Still very much under the radar, the tiny country of Albania lies nestled in the Southeastern corner of Europe.
Bordered by Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece and Kosovo, it’s home to less than 3 million people and is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Silenced for so long by the communist iron curtain (Albania was under single-party rule until 1992) this gem of a nation is still finding its voice, which remained only just a whisper in terms of international tourism when I visited Albania some years ago.
This whisper also sounds very different one, as despite being Indo-European in origin, Albanian shares no relation to any other extant languages.
Even common body language signals, like sideways head shaking to signify “no”, are different in Albania.
Confusing for strangers, if not a little fun at times too, this may give you some idea about the different side of Europe this country presents.
Albania is predominantly a Muslim country, with a strong rural population and is wonderfully absent of many global fast food chains!
Still classified as a developing country, much of the local produce is pesticide-free simply because farmers cant afford to buy them.
If you’ve visited Albania, you’ll probably agree going there is like stepping back in time or encountering a forgotten land.
Testimony to this is the fact that very few guidebooks have been written about the country.
When I visited Albania, there were not even direct flights from the UK and I had to fly via Italy.
This has now changed, and while you are able to get straight to Tirana (the capital) from London, flights with British Airways still only run 4 times a week.
As a difficult place to get to then, Albania has very low tourist numbers and will delight anyone seeking to get off the beaten track.
It’s unsurprising, therefore, that I loved traveling there, so here are 5 reasons I’m glad I visited Albania…
- 21 Brilliant Hacks for Saving Money When Travelling Eastern Europe
- The Complete Backpacker Guide to Kotor, Montenegro
- 3 Ideal Eastern Europe Itineraries for Backpackers
This page contains affiliate links meaning Big World Small Pockets may receive a small commission on any purchases at no extra cost to you.
#1 Cheap Prices
So it’s the European summer holidays and you want to get away somewhere sunny.
It seems crazy to pay for flights to Asia or even further afield when the weather is so hot closer to home, but Spain, Italy and France all look so expensive.
So what do you do?
My Answer: Visit Albania!
As one of the cheapest countries in Europe, traveling here will be more similar in price to Southeast Asia than Northern Europe.
Plus flights will definitely be cheaper.
If you’re feeling like a real adventure, you can even drive there.
The local currency is the Albanian Lek (ALL), which is currently exchanged at a rate of £1 = 185 ALL.
This means accommodation, food and transport are all dirt cheap (see my Albania Destination Guide for more specific budgets breakdowns) making Albania the perfect destination for a quick summer getaway.
I was there a month and spent less than £400 in total. Bargain!
#2 Stunning Beaches
Best-kept secret being divulged here… Albania actually has some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe!
Stretches of golden sand, as well as tiny secluded bays, dot the coastline, particularly around the town of Saranda.
Many of them are wonderfully deserted most of the year, providing you with plenty of opportunity to catch some rays without having to stake out your towel spot at the crack of dawn.
You can hire paddleboats, snorkel, or even take a daytrip to Corfu, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll just enjoy lying on the sand and soaking up the scene.
When I was at the Albanian coast I stayed in a luxurious hotel, complete with swimming pool, for peanuts.
It was June and despite some glorious weather, there was hardly another soul there.
Desperate for some clientele, the hotel owner gave me a room at a price cheaper than most European dorm beds.
I still maintain it’s probably one of the poshest places I’ve stayed anywhere in the world!
#3 Cultural Gems
Just down the road from Saranda, on the Southern coast of Albania is the archaeological site of Butrint.
A World Heritage listed destination with some incredible ancient ruins, including a Greek amphitheatre, visiting will cost you less than £5 entrance.
When I was there, you could even walk around the site as professionals were excavating it right next to you, giving you a hands-on feel for the exciting process of discovering going on.
No red tape here, Albania’s cultural and historical aspects are wonderfully accessible in a way not often found elsewhere in Europe.
From the Medieval town of Gjirokastra, to the communist-built concrete bunkers that scatter the countryside, there is a richness of heritage in Albania that is easy to engage with outside of any sterile museum walls.
#4 A Sense of Difference
As mosques sound the call to pray, or you pass Romani communities set up at the side of the road, things in Albania seem a longer way from the EU community than they are geographically.
Tirana, the capital has no McDonalds, and donkeys still share the main traffic thoroughfares with taxis and minivans. Reminders of the communist era are everywhere, hardly anyone speaks English and ‘restaurants’ rarely have menus to choose from.
I expect differences like this when I travel further afield to continents like South America, but on my European doorstep, it really took me by surprise.
This caused me to ask myself questions about things I, embarrassingly realised, knew very little about, including the communist regime in Eastern Europe.
If there is any reason to travel, it is surely to shed light on the unknown and to prompt in us a questioning of ourselves, the world and our position in it.
Albania prompted this in me, perhaps more than anywhere I have ever travelled, and for that alone, I loved it.
#5 Few Tourists
After traveling in Albania for 1 month, the only other foreign tourists I encountered were a couple from the US that I happened to converse with for about 20 minutes at a bus stop in the capital.
They were on their way down from Croatia to Greece and hadn’t even visited Albania outside of a few necessary travel connections.
This says it all.
There are hardly any tourists here.
Even locals I spoke to on the plane from Italy to Albania couldn’t believe I was going there for no reason apart from to holiday.
They simply hadn’t heard of anyone doing such a thing.
Well and truly off the beaten track, it’s hard to believe you are still in Europe.
Get to Albania before the crowds.
As the country stabilises economically and moves towards EU membership, tourist numbers are only going in one direction.