Albania is one of my absolute favorite countries in Europe — or anywhere for that matter. It should be on everyone’s must-see list! It’s got everything — amazing mountains, beaches, great food, wine, rich history, culture, etc. Combine that with low prices and warm hospitality– it’s hard to beat! I made several trips to Albania starting in 2004 and continuing through to mid-2016 and there’s still much more I want to go back and see.
It’s best to get around by car, and be sure to allow as much time as possible to explore the various parts of the country. It’s small, but it packs in a lot! When driving around, you’ll see plenty of the old “pillbox” machine gun bunkers. Back in the 1960s – 1980s the communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, ordered the construction and manning of 173,000 heavy-duty, igloo-shaped, concrete machine gun bunkers as part of a national defense plan. As a result, these are scattered throughout the countryside. Some have been decoratively painted (ie., as turtles) and I’ve heard an exceptionally large one was turned into a bar– but I can’t verify that! Here’s an example of a large bunker:
If you fly into Albania, you’ll start your adventure here. Tirana has a great restaurant and nightlife scene, as well as many cultural attractions. Be sure to visit the National History Museum with the partisan mural in the city center (you can’t miss it). There are several other attractions downtown, all within walking distance, including a communist-era pyramid building, a mosque, a city wall that dates back to Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and an old stone bridge. I’ve heard about the nuclear bunker art (Bunk’art) museum, which sounds really neat– but I haven’t been there and can’t vouch for it personally. Still, it’s probably worth a visit! I stayed at the B&B Tirana Smile, which was a very clean, sleek, modern place that had a great breakfast and reasonable prices.
Durres is a nice seaside town about a half hour outside of Tirana. The beaches are a bit crowded (city beaches) but it’s a good respite if you need a quick beach fix. Excellent seafood is everywhere, naturally, but I especially recommend Vila Belvedere and Restaurant Splendid (right by the communist-era Partisan statue at the port / waterfront… below). I really enjoyed walked along the waterfront and stopping by the old castle and amphitheater.
The town of Kruja is an historic center and probably the #1 day trip from Tirana if you were pressed for time. It’s a beautiful small town that has traditional stone buildings and vendors selling local crafts at reasonable prices. It is famous for hosting the castle and museum of national hero Skenderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti), who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. It also has a statue of President George W. Bush and a cafe (and bakery) named after him following his 2007 visit there.
The Albanian alps are dramatic and beautiful — a highlight of any visit to the north. The launching point for hikes is Valbona, which many hikers use as a base before hiking on to Theth. The hike to Theth is intense and weather changes rapidly, so hire a local guide and review the local weather forecast before venturing out. Valbona National Park is also a great spot for shorter hikes. I stayed at Rilindja Hotel, which stocks a pond / river with live mountain trout that you can order at their restaurant. Everything is natural, organic, made locally– and delicious! The hotel also provides trail maps and can help arrange transport on the awesome Koman Lake Ferry (more about that below). This site also has some good information for planning a hike in Valbona. I had dinner one night at the nearby Villa Dini, which is a cozy b&b with great views and hearty fare– another solid recommendation!
Koman Lake Ferry
One top highlight of Albania is the Koman Lake Ferry. The ferry shuttles people and cars across the lake between Komani and Fierza in northern Albania. From looking at this web page, it appears it is becoming more popular as a tourist attraction — but it still is largely a hidden gem of Europe. I took the Berisha line (you can buy tickets on that page). I STRONGLY recommend taking this ferry if you get the chance! It winds along beautiful blue-green water that mirrors the dramatic mountains above. You travel through canyons passing by waterfalls and villages, with smaller boats zipping by to ferry villagers from one town to the next It was the equivalent of a few dollars per person, and maybe $20 to transport my car.
One note of caution: As of 2015, the road from Fierza to the ferry dock was fine, but the road on the other side of the lake — from Vau i Dejes to the Koman ferry dock (on route SH25) –was 34 kilometers of really, really rough road. The road might have been paved at one point, but is dramatically warped and riddled with numerous, deep potholes, sometimes engulfing the width of the road. Having a car with some clearance and/or a spare tire would be advisable. If you don’t want to deal with that drive, you could also just get a return ticket from Fierza and enjoy the ride both ways.
I drove in on the rough SH25 road from Shkoder. Just before arriving at the Koman dock, we drove through a long “tunnel” that was more like a cave — I paused twice before going through, because there was no signage and it wasn’t really clear that cars were supposed to drive through it (see the picture below… I brightened it for this page, but it was pitch black if not for my headlights). Once through, however, you arrive at a small dock and load onto the ferry. Upon arrival, the ferryman gave me a big grin and said jokingly “so… how was the road?”
Shkoder is a large city in northern Albania near the border with Montenegro. Visit the ruins of the Rozafa Castle on a peninsula just past the bridge coming into town. Further south towards Lezhe is the tomb of the national hero, Skenderbeg. If you head further north along the coast, stop by the beaches at Velipojë.
Lezhe is for Food Lovers! About an hour north of Tirana, in the Lezhe district of Albania, I want to flag two amazing restaurants for foodies. These are wonderful, multi-course meals that stretch over a few hours — so best to make a reservation and best with a group. As with other great restaurants in Albania — the prices are an excellent value.
- In the town of Shengjin, I highly recommend Rhapsodia Restaurant. You can order a la carte, but go with “Kilometer Zero,” which is basically an endless train of various gourmet creations from the chef. You can choose either a meat of seafood option — (I did seafood, which was awesome), and they just keep bringing new creations until you’re full.
- In the rural region of Fishte, go to Mrizi i Zanave — a beautiful restaurant / farm stay with an agro-tourisme theme. The restaurant is in a traditional stone building, decorated in a traditional theme and often has live music performers. All the food and wine is produced locally on the farm, and they bring around numerous courses of delicious fancy meats, cheeses, spreads, and desserts — more than you can possibly eat. I recommend going for Sunday brunch– especially if you sit outside on a nice day. They have a few rooms to stay in overnight, but they fill up quickly. Try their local red wine, Kallmet, as well as the various infused raki (moonshine) — especially the pine and loganberry infused ones!
Pro tip: if you want to eat at Mrizi i Zaneve, you MUST make a reservation! It’s a bit surreal — you drive through a small, rural country road and suddenly you arrive at a huge mechanized metal gate with a person standing out front with a clip board. They verify the ID of the main guest, as well as the number of other guests in the car to ensure consistency with the reservation. If you have to cancel a reservation, the phone number associated with the reservation will be forever blacklisted (seriously!) The person taking reservations on the phone was notoriously rude… and always the same guy… but once you’re inside it’s amazing!
If you’re staying in the region, I recommend the Gardenland Resort. I stayed when it was nearly brand-new, or it felt that way. I arrived in the middle of the night, and after driving through rural country roads in darkness, I started to question whether this place really existed — but then I turned a corner and there it was — just as nice as in the pictures online! The staff was super friendly and accommodating, the rooms were spotless, and the breakfast was delicious — and it was like 40 dollar per night! They were still installing a massive swimming pool outside, so I didn’t get the chance to swim in it, but I’ll be back!
Gjirokaster is another must-see city, in southern central Albania. It’s an ancient UNESCO heritage town made entirely out of stone. The streets, buildings, roof tiles — everything is made out of old stones. It doesn’t feel overly touristy, either. Outside of the main drag, people go about their business and it it’s a fun little town to explore without crowds or hawkers. Stop by some of the old houses and don’t miss the castle — which is a little bit of a hike up from the town center, but offers some great views over the city. It also has a cool artillery gallery with some WWII and communist-era weaponry.
Berat is another great little town in central Albania — known as ‘the city of 1,000 windows’ because of all of the windows arrayed up along the hillside. In fact, I think it has more than 1,000 ; ) I recommend hiking up to the ruins of the 13th century Berat Castle, which is pretty extensive and offers great views of all 1,000 windows down below. The city is known for its religious mixing and tolerance — and it hosts a mix of impressive Orthodox churches and mosques. I was especially impressed with the Church of Saint Nicholas and the nearby Onufri Icon Museum, which has a famous Christian icon depicting minarets and Islamic architecture in the background. The area by the ruins of the Red Mosque is also great for exploring and photography. The picturesque riverfront is a fine place to spend an evening, and don’t miss the Gorica stone bridge.
The region produces some good wine and I recommend stopping by the Cobo Winery just outside of town. It offers wine tastings with meat/cheese platters– and I especially recommend getting the Cobo Reserve or Kashmer reds if they’re in stock. As their website advertises, these wines are “deep, sincere, and seducing”!
Also nearby is the Osumi slot canyon, on which you can arrange whitewater rafting trips, including a transfer to/from Berat. I went late in the season and the rapids weren’t very intense, but the river still moved along quickly with gorgeous scenery along the way– it was a great day trip! Because the water was low that time of year, we had to turn our rafts sideways and push them through a narrow passage in the canyon, swimming through to the other side. The canyon passes by a few waterfalls, which are definitely worth chasing.
Vlore is a quaint seaside city and marks the beginning of the superb southern Adriatic coastal route. I was in Vlore in the summer during a huge motorcycle rally with live rock concerts in the center of town– it made for some great random entertainment! Just south of town, I highly recommend the Hotel Liro, which is built into a cliff and has its own small private beach and rooms overlooking the sea with spectacular sunsets — all for approximately 80 bucks a night! Just across the street from the Hotel Liro is Riveria Blu — an outstanding seafood restaurant with good prices and amazing selection, including the biggest oysters I’ve ever seen. Get the slipper lobster if it’s in season!
Dhermi — and other beaches!
Heading south from Vlore on the coastal road (SH8), you’ll go over a massive mountain with numerous switchbacks before coming to the small town of Dhermi. Make a pit stop at the beach! There are a bunch of seafood restaurants that are all basically amazing. We ate at Hotel Luciano and fishermen would come by and sell the restaurants their fresh catch– a ringing endorsement for sure! The main beach has the best sand / views… it hosts summertime concerts and can get crowded, but beaches on either side of it are more manageable.
Pro Tip: If you go in the off season (September – mid-October), the water is still warm, crowds are non-existent, and hotel rooms are a steal!
Southern Albanian Coast
If there’s one thing I want to emphasize about this post — the southern Albanian coast is truly spectacular! I imagine this is how the western European rivieras were back in the heyday before they became slammed with busloads of tourists jostling to take selfies while omitting the hundreds of other tourists in the background. Go enjoy the Albanian riviera before it becomes like that!
Not only is the Albanian riviera coastal road stunning, but there are a bunch of relatively untouched beaches along the way, with crystal clear blue water and gorgeous views. The beaches at Himare or Borsch are prime examples. For 5-7 dollars, you’ll get a sunbed, drinks and snacks for the afternoon. If you’re looking for a more lively scene, Ksamil is a more famous (and quite crowded) beach south of Sarande. People are bumping local music, and (at least as of 2015-16) it was the place to see and be seen on the beach in the summertime! You can rent kayaks and visit the little islands just off the coast.
Sarandë / Butrint National Park
Sarande is the major city of the south– it has a bit of a party city vibe in the summertime with lots of bars and restaurants along the main drag on the water. The castle on top of the hill outside of town offers great views of the city, along with a restaurant. At the port, you can catch a ferry to the Greek island of Corfu, but be sure to plan ahead– even if just by a day or two. My wife and I stayed at the Hotel Bahamas — about a 10 minute drive outside of downtown– and it was a great mid-range option. We got an incredible ocean-front view and the room was very comfortable. On our last night there we had dinner at the Harmony Hotel, which was outstanding / gourmet style! The scenic outdoor courtyard above the ocean was covered in flowers — a great spot for a romantic dinner.
While in Sarande, be sure to make a half day trip (at least) to see the Roman ruins at Butrint National Park. The park itself is a dense forest and the ruins are extensive and well-preserved. There is a well-worn path with marked signage, but it’s also easy to explore off the beaten path in more remote parts of the park. It wasn’t very crowded when I went (July) and I felt a bit like Indiana Jones climbing through some overgrown cavernous ruins with vines, including some tunnels with various old Roman carvings and symbols.