For more than 40 years, Albania was Europe’s ‘North Korea’, totally isolated by its dictator Enver Hoxha until 1985. However, since then, and especially in recent years, when it has become an international destination, everyone can enjoy this Balkan country without any problems, both its Albanian ‘Alps’, its Albanian ‘Riviera’, its small ‘Thailand’, and its rich culture and exquisite gastronomy. We tell you all this and much more in this post about what to see in Albania, stay and we’ll get you started!
What to visit in Albania
You need to know that you will need a rental car to visit Albania. There is public transport, such as buses or shared vans, but it will take a lot of time and you won’t be able to get to all the places, most of which are natural.
International rental cars charged us more than 3,000 euros for our 40-day trip through the Balkans in the summer (in addition to Albania, we visited Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia). We rented the car with a local company and an Albanian agency helped us to save a lot of money (you can choose a car and check prices by following this link).
At this point you should also know that the roads in Albania are not very well known, not only because they can have potholes, there are few motorways or it takes several hours for very few kilometres as it is a mountainous country, but also because the drivers are unorthodox. For this, you can always take this 8-day tour with an English-speaking guide and let yourself go.
Our road trip through Albania started in Tirana (the capital), followed by Shkodër (as a gateway to Valbona), Valbona National Park, Korce, Gjirokastra, Saranda and Tirana, and we spent two weeks there. If you only opt for Tirana and the beaches (Albanian Riviera), you’ll need a week.
Here are our top 10 must-sees in Albania, in order of what we liked the most and what we liked the least.
The most beautiful beaches on the Albanian Riviera
We head south to the Albanian Riviera, an almost obligatory stop if you intend to enjoy its beaches, as was our case. The colour of its waters are marvellous, turquoise, transparent and not too cold, like those of the Caribbean. But they are not sandy beaches, they are made of white pebbles, which are not bad at all (don’t forget your booties).
And which are the best beaches in Albania? For us, Himare beach, Borsch beach, Lukove beach or Porto Palermo beach, in that order. Also very good are Kakome beach, Krorez beach or Tongo beach, which can only be reached by private boat or by an excursion from Saranda. We set up our base, our accommodation, in Saranda and from there we moved to all of them.
On these beaches bathed by the Ionian Sea you can be more or less quiet in the middle of August, even alone, as is the case of Lukove if you walk a few minutes to its sides. Even so, the more crowded tourism has already started to arrive here, which means that the prices and atmosphere are not the same as in the rest of the country. A word of advice: don’t go to Ksamil’s beaches in July or August, you’ll be disappointed.
Ksamil is sold as the best beach in Albania, but the reality is different. You have to pay for a sun lounger because there is no space on the sand (it is the only sandy beach in this area), from 17 to 50 euros, and you also have to pay for parking; it is overexploited, overcrowded, the water is murky, you can’t swim because there are many pleasure boats and if you want to relax, forget it, there are hawkers at every moment and loud music coming from the beach bars.
The photos of Ksamil that appear on Google are from other, non-summer months. The truth is that the area is beautiful, it has a small peninsula of irregular shape that is within the National Park of Butrinto, also known as the Three Islands. Between them is a huge pool with the island of Corfu (Greece) in the background.
Our base of operations, as mentioned above, is Saranda, another example of where overbuilt construction has won out over nature, but it is nevertheless well placed to locate Albania’s best beaches and have all the amenities at your disposal.
Koman Lake, a must-see in Albania
In the north of Albania lies Lake Komani, a vast turquoise reservoir surrounded by the Cursed Mountains, i.e. forested hills, deep gorges and a narrow fjord-like valley, fed by the Shala and Valbona rivers. Simply spectacular.
Both national and international visitors go there in small boats to refresh themselves in Molla Valley on the Shala River, the Albanian ‘Thailand’, or to take the ferry to the Valbona National Park, the ‘Albanian Alps’.
In Molla Valley you will find crystal clear water and delicious river trout, one of the best things to do in Albania. You can swim or hike in the area if you wish.
Today, touring the reservoir by ferry is another popular tourist attraction in Albania. It’s best to stop first at Koman, the small village at the entrance to the lake, and take the boat (where you can put your car) to the village of Fierzë (a two-and-a-half hour boat ride). Once there, it is only another hour’s drive to Valbona. Here we stayed at the Margjeka Hotel, the best in the area without a doubt.
Valbona National Park
Albania is a mountainous country, crossed by the so-called Dinaric Alps, a mountain range with peaks over 2,500 metres high. In the north is the highest point, Jezerka Peak, at 2,694 metres, and there are two national parks in this area. For us, the Valbona National Park is one of the most impressive and a must-see in Albania.
It reminded us of Switzerland, an area with big green mountains, barracos, valleys, lots of glacial melt water and little stone houses where all kinds of animal species such as deer, lynx and wolves live.
For maximum enjoyment, the best thing to do is to go hiking in the high mountains. You can start in the ‘village’ of Valbona (we put it in inverted commas because it is a village with several Bed & Breakfasts) and finish in Theth on a trekking route that takes about eight hours (non-circular route). Some people do it in the opposite direction. We went with our baby and we couldn’t do it because it is a bit demanding. There are few plans for families in this area, apart from short walks, dips in the riverbanks and disconnecting.
Tirana, capital of Albania
Hoxha reigned over Albania for more than 40 years until his death in 1985, allegedly imprisoning, torturing and murdering some 100,000 Albanian citizens in the process. Extremely paranoid, he ordered the construction of more than 750,000 bunkers to assuage his chronic fear of foreign invasion.
Delving into this twisted past is essential to understanding modern-day Tirana, and an excellent starting point is the National Museum of History in Skanderbeg Square, a chronologically organised treasure trove of archaeological artefacts. Even more exciting is Bunk’Art, one of those covert, nuclear-proof bunkers on the outskirts of Tirana that has been transformed into a museum. In the centre of town is the Bunk’Art 2 outpost, a memorial to the victims of the Hoxha regime filled with the most revealing photographs and documents.
In Skanderbeg Square, very close to our accommodation in Tirana, you can also see the oldest Mosque in the capital, the Clock Tower which was once the tallest building in Tirana, the Opera House, the Theatre and the construction of several avant-garde buildings. And in the surrounding area you can see the Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection, what will be the largest Mosque in the Balkans (still unfinished), what remains of a Castle, the Pyramid of Tirana (a ruined communist monument that is being renovated into a cultural centre), the food market, several ministerial buildings, and a park where you can relax and be entertained in the children’s play area.
But what is most impressive about Tirana is its strong personality. Tirana remarkably overcame the atrocities of the past to become a thriving capital of Eastern Europe. Albania looks to the future beyond its own decades of horror and isolation. Now the capital is a young city. This former bastion of communism is lively and approachable, its residents open and friendly. It’s full of bars, terraces, cool cafés and a brutal nightlife. A pleasant surprise.
If you have time, visit the Dajti National Park and its incredible cable car. Both from the cable car and from the top of the mountain you have an unparalleled view of Tirana to give you an idea of its size. Tirana is a must-see in Albania, so leave at least a couple of days for it.
Berat, the city of a thousand windows to see in Albania
Berat is one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Cities, an hour and a bit from Tirana, and is known as the city of a thousand windows, a name you’ll understand as soon as you arrive, as you’ll be surrounded by ancient buildings that seem to be watching you from a distance. It’s over 2,400 years old and is a must-see in Albania.
Berat is situated in a valley, with the river Osum running through the middle. On both sides of the river are hundreds of old, well-preserved, whitewashed houses that cascade down the hill like a stone waterfall. However, what is most impressive is the 13th century castle, a citadel that is a small village in its own right. Climbing to the top is an odyssey on hot days, but it’s well worth it.
Gjirokastra and the Ottoman spirit
Gjirokastra is the other World Heritage City and is located near the Albanian Riviera. It is one of those historic towns so well preserved that it looks like a modern reconstruction. However, almost all the buildings you see in Gjirokastra are centuries old. For some people, the town loses its charm because of the many souvenir shops in the old part of town.
The most interesting places to visit here are the Ottoman houses, such as Skënduli, Kadaré, Zetake or the one in our accommodation, and its imposing castle. Gjirokastra is another must-see in Albania.
The Ojo Azul, 25 km from Saranda, is a freshwater spring that rises from the ground, like an underwater volcano, and consists of a small lake that resembles a swimming pool with beautiful shades of green and crystal blue.
The depth of this geological phenomenon is unknown, numerous divers have tried to reach the bottom but due to the pressure they have only managed to reach 45 metres.
You used to be able to drive to the Blue Eye itself, but now you have to park on the esplanades and walk 2 kilometres along a tarmac road. You can also rent an electric scooter, which you can find before the car parks. There is a small fee to enter the Blue Eye and bathing is not allowed, but people do go there. It’s another must-see in Albania.
Butrinto and Apolonia
In the archaeological section, there are two important archaeological sites. On the one hand, we have the ruins of Butrinto, in the National Park of the same name and very close to Ksamil and Saranda. This city, which began to be excavated in 1927, is a vestige of the power of the Greeks between the 8th and 10th centuries, a must-see in Albania.
Apollonia, an ancient city founded in 588 BC by Greek settlers, is an hour and a half from Tirana. There is a museum there, located in the monastery, which offers beautiful exhibits. Apollonia was originally a very influential port located on the Adriatic Sea.
If you have to choose, Butrinto is better preserved than Apollonia, more spectacular and more complete. Butrinto is also a World Heritage Site. If you travel to Albania in summer, visit these places almost at sunset, otherwise you’ll melt.
Korce, the cultural city
Korçë is an unattractive town from a historical point of view, but it is perfect for stocking up on everything you might need. We made a technical stop here from North Macedonia to end up in Gjirokastra and it was a great discovery.
Korce is one of Albania’s most cultural cities for its folkloric contributions, the creation of modern Albanian (don’t forget to visit the country’s first Albanian-language school), sensitivity to music and theatre, and multi-ethnic mix. Ah, Albania’s biggest Carnival is held here, as well as many festivals.
It is a very pleasant city to live in, especially in summer, and adapted to the new times. Since the opening of the pedestrian street that connects the Orthodox Cathedral with the Main Square in a beautiful promenade, it has gained a lot, along with other beautiful boulevards. The pedestrian street is called Bulevardi Shengjergti and in the surrounding area you will find terraces and restaurants where you can eat very well and cheaply.
It seems that the Albanians also visit Korçë in winter to enjoy the wonderful Christmas atmosphere. Here’s where we stayed.
Durres and its amphitheatre
Dürres is a coastal town, home to one of Albania’s most important ports. From a distance it looks like an industrial and chaotic area of buildings arranged in a meaningless way, but it maintains the spirit of a fishermen’s town. Moreover, Dürres has a lot to offer when you approach it. Roman remains can still be seen in the streets, such as the amphitheatre, the public baths, the remains of an aqueduct and the Venetian-Byzantine walls.
The beaches of Durres, almost in the north, are known for being wide in width and long in ‘length’ (15 km of coastline), are of blond sand and are only half an hour from Tirana.
Where to sleep in Albania
Tirara, Saranda, Durrës and Vlora are some of the big cities where you’ll find everything from budget to luxury, from hotels for families to hotels for those with pets. Outside of them you’ll find family-run guesthouses and the occasional large, proper hotel. Bear in mind that mass tourism has only arrived relatively recently and there is still much to be built in Albania.
One tip to bear in mind if you’re travelling to Albania in the summer book early, especially if you’re looking for options on the coast where the beaches attract more tourists.
We booked several accommodations in different parts of Albania in order to get to know the country as fully as possible from north to south, from the coast to the interior. Here’s what they are in case they help you to organise your route.
Where to eat in Albania
As in the rest of the Balkans, Albanian dishes are usually very tasty and have a homemade flavour. They use a wide variety of ingredients with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences.
Some of the typical ones are: Byrek (savoury pie which has many versions – it can be stuffed with meat, cheese, spinach, potatoes, Speça me gjize (roasted peppers stuffed with cheese), Trilece (cheesecake), Qofte (meatballs or sausages seasoned with spices and mint and served with raw onions, similar to Cevapis), Fergese (beef or lamb cooked in a clay pot with tomato, pepper, onion and cottage cheese), Fasulle plaqi (huge bean stew), Japrak (vine leaves with rice stuffed) and/0 Petulla (fried dough served for breakfast or dessert). Fish on the coast is more popular but often very expensive, and raki is a popular alcoholic drink in the Balkans.
Getting around Albania
As mentioned above, the best way to get around Albania is by rental car. Travelling by public transport in Albania requires patience, flexibility and no set timetable, with buses and shared vans. The train is from the communist era and apparently doesn’t run very well and doesn’t reach many parts of the country. And there are no domestic ferry routes between coastal cities.
Remember that if you’re going to visit other Balkan countries by land, you’ll have to cross borders and you’ll be asked for a valid passport, vehicle documents and a Green Card for the vehicle. You will also need to carry your International Driving Licence.