For many, Italy and Greece are dream vacations. From wine to food to terrain steeped in history, plus the beaches and landscape, that Mediterranean life has much to love.
But, in underappreciated Albania, that Mediterranean dream can be experienced for up to 65 percent less… for now.
Albania is largely undiscovered by North Americans, with good reason. For half the 20th century, the country was off-limits to all foreigners at the hands of a brutal dictator. That time is over, and now Albania’s stunning landscapes, world-class beaches, ancient Mediterranean foods, and welcoming people are open for business.
Here’s why this under-visited country should be next on your European bucket list.
FOR THE COAST
Albania crept onto the global tourism radar around 2009. After an episode of Top Gear was shot on its winding coastal roads following exposure from intrepid bloggers and other media, the secret began slipping out. The Albanian Riviera is said to have the Mediterranean’s most untouched, natural beaches, along with ancient ruins and terrific seafood. With turquoise waters, its beaches compete with any in Greece or Croatia, without as many crowds, at prices fit for every budget. While Greece’s Corfu has tourist traps galore with sky-high prices, just 23 miles across the Adriatic is Sarandë, Albania, without the tourist madness, where your money will go twice as far. If castles and ancient ruins fascinate you, they’re up and down the Riviera too, where even Julius Caesar played tourist way back in 48 BC.
FOR THE PEOPLE
Unlike most of Europe, where tourism has thrived for decades, if not centuries, Albania was closed off for nearly five decades. In 1944, dictator Enver Hoxha assumed power and soon made Albania more isolated than North Korea is today. With only 27 years of freedom since then, Albanians are enterprising, welcoming, open people. They’re proud and excited when they see tourists, especially North Americans. Explore the capital, Tirana, and you’ll find American flags, a street named after George W. Bush, a park named for Harry Truman, and many more American tributes.
FOR THE MOUNTAINS
With more than 70 percent of its landscape covered in mountains, Albania is among the world’s most mountainous nations. The south’s mountains are often terraced for cultivation — farms here produce everything from wine and hazelnuts to tomatoes and leafy greens. To the northwest, the sinisterly-named “Accursed Mountains” are the Albanian Alps. With jagged rocks, formidable hiking trails, crystal-clear glacial lakes, the Accursed Mountains boast some of the world’s most underrated mountaineering. If you love to explore, plenty of guiding outfits are ready to show you these Alps for far cheaper than you could ever do in Switzerland.
FOR THE FOOD
Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, Albania’s local produce, wines, dairy, and meats will add a notch to your belt. Its proximity to culinary capitals like Italy and Greece, coupled with centuries under the Ottoman Empire and Venetian overlords, means that a tasty blend of culinary influences linger today. But Albania’s got its unique food history, too. A recent “Slow Food” movement is burgeoning as young chefs return from abroad to reclaim their food culture and regional products. Nevermind “local” food – you’ll want to explore regions like Korçë (Korca), where everything from milk and cheese to beef, lamb, chicken, and vegetables are often from that very property.
FOR ITS HISTORY
Tirana’s Old Town might be gone, but castles and ruins dating back 2,700 years are plentiful in Albania. Just outside the capital lies celebrated Castle Kruja, where national hero Skanderbeg fought off the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
If castles are your thing, you’re in luck — this tiny country has another 70 worth visiting. Another short trip from the big city, near Fier, is Apollonia, an ancient Illyrian ruin erected in 588 BC. Butrint has similar ancient ruins, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, along the southern Albanian Riviera. Lesser-known Gjirokaster, another UNESCO site, has walls dating to the 3rd century and is considered a rare surviving example of an Ottoman village, a distinction it shares with nearby Berat.