After living in Albania for the past two years during my Peace Corps service I have compiled a list of the thirty best things for travelers to do while visiting Shqiperi.
1. Eat Byrek-fast.
I’ve mentioned byrek in my blog before, and for good reason. Byrek is one of my favorite Albanian foods and it is incredibly cheap. Usually Albanians eat this in the morning for breakfast or a light snack at work or school. Byrek is a flaky pastry made with layers of thin dough stuffed with different fillings such as beans, potatoes, gjize (a sort of Albanian cheese), spinach, tomato, onion, and meat. My personal favorite is byrek me qepe e domate (with tomato and onion). My favorite byrek is on the served on the main boulevard in Elbasan directly next to Skampa Theater and the Vodaphone. You can find versions of byrek all over the Balkans.
2. Dance the night away at Beer Fest in Korca.
Every summer the city of Korca holds a beer festival, usually sometime in August. This is a great opportunity to see famous Albanian performers and dancers. The festival is free of charge and beer is incredibly cheap (usually under a dollar for a cup). Several breweries from across the country come to serve their beer. I’d recommend trying Korca e zeze, the dark beer from Korca. This beer is hard to find outside of the Korca region, but it is definitely a nice addition to the available drinks in country.
3. Hike from Valbona to Thethi.
Northern Albania is breathtaking. If you have a few weeks in Albania I’d recommend making your way up north to take in the beauty that this region has to offer. You can hike the pass in a day, but camping is available along the way. There are also guesthouses in Valbona and Thethi if you’re not interested in camping. The accursed Albanian Alps are definitely worth the journey. Most of the guesthouses in Theth are actually rooms that Albanians rent out in their homes. It would be a tremendous opportunity to stay with a local family and have them cook you up a delicious, traditional meal after the long hike.
4. Soak up the sun in Ksamil.
Ksamil is a small town just south of Saranda. The beach in Ksamil is absolutely gorgeous and the water is as clear as glass. Beaches in southern Albania are on par with famous beaches in Greece and Italy, but for a fraction of the price. Many Albanians take their vacation during the month of August, so I’d suggest to hit up the beaches in June or July before they become crowded.
5. Try raki with a macchiato.
The most common coffee drinks to order at a coffee shop in Albania are kafe express or a macchiato. A macchiato is an express coffee with a bit of steamed milk. I prefer having a macchiato when I am out at coffee, and if you’re visiting Albania it is essential that you have coffee – every single day. It’s a must. While you’re out at coffee you should try raki, Albanian moonshine. It is a very strong drink and after a couple you’ll likely be drunk, so be careful. If you’re a woman traveler you might get strange looks ordering a raki, but it is definitely something you should experience here.
6. Eat at a Mengjesore.
A Mengjesore is usually some hole in the wall restaurant mostly serving men in the community. These places are great places to drop by for some cheap, traditional food. Don’t expect a menu at most of these places, but if you can get past the language barrier usually they are worth it. My favorite things to order are rice pilaf, fasule (a tomato and white bean soup), Greek salad, and spec te mbushura (stuffed peppers). You can find different traditional foods at these restaurants based on the region. Pilaf is usually a safe bet, but if you’re vegetarian be sure to request it pa lenge mish (without meat sauce). If you happen to be in Berat you should check out Angelos.
7. Travel with public transportation.
The fastest way to travel around Albania on vacation would be to rent a car, which is a great option if you’re planning on spending some time traveling all over the country. Public transportation can sometimes be unreliable, but it is always an adventure. Riding around in furgons (small vans) and buses can be a great way to meet local people. It can also be quite entertaining because half the time the driver will be blasting Albanian and American music throughout the entire journey.
8. Celebrate Albanian Independence Day.
If you’re in Albania in the winter, specifically on November 28th, you should celebrate Independence Day with the locals. Albanians go all out for Independence Day and you’ll see Albanian flags lining the streets. People will decorate their cars, shops, and themselves with the double-headed eagle. There are usually big celebrations in Tirana and Vlore, but you could find festivities in almost every city. Be sure to buy an Albanian flag t-shirt to really get in the fun.
9. Participate in the pilgrimage to Kulmak.
Every year during the last week of August the Bektashi sect of Islam go on a four-day pilgrimage to Kulmak, located on the south side of Mount Tomori in between Berat and Corovode. During the pilgrimage lambs and sheep are sacrificed. After a lamb is sacrified everyone involved gets a thumbprint of blood on his or her forehead. You can hike up the mountain for the festivities or try to hitchhike with the locals. Us volunteers call this festival blood fest… you can only imagine why.
10. Buy fresh produce on market day.
In Kavaje, and many other cities around Albania, the freshest produce is available to buy at the market on Sunday. Many of the villagers from outside the city come in on Sundays to sell their fruits and vegetables. The produce in Albania is extremely delicious and fresh when it is in season. If you’re around in late-Spring I’d suggest buying a kilo of cherries. Also, the best time to buy produce is in the morning, so the earlier you go – the better.
11. Play chess with an old man.
Everyday you will likely see many old men on the streets playing chess, cards, and other games on make shift tables in parks and on the streets. These men will sit around for hours with their buddies playing games in the morning and before dinnertime. Challenge an old man to chess if you dare. I bet he’ll give you a run for your money.
12. Climb the pyramid in Tirana.
The pyramid in Tirana used to be an old museum that was once known as the Enver Hoxha museum. Now it is a bizarre looking structure covered with all kinds of graffiti. You can find young boys and teenagers hanging out on the sides of the pyramid during all hours. If you want to climb to the top be sure to wear appropriate footwear because it isn’t exactly the safest of climbs.
13. Take a selfie with a bunker.
I have never met anyone that likes to take as many selfies as some of my Albanian students. Selfies are an integral part of Albanian youth culture – selfies in class, selfies here, selfies there, selfies everywhere. There are thousands of bunkers around Albania that were built during the communist Enver Hoxha regime. You can spot these bunkers on beaches, mountains, and roadsides. Take a selfie with a piece of this history.
14. Explore the streets of Old Town Berat.
Old Town Berat is another one of the cities in Albania that is protected by UNESCO. Explore the city of 1001 windows and see what all the hype is about. The mountainside is full of quaint white houses and the windows of these houses are lit up at night and look absolutely gorgeous from the bridge. The center of the bridge is a great spot to take those much-needed vacation photographs. Stop by the castle on the top of the mountain for only 100 lek (a little less than one dollar).
15. Spend midnight on News Years in Skanderbeg square
New Years is a big holiday for Albanians and many celebrate by giving each other gifts and having a giant family dinner the night of. If you happen to be in Tirana on New Years, I suggest you go to the center of town and spend midnight in the chaos of Skanderbeg Square. The city puts on a decent firework show and many Albanians set off their own fireworks as well. Be careful to not get stuck in the center of the DIY fireworks because there is no age restriction on who can buy fireworks. Often times you will see young boys and teenagers lighting fireworks in a frenzied manner.
16. Experience rafting in Corovode.
There is a rafting company that takes people on rafting trips down through the Osumi Canyon. I have heard that this is not the most exhilarating rafting trips because there are not a lot of higher class rapids, but if you’re interested in a calmer river float then this might be just right for you.
17. Shop second-hand clothes at the treg or bazaar.
Many cities will have a weekly or daily bazaar. At the bazaar you can find plenty of good-quality used clothing that has been imported in from other countries in Europe. I have found some really nice brand-name clothing for less than one US dollar at the bazaar. The only downside is sifting through piles of used clothing, but if you have the patience and the time you might find something worth keeping.
18. Go clubbing at Matrix.
Matrix is the best club that I’ve been to in Tirana. You can find famous local musicians or DJs mixing on the weekends. The club has LED lighting on the walls, as well as a pretty sweet laser light show. The night I went clubbing at Matrix reminded me of the fun times that I would spend going clubbing back home. Definitely worth the stop if you’re into partying. Make sure to reserve a table ahead of time.
19. Swim in Ohrid lake near Pogradec.
Ohrid lake is the perfect place to cool off during the hot summer months. The lake is crystal clear and absolutely refreshing after sweating all day. Did I mention that it gets pretty hot during the summer? Especially in July and August. You can take a paddleboat out into the middle of the lake to see the underwater vines that have grown hundreds of feet from the bottom near the surface of the water.
20. Visit the Gjirokaster castle.
The castle in Gjirokaster is preserved far better than the other castles around Albania. Inside you will find old school artillery, the remnants of an old American plane, the prison, and the festival stage. Every four years there is an Albanian Folk Festival held on that stage to showcase folklore from across the country. While you’re in Gjirokaster also spend some time walking around Old Town.
21. Take an evening xhiro.
In the evenings, especially during the summer, Albanians take to the streets in the evening before sunset to go on a stroll with their friends and family. During the xhiro you will see people dressed up to perfection walking slowly with their loved ones. If you go on a xhiro make sure to walk slowly and take things avash avash. Some of the best xhiros can be found in Durres, Shkoder, Vlore, and Berat. If you happen to xhiro in Durres you should stop by the ancient amphitheater beforehand and grab gelato on the Volga near the beach afterwards.
22. Learn the history of Butrint.
Butrint is another UNESCO heritage site just south of Ksamil at the southern tip of the country. Butrint has been around since prehistoric times and has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, and Venetians. You will be able to explore several different archeological sites at Butrint. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in the south.
23. Soak in the hot springs of Benja.
The hot springs of Benja are located near the small city of Permet. Benja is a village on the hill near the city and can be reached hiking by foot. The hot springs are known for their therapeutic effects.
24. Take out a paddleboat in Durres.
If you’re in Durres it would be worthwhile rent and paddle boat and get away from the crowded seaside. If you’re looking to swim, I’d suggest General’s Beach near Kavaje (which you need a private vehicle to access) or some of the beaches further south. I would not recommend swimming in some of the waters near Durres, especially during the month of August when the beaches are packed full of tourists from Kosovo.
25. Jump into the blue eye.
There are two blue eyes in Albania. One up north near Theth and the other down south in between Gjirokaster and Saranda. If you’re up for it, you should take the plunge into the blue eye’s pristine water. Just beware that the temperature is extremely cold, but there are definitely worse ways to cool off in the summer though.
26. Eat seafood at Gazi restaurant in Kavaje.
I am lucky to live in a city with some of the best restaurants in Albania, in my opinion. Gazi is a great locally owned seafood restaurant. The fish is caught fresh daily and Gazi, the owner, is sure to stop by your table to see how everything is tasting. The restaurant does not have menus, but I’d recommend ordering whatever is fresh. Whenever I eat there I like to have the mussels and makaron me fruta deti (mixed seafood pasta). My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
27. Visit Kruje.
Kruje is your one stop shop for traditional Albanian goods and touristy objects. The city has a castle, several museums, and a bazaar. You can also check out the shrine to Skanderbeg, a national Albanian hero. Also, head to nearby city Fushe-Kruje to see the George W. Bush statue.
28. Walk down George W. Bush Street.
Speaking of George W. Bush, there is also a street named after the former USA president in the capital city of Tirana. George W. Bush was the first, and only, USA president to visit Albania. After his visit, the Albanians commemorated his time here with a street and statue. As you can see, Albanians love Americans.
29. Hold a lamb or baby goat.
There are sheep and goats everywhere in Albania. You can see shepherds and their sheep walking down the streets in the center of town or grazing on the grass in the city park or in the villages just outside the city. I’d recommend taking some time to go on a walk to some of the smaller villages near the cities you’re visiting. If you happen to walk by a shepherd ask if you can hold one of the babies. It’s guaranteed that he will oblige.
30. Circle dance at an Albanian party.
There are always reason to valle aka circle dance in Albania, whether it be teacher’s day, someone’s birthday, or just a night out at dinner. If you are out celebrating with Albanians suggest circle dancing. It is likely you won’t even need to suggest it when you’re out with Albanians because valle basically happens at every single party. The basic step is quite simple, but some of the more difficult dances, like Valle Kosovare, might take a little longer to master.
31. Eat sheep head.
Sheep head is a delicacy in Albania and people will often serve this in their home on special occasions or holidays. This dish is often cooked with yogurt and lots of butter. I have only had this dish once, but I tried all the different parts including the brain, eye, and tongue. For those who have a curious palette, this might be a good choice of cuisine for you.
32. Try to spot the Dordelec.
Many Albanians hang dolls or stuffed animals from their homes to protect against the evil eye. Test how observant you are and try to spot some of these relicts hanging from balconies, roofs, etc. You might also see dolls on half-built homes. The idea behind this is to hang something ugly outside the home to keep the emotions of envious onlookers at bay.
33. Check out the block in Tirana.
When you’re in Tirana be sure to check out the blloku where you can find plenty of bars and upscale restaurants to suit your fancy. Head up to the top of Sky Tower bar to get a 360 rotating view of the entire city. Mon Cherie is a coffee shop that caters to those looking for a foreign coffee feel. They specialize in making frilly drinks, much like those in the states. Radio Bar is my favorite bar. It is decorated with old school radios, records, and photographs. Don’t expect a cheap night out on the blloku though because many of these bars and restaurants have prices comparable to the states and other parts of Europe.
34. Go swimming at the lake in Vau Dejes.
Vau Dejes is a small village near Shkoder in northern Albania. The village itself is quite small, but it is home to a beautiful and quaint lake. Take a furgon from Shkoder to Vau Dejes for the day to check out this lake. In the summer many of the kids from the village head up to the lake to keep cool from the heat. You can also find a great coffee shop nearby to quench your thirst.
35. Speak with the locals.
Get to know Albanians while you’re traveling around this gorgeous country. They are some of the friendliest people in the world. Even if they can’t speak your language they will likely try to help you in any way possible. Say hello to people on the street and learn some basic Albanian greetings to impress them with your impeccable language skills. Even if you only know a few words in Albanian, people will likely applaud your effort and your amazing language skills. Some might even say that you’re fluent already. So kick back, relax, and enjoy everything Albania has to offer. It is one of those gems that has yet to be taken over by tourism, so you’ll get the true experience of a Balkans adventure.