If most people have an image of Albania, it might be of the repressive communist regime that kept the country in isolation from the end of World War II until 1991. During that period, Albania kept its own people in and everyone else out. With the fall of communism in the ’90s, Albania finally opened its doors to the outside world. But the eastern European country, located on the Balkan Peninsula between Montenegro and Greece, remains far off the radar of most travelers.
Just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Albania is less than a one-hour plane ride from both Rome and Athens. The small country of about 3 million people has yet to develop the tourism industry that its Mediterranean neighbors have, but those who make the trip will find a beautiful and fascinating place that is ripe for exploration. You’ll discover few other tourists and a population very welcoming to visitors.
Whether you want to spend time at the beach, in the mountains, visiting ancient ruins, or enjoying cities that are booming after years under the boot of dictatorship, curious travelers will have an unforgettable time in this overlooked country. Here are a few of the best reasons why you should plan your next trip to Albania.
A Rich History
Albania has always occupied a place at the periphery of Europe, part of the ebbs and flows of the major empires without ever taking on a starring role. Most of the people here are descendants of the pre-Roman civilization known as the Illyrians, which dates back to 1200 B.C. The country was swallowed up by the Greeks, followed by the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. It briefly had independence as the Kingdom of Albania in the 13th century, but it was soon again overcome by the Ottoman Empire. Another short period of autonomy existed between the world wars, but the Nazis took control in World War II followed by the communists.
For all of its history, Albania is filled with relics and ruins that date back to its Illyrian, Greek, Roman, and Ottoman periods—minus the hordes of tourists you encounter at most European hotspots. Albania is an archeologist’s dream, with two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (plus three more designated as tentative) in addition to other lesser-known ties to antiquity.
The first World Heritage Site is Burint, a peninsular city located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Channel. Occupied since prehistoric times, it would become a Greek city, a Roman colony, and an administrative district of the Byzantines and Venetians. After a series of raids, earthquakes, and floods in the Middle Ages, the city was finally abandoned. It’s now best known for its ruins that include structures from each civilization, including a well-preserved Greek theater and mosaic floor with Christian iconography that was built by the Romans.
Berat and Gjirokaster
While Burint was abandoned, the city of Berat has been continuously occupied for more than two thousand years, and the entire town remains a World Heritage site. Located in southern Albania, Berat (and the neighboring city of Gjirokaster) are filled with various cultural influences of the Balkan region. Berat is best known as the home of Kala, a 13th-century castle that would also serve as a church and mosque. Also in Berat is the Cathedral of St. Mary, which features an hand-carved walnut alter. It’s also home to the National Iconographic Museum, which is dedicated to the preservation of Byzantine art and Iconography.
While aspects of ancient ruins are noticeable wherever you travel around the countryside, so too are bunkers. During Enver Hoxha’s communist reign, nearly 173,000 bunkers were built in a program known as “bunkerization.” While they may be a bit of an eyesore to some travelers, the Albanians have managed to make it work by assembling works of art like the Bunk’Art Exhibit outside of Tirana, which mixes contemporary art with history.
Plenty of Outdoor Space to Explore
Despite the larger-than-normal amount of concrete bunkers, Albania is a picturesque country, with rugged peaks and serene beaches that make it an excellent destination for outdoor enthusiasts as well. You can choose among 15 national parks in the country, most of which take advantage of the mountainous terrain. The Accursed (Albanian Alps), the Korab, Ceraunion, and Skanderbeg mountain ranges cover various parts of the country, while the coastline offers some superb beaches that feature some of Europe’s most pristine turquoise waters.
The opportunities to explore are endless, from scuba diving in the Karaburun-Sazan National Marine Park to swimming in the clear waters of one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes, Lake Ohrid. Take a drive along the Llogara Pass, one of the most scenic roads on the Ionian coast. Go trekking through the jagged peaks of the Accursed Mountains in Valbonë Valley, or just lounge on the white sand beaches of the Albanian Riviera. Hiking, biking, paddling—even paragliding—are all popular outdoor activities that are still largely free of tourists.
The food in the country mirrors the landscape and reflects a delicious variety that’s tied to each region, relying heavily on tradition and locally produced offerings. If you’re on the coast, expect plenty of fresh the seafood. Moving inland you will see such staples in lamb and veal stews. Much of the cuisine is primarily Mediterranean-based, taking influence from countries like Greece, Italy, and Turkey. Most meals feature either lamb or fish, with cheese, tomatoes, yogurt, olives, honey, and fresh fruit on the table.
While the base ingredients are similar to other regional cuisines, Albanians have added a distinction to their own to meals. Byrek, similar to the Greek spanakopita, is a flakey pastry pie filled with spinach that can also include cheese and meat. Tavë Kosi is a lamb and yogurt casserole, while qofte are Albanian meatballs. These are just some of the traditional meals that help to define the rich culture of Albanian cuisine that is just begging to be tasted.
Tourists are Welcomed with Open Arms
Visitors to Albania should be prepared to be overwhelmed with kindness. Because of Albania’s long isolation, when tourists began to trickle in slowly, citizens did their best to make sure the guests felt comfortable and attuned to their country. Even with the language barrier (the older generations of Albanians do not speak much English), it is not uncommon to be invited into an Albanian’s home for food and drink, following the unspoken code of faith known as besa.
This idea, best translated as “keeping a promise,” calls on Albanians to help those in need of help or who ask for help in an endearing move toward connecting people and creating a hospitable environment. The spirit of besa was seen throughout World War II when Albanian Muslims (Islam is the main religion in the country) housed and hid Jewish people fleeing from Nazi Germany. More recently, besa has been seen in the refugee crisis.
While the infrastructure may not be as developed as larger nations in Europe, the country makes up for it with heart and character. Traveling here is still cheap compared to its neighbors, and a younger generation who speak English make it easier to communicate and get around.
Around every bend it, it would seem that all signs point to Albania as an off-the-beaten-path European destination that combines old-world sites with outdoor excitement. But as the saying goes, nothing secret lasts forever, so maybe you should visit sooner rather than later.
Written by RootsRated Media for Royal Robbins.
Featured image provided by Peter Chovanec