Albania is one of those countries that gets brushed aside when planning travel to Europe. Most travelers not in the know would think what is even in Albania and opt instead of Greece or Croatia. I’m here to say that there’s definitely no reason to skip through Albania anymore as it offers some of the most diverse landscapes of any country in Europe!
I spent three weeks traveling around the South Balkans visiting Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo. I spent the majority of my time in Albania because it has the most to see. From dramatic mountain ranges to beautiful blue beaches, Albania has everything. Not to mention the cultural diversity among its people is surprising with Albanians, Montenegrins, Greek, and Macedonian all living within the borders.
Albania is quite a diverse country and Tirana is inconveniently located in the middle of the country. It’s divided into two parts, the north and the south and while I’ve visited both, it might be too much to do both unless you have at least 1.5 weeks to dedicate.
Where I went in Albania
I saw most of all the highlights of Albania during my trip there. In total, I spent about 10 days visiting the country which I think is enough. However, if you have two weeks, you’ll be able to see everything I think.
If you only have a week, then I’d recommend splitting the trip into itineraries either for the southern part of the country or the north.
Here is a map of my itinerary:
Rent a car in Albania
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 car insurer was very easy to work with.
The roads in the these countries are plenty good when you’re on the main freeways.
Should I see the north or the south of Albania?
Albania has a very diverse set of landscapes. The north is characterized by huge mountain ranges that are dramatic and stunning. These mountains really remind me of the Italian Dolomites which are the most beautiful mountains in my opinion. The south has more of the traditional villages as well as a beautiful coastline the more you approach Greece.
It really depends on what you want to see and what you’re looking for. Are you after sunny beaches or epic hiking? There are just too many variables. Just brainstorming the pros, I can think of these:
- Beautiful beaches
- Epic drives along the coast
- Beautiful medieval villages like Berat and Gjirokaster
- Lots of Greek and Roman ruins
- Amazing mountain ranges
- One of the most epic hikes from Valbona to Theth
- Lake Koman Ferry (even more epic)
What would I do?
If I had to choose between these two, I would probably take the north itinerary. As beautiful as the Albanian coast is, I think you can see even more beautiful places in Greece like Kefalonia nearby. I think the north is particularly unique and you don’t see mountain ranges like that often. As well, the Lake Koman ferry is just breathtakingly epic.
As Tirana is located in the middle of the country, you will have to choose which area to go to if you only have a week. If you have two weeks (or even ten days), then it’s feasible to not have to decide and be able to see everything. I will break down the itineraries at the end of the post for those that want to get an idea how to plan a trip with regards to which part of the country.
For the purpose of this post, as I saw both the north and the south, I will write about all the areas that I went to and how many days I spent there. Afterwards, I will include ideas on how to structure your trip depending on the amount of time you have!
Albania Trip Summary
All trips in Albania will likely start 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 where I stayed three days in Himare. I used Himare as a base to explore nearby seaside sights like Butrint National Park, Dhermi, Gjipe Beach and more.
From Himare,, I drove to Gjirokaster to see the old city where I stayed one night high up in the town. This pretty much summarizes the southern part of the trip. Thankfully, Albania is not too large and driving from the south to the north can be done in short time.
From Gjirokaster, I drove next to the town of Shkoder where I prepared for the famous north Albania hike circuit that traverses through Valbona and Theth national parks. This takes about four days in total to complete before finally ending back in Tirana.
Start in Tirana – Days 1&2
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.
Berat – Day 3
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 – Day 4-6
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.
Gjirokaster – Day 7
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.
Shkoder Town – Day 8
Shkodra is much more chilled out than Tirana. It’s one of the most bicycle friendly cities in Albania which is a far cry from the chaos of Tirana.
It has a great pedestrian walkway with lots of wonderful coffee shops which is an easy place to while away half an afternoon. I recommend renting bikes and heading out to Rozafa Castle, where you can get phenomenal views over Lake Shkodra, and if you’re extra ambitious you can even bike to the shores of the lake and sunbathe there for a bit or even go for a dip.
You can also check out the phenomenal photography museum there, the Marubi National Museum of Photography, the beautiful central mosque, and the old bazaar.
Valbona and Theth – Day 9 to 12
From Shkoder, it is time to start the infamous Valbona to Theth hike.
The journey to the alps is a bit of a process but every step is worth it. The first of those steps is taking the most epic ferry ride you’ll ever have.
Koman Lake Ferry
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 Shkoder, it’s a 1.5 hour drive to the port town of Koman. 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 Fierze, it’s an easy drive to Valbona.
I wrote about the Lake Koman ferry ride in detail so make sure to read that if you are considering this trip!
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 Hotel. 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!
Day by day breakdown of Albania
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: Gjirokaster to Shkoder
Day 9: Shkoder to Lake Koman Ferry to Valbona where you spend the night
Day 10: Valbona to Theth Hike, stay in Theth
Day 11: Stay a second night in Theth
Day 12: Theth to Shkoder
Day 13: Flight out of Tirana
One Week Itinerary for Albania
If you only have one week to dedicate to Albania (7-8 days), then I will break down my day by day play for you here.
Again, since Tirana is in the center of the country, I would choose to either do the north or the south as part of my one week trip. I will break it down accordingly:
South Albania for One week
This trip will focus on places south of Tirana and is the longer of the two trips. It is centered around beaches and old towns.
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: Gjirokaster to Tirana
North Albania for One week
This trip will focus on places north of Tirana and is the shorter of the two trips. It is centered around hiking through the alps (and of course enjoying the views). Note that this itinerary is really only possible in the summer months between May and October as the pass between Valbona and Theth will not be covered in snow. If it is snowed in, you will not be able to do this famous hike.
Day 1: Tirana
Day 2: Tirana
Day 3: Shkoder
Day 4: Shkoder to Lake Koman Ferry to Valbona
Day 5: Valbona to Theth hike
Day 6: Full day in Theth
Day 7: Theth to Tirana
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