11 Things that made me fall in love with Albania
Albania is often called Europe’s last secret. It’s so secret that some of the folks whom I told I was going to travel in Albania, stared at me quietly for a few seconds, then mumbled: “Where is Albania?” Indeed, Albania has been a mysterious country for a very long time. Up until 1991 (!), it was still under the communist regime, and the country was completely isolated from foreign relations from 1978 until the fall of communism. It was difficult or even impossible to enter Albania at all. Today, it looks very different. When I travelled there for the first time this year, I instantly fell in love. Let me tell you why.
1. Remember that “arm aber sexy” (“poor but sexy”) feeling of Berlin? Tirana, the capital of Albania, does it better. The former neighbourhood for the communist elite, called Blloku, has been transformed into a lively and colorful area full of trendy cafés, cozy restaurants, and flashy nightclubs filled with young people. During the day, the city is slow paced, with countless coffee bars filled with people sipping their cappuccino’s in the sun, and groups of old men challenging each other for a game of chess in a park or on the street. Some highlights are the recently renewed “Pazari i Ri” market where you can find all things fresh (amazing fish, fruit, and vegetables), or the former communist bunkers “Bunk’Art 1 & 2” that have been transformed into museums and art spaces. Just outside the city, you can take the cable car “Dajti Express” up the Dajti mountain, from where you will have an indescribable panorama of Tirana.
2. One of the questions I've been asked the most is whether Albania is safe. Let me tell you: the people are the best thing about Albania. Even as a solo female traveller, I feel very safe in Albania. Albanians know how to take care of their guests like no other country I've travelled to before. In general, people make their best efforts to help you (even if they don't speak English), and they are extremely generous. I have met a non-English speaking grandma who just kept insisting on walking me all the way to the bus stop that I couldn't find (she couldn't either, haha), a woman who chatted with me on the street and then offered me a coffee in her house, and many people who gave me fresh fruit from their garden. Albanian people are open and genuinely curious. They want to hear your story and they want to share theirs. It might have something to do with the old "code of Besa," which means "trust" or "faith," and many Albanians see it as their duty to take care of outsiders in their country.
"Honestly, most Albanians really enjoy hosting guests. It’s a point of pride for them. In fact, there’s an old story about a town in the north somewhere that rebelled when a hotel was going to be built there. All the people went to the town hall and complained, saying people who needed a place to stay could just come and knock on their doors.” - Nevila Muka, BBC Travel
3. The Albanian Riviera has some of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. Think crystal clear turquoise water, hidden caves, and small bays. And the best thing is: they are mostly not crowded like in neighbouring countries such as Italy and Greece. It's possible to find completely empty beaches that you will have all to yourself. But if you're more into beach parties, you will find plenty of those as well on the bigger beaches like Dhermi beach, Jale beach or Ksamil.
4. If you like outdoor activities and sports, Albania is heaven. Albania has a lot of incredible nature where you can go hiking, cycling, kayaking, rafting, and skiing in the winter. The 6-hour hike from Valbonë to Theth in the beautiful mountains of Northern Albania has become quite a popular track for backpackers, and the Vjosa river is one of Europe's last wild rivers where you can do some crazy rafting.
5. But the best thing is: there is yet so much to be discovered in Albania. Albania is not a mass-tourist destination, which makes the experience much more authentic. Instead of massive all-inclusive resorts, in Albania you stay with locals in a guesthouse. This is also very helpful for advice on how to get around, which busses you should take, or which roads to avoid if you are driving yourself, because in Albania nothing is perfectly planned. If you are a little bit adventurous, Albania will take you through the most random places, and overwhelm you with incredible beauty in moments you don't expect it. It will leave you speechless.
6. I loved traveling alone in Albania. Because it is not so touristy, the people that do travel to Albania are usually quite adventurous spirits from all over all the world. Even though I traveled alone most of my time in Albania - I was never really alone. I met cool people in hostels, on the streets, in busses, and in just about any place I went. Locals mostly approached me out of nothing more than curiosity, and I would say Albania is great for solo female travellers.
7. The food is amazing. It's fresh, and often made with local ingredients. The Albanian Riviera is best for the Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, with lots of fresh fish, and you will find many restaurants throughout the country serving traditional Albanian dishes, as well as Greek and Turkish food. Though Albanian traditional food includes quite a lot of meat (I don't eat meat myself), there are also many vegetarian-friendly options. Tirana even has a vegetarian & vegan restaurant called "Veggies", which I highly recommend. And good news: you won't find any McDonalds or Burger King fast food chains. The only KFC in the entire country opened this year - in front of the old house of the former communist leader Enver Hoxha. Coincidence?
8. Albania is adventurous. #roadslikethese! Let's just say I've definitely become a better driver in Albania ;-) Albanians are notorious for their bad driving skills, though many Albanians think they are F1 masters, haha - but without joking, driving in Albania is fine as long as you keep your eyes open and don't follow the rules too strictly. Albania has some incredibly beautiful roads, also if you don't drive a 4x4. But Albania might be even better off-road than on the road. The best places are usually not the most easily accessible.
9. Traveling in Albania is very affordable. Albania's currency is LEK, and €1 equals about 135 LEK, or 115 LEK in US dollars. On average, I would spend around €10/night on a hostel or guesthouse, €10/day on food and drinks (or even less), and a couple of euro's on public transportation. Entrance fees to various sights are usually around 500 LEK, and if you can share your accommodation and/or car with other travellers, you can live with less than €20/day.
10. The weather. Albania is one of the sunniest countries of Europe, with an average of 2.544 hours of sun per year in Tirana. Coming from one of Europe's most rainy countries (Amsterdam only has 1.662!), I surely know how to appreciate every minute of it.
11. There's a new direct flight to Albania (Tirana) from Amsterdam during the high season. It only takes about 3 hours to fly to Albania. There are also good connections with boats and busses from and to neighbouring Balkan countries, Italy, and Greece, making it an excellent stop during a trip through the Mediterraneans. But Albania itself already has so much to offer. You'll be surprised.
Gotten curious about Albania? Leave me a comment down below saying what you would like to know more about traveling in Albania, and I will be happy to answer all of your questions.