After visiting the Balkans of former Yugoslavia including Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzagovina, and Slovenia, it was time for me to plan another road trip to the South Balkan. Of course I had spent a copious amount of time in Greece already (which is considered south Balkans), but this trip would be focused on the much less visited and totally underrated countries of Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
Planning a trip to these off the beaten path countries can be daunting because there is less information on the subject. Let’s be honest, if you tell a Western European you are going to Tirana, they will most likely respond with “wait by why??”
Don’t worry, those people have no idea what they’re missing out on and if you want to see beautiful mountain landscapes, stunning beaches, mesmerizing lakes, and incredibly cheap prices to boot, look no further than these places.
This post will go into detail about my trip and will help you plan yours as well. You do not have to do my exact trip. You can break it down depending on how much time you have and which places you want to see!
Where I went in the South Balkans: Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo
I had just over two weeks to spend in the region and originally I was going to focus it primarily on Albania but I figured this might be too much time to spend on a country this small (turns out I was right). After researching the region, I figured I might as well visit the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Kosovo as well which turned out to be an amazing decision.
If you don’t have at least two weeks to dedicate to this trip, then what I did might feel too rushed. Instead, I would focus most of my time on Albania first, before doing offshoot trips to Kosovo or Macedonia. If time isn’t of issue, then just note that I spent most of my time in Albania because there is the most stuff to do there.
Here is a map of my itinerary:
Rent a car
For this itinerary to work in the allotted time, then you must rent a car. While public transportation is widely available and there are buses that connect Tirana to locations all over the region, it just is not as efficient as renting a car.
In addition, a lot of the charm in these countries is visiting smaller towns that are not well connected or a mountain viewpoint over the Adriatic or Lake Ohrid.
Renting a car is very cheap in the region. I started my trip in Tirana and a rental car could be had for as cheap as €10. I ended up paying about €18 a day for full insurance coverage and from a more reputable company.
The roads in the these countries are plenty good when you’re on the main freeways.
With this trip, you can see from the itinerary map that it is just a circular loops that travels through Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. You can essentially start in any of the three capitals (Tirana, Skopje, and Pristina) and make it work.
This way you won’t need to mess with one way drop offs with your rental car and will not need to book multi-city flight itineraries. For this trip, I started in Tirana.
From Tirana, I spent two nights exploring the capital before driving south to the old city of Berat. From Berat, I drove south further to explore the coast. Then another night in Gjirokaster before driving to Macedonia. In Macedonia, I only spent time exploring Lake Ohrid and Skopje (which is mostly what people do).
From Macedonia, I crossed the border into Kosovo to see Pristina and Prizren before driving back to Albania. This time, I came back to Albania’s northern half to hike in its famous and beautiful mountain range. After visiting Valbona National Park and going on the Lake Koman ferry, I drove back to Tirana to end the trip.
Start in Tirana
Tirana is hands-down one of my favorite cities in the Balkans, full of incredible restaurants, cafés serving up perfect coffee for less than $1, funky museums, interesting open-air markets, and vibrant street art.
Spend your first day in Tirana getting acquainted with the area around Skanderbeg Square, visiting Bunkart 2 and/or the House of Leaves, checking out the socialist mural on the National History Museum, visiting the newly renovated Pazar I Ri market area, and walking around the hipster neighborhood of Blloku which used to be the center of Communist rule during Enver Hoxha’s murderous reign.
This is a great area to go out at night: I strongly recommend Colonial Cocktail Academy for inventive mixology, Radio Bar for chilled-out drinks in a funky vintage-inspired settling, Nouveau Vague for one of the most photogenic terraces in Tirana, and Kino for a lovely summer garden and fabulous mixed drinks.
From Tirana, the first stop on this epic road trip is to the old town of Berat. Whereas Tirana didn’t have really any “old towns” to speak of due to Communism, Berat is exactly what you’re thinking of when it comes to old European villages.
Having spent a lot of time in Albania, I think Berat is probably the most impressive traditional town in the country. Known as the city of 1000 windows, this old town was heavily influenced by the Ottoman empire and you can see the same architectural prowess as you do in certain parts of Turkey.
Picturesque stone houses with dark mahogany stucco roofs are built along the hillside. Don’t forget the fortress at the top of said hill just to add perspective. The town is incredibly photogenic and you will get some of your best pictures of the country here.
For the best views, visit the new bridge and take the photo head on. In addition, the views from the main town square that is adorned with numerous cafes is amazing.
Last but not least, if you just have one night here like I did, make sure to absolutely go eat dinner at Homemade food Lili located right in the old town. The owner is incredibly energetic and I’ve never seen a happier soul. Coupled with some of the best Albanian food you’ll find and this is a must visit.
Where I stayed in Berat
There are countless places to stay in Berat and all for very affordable prices. I stayed at Guesthouse Arben Elezi which had comfortable rooms and modern finishings. However, the best part of this guesthouse was its rooftop terrace with dead on views of Berat’s old town. Having breakfast here with these views was an absolute treat.
Himare and the Albanian Riviera
After one night in Berat, I drove south towards the Albanian coast to enjoy beaches and sea. The Adriatic coastline of Albania is totally underrated in my opinion. It combines dramatic mountain peaks with that beautiful Ionian sea that you can’t get enough of. Driving down the coast reminded me of Crete in some parts, mixed in with Kefalonia, Greece at others. It is spectacular and not to be missed!
There is a steep ascent up the mountains but as it dips down to sea level, the views of the mountains towering over the sea is breathtaking.
There are many towns and destinations to visit on the coast. The main towns of interest are:
- Butrint National Park
There are many smaller villages that are also beautiful but these are the main ones. It is not so big of an area to cover so I would recommend to just choose a town and base yourself there for a few nights.
After reading a lot of blogs, I settled on Himare which is mostly in the middle of the southern coast and is known to be a bit more laid back but with beautiful views. Dhermi is next door but seemed to be a place that specialized in high end accommodations which wasn’t what I was after. Sarande in the very south is a bigger beach town that had a very Southern California OC vibe (as well as Vlore). In the end, I was very happy with my decision of staying in Himare.
Drop in at the Appollonia Ruins
On the way from Berat to Himare, you’ll pass through the old Greek ruins at Appollonia. Here you’ll find a small acropolis type of building with breathtaking views of the nearby valleys. There is a small entrance fee here but it is a nice little stop along the way to the coast.
Visit Gjipe Beach
All the Albanians I met told me a visit to Gjipe Beach was a must. It’s one of the nicest beaches in the coast and I would have to agree. Located between Dhermi and Himare, this beach is a bit of a mission to get to. It involves driving down a small road (it is paved at least), parking your car, and walking 20 minutes down rocky roads to the beach.
It is not difficult by any means but just keep in mind you will want to pack lots of water for this trip. In the end, the beach is absolutely beautiful and has all the qualities of an Ionian sea beach you can expect.
Having visited in late April, I was able to enjoy beautiful weather (25C+) and zero crowds. However, in the summer months, expect this beach (and every other one) to get super packed.
Visit Butrint National Park
Butrint National Park is located south of Sarande and is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to perhaps the least crowded Greek and Roman ruins you’ll find.
The Amphitheatre here was completely empty and I was able to just chill here by myself for quite some time. There is also a very nicely preserved fortress with views of the surrounding bay.
After getting your history in, make sure to have lunch in Ksamil. Guvat Bar and Restaurant is located right on the beach with stunning views of the turquoise water below. As this region is so close to Greece, expect delicious Greek food which is my favorite European cuisine.
Staying at Beleri House
Beleri House in Himare was an amazing option to stay! It was right in front of the beach and had great ocean views. The town of Himare is much more chilled and a great place to base yourself to explore the nearby areas.
After a very relaxing few days in Himare soaking up the sun and sea, it was time to continue onwards to Gjirokaster, which is another beautiful medieval mountain town in the heartland of Albania. The drive from Himare to Gjirokaster is quite scenic and just over two hours.
Blue Eye of Sarande
Along the way, stop at the Blue Eye of Sarande which is a natural pool with ultra clear water coming from depths of 50 meters below. It’s possible to swim in these waters and it is a popular tourist attraction.
Upon arrive in Gjirokaster, you will be undoubtedly taken aback by the natural beauty of the town. Like Berat, there is an old town and a new town but of course, you’ll want to stay the night in the old part of the village on the hills.
Gjirokaster is known as the stone city and is another beautiful display of Ottoman city planning. It is similar but also not that similar to Berat, even though both towns share the same history. Both towns are incredibly beautiful and I’d say Gjirokaster is as beautiful as Berat. Both towns are absolutely worth visiting.
Gjirokaster feels a bit more touristy than Berat as its main streets are filled with shops that sell souvenirs and restaurants. However, visiting in late April during COVID meant neither town felt touristy whatsoever.
Where I stayed – Stone Rooms
I found a hotel called the Stone Rooms at the top of Gjirokaster with complete panoramic views of the city for 20 euros a night. It was a bit of a mission to get here but the views were totally worth it.
After a night in Gjirokaster, it is time to make the drive into North Macedonia. This is a long drive day (almost six hours) as you will mostly drive through small mountainous roads. This drive is annoying and full of questionable roads but the scenery is well worth it. The mountain area around the Greece border is especially stunning.
Along the way, you can break up the drive by stopping in Korce for lunch before crossing the border into North Macedonia. Before crossing the border, you’ll need to buy a Macedonian Green pass for your car which is essentially insurance. The cost of this is 40 euros.
After crossing the border, Lake Ohrid is another 45 minutes drive. At this point, you will already be on the lake and it is absolutely beautiful. It is one of the largest lakes in the Balkans and its mountains background reminds me of visiting Lake Como in Italy or Kotor in Montenegro.
What to do in Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid is similar to Lake Como in that there are multiple towns surrounding the lake. However, I found that only one was historic and picturesque and that was of the town of Ohrid. People don’t talk much about the other towns so I think it’s safe to base yourself entirely in Ohrid.
Staying in the old town of Ohrid is the way to go as you will be close to all the sights. The main things to see here are the fortress at the top of the town and numerous Orthodox churches. The fortress is a short walk and can be done in a few minutes.
Of the churches, the most famous and most picturesque is without a doubt St John’s Church right on the tip of the peninsula. From here, you have panoramic views of Lake Ohrid and this beautiful Orthodox church perched by itself overlooking the lake.
Aside from this, you can take a catamaran around the lake as a tour. Simply walk along the main waterfront and there are plenty of people selling tours from their boats.
Simply, there is just time here to relax and soak up the beautiful lake views. I definitely could have stayed in Ohrid for a few more days.
Stay at Villa Ohrid
There are so many amazing guesthouses in Lake Ohrid so your options are endless. I wanted a view of the town and of the lake so I ended up choosing to stay at Villa Ohrid. It did not disappoint because I had a balcony that was front and center viewing the lake. Waking up to this view every morning was divine.
After a wonderful few days in Lake Ohrid, it was time to continue the journey onward to the capital of North Macedonia.
The drive is quite scenic with the mountain views and terrace farms. There isn’t a whole lot to see besides the Ottoman era mosque in Tetove which has some of the most stunning murals I’ve seen on a Mosque.
This area in the west of Macedonia is mostly Albanian which I learned shortly after that much of the population in North Macedonia is Albanian, similar to how much of Southern Albania’s population consider themselves Greek.
Skopje is a beautiful town and was definitely the most beautiful capital of the three countries in my opinion (Tirana, Skopje, and Pristina). The town has a fantastic vibe and energy which I enjoyed.
Walking tour of Skopje
The free walking tour of Skopje is a great way to see all the sights of the city. There is one company that does these and they meet in the main Square next to the Alexander the Great statue. My guide was great as he explained so much about the city I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
For starters, Macedonia is a former Yugoslavian country and therefore have a Slavic language. However, I never knew that Greece also has a Macedonia part which is the region in the very north with Thessaloniki as its capital. In Ancient times, “Macedonia” encompassed what is now modern day North Macedonia and “South Macedonia” which is in Greece. However, Slavs moved in during the 5th century AD and staked out their land.
Up until 2018, the country of “Macedonia” was what is now North Macedonia. However, as North Macedonia wants to join the EU, they needed to change their name because their neighbors Greece was not happy with their claim to all of the “Macedonia” name. North Macedonia was therefore created and adopted only a few years ago. Most people were not happy about the name change and I can’t blame them!
Nevertheless, the walking tour is great as it explores the new part of the town with more European and Communist style buildings as well as the old part of town just over the old Bridge. This area was thriving in Ottoman times and nowadays is home to a Bazaar style neighborhood with shops and restaurants closely packed. It is in fact, the second largest Bazaar style neighborhood after Istanbul!
Explore the Bohemian Neighborhood
I stayed in the Bohemian neighborhood that is just 15 minutes away from the city center. I was recommended this area as it was where all the cool bars and restaurants are. If you want a more neighborhood vibe, then this is definitely where you’ll want to stay.
Make sure to visit the cocktail bars of Casa and the restaurants on the main strip.
After Skopje, it is a quick 1.5 hours north to the capital of Kosovo. The drive is largely uneventful and the border was quite easy. The first thing I noticed upon entering Kosovo was how amazing the roads were. It was a proper freeway that you’d find in the best roads of Germany or the United States. By far the best roads of the trip so far.
Pristina was also much different than my expectations. Having gone through a heinous war only 25 years ago, I just figured the city would still be recovering from the effects of that. As Kosovo consists largely of Albanian people, I figured the city would be more grungy like Tirana.
However, I was mistaken. The city feels much more built up and modern than I figured. It was surprisingly clean and more orderly than other Balkan capitals, especially when compared to Tirana.
I only stayed here for a day so I didn’t get to explore it in detail but it also felt like there was slightly less character than the hip neighborhood of Blloku in Tirana for example or the remnants of its old town in comparison to Skopje.
I also took the free walking tour in Pristina which I can recommend. There really aren’t a whole lot of “must see” sights in Pristina as much of it was destroyed and most of the city is quite new.
However, what interested me in Pristina was not its medieval history but rather its modern history. I learned quite a great deal talking to my guide about the Kosovo war. Since it was so recent, anyone over the age of 30 remembers in great detail exactly what went down in the late 90s. He recounted how life was in those dark times which really put it in perspective, similar to my tour guide in Kiev talking about the revolution in 2014.
Kosovars love to party hard and you’ll find no shortage of nightlife in Pristina. People are out and about in full force all throughout the night in the main square as well as the Fehmi Agani street. As well, the food in Kosovo was the best I had on the trip. If you are looking for delicious grilled meats and crispy burek, you’ll get the best of both in Kosovo!
Peje and Prizren
The next stay starts early in the morning with a departure of Pristina to the Rugova Valley in the west of the country. I was recommended this valley by various blogs I met. It’s about 1.5 hours to the Rugova Valley mountains just west of the town of Peje.
The mountains here are beautiful. There is ample hiking to be done here as well as zip-lining. However, in this itinerary will be a visit to the Valbona and Theth mountain ranges in Albania. If you’re visiting Kosovo only, then definitely make it out to this part of the country. However, if you are going to Valbona, I would give Peje and Ragova a skip even if it is just for a half day. Instead, focus your energy on Prizren.
Prizren is the old and traditional town of Kosovo. It was the capital during olden times before moving to Pristina. It’s a rather large town but with a small and historic old town where you will likely spend most of your time in.
The old town is picturesque and features a big mosque and an old Ottoman bridge that really reminds me of the Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a great place to take photos especially around sunset.
As for the old town, there really isn’t much to explore. It is quite tiny and you can walk from one end to the other in five minutes.
The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, and shisha lounges. At night, it turns into a huge party as it seems like the whole town descends into it. Mixed with tourists, and you are assured a big night out every night.
Hike to the fortress of Prizren
Sitting atop the hill overlooking Prizren town is the old fortress. It’s a quick 15 minute hike from the old town and is worth it for the panoramic views over the town. The fortress itself is very impressive. Built during Byzantine times, it was further developed during the Serbian and Ottoman empires. There is no entrance fee.
Along the way, you’ll pass through an old Serbian Orthodox church perched up on the hilltop overlooking the town. It’s an unfinished church which I’m sure was started sometime during the Yugoslavian times. I’m sure there is no shortage of debates about what to do with it among the Kosovars.
What to eat in Prizren
There are tons of restaurants in Prizren including countless Qebaptores (grill houses), Furra (bakeries), and bars. The best restaurant in town is without a doubt the restaurant at the Tiffany hotel. This restaurant serves very traditional oven baked Albanian dishes that I did not find anywhere else during my trip. Make sure to try the Elbasan lamb!
Prices in Kosovo are amount the cheapest I’ve ever seen in Europe. So cheap that I didn’t even bother with credit cards because it felt silly to pay a few euros with a credit card. An espresso at the trendy Gatsby bar next to the Bridge is €0.50 euros and a lunch of Qebapa is €2-3 euros.
Valbona and Theth
After Prizren, Kosovo is pretty much done and it is time to go back to Albania. This next part is confusing and can easily take up an entire post to explain. I will try to summarize it as easily as possible.
One of the most stunning and must do things in Albania in my opinion is to visit the Accursed mountains which is Albania’s answer to the Italian Dolomites.
Valbona to Theth Hike
It is absolutely stunning in its beauty and the dramatic rocky peaks will convert any lowland lower. One of the most popular things to do in Albania is to make the Valbona to Theth hike. Valbona and Theth are two national parks located next to each other in Albania’s north. Valbona to the East and Theth to the west. They are only connected by foot meaning there are no roads connecting these two national parks. Therefore, many travelers make the trek by foot and it’s one of the most epic hikes you can do.
However, this is only possible in the summer months as snow often blocks the way. This 6-7 hour hike can only be done between the months of May-September. I visited in early May and sadly, the pass was closed. Therefore, I went straight to Valbona from Kosovo instead of doing the typical “route” for this trip.
If you are visiting and the pass is indeed open (just message one of the guesthouses in Valbona to know about the conditions), then this is the itinerary you will follow:
- Start in Shkoder (overnight)
- In the morning, your guesthouse or hotel will arrange a transport to the Koman Lake Ferry, which is in itself extremely epic (more details on this shortly)
- Take the two hour ferry ride from Koman to Fierza
- From Fierza, take another transport to your guesthouse in Valbona where you will spend the night
- The next day, make the 6-8 hour hike from Valbona to Theth, spend the night at your guesthouse in Theth
- The following day, take a transport to Shkoder
For the above itinerary, you can leave your rental car in Shkoder for the 3 days no problem. You can’t take the car with you on this trip because there is no way to get back to Valbona after you finish your hike unless you want to walk back! Therefore, it’s much easier to just do this trip without your rental car.
Valbona National Park
Since I couldn’t do the above hike, I decided to just spend some time in Valbona without going to Theth. While the pass was closed, there are still hikes to be done without much issue. The Maja e Rosni hike is the one that many people do. It’s 2600m to the top and takes about 7 hours round trip. However, it’s only about 1600m to get to the first viewpoint which affords you panoramic views of the valley.
This is what I ended up doing and it was incredibly beautiful. The views stretch for many kilometers down the valley as you get the same jagged peaks that I saw in the Dolomites. It’s truly breathtaking here.
Staying at Margjeka Hotel
The most popular guesthouse that I read about was Margjeka. It’s located at the very end of the road in Valbona and it is located on a hill which gives it views of every mountain surrounding it. The rooms are comfortable and the food was delicious. Most importantly, waking up to these views was something special.
I would highly recommend staying here!
Koman Lake Ferry
Last but not least, the Koman lake ferry was the cherry on top of the cake of an amazing South Balkans itinerary. It might not sound fancy (and the ferry boat certainly isn’t) but this ferry ride between Koman and Fierza is one of the most spectacular things I did.
Seriously, you cannot leave Albania without at least going on this ferry ride.
Picture towering Norwegian style Fjords on all sides of you as you sail across a turquoise river. It’s something special and no pictures do it justice!
From Valbona, it’s a 1.5 hour drive to the port town of Fierza. There is nothing here really except some restaurants and this ferry. The ferry runs once a day between Koman and Fierza (round trip). The cost is only €6 per person and about €40 for a car.
The ferry ride is only two hours but you’ll wish it lasts longer. After arriving in Koman, it’s an easy drive back to Shkoder or if you need to go home via Tirana.
From here, I thought about driving to Theth (since I couldn’t hike there) to see the contrast with Valbona. However, in the end, I didn’t want to deal with it as the roads to Theth are very rough for the last 15 km. It’s not feasible without a 4×4 and I didn’t want to risk it. In the end, I decided to go to Montenegro next door to get back to the sea!
I wrote about the Lake Koman ferry ride in detail so make sure to read that if you are considering this trip!
Day by day breakdown of Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo
Here is a day by day breakdown of my itinerary:
Day 1: Tirana
Day 2: Tirana
Day 3: Berat
Day 4: Berat to Himare
Day 5: Himare (explore Butrint National Park)
Day 6: Himare (Relax at beaches)
Day 7: Gjirokaster
Day 8: Lake Ohrid (long day of driving)
Day 9: Lake Ohrid
Day 10: Skopje
Day 11: Skopje
Day 12: Pristina
Day 13: Pristina
Day 14: Prizren
Day 15: Prizren
Day 16: Valbona
Day 17: Back to Tirana (with the Lake Koman Ferry)
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