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Albania was lonely for 50 years, now it’s on Lonely Planet’s Top Best Value Travel for 2019
Albania offers wide opportunities for tourists to have fun and enjoy their vacations. Only a few of them are listed below but the most important and valuable advice we may give is to visit Albania in every season of the year… it has so much to offer!
Albania’s twentieth-century history has given it a unique place in the Balkan travel landscape. While Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were building seaside resorts to attract hard-currency tourists, Albania’s paranoid Communist regime made it almost impossible for foreigners to enter the country. Albania is a very different place these days: entry formalities are minimal and foreigners can wander around the country in freedom in one of Europe’s fastest-growing destinations. It is an excellent choice both for tourists traveling on a budget and for those that want to spoil themselves in luxurious resorts.
Meanwhile, outdoor recreational activities are affordable for every budget. Hiking, rock climbing, paragliding, scuba diving, rafting, canoeing, mountain biking, horse riding, and off-road trips are the most appealing activities you can do in the great outdoors in Albania.
Albania has yet to become a major tourist destination rivaling neighbors like Greece and Croatia although the country is characterized by numerous national parks, mountains, and protected nature reserves, ancient villages and ruins and a relatively well-preserved 450 kilometer-long coastline. Aside from its coastline, Albania is rich in a variety of lakes of different origins which constitute not only important ecological objects but also a separate segment for the tourism sector. The potential for the development of a wide range of year-round tourism activities is reinforced by the prevalence of a hilly and mountainous landscape which makes up almost two-thirds of the country’s surface area.
Cultural tourism offers good prospects as well given Albania’s ancient past and the existence of a large number of archaeological centers and sites, castles and fortresses, and various historical, cultural and religious objects. Infrastructure issues have plagued the sector historically; nonetheless, it has grown at a significant pace during the last few years and seems poised to continue this pace in the future. Statistics from the World Travel and Tourism Council indicate that the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP, including its wider economic impacts, is forecast to rise during the forthcoming years so as to reach around 29 percent of GDP in 2021.
Tourism in Albania is characterized by archaeological heritage from Illyrian, Greek, Roman and Ottoman times, unspoiled beaches, mountainous topography, delicious traditional Albanian cuisine, Cold War-era artifacts, unique traditions and hospitality, and the wild and peculiar atmosphere of the countryside. In 2014, the New York Times ranked Albania fourth among 52 destinations to be visited. Although still underdeveloped, Albania is set to prime its debut on the world scene as it celebrates a century of independence. Lonely Planet ranked Albania as the no. 1 destination to be visited in 2011. Albania is considered to be “A New Mediterranean Love” and “Europe’s Last Secret”.
Shkopeti lake, Albania
Photo credits: Wikimedia / Albinfo
The bulk of international tourists going to Albania are from Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, and Italy. Foreign tourists mostly come from Eastern Europe, particularly from Poland, and the Czech Republic, but also from Western European countries such as Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Scandinavia, and others.
To better enjoy ones’ stay and for useful information, first-time travelers to Albania are strongly encouraged to consult online/print publications and travel forums on specific tips and itineraries or can simply book a tour with a local tour operator.
Valbonë (Alb. Valona)
Photo credits: Flickr / Les Haines
Backpackers are common and prefer resting at hostels, camping in the countryside or along the coast. Organized groups visit the numerous archaeological sites and historic towns. A growing trend has become canyon rafting, cycling and mountain biking, hiking, or off-road touring in the countryside. The latter can also be explored through the adventurous Albanian railway system. Recently, car rental agencies, tour operators, and tourist information centers have opened branches in the capital and other towns. Dental tourism has become popular as local dentists offer services with much lower prices. Local delicious cuisine can be tasted at traditional Albanian restaurants located near tourist attractions and scenic spots throughout the country. The combination of historical facts, the beaches, culture, traditional food, and the currency, make Albanian the most attractive touristic place to visit during 2014.
Photo credits: Flickr / Les Haines
Interestingly, however, tourism continues to be mostly represented by small, locally-owned operators with little to no significant involvement of foreign investors. Investments in the tourism sector are regulated by the Law “On Tourism” in Albania which provides the possibility for state assistance to private entrepreneurs for projects in this sector. Such assistance may be granted by the National Tourism Agency in the form of grants, loans or tax exemption.
The Albanian Riviera
The Ionian coast north of Saranda is also known as the Albanian Riviera. With its quiet beaches, plunging mountains, hilly villages, and churches, this stretch of coastline has an appeal to match anything further north on the Adriatic. The Riviera reaches a thrilling climax at Llogara Mountain Pass, where the winding road climbs more than a thousand meters up to a wonderful viewpoint before plunging into a deep pine forest on the other side of the pass.
Further inland, and within a few hours of the capital Tirana, is Berati, another well-preserved Ottoman town spreading over several hills and overlooked by a citadel. Berati has an appealing lived-in feel; even the upper town, within the walls of the citadel, is still inhabited. This gives the place a feeling of continuity, rather than the museum-life feeling that pervades some other Ottoman towns in the Balkans. The upper town has always had a strong Christian presence and there are a number of impressive churches. One of them holds a collection of icons by the 16th-century painter Onufri. The town blends into the fertile surrounding valleys, and even in the center, many streets have a canopy of vines, heavy with delicious-looking grapes in August.
Tirana is a mostly modern city that lacks the historical or architectural appeal of Berati or Gjirokastra. Although it doesn’t have many “must-see” attractions, you will found it a charming city with a distinctive character of its own. If you are traveling around Albania it’s well worth a stop for some cafe life and people-watching.
The northern half of the country is very explored by international visitors. A possible starting point for exploring this area is the city of Shkodra. A hilltop castle, a handful of picturesquely decaying old houses and an army of cyclists give the city a quirky personality of its own.
Albania does have a train system, but it is slow, covers a limited number of places. Most people get around the country using buses or minibusses known as furgons (van). It all works quite well and getting around by public transport is not a major problem. Buses often have fixed timetables. Bus and furgon activity starts very early in the morning and can finish quite early in the afternoon on many routes.
As an alternative to public transport, hiring a taxi for a day or half-day can be quite reasonable, especially if there are a few of you.
There are good bus connections to Thessaloniki, Athens, and other cities in Greece – these are widely advertised in Tirana and other Albanian cities. Regular buses from Tirana also run to Kosovo and Macedonia. It is quite easy to get to Montenegro from the northern city of Shkodra. There is a useful short ferry connection between Saranda and the Greek island of Corfu, as well as longer ferry trips from Durrësi and Vlora to Italy.
Albania’s currency unit is the Lek. The way Albanians describe amounts of money takes a little getting used to. A shopkeeper telling you that your bill is 600 lek, for example, might say “six hundred” (or the Albanian equivalent, naturally). But he is more likely to say “six thousand”, meaning 6000 old lek – even though the old lek was abolished decades ago, quite possibly before the shopkeeper was born. Or he may just say “six”. This can be confusing until you get a feel for how much things cost – especially as prices are often not written down anywhere.
Like most European languages Albanian belongs to the Indo-European language family, but in a separate branch from any other language. You may notice variations in the spelling of some place names, e.g. Tirana/Tiranë, Berati/Berat. This is because the form used in Albanian depends on the grammatical context. Italian and English are popular second languages and speaking them will certainly smooth your way; Greek could also be useful in some parts of the country.
Some of the things you can do in Albania
Hiking and trekking
Albania is a playground for hikers! From the alps in the North to the Southern tip, Albania has places few travelers have ever set foot. Each part of Albania has a place to rock climb, hike, trek, tent safely, or merely rent a car to see an amazing, untouched landscape. Preparation of good shoes for light hiking or mountain boots for trekking across alps are a must. Albanian tourist also recommends for any serious hikers or trekkers to bring the usual 1-liter water bottle, proper nutritious for strenuous exercise, and possibly an extra food bar just in case a missed ride or planned bus departure is missed.
Disco and dancing
That’s an Albanian sport! Albanians are disco or happy clubbing people. Although traditional ring dancing is still popular among most Albanians, clubbing or organized dance parties are common for the younger generation. Most of these youths dress in fashion usually seen in Greece or Italy and always enjoy seeing a foreigner alongside them. Also, be aware that the entertainment might be from your country now as Albania is the new international tourist attraction!
For those who have not visited the Adriatic or Mediterranean countries, the sun can be a friend which blankets you in light but mistreats your skin quickly. AlbanianTourist always recommends to visitors to bring a sun hat, sunscreen above 20 SPF, drink lots of fresh water, and enjoy the sun responsibly. Albanian sunshine is one of the greatest pleasures in the Adriatic as the warm and cool breeze can captivate. Be sun safe!
Albania is filled with castles! Trip planning here would require adequate shoes to walk the long, stone roads to the castle doors if a taxi is not hired. (Castle note: long, single routes to castle entrances were a defense mechanism. A very necessary piece of the defensive architecture.) Also, be sure to bring something to eat as Albania is slowly installing food options within their 2,000+-year-old castles. Lastly, a sun hat and water bottle are recommendations as climbing staircases, walking courtyards, and relaxing near look-outs are usual events.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Albania is home to two World Heritage Sites (Berat and Gjirokastër are listed together):
Butrint, an ancient Greek and Roman city. Butrint is one of the most interesting archeological cities to visit because you can still see the stones and walls of ancient buildings, statues and the ancient amphitheater.
Photo credits: Wikimedia / Alboholic
Gjirokastër, a well-preserved Ottoman medieval town. Gjirokastra is also known as the stone city because of the stone materials used by locals many years ago in building their houses, which still remain undamaged in the city, as a precious historical artifact.
Photo credits: Wikimedia / Diego Galli
Berat, the ‘town of a thousand and one windows’
Flickr / Rob Hogeslag
Berat is considered to be the most ancient Albanian city, established more than 3 thousand years ago. Berate is well known for its heritage and the beauty that comes from the city architecture. The town is still renowned for its historic architecture and scenic beauty and is known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows”, due to the many large windows of the old decorated houses overlooking the town.
Towns and archaeological sites
Stemming from a rich history of civilizations, Albania holds a mix of interesting artifacts. The most visited towns are:
- Durres Amphitheatre
- One over one window town of Berat
- The old port city of Durres (Dyrrhachium)
- Stone city of Gjirokastra
- Kruja, the balcony over the Adriatic sea
- Shkodër, the city that is home, among others to the Rozafa Castle
- Tirana, the capital with a vibrant nightlife
- Beach city of Vlora (the city of olives and grapes)
- Lezha, the historic diplomatic capital of Albania
- Poet’s city of Pogradec
- Honeymooners’ city of Saranda
- Year-round festive city of Korca
The most visited archaeological sites
Photo credits: Wikimedia / Joonasl
Photo credits: Wikimedia / Maju603
Photo credits: Wikimedia / Stefan Kuhn
The ancient city of Butrint – Archaeological Gem
Starting at the very south of the country, some 304 km away from Tirana, or just across the Corfu island, the ancient city of Butrint is located between the Greek border and the popular resort city of Saranda. The ruins themselves are impressive and derive added appeal from their location on a peninsula covered with lush vegetation and a saltwater lake named after the city. The surrounding hills planted with citrus fruits, wetlands, and lagoons form the scenic Butrint National Park, which is worth exploring. The National Park has designed several walking trails starting from the ruins. Butrint is the only place in Albania where this kind of information is so readily available, so take advantage of it. Butrint can be visited on day trips from Corfu, so many people get their first taste of Albania here.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features a combination of nature and archeological monuments and one of the few areas in Albania not affected by illegal constructions. The ruins reflect the history of the Mediterranean region like the Hellene theatre, the baptistery, and the Venetian fortress. Every empire and important civilization left its trace in the city. Butrint is the park that receives the highest number of visitors in Albania given that is the most important archeological site in Albania. The park is open for visitors every day of the year. Following the footsteps of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, Italian archeologists Luigi Maria Ugolini started excavations in Butrint in 1928 and discovered the theatre, the baptistery, several sculptures, and other monuments. Best time to visit: all year round, avoid the peak summer season but if you’re not a fan of big groups of tourists.
The historical City of Gjirokastra
A short distance inland from Saranda is Gjirokastra, one of the most distinctive historic towns in the Balkans. Spread out over several ridges overlooking the Drinos River, and dominated by an imposing castle, is a collection of houses that at first appears typical of Balkan domestic architecture, but on close inspection reveals many unique touches. Seen from the citadel, the grey slate rooftops below seem almost like an organic feature of the countryside. Gjirokastra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the historic center, the bazaar and the castle of Gjirokastra. It’s a place to be explored.
Traveling to Albania
Albania is very accessible no matter if you travel by air, land, or sea. If you’re arriving from the north, Montenegro or Kosovo, you can access the country through different cross-border points. The most important and easiest to access all-year-round are Muriqan-Sukobine and Hani i Hotit-Bozhaj between Albania and Montenegro, and Morina cross-border point between Albania and Kosovo. There are many other smaller points when you can cross the border but they are mostly used by locals in remote areas, hikers, trekkers, bikers, etc.
Albania can be accessed by sea throughout the year through the ports of Durresi, Vlora, and Saranda. The country shares a land border with Macedonia and Greece, and numerous cross-border points operate along the land border.
If your traveling by air, you can access Albania only through Mother Teresa International Airport (TIA). You can find the information about all the airlines that operate services to and from TIA HERE.
If you are looking for an Hiking Tour Operator, we recommend Zbulo.org.
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