What if I told you there is a county where medieval castles stand perched on mountaintops overlooking the red-tiled rooftops of villages below; where iridescent turquoise waves lap onto sugar-sand beaches; where picturesque rows and rows of juicy grapes are producing some of the region’s finest wines; where the gastronomy is so fresh and delicious yet startlingly inexpensive?.
It’s a place where hiking in the northern region, in the rugged mountains, and around the stunning lakes will take your breath away. Throw in a rich and troubled history, traditional culture, ancient ruins, natural phenomena, the coolest flag, and the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet for good measure.
What if I told you that country was Albania?
Yes, in Albania, expect the unexpected.
The Republic of Albania is located on the Balkan Peninsula with a coastline shared by the Adriatic and Ionic sea. Following the chaos after World War II, in 1944 a socialist republic was established in the country under the leadership of Enver Hoxha and the Party of Labour. Albania experienced the typical social and political transformations during the following years, as well as isolation from much of the international community. In 1991, the Socialist Republic was dissolved and the Republic of Albania was established..
While not widely reported, Albania’s transition from a socialist economy to free-market capitalism has been largely successful.. It is emerging as a tourist destination and foreign investments are increasing. Indeed, Albania is one of the best Balkan countries to visit!
Albania at a Glance
- Capital: Tirana
- Population: 2.838 million
- President: Ilir Meta
- Currency: Albanian lek
- Language: Shqipëri
- Continent: Europe
Note: the infrastructure in Albania still needs improvement, so we used a tour company specializing in Balkan tourism, JayWay Travel. JayWay has local guides who live in each town/city and drivers who are familiar with navigating the terrain and (lack of) signage.. In addition, they customize each tour, including accommodations that range from über modern in Tirana, to charming historic fireplace rooms in Gjirokastër, to beach apartments in Ksamil. But you can also self-drive.
Albanian culture is unlike any other culture on earth and has been influenced by the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.
After over 500 years under Ottoman rule, the 20th century saw it become one of the most isolated countries in the world after the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha broke off ties with the USSR, China, and Yugoslavia.
Albania’s somewhat troubled political history along with its location, and unique language, has allowed the country to preserve its spectacular, if quirky, customs..
I think Albania has the #1 coolest flag in the world…bright red with a black double-headed eagle in the middle. Red symbolizes the bravery, strength, and valor of the Albanian people, black symbolizes freedom, and the eagle has been used by Albanian nobility since the Middle Ages.
The country’s national motto, Ti Shqipëri, më jep nder, më jep emrin Shqipëtar (“You Albania, you give me honor, you give me the name Albanian”), finds its origins in the Albanian National Awakening.
Religion of Albania
One of the first things people ask me is about is the religion in Albania.. I will admit, it was difficult to observe much about it while there.. Albania has a mix of religions, with 59% Islam, 17% Christian, and 24% non-religious or undeclared, but according to a 2010 survey, religion plays an important role in the lives of only 39% of Albanians, and Albania is ranked among the least religious countries in the world.
Here are ten not-to-be-missed things to do in Albania.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Berat is a city on the Osum River, in central Albania. The 2400-year-old-city is known for its striking white Ottoman houses spilling down the rugged mountain and earning it the nickname “town of a thousand windows.” At the top of the hill is Berat Castle surrounded by a large residential area. Within its walls are Byzantine churches, the Red Mosque, and the Onufri National Museum.
9 Mount Djati
At an elevation of 5,292 feet, Dajti is a mountain and national park on the edge of Tirana,. belonging to the Skanderbeg range. In winter, the mountain is often covered with snow, and it is a popular retreat to the local population of Tirana that rarely sees snow.
Not to be missed is the Dajti Ekspres, a 15-minute cable car transit that soars above the clouds to the top of Dajti Mountain.. The gondola ride, which is the longest cableway in the Balkans, ends in Dajti Mountain National Park for a spectacular panoramic view of Tirana.
You can also hike down (or up for that matter) rather than return via cable car.
8 Vlorë Beach
Briefly the capital of Albania, Vlorë is situated on the Bay of Vlorë on the rugged coastline of the Albanian Riviera and is considered the frontier between the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea.. It’s mostly known for its picturesque turquoise beach on Vlora’s bay which is closed in by the craggy peninsula of Karaburun, the largest peninsula in Albania.. Nearby sights include the Castle of Vlora, the Castle of Porto Palermo, and the Theatre of Orikum.
7 Uka Vineyard
The sprawling mountain-view vineyards of the Uka Vineyards & Winery are the passion of a new generation in winemaking.. The charismatic and charming Flori Uka, at just 30 years of age, is running the business founded and passed down by his father.. In addition to grapes, the sustainable, biodynamic farm also produces tomatoes, beans, apples, pomegranates, and artichokes.. A variety of cheeses and bread, grilled vegetables, and tasty meats are paired with their merlot and ceruja wine and served on red-and-white tablecloths in the open-air restaurant overlooking the vineyards..
The capital and largest city of the Republic of Albania, there are so many things to do in Tirana. It’s not a large city, so with a daytime walking tour and a venture out at night, you can see most of the sights within the city proper. In the center is Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who led the resistance of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century – you can’t miss it, there’s a large bronze statue of Skanderbeg on horseback in a grassy island with all manner of traffic zooming chaotically around it.
Close by is Piramida, the concrete pyramid originally dedicated to dictator Enver Hoxha, but is now stripped of the decorative tiles and covered with graffiti. More daring visitors climb the slippery slopes to the top for a bird’s eye view of the square.
The city’s attractions also include the Et’hem Bey Mosque, considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Albania; Reja – a combination of sculpture and architecture by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto that is Tirana’s newest tourist attraction; and Bunk’Art – a 40-room underground nuclear bunker from the 1970s that is now a historical museum open to the public.
For nightlife, head to the trendy and elegant Ish-Blloku, a.k.a. “The Block” for Tirana’s best cafés, shops, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.
5 The Blue Eye
Gazing into the Blue Eye, or “Syri i kaltër” as it is called in Albanian, is a truly hypnotic experience.. The eye is part of a deep, continuously pumping aqua spring and natural phenomenon enclosed in a wooded nature reserve. Surrounded by bright green water, the eye itself is an intense electric blue outer ring with a dark blue middle like a pupil, which gives the illusion of a gorgeous blue eye when viewed from above.
Divers have descended to 164 feet (50 meters), but the actual depth of the hole is unknown. It’s possible to swim in the spring or even jump from a platform that is cantilevered over the eye, but with a water temperature of 50° F/10° C, not many take advantage, even on a hot day.
There are two enjoyable restaurants near the Blue Eye. One is very close and overlooks a breezy waterfall. The other is on a floating covered dock on the river just outside the entrance path to the Eye.
4 Krujë Castle
The small medieval town of Krujë is built on the slopes of Sari –Salltiku Mountain with the namesake Krujë Castle nestled in at 1,827 ft. elevation. The elliptical castle, built in the fourth century, was the center of Skanderbeg’s battle against the Ottoman Empire and contains the National Museum Scanderbeg which is one of the most visited in Albania.
Within the walls of the citadel is a restored house from the Ottoman era that is now the Ethnographic Museum.. 90 percent of the objects in this museum are original and 100% functional.. The castle grounds also contain the remains of the Fatih Sultan Mehmed mosque with its minaret and a Turkish bath.
A cobblestone path leads to and from the castle, with both sides lined with the wooden stalls of the Bazaar of Derexhi. The traditional bazaar has been operating since the fifteenth century.. Authentic handcraft souvenirs can be bargained and purchased here, such as antiques, silver, jewelry, carpets, embroidery, and copper.
Gjirokastër is a UNESCO Heritage Site, the highlight of which is the castle at the top of the hill, the second largest in all the Balkans.. The castle still has World War II prison cells which were used by the government for political prisoners during the Communist regime..
The castle’s museum contains a collection of mostly post-War era weapons, photographs, artwork, and a WWII American airplane.. The real treasure is the view of the city below from the roof of the dominating fortress.
In Old Town below the castle, the old bazaar is still the social and commercial center. There are also several examples of historic Ottoman houses at various levels of restoration which are open to the public.
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important archaeological and unique archeological sites in the region.. Some of the structures date from at least the 9th century B.C., but legends hint at occupation by Trojan exiles.
Contained within the grounds are historically significant archaeological ruins, the most impressive of which is the theater, which dates from the fourth century, B.C. and seats approximately 1,500.. There’s also a baptistery with intricate mosaics, ancient walls, the great basilica, Venetian castles, and the remains of Roman courtyard houses..
The site is surrounded by woodlands and a lagoon. It is this combination of historic monuments and natural environment that makes Butrint such a unique place.
In the southern Albanian Riviera and across the channel from the Greek island of Corfu, the beaches of Ksamil are nothing short of magical.. The calm, brilliant aqua water can rival any of the beaches of the South Pacific, Caribbean, or Asia. The crystal clear sea is surprisingly crisp and very refreshing during the hot Albanian summer. From the beach, you can see four craggy islands that are an easy swim, paddleboard, or boat ride away.
We discovered utopia at a Korali restaurant and beach club, where we had use of beach chairs and umbrellas, and ate the most succulent and diverse variety of locally-caught fresh seafood you could imagine… octopus, mussels, shrimp, grilled fish, with cheeses, dips and salads for appetizers, tasty vegetable side dishes, and baklava.. Add in two bottles of wine, and our dinner for seven people cost…wait for it…. $78 total!. At Ksamil, I did something I have never yet done while traveling – I ate every lunch and dinner there.. THAT’s how scrumptious it was.
The beach can get a bit crowded with locals on weekends, but during the week you’ll have it mostly to yourself.
What to Eat in Albania
tave mishi – platter of mixed grilled meats that usually include lamb, beef, sausage, and chicken.
tave dheu – a scrumptious Albania national dish made with liver, peppers, tomatoes and chili and backed with cheeses in a clay pot. They can also be made with lamb or chicken.
qofte – meatballs made from lamb meat that is diced and mixed with herbs and served with a variety of vegetables and sour cream.
sarme – cabbage rolls filled with rice and shredded meat and served with yogurt.
ferges – a dish consisting of tomato sauce, cottage cheese, green peppers, and garlic.
byrek – a pie filled with meat, spinach & feta cheese, onions & tomatoes, or cottage cheese.
trilece – milk cake that originates from Turkish cuisine made out of three different kinds of milk that include evaporated milk, heavy cream, and condensed milk and topped with brown syrup.
What to Drink in Albania
rakija, a local plum brandy that is a household Albanian staple.. It was a bit too strong for me – I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol – but my companions loved the stuff..
dhallë –one of the most famous drinks in Albania consisting of yogurt mixed with ice-cold water, salt, and pepper, and sometimes mint.
wine – Albania is one of the oldest wine producers in the world.. See #7 above.
coffee – Turkish coffee is widely consumed in Albania and is thick and delicious.
One thing I noticed was that there were not a lot of blonde women walking around in Albania; in fact, except for perhaps a handful in Tirana, I was pretty much alone in that category.. While that made me somewhat of a curiosity, I never once felt uncomfortable.. Quite the opposite…
“Ukraine?” I was often asked by heavily-accented shop owners.
“No, America.” I’d reply, and without fail, I was instantly met by ear-to-ear grins. One elderly woman in a tiny shop in Gjirokastër even spontaneously hugged me, eyes watery, obviously having seen much change in her lifetime.
“Ah! America! The great country!” I’d hear, and then, “You like my Albania?”
“Yes, I love your Albania.” I’d reply.
“You tell!” they’d say.
Never, not in any of the 50+ countries and islands I’ve traveled to, have I experienced such a warm, enthusiastic welcome.. Not many Americans travel here, so each one is treasured – the excitement of the locals is palpable, their hospitality and warmth felt long after you leave their presence.
So I am telling you….Albania is worthy of your consideration.
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Disclosure:. The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Albania, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the next few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.