By Allison Green of Eternal Arrival
Thinking to visit Albania, Greece‘s northern neighbour? A little country in Southeastern Europe that was as closed off as North Korea until 1991, Albania doesn’t get much press – until recently. Now it’s being recognized as an emerging tourism destination, and rightfully so. The reasons to visit Albania are almost too many to count: from the beautiful beaches to the historic ruins to the quirky cities, you’ll never be bored.
The good news is you won’t have to battle with others for a spot on the beach, and you’ll rarely find yourself paying over $10 for multi-course dinners and drinks. The bad news is that there’s no national bus system, and as for the train – you’re better off walking. But Albanians are lovely and hospitable, and you’ll have no troubles getting around, so long as you’re down for a little adventure during your visit to Albania.
A mere hour-long ferry from Corfu, Greece, Saranda is a popular first destination for those entering wanting to visit Albania from Greece. While Saranda itself doesn’t have too much to boast, it is an ideal place for day trips. It’s 90 minutes away from the historic town of Gjirokastra, and you can visit the Blue Eye – a natural deep water spring – along the way. There are also the beaches of Ksamil and the ruins of Butrint, about an hour away from your home base of Saranda.
Himara and the Albanian Riviera
About 90 minutes up the coast from Saranda is the lovely seaside town of Himara, the heart of the Albanian Riviera. There’s also not a ton going on in Himara, but the beach is beautiful and only meters away from the main hotels and hostels. There’s delicious seafood and Greek food everywhere you look, and just up and down the road are fantastic turquoise crystal clear beaches just waiting for you to dive in! The best way around these parts is to simply hitchhike – all the locals do it as the buses only go by sporadically. You’ll never wait long as Albania is one of the world’s friendliest countries to hitchhikers.
Berat is a UNESCO-recognized city similar to Gjirokastra but with a vibe all of its own. Painted stark white and nestled on a hill, all the houses have tons of windows so that it truly earns its nickname “City of a Thousand Eyes.” The city is a “museum city” and remarkably well-kept, and it’s so fun to wander through the streets of the old town and marvel at all the history in the cobblestones. Another treat is wandering up to the old castle, where over 1,000 residents still live within the walls! Only in Albania do the peasants run the castle.
Tirana is perhaps the quirkiest capital city on earth, full of decaying communist monuments and some of the most hectic traffic I’ve seen (and this is coming from a former New Yorker). Almost one third of Albanians live in and around Tirana, and it shows in the vibrancy of the city. Don’t miss the free walking tour for some interesting immersive history! You also can’t miss Bunkart, an installation and history museum in former dictator Enver Hoxha’s nuclear bunker. Blloku is also a fun area to go out in, with lots of hip bars patroned by young people that would easily be at home in say, Brooklyn or Paris, rather than this tiny, young capital.
Shkodra, Lake Komani, & the Albanian Alps
Shkodra is a cute, quaint little city that feels way more European than Albanian. For one, there are bicycles everywhere. The city feels a little more well-kept than other cities, even Tirana. There’s also an excellent photography museum and a cute little juice bar that also runs city tours. Shkodra is great to explore by bike – be sure to bike to its namesake lake as well as to the ruins of the Rozafa Castle about 3 kilometers away. Shkodra is also a good gateway to the Lake Komani ferry, which you can take to Valbona for the famed Valbona to Theth hike.
After you visit Albania, where to next? Albania is best matched with some of its neighboring countries, such as Kosovo (which is regarded by many Albanians as part of Albania, and the Albanian language is widely spoken), Macedonia (the lakeside city of Ohrid is particularly charming), and Montenegro (you’d be a fool to miss Durmitor National Park).
All photos courtesy of Allison Green of Eternal Arrival
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