“Albania? What’s in Albania?” is a common question I get. Often, these people don’t know what makes Albania beautiful.
If you’ve been to Albania, you almost feel offended. Like you’re a big brother sticking up for a sibling.
But that’s because we know how great the small Balkan country is.
Arriving in Albania, I knew next to nothing about it.
I struggled to say hello — Përshëndetje. I didn’t know the capital until days prior — Tirana. And I didn’t know what the food was like — delectable.
Most people looked at me, asking, “Albania? Is Albania a beautiful country?”
Albania is a rising country on the tourist scene. In 2014, the country received 3.5 million visitors. By 2019, this number had increased to 6.3 million, a 74% increase.
The largest increase? Holiday tourists who recently discovered the beauty awaiting them in this small country.
A former piece of the Ottoman Empire, it didn’t gain independence until 1913. But it hasn’t exactly been free for over 100 years.
Greece, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, Italy again, then Germany. All controlled at least a part of Albania at some point from 1914 to 1945.
Following World War II, Albania finally gained independence from outsiders, but the suffering didn’t stop there. Instead, it came from inside the country as they formed their second republic under Enver Hoxha and communist rule.
The following four decades were rife with spying, persecution, executions, and outright fear campaigns. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that Albania would see a more favorable economic situation.
But, visiting today, you wouldn’t know it.
Rapid development is changing the face of the capital city Tirana. Increasing tourism brings a wealth of opportunities to areas neglected before. And European Union member status is on the horizon.
And you can feel the buzz of energy when you walk Tirana’s streets.
The people are warm, smiling, and eager to show off their growing city. You see young people everywhere as you walk down its main streets.
Car honks pierce your eardrums, and scooters zip past in a blur. People sit idly in coffee shops, smoking cigarettes, drinking espressos, and chatting with friends. And young children run around Skanderbeg Museum and Square, chasing their friends on bikes and scooters, their excited screams ringing around the square.
This positive energy sits juxtaposed next to the country’s complicated past, which you can view in a variety of museums: Bunk’Art 1 & 2, the House of Leaves, and the National History Museum, among others.
In the south of the country, the jaw-dropping Albanian Riviera awaits.
Villages such as Saranda, Ksamil, Borsh, Himare, and Dhermi have beautiful beaches that remain off most tourists’ lists but deserve to be there.
The villages sit perched on cliffsides. White facades meet orange-tiled roofs, showing the influence of Italian and Greek culture on the country.
As you stroll the cobblestone streets, smells from Albanian cuisine wade out to you from small restaurants. Enter, and they’ll treat you to one of the most beautiful and tasty cuisines I’ve tasted.
Fresh vegetables fill the table. Red bell peppers, tomatoes, zucchini; you name it, it’s here. Feta cheese is a staple served mixed in a dish or by itself. And, of course, there’s fresh bread to accompany every meal.
And Albanians don’t skimp on the meat. The balance of meat and fresh vegetables is a balance that must be met, or you’re doing it wrong.
Lamb or chicken mixed with yogurt, beef meatballs, and fresh seafood cooked perfectly. The only thing you won’t find a lot of is pork, as Albania’s population is predominantly Muslim.
For an authentic Albanian experience, head into a local restaurant and get an order of fergesë, qoftë, and byrek with spinach. Enjoy it all, but save room for some baklava or gelato for dessert.
After, head to the highlight of the area: the beaches.
Beautiful azure-colored waters of the Ionian Sea lap quietly against pebble beaches, lulling you into a mid-day nap. The sun shines down, turning your skin into a dry desert bed if you don’t take care.
Off Ksamil are small Albania islands. You can visit the Ksamil islands if you like small boat trips. If not, visit one of the many gorgeous Ksamil beaches.
If you like sandy beaches or pebble beaches, this is the place for you.
Ancient Roman ruins line Butrint, an Albania National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, still well-preserved, displaying how far-reaching the Roman Empire was. As you roam the ruins, you get an idea of why this was a popular spot for Julius Caesar, both for its natural beauty and strategic position.
Today, it’s a huge tourist attraction and one of the best parks in Albania.
And, in north Albania lie the Accursed Mountains near Theth in the Albania countryside.
Don’t let their name fool you; there’s nothing scary about these mountains. They’re a landmark of Albanian beauty.
Their rock faces line the sky like a heartbeat on an EKG. Meanwhile, you sit thousands of feet below in the valley, an ant skittering along the trails between the mountains.
Most travelers head here to do the famed Theth to Valbona hike.
10 miles with a decent amount of climbing, this hike offers unreal views of the valley and landscape that runs between the mountains. At Valbona Mountain’s peak, a panoramic view of both sides allows you to take in the scenery and Albania’s nature.
If you’re not up for long hikes, opt for the shorter hike to Blue Eye. This clear, blue water is breathtaking.
Literally. It’s so cold it feels like all oxygen immediately exits your body.
To the southwest is the principal city of the area, Shkodër. A sleepy town that resembles Tirana in a way, but on a smaller scale.
But, when I’m asked, “What is the most beautiful part of Albania?” I have to say north Albania, beautiful mountains grab you and make you fall in love.
Here, you’ll find small families strolling around the streets, looking for things to do in Shkoder. Bike riders work their way through traffic like salmon going upstream. Bars and restaurants line the streets, full of people watching life pass by as they sip their morning, afternoon, or evening espressos.
Nearby you’ll find Ottoman architecture in the form of bridges and castles that stand the test of time.
And have I mentioned the people enough yet?
Prideful, but not in an over-the-top way. Welcoming, but not with the hidden intention to sell you something. And friendly, happy to share the company of someone exploring their often-overlooked country.
People were eager to talk to me everywhere I visited, even with their limited English and my (even more) limited Albanian.
But they were always able to get the message across:
Welcome to my country. I’m eager to show you everything it offers.
And Albania has tons to offer and will have more in the future as development increases. There are places to visit in Albania I haven’t been to yet.
Vlore, with the gorgeous Llogara National Park, Llogara Pass, and tons of flora and fauna.
Berat, The City of a Thousand Windows and home to Berat Castle.
Lake Ohrid and its beautiful shores where you could spend an entire day.
I just hope it doesn’t get ahead of itself and destroy the things that make it beautiful. It’s something you see in every developing country, ruining many of them.
But Albanians seem to have a sound mind about it. They’re okay with being patient and letting things unfold.
As my Airbnb host told me as we rode from the airport to the apartment, “Avash, avash.”