The Balkan country of Albania is one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. It’s a country where tradition meets modernity and where jaw-dropping scenery is complimented by world-class food. However, aside from the international fame of people like the Albanian voice artist Dua Lipa, it’s a country that is often overlooked or surrounded by harmful stereotypes. These issues spurred me to write The Idiot’s Guide to Albania in Eleven Steps.
As a kid, I was always fascinated by the country of Albania thanks in part to stories from my mum who worked in a bar on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1980s. I didn’t expect to be writing the idiot’s guide to Albania as I grew up, however! One of her colleagues was an Albanian girl who had fled the then oppressive communist dictatorship by swimming for her life under gunfire from Enver Hoxha’s isolated state. Despite being out of reach of Albania’s secret police, she refused to speak in-depth about life on the ground in the country due to years of ingrained political repression.
Albania provides a travel experience superior to that of neighboring Greece or Italy, for a fraction of the coast. In order to break some of the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding Albania, the idiot’s guide to Albania article aims to answer eleven of the most common questions I’ve been asked about the country.
11. Where is Albania?
To kick off our idiot’s guide to Albania is an important question surrounding its geography. Where is it? Albania is a Balkan country straddling the Southern end of the Adriatic Sea. It borders Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Greece. It’s charm and mysterious air is only bolstered by the fact that this small country measuring around 28,748 square kilometers, is home to just under 3 million people.
Thanks to its Southern European climate, Albania enjoys very mild winters. Even in December, it’s not uncommon to find yourself walking the streets of Tirana or Durres in a light jacket or hoody. In contrast, Albanian summers can see the country engulfed in soaring temperatures. Be sure you can handle the heat if you decide to visit in the height of summer.
10. What is the Capital City of Albania?
The capital city of Albania is Tirana. Surrounded by Albanian mountains including the famous Mount Dajt, the Albanian capital also has a corridor to the Adriatic Sea. The city is one of Europe’s most sunny cities and receives over 2,500 annual hours of sunlight. Largely centred around Skenderbej Square, it’s very easy to navigate on foot.
As the most important political and economical centre of Albania, the capital of Tirana is the main entry point for most foreigners who visit the country. Home to a wealth of great hotels, high quality restaurants, and a number of attractions ranging from bunkers and architecture to art galleries and nearby Mount Dajt, the capital is a great starting point to explore Albania.
9. Is Tirana Worth Visiting?
As the centre of modern Albania, Tirana is indeed worth visiting! Whilst I highly advise venturing out of the capital to explore wider Albania, the capital of Tirana has a lot to offer and provides an insight into the country if you’re limited to exploring just the capital.
For things to do in Tirana, tourists are spoilt for choice. The city is home to a range of unique tourist attractions, especially for those interested in dark tourism and sights related to the Communist-era. Bunkart, one of my favorite Tirana attractions, is a museum and art gallery built in the former bunker of former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.
The city is also home to a morbidly fascinating attraction known as ”The House of Leaves”. Set in the former headquarters of the Sigurimi (Albania’s infamous secret police) it’s a museum detailing how the feared organization spied on the citizens of Albania for decades. Additionally, there is also the so-called Pyramid of Tirana which was intended to be used as Enver Hoxha’s mausoleum but now stands derelict monument to the country’s communist past.
For food and architecture lovers, Tirana is a gem. In Skenderbeg Square alone you can see examples of Communist, Fascist, and Ottoman architecture all side by side with each other. The food in Albania is pretty incredible, Italian influence means good pizza and amazing coffee isn’t hard to find. Albanian food itself is also a phenomenal mixture of Greek and Turkish influences. For the more brave foodies, there is also the traditional delicacy of lamb brains!
8. Why is Albania Called the Land of the Eagles?
Albania is called the “Land of the Eagles” due to the symbol of Albania being the black eagle. Under the monarchy, this eagle was topped with a crown. Under communism, it was topped with a golden star. Today it remains just an eagle on a red background, the color of which represents bravery, strength, valor, and bloodshed.
Many Albanian guys often call themselves “sons of eagles” in reference to the country’s symbology. The eagle became a symbol of controversy in 2018 when two ethnically Albanian players of the Swiss national football team, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, celebrated a winning goal against old adversary Serbia by representing the Albanian eagle with their hands.
7. Is Albania Safe?
Our idiot’s guide to Albania wouldn’t be complete without covering the security situation in Albania. In short, yes. In contrast to the oppressive years of communism and the carnage of the 1990s, Albania has developed into a country that is safe for travel. However, like any other country in the world, there is still certain dangers that you should be aware of when traveling to Albania.
One of the biggest threats in Albania is the roads. Under communism, the vast majority of the population were barred from owning cars. Thus, the mass introduction of vehicles to the general public in the 1990s did not go smoothly. The driving habits of locals in Albania can be hair raising to say the least. Be extremely alert and don’t assume the highway code applies when crossing the road. Petty crime, like anywhere, exists here also but it is rare and locals are largely hospitable, kind, and willing to help you where they can.
6. Where to go in Albania?
Alongside the capital of Tirana, Albania has a wealth of towns, cities, and scenic destinations to offer travelers. In summer, the destination of choice for many outside the capital is the Albanian Riviera where you can find many deserted beaches to enjoy with sometimes just the company of some local fishermen and old bunkers to enjoy. The Albanian mountains also provide ample hiking opportunities.
For fans of industrial and alternative travel, local companies such as Albanian Trip offer everything from an Albanian Gangster tour to an adventure on the country’s little known trains which are still pulled by Czechoslovakian wagons. The country also has a wealth of ancient history from Roman ruins to ethnographic sights related to the Illyrians.
5. Are Albanians Slavic?
In contrast to nearby Slav countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, Albanians are not Slavic. Albanians descend from an indigenous Balkan tribe known as the Illyrians who once lived in what is today Albania. The language, culture, and ethnography of Albania are inherently unique in comparison to other countries and Albanians have a very unique look to them.
Interestingly, Albania is home to one of the most homogeneous populations in the world. Across the population of the country, only one-tenth are not Albanian. The largest minorities living in Albania are the Greek community which is mainly based in southeast Albania, and the Macedonian community which is largely based along the eastern border of Albania.
4. Why is Albania so Poor?
It’s no secret that Albania is a very poor country. In 2018, it was estimated that around 671,000 Albanians, out of a population of just under 3 million, were living below the poverty line. One of the main factors of why Albania is so poor is the turmultous transition from communism to capital that we covered in our section answering the question is Albania still communist?
The economic progress of Albania was hindered massively by the change from the Communist regime to a capitalist society. This was a massive contributor to the current poverty in the country. As well as poor public services, many Albanians struggle with poor wages and obtaining basic necessities such as food, clothes, and heating. Although many parts of Albanian society do not live in poverty, the threat of it still hangs over many.
3. What to Buy in Albania?
Whilst movies like War Dogs would have you believe that Albania is only good for buying stockpiles of old Communist-made Kalashnikovs (which wasn’t even filmed in Albania by the way) there is a lot of positive things that you can buy in Albania. Ranging from obscure but world-class Albanian literature to Communist relics.
One of my favourite souvenirs to buy from Albania is Albanian books. Writers from this country are massively underrated but I class them as being up there with some of the best in the world. One of my favourites is Ismael Kadare whose literature delves into the culture and history of Albania from its blood feuds to its military history. Another thing I like to do in Albania is explore the various antique shops in the country looking for relics from the period of Communist Albania.
2. What Language is Spoken in Albania?
A question that is always guaranteed to spark a debate is that surrounding the origins of the Albanian language. Thus, I thought it was the perfect question to add to our idiots guide to Albania. The language spoken in Albania is called Albanian.
The Albanian language is part of the Indo-European language family. Although it has some similarities in sound to Greek, Turkish, and Armenian, it is completely different with its own range of unique features. It’s believed that The Albanian language came from one of the Paleo-Balkan languages, however, it’s still unclear exactly which Paleo-Balkan language it evolved from, or where in Southern Europe that such people originally lived.
1. Is Albania Still a Communist Country?
Taking the place at number one on our idiot’s guide to Albania is the question as to whether Albania is still a communist country. Thankfully, no. Prior to WW2, Albania was a monarchy ruled by a rather unique royal family who fled due to the Fascist Italian occupation of the country in WW2. Following the defeat of Fascism in 1945, Albania was soon taken over by a Marxist-Leninist government and the country soon became known as the People’s Republic of Albania ruled over with an iron fist by the Stalinist leader called Enver Hoxha.
Hoxha’s fearsome grip on the country was defined by policies surrounding national unity and self-reliance. As the years went by, it became increasingly isolated by breaking ties with Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. At that time, it was one of the most closed off and difficult to travel to countries on earth. Despite various elements of Albania being modernized such as culture, education, and industry, the country was dominated by horrific repression that saw countless citizens imprisoned in gulags, tortured, and executed.
Hoxha seems to be well informed about literature, the theater, and philosophy, particularly the philosophy of education… He might well be pictured holding the sword of the dictatorship of the proletariat in one hand and the Western “lamp of learning” on the other.– Peter R. Prifti (1978), Socialist Albania Since 1944: Domestic and Foregin Developments
In the early 1990s, Communism began to fall apart in Albania. The party that had ruled for almost four decades was replaced by the democratic party. However, the transition from dictatorship to democracy was brought with problems. Promised reforms either didn’t come or failed. In 1997, the Albanian government collapsed as a result of failed investments in pyramid schemes and in-depth corruption.
The country erupted into a brutal civil war between furious citizens, military defectors, the government, freedom groups, armed gangs split between the north and the south, and the police. An UN-led international intervention had to be brought in to stop the conflict which eventually killed over 2,000 people. In the years since the civil war, Albania has made significant progress and today is a functioning democratic society.
We reach the end of our idiot’s guide to Albania. We hope you found our guide useful and found encouragement to visit the enchanting land of Albania. The country is safe, welcoming, and offers a wealth of mind-blowing experiences for the adventurous traveler. For fully organized and guided Albania tours and beyond, we recommend contacting the phenomenal Soviet tours department at Young Pioneer Tours.