Are you dreaming of your next getaway: fantasizing about the perfect blend of beach heaven and enthralling local culture, both without breaking the bank? Then look no further: visit Albania. There is still plenty of time to enjoy the country’s blissfully empty coastline, vibrant capital city and nerve-wracking hairpin bends that snake across the beautiful mountainsides, before more of the world catches on to Albania’s previously hidden charms.
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Read on to discover 10 of oh-so-many reasons to visit Albania:
Enviously situated on the Adriatic coast, it should come as no surprise that Albania’s beaches are gorgeous. About 6 hours drive from Tirana (travelling 250km that’s averaging just 40km an hour!) are long stretches of salt-white sand that arc gently into the distance, further than the eye can see. Like the rest of the country, two of the popular beach spots at Drymades and Dhermi are absolutely beautiful, still pretty rugged around the edges, and evidently teetering on the edge of development with small signs of tourism cropping up here and there.
- Eat: most of the fledgling resort hotels, such as popular Royal Blue, offer simple dishes and fresh fish for next to nothing (Dhermi Beach | +355 69 667 4992).
- Stay: At the far north end of Drymades beach is beautiful Hotel Summer Dream, the perfect spot away from it all (Drymades Beach | +355 69 248 1407).
Following years of Communist-era isolation, Albania has lain relatively dormant as a travel destination. Not until the 1990s did it begin to flex its muscles and embrace the outside world, and in 2011 was ranked number 1 destination to be visited by Lonely Planet. You’ll find yourself wanting to read up on this fascinating country before, during and much longer after your trip. Enver Hoxha was communist leader from 1944 until his death in 1985 and he had some undeniably out there ideas. I won’t spoil the details, but know that his regime is synonymous with eliminating his opponents, secret police and the death penalty, alongside huge economic growth and major reforms in health and education, such as totally eradicating adult illiteracy.
The Capital Tirana
Most visitors first proper taste of Albania is likely to be its capital, the city of Tirana, which is home to around 418,000 people. If you hold any apprehension about starting your visit in an inland metropolis then prepare to be very pleasantly surprised. Tirana is both beautiful and enchanting. It’s a city that instantly welcomes you with the buzz of its pavement cafes, the colorful painted buildings, numerous well-tended green parks and a youthful, ambitious demeanor. In the background it is often possible to glimpse dramatic mountain ranges as you navigate through wide modern streets, busy food markets, or noisy traffic circling the major landmarks like Karl Topia Square.
- Drink: Trinity Bar is a slightly strange blend of Albanian swanky bar-come-coffee-lounge, but has great views from its 5th floor roof terrace (Rr Zogu I Zi | +355 69 402 7772).
- Eat: Try Era for popular Albanian and Italian food: it’s a bit of a local institution, and easy to see why (Rr Ismail Qemali | +355 4 4 224 3845).
- Stay: Centrally located Hotel Vile e Arte is great value and offers continental breakfast and free wifi (Rr Qemal Staf prane Prokurorise se Pergjithshme | +355 4 226 0149).
Hipster Suburb the Block
The Block, or Bllojk, is a thriving cosmopolitan neighborhood in Tirana teeming with sceney bars and restaurants: don’t mistake this enclave of the Albanian capital for some down-and-out ghetto because of its name, or expect blaring eastern Euro-trash. Make sure to check out the Bllojk in the early evening when it ebbs and flows with young Albanian professionals and dressed up couples on dates.
This area was previously home to Hoxha and his generals, whilst the public were denied any access. Nestled on the edge of the Bllojk is the Pyramid of Tirana designed by Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law: opened in 1988 as a museum about his legacy, it’s now in all sorts of disrepair. Despite government regularly voting to demolish the site, remarkably many locals are opposed, as they want to retain this piece of heritage.
Prime Minister Edi Rama
This is the man to thank for all of the painted buildings in Tirana. Edi is a painter-turned-politician, who was mayor of Tirana from 2000-2011 and has been Prime Minister of Albania since 2013. His critics protest that he focused too much on cosmetic changes as opposed to vital issues like utilities and clean water, and there is no denying that the city is certainly aesthetically impressive. He led a project in 2000 called ‘Clean and Green’, which created nearly 100,000 square meters of green space and parks, including the planting of thousands of trees. Edi is also renowned for ordering the painting of many old buildings in very bright colors, making Tirana’s community incredibly unique.
Llogara National Park
Have you packed your patience in that luggage? After four hours waiting and sipping espresso with accompanying ice water (the Albanian way) in a bus shed in Tirana, we finally stepped aboard a bus to Dhermi, which proved to be a long but incredible journey south. From your window, enjoy the mesmerizing agricultural farm lands; keep your eyes peeled for communist bunkers; marvel at how much luggage the next passenger piles into the bus toilet so that no one can go for a pee; hold your breath as you climb dizzyingly to 2000 m above sea level through the stunning pine trees of Llogara National Park. Driving through this park is an absolute highlight, and it just gets better: as the bus hauls itself over the peak be prepared for uninterrupted views of the ocean and beaches below as you lurch down long roads with sharp bends, quietly praying that the brakes work.
This town is the gateway to Corfu, Greece, and there are regular ferries running between the two destinations. Instead of departing immediately, Sarande warrants at least a night stopover due to it’s lovely portside setting with pleasantly busy promenade, and numerous decent places to eat. It’s an easy place to gently ease you back into the real world.
- Drink: Enjoy a beer at Bar Restaurant Limani as the evening sun sets on Corfu in the background (Rruga Jonianet | +355 85 225 858).
- Eat: Mare Nostrum comes highly recommended for its delicious seafood (Jonianet 20 | +355 85 227 263).
- Stay: The Hotel Royal Saranda boasts a perfect waterside setting and staff were really friendly (Rruga Jonianet Nr. 13 | +355 69 249 1379).
If none of the reasons yet given have truly sparked your imagination (who are you?!), then also remember that this is a great budget travel option. For most individuals traveling from a developed country, Albania is going to seem really cheap: budget $5 USD at most for a solid meal and $1 for a domestic 0.5l beer or a coffee. Travelling 6 hours by bus is about $10 and even decent hotel rooms booked in June were around $40 USD for 2 people.
Even more intriguing than the Pyramid of Tirana are the 700,000 bunkers built during Hoxha’s time in power, calculated as 1 per every 4 people and distributed throughout the country. Considering that many of them remain, they weren’t all that easy to spot until stumbling upon a cluster bizarrely nestled in the coastal hillsides near Dhermi. Apparently they dominate the road between Tirana and the city’s airport if you are flying in. To underline the madness of Hoxha’s strategy, the bunkers were never actually used for their intended military purposes and in fact were a huge drain on resources, being prioritized over more immediate needs of better housing and roads.
The exciting reality of Albania is that, to date, it hasn’t had all that many tourist visitors, relative to neighboring hotspots of Italy less than 45 miles away and Greece connected by land in the south. If you want a guidebook then get organised and buy in advance online: Albania (Bradt Travel Guide). I couldn’t find anything in my local bookshop. Likewise my own initial research kept drawing blanks, with very limited information on blogs, forums, and social networking platforms. It is so rare now to travel in this scenario, and the fact that you will enter Albania likely not knowing all that much about it or what to expect means your efforts are guaranteed to be rewarding. Hop aboard, buckle up, and prepare to create your own incredible Albanian adventure.