For many, Italy and Greece are dream vacations. From wine to food to terrain steeped in history, plus the beaches and landscape, that Mediterranean life has much to love.
But, in underappreciated Albania, that Mediterranean dream can be experienced for up to 65 percent less… for now.
Albania is largely undiscovered by North Americans, with good reason. For half the 20th century, the country was off-limits to all foreigners at the hands of a brutal dictator. That time is over, and now Albania’s stunning landscapes, world-class beaches, ancient Mediterranean foods, and welcoming people are open for business.
Here’s why this under-visited country should be next on your European bucket list.
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For the People
Unlike most of Europe, where tourism has thrived for decades, if not centuries, Albania was closed off for nearly five decades. In 1944, dictator Enver Hoxha assumed power and soon made Albania more isolated than North Korea is today. With only 27 years of freedom since then, Albanians are enterprising, welcoming, open people. They’re proud and excited when they see tourists, especially North Americans. Explore the capital, Tirana, and you’ll find American flags, a street named after George W. Bush, a park named for Harry Truman, and many more American tributes.
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An ancient code of honor going back centuries, “besa,” compels Albanians to do everything they can to protect and help guests, friend or foe. This code led Albanian Muslims during World War II to risk lives in creating false identities, jobs, and support networks for Jews fleeing Nazis in nearby countries. An old story tells how a northern town considering a hotel development faced protesting locals who insisted visitors were always welcome to stay free in their homes — anything less was un-Albanian. Today, besa means Albanians will never turn you away in a time of need, which is always good as a foreigner in a strange land.
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For the Mountains
With more than 70 percent of its landscape covered in mountains, Albania is among the world’s most mountainous nations. The south’s mountains are often terraced for cultivation — farms here produce everything from wine and hazelnuts to tomatoes and leafy greens. To the northwest, the sinisterly-named “Accursed Mountains” are the Albanian Alps. With jagged rocks, formidable hiking trails, crystal-clear glacial lakes, the Accursed Mountains boast some of the world’s most underrated mountaineering. If you love to explore, plenty of guiding outfits are ready to show you these Alps for far cheaper than you could ever do in Switzerland.
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For the Food
Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, Albania’s local produce, wines, dairy, and meats will add a notch to your belt. Its proximity to culinary capitals like Italy and Greece, coupled with centuries under the Ottoman Empire and Venetian overlords, means that a tasty blend of culinary influences linger today. But Albania’s got its unique food history, too. A recent “Slow Food” movement is burgeoning as young chefs return from abroad to reclaim their food culture and regional products. Nevermind “local” food – you’ll want to explore regions like Korçë (Korca), where everything from milk and cheese to beef, lamb, chicken, and vegetables are often from that very property.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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For the Coast
Albania crept onto the global tourism radar around 2009. After an episode of Top Gear was shot on its winding coastal roads following exposure from intrepid bloggers and other media, the secret began slipping out. The Albanian Riviera is said to have the Mediterranean’s most untouched, natural beaches, along with ancient ruins and terrific seafood. With turquoise waters, its beaches compete with any in Greece or Croatia, without as many crowds, at prices fit for every budget. While Greece’s Corfu has tourist traps galore with sky-high prices, just 23 miles across the Adriatic is Sarandë, Albania, without the tourist madness, where your money will go twice as far. If castles and ancient ruins fascinate you, they’re up and down the Riviera too, where even Julius Caesar played tourist way back in 48 BC.
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For the Variety in Culture
Albania’s capital, Tirana, has been ravaged by wars, dictators, and invaders for over a century, so if you want a traditional European Old Town, you won’t find it. It’s dominated by rundown relics, chunky communist-era and Italian neo-Fascist architecture, along with edgy new builds popping up as the city explodes into modernity. But opera, art galleries, live theatre, and dining are thriving in the capital.
Elsewhere, the Old World lives on. Cities like Berat, Korca, and even Shkodër in the north reflect older Albania. Deep in the Accursed Mountains, you’ll find the remnants of a culture unlike any on Earth, the “society of sworn virgins,” where women who lost the men in their lives took oaths to remain celibate and “live as men”. It’s a fascinating lifestyle on the cusp of extinction, with only around 100 “virgins” remaining, and just another part of what makes Albania so fascinating to explore.
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For the Vibe
Albania’s government may be rife with corruption, but their vision for a new Albania has an unmistakable air of change. The grips of poverty remain evident across the country’s cities and towns, but a newfound feeling of hope pervades. Often, parents say all they want to give their children is a better life than they had. In Albania, that better life has arrived, and looks brighter daily.
Then there’s the country’s tolerance. Pope Francis said in 2014 that Albania’s religious harmony is a model for the world. This is because in 1967 Enver Hoxha declared the nation atheist, making all religion illegal. In Albania, religious discrimination was inflicted upon everyone. Today, they welcome all faiths. In town squares, you may hear Christian church bells pealing as a nearby muezzin sings the Islamic call to prayer.
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For a Snapshot in Time
Tirana is fixated on a dynamic future. The capital is following an ambitious new plan — “Tirana 2030” — that aims to increase in green spaces in the city, planting forests even in the heart of the city’s bustling Skanderbeg Square. There’s an audacious vertical-growth plan for high-rises to dominate the skyline, with an “orbital forest” to become both the city perimeter and a containment system for urban sprawl, protecting outlying natural areas. Rapid transit will reach both the airport and Durrës, the bustling Adriatic beach resort city 19 miles away. Soon, Tirana will be nearly unrecognizable. Today’s oddly wonderful mix of the communist past contrasting with bold progress won’t last long.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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For Its History
Tirana’s Old Town might be gone, but castles and ruins dating back 2,700 years are plentiful in Albania. Just outside the capital lies celebrated Castle Kruja, where national hero Skanderbeg fought off the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
If castles are your thing, you’re in luck — this tiny country has another 70 worth visiting. Another short trip from the big city, near Fier, is Apollonia, an ancient Illyrian ruin erected in 588 BC. Butrint has similar ancient ruins, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, along the southern Albanian Riviera. Lesser-known Gjirokaster, another UNESCO site, has walls dating to the 3rd century and is considered a rare surviving example of an Ottoman village, a distinction it shares with nearby Berat.
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For Bunker Mania
One of the strangest legacies of leader Enver Hoxha’s reign are the bizarre bunkers that dot the country. From 1967 until his death in 1985, Hoxha pursued a paranoid scheme that filled Albania with concrete bunkers. There are over 750,000 bunkers in the country, that’s one bunker for every four people in the country, and a whopping 15 bunkers every square mile. So indestructible are they that only coastal bunkers are being removed, due to a 2008 tragedy that killed five holidaymakers when the tide swept in and drowned them. Most bunkers, though, have become shelters, canvases for graffiti, and even art galleries, cafes, and other businesses.
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For the Bargains
The average Albanian earns around $500 a month, yet many dine out frequently, speaking to the country’s amazing dining bargains. A generous grilled dinner will run you $6 or less, versus the $15 or more you’d pay for a meal of the same quality in Greece. Two scoops of gelato on par with Italy’s often costs as little as 30 cents. Espresso starts at 35 cents. In fact, it’d be hard to spend more than $25 on a meal at the best restaurants in the country. Taxis are seldom more than $3. The best opera seat is under $10. But, considering the bargains elsewhere, lodgings are disproportionately pricey, since tourism’s a recent phenomenon in the country and places to stay are limited.