It’s quite easy to see both the Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter in Albanian language) and Gjirokastra together in a day trip if you are based in Saranda. If you have more time, you can visit them separately as well.
Don’t fall for the guided tours telling you it’s too difficult to see The Blue Eye in Albania on your own. With a bit of pluck and planning, you definitely can — and it’s worth every minute.
If you’ve done any research into transportation in Albania, you’ve probably bit your nails, questioned your plans to go, and got yourself super deep down a Google rabbit hole.
Relax. Traveling in Albania is not nearly as hard as everyone makes it out to be. For one, Albanian people are quite possibly the friendliest people I’ve ever met. On my way to The Blue Eye, everyone was so helpful in pointing me to the right bus that I had absolutely no trouble finding it.
I’ve lost count of the Albanians who have helped me with directions, bought me coffee, offered me snacks and cakes, given me rides… all without expecting anything but a thank you in return (which, by the way, is pronounced fah-la-min-DAIR-it in Albanian, and you’ll delight everyone if you memorize it and use it prolifically!). That’s why I tell everyone who will listen that Albania is my favorite country I’ve traveled to.
That being said, it helps to have an idea of what to expect before you try to go to the Blue Eye, to relieve planning anxiety and make realistic plans, so I’ve gone ahead and laid it all out for you!
What is the Blue Eye (aka Syri I Kalter)?
The Blue Eye is one of the most iconic images from Albania, and with good reason. The Blue Eye / Syri I Kalter is one of those rare places that looks just as beautiful in pictures as it does in real life, because the colors are just that vivid. It’s as if real life had the saturation turned up to 100… but it’s just, you know, real life.
No one really knows how deep this fresh water spring of The Blue Eye goes down, because no one’s been able to dive to the bottom. It’s at least 50 meters deep, and probably way more! The Blue Eye is constantly gushing out freezing cold water, and the bravest amongst us (read: not me) flout the no swimming and no diving signs and take the plunge. You can see the force of the current, as it sends jumpers quickly downstream. It’s really quite impressive (and, let me reiterate, absolutely freezing).
If you love these crystal blue waters of Syri I Kalter, be sure to check out the beaches of the Albanian Riviera as well, just an hour or so north of Saranda — and trust me, the water is much warmer in those parts!
How to get to the Blue Eye (Syri I Kalter)?
First, find the bus (furgon) to Gjirokastra, which usually does hourly departures every hour on the hour from the “bus station” outside the ruins within Saranda’s city limits, which is around the intersection of Rruga Flamurit and Rruga Skenderbeu. Your host, or pretty much any Albanian person, should be able to direct you to the bus to Gjirokastra.
The bus to Gjirokastra/The Blue Eye should cost you 300 lek, a little over $2. Tell the bus driver you want to get off at Syri I Kalter or the Blue Eye – they’ll know what you’re talking about; this is a very common stop.
It takes about 30 minutes to get here. You’ll have to walk about 2 kilometers to the actual Blue Eye from where they drop you off. Don’t worry, the signs are well marked, and there is virtually no way you can get lost. Even if you’re me.
To get back to Saranda from the Blue Eye, just wait outside the entrance on the opposite side of the street where you were dropped off (the side that would be headed back towards Saranda) and wait to flag down a bus with a sign in the window headed for Saranda/Sarandë.
Although, most likely, when the bus sees you on the side of the road by the Blue Eye sign, it will stop for you regardless of whether or not you are paying attention. Buses typically come once per hour, so if you’re lucky, you won’t wait long; if you just missed one, you may have to wait up to an hour.
Another option is to hitch a ride back from the Blue Eye to Saranda. I know that sounds inadvisable, but I assure you, hitchhiking in Albania is commonplace, easy, and incredibly safe.
I hitchhiked several times in Albania and never had any problems and never had to wait more than 15 minutes to get a ride (and that was a ride across international borders!) You could also combine this with the next stop, Gjirokastra, in which case you’d wait where they dropped you off and flag the next bus. Be prepared to wait… this is Albania, man.
AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT FOR TRAVELING TO THE BLUE EYE: All of this was true and accurate at the time of publication. However, things change often and without warning in Albania.
Always double-check directions with the place you’re staying or ask a local on the day. It’s not hard to get around Albania because the people are so friendly and helpful, but you can’t always just go off Internet advice. I try, but things change quickly, so use this as a jumping off point to get an idea of what’s possible. Then once you’re there and on the ground, ask to confirm.
PS, you don’t need to buy any bus tickets in advance – they are always available for sale on the bus.
For too long, Albania has been ignored as a tourist destination. I get it. The country has had to bounce back from a lot. For years, Albania was under one of the most repressive communist totalitarian regimes in history – even North Korea has more trade partners and diplomacy than Albania did thirty years ago. I’m about to drop some serious Albania facts on you, so if you’re into history, get excited.
It emerged from the shackles of totalitarianism in 1991 with basically no GDP and virtually no economy. A countrywide pyramid scheme in which Albanians lost a total of 1.2 billion dollars (a fortune, considering how Albanians had only had six years of free market in order to actually obtain money to invest) in 1997 sent the country into chaos.
But things are way, way different now, and while the country still has far to come to catch up with its neighbors in Europe, it’s making great strides towards lasting progress. Albania is a country with an unfathomably long history, almost 5,000 years, with influence from Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and Ottomans.
To sum up Albania as just what’s happened in the last century is myopic. Yes, Albania has suffered, but it’s bouncing back with incredible fortitude and rightfully emerging as a tourist destination.
Seeing as I’ve unofficially become an Albania travel guide, telling everyone who’ll listen about this beautiful place, I figured I’d put it in writing and save myself the trouble. Without further ado, here are 75 reasons why you should plan your holidays to Albania as soon as possible!
1. It’s off the beaten path. Can you imagine going to 2,000 year old Roman ruins and not having to wait for people to get out of your shot constantly? Well, visit Albania, and it’s not only possible – it’ll happen all the time.
2. It’s not just affordable – it’s cheap. Budget backpacking anywhere in Balkans, with the exception of Croatia, is inexpensive compared to Western Europe. But Albania is leaps and bounds cheaper than its neighbors, especially when it comes to transit and food costs. A six hour bus ride will set you back only $7 USD; a gyro, $1 USD; a 3-course meal with an espresso, $8 USD.
3. The beaches are the best in Europe. Sorry, Croatia, Italy, Greece, and Montenegro, I know you’ll disagree, but Albania has got the best beaches in all of Europe. The stony beaches make the water a gorgeous, crystal-clear turquoise that feels like your real life has been Photoshopped. Ksamil, Albania as well as the beaches of Himara and Dhermi are outstanding. The weather in Albania is comparable to the rest of Europe, so you’ll have hot sunny days all summer long.
Unlike their more famous Northern and Southern neighbors, you’ll have plenty of space to yourself when you go to the beach in Albania.
There are also tons of hidden beaches that you can have basically to yourself with a little creativity (or a little guts!). Himara is an excellent hub close to the best Albanian beaches in the Riviera. Plus, accommodations in the Albanian Riviera are incredibly cheap!
5. Albanian people are insanely generous. I’ve never been offered more things in my life – whether it was cake on the side of a road from someone I asked directions, half of someone’s lunch who we hitchhiked with, an espresso at a cafe, or rakia (so much rakia), then when traveling in Albania.
6. The sunsets along the coast are incredible. The whole time you travel Albania, you’ll be treated to breathtaking sunsets, just as beautiful as Greece’s or Croatia’s — at a fraction of the price.
7. You need to learn the love-hate relationship with rakia. Rakia is basically moonshine, distilled typically from grapes or plums, popular all throughout the Balkans, but especially loved in Albania. The best nights (and the worst mornings) usually are courtesy of rakia.
8. Besa, which is loosely translated as “faith” or “trust”, is extremely important to Albanians. For centuries, Albanians have abided by the code of “besa” which basically means it’s their duty to look after the people who visit Albania. That means that even if you’re traveling solo through Albania, you’ll never really be alone.
9. Albanians are keen to change their image. Albanians are aware that they’ve been associated with mobsters and gangsters, and more than a few Albanians bitterly remarked me that “we’re not all like Taken.” Which is true – I never once felt unsafe or unwelcome in my month spent traveling in Albania. Besides, as one local slyly remarked me to me, “All the Albanian mafia has left. Who would they make money off of here?”
10. Albanians are honest. I’m always on my guard for scams, having been ripped off and nearly pickpocketed within 12 hours in Hanoi. It turns out I didn’t have to worry at all when in Albania. In Pogradec, a man who changed money for a friend ran down the street to the bus station to find us, panicked that he hadn’t given us the right change (but he had). For Albania, tourism increasing holds huge potential to lift its citizens out of poverty, so Albanians will be sure you are well taken care of.
11. Albania is safe. While tourism in Albania is just beginning, traveling Albania is just as safe as going pretty much anywhere else in Europe. You’re less at risk for petty crime in Albania than you are in, say, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, or Paris, and violent crime is extremely rare.
Note: While Albania is very safe, that doesn’t mean you should go without travel insurance in case of an emergency or accident. I use World Nomads travel insurance on every trip as it’s easy to book online and offers extensive coverage at low prices. Get a free quote here.
12. Street harassment is extremely uncommon. As a woman who travels alone, I’m often subjected to street harassment, which makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and irritated. In my entire time in Albania, not one man bothered me on the streets, even when I walked home alone late at night to my hostel in Tirana. It was such a breath of fresh air to be around such polite, respectful men.
13. Albanians give the best directions. Which is to say they’re either extremely detailed if they speak English, or oftentimes they’ll just walk with you to your destination because they’re afraid of you getting lost. After a flurry of hand gestures did nothing, I once had an old lady in a robe and house shoes pull me by the sweater tied around my waist, leading me up on a ledge, in order to show me how to get to the Berat Castle via the back way. You can’t say Albanian people don’t try!
14.There are countless fortresses and castles that you can explore. Most castles have limited infrastructure, such as informational plaques or warning signs, so you get to feel a bit like Indiana Jones as you explore castles totally on your own. If you’re more the tour kind of person, you’re in luck: lack of tourism in Albania has made tours insanely cheap.
15. Albanians love Americans. Okay, so this is maybe only exciting for me and my fellow countrymen, but we’re a bit of an unpopular lot in some parts of Europe. And I get it, I really do – I definitely cringe whenever I see the telltale shorts-and-fanny-pack of a clueless American tourist speaking loudly and slowly at someone who speaks perfect English like they’re an idiot.
But when traveling in Albania, I discovered that Americans are actually quite well-liked – so much so that they’ve even named a street after George W. Bush in Tirana (cool your jets, guys, even we don’t like him!). The town of Fushe Kruje which he visited even has a statue of him! You’ll also find a Hillary Clinton statue in Saranda, Albania, close to SR Backpackers, where I stayed while in Saranda. Fingers crossed we never need to find out if they’d erect a Trump statue. (edited to add: UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH)
16. But really, Albanians just love all foreigners. You’ll never feel more special as a tourist than when you visit Albania. I was traveling around with a lot of Australians and you should have seen the look on locals’ faces when they found out people from Australia were visiting their country. It was the most delightful mix of confusion, excitement, and pride.
17. Forget buses and planes – Albania is all about the furgon. Furgons are minibuses, which are often Mercedes vans converted to fit the most human life possible inside them. They’re democratic institutions – first come first served, they’ll pick you up and drop you off anywhere along the route, and they’ll charge you based on the distance you travel.
Sure, some of the seats aren’t that comfortable, especially the ones above the wheels, but I actually quite love the humble furgon. It’s the most authentic way to travel in Albania.
18. Honestly, the public transit is actually quite reliable – it’s just different. Furgons will get you basically everywhere you need to go, although you do sometimes have to make a transfer rather than going direct. Occasionally, on less popular routes, a minibus won’t run every day, and as the season winds down, minibuses are less frequent.
Still, I visited for the second time in mid-October as the summer season was done and gone, and even some less popular routes were still roaring. I traveled from Korça to Berat and Berat to Vlora no problems, perfectly on time – in fact, often early, so be sure to get there at least 15 minutes before your bus is due to leave.
19. Infrastructure is improving. I had heard that the roads in Albania were awful – I was happy to find that it really wasn’t the case. Of all the routes I took, I only really encountered one road that was pretty rough and tumble, and it was only because they were working on the main road and re-routed us another way.
If you travel Albania in the more rural parts, you’ll encounter some rough roads I’m sure, but the main roads connecting the coastal cities, Tirana, Shkodra, and some of the southern Albanian cities like Berat, Gjirokastra, and Korca were all fine. That said, there are still some flaws hampering this otherwise beautiful country.
There is no national recycling program and litter continues to be a major issue. Tirana and other Albanian cities have an admirable program to neuter and vaccinate the stray dogs in the cities, but it’s a slow process. Still, considering the country’s economy started from basically nothing in 1991, I think they’ve made tremendous strides.
20. You can even drink the tap water now in many parts of the country. I had heard that Albania’s tap water was totally undrinkable. This was far from true! I drank the tap water without incident in Saranda, Tirana, Shkodra, Berat, and Korca – always after asking a local first just to double check. I recommend bringing a Life Straw water bottle, which removes over 99.9% of waterborne bacteria and parasites, to cut back on your plastic use (there is no recycling program in Albania, sadly).
21. They make excellent Italian food. Albania is so close to Italy, and they’ve absorbed a lot of their culture. Pizza in Albania is top-notch, probably the next best thing to Italian pizza itself.
22. The coast has amazing seafood. You can eat delicious fresh prawns, mussels, fish, calamari… all for bargain prices and fresh as can be. Up north near Lake Shkodra, the lake trout is also incredibly delicious – so make sure you try that if you’re visiting Shkodra (which I highly recommend — stay at the Wanderers!) or other cities up north.
23. Local dishes are delightful. Traditional Albanian food like tavë kosi (baked lamb with yogurt) and patëllxhanët mbushur (stuffed eggplant) are unique and delicious, always cooked with local ingredients and fresh produce.
24. A lot of the cuisine is vegetarian. Many of their dishes incorporate veggies in a way that other countries in the Balkans don’t. Their stuffed peppers and grape leaves are almost always vegetarian and filling, they offer a wide variety of salads, and grilled vegetables are available everywhere.
25. But they also make a mean grilled meatplate. Enough said.
26. They make excellent coffee. Albanians love their coffee, especially espresso, and you can get an espresso for as little as 50 lek – about 40 euro cents. I will say that sometimes their definition of a cappuccino would make Italians shudder, as they sometimes come topped with whipped cream, but there are worse things than free whipped cream, right?
27. The produce is fresh, delicious, and often organic. Of course, it won’t be labeled as such, but most produce in Albania comes from small, local farmers who frankly probably don’t have enough money to spend on pesticides. For that reason, the tomatoes and cucumbers are some of the best I’ve had in the world. Perfect for…
28. Albania has amazing Greek salads and gyros, thanks to its Greek minority population. Yup, in addition to rocking Italian food and traditional Albanian food, you can get delicious Greek food like grape leaves, tzatziki, gyros, and Greek salad. The two cuisines share a lot in common and the line between what’s Greek and what’s Albanian vary on where you are and who you ask (as many things do in the Balkans…)
29. The mountains are absolutely beautiful. My biggest regret about Albania is that I didn’t get to do the hike from Valbona to Thethi that I had planned on. Crazy storms were raging when I was in Shkodra, making the hike I was planning to do the next day impossible, so I rerouted to Kosovo and traveled through the rest of the Balkans.
By the time I returned to Albania, it was mid-October and reaching below freezing at night, so a hike didn’t feel like the best idea. But seeing the same mountain range in Montenegro and Kosovo, I can only imagine how beautiful it is in that part of Albania. But you don’t need to travel to Valbona to see mountains – they’re everywhere, even leading right down to the beaches in some cases.
30. The Albanian language is unlike any other. Albanian (called Shqip, which is pronounced “shchip”, which gives you a little preview of the beautiful chaos that is the Albanian language) is one of the oldest living languages. Some consider it a language isolate, some think it’s related to Illyrian or Armenian… let’s leave it to the linguists and just say it’s incredibly difficult – though beautiful to hear – and, to my totally untrained eyes and ears, reminds me of Dothraki on GoT. (nerd alert)
31. That being said, locals will love you if you try to speak Albanian. Albanians know how difficult their language is, and they really appreciate it when you take the time to learn a few words of Albanian. Mirëdita (meer-deeta) – good day, faleminderit (fah-le-min-DER-it) – thank you, diten e mirë (deet-en ay meer) – Have a good day, and of course, gëzuar (guh-zoo-ar) – cheers: master these four and people will be delighted.
32. The rural parts of the country are stunning. I haven’t seen many Albanian villages or rural life, which I’ve been told is where the real heart of the country is. But my method is to always leave a stone unturned, so I know I’ll come back. What I’ve seen of rural Albania from the furgons is incredible, and I’d love to discover it more deeply.
33. The Albanian flag is so dope. A double-headed eagle… god, could a flag get any cooler? Albanians are obsessed with their flag, and honestly, so am I. So epic.
34. On a similar note, Albanians are really patriotic. While sometimes this patriotism can border on nationalism (which is not unique to Albanians, of course), what this means in practical terms for the traveler is that Albanians will do anything to make sure you love their country just as much as they do. If you tell them you love their country, most will beam with pride.
35. Hitchhiking is incredibly easy and safe throughout Albania. The combination of a lack of a centralized public transit system, the Albanian hospitality and belief in besa, and an outsized love for their cars all merge to make it probably one of the easiest places to hitchhike in the world and definitely in Europe. It’s also quite safe, which you wouldn’t expect if you take your travel advice from Liam Neeson, but it’s true!
36. In fact, hitchhiking is an amazing experience there and I recommend it to all who travel Albania. During my hitching experience, I was picked up by a trucker who didn’t speak a word of English but was all smiles, two young college students who brought us all the way to Kosovo even though they weren’t planning on crossing the border, and more than a couple Mercedes Benzes.
37. Mercedes Benzes are the national car. OK, not really, but it’s kind of ironic that one of Europe’s poorest countries has more Mercedes Benzes than anywhere else I’ve been – including NYC and California. For a more detailed explanation, read on here.
38. It’s easy to travel to and from other countries in the region. There are frequent public buses from Montenegro via Ulcinj and Shkodra as well as direct buses run by hostel companies from hotspots like Kotor to Tirana. Going from Tirana to Prizren or Prishtina in Kosovo is also quite easy.
If you’re thinking of going onto Macedonia, there are Tirana to Skopje buses and in peak season direct buses between Ohrid as well, which can also be accessed via Berat, Elbasan, or Korca. Greece is close to Saranda and Korca, and you can take a ferry to Corfu in about thirty minutes.
39. Oh, and Italy is only a short boat ride away, too!
If you’re in Italy and want to make your way over to travel Albania, it’s actually really quick and affordable to catch a ferry to Albania. A bonus? The views are beautiful.
40. Tirana, Albania’s capital, is unlike any other capital city I’ve seen. It’s chaotic and exhilarating, unique and intriguing, improvised and improving. There’s a sense that it’s stuck in the past at the same time that it’s accelerating towards the future, and it’s fascinating to be right there with it. The best way to get a sense of Tirana is by walking or biking through it.
41. Tirana was more influenced by communism than other cities in Albania, making it ideal for history and Communist architecture geeks. There are some absolutely strange pieces of architecture in Tirana, in particular, Piramida, the abandoned memorial to deceased dictator Enver Hoxha that is now a TV station/slide/tourist oddity.
42. The nightlife in Tirana is really fun. I loved going out in the Blloku neighborhood, the old heart of the communist party loyalists. This has turned into a hipster/upscale neighborhood of sorts, where a draft beer goes for (*gasp*) 2 euros.
If you’re traveling solo and but want to experience the best of Albanian nightlife, you can do a cocktail and communism tour through trendy Blloku accompanied by a local!
43. The bunkers offer a fascinating, if unsightly, look into the past. I enjoyed visiting Bunkart in Tirana, which used to be the former dictator Enver Hoxha’s bunker in case of attack. It’s a fascinating insight into the psyche of a sick, paranoid man. An estimated 700,000 smaller bunkers dot the countryside, in places you’d never think would be at risk of attack.
44. In fact, there’s no country quite comparable to 20th century Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, even Tito’s Yugoslavia, Mao’s China, and Khruschev’s USSR were all just too liberal and not purely communist enough. As a result, Albania had no external ties with other countries from 1978 until 1991.
When the dictatorship finally fell, things like bananas and blue jeans were totally brand-new phenomena. Even today’s North Korea has a more open economy than pre-1990s Albania. Luckily, Albania has been quite quick to take to modernization.
45. But there’s so much more than just the Communist past. I understand (and share!) the fascination with Albania’s insane communist past. But before that, Albania has almost 5,000 years of history, with influence from Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and Ottomans. That all has shaped the country so much more than its Communist era, even though those have the most obvious visual influence.
46. The 400-year occupation of the Ottoman Empire forever changed Albania in unique ways. As a result of the occupation, Albania became a majority Muslim country — approximately 60% — although most Albanians follow a very loose interpretation of Islam – if they follow anything at all.
Most Albanians, even if they’re of Muslim origin, eat pork and drink alcohol (in fact, I think your Albanian citizenship is revoked if you don’t drink rakia. I kid, I kid), and very few women wear headscarves, regardless of origin (although those who do don’t get any odd looks).
47. Yet for years, Albania was the only country in the world to have an outright ban on religion. That’s right. In 1967, the practice of religion was completely banned within the country of Albania. As a result, unfortunately, many churches and mosques throughout the country were destroyed. Albanians have been working hard to rebuild these places of worship throughout the country. Precious few remain of the pre-Communist era – only those that party leaders deemed worthy of cultural preservation, such Et’hem Bey mosque in Tirana, pictured above.
48. Albania is a true cultural mixing pot. Throughout time, Albania has had the influence of Greeks and Romans, Slavs and Italians, Muslims and Christians. These divisions don’t really seem to faze Albanians, and the unifying fact of language, tradition, and above all — patriotism — seem to be more important than ethnicity or religion.
49. Albanians are incredibly tolerant of other religions. Interfaith marriages are quite common in Albania, and friend groups are typically well-integrated and have little to do with religion. Religion appears to be more of a cultural or hereditary signifier than any deeply held convictions.
Unlike countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic strife was in large part exacerbated by religious differences, Albanians really don’t seem to care that much about religion. In fact, Albania is the only country in which the population of Jews increased during WWII, as average citizens took in thousands of Jewish refugees at great risk to themselves, despite having virtually no ties to Judaism.
50. In fact, for many, “the only religion of Albania is Albanianism.” This quote was co-opted by Enver Hoxha to justify his religious ban; however, it originally appeared in Shkodra’s beloved poet Pashko Vasa’s nationalist poem “O moj Shqiperi”. Basically, that is to say, Albanians are much more concerned with sharing an ethnic and cultural legacy based on the concept of being Albanian, rather than being concerned with any religious ties.
51. Albania is a UNESCO darling, with three major sites having UNESCO Status.
52. One of them, Butrint, is a 2,000 old set of Roman ruins. It has alternately been ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans. It’s set on a beautiful lake near the border with Greece, and it’s almost always completely deserted, making it a beautiful place to wander, snap photos, and imagine a simpler world taking place exactly where you stood over two millennia ago. Definitely one of the best points of interest in Albania.
53. Gjirokastra is another UNESCO site, just as breathtaking as Butrint. It is an Ottoman-era “museum city” complete with a gorgeous ruined castle perched atop a massive hill surrounded by houses with layered flat stone roofs. (Note: I just did a day trip to Gjirokastra, but friends raved about Stone City Hostel, open seasonally)
54. In fact, Gjirokastra is also home to iso-polyphony folk music, which is a uniquely Albanian tradition honored by UNESCO’s intangible heritage designation. Every year, performances are held in the castle, keeping the tradition alive. To be honest, the music isn’t my cup of tea, but it’s incredible what they are able to do with their voices, creating unique, haunting sounds without the use of a single instrument.
55. Berat is twinned with Gjirokastra, though it’s worth visiting totally aside from Gjirokastra. It is the more famous twin, and equally gorgeous in my opinion, yet quite different. Berat is marked with only white paint and large square windows that look almost like eyes, giving it the nickname “City of a Thousand Windows.”
Honestly, I think UNESCO made a mistake by twinning these cities together, which suggests that you can see one of the two and “get the idea.” They’re both incredibly unique places, and each warrants its own visit. It’s definitely worth visiting for a few days, but you can also visit Berat as a day trip from Tirana as well.
When in Berat, I can’t say I recommend staying at Berat Backpackers. Everyone there was incredibly kind and the rooms were clean and comfy… but the wifi was practically nonexistent, but the shower pressure was the worst I’ve ever experienced in 10 years of traveling. You can get a cheap hotel for as little as $10-15 a night, so treat yourself.
56. There are many other places on UNESCO’s tentative list that are also worth a visit. The Durrës Amphitheatre, Apollonia, and Ohrid, among others, are all on the list for consideration.
57. But historic cities aren’t all Albania has to offer – it has incredible lakes. Lake Komani is the gem of Albania, followed closely by Lake Shkodra (which it shares with Montenegro), Lake Ohrid (which it shares with Macedonia), and Lake Butrint. All so different, yet so beautiful. Check out the video below to get an idea.
58. Aside from its lakes, Albania has deep-flowing natural springs. These springs are called “Blue Eyes,” and while there is an incredibly famous one in the south (called Syri I Kalter in Albanian), there is an equally beautiful though lesser known one in Thethi as well.
59. It has gorgeous waterfalls as well that locals love to swim in. The waterfalls in Begova near Berat are a favorite of locals when the summers get hot — with rakia, of course! It’s too bad I was in Berat in mid-October so I didn’t go to these waterfalls.
60. It even has a wine region with surprisingly delicious wine. I did, however, sample the surprisingly excellent local wines in Berat, made by Cobo Wineries. Wine tasting tours are available as well!
61. It’s yet to be Westernized with American fast food chains… well, except the one. I love the fact that the country’s first international chain, KFC, is opening literally across the road from Enver Hoxha’s old mansion. I believe that’s what we call “throwing shade”, Albania. Nicely done.
62. You’ll meet a lot of like-minded travelers in Albania. I guess because not many people travel to Albania, the tourists who do go there are really interesting, easy-going, and open-minded. I never met more interesting and fun people than I did when traveling in Albania! The hostels in Albania are fabulous as well – I know it may sound scary to the uninitiated, but hotels are one of the best ways to travel Albania if you’re solo. Check out top-rated hostels here.
63. Sometimes, it seems as if parts of Albania are stuck in a time capsule. You’ll be driving along a surprisingly smooth highway when suddenly, hey! There are goats and cows wandering the roads.
64. Albania is squarely outside the Schengen zone, making it perfect if you’re staying in Europe for over 90 days. Many countries in the Balkans, including Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia are also outside Schengen, so it’s easy to plan a little detour to travel in Albania if you’re close to using up the 90 days out of the 180 days on your Schengen visa and need to spend time outside the zone to keep your visa valid.
65. It’s quite easy for foreigners to get visas.77 countries and territories, plus every EU country, can visit Albania visa-free for 90 days. But even if you’re not one of those countries, if you’ve had and used a valid UK, US, or EU visa, you get the same 90-day visa policy as all other qualifying countries.
66. Though hostels are new the country, they are surprisingly excellent. Every single hostel I stayed at in Albania was great (with the minor exception of Berat Backpackers), and far better and cheaper than a lot of hostels I’ve stayed at in Western Europe, including cities like Rome and Barcelona.
In fact, Trip’N Hostel in Tirana is probably the best hostel I’ve stayed at, period. They even brew their own beer! Be sure to book in advance if you go during the high season. I was so lucky as a walk-in to get the last bunk — everyone after me had to find another place.
67. Albania is a delightful mix of discovered and undiscovered. You can really choose your own adventure here… whether you want to stick to the slightly-well-trodden path of Tirana and Saranda, or if you want to get a little more off the path and visit the quaint smaller cities of Shkodra and Korca, there are tons of options, all within furgon distance.
68. Albanian wedding parties are the best parties. I stumbled across one happening in the street next to the gyro restaurant in downtown Himara. It was just a giant circle dance that got bigger and bigger, more and more intricate throughout the night.
69. Albania will teach you patience. I will admit that travel in Albania is not the most straightforward, though I don’t think it necessarily makes it difficult. Sometimes, your bus will be late, or it will be unclear where you’re supposed to go. However, things always have a way of working out here. Give yourself some extra time and enjoy the ride.
70. Albania will also teach you trust. Because Albania isn’t the easiest place to travel, especially since the public transportation system is run mostly by word of mouth and there’s no online timetable, you’ll have to learn to trust strangers. But that is actually a blessing in disguise, because it’ll show you just how kind and caring most people in the world are. And even moreso in this special little corner of the world.
71. English is actually fairly widely spoken – followed closely by Italian. The second language of Albanians tends to fall on strictly generational lines. Those who grew up under communism likely stole television and radio signals from Italy as the only way of having contact with the outside world; therefore, the older generation by and large speaks Italian to some extent. Younger people, and anyone who works in hospitality, has a fairly good understanding of English.
72. But what Albanians may lack in language skills, they’ll make up for in doggedness, body language, and effort. It’s not like an Albanian to shrug their shoulders and ignore you – they will do their damnedest to either answer your question through dramatic gesturing, dragging you down the street to finding someone who can help you, calling a friend on their phone and having you speak to them, or walking you right to your destination.
73. In short, Albanians are resilient and resourceful. They survived the most oppressive communist regime in history, saw the other end, and are now welcoming to outsiders from around the world. It’s astounding to me, a one-time New Yorker who hasn’t suffered anything more than the indignity of being trapped on a sweaty train car with five breakdancing teenage boys shouting “Showtime,” how people who have dealt with so much can be so welcoming, but they are.
74. Albania is changing… fast. With foreign investments coming in and the slow march of tourism coming down from the Croatian coast through Montenegro, it won’t be long until Albania changes. When cruise ships start regularly stopping at Albania… I must admit, I’ll be a little worried about what’ll happen to the precious beaches of Himara and Dhermi.
75. Albania is never boring. No matter where you go in the country, I can guarantee you, you’ll have never seen any place quite like it.
Like this post? Pin it or share it!
Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you purchase something using one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no added cost to you. No BS – I only recommend accommodations, services, and products I truly believe in.
As I stood on the side of a highway in Middle of Nowhere, Albania, waiting for the perfect moment to run across it, I thought to myself: so maybe I had gotten a bit cocky.
Everyone told me that public transit in Albania was a mess. I had just been bragging about how I didn’t find it that hard to get around in Albania. Sure, there’s no Googleable information, but all you have to do is ask any Albanian. Even if they don’t know, they won’t rest until they find someone that does.
I was in Shkodra, Albania, and my initial plan was to go to Lake Komani, take the ferry, and do the epic daylong hike from Valbona to Theth. I couldn’t have been more excited. But then the rain hit — and hit, and hit, and hit.
Conservative weather reports estimated four days of rain; more apocalyptic ones, eight. So clearly a 7-hour hike through the (yes, this is its actual name) Accursed Mountains (also known less menacingly as the Albanian Alps) was probably unwise.
So, as one does in the Balkans, I improvised. Together with an Australian couple, we asked the people who ran Wanderers Hostel for advice on where to go next, and we decided on heading to Prizren, Kosovo. The weather would still be crummy there, but less so, and with beautiful surroundings plus lots of cafés and museums.
Getting there, in theory, was simple enough: take the bus to Tirana, ask to be let off at Milot, then wait about an hour to catch the bus heading to Prizren. No problem.
Except that despite having told the bus driver multiple times we needed to get off in Milot, we found ourselves hurdling past the red pin I had dropped. By the time we finally managed to communicate that we needed to get off, we were about four kilometers away from where we needed to get the bus.
So, run across the highway we did, which sounds more dramatic than it was in theory, as we were able to stop in the middle and time things properly. We tried to flag down some cars, failed, then succeeded in flagging down a bus, who happily dropped us back in Milot town proper without charging us a single lek.
So we waited at the “bus station” in Milot, and I use those air quotes with purpose, because in reality, we were just standing next to a dumpster in the middle of an open air market. We asked a woman if we’re in the right place, and after learning that yes we were, she proceeded to try to hand us generous fistfuls of the cake she was holding. But since the dumpster/squat toilet smell was churning all of our appetites, we declined politely, and she walked off looking only slightly wounded.
After waiting for a bit over an hour, we grew bored and restless. We decided, well, why not at least try to hitch? Hitchhiking in Albania is common and safer than it is basically anywhere in the world. The clouds which had been flexing their muscles ominously looked more inclined to pour down upon us by the minute, so we decided to make a sign. Finding a piece of cardboard laying next to the dumpster because, well, Albania, we took a Sharpie that my new Aussie friend had been smart enough to bring with him, wrote Prizren on it, and went for it.
Not even ten minutes later, a car stopped for us: a gorgeous 1998 Audi with two young college-age guys in it. I spoke no more than five words of Albanian; these guys spoke a little English. After some halting communication, we were able to ascertain that they’re going to Kukës, a town on the Albania-Kosovo border. We decided that that was better than nothing — at least we’d be closer to Kosovo, where it’d be easier to hitch or bus the rest of the way there.
The rumors about Albanians are true: they drive like maniacs. The driver, a muscular twenty-something guy studying law, remarked proudly that it only takes him one hour to drive the 150 kilometers from Kukës to Tirana. He regularly drifted into the other lane to overtake slower cars, skillfully but terrifyingly maneuvering the car. After many white-knuckled miles, he asked if it’s okay to stop for a cigarette break. Happy for a break, we said of course, and they pulled over.
Here comes into play the other rumor about Albanians: they are insanely hospitable. Things got momentarily heated when they insisted on buying us all sodas, despite our protestations that we wanted to buy them drinks. They shared a delicious cornbread-style cake topped in cheese, cucumber, and tomatoes they had bought in Milot. We each took a piece, and then they passed it around yet again, insisting we take more. I won their favor by happily taking another piece.
We continued on, passing through beautiful mountains draped in fog. Mercifully, he slowed the car down to a responsible speed as we made our curving path through what felt like clouds. We arrived in Kukës and quickly passed it. A sick feeling hit my stomach for a moment as I glanced at the blue dot quickly leaving the town I thought we were getting dropped off in. We began to murmur.
Noticing our quiet nerviness, the driver turned around to say “we take you all the way.” And we’re all floored. These guys not only picked us up, bought us sodas, and fed us — now they’re willing to cross an international boundary and travel 40 minutes out of their way, just to make sure we get to our destination? We emitted a flurry of thank yous and faleminderits, and the guys drove on, chatting to one another in Albanian as we marveled in the backseat at our luck.
They dropped us off right in the center, and we tried to insist on buying them coffee or a beer before they drove back to Albania. They rebuffed every offer we made, accepting only a firm handshake in return, and drove off into the rainy mist.
The Albanian Riviera very well may be the most underrated summer vacation spot in Europe. From its cheap, delicious seafood to its friendly locals and stunning beaches, I was wondering: why the hell had no one told me about how amazing Albanian beaches are?
I almost don’t want to spoil the secret of the Albanian Riviera and just how amazing it is… but I can’t keep these beaches in Albania to myself. Albania is a country which has so much potential for tourism, yet people seem to be blinded either by ignorance or by stereotypes from enjoying just how beautiful the country is.
I visited two years ago and was blown away by how spacious and beautiful the beaches were, even in peak summer season. But who knows how long things will remain this way? Tourism by Albania’s seaside is growing quickly – go now, before everyone else does and turns it into another Croatia or Montenegro.
Picking Your Home Base on the Albanian Riviera
You have quite a few choices when it comes to deciding where to stay on the Albanian Riviera, depending on your budget, comfort level, and the number of amenities you want around you.
For me, Himarë (Himara) is the Goldilocks home base: not too big, not too small, not too basic, not too flashy. This is where I based myself during my time in the Albanian Riviera and I found it perfect.
If you want a little more upscale, try Dhërmi, which is as close to luxury as you’ll find in Albania (though I can safely say you won’t find any 5-star resorts here). For more bare bones accommodation, try the tiny village of Vuno.
If you really want to really rough it, you can camp on the beach in Himara, Gjipe, Livadhi, and I’m sure at plenty of other amazing Albanian beaches right along the Albanian Riviera. Wild camping is permitted in much of Albania, and there are several “hostels” that provide tents and campground amenities for a cheap price, so you have a lot of options.
Saranda is another popular place due to its proximity to Ksamil beach, but honestly – I think Saranda’s a bit overrated, and I much prefer the Albanian beaches an hour north or so. You can also go up north to the area around Vlora beach, but in my opinion, the best parts are in the stretch between Himara and Dhermi.
This sleepy little seaside town is my top pick for a base when visiting the Albanian Riviera.
It has it all: central location, a fantastic hostel, and delicious food. I’m talking the best pork gyro I’ve had in my life, which is not a crown I bestow lightly, right next to the best gelato I’ve had outside of Italy, where you can get a scoop for a mere 50 lek (about 35 cents).
The beach in Himara proper can be a bit crowded (for Albania) but for the convenience to beauty ratio, it does the trip. If you walk along towards the south end of the beach, it gets less and less crowded and you can find a secret beach – but more on that later. All in all, Himara is one of the best places to visit on Albania’s coastline.
Where to Stay in Himara
For a hotel, I recommend Margarita Guesthouse (9.2 rating on Booking.com): Comfortable rooms, breakfast included, excellent hospitality, and stunning sea views – this would be my top choice for where to stay in Himara, and it’s quite affordable as well.
For an apartment, I recommend Ionian View (9.1 rating on Booking.com): Affordable apartments with kitchenettes, balconies and terraces overlooking the sea, and an on-site bar, plus rave reviews for the host. Affordable prices.
For a hostel, I stayed at and highly recommend Himara Downtown hostel (8.8 rating on Hostelworld): Amazing and super kind staff, great outdoor garden and socializing area, a combination of private and shared rooms, and excellent free breakfast every morning.
If you really want to get off the beaten path, check out even sleepier Vuno. This village is nestled in the hills, so there’s no easy beach walk, but you’re close to some great choices, with Jale Beach and Gjipe Beach on each side of you.
Where to Stay in Vuno
There’s just one hostel here, and it comes highly recommended by Tomi from SR Backpackers, the great hostel I stayed at in Saranda. However, I didn’t stay at it so I can’t speak for it personally. It’s called Shkolla Vuno (8.7 rating on HostelWorld) and is located in a former school building.
I chose not to stay near Dhermi beach because I heard from locals that it’s a little more upscale and expensive than the rest of the Albanian Riviera.
However, like I said above, “upscale” is relative. Don’t expect crazy luxury to be available; however, you will find plenty of nice restaurants and shops, and you’ll have more choices when it comes to accommodations.
Where to Stay in Dhermi
For a hotel, choose Royal Blue Hotel (8.8 rating on Booking.com). Right in front of the beach, next to amazing restaurants and has a great in-house seafood restaurant, sea views, and great staff are the reasons this is one of the most-loved properties in Dhermi.
There are no hostels to my knowledge in Dhermi, but Villa Blue Drimadhes (8.5 rating on Booking.com) is the best budget offer. If you’re backpacking in the Albanian Riviera, I’d recommend staying at one of the hostels in Himara or Vuno instead.
The Top Must-Visit Albanian Beaches
This is easily one of my favorite beaches of all time, let alone of Albania. However, it doesn’t come easily. It’s a 3-kilometer hike down to the beach, and it’s worth every bead of sweat.
The views going down the hills make the perfectly lukewarm water that much sweeter. Once you arrive there, the water is crystal clear – you can see what seems like 30 feet to the bottom. There’s an awesome network of caves you can explore too, if you swim to your left if you are facing the beach. I’m not a great swimmer and am terrified of getting stuck in a cave in the water… but my friends were really enjoying this.
You can also camp on the beach if you want. They provide the tents and mattress pads. Friends who did the camping spoke highly about it, so an overnight here is a must-do when I return to this beautiful part of the world. Just be aware that you’ll have to bring all your stuff up and back the giant hill, which can be really rough in the heat. I’d recommend avoiding mid-day if you choose to do this hike with all your stuff!
This is not only a great home base but also just an all-around great beach. The main beach near the town center can get a bit crowded, but walk even just 15 minutes to the south end of the beach and you’ll have it almost all to yourself.
If you’re a daredevil with 50 euros burning a hole in your pocket, you can pay a guy to fly you in a boat/plane contraption all along the coast of the Albanian Riviera. It’s just as odd as it sounds, and I’d be curious if any brave souls have taken the journey! I took a pass.
Besides the main beach in Himara, this is the closest one to town (except for the hidden beach of Himara, which I’ve saved for the end!). You can get there by foot, which takes about 30-4o minutes, depending on how fast you walk and how often you stop for photos.
It’s popular with locals, so it can be a bit crowded in the peak season, but it’s still one of my favorite beaches in the Albanian Riviera. There are beach bars, restaurants, and lounge chairs and umbrellas for rent, so it’s one of the best-equipped beaches.
It also has a camping grounds if you’d like to stay overnight here. If you prefer a more hotel-style option for accommodations on Livadhi beach, Scala Bungalows has excellent reviews and low prices.
This beach is sometimes called “Glass Beach” for its crystal clear waters. Next after Livadhi, this is one of the closest beaches to Himara, and as such, it’s often a bit crowded. Though, again, this is Albania and crowded is relative! Even the most crowded Albanian beach (Ksamil) doesn’t come close to the crowdedness you’ll find in Croatia or Montenegro.
Jala Beach is also a common camping spot, with a campground you can rent a tent and foam mattress pad from. However, don’t expect a peaceful night’s sleep if you choose to camp here; it’s common to have people playing music, dancing, and chatting into the night.
While the party scene at night may not be what you’re after, Jale Beach is a great place to watch the sunset — just look at that sky!
If you want a side of castle with your beach, you’ve got to check out Porto Palermo. Located just a few kilometers south of Himara, this castle dates back to the times of Venetian rule in Albania, and was refurbished during the 19th century. During the communist regime, the fort served as a submarine base.
Now, its semi-abandoned state makes it a tourist curiosity, and its proximity to Himara make it a common day trip for travelers staying in Himara proper.
It’s located on the bay of Porto Palermo, which has crystal clear waters the likes of which you’ll find all over the Albanian Riviera. Don’t be surprised if you share your beach with some curious goats, either – they tend to run around in these parts.
Just a bit further south of Himara, Borsh is one of Albania’s best-loved beaches, partly for the fact that you can enjoy a castle and a beach in the same day (similar to Porto Palermo).
Borsh Castle is also known as Sopot Castle and used to be an acropolis in the Byzantine era and has been reconstructed several times. The subsequent Ottoman conquest added a mosque to the fortifications, which is the most visible feature of the castle now.
This beach doesn’t appear on any map, nor do I know its actual name, but it’s my favorite of all the great places on the Albanian coast. Getting here is not easy, which is why it’s so amazing. You have two options, one smart one and one stupid one. I’ll let you guess which one I did.
If you want to go by foot (the stupid way), walk to the southern edge of Himara beach and climb the hill. When you get to the restaurant gates, turn left off the dubious “path” edged with prickly bushes until you reach a rope to help you get down. This is not necessarily safe, nor do I have any better directions than this, so do so at your own risk.
The smart way: hire a boat for about 2000-2500 lek roundtrip ($15-20). All the boats were busy so, undeterred, I did the former. I managed it and I have the hand-eye coordination of a drunk toddler; your comfort level may vary.
Getting Around the Albanian Riviera
This is Albania, a country that’s changing so quickly that anything I write is virtually outdated by the time I put a period on a sentence. Take my recommendations as a mere frame of reference, and confirm with your Albanian hosts once you’re here.
You won’t get far in Albania unless you’re willing to ask questions. People make a big deal about how difficult the transit here is; in my three weeks in the country, I found it really quite easy given that I was willing to ask for help. Luckily, Albanians love to help outsiders.
If you’re staying in Himara and you want to head north to Jala, Gjipe, Livadhi, or Dhërmi, you can hop on the coastal bus headed towards Vlora or Tirana, which leaves around 11 or 11:30. Again, ask any Albanian because this will have likely changed. A bus in the reverse direction tends to go by around 6; again, ask to confirm. If you want to go south, you’ll have to seek out a bus headed towards Saranda.
Buses will pick you up anywhere along the way, even if you’re just on the side of the highway, so don’t worry about trying to find bus stops. As long as you’re on the right road that they pass (which, considering there’s only really one road that constitutes the Albanian Riviera, is pretty easy) and you wave them down, you’ll get picked up.
The easiest way to get around would definitely be renting a car. I found the horror stories about the quality of Albanian roads to be overblown. The coastal road is well-paved and well-maintained, and while there are plenty of twists and turns, I think it would be fine for any confident driver. However, the rumor about Albanian drivers being a bit maniacal is pretty true. So if you choose to rent a car, make sure you’re properly insured and drive carefully, especially around turns.
If you don’t have a car rental and want to get to and from the best beaches in Albania, I recommend hitchhiking. It’s quite safe, extremely easy, and incredibly common. Albanians are really friendly and hospitable people, and even if they don’t speak much English, most will be more than happy to drop you off at your destination.
In my time hitching in the Albanian Riviera, I never waited more than five minutes for a ride. I was always traveling with someone from my hostel, which gave me an added sense of security. First-time hitchhiker? Check out these great hitchhiking tips from an experienced solo female hitchhiker.
So there you have it! Visit the Albanian beaches before the crowds and cruise ships do!
Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you purchase something using one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no added cost to you.
Albania is a country that will defy every expectation. It’s more beautiful than you can picture and more unique than is able to be described (Believe me, I tried with my epic list of 75 reasons to visit Albania). There are countless things to do in Albania: here are a few of my favorites.
I’ve broken down this list into regions/cities from North to South by city to make it more useful, as some travelers will have enough time to see Albania in full and others will have to cut things from their itinerary in order to make it work for their time frame. I spent four weeks in total in Albania and found it was just right. That said, many travelers visit Albania in just about a week or two and make it work. It’s up to you!
All About Northern Albania (Shkodra, Valbona & Theth)
Northern Albania has the country’s nature at its wildest: we’re talking pristine, untouched mountains, streams so fresh you can drink from them, and some of the most placid and gorgeous lakes you’ll find.
Northern Albania is a hiker’s paradise, and the Valbona to Theth hike through the mountains is legendary for its beauty. Meanwhile, cute little Shkodra (also written Shkodër) is often passed by, used maybe as a stopover for the Valbona-Theth hike or as little more than a bus exchange on travelers’ way north to Montenegro. However, Shkodra is a delightful city with a distinct feel from other cities in Albania, certainly worth dedicating at least a day or two to explore.
Things to do in Northern Albania
Rent a bike in Shkodra
One of the things that contributes to Shkodra feeling so European compared to other cities in Albania is the fact that people bike everywhere. In most of Albania, this would be basically a death wish between the potholes and the crazy drivers; in Shkodra, though, the pace of life is much slower and you’ll see everyone around you on two wheels instead of four. Might as well join in!
Visit Rozafa Castle
“Castle” is a bit of a generous term, I’ll admit — Rozafa is far more ruins than castle, these days. Still, it’s a beautiful site to explore, and its location at the top of a hill means that you’ll have stunning views of Lake Shkodra (Lake Skadar according to Albania’s neighbor to the north, which shares the lake as its border).
Enjoy a free walking tour of Shkodra
Just by chance, I happened to meet the lovely couple who run walking tours in Shkodra at a little juice and sandwich bar called Shega e Eger down the street from my hostel. Run by a sweet American/Albanian couple, they give excellent donation-based tours of Shkodra as well as offering reasonably priced bike tours and other tours of local places nearby.
The walking tour covers some interesting landmarks in the city, such as the central mosque, several historic monuments, the local market, and the main pedestrian walking street of Shkodra, and is jam-packed with interesting historical details, such as Shkodra’s role in the uprisings that ended communism in Albania.
Do the hike from Valbona to Theth
I was foiled twice when trying to do this hike; my first time in Albania, it was forecast to storm for about a week straight after I experienced the most intense thunderstorm and flash flood of my life while outdoors at a beer festival in Shkodra. I figured I’d move onto Prizren, where the weather forecast was slightly better, and loop back through Albania later. However, when I got back to Albania halfway through October, it had already started to snow on the mountains and temperatures were below 0 C at night — not ideal hiking conditions. So I haven’t done this hike, but not for lack of trying!
That said, I can advise you that it’s best to leave your big luggage in your hostel in Shkodra and to take only what you’d need for a short hike. Typically, you take a furgon to Lake Komani, then take a ferry across the lake, transit to Valbona, and overnight there. You start the hike from Valbona to Theth the following day, and it takes about 8 hours.
All about Tirana, Albania’s capital
Tirana is a city that takes you by surprise – no matter what your expectations are. It’s quirky, quick-paced, friendly, and slightly frantic. There’s a sense there that everything is just improvised. Rhyme and reason are unwelcome. Anything goes there… and that’s why there are so many quirky, fun things to do in Tirana.
Most people give this city a quick pass through and bolt. I spent four days exploring Tirana’s attractions after tearing myself away from the Albanian Riviera, but even as I left I felt compelled to stay. Albania is a place I know I’ll return to time and time again: partly out of love for the country, partly out of curiosity to see how it adapts to modernization. Go now, while Tirana is still unique.
Things to do in Tirana, Albania
Visit a museum/art gallery in a bunker
I’m not quite sure what BUNK’ART is – and I’m not quite sure it knows, either. The first bit of it is historically accurate representations of the bunker as it would have been used during Chief Crazypants Enver Hoxha’s iron grip over Albania. The middle part is more museum, demonstrating how such a crazy communist regime was able to take root. The last part is, presumably, the “art” part – with inscrutable video installations, disco lights, ghost bicycles, etc. One of the coolest Tirana attractions by far!
Pro tip: there is free wifi in the bunker, but if you feel tempted to send videos to your pals, be sure to give them more details than just “I’m in an underground bunker in Albania” if you don’t want to get back panicked texts of “is this a hostage situation??” Oops, sorry… Context, right?
Shoot things on the city’s highest mountain, Mount Dejti
File this under things I Snapchatted and failed to actually photograph. Multi-tasking fail. Anyway, believe me when I say that after a quick and pricy cable car up Mount Dejti, there are unofficial shooting ranges that would make any ‘Murican proud.
Because nothing says fresh air, nature, and relaxation like firing off a couple of rounds at some beer cans that never did anything to you, right?
Gorge on grilled meat with mountain views
After you’ve worked up an appetite shooting random things, you may want to refuel with a kilogram of mixed meat! Lunch, the Albanian way.
A feast of three kinds of meat, definitely enough for two people, will set you back about $15 USD — you’re paying for the view, after all.
Drink with hipsters in the former heart of communism
Nothing says sticking it to communism like downing some craft beer in the ultimate emblem of modern-day international capitalism: hipster bars.
Blloku used to be the spot where party loyalists all lived – now it’s the hippest neighborhood of Tirana. Get ready to sit at a table with an old sewing machine on it and feel like you’re in Brooklyn – all this in a former communist brown noser’s backyard. Definitely one of my favorite things to do in Tirana!
Eat KFC across from Enver Hoxha’s house
Okay, so maybe there is a better way to stick it to the communist regime. The very first international food chain is coming to Albania – America’s own national treasure, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The best part? It is literally opening right across the street from deceased dictator Enver Hoxha’s old house. I really can’t think of sweeter poetic justice than this. Too bad it wasn’t open when I was there, as I would have loved this deliciously ironic Tirana “attraction.”
Visit George W. Bush Street
Okay, so you can technically do this in Prishtina, Kosovo as well — and maybe a few places in America, too. But it’s weird to see a figure so internationally reviled venerated in a foreign country.
Albania loves George W. Bush because he was the first American president to visit their country. There’s even a statue of him in a town where he once ate lunch, and the restaurant owner has forever shut down his seat so no one can sit where Bush once ate (although I can imagine when the lights go out, he eats there every night)
Climb a communist-era pyramid
Piramida in Tirana is a monument built in honor of Hoxha’s death, and it’s almost as ugly as his regime was. It’s now in a state of disrepair, almost a perfect metaphor for post-communist Albania.
Kids (and the occasional tourist) have now taken to using it as a slide while the country tries to figure out what to do with it. There’s also a TV station inside of it because… this is Albania. Definitely one of the weirdest attractions in Tirana.
Discover Albania’s crazy past through a free walking tour
If you choose just one of all the things to do in Tirana, make sure it’s the walking tour. The guide, Gazi, is one of a kind and will make the history of Albania come to life as experienced through the city of Tirana.
You’ll see all of Tirana’s major attractions as well as learn about Albanian history in an intriguing, easy to follow way. Literally every person I’ve met who has passed through Tirana and taken this tour raves about it. You can’t miss it!
Drink coffee at FRIENDS cafe
Albania has a bit of a fascination with American culture – and loose enforcement of copyright laws. Want to live in the 90s forever? Check out FRIENDS cafe. I didn’t hop inside, as I noticed it while on the bus back from BUNK’ART, but rest assured, it’ll be theeeere for youuuuu when the rain starts to pour.
If you don’t want to have 90s flashbacks with your coffee, there are plenty of other cafés both trendy and traditional elsewhere in Tirana. Enjoy a cappuccino for about 80 cents in most places!
Drink rakija at Sky Bar
Doesn’t drinking grape-based moonshine while spinning in a circle at the top of one of Tirana’s tallest buildings sound like a fantastic idea?
No? Well, it is when you have these views. Warning that the chairs spin, too – it can really take you by surprise!
All about Central Albania
Central Albania, covering the area roughly south of Tirana but not including the coastline of the Albanian Riviera, is Albania at its most pure and traditional. Here you’ll find “museum cities” such as Berat with its perfect Ottoman-era architeecture and Gjirokastra, the “stone city” that is the birthplace of one of Albania’s most unique forms of music.
You’ll also find smaller, off the beaten path cities that not many tourists to Albania visit, such as Elbasan, Pogradec (on beautiful Lake Ohrid, which it shares with Macedonia) and Korca.
Things to do in Central Albania (Berat, Korca & Gjirokastra)
Check out the windowed “eyes” of Berat
Berat is nicknamed “The City of a Thousand Eyes,” and once you’ve heard that description, you won’t be able to put it out of your head. Everywhere you go, the windows seem to be watching you. Wandering around the Old Town of Berat is a load of fun and a photographer’s dream, especially during the golden hours.
Join the locals for the nightly xhiro
Besides just the Old Town and castle of Berat, you should also check out the main pedestrian walking street when the locals take their nightly walk (xhiro) and eat at one of the delicious BBQ restaurants overlooking the main street.
But you don’t have to be in Berat to find people doing their nightly xhiro – just find the main pedestarian street in any city in Albania (or Kosovo, for that matter), and you’ll see people of all ages enjoying a nightly stroll just around sunset.
Check out the castle of Gjirokastra
Gjirokastra is a beautiful spot for a day trip or even a few days. It’s famous for its architecture, which is unique to this part of Albania; I’ve actually never seen it anywhere else in the world. The walls and roofs of the buildings are made of layers of flat rock, giving Gjirokastra its nickame “Stone City.”
The Gjirokastra castle (kalaja) is also remarkable, with gorgeous views to the Albanian foothills and also the city below. You’ll also find, inexplicably, an airplane up by the fortress, as well as a stage where polyphonic music concerts are performed a few times a year.
See the museum houses of Gjirokastra
Besides the castle, you also shouldn’t miss the “museum houses” of Gjirokastra which are basically former residences that have been converted into museums. They’ve never that expensive to enter – maybe the equivalent of $2 or $3 – and are a really interesting way to get a look at Albanian history through artifacts and architecture.
I visited the Skenduli house near the Anthropological Museum (also an excellent place to stop when in Gjirokastra – especially interesting because it’s located in the house where Enver Hoxha, the psychotic former dictator, was born) and found it both beautiful and highly insightful. The Zekate House is also recommended but I didn’t get a chance to visit it on my day trip to Gjirokastra.
All About Southern & Coastal Albania
To the extent that any part of Albania is touristic, the Albanian Riviera is definitely the heart of tourism in the country. The largest city in Southern Albania is Saranda, where many travelers from Corfu start their Albanian adventure. Saranda is a great base for day trips, such as the Blue Eye, Butrint, and Ksamil Beach, but it’s also a great destination in its own right.
Further up Albania’s coast, you’ll find both cities like Himara and Vlora and small villages like Borsh and Dhermi – but even the largest cities on the coast have gorgeous beaches just outside them. I’ve written a lot about the Albanian Riviera
Things to do in Southern & Coastal Albania
Visit Butrint, Albania’s best-preserved Roman ruins
Only in Albania will you find the remains of an incredibly well-preserved Roman city — and barely share it with even a handful of other travelers. Butrint is an archaelogical site and national park in southern Albania about 30 minutes from Saranda.
While Butrint is well-known, even in high season when I visited, there were no tour groups or large groups of people, so it felt a bit like discovering my own lost city. Give yourself adequate time to discover Butrint for yourself – I’d say around two hours is enough.
See Albania’s “Blue Eye”
One of the most unique things to do in Albania is to visit its “Blue Eye,” a natural spring gushing forth ice-blue water from a sinkhole at least 60 meters deep. Located about halfway between Saranda and Gjirokastra, this is a much-loved spot in Albania.
While there are signs against swimming, I certainly saw a few people in the water, several of them jumping from a ledge a few meters high. Be aware that if you do this, the water is absolutely freezing — I definitely won’t be getting in anytime soon.
Visit the islands of Ksamil
For a coastal country, Albania actually has surprisingly few islands. One of the few places in the country where you will find islands is Ksamil, a small village not far from the larger port city of Saranda. Ksamil is one of the more touristy spots in the country; however, it’s still Albania, so it’s not that expensive for foreign tourists.The coast of Ksamil is super packed with umbrellas and beach chairs, and there’s no shortage of restaurants where you can order a delicious seafood lunch and wine for a great price (I’m talking about $5 USD for a meal). But the islands of Ksamil aren’t hard to swim to if you’re a decent swimmer, and they’re completely undeveloped and peaceful. I recommend bringing a dry bag and enjoying your day on one of the few islands of Ksamil!
Albania is a hidden gem that’s only now starting to get its rightful moment in the sun. Just north of Greece, Albania has a beautiful coast line with delightful pebbly beaches and some of the bluest waters you’ll see anywhere in Europe.
In fact, while the Albanian coastline is the same as Croatia’s and much of Greece’s, you’ll probably spend half or even a third of the price in Albania.
Albania’s coastline is home to some of the most stunning beaches in Europe, and one favorite with tourists is Ksamil Beach, near Saranda and Corfu.
Why Visit Ksamil Beach?
Ksamil Beach has most conveniently located beach in all of Albania, in my opinion, and it’s also incredibly beautiful. For one, Ksamil is very close to Saranda, which is the entryway to Albania to anyone coming from Greece. For another, Ksamil Beach is within a short drive of two different UNESCO heritage sites: Butrint and Gjirokastra. With all those different cities and UNESCO sites in close driving distance, there’s so much to be seen in this beautiful part of Albania.
However, I’ll be honest. Ksamil Beach is beautiful, but in my personal opinion, it isn’t the most beautiful beach in Albania. It can be a bit crowded with families, especially during the summer. So finding a little patch of beach on Ksamil to enjoy is kind of difficult. You’re better off swimming or taking a boat to one of the other islands rather than the part of Ksamil Beach that is part of the mainland.
Ksamil Beach also has some great restaurants serving super fresh seafood with Albanian and Italian touches. Whereas many of the beaches in Albania aren’t that developed, Ksamil has a pretty wide variety of restaurants and cafés to choose from on the beach. Plus, it offers chairs and umbrellas – not every beach in Albania does!
How to Get to Ksamil Beach
Even though transportation in Albania leaves something to be desired, Ksamil Beach is relatively well connected by public transportation. I personally took the bus and found it really easy to get around, even on my first day in Albania before I knew how everything worked.
Getting to Ksamil from Saranda
To get to Ksamil Beach, you’ll always want to start in the port city of Saranda. From there, it’s a simple 10-minute taxi (about $5 USD) or 30-minute bus ride (about 70 cents).
There are many bus stops scattered around the city. I recommend going to the first one, the one near the giant oak tree in the roundabout by the ferry (welcome to Albanian-style directions) so you can snag a seat. Trust me — they will pack those Albanian buses in a way that puts the Japanese metro to shame. In case you want more Google-able directions, it’s at the intersection of Rruga Mitat Hoxha and Rruga Jonianet. (Note: This was true as of the summer of 2016; however, directions in Albania frequently change so you probably want to ask your guesthouse to double check)
A bus ride will cost you 100 lek (less than $1 USD) and takes about 30 minutes to get to Ksamil Beach. Buses typically run every 1-2 hours, though, so be sure to ask someone as your guesthouse when it will arrive or you’ll be waiting a long time.
You can also take a taxi, which will cost you approximately $5-10 each way, depending on your luck and bargaining skills. This is a good option if you have a few people with you or if you don’t mind spending a little more money for less stress.
If you’re not already in Saranda, I’ll list a few of the most popular ways to get there below.
Getting to Saranda (Ksamil) from Corfu
If you’re in Greece and want to make your way to Albania, it couldn’t be easier to get there from Corfu. Simply go to the main port in Corfu Town and take the ferry. The ride takes about 1-1.5 hours, and it will cost you about $25-30 USD during peak season.
Crossing the border in Saranda is very easy and only takes a few minutes if you are one of the first people off the ferry. The border agents speak good English and you should have no problems getting into Albania given that you are eligible for a visa on arrival (for those nationalities who need a visa, check here). But if you have a Schengen visa for Greece, you will automatically be granted entry into Albania, so visiting couldn’t be easier.
Getting to Saranda (Ksamil) from Tirana or elsewhere in Albania
Saranda is about 6-8 hours away by bus or furgon (minibus) from Tirana, the only international airport in Albania. Buses leave a few times a day from various points within the city. I wish I could be more specific than that, but bus times change often and rapidly in Albania.
It’s also quite easy to get to Saranda from any point on the Albanian Riviera (Durres, Vlora, Dhermi, or Himara) if you are heading to Ksamil Beach from any point further north. Himara is about 2 hours away from Saranda; Dhermi, 2.5; Vlora, 3.5 or 4; Durres, 5. These are all rough estimates and will vary based on traffic and other factors.
How to Budget for Ksamil Beach
Ksamil Beach is slightly more expensive than other places in Albania; that said, it is still quite a bargain compared to other countries. Tourism in Albania is still in its early stages, and while Ksamil is more developed than most places, you’ll still enjoy lower prices.
For an average hotel room, expect to pay around $20-30 USD per night. A villa fitting about 4 people will cost more like $80 USD per night.
Food in Ksamil is also relatively cheap. A pasta will cost you between $3-5 USD, whereas a seafood plate will cost you around $5-10 USD depending on what you get. There are also various “fast food” options like gyros which will cost you much less, usually around one dollar. Alcohol in Ksamil is also quite cheap, costing around $1-2 per beverage, and even less if you’re brave enough to try rakia – the Albanian national spirit consisting of distilled grapes.
You may want to stay in Saranda where there are more hotel and restaurant options and transit to Ksamil during the day – it’s really up to you and what kind of holiday you prefer. I personally chose to stay in Saranda and do day trips from there.
Altogether, for two people splitting a room, your cost will be about $50 a day to live and eat lavishly — or $25 around per person. Not bad for a beach holiday!
What to Do in Ksamil
Ksamil is composed of a handful of islands and a few beaches on the mainland. The beaches connected to the mainland can be quite crowded during the peak summer season.
If you’d prefer a more secluded beach, you can either take a boat to one of the smaller islands or, if you’re a strong swimmer, it is possible to swim over. The distance isn’t that far. However, I’d recommend that you carry all your belongings in a dry bag as there is no access to lockers in Ksamil Beach, as far as I’m aware.
There isn’t much to do in Ksamil except swim and sunbathe. However, there are tons of day trips you can take easily and cheaply, such as visiting the Blue Eye (Syri I Kalter), the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint, and the ancient “stone city” of Gjirokastra, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, if you want to go a little further afield.
Butrint is definitely my top recommendation for a day trip from Ksamil Beach. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that rightfully deserves the honor. It’s been ruled by Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and Ottomans, all of whom have left their mark on Butrint. For being over 2,000 years old, it’s in great shape.
You can see a theatre, a baptistery with one of the world’s best-preserved mosaics, a basilica, and even ruins of an ancient suburb. The best part is that almost no one was there, even in the peak season (late August). I maybe saw 15 to 25 other tourists in the entire two hours I spent wandering the park. It’s also surrounded by a beautiful freshwater lake with crystal blue waters. Nature and history all in one… On a scale of one to life in prison, how illegal do you think it is to squat in a UNESCO site?
Where to Stay in Ksamil
You can stay in one of the many hotels or handful of hostels in Saranda, or there are a few options in Ksamil Beach too if you want.
If you’re traveling solo, I recommend staying in Saranda. Stay at SR Backpackers, which is run by the wonderful Tomi – he will give you a crash course in the legend that is Albanian hospitality.
Upon hearing that the first few words out of my mouth were about Albanian food, he correctly ascertained that I was a little bit obsessed with food. That led to a promise from him to cook dinner for me the following night, and he treated me to delicious home-cooked pasta with a squid and tomato sauce. The night after that, he threw a beachside barbecue for the entire hostel, stuffing us full of pilaf, pork souvlaki, and shepherd salad, and only asking for the equivalent of a buck or two in return.