There are close to 200 nations on Earth, plus dozens more territories. Let’s discover… Albania.
It’s almost unfathomable that Albania remains off the tourist radar. Like many of its Mediterranean neighbors, the nation features stunning beaches, a mountainous interior dotted with charming towns and villages, and the pleasantest of climates. Throughout the “Land of the Eagles,” as Albania is known to locals, are the remarkable relics of a series of ancient civilizations. Countless castles and citadels, mosaics and sacred monuments attest to the Greeks, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans who each conquered the land.
It took just a few decades of 20th century isolation for globetrotters to overlook Albania, but its geographic and cultural treasures remain undiminished. The country is ripe for exploration, and all in the blissful absence of crowds… That is, until Albania’s inevitable ascent as the next destination du jour.
Where is Albania?
Albania is in southeastern Europe, on the western Balkan Peninsula, on the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Find on a map the heel of Italy’s “boot,” draw a line directly eastward across the Adriatic Sea and you’ll hit the coast of Albania. The country shares borders with Greece to the south, North Macedonia and Kosovo to the east, and Montenegro to the north.
Albania’s 226-mile coastline meets the Ionian Sea in the southwest and above it the Adriatic. Approximately 70% of Albania is covered by hills and tall mountains. Major mountain ranges include the Albanian Alps, the Pindus Mountains and the Korab Mountains, which include the country’s highest peak, Mount Karabit (9,066 feet). The climate at the coast is typically Mediterranean – dry and sunny year-round. The interior is cooler, considerably so at high elevations.
Facts About Albania
Name: The Republic of Albania
Area: 11,100 square miles, slightly smaller than Maryland
Population: 3.1 million
Currency: Lek, with the euro widely accepted
Religion: 57% Muslim, 10% Roman Catholic, 10% Orthodox
Capital city: Tirana, also the largest city with a population of 800,000
Today, Albania is a democratic republic with a developing economy, a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership. The country transitioned to a multi-party democracy in 1991 after 47 years of communist rule. Most of those years were under the Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha, whose isolationist policies kept Albania closed off from the western world.
Italy invaded Albania shortly before World War II, sending King Zog into exile. The invasion ended a period of independence won in 1912 after close to five centuries of Ottoman rule. During the Middle Ages, what is now Albania spent periods under rule by the Byzantine Empire, the Serbs and Venetians. During antiquity the Illyrians, Ancient Greeks, Thracians and Romans all ruled over the land.
Traveling to Albania
Albania is in general a safe and welcoming destination for international travelers. Click here to check the current State Department Travel Advisory for Albania. U.S. citizens do not need a tourist visa to stay for up to one year. Make sure you have at least three months validity on your passport beyond the end of your stay, and one blank page available for an entry stamp.
Medical care in Albania is below western standards, especially outside Tirana, and travel insurance is highly recommended. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Its transportation network is also below western standards, and road conditions can be hazardous. However, marked taxis are considered safe, and private buses travel between most major cities. Albania has one international airport – Nene Tereza International (TIA) in Tirana, named after national heroine Mother Teresa.
A variety of flight options are available between California and Albania. Airlines including Air Canada, American, United, KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss International offer flights between LAX or SFO and Tirana. Expect at least one stop in Vienna, Rome, Istanbul, Frankfurt or Zurich, among other potential hubs.
Albanian Culture and Cuisine
Albanian is the official language of Albania. It’s one of only three still-spoken Indo-European languages, the others being Greek and Armenian. Italian is widely spoken in the west, and you might find English speakers in the capital.
Albanian cuisine is similar to other Mediterranean cuisines in featuring an abundance of olives, citrus, vegetables and legumes. Lamb is the traditional meat, while fish and seafood are eaten often along the coast. Albanians love their coffee, and coffee houses abound in every city and town. The county also has a centuries-old tradition of wine making. Tipping is not generally expected beyond rounding up the bill, but you might tip well for exceptional service.
The Top Tourist Attractions in Albania
Sunny beaches, ancient monuments and outstanding natural beauty are the major tourist attractions of Albania. Well-preserved historic architecture and contemporary cultural sites, including some excellent museums, are also draws for visitors.
Albania’s capital city, Tirana, offers an agreeable array of old and new architecture wrapped around lakes, rivers, parks and public squares, all with tall, forested mountains as a backdrop. Some top visitor destinations include the Grand Park, home to Tirana’s zoo, botanical gardens and presidential palace, and Skanderbeg Square, a central plaza where you can visit the National Museum of History. Also consider the National Museum of Archeology at Mother Teresa Square, the National Art Gallery and the Museum of Secret Surveillance.
On the outskirts of Tirana is Bunk’Art, an underground space in a converted Cold War bunker accessed via a hillside tunnel. Its exhibits detail Albania’s modern history alongside galleries of contemporary art. Don’t miss the Mosaics of Tirana, the remains of an ancient villa dating to 300 A.D. Its well-preserved mosaics depict geometric patterns and motifs of fish and birds. Dajti National Park, in the mountains outside Tirana, is a popular destination for outdoor recreation. The landscape of pine, oak and beach forests conceals spectacular waterfalls, canyons and caves, and in winter is covered with snow.
The Albanian Riviera
Scenic stretches of sand, hillside olive and citrus groves, a warm Mediterranean climate and ample dining and accommodation options characterize the Albanian Riviera. The region along the northeast Ionian Sea is a popular tourist destination, although with much smaller crowds than elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Numerous villages and towns dot the coast, among them Himara with its lovely Old Town, and Palasë, a gateway to Llongara National Park.
Just outside Sarandë, one of the bigger cities on the Albanian Riviera, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint. The site was inhabited from 50,000 B.C. until the 19th century A.D., and it holds the remains of ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian cities. UNESCO calls it “a microcosm of Mediterranean history,” where highlights include a Greek theater, a ninth-century basilica and a Roman mosaic floor.
Another beloved destination in the Riviera is Vlorë, notable as the place where Albania declared its independence from the Ottomans in 1912. Attractions include the Museum of Independence, Kaninë Castle, the 16th-century Muradie Mosque and the spectacular Bay of Vlorë.
Berat and Gjirokastra
Berat and Gjirokastra, two ancient cities in southern Albania, are inscribed together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both old towns are a photographer’s dream, where impressive architecture has settled over many centuries into the natural landscape. Berat boasts some of the finest Ottoman-era buildings still to stand, along with numerous Byzantine churches and the 13th-century Kala Castle. In Gjirokastra, two-story houses built in the 17th century represent a unique style of Balkan architecture. The town also features a bazaar along with historic churches and mosques.
The Albanian Alps
The lofty, often snow-capped Albanian Alps are also known as the Accursed Mountains, but don’t let that worry you. The mountain region in the northwest of Albania gives visitors a lot to love, including hiking trails, picturesque lakes and waterfalls, mountain villages and a handful of ancient cities.
Shkroda, a gateway to the Albanian Alps, is one of the oldest cities in Europe. A top attraction there is the storied Rozafa Castle, with the ruins of both an ancient church and mosque on its grounds. From Shkodra you can take a cable car to Theth. The mountain village in the heart of Theth National Park is a delightful destination with waterfalls, hiking trails and old stone buildings to admire.
The medieval town of Krujë is famous in Albania. It’s as a former capital and also the center of national hero Skanderbeg’s rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. Explore that tumultuous period at the city’s Skanderbeg Museum, located inside Krujë Castle. The city also offers a traditional bazaar and fantastic views of the Adriatic Sea.
Lake Ohrid, shared between Albania and North Macedonia, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe and a habitat for hundreds of rare and endemic species. The huge lake’s shores are partly a nature reserve and otherwise dotted with villages and resort towns. The main hub on the Albanian side is the city of Pogradec, where Pogradec Castle and the nearby Illyrian Royal Tombs are both worth a visit.
Will you be adding Albania to your must-see destinations list? Let us know!
Dreaming of European vacations? Take a look at our other stories about visiting Europe.