pedestrian mall street with cobblestones and colourful buildings

Why visit Albania they said. “It’s too dangerous” they said. People go missing. They take your organs. It all sounded like a horror movie.

Not sure where people go these images from. Maybe from word-of-mouth or sensational media stories. Perhaps from the movies. It’s funny how people follow group think without seeing or testing for themselves.

And that’s exactly what I did. I travelled in Albania for two weeks and found the complete opposite. The country is so beautiful in landscapes and ALL the people are the friendliest I’ve ever met in my travels.

It took some time for the nation to adjust after the fall of communism. They had such a closed and restricted society. Borders were closed to outsiders. Religion was banned. As well as creative expression such as writing and painting.

Now in their new found freedom, they’ve opened their doors to tourism. Some parts are gaining in popularity already, such as Sarande. So I highly recommend you visit now before the whole world discovers its beauty and becomes a tourist mecca like Croatia’s coastline.

The people

visit Albania with a local guy having drinks sitting at a table with two females

Tomi, owner of Saranda SR Backpackers, treating us to dinner and drinks.

I really do mean ALL Albanians are friendly. Every time I sat in a bus, the locals offered assistance even though I didn’t ask. And they always motioned to me when it was time to disembark, to ensure I wouldn’t miss my stop. Even if they couldn’t speak English, it did not deter them to try. Actually, I found many Albanians, especially the younger generation, could speak English well. It appears that it is mandatory to learn English in school.

And not once did anyone put their hand out asking for money. They genuinely wanted to help.

Hitch-hiking

Hitch-hiking is safe here too. Not that I normally hitch-hike during my travels. But when the locals tell you that it’s ok to hitch a ride, then it must be safe to do so. Quite often, I would see motorists stop at bus stops and ask if anyone needs a ride. They offer to both locals and tourists alike.

My Sarande hostel owner instructed me that I could take a public bus to the nearby Blue Eye tourist attraction. It’s a beautiful spring with amazing blue and green colours. But on the way back he said just stand on the highway and hitch back.

I’m way too careful to hitch, so I stood on the highway waiting for a public bus instead. After 1.5 hours, still no bus. So I started to get a little worried how I was going to get back. Many cars were passing by but there was no way I was going to stick my thumb out.

Then suddenly a car stopped. He offered me a ride as he too was going to Sarande. I reluctantly accepted, only because he was the only occupant in the car. Therefore I thought I would have a better chance to fend off one person instead of two. Luckily, it turns out he lives in a nearby village and was on his way to meet up with his wife in Sarande to cool off at the beach. In his basic English we discovered we both drove trucks for a living and shared our photos. What an enjoyable ride.

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The Landscape

This beautiful country has it all.

Twenty years ago, sleepy fishing villages have turned into popular beach resorts. Hotels and apartments have popped up everywhere. The pebbled beaches have followed the Mediterranean style with sunbeds and umbrellas all lined up in rows. Occasionally you’ll find small patches of ‘public beaches’ but they are really tiny. Enough for one family!

If you can afford to, take a boat cruise to secluded beaches along the coast for a quieter beach experience.

Dotted all over the countryside are lakes/ponds, funnily all called by the same of Blue Eye. However, they all deserve this name because the characteristics are the same. The water colours are amazing shades of blue and green. And the water is freezing. You must see at least one Blue Eye.

natural water spring in amazing blue and green colours surrounded by lush vegetation

Blue Eye lake, half way between Saranda and Gjirokaster.

Then in the north, you have the amazing Accursed Mountains. Impressive jagged rocky peaks. I especially loved doing the Valbona to Theth trek. It gave me a great glimpse of these majestic mountains.

view of a valley with high rugged green mountains and a red roof chalet sitting in the middle

Our overnight accommodation in Valbona, before heading off on our trek to Theth.

The food

I was surprised to find a huge influence of Italian food. Then I learnt the history of Albania. It was once occupied by Italy. So you will find many Italian restaurants.

But do make the effort to try their local traditional foods. Always tasty with their unique blend of herbs and spices. Stuffed peppers (speca te mbushura or speca me gjize), byrek (savoury pastries) and stews are Albania’s staple diet.

visit Albania for traditional food - rice balls with a plate of grilled vegetables

Delicious qifki (rice balls with herbs) with grilled vegetables

Disappointingly, it was hard to find good quality fresh fruit and vegetables at the supermarkets. Even in the outdoor food markets. The fruit and vegetables always looked old and most times it was rotten. My guess would be that they don’t spray their foods with chemicals to retain their colour and shelf life!

The money

Unfortunately, Albania hasn’t caught up with the credit card system as yet. We basically had to pay in cash for everything. The only places that had the credit card technology were large supermarkets and hotels. However, ATM machines are everywhere to withdraw Albanian Lek (the local currency).

The following 3 banks I found don’t charge a fee for cash withdrawals:

  1. BKT
  2. Alpha Bank
  3. Credins

I did find some places that accepted Euro as well as Lek, however, mainly around the border areas.

I also found that surrounding Balkan countries would not accept Lek to change into Euro. So before you depart Albania, either spend up all your cash or change it to Euro’s at the Albanian money changers.

So why visit Albania now

My recommendation is to visit Albania now. The main reason is because tourism is still raw, and you will want to see this beautiful country before mass tourism changes it forever. I loved Albania and I think you will too. Read more at the Albania Tips page.

Are you ready to visit Albania now?

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About the author

Lisa is a travel gypsy by heart, having already been to over 70 countries and still counting. Founder of Travel Groove, to share travel tips, tricks and knowledge with other travellers.

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