In the past several years, Albania has quickly emerged as a top destination for adventurous travelers eager to see a corner of the globe that has been, until recently, entirely closed to outsiders. As an expat who has been living here for almost a year, these are the tips and facts I wish I had known before I traveled here. I hope you find them useful if you ever plan a trip here!
15 Things you NEED to know before you visit:
- Albania has its own unique currency, called the lek. Albania is not a part of the EU, although it really wants to be, so you MAY be able to use the Euro in some places—but not all. The Euro may be used in the larger cities (Tirana and Durres) and in tourist-centered locations, but this is the exception and not the rule.
- Cash-only. As Albania is a developing country, not all establishments are able to take credit card. As with the use of the Euro, some larger stores in tourist areas of the big cities may take credit card, but again, don’t count on it! Be prepared to spend exclusively cash while traveling in Albania.
- Albania is perfectly safe to travel in–but it’s not always easy. Albanians are a very hospitable people and are generally willing to help in any way they can. However, the country itself is desperately lacking in basic infrastructure, which can make traveling an unpredictable adventure. For example, do not expect to look online to find any information about bus r
outes or timetables, as many companies and businesses are rarely organized enough to have this available. However, once you arrive, the Albanians will be happy to help you navigate their city, including giving you a ride if you need one!
- Don’t stray off the beaten path solo. It is gen
erally not recommended to go out backpacking or exploring the countryside without a local guide. Outside the larger cities, the highways are not well maintained. The north is an especially mountainous region with steep cliffs running beside roads that are generally in disrepair. Having 3G access is not a guarantee. Finding people who speak a language other than Albanian will become increasingly rare. While I DO recommend hiking the Albanian alps, I encourage you to check out some of the local travel groups to assist you before you venture out on your own.
- The beaches in the south are every bit as beautiful as Greece, with a fraction of the total cost. There are miles and miles of undeveloped coastline with refreshingly clear water. I recommend renting a car and checking out the cities of Sarande or Vlore.
- Albanians always dress up. Shorts and tennis shoes are my preferred uniform for running errands around town in the sweltering summer months here in the Mediterranean, but Albanian women take too much pride in their appearance to ever dare be seen in such casual wear. I get the most surprised looks when I leave my house dressed like this! Instead, you will find ladies in heels and lipstick, and older men in dark suits, no matter what time of year it is.
- The eldest generations will speak only Albanian. Middle-aged Albanians speak Albanian and Italian. The youngest generations speak Albanian, Italian, and English. That said, don’t be afraid to ask a younger local for help translating—they are usually happy to do their best, even if their English isn’t perfect.
- If a shopkeeper names a price that is 10x the amount an item should be, don’t worry, they aren’t ripping you off—they’re just telling you the “old price” of the item. After the fall of communism, the organization of their currency system changed, and sometimes older Albanians still label things in the “old lek” price. This doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen occasionally, so check! Last time this happened, I was in a market trying to buy a spice that was written as 1000 lek (8.15 USD), when in reality it was only 100 lek, or about 80 cents.
- Albanians don’t stand in lines. It’s not that they’re overly rude or aggressive about it, it’s just that Albanians don’t have a culture of waiting patiently for everyone to take his or her turn. If you are ever in line (at customs, at the bank, at a grocery store, anywhere basically), plan on the locals aggregating haphazardly around the counter, and be prepared to stand your ground and elbow your way to the front, if necessary.
- Albanians nod their head differently to indicate “yes”. Instead of nodding up and down, they tilt their head back and forth, a bit like a shoulder shrug. I won’t lie, it’s pretty confusing to have such basic body language be so different, but it’s helpful to remember this if you ever get thrown off by their nonverbal cues!
- There are no trains in or out
of Albania, and the trains within the country are decrepit. Instead, Albania runs on a system of privately owned passenger vans called “furgons” which shuttle people back and forth between cities. Again, there is no timetable— the furgon leaves when it is full, and stops running when the driver is ready to quit for the day.
- Renting a car is one of the better options for getting around Albania, but be wary of the drivers on the roads! Driving in Albania is not for the fainthearted, and watch out for all the people, donkey carts, and stray dogs crossing the streets at random places and times.
- Albania is very tolerant of other religions, so Jews, Christians, and Muslims should all feel very safe and welcome traveling here. On a similar note, Albania is still a very homogenous culture, and they aren’t readily accustomed to seeing people of Asian or African descent. They wouldn’t ever bother someone of a different skin color, but they may stare!
- Traditional food is cheap and delicious, and consists heavily of meats, potatoes, hard cheeses,
and vegetables. Like much of Eastern Europe, modern Albania runs on a steady diet of coffee and carbs—their preferred pastry is a sort of flaky pie filled with meat or cheese called a Byrek, which is common throughout this region. That said, don’t drink the tap water, and be wary of even fresh salads with produce that may have been rinsed in it.
- Be sensitive to Albania’s recent political history, especially in terms of Kosovo and Serbia. Like you should always do before traveling to any new place, do your homework before you go, so you don’t find yourself in any uncomfortable situations!
Albania is definitely worth a visit, but it isn’t a country for travel newbies or the faint of heart! It has so much to offer and teach us, just as soon as the world discovers its unique beauty. Have you visited Albania? Would you be interested in going now that you’ve heard some insider tips and tricks? Let me know in the comments!
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