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  • Writer's pictureLucas Friesen

Top 5 Tips for Travelling to Albania

When some friends and I visited Albania in 2023, we had little to no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Indeed, that’s what attracted us. There is always something dangerously enticing about the unknown. After nearly a week in Albania, I can admit that we did some things right and we did some things wrong. Here is what I learned, so you can have more information before you visit.

1. Spend time in the capital city.

If you fly into Albania, you will most likely land in Tirana, the country’s capital. Our plan was to spend one night in Tirana and then drive to Vlorë, which is where we had booked our Airbnb. In Tirana, we stayed at the Brilant Antik, a quaint, cheap and friendly hotel. At a restaurant near the hotel, we had a wonderful dinner on an upstairs patio. In the morning, we visited Skanderbeg Square, which has a kind of communist/brutalist feel, and took a walk in Tirana Park. I also noticed some bunkers in Tirana that had been converted into museums and art galleries. After our 20-hour visit, I was sure I could have spent at least two more days exploring this surprisingly wonderful city.

2. Did somebody say bunkers?

There are differing accounts about just how many bunkers are in Albania. On Wikipedia’s page, “Bunkers in Albania,” it states that there are over 750,000 bunkers and that there are 5.7 bunkers per square kilometre. However, Albania covers 28,748 square km. If there are 750,000 bunkers, then there are 26 bunkers per square km. If there are 5.7 bunkers per square km, then there are approximately 163,000 bunkers across Albania. National Geographic pegs the number at over 173,000. Either way, these above-ground, concrete fortifications are everywhere. They are thanks to Albania’s former communist prime minister, Enver Hoxha, who nearly bankrupted the country by building these fortifications from the 1960s to the 1980s. They were never used for their intended purpose and, today, are mostly abandoned and in a state of ruin.

3. Don’t try to see the entire country in one week.

We thought, with a rental car, over the span of a week, we could cover most of Albania. However, we did not factor in the country’s rugged, mountainous geography. Staying in Vlorë, we thought it would be easy to take a day trip to Sarandë, a town in the country’s south that is known for its beachside villas. However, visiting the country’s south requires a drive over Mount Çikë, the 2,044-metre peak of the Ceraunian Mountains. The road over Çikë is narrow and windy. Watch out for sheep herders and expect frequent weather changes. We did notice that they are constructing a tunnel to go through Mount Çikë. This tunnel, presumably, will make it a lot easier to travel to Sarandë. Hopefully, it will be complete by the next time I visit.

4. Take a day trip to Berat.

Berat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is sometimes known as “The City of Two Thousand Steps” or “The Town of a Thousand Windows.” Albania’s rugged terrain is on full display in Berat, as this ancient city is situated on a steep hillside. You’ll want to fuel up before walking up to Berat Castle, which is situated at the top of the town. I suggest stopping at Eni Traditional Food, a cheap and family-run restaurant with delicious, traditional dishes.

5. Try not to let the paradoxes confuse you.

In Albania, I saw a lot of abandoned buildings and a lot of nice cars. There are many beachfront hotels and hangouts but they are shut down during the offseason. However, there are people at these hangouts and they will open for you, if you pay them some leks. Everybody is very friendly but there is a massive mafia influence over the country. Although the Albania mafia has a great deal of world renown, it is also deeply tied to family and, if you don’t seek it out, you’re not going to come across anything odd or dangerous while visiting. The country has a deep, millennia-old history but it only gained freedom from communism and extreme financial negligence in the late 1990s. As such, it feels like a young country in its attempts at Westernization. Brushing up on your Albanian history can pay dividends for your visit. For example, the country had a civil war in 1997. As well, it was a prominent player in the Kosovo War. A common sentiment in Albania is that Kosovo belongs to Albania. Patience and understanding are key to visiting Albania. It’s gorgeous and derelict; rich and poor; tranquil and rugged. In short, Albania is a country of paradoxes.

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