Saturday, August 27th, 2016

What’s it Like to Travel in Albania?

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Kate in Ksamil Albania

Image: travelFREAK

Albania was the country I was most looking forward to visiting this summer. It fit my dreams — home to a fascinating culture and some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, yet a bit of an underdog. A Balkan country I hadn’t visited yet? Sold!

But the biggest factor was meeting two lovely Albanian girls this past spring. Erisa and Bianka joined my second Central America tour. Both of them immigrated from Albania to the US when they were teenagers and both go back to visit often.

Soon our tour days were filled with stories and anecdotes from Albania, and learning from Erisa and Bianka allowed me to get to know a culture that most people only know from watching Taken.

(Side note: Erisa was watching Taken in the theater and suddenly let out a scream. One of the Albanian mobsters in the kitchen scene was played by a friend of hers. True story.)

So I wanted to enjoy my trip to Albania, but I wanted to make my friends proud, too. I wanted to give Albania a fair chance and get to see the wonderful parts, not just the negative stereotypes.

Here are the things I learned — and what you should know — when traveling to Albania.

What's it Really Like to Travel in Albania?

Albania is one of the least developed countries in Europe.

I’ve visited nearly every country in Europe. Honestly, Albania is the least developed of all the ones I’ve seen, less so than Bosnia, Macedonia or Bulgaria (though it’s worth noting that I haven’t been to Moldova or Belarus yet).

What does this mean? Roads are in poor condition. There are no central bus stations and public transportation is a headache (more on that later). The water isn’t safe to drink. There is hardly any tourism infrastructure beyond a tiny bit in Saranda and Berat. Get outside the tourist areas and you’ll find nobody who can speak English.

Does that make Albania a bad place? Not at all. I’m saying this because you should know what to expect before you arrive. While they’re very different countries, the lack of development in urban Albania reminded me of Cambodia several times.

The average monthly wage in Albania is 45,539 lek ($369 USD). Assuming 22 days of work per month, that’s just $17 per day. Adding that to the difficulty of ever leaving the country and you’ve got a very tough situation for much of the population.

Albania shut itself off from the rest of the world for much of the 20th century, but so many of its residents are facing a different kind of imprisonment today.

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Albania is a Muslim country.

This may surprise you, but about 59% of Albanians are Muslim! About 17% are Christian and the remainder are nonbelievers or followers of other religions.

That said, it’s a largely secular Muslim country, and religion does not influence its government. I could count the women I saw wearing a hijab on one hand — and that includes my time in Tirana.

The only way you’d know the prominence of Islam is that mosques are everywhere. I also noticed that it was rare to hear the call to prayer blasted out early in the morning, a big change from places like Indonesia and southern Thailand.

Butrint NP, Albania

The Albanian language is like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Don’t think a smattering of Serbo-Croatian will help you out here — Albanian, while technically an Indo-European language, is not related to any other living languages. It’s like Basque that way.

In areas like the more upscale parts of Tirana, the city center of Berat, Saranda, and Ksamil, you can get by with English; sometimes, Albanians speak Greek or Italian as their second language. (A taxi driver in Tirana and I spoke entirely in Italian!)

But like anywhere else in the world, learning a few words of the local language will delight the locals. Përshëndetje (per-shen-DET-yeh) means hello and falaminderit (fa-la-min-DAIR-eet) means thank you.

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The Albanian flag is everywhere, and not just on government buildings.

My foreigner friends often rib me about how Americans always have their flags on display. But seriously, we’re not the only ones! People from Denmark, South Africa, Turkey, and Norway, among others, are just as demonstrative with their country’s flag.

And the blood-red Albanian flag topped with a double-headed eagle is seen everywhere throughout the country. Not only that, they sell Albanian flag merchandise everywhere — think everything from t-shirts to posters to tea towels. I noticed the same thing in Kosovo, too, which is home to ethnic Albanians.

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It’s dirt cheap.

Before this trip, I thought Macedonia was the cheapest country in Europe — and Albanian prices are in line with Macedonian prices or even slightly lower. Like everywhere else in the world, you’ll pay more in urban and touristy destinations in Albania and less in smaller towns and less popular destinations.

Some price examples: I very rarely spent more than $10 (or even $5) on a meal, and only did if I had a few drinks somewhere fancy. I paid 350 lek ($3) for prosecco at the chic bar on top of the Sky Tower in Tirana. Beers? Around $1 at a shop or $2 in a bar. I went on a shopping spree in Tirana and spent about $8 per shirt and $18 per (nice) dress.

Most unbelievably, I paid $18 per night for a hotel room in Berat that had both a double and single bed, air conditioning, an ensuite bathroom, and it was centrally located. Eighteen dollars. I’ve paid more than that in Cambodia for much worse rooms.

Just one thing — get rid of all your Albanian lek before leaving the country, because nobody will change it. (I’ll be giving mine to my Albanian friend Erisa to spend on her next trip home!)

Butrint NP, Albania

Public transportation can be maddening.

Mountain bus rides can be the most beautiful and frightening of overland transportation. Albania kicks things up a notch on the ride from Saranda to Gjirokastra, where several treacherous passes are crossed without any safety precautions. The guardrails, when they exist, are barely knee-high and seem to be more symbolic than protective.

Cities in Albania don’t have central bus stations, nor do they have travel agencies that work with every bus company. For me, getting the right ticket from Saranda to Berat required me to go from door to door, agency to agency, listening to them telling me where to go in Albanian as I nodded without understanding, then finding another agency, again and again, until I found someone who sold those tickets! All the buses depart at different street corners.

As for the quality of the buses, you definitely won’t have air conditioning and if temperatures are in the high 90s (36 C), which they very often are in Albania during the summer, it will be even hotter inside.

Finally, sometimes you’ll arrive and find out that your connecting bus doesn’t exist, which happened to me in Fier. I needed to pick up a bus to Berat and found out that nothing existed and my only option was to jump in the back of some guy’s van. More on that below.

Albanian Shellfish

Food can be hit or miss.

You know, there were times that I really loved the food in Albania, but much of the time I found the food to be uninspiring.

Lots of meat pounded into patties or formed into sausages. Lots of stews. Lots of salads. I hate to say it, but as a cheese lover, I found that most of the cheeses I tried had an unappealing flavor to them, almost like they had started to go bad. (Coming straight from Greece with its stupendous feta exacerbated this, I’m sure.)

But Saranda had wonderful seafood, especially shellfish and octopus, and like elsewhere in the Balkans, you can always find good pizza.

For what it’s worth, my favorite traditional meal in Albania was at a place called Taverna Leo in Saranda. I had the most wonderful stuffed zucchini and squash. But then a few days later I ordered stuffed peppers at one of the nicest places in Berat, trying to recreate the magic, and it just didn’t happen. Those odd flavors crept back in.

Boat in Ksamil Albania

The evening stroll is the place to see and be seen.

Like the rest of the Balkans and much of the Mediterranean, cafe culture rules and so does the evening stroll. As soon as the sun begins to set and temperatures turn livable again, it seems like everyone comes out for the evening to stroll down the street and sit at cafes. No matter how old or young you are, you’re there. It’s what people do.

This was most prominent in Berat. During the day, nobody would be out on the main cafe street (the super-hot summer temperatures may have been a reason), and you wouldn’t believe the difference come evening.

Saranda, Albania

You see children with their grandparents most of the time.

This may just be a Saranda thing, but I often saw Albanian children being cared for by their grandparents, no parents to be seen. It may be cultural, it may be just for vacation, or it might just be a coincidence. Either way, I saw it as evidence of strong and close families.

Berat Albania

Albanians will question why you’re actually there.

Over and over, Albanians were incredulous that I was visiting their country. “Why would you come here when you could go anywhere else?” they kept asking me. My friends experienced the same reactions.

No matter how much praise I heaped on the country, the kind people, the beaches, the mountains, the delicious seafood, Albanians would refuse to believe their country could be a tourist destination.

At one point, a waiter in Berat told me, “You’re lucky. All of us are stuck in this town.” “You’re right. I am,” I told him. “But this is such a beautiful town that you get to live in.” He snorted and walked away.

Tirana Albania

Tirana is one wacky and vibrant city.

Tirana was a huge surprise to me! I had no idea I would love it so much. I think most of this was because I stayed in the Blloku neighborhood, an upscale area which used to be exclusively for the elite of Tirana.

Some of my favorite experiences were climbing to the top of the the derelict pyramid in the center of town and having drinks on top of the Sky Tower during sunset. And all the shopping, of course! I practically bought a new wardrobe at a Pink Woman boutique downtown and a Tally Weijl store in the Tirana East Gate (TEG) mall outside town.

Berat Albania

Berat is one of the most unusual-looking old cities I’ve ever seen.

I went to Berat for to see its UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town, and I wasn’t disappointed. Have you ever seen a place that looked like this before? It’s the city of a thousand windows!

Berat is a tiny place and you don’t need more than one full day and two nights here. Spend your time exploring the town on foot. The main cafe street comes to life around sunset — it was amazing to watch it transform from being totally empty to a swarming crowd!

Ksamil Albania

The beaches on the Riviera are glorious.

Did you know that Albania is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe? Here you’ll find clear water like the beach above, in Ksamil. (I feel dishonest just looking at that photo, though — it was filled with people and I photoshopped them all out for a nicer photo. It is CRAZY crowded there.)

Saranda, a relaxing resort town, makes a great base for exploring the south. It has a great boardwalk, beaches with free chairs and umbrellas, and several good restaurants and cafes. There wasn’t a lot to do, which made it a good place to chill out.

I spent six nights in Saranda and could easily have stayed longer. If the internet were better (i.e. didn’t randomly stop working twice a day), I’d consider it a digital nomad hotspot for summer.

It was an easy hourlong bus trip to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed ruins at Butrint, and a bit north of there, the near-island of Ksamil with its beaches. Ksamil was chock full of families and umbrellas, but you’ll find fewer people on the rockier beaches.

Other beaches worth visiting are Himare and Drymades, or just drive up the coast and stop wherever looks good!

Kate in Albania

Yes, I recommend Albania for solo female travelers!

I felt very safe in Albania and aside from guarding against theft, I don’t think there are any specific precautions that solo female travelers should take beyond the basics. I experienced zero sexual harassment or sexist treatment and wasn’t so much as hit on by a single Albanian man, even in bars and clubs.

There is one issue: for transportation to some places, you’ll have to get into an unregistered taxi, which is pretty much just a random guy with a car. I had to do this when I found out there was no bus from Fier to Berat. It was the only option.

If you get into this situation, I recommend doing what I did: I took a photo of the driver’s face, took a photo of his license plate, and pretended to make a phone call to a friend saying that I was coming soon and repeating his license plate number clearly.

I do this all over the world and it’s an extra layer of safety — the driver thinks you have someone looking out for you and knows he can’t try anything without getting caught. Is it 100% foolproof? No. Nothing is. But it helps quite a bit.

All this being said, I don’t recommend Albania for new and inexperienced travelers. It’s a challenging country in many ways for even an experienced traveler, and I recommend you cut your travel teeth on a few different countries in Europe before you travel to Albania on your own.

Full solo travel disclosure: I traveled with my bud Jeremy for most of my time in Saranda but traveled the rest of the country on my own.

Ksamil Albania

Albania is mostly undiscovered, but it won’t stay that way.

I don’t expect Albania to grow into a major tourist destination in the next decade, but things are absolutely going to change as the country continues developing.

I expect to see many more tourists, especially along the Riviera. I could see Tirana becoming a popular stag do hotspot as well. But one place where I think we’ll see the most growth is in the adventure and outdoors travel industry.

Albania is home to beautiful, pristine mountain ranges. The Peaks of the Balkans trek through Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania is starting to get more attention (for more on that, my friend Katie did the trek recently and is now blogging about it) and I fully expect to see more hiking, mountain climbing, canyoning, rafting, and outdoor lodges spring up in the future.

If Montenegro was lauded as the new Croatia, Albania could very well become the new Montenegro.

The verdict? Albania is great. Go now. Or go in a few years. You’ll be very glad you did.

Essential Info: Tirana is home to Albania’s only commercial airport. I traveled overland and arrived in Saranda via ferry from Corfu, Greece. Ionian Cruises has one ferry in each direction each day costing 19 euros ($22) and it takes an hour and 15 minutes. Keep in mind that the Ionian Cruises ticket office is not at the dock but down the street! Get your tickets in advance or you’ll have to hail a taxi in a panic like I did!

I departed Tirana via Montenegro Hostel’s direct shuttle to Podgorica, Budva, and Kotor. It costs 40 euros ($46) and should take five hours. While we had some nightmarish logistical issues due to a Norwegian tour group on the bus before our pickup, it was a very comfortable journey. I highly recommend it, as the alternative is taking several public buses of dubious quality. They also stop for a photo op at beautiful Sveti Stefan.

In Saranda I stayed at this modern Airbnb rental with a stunning balcony view for an absurd $35 per night. It can sleep up to seven. Keep in mind there is no kitchen whatsoever besides a small fridge.

In Berat I stayed in this incredibly comfortable hotel room via Airbnb with air conditioning for an even more absurd $18 per night.

In Tirana I stayed in a private ensuite room at Propaganda Hostel, which is in an ideal location in the chic Blloku neighborhood, for 27 euros ($31) per night.

New to Airbnb? Sign up here and get $25 off your first stay from me!

Overall, I think visiting Tirana, Berat, and Saranda (plus a day trip from Saranda to Ksamil and Butrint) makes a good weeklong trip. I spread mine out over ten days. If you want to visit other countries at the same time, you could easily expand your trip to Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and/or Montenegro.

Would you want to visit Albania? Share away!

Comments

93 Responses to “What’s it Like to Travel in Albania?”
  1. Erika says:

    This was really interesting! I’ve never had an interest in Albania — and never really knew much about it. Learned some stuff! It’ll be interesting to see how it develops over the next several years! Thanks Kate! 🙂

    • Erika, yes, it’s worth visiting when you’re searching for something different (yet safe) in Europe.

      Kate, you’re right that religion isn’t important in Albania. In fact, prior to 1990, Albania was the ONLY atheist country that ever existed.

      That same Wiki article that you cite says that “Albania is ranked among the least religious countries in the world.”

      I hope that people read what you wrote after the headline that “Albania is a Muslim country.”
      Sadly, too many run away when they hear that.

  2. Ola says:

    I never thought of traveling there, seems to be still a hidden gem in Europe. I hope I get the chance to go there 🙂

  3. Britt says:

    I knew you doing the Balkans this summer was going to come in handy for my trip this time next year! To be honest Tirana is only on my list as a stopover between Kotor and Athens, but you might have convinced me to at least hang round for one more day than I had planned!

    I love little off the beaten path places like this- even if its means the struggle of a language barrier and poor tourist infrastructure. The beaches look absolutely amazing!

  4. I love reading your blog for posts like this. I know next to nothing about Albania. I haven’t even seen Taken, so that doesn’t help me out! I had no idea it was this underdeveloped. Very cool to have some insight to it from someone as well traveled as you. I love your open-mindedness!

  5. hidayah says:

    Will be there next month! I just can’t wait to start my Balkans journey.
    p/s : will be taking Montenegro hostel’s shuttle bus from Budva to Tirana

    • Denis says:

      I should recommend you to stay a night in Shkodra before going in Tirana , It’s a nice city and you can see a lot of new things like Rozafa castle , Shkodra Lake , the center of the city with nice bars and try an albanian drink called : Raki ( its a strong drink so don’t drink to fast 😛 😛 )

  6. Leonie says:

    I would of never of thought about going to Albania. The water looks beautiful

    Leonie ♥ Lo On The Go

  7. Amanda says:

    I was in Albania (just briefly) three years ago. Not many people were talking about it or going there, and I found it both weird and fascinating. I definitely would go back! (But I would skip the resort towns next time – Durres really wasn’t very nice at all.)

  8. Gordy Yates says:

    Sounds like a nifty cool place to travel. I’d like to go, but probably with locals/an Albanian-speaker.

    gordygordyblog.blogspot.com

  9. Noelle says:

    I’m planning to do a Balkans trip (Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro) next May and I’m definitely going to include Albania in the itinerary now! Thanks for a great post.

  10. Lauren says:

    Thanks for all the great information on Albania! I’ve been thinking about doing a trip through Greece and the Balkans, and I’ll be sure to include Albania in my itinerary if that’s what I end up doing.

  11. Skye Class says:

    Wonderful article. So glad I got to share your favorite experiences in Tirana with you (and perhaps help instigate the climb up the pyramid). I really hope more people will experience this great country with 5hie article.

  12. Brooke says:

    After reading that Albania is undiscovered and has much to offer in terms of World Heritage Sites and beaches, I’m convinced I need to visit. Thank you for sharing about public transportation and using an unregistered taxi, it’s good to have advice when you’re in an uncertain situation like that.

  13. Marissa says:

    I loved your honest review as usual, so we know both the good and bad before going. Now that I know more about Albania, I am definitely interested in going in the future!

  14. Bianca says:

    Thank you for all your information. I just heard on your snapchat about this article. You gave me a great idea for sping

  15. Okay, I think you’ve convinced me! Bookmarking this post, thanks for sharing Kate!

    Happy travels 🙂

  16. Albania was actually on my list this summer, but had to make my way back to Canada for a few projects. Look forward to getting back there soon. Also, I do the same thing with unmarked taxis! I say something about calling my boyfriend and letting him know when to expect me. I also actually send the information to either my boyfriend or the friend who is closest.

  17. Sarah Lynn says:

    I love that you take the road less travelled and experience (and share) so many hidden gems worldwide with your readers!
    One of the many reasons I keep coming back to see what you’re up too!
    Sarah Lynn
    http://www.wanderbeforewhat.com

  18. Megan says:

    Dang, Kate! Now I have to add another place to my endless travel bucket list! I once met an Albanian when I was in Florence and ever since had wondered what it’s like there. It looks awesome and super affordable, which is always nice. Thanks for posting all the helpful info.
    http://www.thisrainylife.com

  19. Kevin says:

    Great overview of Albania! The beaches sound way better than Croatia’s. As far as flying flags, I think the US and Thailand are the worst/most guilty of this, but as for travelers, Canadians are by far the most flagged up and proud!

  20. Katie says:

    Thanks for the shout out!

    I’ll definitely give a plug for getting up to the mountains in northern Albania – even if someone doesn’t want to do the full Peaks of the Balkans trek, an overnight stay in Theth or a day hike from Theth to Valbona would be great!

    I can’t wait to get down to the coast sometime soon!

  21. Megan says:

    Great post Kate. I travelled solo in Albania a couple of years ago and loved every second of it (even if the transport is..interesting). One thing about the buses – you don’t necessarily need to find an agency to sell you the ticket. You just need to find where the buses are leaving from. Buses to various destinations often depart from different locations in each city/town, so once you know where to find your bus, you can buy the ticket on board. I often just went to the nearest furgon, said the name of the town I wanted to get to, as was often walked or driven to the right departure point. I don’t think I ever purchased a bus ticket from any place other than on the bus itself.

  22. Emma says:

    I have wanted to visit Albania for a long time, especially to visit Butrint, but also because of the beautiful scenery and cheap prices! Your post has left me convinced I want to visit soon.

  23. Visit Albania? Absolutely! I’m the Queen of Eastern Europe and will be looking closely at the Balkan Region in 2016!

    Wonderful detailed post Kate!

  24. I must admit Albania has never been on my travel list, but after reading about your stay there I’m quite intrigued. Thank you for sharing this honest review!

  25. Alda Çuni says:

    Great overview of Albania ! It is true that is a country which is still going through major changes , but it has a lot to offer ! Strange that tickets thing as you can get one on board , you just have to find where the buses of the cities you are going to are . And about the language problem you have encountered , in Albania English is the first foreign language they study at school so you will probably find people to talk to if you have any problem (mainly young people ) . Greek is mainly spoken in the south of Albania and italian is also widely spoken everywhere . Beaches in the south are wonderful , but if you love mountains you can also go to the beautiful Theth , Valbone in the north . Tirana is more of the city of nightlife and having drinks in the afternoon , going shopping and so but there are also the museum , the old mosque in the city center , the pyramid , and old castles in the surroundings of Tirana . So welcome in Albania ! 😊

  26. Eri says:

    Hi all. Id like to thank Kate for visiting my country and describe it in his good and bad profile. 🙂
    I’d like to add that in albania, normaly You will find, 300 days of the year, sunyday. And clear watter, wich is calculatet around 10 liter per person. And most of us know and speak english, italian, french and spanish language. You will feel welcomed and like home. 😉

  27. Helen says:

    Good review of Albania. We took our children (11 and 7 years) there last summer. We did not brave the buses but hired a car and visited friends in macedonia ( lake ohrid) before heading south to Himare – perfect beaches ( and no need to photo shop to have a deserted beach ) and then North to Kruje. Fantastic holiday. The roads are basic but have improved in last few years- main problems were limited road signs and a motorway where anything could happen on the hard shoulder or fast lane but everybody drove as if they were in Italy. The small mountain coastal roads were fine as everyone expected to meet sheep or cows around a corner or the road to have possibly disappeared so there was more caution. We will be returning in the future.

  28. Great post, Kate! I visited Albania a few years back, and I found many of the same things to be true. I enjoyed my trip overall!

  29. Lloyd Baroody says:

    I just got back from Albania and I highly recommend it. We took a plane from Athens to Tirana. Renting a car in Tirana solves all of the local transportation problems. The best place we went was Vlore, a coastal resort city that was not in smiley-face Kate’s blog. While Vlore itself is nothing much, we took a private boat across the bay to Karaburun, a former military area that was closed to the public until 2 years ago. The beaches there are secluded and the water is crystal clear. I have never seen any place so private and clean.

    I agree that the cooking in Albania is nothing to write home about. However, you will find very fresh vegetables.

    The people are extremely nice. One couple who owned a hotel was so hospitable and so happy to have a couple from the US stay at their place that they refused to let us pay them. Finally a place that loves Americans! I understand that in Kosovo, they love Americans even more. That is because we supported them in the war with Serbia. I have Kosovo on the list.

    It is true that Albania is the next up and coming country. But it will take 10-20 years. Right now you can but real estate for cheap. It is probably like Croatia and Montenegro 20-25 years ago.

  30. Amy M says:

    I love that you’re exploring the lesser known places – makes such a difference from the usual hotspots you see. Especially when it’s as beautiful as this! Absolutely loving your European escapades! xo

    • Thanks, Amy! It’s always a question of balancing the better-known places I really should have visited by now and the lesser-known places. I tend to do 2/3 better-known and 1/3 lesser-known and that seems to work out for me.

  31. anya says:

    I suggest u read more history before visiting Albania 😊 the director of Taken must know that Mark from Tropoja means a person of catholic religion which is typical in the North but suprisingly he was muslim 😯. It is true in Albania there are no MC Donalds Burger Kings Pizza Huts etc etc … please contact an inbound travel agency before travelling you can find contacts in the web for freeee …..

  32. Erghent says:

    Thank you Kate for visiting and for the good words you’re spreading about Albania and my hometown, BERATy.
    Let me correct only something about the buses, now the MAJORITY of regular Buses and vans have, at least basic, air conditioning during the summer.

  33. Thanks for the post about Albania, I definitely learned a lot. Definitely on my list to visit. Especially since you found cool things to do in the capital! Big plus.

    I found a lot of correlations between what you mentioned and my challenges when I traveled in Haiti. Very similar with cockamamie transportation situations and infrastructure. People are also legendary in terms of friendliness and the incredulous attitude of why you’d actually choose to be in Haiti. If you’ve never gone I’d recommend a visit if you’re up for the challenge. I would definitely like to go back in a few years to see if it’s changed at all.

  34. Andrew says:

    definitely a place I want to visit. I think the secret is slowly getting out. your post is great and quite inspiring, people will be going there on the strength of your words and pics I’m sure!

  35. Redi says:

    Awesome article Kate and looks like you had a nice time in Albania.

    Just a minor correction if i may : Thank You in Albanian is : Faleminderit not falaminderit.
    just replace the second occurring “a” with an “e” and you should be fine.

    Once again thanks for visiting our Country.

    Enjoy your travels.

  36. Ally says:

    I would! Especially if it is safe for women.

  37. Gentian says:

    Thank you for the brutally honest review of Albania, my home country. I myself try to visit every year or so and find the same nuisances and pleasures you mention on this article. It is all woth it however, if you are looking to discover nature untouched by massive touristic development (for better or for worse). The alps in the north and the riviera in the south are awe inspiring.

    I would like to share my thoughts on two of your observations.

    First off, regarding food. My advise to any traveler would be to stick with the local cousine. Albania is a meat lover’s paradise. At the Ottoman emperor’s palace in Instanbul you will find a reference to the fact that at the time meats were ordered to come from Albania for their superior taste. Be wary however of the imported products and possibly have a local escort take you places a tourist may not necessarily come across. Also, there are many, many other local dishes to die for, few of them being “byrek në saç” (various pies made with cheese or a variety of vegetables), fërgesë, tavë kosi (baked lamb and yogurt), chicken with walnuts, paçe, etc. One last piece of advice on food: for the most part Albanians have not mastered yet copying other cuisines like italian, french, etc. so naturally they will be a hit or miss.

    Secondly, on religion. It is a great mistake to characterize Albania as a Muslim country. Nationalism is a far stronger feeling among us than any religion affiliation – therefore the flags you saw everywhere. Also, while it is true that if you ask Albanians what’s their religion, most (nearly 60%) would probably answer muslim, I invite you to ask a follow up question. Ask them what makes them muslims and you will either hear that they were told so (by their great grand parents) or, will get a blank stare, for most people do not know the slightest thing to do if you were to accidentally place them in a mosque (or church for that matter). And frankly, I believe this distancing from religion is what makes Albania “a model of religious harmony” as Pope Francis put it during his latest visit there (see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/albania/11111600/Pope-Francis-says-Albania-is-a-model-of-religious-harmony-during-first-visit-to-Muslim-majority-nation.html).

    I would like to end this (long) reply by adding that if you were to visit Albania you will meet some of the friendliest and nicest people with a big heart (although you still need to watch out for pick pocketers with long hands). Here is a little known fact to illustrate their humanity: Albania was the only country whose Jewish population increased multiple times WHILE under nazi occupation. Heck, we even took home the occupying fascist Italian soldiers after their capitulation (my grand father housed one till the WWII was over – mind you he was also a partizan who fought against the occupation). But the greatest source of pride for us off course is Gonxhe Bojaxhi. Who is that you might ask? She is also known as Mother Teresa, the one with the biggest heart of all.

    So, I invite all readers to go and visit the land of eagles. You will enjoy it!

    http://youtu.be/8iWgOykuwtI

  38. MG says:

    Thank you so much for this thorough post regarding Albania. As a still-frugal, 30-something, sometimes-solo female traveler, I LOVE these types of posts. As much as I love Asia (and feel safe there 99% of the time), it’s great to read about affordable and interesting places closer to home (which is why I loved your Central America posts as well)!

    That said… if I were to perhaps be looking for a 2 week solo trip to the Balkans… and top priorities included beautiful beaches/water and a great coffee/cafe culture… what is your gut recommendation?

  39. Shelley says:

    I’m so glad you visited Albania and had such a great experience! 🙂 My hubby is one of the Albanian diaspora that left after Communism fell, but his father and some extended family still live in Tirana and in other parts of the country. We’ve visited a few times, and of course, I’ve always had a wonderful experience, being with locals that speak perfect Albanian and know exactly where to go and what to eat. It’s a shame you didn’t have better food, because I’ve had some of the freshest, most amazing meals in Albania. At Taiwan (a restaurant in the center of Tirana), I had the some of the best pasta and risotto of my travels, and if you can find some bbq baby goat or roasted lamb somewhere, you’re really in for a treat. Agreed though that it’s definitely a country that would be better for more experienced travellers!! 😀

  40. Henry says:

    Can’t wait to visit Albania also! I heard the beaches are one of the best kept secrets in Europe. Someday, they will be crowded with tourists.

  41. I’ve visited Albania two years ago for a New Years Eve and was pretty surprised and very entertained with that country. Back then, I hardly read that any blogger visited that country, at least I didn’t stumble on any post about Albania.
    We did a van road trip from our country (Croatia) all the way down to Albania and that was, so far, my best road trip ever. Also, we were trying to find shortcuts from Albania to Macedonia and then ended up being completely lost on the gravel road, in the middle of the night, surrounded by gypsy villages.
    And visiting Tirana for a New Years Eve was the best decision we ever made cause it’s pretty possible that there’s no any city in the World with such an impressive firework. It’s not about public firework – the thing is that almost every family in the city has its own – so imagine staying on the top floor of the skyscraper watching millions of fireworks sparkling all over the city.
    Yep, that was a moment I would never forget.

  42. Eda says:

    I enjoyed reading your article about your trip Albania. Glad you had a great time in Tirana in particular as I was born and raised there. The nightlife in Tirana is amazing. I used to go back every year when I lived in Italy. Now that I live in the States it’s too expensive to go back often. I took my daughter a couple of times and I still have to take my husband (American born from New Jersey).

    If you go back the North is worth visiting. I would recommend guided tours for the North.
    Vlore, in the south is very nice too and welcoming people. My dad is originally from there. I used to go every summer when I grew up. Beautiful beaches too throughout the whole South. Himare, Qeparo and Jale are some beaches worth visiting in the South. in Jale they have camping every summer. It’s great I think like $15.00 a day you eat and sleep. I did it years ago with my friends. It was awesome.

    Most of the young people speak English and Italian. It’s not hard to get around at least in the major cities.
    I am glad more people are going to visit our wonderful country. I always miss going back there and especially the food.

    Regarding the religion, most of the Albanians are not very religious. In theory, most of Albanians are muslims “on paper”. If you ask an Albanian about their religion a very small percentage actually practice their religion. I didn’t know anyone that went to church or mosque when I grew up in Albania. I still don’t know anyone 🙂 Religion is not a priority in Albanian society.
    That’s why we all got along throughout history. There is a great documentary I went to see is called ” Besa- the promise”. It’s about the story of Albanian muslim families rescuing Jewish people during the Holocaust. I got to meet one of the survivors of the Holocaust saved by one of these families that spoke after the showing. It was very touching and made me ever prouder to be Albanian.

  43. Henk says:

    Hi Kate. Great article. We are planning to visit Albania in October. Where exactly was the evening photo taken of the restaurant overlooking a river and what was the name of the restaurant? Please let me know. Thanks.

  44. karen says:

    Thanks for posting this! I have an opportunity to live in Tirana with my two kids (8 and 10 yrs old) next year for about 2 months. Should I go…? Any tips or suggestions?

  45. Gerge says:

    Interesting article but I must correct you about religion in Albania, thats not a muslim state, youre completely wrong.

    • Jetnor says:

      The majority of the population is muslim but the thing about Albanians is that they keep the religion for themselves not trying imposse it to other people thats why there has been always harmony between religions and Albanian muslims are not extremists.

  46. Fraser Robinson says:

    Hi Kate,

    I really loved this article – you did a great job of providing lots of information about a fascinating country. Great photos too. Thanks!

    I was wondering about internet coverage all around the country. Is it bad everywhere? I am a digital nomad and would happily spend a season living in Albania but I worry about unreliable internet. Was Tirana better than elsewhere..?

    Kind regards,

    Fraser Robinson

  47. Yvonne says:

    Great article! The only thing I knew about Albania was the Voldemort hid out there. Now I’m tempted to add it to my list! Thanks!

  48. Sammi says:

    I enjoyed your Snaps from Albania. I am actually hoping to travel there in July. It sounds very similiar to Romania (I’ve only travelled in Europe so far, and Romania was the first place I ever experienced child beggars which was heartbreaking). I loved Romania and the Balkan’s I have visited so far, so I hope I’ll love Albania as much.

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