Proud yet poor, no one takes much notice of Albania except for boat loads of refugees across the Adriatic and the occassional pyramid scheme that collapses the country’s entire economy. A small country bordering the Adriatic Sea and surrounded by Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, Albania offers visitors stunning beaches along a coastline of over 250 miles, rough landscapes, archeological sites and authentic villages, and last not least, Mediterranean charm. Albania’s economy is growing, but due to an insufficient transportation and energy infrastructure, this is still one of Europe’s poorest countries which might be the reason for the locals’ warm hospitality that hasn’t been spoiled by the tourist hordes yet.

While staying here, the welcome and friendship offered by the locals will probably surprise you, as despite the prevailing poverty, you will experience their almost medieval hospitality. There are numerous restaurants inside and outside the cities, the cuisine being largely influenced by the Greeks and Italians but with a few specialties such as goat’s head soup, bull’s testicles and sheep’s eyeballs – which you will surely not want to miss . Raki (aniseed liqueur) is the preferred drink, and it is not unusual to watch men gulping a couple of shots after breakfast. Be also sure to test some home-brewed beer or local wines during your visit. Tip: never drink your coffee to the bottom or you will get an unsavory mouthful of sediment. If you are baffled as to why your waiter keeps bringing you drinks after you have given a quick head shake to indicate ‘no’, this is because this head shake in fact means ‘yes’ here.

When to Go

Hot, clear and dry summers; cool, cloudy and wet winters.
May and October are the best months to travel, when the climate is relatively moderate. In July, the thermometer can climb to sweltering 90°F.

Getting There & Away

Mother Teresa International Airport is just 15 minutes (16 miles) drive from Tirana. It is connected by a number of European air carriers such as Austrian Airlines, British Airways or Alitalia. You can also get to Tirana by bus from Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; Sofia, Bulgaria and Tetovo, Macedonia. Ferries to Durrës depart from Ancona and Bari.

To travel around Albania is not as complicated as you might suppose. Private minibuses (furgons) leave quite frequently to diverse destinations. This is a relatively fast and comfortable travel option, but do not expect a timetable; they leave when they are full. Buses are cheaper and more comfortable, but services are limited.

Health & Safety

In general, Albania is a secure country, but it is not advisable to travel to the northeast, which borders Kosovo, because of the extremely poor road conditions as well as the risk of encountering unexploded landmines or armed gangs. Due to the bad roads and local kamikaze drivers, you should only chauffeur in Albania if possessing nerves of steel. Also be cautious about your personal security, dress modestly and keep your Rolex or latest digital video camera concealed.

Medical facilities are considerably basic, if not poor, especially outside Tirana. Have your cavities filled before entering the country. Drink bottled water and UHT milk only. Some of the more industrial cities are horribly polluted so you may want to consider bringing a gas mask.

Most banks and big hotels accept major credit cards, and you will find plenty of ATM machines in the main towns.

Itineraries

Two days in Tirana
A weekend in Saranda
Two nights in Butrint

Additional time
A few days on Pogradec’s beaches
A night in Shokodra
A day to climb Llogaraja Pass

Highlights

Tirana: dusty capital and the biggest city as well as the cultural, industrial and economic center of the republic. Skanderbeg Square, towered by Mount Dajti at 5,030 feet; Et’hem Bey Mosque and the National Museum of History are worth visiting.

Llogaraja Pass: from a height of more than 3,000 feet, you will enjoy Albania’s most fantastic panorama but there is no funicular available to carry you to the top.

Saranda: situated between mountains and the Ionian Sea, this small town with a Mediterranean climate has established itself as the top tourist destination in the Albanian Riviera, especially for honeymooners of whatever gender. From here, you can take a ferryboat to the Greek island of Corfu.

Butrint: with its impressive ruins, Albania’s main archeological site has been added to the World Heritage list of UNESCO. In summer, various culture events take place.

Gjirokaster: the ‘City of Stairs’ with snow-capped mountains all around.

Shkodra: among Europe’s oldest cities. Visit the remarkable Sheik Zamil Abdullah Al-Zamil Mosque.

Berat: with its magnificent citadel, this is a unique medieval town.

Pogradec: only 5 minutes drive from Macedonia, it has a superb bathing beach encircled by exceptionally beautiful scenery. This area is fast becoming an outstanding tourist center.

Dhermi and Shengjin: more amazing and lovely beaches.

Activities

Cultural sightseeing: is a must, with all the remarkable historical landmarks and unique scenery.

Swimming: regularly visited even by its president and prime minister, Albania’s coastline offers isolated and stylish beaches surrounded by mountainous landscapes.

Trekking: the unattractive but sympathetic town of Bajram Curri is a good starting point for discovering the neighboring mountains.

Shopping: browsing the markets is a good way to observe the daily life of the locals as well as the place to pick up an obligatory red Albanian flag.