Thinking about venturing off the mainstream tourism trail and heading to Albania? Well before you look into things to do in this amazing country, there’s some facts you should know about Albania! First of all, Albania is a country of great history, food, and culture that has long gone unnoticed by the travel industry. After our visit we definitely think it deserves more global attention, but trust us when we say getting to the Albania beaches and castles is no easy task! Here’s 19 interesting facts about Albania, and some valuable tips to know before you go.
1. Albania Wasn’t Part of Yugoslavia
Unbeknownst to most, Albania was not part of the former Yugoslavia! Since it’s surrounded by countries like Montenegro, Kosovo, and North Macedonia most people group Albania in with the now extinct country. However, it was already an independent nation at the time Yugoslavia formed in 1918 after World War I.
2. The Ionian Sea is as Clear as Glass
Albania is bordered by the gorgeous Ionian Sea which means it has some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Europe. Yes…. I said all of Europe! From the islands of Ksamil to the bright pebbly shores of Dhermi Beach, the Albanian Riviera is on its way to becoming a popular summer vacation destination. With its clear blue waters and scenic mountain cliffs, it’s a wonder how the Albania beaches aren’t swarmed with people already!
3. The Land of Eagles
If you’re looking into Albania history you may have noticed the giant eagle on the countries flag. Regardless, you should know the image is more than just a symbol demonstrating the national animal! The tale of the eagle goes back centuries and is about the majestic bird watching over a young hunter. This hunter would go onto be crowned king of the region and was named the “Shqiptar” or Son of Eagle. The kingdom would become known as the Land of the Eagles or “Shqipëria” as Albanians now call it!
4. Castles and Fortresses
The history of Albania is rich and plentiful, and its castles are the best example of that! These lands have been inhabited since pre-historic times so it should be no surprise that some great fortifications were built over time. Like much of Europe, almost every town and city in Albania has some type of great castle sitting atop of it. Some of the best can be seen in the mountain towns of Gjirokaster and Berat, along with the amazing Butrint National Park. The list of things to do in Albania is endless, but still most Albania tourism sites remain largely unexplored by the travel world. With over 150 castles dating back thousands of years, we can’t imagine it staying that way very long!
5. Communism in Albania
From 1946 to the early 1990’s Albania was controlled by a communist regime led by Enver Hoxha. Backed first by the Soviet Union and later China, the country was pushed into isolation from the rest of the world. These political leanings crushed Albania tourism, and were at the root of the eventual collapse of the economy. Most Albanians we met didn’t talk fondly about the time period so I wouldn’t go out of your way to bring it up. Nonetheless, it’s a piece of Albania history that can’t be ignored, and there’s plenty of communist relics, tunnels, and museums to explore if that interests you.
6. A Safe Place to Travel
Despite being closed off to tourism for 50+ years, Albania is a very safe country to travel in! If the locals seem a little standoffish it’s probably just because they’re curious why you’re there. However, once you get to know them they couldn’t be nicer and more welcoming. Statistically speaking, Albania has little to no petty theft in comparison with the rest of the world. This means that events like pick pocketing and other crimes are rare so can feel comfortable on your travels.
7. Wide Spreading Population
While Albania tourism is just starting to pick up, the countries population is traveling themselves! Among the many surprising facts about Albania is that its population is under 3 million. However, it’s estimated that over 10 million Albanians are living abroad. Some of this travel can be linked to the search for jobs after the issues of the past. Whatever the case, don’t be shocked to meet an Albanian in cities across the world from New York to Rome.
8. Albania History is as Impressive as Anywhere
Albania history is as deep as it is interesting, and holds many keys to modern civilization in the west. No place is better to see this than the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint National Park. Here you’ll find artifacts dating back to 6th century BC, and spanning early Greek, Roman, and Byzantine culture. With works like the Roman theatre and colorful mosaics over 2000 years old, you’ll see that Albania history is on par with many of its counterparts in Europe.
9. Rustic Mountain Towns
Albania is blessed with so much beautiful nature and scenery. The most noticeable features are the towering green mountain ranges throughout the country. You’ll see (and probably drive through them) from the coastline of the Albania beaches to the amazing inland mountain villages. If you’re looking to get some traditional food and Albanian culture, make sure to visit the mountain town of Gjirokaster. Also, Berat is worth a visit with over 200 local families still living in the castle above the city!
10. You Can Get From Albania to Greece in Just 30 Minutes
Believe it or not the fast ferry from Corfu Greece to Saranda Albania takes just 30 minutes! In that short amount of time you can cross the Ionian Sea to Albania. We were shocked that the border process was so fast and smooth. Before you know it you’ll be enjoying a completely different country, culture, and food. Once you’re there getting around Albania is an entirely different animal, but this ferry is something everyone visiting Greece should know!
11. Best Mussels in the Balkans
When first arriving in Saranda we found the most local seafood place we could for our first Albanian meal. To our surprise, the owners recommendation was the mussels and he claimed they were the best in the Balkans. Well, he was right… And we ended up ordering them everyday in the south of the country! One of Albania’s best kept secrets actually comes from a special lake near Butrint National Park. So if you’re visiting southern Albania, make sure to try this incredible seafood treat. While we’re on the topic of food, you should know that the local cuisine in Albania is amazing! Being so close to Greece has its advantages as you’ll see similar dishes with a delicious twist. It’s customary in the mountain towns to order many dishes Spanish tapa style with a mix of grilled veggies, cheeses, and wine.
12. One Year Albania Tourism Visa
Did you know that after arriving in Albania you can stay up to one year without applying for a residence permit? When we first found out these travel facts about Albania we were just as shocked as you are! In most other countries (especially the EU) the longest period you can stay is 1-3 months in any particular country, not an entire year. We’re not sure if this is an attempt to jumpstart the economy or drive Albania tourism. Either way, more people are bound to take advantage of it with the countries attractions and cheap prices.
13. Diverse Group of Religions
While not obvious to the naked eye, Albania is 60% Muslim. You may not notice it at first if you’ve traveled to more fundamentalist countries, but the beautiful call to prayer can still be heard into the night. As diverse as the food, culture, and Albania history is, so are its religions. Upon visiting we realized it’s also home to a large Christian and Jewish population. For this reason, it’s not uncommon in towns like Gjirokaster to see a mosque, church, and synagogue all within steps of each other. This welcoming aspect of Albania tourism left its mark on us during our time there.
14. The Civil War Started Because of a Government Ponzi Scheme
The collapse of Albania’s economy and subsequent civil war in 1997 was all started at the hands of a corrupt government. Communism had ended just 5 years earlier which lead to democratic elections and a free market economy. The whole thing is very complicated, but the short version is that the government started a series of pyramid investment funds. Much of the money was being used to fund illegal activity like arms dealing and laundering. Over half of the countries population was invested, and the equivalent of 1.5 billion dollars was lost when the schemes failed. This led to the collapse of the government, local gangs forming around cities, and ended tragically with over 2,000 people losing their lives.
15. New Wave of Albania Tourism
More than 20 years have passed since the civil war, and things are looking up in Albania! Still, even with its blossoming tourist industry it still may be years away from getting to where some of its neighbors around Europe are. Albania really has all the nature, beauty, and beaches of anywhere in the world, but the infrastructure is just not there yet. Having said that, we did see many hotels going up on the beaches of the riviera and cruise ships were pulling into the port of Saranda almost every day. With its close proximity to other popular European destinations, its only a matter of time before Albania is the place to be!
16. Dining Out is Never Rushed
Like we’ve mentioned, the food in Albania is insanely good! However, you should know dining out can also be a long endeavor. Countless times we had finished our meal and had been sitting there for an hour before anyone approached our table. Now we’ve traveled all around Europe so we’re used to the slower pace, but Albania took it to a whole new level! Even with this odd characteristic you’ll learn to love dining out in Albania. Just don’t be afraid to go up and ask for the check when you’re done!
17. The Albanian Riviera is One of Europe’s Best Kept Secrets
Being in Albania during the summer is quite the treat as you’ll have access to many amazing beaches. The sparkling Ionian Sea will draw you into a place you probably didn’t know existed prior to going to Albania. Despite being along the same coastline as hotspots like Croatia and Greece, the Albania beaches don’t get nearly enough credit for how insanely beautiful they are. Himare and Dhermi are some favorites along the coastline, but the most popular beach town is Ksamil in the south. The clear blue ocean will be on full display here, and you can enjoy a drink on one of the many overwater decks facing the islands.
18. Rakki is Drank at All Times of the Day
Here’s another important thing to file away in your Albania facts cabinet. Raki liquor is the national drink, and is consumed in almost any social setting. From our experience, it’s typical to pour a shot of raki when you’re meeting someone for the first time, having company over, or before and after any meal. I think a local said it best when he told us “there’s no wrong time to drink raki!”
19. The Bus System is Surprisingly Efficient
After learning about Albania history and some facts about this amazing country, you should know it’s no easy task getting around! Of course there’s always the option to rent a car, but it may not be an expense or responsibility you’re willing to take on. If so, we actually found the system of mini-buses or “furgons” to be very useful during our 2 week Albanian journey! While there isn’t any sort of set bus schedule online, once you get your feet on the ground it’s definitely manageable. The intricate system of buses can take you all over the country from Saranda to Tirana, and is an absurdly cheap form of transportation.
SOURCE: NOTHING FAMILIAR