Albania is one of Europe’s many hidden gems, and a frugal traveler favorite. From the Northern lakes and mountains to the Southern Riviera, Albania’s landscapes are nearly untouched. Ottoman villages made of stone and wood are scattered throughout the country, built on Illyrian ruins, contrasting Communist-era Tirana, Albania’s trendy capital.
Despite all of Albania’s attractions, this enchanting country has only recently become a backpacker’s destination. Its popularity is increasing as more are realizing Albania’s affordability. I spent 10 days in Albania and only spent $150 (about 130 euros).
I wasn’t living particularly modestly either, eating 2 full meals at nice restaurants per day (appetizers, entree, dessert, and a beer) and staying in nice hostels with air-conditioning.
Albania is easily accessible by ferry from Italy or Greece, and many discount airlines have direct flights to Tirana.
Tirana’s Communist History
Tirana is Albania’s biggest city, with a unique energy, bustling nightlife and fascinating museums. It is an excellent place to shop, go out, and learn about Albanian history. There’s a free walking tour in the main square every day at 10am, but if you prefer to do things on your own, head to the National Historical Museum. Its massive mosaic makes it impossible to miss.
Wander further, and you’ll find up-and-coming neighborhoods of bars and cafes, as well as antique churches and mosques. Tirana is certainly an interesting mix.
Relics of its rocky past remain: the space-age brutalist architecture can be found all over the city. Many of these buildings have been converted into museums and restaurants. The building in the picture below was originally a government facility, but was later converted into a nightclub.
Albania was led by fierce Communist leader Enver Hoxha for 40 years, in almost complete isolation. Today there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street from his former home.
Things have changed around here since Hoxha’s death in 1985, but have they changed for the better? Strike a conversation with an old local — they would be more than happy to give you their opinion.
One of Albania’s 750,000 bunkers. There are nearly 6 bunkers for every square kilometer. They were never used. The large Bunk’Art museum, which displays communist life and art, is a must-see, and is entirely underground.
Berat’s “City of a Thousand Windows”
Berat is one of Albania’s many UNESCO world heritage sites. The town is constructed in classic Ottoman style, with an ancient Byzantine church and fortress on the mountain which looms over it. The large fortress is a marketplace for local vendors and farmers, who drive from around the region to sell their produce. For less than 50 cents, buy a small box of berries and watch the sunset over the river as the lights of Berat come on.
Berat is known as the “City of a Thousand Windows” and at night, each window traditionally holds a candle. The restaurants on the opposite bank offer great views.
Wander along the old town’s promenade after dinner to sample some of Berat’s culture.
Traditionally, young women dress up and walk back and forth along the river with their mothers, looking for potential suitors. The town’s young men walk along the river too, hoping that a girl will find him attractive, and their mothers will contact each other to set up a meeting.
Today, the promenade is a common meeting place, and many locals still dress up for the occasion.
Gjirokaster, City of Stone (Pronounced Geo-Caster)
Another UNESCO site, Gjirokaster features even older architecture: stone Ottoman houses, as well as traditional Albanian markets and bakeries. Gjirokaster, like Berat, also has a large castle on its hilltop, however Gjirokaster’s houses a military-weapons museum and concert venue on its grounds. Every few years, the biggest Albanian folk festival takes place here.
Gjirokaster also has some of the best food in Albania, in my opinion. Albanian food has been influenced by Balkan, Greek and Turkish cuisines, and consists of many stews, fritters, slow-cooked meats and grilled vegetables. There are a large amount of vegetarian/vegan options.
Old wealthy families from the pre-communist days continue to preserve traditional Albanian life and style in their Gjirokaster mansions. The homes were seized during Enver Hoxha’s reign, but have since been returned to the families. Several of these magnificent homes are open for guided tours by the friendly owners themselves.
These four-story mansions are immaculately furnished, featuring trapdoors, stone swimming pools, and wooden balconies overlooking the city.
The Albanian Riviera
The most beautiful and popular part of Albania is the Riviera. The city of Sarande is a great home-base for a couple days; crash there after exploring the white sandy beaches, quiet islands, and ancient ruins in the nearby national parks. This is the most expensive part of Albania, but still very affordable, even for students.
(Beer/Coffee is about $1.25 (1 Euro) most places, rather than $.50 in Berat or Gjirokaster, and $1 in Tirana. In case you fall in love, 1-bedroom apartments in Sarande’s city center are only $200/month on average!)
The town of Ksamil (the K is silent) is a gateway to many uninhabited islands. Kayak, jet-ski or sail your way over, and spent a day in completely zen.
A gorgeous Sunset over the Greek Island of Corfu, from a beachfront restaurant in Sarande is pictured above. Boats to Corfu, Greece and Bari, Italy run several times a day.
Korce, Albania’s Cultural Capital
I stopped in Korce, in Eastern Albania on my way to Kosovo. I’d never heard of it, but I ended up sticking around, exploring the city for the day, and even spending the night.
There aren’t any hostels, but one really friendly Albanian family rents out rooms online. It was one of the most authentic Albanian experiences of the trip. I visited the Korce brewery, the stunning Byzantine church pictured above, and drank Rakia, a distilled fruit brandy, with my hosts.
I was impressed with the 19th-century Albanian architecture, which blends wooden Ottoman structures with bright Austro-Hungarian-style painting and details. Korce also has an energetic live music scene, people-watching cafes, and rooftop bars. Korce also has weekly markets and art galleries.
For beautiful beaches, unspoiled culture, tragic history, and stunning nature, head down to Albania, a name that means “Land of Eagles”. Albania makes for an inexpensive weekend holiday or a week-long trip or can be paired with any of the neighboring countries for an incredible journey that’s easy on the budget.
If you’re still not convinced, watch this video.
For more videos, check out my YouTube Channel: Tristan’s Expeditions.
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Thanks for reading!