Albania (Albanian: Shqipëria) is a small country in the Balkans. It shares borders with Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro.
While the relative majority of the people in Albania are of Muslim heritage (75-80%), according to the polls, around 35% of the Albanians are agnostics; 22% are atheists; 19% are Muslim; 15% are orthodox; 8% are Catholics and 1% are of other religions. Mixed marriages are very common and in some places, even the rule.
Traditional Albanian culture honors the role and person of the guest. In return for this place of honor, respect is expected from the guest. Albanians enjoy the long walks in the city streets, drinking coffee, and among the younger generations, participating in nightlife activities such as cafe lounging and dancing.
Albania is a poor country by European standards.
Following the defeat of the Axis powers at the end of World War II, a totalitarian Communist government was established, presided over by resistance leader Enver Hoxha. Albania became infamous for its isolation, not just from the market-run democracies of Western Europe, but from the Soviet Union, China, and even neighboring Yugoslavia. Even as the Iron Curtain came down and Communists lost power throughout Eastern Europe, Albania seemed intent on staying the course, alone.
But in 1992, several years after the death of Hoxha, the Communist party finally relinquished power and Albania established a multi-party democracy with a coalition government. The transition has proven difficult, as corrupt governments have tried to deal with high unemployment, a dilapidated infrastructure, widespread gangsterism, and disruptive political opponents. Today Albania is making progress, with EU integration as its goal; Albania signed the SAA on June 2006, thus completing the first major step towards joining. In 2008 Albania received an invitation to join NATO.
With its coastline facing the Adriatic and Ionian seas, its highlands backed upon the elevated Balkan landmass, and the entire country lying at a latitude subject to a variety of weather patterns during the winter and summer seasons, Albania has a high number of climatic regions for so small an area. The coastal lowlands have typically Mediterranean weather; the highlands have a Mediterranean continental climate. In both the lowlands and the interior, the weather varies markedly from north to south.
The lowlands have mild winters, averaging about 7 °C (45 °F). Summer temperatures average 24 °C (75 °F). In the southern lowlands, temperatures average about 5 °C (9 °F) higher throughout the year. The difference is greater than 5 °C (9 °F) during the summer and somewhat less during the winter.
Inland temperatures are affected more by differences in elevation than by latitude or any other factor. Low winter temperatures in the mountains are caused by the continental air mass that dominates the weather in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Northerly and northeasterly winds blow much of the time. Average summer temperatures are lower than in the coastal areas and much lower at higher elevations, but daily fluctuations are greater. Daytime maximum temperatures in the interior basins and river valleys are very high, but the nights are almost always cool.
Average precipitation is heavy, a result of the convergence of the prevailing airflow from the Mediterranean Sea and the continental air mass. Because they usually meet at the point where the terrain rises, the heaviest rain falls in the central uplands. Vertical currents initiated when the Mediterranean air is uplifted also cause frequent thunderstorms. Many of these storms are accompanied by high local winds and torrential downpours.
There is no longer a visa charge for any foreigners entering Albania.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nationals of the following countries can enter Albania without a visa: Andorra, Argentina, Australia *, Austria *, Belgium *, Brazil, Bulgaria*, Canada *, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus *, Czech Republic*, Denmark*, Estonia *, Finland *, France*, Germany *, Great Britain*, Greece *, Holy See, Hungary *, Ireland *, Iceland *, Israel, Italy *, Japan, Kosovo, Latvia *, Liechtenstein, Lithuania *, Luxemburg *, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta *, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands *, New Zealand *, Norway *, Poland *, Portugal *, Romania *, Russia, San Marino *, Serbia , Singapore, Slovakia*, Slovenia *, South Korea, Spain *, Sweden *, Switzerland *, Turkey, USA *, Ukraine. (Those countries with an asterisk can enter with an ID card)
There are still reports of sporadic €1 entry fees. Be sure to receive a receipt and keep it with you, as guards may request it upon exiting the country as proof of payment. The Albania guards are very nice and do their best to help out and will, on occasion, allow fees to be paid in dollars or will forget to charge you. It's worth making sure you've got the Euros on you as the customs officers at Mother Teresa airport don't give change.
As well as paying to get in, you need to pay €1 to leave the country; although, on occasion, tourists are allowed to leave via the Macedonian border without paying. When crossing the border with Macedonia on foot, the guards only accept €1 and €2 coins, you cannot pay with two €0.50 coins.
Nationals of the European Union don't have to pay the fee since early 2009. Two Canadian passport holders in January 2010 were not charged any fees upon entry or exit. Other passengers, with varying passports, were not seen paying any fees either. New Zealand visitors entering from Greece and leaving to Montenegro in April 2010 were not charged any fees. No charge for Canadian passports for entry or exit at Tirana Airport,border crossings of Morinë (Kosovo) and Tushemisht (Macedonia) as of July/August/September 2010.
Tirana's "Mother Teresa" International Airport is located just 15 minutes away from the city. It is served by numerous European flag carriers such as British Airways, Alitalia, Lufthansa, Austrian, and the low cost carriers Germanwings and Belle Air. A new, larger and modern terminal is opened in 2007.
At the airport exit, there are numerous taxis 24/7 that can take you to the city. The taxi fee to the city center is €15 (2000 Lek). Taxi fees to other locations are posted on a placard just outside the exit doors.
There is a bus that runs once an hour between the airport and Skanderberg Square in the centre of Tirana. It costs 250 lek each way, leaves on the hour from the airport and at 25 past the hour from Skanderberg Square. It runs from about 8AM to 7PM.
It is not possible to enter or leave Albania via train. There are, however, trains that operate within the country. Though the service is limited, the price is inexpensive, and the line from Pogradec to Elbasan in particular is scenic.
You can reach Tirana by coach from
There is now a daily bus link between Ulcinj in Montenegro and Shkoder. There is also a shared taxi (mini buss) from the parking place next to the market in Ulcinj. It goes at 1PM and costs €5 euros, it takes 1.5 hr. The stop is not marked, a reservation can only be made by finding the driver in the cafe at the corner of the parking place. Ask around and be persistent, as not all the locals know about this. There are no scheduled buses from any other point in Montenegro into Albania.
There are also buses running daily from Ioannina to the border at Kakavia (9 daily, €5.70, 1 hour). From there it's a short walk between the Greek and Albanian checkpoints. Just make sure you don't delay, as the furgon (minibus) to Gjirokastra won't wait for one extra passenger and you will be forced to haggle with predatory cab drivers.
You can reach Albania by car from anywhere crossing through major cities of the neighbour countries such as:
There is a 10-euro/person tax, which must be paid upon entering Albania. After payment of the tax to the police, the customs officer will issue a "road tax certificate", which you must keep until you leave the country. When you exit the country, you'll pay €2/day and return the certificate.
To enter the country, ensure that your International Motor Insurance Card is valid for Albania (AL) along with the Vehicle Registration and a Power of Attorney from the owner if the car is not yours. The border guards are very strict about allowing cars through without these documents.
The road between Ioannina, Greece and Tirana is in good condition until Gjirokastër. The road is narrow in some places, so travel with caution. between Tepelene and Fier there are several sections under construction and you should proceed with extreme caution. This is the main North-South route between Montenegro and Greece.
The road between Struga, Macedonia and Tirana (E852/SH3) is not to the levels of quality found in other parts of Europe but it is sufficient. There are a lot of slow moving vehicles along the curvy mountainous route so extra caution must be exercised especially around corners or during over-taking.
The road between Prizren(Kosovo) and Tirana (Albania) is not to the levels of quality found in other parts of Europe but it is sufficient especially Albanian part. Extra caution because in some parts near the Kosova border the work on the road is still going on. There are a lot of slow moving vehicles along the curvy mountainous route so extra caution must be exercised especially around corners or during over-taking.
The road between Shkoder (border of Montenegro) and Tirana (E762/SH1) is of sufficient quality for driving but there are a lot of slow moving vehicles and un-controlled access points so extra caution must be exercised especially during over-taking.
There are two border control points in the north of Albania with Montenegro. The narrow road from Shkoder to Ulcinj, Montenegro via Muriqan, is used mainly by locals and is worth a try to avoid heavier traffic on the main road (E762/SH1) to Hani i Hoti. Ask any police officer to point you in the right direction from Shkoder. They are helpful, courteous and friendly.
Albania is geographically a small country and as such it is possible to leave by taxi. Note, however, that the roads are not of western standard and can take several times longer than expected to traverse.
Your hotel will be able to arrange a taxi to the border, where you should be able to change to a taxi at the other side. For example, a taxi from Tirana to the Macedonian border, a distance of 70 miles, will take three hours and cost about €100. A metered Macedonian taxi from the border to Struga should no more than €6 (December 2009) and take 20 mins, while a taxi on to Skopje would take 3 hours on much better roads and would cost about €120 (Prices January 2008). Passport control will take about 30 mins.
A taxi from downtown Pogradec to the Macedonian border at Sveti Naum is about 5 euros (and less than 10 minutes). After Albanian exit procedures, walk about .5km down the road to the Macedonian border control. The beautiful Sveti Naum church is very close by, and from there you can get a bus north around the lake to Ohrid (110 denars). (prices April 2010)
A taxi from Ulcinj in Montenegro to Shkoder in northern Albania costs about €30. It takes 1hr. You do not have to change at the border, the taxi will bring you all the way. (price June 2010)
Most people in Albania travel by public bus or private minibuses (called "furgons"), which depart quite frequently to destinations around Albania. Furgons have no timetable (they depart when they are full) and in addition to big cities provide access to some smaller towns where busses don't frequently run. Furgon stations aren't always in obvious locations, so you can ask around to find them, or keep an eye out for groups of white or red minivans gathered together. Destination place names are generally displayed on the dashboard, prices are never posted. Furgons are loosely regulated, and provide a real "Albanian" experience.
From Tirana, many furgons a day depart to Shkoder, Durres, Elbasan, Fier and Berat. Furgons departing to the south like Gjirokaster or Saranda tend to depart fairly early in the morning. Generally, furgons cost a little more and go a little faster, but can be uncomfortable over long distances because of the close quarters with other passangers.
Buses are more comfortable and cheaper, run on a time schedule (though it is almost impossible to find a printed schedule anywhere in the country) and are generally well regulated. Their are different bus stations in Tirane for North bound buses (Shkoder, Leizhe, Puke, etc), South bound buses (Saranda, Gjirokastër, Berat, Vlore, Fier, etc).
One publicly-edited list of the departure locations and times of furgons and buses in Albania may be found here -- but of course these should always be taken with a grain of salt!
Limited services operate between Tirana and Shkodra, Fier, Ballsh, Vlorë and Pogradec. The train route from Lezhe to Shkodra has scenic beauty. The Tirana-Durres trains (and vice versa) depart up to 8 times a day. The train timetables are available , as well as a system map (PDF). The trains in Albania are still in extremely poor condition, despite the route from Tirana to Vlore looking convenient on a map, the more wealthy Albanians never use trains and if not travelling in their own cars, use the many mini-buses.
A train ride is a must-see, as there are few such enjoyments in Europe these days. Tickets are very cheap and the journeys are very long, but the views and the atmosphere are usually priceless. On most stations you'll find people selling sunflower seeds, fruits, chewing gum and many other different things - very unusual in Europe.
The roads between the important destinations have been recently repaved and fixed, and offer all the security measures one would expect on a highway. There are no fees for using the highways.
Beware of minor roads. Road surfaces can be poor, deeply pitted, or non-existent, and sometimes a decent paving can suddenly disappear, necessitating a U-turn and lengthy doubling-back. It seems all the expensive cars in Albania are SUVs, rather than low-slung sports cars - and for good reason. Ask the locals in advance if travelling away from a highway.
Highways have frequent changes in speed limit (sometimes with little apparent reason). And there are frequent police mobile speed checks. Police will also stop you if you have not turned on your car lights. Ensure you travel with driving licences and insurance documents (ask your car hire company for these) to present to the police.
Car-driving behaviour on the highways is not as orderly as elsewhere in Europe. Expect cars to pull out infront of you, little use of indicators, and hair-raising overtaking. Lanes on dual or triple carriageways tend to be observed.
Navigation is pretty easy although some maps of the country are out of date or contain errors.
In the cities, and especially Tirana, many roads are being upgraded and fixed. Because of that, traveling by car inside the city will be slow. Be aware that especially Tirana suffers from great traffic congestion during mornings and midday.
A very nice ride is the Vlorë-Saranda mountain road. It is a typical Mediterranean road and offers an amazing view of the sea from the mountains.
The road to the top of Dajti mountain is very bad, though does not (just about) require a 4x4.
Gypsy and beggar children may approach your car at major stop lights. Nudge slightly forward to get them off your car and if necessary go into the traffic intersection to get rid of them. The locals will understand.
The potholes, driving standards and lack of places to stay in many villages and towns make Albania a challenging cycling destination, but a rewarding one. Often, asking around to see if you can stay in somebody's home / camp in their garden is the only option. Food and water are easily available in the frequent roadside cafes and bars.
It is OK to camp in all not strictly private places, and even if the places are private there should be no problems with your stay, ask if you doubt.
Be aware that it's very hard to get parts or repairs of modern bicycles.
Hitchhiking is not very common in Albania; however, many people will pick you up if they are able.
There are many things to do in Albania. Because of its size, traveling around it is not difficult, allowing tourists to see many beautiful parts of the country.
Albanian is the official language. Other useful languages include Italian, which is often viewed as the de facto second language due to various Italian occupations, the most famous being during World War II. English is understandable in Tirana and to a lesser extent in frequented tourist cities. In the southernmost areas of the country, you might also encounter minority speakers of the Greek language. Note that for a country of 3 million, there are about 1.2 million immigrants, and many of them have returned to Albania from countries such as Germany, France, Greece (especially those in the south of Albania) and Italy so you'll find a lot of people who speak the respective languages. Note that as Albania has a lot of immigrants in Greece, from which around 200.000 people have returned back and now live in Albania, Greek is also understood. Macedonian is also occasionally understood in areas near Pogradec and Korca.
The national currency is the lek (ALL). There are 138.30 lek to the euro (9 February 2010).
Notice that some Albanians write prices with an extra zero. They are not trying to charge you 10 times the going rate; they are merely using the old currency.
Hundreds of new ATMs have been installed in most major cities. Use the MasterCard ATM Locator or Visa ATM Locator to find them. The ATMs accept most international VISA and Mastercard Credit/Debit cards.
Many rural convenience stores will not accept any other method of payment other than cash (currently in Albanian lek). However supermarkets, the better bookstores and the better boutique stores will accept Credit or Debit Cards. The most widely accepted cards are VISA, Mastercard, and Diner's Club.
In all the Albanian cities you can find numerous shops, which offer different goods, of well known marks, Glasses, antique objects, etc. Of great interest for the tourists are the traditional bazaars of Kruja, Korca, Shkodra, Gjirokastra dhe Tirana, where you can find the artisan works produced by Albanian people during th years. You can buy woody carved objects, ceramics, embroiders with popular motifs dhe also cooper objects. Albanian shops are open at 09:00-20:00 usually, and until 22:00 at summer. Most of the shopes stay open on Sunday.
Souvenirs: raki, alabaster bunker ashtrays
Restaurants are very easy to find. Albania, like the Balkans in general, has a primarily Turkish influence in its cuisine. This influence stems from over 400 years of Ottoman rule in the region. Recent influences after the fall of communism in the early 1990's have been from Italy and Western Europe in general. Most of what is available in neighboring countries such as Greece and Italy will be available in Albania, particularly in the larger cities.
Many people grow fruits and vegetables around their houses, most popularly all kinds of grapes, (red, black, green), that are used to make raki.
Albania is a very mountainous country, and these mountains have scattered olive trees that influence Albanian cuisine. Salads are usually made with fresh tomato and onion. Most Albanian people make their own bread, but going out for meals is very common.
Some sort of hearty stew is commonly included in Albanian dinners. These stews are easy to make, and flexible with ingredients. They include potatoes, onion, rice, etc.
The preferred alcoholic hard drink is raki that is locally produced in small towns as well as in many homes in the countryside; in some instances you may run across men washing down breakfast with a few shots. Try the mulberry rakia - Albanians are the only people in the world that produce this drink with mulberry and plum, and its very delicious, especially around Gjirokaster. The number of homemade beers, wines and raki is as varied as the population itself; the quality of these drinks is as varied as the quantity available. Non-alcoholic drinks range from the well-known international and regional soft drink brands to the locally produced ones. You can find any type of soft drink in Albania, as well as natural mineral water, energy drinks, etc. Qafshtama and Tepelena water are especially good, and found in much of the country.
Boza , a popular sweet drink made from maize (corn) and wheat is a traditional Albanian drink, and Albanians have been known as the best boza makers in the world.
Inside the cities, hotels are abundant and prices per night start as low as €15. Hotels are usually clean and their staff in major cities generally speak English and/or Italian.
Outside the big cities, hotels are less common, but in places like Gjirokastra can be excellent value (e.g.: 1000 lek). If, for any reason, you find nowhere to sleep, the Albanian people have always been known for their hospitality, and will treat you like royalty as you stay with them.
Take the usual precautions. Foreigners are generally not targeted by the local crime scene, though pickpocketings do occur.
It's best to drink bottled water, but potted water is usually drinkable too. The food in Albania is mostly healthy anywhere you go in the country. You can walk around to stay fit, as many people do in the capital. Be careful at the beaches because shards of glass and sea urchins are common on the sea floor. Also, pharmacies and other stores are closed from about 12PM-4PM; so, bring all necessary medicine with you. Also, many Albanians smoke cigarettes. It is a normal thing and expect it everywhere. The government has banned smoking in restaurants but this is not really observed.
Albanians are very hospitable. Even more so than the rest of the Balkans, elder males expect to be shown respect on account of their age. Men of the family have to be respected in particular. Shake hands with them and do not argue about topics such as religion and politics. Certain topics are strictly taboo, although they may be fine in the United States or other countries. Homosexuality is one good example. Dont speak about gays rights, no matter what. . Just remember that the situation changes a lot according to the location (village or city) and the people with whom you speak as well. Of course, in the hidden north, avoid topics that go beyond local understanding, but be sure that in Tirana you will find very cosmopolitan people that are as open to new ideas as the citizens of Western Europe. There is nothing particular to worry about; all you need to remember is to respect local people as much as you do back home.
Sometimes, if you stay for a night or so at someone's house, don't be suprised if you see a big, old AK-47 Kalashnikov staying at the wall. Its pretty normal for Albanians to keep guns at house.
In Albania its common to kiss cheeks of males of your age or younger (if you are a man), even the very first time you meet them. This is especially for the regions of Fier, Tepelena, Vlora and Gjirokastra. In Northern Albania, you will simply touch each others cheeks, but not kiss them. Women also do kiss one other, sometimes from the very first time they meet, but men and women do not kiss each in the cheek unless they are friends for a long time. Kissing cheeks between young people, 15-20 years old, is however very common. If a baby is in the family, always ask to see him or her, and dont forget to add a compliment (usually "qenka i shendetshem, me jete te gjate" or "what a sweet baby" works best). If you are a man, or a woman with a group of men, dont compliment females, unless they are under 10-12 years. If you dont speak English, but a language where "you" in singular and "you" in plural are not the same (like Italian, Greek, German, etc.), be aware that some Albanians do not use the plural form in their language. Sometimes, even the prime-minister is adressed with "ti" (you in singular, "tu" in Italian, "Du" in German or "Esi" in Greek), if the journalist is a friend of him. However, when meeting people for the first time, its better if you adress them in plural, although they will shortly after ask you to adress them in singular. Policemen in Albania are often polite. They usually never stop foreign cars, but if you rent a car, they may stop you. However, when they see you are a foreign tourist, they will immediately tell you to go on (usually with a "ec, ec, rruge te mbare" which can be translated in "go on, have a nice trip"). When this happens, it's very polite if you respond with a "faleminderit" (thank you in Albanian).
Albanians love dancing, especially during weddings. If you are attending a party, don't be afraid to dance! Maybe you don't know the traditional dances, but try to learn.
You can buy a local sim card for 600 Lek (Vodafone). You need to provide ID (passport) and give an address in Albania.