from natural dyes that are as fresh now as the day he painted with them. Other superb collections of his work can be found in Korça and at the National History Museum in Tirana.
Albania consists of 30% vast interior plains, 362km of coast and a mountainous spine that runs its length. Mt Korab, at 2764m, is Albania's highest peak.
The country's large and beautiful lakes include the Balkans' biggest, Lake Shkodra, which borders Montenegro in the north, and the ancient Lake Ohrid in the east (one-third Albanian, two-thirds Macedonian). Albania's longest river is the Drin (280km), which originates in Kosovo and is fed by melting snow from mountains in Albania's north and east. Hydroelectricity has changed Albania's landscape: Lake Koman was once a river, and the water from the Blue Eye Spring near Saranda travels to the coast in open concrete channels via a hydroelectricity plant. Agriculture makes up a small percentage of land use, and citrus and olive trees spice up the coastal plains. Most rural householders grow their own food.
National parks in Albania include Dajti, Llogara, Tomorri, Butrint, Valbona and Theth. Most are protected only by their remoteness, and tree-felling and hunting still take place. Hiking maps of the national parks are available, though they can be hard to find.
Albania's Alps have become a 'must-do' for hikers, and they're home to brown bear, wolf, otter, marten, wild cat, wild boar and deer. Falcons and grouse are also Alpine favourites, and birdwatchers can also flock to wetlands at Lake Butrint and Lake Shkodra (though the wetlands aren't pristine).
Lake Ohrid's trout is endangered (but still eaten), and endangered loggerhead turtles nest on the Ionian coast and on the Karaburun Peninsula, where there have also been sightings of critically endangered Mediterranean monk seals.
During communism, there were around 2000 cars in the country. Now it seems everyone has one, with many of Albania's older cars being diesel Mercedes-Benzes stolen from Western Europe during the 1990s. As a consequence of the explosion, air-pollution levels in Tirana are five to 10 times higher than in Western European countries.
Illegal logging and fishing reached epidemic proportions during the 1990s, and there are signs of it today; fishing for the endangered korantrout in Lake Ohrid continues, as does fishing with dynamite along the coast.
Albania was practically litter-free until the early 1990s, as everything was reused or recycled, but today there's sadly rubbish everywhere, and very little public awareness of why this is a bad thing.
On the hillsides, beaches and generally most surfaces in Albania, you will notice small concrete domes (often in groups of three) with rectangular slits. Meet the bunkers: Enver Hoxha's concrete legacy, built from 1950 to 1985. Weighing in at 5 tonnes of concrete and iron, these little mushrooms are almost impossible to destroy. They were built to repel an invasion and can resist full tank assault – a fact proved by their chief engineer, who vouched for his creation's strength by standing inside one while it was bombarded by a tank. The shell-shocked engineer emerged unscathed, and tens of thousands were built. Today, some are creatively painted, one houses a tattoo artist, and some even house makeshift hostels.
Two enormous bunkers, the scale of which do not compare to these tiny sniper installations, can be found in Tirana and Gjirokastra. In Tirana, Bunk'Art is the city's most fascinating site, a history museum housed inside a vast government bunker. In Gjirokastra, the Cold War Tunnel, in fact a similarly massive government bunker, can also be visited, though minus the history museum and art display.
In coastal areas the calamari, mussels and fish will knock your socks off, while high-altitude areas like Llogara have roast lamb worth climbing a mountain for. Offal is popular; fërgesë Tiranë is a traditional Tirana dish of offal, eggs and tomatoes cooked in an earthenware pot.
Vegetarians will have a hard time of it outside large towns, but many restaurants serve pizza, pasta or grilled and stuffed vegetables.
Raki is very popular. The two main types are grape raki (the most common) and mani (mulberry) raki. Ask for homemade if possible (raki ë bërë në shtëpi). If wine is more your cup of tea, seek out the Çobo winery near Berat and its Shesh i Bardhe white. Local beers include Tirana and Korça – the latter gets our vote. Coffee remains the standard national drink of choice at any time of day, normally tiny, super strong espresso combined with a cigarette.