Albania

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General Information (currency, climate, population, religion, history, etc.)

Until 1991, Albania was a communist country, closed to foreigners. After it abandoned the communist regime, tourists began to discover the beauties of the country lying on the shores of the Ionian and Adriatic seas.

Mountain landscapes, rich historical heritage, and beautiful virgin coastline attract more and more tourists every year. The Albanian Riviera is increasingly popular, but still, Albania offers many hidden bays, beautiful beaches, and quiet oases untouched by mass tourism.


Country general information

Geographic Position

The country is located halfway between the North Pole and the Equator and is spread across an area of 28700 square kilometers, with a beautiful coastline of about 476 km, caressed by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Albania is bounded with Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia in the east, and Greece in the southeast and south.

Geographic Features

This small European country is characterized by the remarkable diversity of geographical features. While you can enjoy the snow-capped mountains, there is also a sunny coast with a warm and pleasant Mediterranean climate.

Albania is one of the most mountainous countries in the world – its average elevation above the sea level is 2323 ft, and mountains cover more than 70% of its total territory. The major ranges in the country are the Albanian Alps, Korab, and the Pindus Mountains. The highest peak of Albania is Mount Korab is (9,066 feet), located in the eponymous mountain range. Plains and plateaus are situated in the west, along the Adriatic and Ionian Sea Coast. Mountain region is rich with Natural Parks full of picturesque sites, valuable cultural heritage, and attracts numerous visitors.

The major rivers, Drin and Vjosa, spring in the mountains and flow into the Adriatic Sea. The Vjosa River is one last intact rivers systems in Europe.

The country has three major lakes – Shkodra, Ohrid and Prespa. Tranquil and picturesque lakes of Albania are a favorite tourist destination for an active vacation, relaxing day in nature, and enjoyment in tasteful, locally grown food and fine wine.

The Capital

Tirana is the largest city and the capital of Albania and the center for economy, culture, and governmental activities. Founded in 1614, Tirana has been home to many ethnicities that have inhabited the area during turbulent Albanian history. The estimated population of the city is 420,000.

Tirana is one of the most colorful cities in Europe. Bright colors of Tirana facades were, in fact, a project of a mayor, Edi Rama, who won elections for mayor of Tirana in 2000. To bring joy and heal the traumas of the communist era, he decided to light up the pale and depressive streets of a city. A painter by profession, the Edi Rama organized painting the facades, installed street lights, repaired the potholes, brought the greenery back to the city, and cleaned the river. The citizens recognized a new vibe and began spending more time on the streets, building the connections and trust, broken by painful episodes of communistic totalitarianism.

Tirana is not super-popular tourist destination, but still, it provides a decent amount of engaging tours and activities.

Demographics

As of 2019, the estimated population of Albania is 2.88 million. A significant number of Albanians live all over Europe and the US.

84,10% of population are Albanians, 0.35% are Greeks, 0.11% Romanians, 0.07 Macedonians and 0.03% Italians. The main religions are Roman Catholicism (10.02%), Eastern Orthodoxy (6.75%) and Islam (58.79%)

The population density stands at around 101 per square kilometer.


Climate and Weather in Albania

Albania has varied climate thanks to its geographic location and features. The coastline with lowlands has a mild and pleasant Mediterranean climate, while the highlands have a continental climate.

The lowlands experience very mild winters with average temperatures ranging about 7 degrees Celsius (45 F), and the summer temperatures hover around 32 degrees Celsius (90 F).

The southern lowlands have similar weather in summer, but their average temperature may be slightly lower.

In the inland areas, temperatures are much lower than those in the coastal region, Winter cold peaks reach -1 degrees Celsius (30,2 F), while in summer the average temperature is around 24 degrees Celsius (75,2 F).

The best time to visit the country is from April to June and then during September and October. July and August are the peak tourist seasons as people from colder regions come to explore the beaches in Albania.

If you are visiting in Winter, take your umbrella – you are probably going to need it.


History

The exact origins of the Albanian people are not known, but it is believed that they descended from the Illyrians. During the 8th to 6th century BC, the Greeks spread their territories towards the Illyrian areas, but both cultures thrived side by side.

In 229 BC, the Romans attacked and defeated the Illyrians, established their control over Illyria. When the Roman Empire was divided on the eastern and the western part, the regions of current Albania came under the Byzantine empire.

In the 9th century, the Byzantine empire weakened, and Albanian territories came under the control of the Bulgarians, Norman crusaders, Serbs, and Venetians, and by the 14th-century Byzantine rule in Albania came to an end.

During the Renaissance, the Turks established control over the region and thus began the Ottoman rule here. They ruled Albania for over four centuries.

Albania became an independent country in 1912, when the Turks were defeated by the Balkan allies of Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria, Hungary, France, and Italy.

After World War II, Enver Hoxha, the communist leader, became the president of the newly formed People’s Republic of Albania, a Stallinistic type of state. He ruled Albania until his death in 1985. During this period, the country was isolated and struggled under the totalistic regime.
The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule.

Currency and Payment Options


The currency in Albania is the Lek, which roughly translates to $0,0081. Major credit cards and debit cards are accepted in most banks, supermarkets, and large hotels. However, smaller businesses and taxi drivers might not accept cards, so it is better to carry cash as well. US dollars and Euros are widely accepted for cash payments. You will see money changers on the streets, but it is best not to use their services as they could be illegal.


Electricity

In Albania, the standard voltage is 230 V with a frequency of 50 Hz. The power plugs here are of type C and F.


Water

In most cases, it’s safe to drink tap water here, but it does contain high amounts of chlorine, and drinking too much of it can cause some health issues. It’s better to consume packaged drinking water, though, for brushing, the tap water should be fine.

Airport sand connections with EU and USA

There is only one is an international airport in Albania, and it handles the bulk of the air traffic. The Tirana International Airport (IATA TIA) is also known as the Rinas International Airport. It is located 16 kilometers away from Tirana City center. The cities that are connected with Tirana through regular flights are Athens, Bologna, Belgrade, Rome, Vienna, London, Geneva, Zurich, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Paris, etc.

There are no direct flights to and from the US. Major regular operators flying out of this airport include Air Albania, Air Serbia, Alitalia, British Airways, Edelweiss, and Lufthansa.

Must see sights

Berat – The Town of One Thousand Windows got its nickname because of the Ottoman style houses, climbing up the steep hill over the sea. A UNESCO site with over 2000 years of history, Berat is a beautiful place to visit. From the top of the Berat castle, there is a lovely panoramic view of the town and the surrounding area.

Himare is a beach town located a couple of hours away from Sarande and is an excellent place for spending a lazy time on the waterfront. The beautiful promenade has excellent open-air restaurants and cafes, and the general environment is very relaxed.

Shkodër / Shkodra is one of the oldest cities in Europe. It is located in the northern part of the county, at the foothills of the Albanian Alps and near the beautiful Lake Shkoder. Its historic buildings, pastel-painted facades of the Old Town, and stunning Rozafa Fortress, overlooking Lake Shkodra, make it very beautiful. Many people will tell you it is the most beautiful city in Albania.

Guirokastra is a city in southern Albania. Its old town, a rare example of preserved Ottoman city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Above the town is Gjirokastra Fortress, overlooking the beautiful town and the surroundings. Former Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha was born here. Charming hillside town and its magical oriental architecture are beautifully described in a novel Chronicle in Stone, by beloved Albanian writer Ismail Kadare.

Tirana is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and is thriving in the winter months. The museums, heritage buildings, and local food and raki bars attract people from all over the world. Besides the city tours, Tirana visitors enjoy day trips to surrounding lakes, castles, and ancient towns, rich with cultural heritage.

Sarande is a popular beach destination and a thriving tourist spot. It is a perfect mix of beach life, nightlife and a great destination to taste delicious Albanian coastal cuisine.

Ksamil situated is just 20 minutes away from Sarande is one of the most stunning beaches in this part of the country. White sand, crystal clear waters – Ksamil is a picture-perfect place to enjoy summer.

Another popular beach getaway and port city is Durrës, located just 35 kilometers away from Tirana, with the biggest and most visited beach in Albania. Its 10,5 km seafront is lined with numerous hotels, bars, and restaurants. Nearby is an important heritage site – a Roman amphitheater that could seat up to 15,000 people.

Kruja is a charming hamlet located atop a mountain. As it is the birthplace of a beloved Albanian leader, Skenderbeg, it often referred to as “The City of Skanderbeg.” The highlights here are a castle and a prominent museum that contains important pieces of Albanian history.

Gourmet scene (must try and about it)

One of the good reasons to visit Albania is its fresh and tasty food and rich wines, grown under the warm Mediterranean sun.

Byrek / börek is one of the most famous local dishes and can be found everywhere in the country. It is a simple, tasty salty pie made with filo pastry and ground meat. Some variations of Byrek can be filled with spinach, but street food shops usually offer it with cheese or meat.

Fërgesë Tirane is made from peppers, tomatoes, onions, and cottage cheese. Cooked with olive oil and seasoned by basil, savory Fërgesë Tirane is a delightful side dish. With the addition of a liver or meet, it becomes a main dish – fërgesë me melçi. Usually, it is served with a slice of homemade bread.

Tave Kosi is an unofficial national Albanian dish, made of lamb meat and rice, and topped with kos, soured milk made from goat or ewe’s milk. Tave Kosi is a must-try for every tourist visiting Albania.

Kaçkavall, yellow cheese, is considered a traditional Albanian cheese (although it is widespread across almost all countries of the south Balkans). It is used as a side dish or appetizer. in many traditional Albanian restaurants, they serve it without any additional cost.

Baklava is a Turkish dish, but it is a favorite dessert in Albania as well. It is made of filo pastry, filled with nuts or pistachio and sweet syrup or honey.

Trilece is another delicious cake, prepared with milk, concentrated milk, and fresh cream. Soft and moist trilece is a variation of a popular Tres Leches – “three milk” cake. Originally, this super tasty treat was made of cow, goat, and buffalo milk.

Qofte fërguara, fried meatballs, is one of the most famous Albanian meat dishes. Meatballs mixture consists of minced lamb or beef, feta cheese, onion, garlic, onions, and breadcrumbs, seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, mint leaves, and sometimes cinnamon. They are served with french fries and yogurt-based dip.

Grilled meat is served in many street restaurants in Albania. This tasteful dish served with onion, french fries, and beer make a simple – yet satisfying meal.

Having a long coastline has its advantages when it comes to the availability of fresh seafood. Restaurants in the coastal belt serve fabulous seafood dishes that include trout, calamari, octopus, cuttlefish, red mullet, sea bass, gilt-head bream, mussels – served with olive oil and lemon.

Perime ne Zgare is a grilled dish consisting of eggplants, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. Even grill houses serve this popular side-dish ideal for vegetarians.


Best wineries in the country

Not many people outside Europe know that Albania produces quality wine. The country’s winemaking traditions date back to the ice and bronze age. Because of its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, the weather here is perfect for wine production. Several wineries all over Albania offer guided tours where visitors can taste the wine, discover interesting varieties of Albanian grape and find out about local traditions of winemaking.

Cobo Winery, a family-run estate located in the scenic regions of Mount Tomorr, makes wine from indigenous Albanian grapes. It produces five premium wines like Trebbiano, Kashmer, Shesh i Zi, Shesh i Bardhë, and E Bardha e Beratit, and two rakis, Raki më Arra and Raki Rrushi. They offer guided tours that include a peek into the winemaking process.

Kantina Kallmeti is located 11 kilometers from the town of Lezhe. Established in 2006, the winery produces wine, raki liquor, and olive oil. Their Kallmet prestige, winery’s premium product, Kallmet, is made of an ancient Albanian native variety, kallmet, harvested 2-3 weeks later than the rest of the grapes, w

Uka Farm is a restaurant outside Tirana, founded by a former minister of agriculture. Beautiful red wine and excellent white wine Ceruja goes well with dishes made from organic vegetables, local cheese, and meat.

National parks to visit

Albania has 14 national parks and one marine park. Combined, Albanian National Parks cover almost 7% of the country’s area.

The Fir of Hotovë-Dangelli National Park is the largest national park in the country, spread over 343 square kilometers. It consists of hilly terrain made of limestone and sandstone deposits, many valleys, canyons, gorges, rivers, deciduous and coniferous forests.

Established in 1966, the Dajti National Park is on the west of the Adriatic Sea and east of Tirana City. It has a varied topography, and its forests are home to animals like wild bears, wild boars, wildcats, and red foxes.

Karaburun-Sazan Marine Park is located in southwestern Albania nearest to the city Vlore. Spread over 125 square kilometers, this marine park is full of beautiful caves, bays, cliffs, canyons, and rocky coasts. Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have been documented here, including several that are on the endangered species list. Besides beautiful nature and rich biodiversity, National Park features ruins of sunken ancient Greek, Roman, and World War II ships, secluded beaches, and scenic views of the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea.

Prespa National Park is in southeastern Albania and shares its border with Greece and North Macedonia. The park contains excellent and small Prespa Lakes, high mountains, freshwater wetlands, reed beds, meadows, and dense forests.

In southern Albania, you can find the Tomorr National park, which is composed of Karst and limestone. Mount Tomorr is one of the highest points in Southern Albania, and the park has been recognized as an Important Plant Area. It offers a stunning hike trails, overlooking lakes, mountain hills, and beautiful lake of Osum.

Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park is another spacious national park, marked with mountainous landscapes, glacial lakes, valleys, dense forests, and alpine meadows. Animals species like Balkan Lynx, Gray Wolf, and Brown bears inhabit the woods. This area is one of the last remaining habits of the Balkan Lynx.

The beech forests are part of the UNESCO Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Albania.

The glacial complex of the lakes in Lurë National Park is one of the most beautiful natural sights of Albania and a top-rated active tourism destination.

Llogara National Park near the Albanian Riviera is a densely forested area, with beautiful hiking roads, overlooking rugged mountains and beautiful Albanian riviera.

Theth National Park is located in North Albania and engulfs a large portion of the Shala Valley. The park lies in the valley of the river Theth, surrounded by steep mountains. It attracts hikers, nature lovers, and alpinists, who enjoy the scenic landscape and the untouched nature.

Getting around (public transportation, rent a car, good to know)

The rail network in Albania is not very good, and locals prefer driving a car or taking the bus. Trains are not that good in shape and can be quite slow. However, if you still want to experience a train ride, you can try the daily passenger trains leaving Tirana for Durrës.

Car-traveling by car in Albania can be quite satisfying as you can explore the varied landscape at your own pace. Road conditions near major towns are ok, but in the countryside, you might get potholed riddled roads or unpaved sections. Get a 4WD car to tackle these and make sure you have all the right paperwork.

Buses and Furgons (shared minibus) are the primary forms of public transportation in the country. The fares are quite low, and you can directly pay the conductor on the bus. Furgons tend to take a longer time with their numerous stops, but bus journeys will help you meet the locals and enjoy the local landscape (if you get a window seat). Timetables are reasonably accurate, and the buses are comfortable to travel in.

Albania has a long coastline and has plenty of boat tours available. You can even hire a ferry to take you to the Greek destination of Corfu from the coastal regions in Albania.

Car Rentals are a popular way of traveling around Albania. It is recommended that you hire a 4*4, which is capable of handling the roads and the off-road sections in the village areas. Rental companies are aplenty, and you can book the car while you are in the city.

Cycling is a great way to explore the cities and countryside as the roads are suitable for bikes. If you plan to venture out into villages, it is advisable to go on a guided tour only or in a group.

UNESCO sites

Albania has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Butrint is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site, inhabited since prehistoric ages. It is located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Channel, the demarcation line where the Adriatic Sea ends, and the Ionian Sea begins. This small city is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Albania and was declared a world heritage site in 1992 and a national park in 2000. Visitors can see remains from the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian age. A beautiful floor mosaics were found there, but they are covered with the sand since the humid climate might damage them. Every two years, mosaics are made visible for the visitors.

Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokastër – Berat and Gjirokastër were inhabited since ancient times. Berat is a fortified city and is home to the Kala Castle, which dates back to the 13th century. A part of the structure was dated back to the 4th century. Gjirokastër also has a 13th-century citadel, mosques, and churches from the 18th century and a bazaar along with some turreted houses. The influence of 18th/19th century Balkan architecture is visible in the tiered hillside houses.

Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe once covered over 40% of Europe, spreading from a small area to over 12 countries in the continent. Since the end of the last Ice Age, the beech started spreading from the Alps, Carpathians, Dinarides, Mediterranean, and the Pyrenees in a process that is still going on. In Albania, the forests of Lumi I Gashit and Rrajca have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the beech forests.

Lumi I Gashit, or Gashi River is a 27-kilometer long river in Tropoje and is a nature reserve spanning an area of 3,000 hectares. The river is located in the northern part of the Albanian Alps, and the area has a healthy mix of 64 species of mammals such as brown bear, lynx, gray wolf, chamois, etc. and over 14 species of amphibians. Beech forests in Rrajca are part of the national park Shebenik-Jabllanice which now is a tourist hub in southeast Albania.

Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region is a mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site that was inscribed for its nature and later for cultural aspects as well. On the shores of Lake Ohrid is the Ohrid town, one of the oldest human settlements, while the is a hotbed of flora and fauna. Located between eastern Albania and southwestern part of North Macedonia, this lake is one of Europe’s oldest lakes that creates an ecosystem for more than 200 species.

Safety

Albania is a safe country. Random acts of violence are unheard of and petty crimes such as pickpocketing are also uncommon. You can travel anywhere, and people are also very welcoming.

Who is it for

The country is excellent for those looking to soak up the Mediterranean sun and enjoy the Riviera, authentic food, and the scenic mountain hiking trails.

Families enjoy Albania as it’s a beautiful and safe country with plenty of things to do.