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Article: Discover Albania, Europe’s best-kept secret. It’s incredibly rich in culture and breathtaking landscapes.

Discover Albania, Europe’s best-kept secret. It’s incredibly rich in culture and breathtaking landscapes.

Discover Albania, Europe’s best-kept secret. It’s incredibly rich in culture and breathtaking landscapes.

As the warm breeze caresses my skin and the days stretch longer with the embrace of the sun, an insatiable craving for the sea takes hold of my heart. The allure of sun-kissed days spent on sandy shores, accompanied by the scent of salt in the air, becomes irresistible. Oh, how I yearn for that European summer escape, and my thoughts drift to one place and one place only: Albania.

Albania is Europe’s best-kept secret. It’s incredibly rich in culture, the landscapes are breathtaking, the food is delicious and fresh, and the people are warm. Although Albania’s tourism industry continues to double with each passing year, it comes without the dense crowds and hefty price tag of its neighboring Mediterranean countries. Being born in Albania and having a close connection to my heritage, it’s my pleasure to share with you the spots that make this such a special place for me and somewhere I return to as often as possible.

Although it makes a big impression, Albania is a relatively small country; you could drive from top to bottom in less than 24 hours. But in that time, you’d see the Adriatic Sea in the north and the Ionian coastline in the south. You could visit the ancient Roman ruins or one of its beautiful lakes. You’d get to take in the views of the soaring Albanian Alps, the same mountains where çaj mali grows wild, the hero ingredient in our Essential Tonic. There would be plenty of delightful meals along the way; Albanians like to use ingredients grown from the land around them, so produce is always fresh, and meals are centered around what’s in season. Some of the best meals I’ve had are from hole-in-the-wall restaurants that we’ve stumbled upon, usually with a kitchen full of family.

Let’s start with the South. On the Albanian Riviera, nestled between the Ionian Sea and hills of olive groves, is Sarandë. Known for its beautiful beaches and vibrant nightlife, Sarandë is one of my favorite places to visit. It was once occupied by both Greece and Italy, an influence that left archaeological sights dotted throughout the region as evidence. Thirty minutes from Sarandë, you can find Syri i Kalter, “The Blue Eye.” It’s the kind of place you go to marvel at nature, a beautiful, seemingly bottomless, deep blue spring. People come from all over to swim. A farmers market sets up outside, and people line up to fill bottles of fresh mountain spring water. Just south of Sarandë is Ksamil, famous for its crystal clear waters and my favorite little island to spend time by the sea; it’s a unique paradise. In Ksamil, I usually stay at King Hotel, a quaint boutique hotel. During my last trip, we spent much of our time at Tre Ishujt, a lively little restaurant on the water with some of the best food I’ve ever had.

Further up the coast, sitting on a bay that marks the meeting of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, is Vlorë. The third largest city in Albania, Vlorë is the perfect combination of laid-back beach and cultured city life. I like to stay at Hotel Liro; it’s on the water with a wonderful view. Everything happens outside in Vlorë, restaurants and nightlife, making for a playful ambiance. The beaches are fantastic, although they can be crowded close to the city. Orikum is a popular spot among locals.

The northern regions of Albania are a contrast to the South but breathtaking in their own right, with mountain views and beautiful lakes. Lake Koman is my favorite, with clear emerald water meandering through the mountains. It’s one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen; it feels impossible that it’s somewhere most people don’t know about. Lake Koman is close to Shkoder, one of Albania’s oldest inhabited cities, and a three-hour drive from the capital, Tirana. Whichever way you come, the important thing is that you do, it’s well worth it. While visiting the north, I like to stay at Hotel President Shenjin, just outside of the capital on the Adriatic waters. The food and service are spectacular, and it's nice to be close but not engulfed in the bustle of the city. When I’m in the mood, I venture into Tirana and explore the many restaurants, galleries, and fantastic nightlife. Less than an hour from Tirana is Elbasan, where I was born and raised. It has changed so much since I was a child, but I have fond memories of nature, community and, most prominently, food. My favorite is simite qofte, a meal of fresh bread and Albanian meatballs. I make it at home often but can never quite get it to taste exactly as it does in Albania. Elbasan is also home to some of the best natural thermal baths. People travel from all over to experience their healing properties, sometimes booking a session with a doctor who will guide them.

I could talk about Albania endlessly; there’s always something more to discover, like Berat City, known as the “Town of a Thousand Windows” because of its Ottoman houses or Kruje with its spectacular “statue of our savior.” But maybe the most remarkable thing about Albania is the feeling it leaves you with. Something you have to experience to understand, and I hope hearing from me has encouraged you to find out for yourself. 

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