Albania is growing in popularity but compared to other European destinations, it’s still relatively untouched. If you’re planning a trip there, this article will share 9 things that may surprise you about Albania – as some of them did for me too!
Whether you’re the type of person who likes to go with the flow, or a self-confessed planner like me, keep reading to discover some surprising things about Albania. I have a feeling it’ll make you even more excited for the travels you’re planning…
Before we start: are you looking for things to do in Albania? Group tours are a super popular way to arrange day trips hassle-free – I like Get Your Guide!
1. It’s super close to Corfu
While growing in popularity, Albania is still quite a niche European holiday destination – much more off the beaten track than neighbouring Greece, Montenegro and even nearby Croatia. However, did you know that Corfu is virtually within touching distance of Albania?
Luckily, flights from the UK to Albania are becoming more common but go back a few years and one of the easiest ways to get to Albania was to take the ferry from Corfu to Saranda. Even knowing this, I was still surprised as we drove around a corner on the beautiful coastal road to Ksamil to see the Corfu’s east coast, separated from us by just a couple of miles of sea.
With ferries to Albania’s south coast taking just one hour (or even less by speedboat!), why not consider making your holiday to Corfu a multi-centre trip?
2. It may be one of Europe’s poorest countries, but it’s developing fast
The perception of Albania is changing fast – anyone else who made it onto Albania-Tok over the last couple of summers can attest to that!
Before we visited, most Albania travel advice still alluded to some difficulties getting around but in reality, it was more developed than I expected. On the tourist trail, most of the roads are modernised and, mountain ranges aside, there’s 4G pretty much everywhere.
3. Driving is a great way to explore but don’t always rely on Google Maps
As Albania becomes more connected to its Adriatic neighbours, more and more visitors are opting for self-drive itineraries and while the roads were definitely better than we expected, there’s lots of ongoing work to improve them going on across the country.
When we arrived in Gjirokaster in July 2022, we discovered that the Kardhiq-Delvina highway had opened just days earlier! This meant we could carry on to beach resort Saranda (or more accurately, Ksamil via the famous Blue Eye) 45 minutes quicker than on the old roads.
We’d never have known without chatting to the Stone City Hostel team, as the route hadn’t yet made it onto Google Maps, so it’s always worth asking around if you want to make sure you’re following the best route.
4. Everyone is super helpful and gives great advice
Whether it’s travel, work or a party, it’s the people that make or break an experience. Our trip was nothing but positive, with so many Albanian locals going out of their way to help us, give advice or point us in the right direction.
From Lili, owner of Berat’s beloved Homemade Food Lili, writing us a list of his favourite beaches on the coast, to the girl setting up my local SIM card who recommended Lumi i Shales as a must-see river spot, the Albanian people are incredibly proud of their country and keen to show it off.
I’ve already written about how a kind chap visiting the Bogova Waterfall with his family allowed several of us backpackers to convoy him to the Osumi Canyon in a previous post but that’s just one of many stories. When stormy weather interrupted our boat trip along the coast and left us temporarily stranded at Gjipe beach, our guide Nico took us on a stunning hike down the canyon instead and told us about a gorgeous restaurant, Taverna Velco, to visit back in Himare.
Our most unexpected experience has to be in Theth, when our hostel owner’s friend heard we were desperate to hike to the Blue Eye but couldn’t find a later transfer back to Shkoder the next day. He made a few calls and for just 10 Euro, his cousin collected us in his van from a café near the trail and drove us back to the city.
Putting your trust in others feels scary and risky – I was terrified we’d end up stranded – but it really paid off on this trip and I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone who helped us, as it made our time in Albania extra special.
5. Albanian food is tasty and plentiful
As a pretty much full-time veggie at the time of our visit, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the food in Albania. However, the delicious food ended up being one of the most surprising things about Albania!
From oregano-dusted fries to the deliciously flavoursome tomato-stuffed aubergine dishes (oh and the fragrant risotto-esque balls traditional to Gjirokaster), we ate really well in Albania and I’d happily go back to try more local delicacies. Plus, most restaurants still offer you complimentary bread – a big win in my eyes.
Our least favourite foodie destination was Ksamil but as one of the most touristy spots in Albania by far, this is to be expected.
6. Most of the beaches are stony
Albania has many things in common with its Adriatic neighbours and one is the largely stony coastline.
If you see pictures of the beaches online, it’s often hard to tell whether a beach is sand or pebble – especially when they’re beautifully white and pristine! – but virtually all of Albania’s coast is made of light pebbles. They’re still gorgeous but it’s something to be aware of if you’re travelling there in search of fine, silky sands.
You’ll find a couple of sandy stretches down south in Ksamil but in the summer months, sunbeds cover every inch of these beaches so you won’t find the paradise you’re looking for there unless you travel off-season. The pebble beaches further up the coast were much nicer to experience – just take a comfy towel to lie on and enjoy!
7. English is widely spoken
Tourism may still be fairly new in Albania but the key hotspots are becoming well established and you’ll find that the majority of people in these areas speak English.
Wherever you’re travelling, I’d always advise learning a few words in the local language regardless, but you can get by with English and Greek too in more Southern areas. You may have more difficulty in lesser visited rural regions, so downloading Google Translate offline can help you along the way.
8. Xhiro is a tradition for young and old
Before visiting Albania, I’d never heard of xhiro. Literally translating to ‘walk’ in English, it’s the name for a sunset evening stroll.
We witnessed xhiro in full force in Berat, where the main boulevard was ghost-quiet in the daytime due to summer’s 40 degree temperatures but came alive at night with family and friends sharing a stroll up and down the street together. It was really lovely to be part of it and I found myself wishing we had a similar tradition here in the UK.
9. The Albanian Alps are breathtaking
It was the unexpected highlight of our trip so it’s only right that I end this post with a tribute to the stunningly lush Albanian Alps. There’s no Instagram vs reality here, it’s picture-perfect to the naked eye too. Don’t skip it from your itinerary if you’re a sucker for a country landscape.
Have you visited Albania and if so, what surprised you most? Tell me in the comments!