A Tourist’s Quick Guide to Albania

Dreaming of visiting Albania? I don’t blame you, it’s beautiful. If you are planning a trip but you want to find out a bit more before you click “book”, I hope this will be the article to motivate you. It is impossible to condense everything Albania has to offer into just one article, or even a whole blog, but I gave it a go!

Currency: The official currency is the Albanian Lek. You cannot buy this outside of Albania so you will need to purchase it in-country. You can do so by withdrawing via a machine or exchanging Euros/Dollars at an exchange. There are lots of small exchange shops dotted around, if you check out a few, you can usually find rates cheaper than the airport or withdrawing via your card. Lek comes in 5000, 2000, 1000, 500, and 200 notes and then coins. If you try to buy a coffee with a 5000 note, you will run into problems. Best to stick with 1000 and 2000. Most places also accept Euros, especially in Tirana but negotiate your exchange rate beforehand. ATMs are in most urban areas but be wary of possible charges from local banks. Some ATMs dispense Euros but these are not very common. Cards are not widely accepted in shops and restaurants, although they are becoming more popular.

Language: The official language of Albania is Shqip, or Albanian- a language different from any you have heard before. In bigger cities, some people will speak English at varying levels but it can be hit or miss. Some people also speak Italian, German, French, Greek, and Turkish. Best to have Google Translate at the ready but you shouldn’t run into any real issues.

Capital city: The capital city is Tirana, situated about 40 minutes from the airport. The second city is Durres, followed by Shkodra, Elbasan, Vlora, Fier, and Berat.

Time zone: Central European Time (GMT+2)

Religion: There is no official religion in Albania and while people may identify as a religion in a historical or family legacy sense if pressed, the reality is they do not often practice. Islam (Sunni and Bektashi), Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), and small numbers of Jewish, Mormon, and Baha’is people. Albanians are famous for religious tolerance and there is no tension between religious groups.

Airports: Nene Tereza Airport is located at Rinas, 40 minutes from Tirana. It has daily flights to all over Europe and to Turkey. There are plans for an airport in Vlore in the south of the country, but that is some years away.

Ferry: You can arrive in Albania via ferry at Durres, Vlore, or Saranda, via Corfu. Trips run daily, weather pending.

Trains: Albania does not have a national rail infrastructure but you can travel on a train between Tirana and Shkodra and Tirana and Durres. The trains are slow, irregular, and not in the best condition but are fun for an adventure.

Public transport: Tirana has an urban public transport bus service that runs throughout the day and into the late evening. You can also travel via bus to other cities. Other big cities have bus services, but smaller towns may not. Alternatively, you can travel between cities via furgon (minibus). These depart the station when they are full rather than at a set time. They are low cost but can take quite a long time. You can also travel via bus to Greece, Istanbul, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and other destinations. Most cities will have international bus links.

Taxis: There are plenty of taxis at the airport and in the streets of the big cities. Alternatively, you can download an app called SpeedTaxi and use your location to get a cab to come to you. Taxis are cheap but not many drivers speak English. Always ask for a receipt before you pay.

Driving: Cars in Albania drive on whatever side of the road they fancy, but they are supposed to drive on the right-hand side. Driving in Tirana is generally ok but there can be heavy traffic throughout the day. Outside of Tirana, there are not always street lights so caution is to be exercised. When it comes to road quality, there is an increasing number of new roads being built, but there are also hundreds of kilometers of roads in poor condition and off road tracks in more rural areas.

FoodAlbanian food is fantastic. Ingredients are fresh and seasonal and each city, town and even village you visit will have different typical dishes. Albanian food involves a lot of cheese- usually ricotta, salted cheese, cheese with nuts/herbs/spices/fruit in, or grilled cheese. Bread is also a staple and is found on every self-respecting Albanian table. Meat such as lamb, goat, and chicken is popular, often cooked in juices or on a spit. Qofte is another popular dish, as is kebab type meals. Albanians also love fish and with such a sprawling coastline, you are likely to eat some of the best fish ever while you are here. Raw prawns with lemon juice and salt, sea bass, eel, carp, calamari- the list goes on. Fish is cooked in a simple way and served with fresh salad, tomatoes, and sometimes potatoes. We can’t talk about Albanian food without mentioning byrek- a flaky pastry snack filled with fillings such as ricotta, tomato, meat, and spinach. Other typical dishes worth trying include fergese, petka, tave kosi, sultiash, release, and fasule.

Drink: The capital of Tirana has more coffee shops for the population than anywhere else on the European continent. Albanians love coffee and it is a big part of the culture. But beware, it is twice as strong here as elsewhere. They also like to drink Turkish coffee and teas including the herbal drink caj male and blueberry tea. In terms of alcohol, raki is the drink of choice. A strong spirit made from grapes, nuts, plums, or other fruits, it is taken any time of the day, for any medical ailment, or for any reason. If you don’t fancy raki, there are a couple of decent local beers like Bira Korce and Elbar. Albania also has a great wine scene and some of the best are Kantina Nurellari and Kalmet.

Beaches: One of the best parts of Albania is its coastline that stretches pretty much the whole length of the west side of the country. Here you can enjoy miles and miles of unspoiled (and spoilt, unfortunately) beaches, cliffs, and crystal blue waters. There are beaches you can only access by boat, family beaches, private beaches, party beaches, laid back beaches, deserted beaches, and everything in between. Some have campsites and others are lined with hotels and guest houses. You can swim between April and November as the water remains warm during this time. 

Culture: It would be impossible to condense ‘Albanian culture’ into just one page. It is too rich and diverse to even contemplate doing so. Instead, you can visit a number of different places that can give you some small hints as to what it comprises of. The National History Museum, Bunkart 1&2 and The House of Leaves will give you an overview of history from ancient times up until the end of communism. The Ethnographic Museum in Shkodra and Fushe Kruje are worth visiting, as is the Marubi Museum which is also in Shkodra. The Solomon Museum and the Edward Lear Museum in Berat are worth checking out, as is Gjirokaster’s Ethnographic Museum.

History: There’s a whole lot of history to absorb in Albania. Almost every town has a castle (or two) and they are fascinating to explore and wander around. You can visit the ancient town of Apollonia near Fier, or walk through the ages of Albanian history at Butrint near Saranda. Go bunker spotting, take a photo of each lapidar you see and enjoy the eclectic mix of colorful and eccentric architecture. Berat and Gjirokaster both have beautifully preserved Ottoman areas as well as buildings that have been turned into museums. Fushe Kruje has a restored bazaar, and in Durres, you can visit a huge, beautifully preserved Roman amphitheater. Albania is full of history and every place you visit has a story to tell.

Hiking: There are plenty of excellent opportunities for hiking in Albania, both on well-trodden routes and more off-road types. In the North, hiking around Theth, Valbona, and Tropoje offers unsurpassed views of the mountains, forests, and hidden valleys. These remote areas can only be accessed safely during the summer months due to heavy snowfall in the winter. Tirana is also full of hiking opportunities, particularly Mount Dajti that looms over the city. There are many hills to explore nearby in Elbasan, Peze, and Kruje as well. In the South, Gjirokaster offers incredible hiking through the mountains, as does Berat, and Llogora at the tip of the Albanian Riviera. You can choose from jeep tours, group tours, private guides, or just head out on your own. 

Watersports: The Albanian Riviera is great for watersports. You can hire boats or go on boat trips, dive, snorkel, kayak, wakeboard, and jetski along the beautiful coastline. Prices are much lower than in Europe as well. You can also go paragliding in Llogara from the mountain down to the beach- if you dare!