Albania is a country full of surprises and with more to offer than you may think. Bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece, Albania has its own Alps, Riviera, World Heritage Sites and a colourful, modern capital with surprisingly good nightlife. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and in areas lacking in infrastructure but visiting here is definitely an adventure.
There’s no denying that Albania has had a troubled past and concrete bunkers dotted amongst the landscape act as reminders of the communist times but Albania is slowly growing a new reputation as the place to visit with the Lonely Planet even naming it its Top Country of the Year in 2011.
Arriving overland from Montenegro, Shkodra is the first city that you come to and an authentic one at that. The city is quite male-dominated so keep yourself covered up if want to avoid the odd glance. The nicest area here is Shkodra Lake where you can camp but as it’s slightly out of the city it can be difficult to get to by bus so hire a car or get a taxi instead. If you choose to stay in the city, the castle has fantastic views of the lake and is worth seeing but apart from a few casinos and restaurants selling Albanian food, there isn’t much more to keep you here longer than a couple of days.
In the capital Tirana it’s a very different story and this colourful, modern city will actually surprise you. There’s a large manmade lake where you’ll find the locals relaxing during their lunch hour and plenty of avenues for shopping, or catch a shuttle from the big mosque to the city outskirts for the larger malls. It won’t take long to walk around the capital but make sure you include Skanderbeg Square on your itinerary. This central plaza has many colourful buildings to make your camera snap happy. Just don’t visit the museums on a Monday as they’re closed.
You can stay in hotels or hostels here and even if you forget to book, the hostels won’t turn you away and try to accommodate you wherever they can. It does get busy in the summer as there is only a small number of hostels so it’s worth booking before you get there.
From the city to the solitude of the mountains or the ‘Albanian Alps’ as the locals like to say. Athough more rocky than the ones in Switzerland they are great for escaping life as you know it and are different from any other area in the country. The village of Theth is surrounded by limestone mountains with a rocky landscape, traditional stone houses and clean, mountain air. You can stay in guest houses with local families who provide home-cooked food and take you trekking throughout the region. Getting there can be a bumpy ride from Shkoder and take five hours with over 20km of it on windy rocky roads but it’s rustic travelling at its best.
From here you can take the eight hour trek to Valbona through the valley pass and combine both villages for an extended stay. (Horses take your luggage if you’re only travelling one-way) then return via Lake Koman and Fierza by ferry back to the city of Shkoder. The lesser known village in the north is Kelmend, a place with rugged mountain landscapes, canyons, waterfalls, glacial valleys, rivers and lakes – ideal for horse riding, trekking and mountain biking.
For integrating with the locals, Vuno is a little town in the mountainside overlooking olive trees, on the route between Dhermi and Himare and has a really lovely feel. There is only one shop which doubles up as a restaurant where you’ll find the locals and occasional donkey walking past. Follow the hill down to beautiful Jal beach for some sea and sunbathing. You’ll also find locals at the sandy beach of Ksamil (not many tourists come here) just 10km south of Saranda and on the way to Butrint.
Going south the scenery is beautiful with mountain ranges on one side and the rugged coastline that reappears as quick as it vanishes on the other. Dhermi is the first coastal town where you can wild camp if you’re travelling with a tent. There are set-up campsites for those who aren’t and the area is popular with tourists who come for the nice beaches, clear water and warm sea. If you’re coming by bus it is a twenty minute walk down to the beach but this area is definitely worth staying in and has a great ‘holiday feel.’
If you’re wanting to meet others, Durres and Golem are the most popular destinations. Durres is brimming with hotels, restaurants and bars, all with a view of the ocean and has the largest amphitheatre in the Balkans. Here you can visit the pink palace of King Zog or take a short ride to Lalzit Bay, a sandy beach and slightly quieter than Durres.
But not all off the coastline is worth visiting and many of the beaches have small stones instead of sand. Instead of Vlore, choose the seaside city of Saranda with a Mediterranean climate, great beaches, restaurants and nightlife. This is one of our favourite places to stay and you can even visit Greece for the day as ferries run from here to Corfu. Saranda is actually the Greek name for ‘forty saints’ named after the Monastery Church of Forty Saints and a hike to the ruins of the monastery gives a great view over the city and countryside. There’s even hot springs here near the town of Permet and the Benja hot springs are known for their curative effects (just don’t forget your bikini). Other beautiful beaches are Palase and Gjipe.
One unique place in Albania is the Blue Eyed Spring known as ‘Syri I Kalter.’ Buses run here every hour then it’s a thirty minute walk to the geological phenomenon. Butrint is also nearby; this ancient city is a World Heritage Site and you can stop off for a dip at Ksamil on the way, a coastal town with its own islands. Take the bus from Saranda to Gjirokaster then it’s a 2km walk to the entrance where you pay 50 Lek. Buses go back to Saranda every hour until 6pm.
For more history, Gjirokaster, known as the ‘museum city’ is an interesting day trip with steep cobbled streets leading to a 13th century castle at the top of a mountain. The historic city was influenced by the Ottomans and is a well preserved town which is a great place to stop if you’re travelling overland to Macedonia. Voskopoja is home to churches and monasteries and also has several museums, then there’s Berat – the ‘city of 1001 windows’ also on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Other places to see are: the Greek influenced villages of Himare and Qeparo, and Shengjin, a growing coastal town on the route from Shkodra to Tirana.
Albania still remains relatively undiscovered but it’s not going to stay like that for long and construction is already underway to improve areas. Travel here quick to see the authentic Albania in its prime.
Albanians stop for siesta from 13.30 to 17.30.
Don’t visit Lazarat, a lawless town that produces Cannabis and is known for its murders. After being highlighted to the rest of the world on Youtube by two Dutch travellers, they are extremely hostile towards tourists and even the police don’t go here. Everywhere else in Albania is fine.
Albanians may say ‘1000’ when they actually mean ‘100.’ Many still haven’t grasped the new currency and add an extra ‘0’ to the price. Check by asking them to write the number down instead.
Getting around Albania can be challenging and driving is only for the brave hearted. Private cars were illegal for Albanians during the communist era so driving is quite new to the country. There are trains from Tirana to Durres, Vlore, Milot and Shkodra but don’t expect them to be very comfortable. The best way is by local buses or minibuses (called furgons). There are no central bus stations so finding where your bus departs from can be tricky, then once you’ve found it you may find yourself waiting for them to fill up with passengers before they depart. They usually shout the destination to get people on the bus.
Buses from the capital to the coast (Dhermi) take 6 hours, cost 1000 Lek and depart from stop ‘K’ near the river. Buses do stop en-route for refreshment breaks. Read here for the bus timetable. Please note that the bus from Saranda to Korca leaves daily except on Fridays and Sundays. If you prefer to take the coastal route from Saranda to Tirana instead of via Gjirokaster, take the 05.30 or the 21.00 bus. Outside of villages it can be difficult to reach tourist sites. Hitchhiking is really popular so if you find a travelling buddy, it’s just as easy to hitch a ride to get around. Trust your instinct if you decide to hitch alone.
From the Airport
Tirana – Taxis run from outside and cost approx 3000 Lek for the 12km journey to the city centre. Resorthoppa operates a cheap airport shuttle that will take you to the city centre or your hotel or the Rinas Express bus runs from 6am to 6pm to the National Museum in the centre and costs only 350 Lek.
How long do I need?
At least one week to see the capital and the coast or the mountains. We would recommend two weeks as there are so many areas to see and getting around by bus can take a lot of time.
Tours in Albania
If you are feeling apprehensive about travelling solo, sometimes taking a tour for part or all of your trip can give you the confidence you need before going it alone. G Adventures are a sustainable tour company and also include Montenegro, Greece and Croatia. I have personally used G Adventures and recommend them as a solo female friendly company.
Travelling onwards (check visas before you travel)
To Montenegro – This is the first joint border crossing in the Western Balkans. There are daily departures from Shkodra to Ulcinj leaving at 6am and 12.30pm. Buses also run from Durres and Tirana.
To Kosovo – The bus from Durres to Pristina takes approx 5 hours and costs £12. The bus departs from Rruga Pavaresia street (the north end by the beach).
To Macedonia – Either take the bus from Tirana or from Pogradec then a furgon to the border Tushemisht then a minibus to Lake Ohrid.
To Italy – From Vlore passenger ferries operate to Brindisi and some allow you take your vehicle across. Click here for Aferry’s website. You can also take a boat from Durres to various ports in Italy. Click here for Venezia Lines.
To Greece – Catch a ferry to Corfu from Saranda but it’s not cheap and will set you back £23 one way or by bus to Athens. Click here for Ionian Cruises
- Can I drink the water? No.
- Is tipping expected? Yes, 10%.
- Fixed price or barter? Fixed price in shops but barter with street sellers or taxis.
- Any ATMs? In the main cities such as Tirana, Shkodra, Saranda.
- Which side of the road do they drive? Right.
- Good for vegetarians? Creperies and pizzerias cater for vegetarians.
- Any seven wonders of the world? No
*This is accurate at time of writing but we appreciate things can change. Please let us know if you experience anything otherwise. Thanks…