Albania has a particular thrill for anyone who can remember when it was a closed country, only to be gazed at across the narrow sea which separates it from Corfu. And those coming in search of retro Communist relics will find socialist realist art, quirky bars commemorating culture under the dictatorship, and the 750 000 nearly indestructible bunkers which still pimple the landscape as reminders of that paranoid time.
However, it’s not accurate to see Albania only through the lens of its Communist past; this is a Mediterranean country between Italy and Greece with all the pleasures of climate, beaches and cuisine which you would expect from such a lucky geographical position. And just a few hours from its gold-and turquoise Riviera are the mountains where a different climate dominates and where life is still traditional and tourists still welcomed as guests. Villages such as Theth and Valbona high on their plateau in the ‘Accursed Mountains’ have distinctive mountain architecture, including the fortified stone ‘kulla’ houses designed for families in blood feud, and stunning vistas inviting you to hike trails and pause at waterfalls.
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The country lay on the ancient Via Egnatia connecting the Adriatic to Istanbul, and there are Roman remains – most dramatically at Butrint – but also other legacies of great Empires having met, with Ottoman influences evident in cuisine and architecture, and mosques (a particular gem is the Et’hem Bey mosque in Tirana) sitting alongside Orthodox places of worship, such as those in the poignant almost ghost town of Voskopoja, once the largest city in the Balkans, now a sleepy collection of family homes around all-but-forgotten frescoed churches, and Catholic communities. The Unesco World Heritage Site cities of Berat and Gjirokaster are a charming day’s ramble in cobbled streets, and further north the dramatic setting of Kruja on its escarpment offers another town – and castle – to explore, especially if you’re interested in antiques and curiosities which are for sale in the shops of the bazaar.
Wherever you are in the country you will feast well as Albania is blessed with a long coastline, and fresh, often organic, fruit and vegetables and a traditional cuisine that is also influenced by all that is most delicious of the Italians, Greeks and Ottomans. A network of chefs working to promote heritage recipes and breeds is generating an emerging foodie scene, with local wines to go with it.
Because this is an emerging tourist destination you have the excitement of discovering the new even if it’s accompanied sometimes by authentically rough edges. You’ll also find astonishingly low prices as well as experiences that are priceless, especially in the highland regions where families still live by the traditional saying that ‘your home belongs to God and the guest.’
To do justice to Albania you need at least five days, and even then you would miss out on the most important
monument of Albanian culture – the element of spontaneity, living in the moment, and a willingness to throw all plans away because someone’s just arrived that you want to have a coffee with.
Whatever timetable you set yourself, embrace the possibility that things will change at the last minute, and look for unanticipated bonuses.
Transport systems are not integrated and it may take longer to get to places than you anticipate from a map. You will enjoy your visit more if you plan to do less and allow time for alterations, sudden whims – and cups of coffee.
Because tourism is still developing in many parts of Albania the high season does not necessarily mean that places will be sold out or crowded. The exceptions to this are the riviera and the most popular sites such as Kruja, Theth and Valbona which become crowded from June to August.
Members of the diaspora will return from abroad for summer holidays (and the accompanying long, loud, joyful wedding parties) and for New Year. Their presence is noticeable in foreign-registered cars but also means that flights are harder to get at these times.
With the exception of mountain areas, Albania has a Mediterranean climate. February is the coldest month where even in the capital Tirana, on the plain, there is an average low of minus one degree celsius (30 degrees fahrenheit). However, average high temperature in February is still 8 degrees celsius (46 degrees fahrenheit).
July and August are the hottest months, with temperatures routinely above 30 degrees celsius (86 degrees fahrenheit)
At least three religious calendars are used to determine holidays in Albania, reflecting Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Official holidays are included below:
14 Mar: Summer Day
22 Mar: Nevruz Day
28 Mar: Catholic Easter Monday
2 May: May Day/ Orthodox Easter
7 July: Eid al-Fitr
12 Sep: Kurban Bajram
19 Oct: Mother Teresa Beatification Day
28 Nov: Flag and Independence Day
29 Nov: Liberation Day
8 Dec: National Youth Day
26 Dec: Christmas Day Holiday
Albania is located in the Central European Time zone, 1 hour ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)
To check the local time in Albania click here.
Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday in October at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.
What to pack
All the basics are available to buy in the region so there is no need to bring special supplies of toiletries etc. with you. If there is medication on which you rely then do bring enough with you as substitutes may not be available locally.
Albania seems to suffer particularly from a lack of bath plugs. You may find it useful to bring a universal plug with you.
There are ATM cashpoints widely available so there is no need to bring much cash in advance. Travellers cheques cannot be easily cashed.
Sockets are the standard continental European model so those travelling from beyond will need adaptors for electronic equipment.
A reliable supply of electricity can still be a problem in rural areas so a head torch is a useful backup.
What to wear
In general there will be no expectation of particularly modest dress so bare arms/ legs will not draw attention. If you plan to visit monasteries or mosques you will need to cover up so it is sensible to have a shawl or sweater that can be added to cover bare arms, and at least one pair of long trousers/ skirt.
Ticks can be a problem when hiking in long grass, so for hiking you are recommended to wear long trousers.
Be aware that mountain areas get cold at night even in the height of summer when daytime temperatures are in the twenties (celsius, or 69 to 84 degrees fahrenheit). Bring a sweater and socks to wear in the evenings.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in â¬.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
â¬ => Tickets less than â¬15 per person
â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬15- â¬30 per person
â¬â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬30 per person
Sleep — Out of town/rural
â¬ => Rooms less than â¬60 for a double
â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬60 – â¬100 for a double
â¬â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬100 for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
â¬ => Rooms less than â¬100 for a double
â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬100 – â¬150 for a double
â¬â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬150 for a double
â¬=> â¬5- â¬10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
â¬â¬ => â¬10 – â¬25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
â¬â¬â¬ => â¬25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
â¬ => Tickets less than â¬25 per person
â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬25 – â¬50 per person
â¬â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬50 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, itâs high. And when prices dip, what happens? You canât get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when thereâs a deal, youâll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites. That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airlineâs site. Why? Because some of their really great deals donât show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their âfriendâ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
It’s also worth looking for bargain flights to destinations in neighbouring countries as Albania has very few budget airline services. This year easyJet will start a route to Tivat in Montenegro, just a few hours from the Albanian border, and Ryanair already flies to Podgorica in Montenegro at very cheap rates. Some people even find it’s worth using WizzAir from Luton to Skopje in neighbouring Macedonia. Small Planet airlines run a direct flight from Tirana to London Gatwick and the other most reasonable routes from Tirana airport are through Italy (with Alitalia), Vienna (Austrian Airlines) or Istanbul (with Turkish Airlines).
On the road
Driving in Albania is stressful and dangerous, particularly in cities. For a safe and enjoyable holiday you would probably be better hiring a driver than negotiating the roads yourself. Buses are also surprisingly comfortable and reliable, and extremely cheap.
Hopefully, your trip to Albania goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation â About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical â If you have a Health Care Plan back home it may cover you for most situations which arise abroad but you need to check this out and in any case additional medical travel insurance will cover you for private health care or other expenses.
Trip Interruption â For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay â Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage â Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travellers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip is expensive itâs essential and even if it isnât itâs certainly a good idea. Your age and health are important factors.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework â check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection.
Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip. Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
In Europe the largest insurers are Allianz, Axa and Zurich but there are many smaller providers such as insureandgo and Direct Line.
Pre-existing health conditions â Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition or charge an additional premium related to the condition.
Some companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, itâs best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance â If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit cardâs issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly whatâs covered, as many have âstripped downâ coverage and
Albania uses the ‘lek’, abbreviated to ‘ALL’ as currency. One lek is roughly equivalent to one US cent; 100 ALL is roughly 50 pence.
The currency was devalued by ten in the 1990s but rather bizarrely in popular usage prices are still given in ‘old lek’. You may thus be asked for 1000 lek for something which costs only 100, which leads to widespread confusion and of course the opportunity for cheating the uncertain tourist. One way round this is to ask for the price in dollars or euros. Since most families have someone who is or has been working in Italy or Greece the majority of the population is familiar with euro conversions, and even if the conversion is not strictly accurate it will give you an idea of what the price is within a factor of 10.
Often prices will be quoted in euros anyway, and there may be occasions (e.g. tour guides or hotels) where lek will not be accepted.
Lek come in coins of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100. Notes are issued in denominations of 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000. Look for the endemic Dalmatian Pelican on the back of the 1 lek coin!
Many travellers like to have a small amount of local currency when they arrive in a country but this is becoming less and less important as ATMs and Bureaux de Change appear everywhere especially in transport terminals.
If you get money from an ATM machine abroad you will usually incur charges (typically 1.5 or 2% per transaction)
Credit and debit cards are accepted in some places but you will probably need more cash than you would use at home.
Donât forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. Using a card unexpectedly in Albania often rings alarm bells in foreign banks and without warning your bank in advance you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in Albania. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card â which doesnât make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where youâll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that donât offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
The good news for travellers in Albania is that you donât need to get stressed about tipping â you donât have to do it and when you do it really should reflect good or excellent service rather than be something you are expected to do.
Many restaurants include a âserviceâ charge in the price so check and, if it isnât mentioned, then a tip of between 5 â 10% is quite enough. Even where it is included but you feel that youâve had really excellent service then the same amount is adequate but ensure that your server receives this by handing it directly to them.
With taxis, just round up to the next 100 lek for a short journey or, for a long ride, to the nearest thousand. Again 10% is the maximum you should consider unless of course the driver carries your bags into the hotel or airport when a little more will be appreciated.
You may wish to give porters 100 lek for each bag carried but, while it will be appreciated, it is not normally expected. Similarly you may wish to leave a small tip for the housekeeping staff, especially if they have been particularly helpful, but this is completely up to you.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between 300 lek and 500 lek per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, insect repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you”re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery, super/hypermarkets and pharmacies will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Albania has excellent air connections to Italy through Rome but also most other major Italian cities (beware flights via Milan, however, as these usually require a change of airport and the airport shuttle bus is not included in air ticket prices, and is not scheduled to co-ordinate with flights, meaning that you may have to take a taxi which costs over 100 euro). Other good air connections are through Istanbul and Vienna airports.
Look also for cheap flights from easyJet to Tivat in
Montenegro, which is only a few hours from the border with Albania or Ryanair to Podgorica in Montenegro, about an hour from the border with Albania.
International bus services run from Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and beyond. It’s often hard to get accurate information on these in advance (e.g. online) so it’s best to visit the bus station you’ll be departing from. Journey times across international borders, especially between Schengen or EU borders are difficult to predict, so arrival times are not always accurate, but the buses are generally professional, modern, air-conditioned, smoke-free and comfortable.
Ferry services run from Italy – Ancona, Bari, Brindisi and Trieste – to the Albanian port of Durres, and also from Brindisi to Vlora in southern Albania and Brindisi to Shengjin in the north. The website http://www.ferriesalbania.com/ is a good starting point for information.
around by public transport is staggeringly cheap (e.g. 7 euro for a 3-hour intercity bus journey), and driving is staggeringly
bad in Albania so for a stress-free,
affordable trip use the buses. Buses are
surprisingly comfortable (air conditioning, no smoking, even sometimes wifi)
and surprisingly reliable. It is, however, very difficult to get information about buses
in advance (e.g. online) so you are best going to the bus station (where it exists) yourself for
timetables or asking at travel agencies (though being aware that they will only tell you about the companies for whom they sell tickets). In general buses leave early in the morning for long-distance
journeys, and there are rarely departures, even for inter-city services, after
An alternative to buses is to hire a car and driver/ long distance taxi which
takes the stress out of driving while giving you the flexibility to stop where
you want, and may also give you an informal guide in the form of your driver
(if he – and it is usually a he – shares a language with you and is willing).
Prices depend on your contacts and your negotiating
skills, but examples would be 13 euro per hour (including the driver’s return
trip if you’re wanting them one-way) or 50 euro for the driver for a day plus
50 euro for the car for a day plus the cost of fuel (fuel costs are lower than
elsewhere in Europe).
For transport between cities there are formal or
informal ‘furgon’ minivan taxi services. These will set off once they’re full and follow a pre-determined route but with stopping points determined by where passengers want to get on or off. If
you need to leave promptly and are less worried about budget you can always
negotiate paying for an empty seat to secure a quicker departure. These
minivans are usually cheaper than the larger bus services with regular timetables,
though are more cramped, with less air-conditioning and more chickens.
The rail network in Albania is chronically run-down, covering only a small network with a couple of trains a day, and the rolling stock is badly vandalised. As a result the trains are not full and they trundle slowly through countryside you’re unlikely otherwise to see. But this is probably a means of transportation only for the enthusiast.
Albania’s capital, Tirana, is located reasonably centrally so most bus services are connected through the capital.
For those interested in visiting Theth or other communities in the ‘Accursed Mountains’, this Landrover video is a good introduction to the landscape and the culture of these remote and photogenic villages.
For an overview of the stunning Albanian landscape, and its range – from
Alpine villages, plateau towns to the riviera – check out this video of aerial photography that will whet your appetite for travel here.