If you’re seeking beautiful mountains, beaches, secluded canyons, hilltop castles and cobblestoned old towns, then your next trip should be to Albania.
You might not immediately think about visiting Albania on a trip to the Balkans – but you should. Admittedly I skipped Albania on my first trip to the Balkans, and I don’t know why I did after spending a couple of weeks in this wonderful country three years later.
Hidden gems abound in this country – from canyons to castles; the people are friendly; and it’s also a very affordable destination. Forget what you might have heard about Albania – for some reason it’s labelled as unsafe, but in my opinion this was completely unfounded and I met some of the most welcoming people in my travels here.
The town of Berat – also known as the “town of a thousand windows”.
Where is Albania?
Albania is located in between Montenegro and North Macedonia and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and the Greek island of Corfu.
It’s easy to get to Albania either overland from North Macedonia or Montenegro, or take a ferry from Greece or Italy.
What to see and do
So you might be asking, where to go on your trip to Albania? I’ve detailed my itinerary below to help you plan your Albanian adventure.
The Old Town streets of Gjirokaster.
Shkoder & the Accursed Mountains
If you’re coming from Montenegro, Shkoder will likely be your first stop – especially if you like mountains.
Buses make the daily trip between Kotor or Podgorica in Montenegro to Shkoder before continuing onto Albania’s capital of Tirana.
Shkoder is the jumping off point to reach Albania’s Accursed Mountains, and while there’s not much in Shkoder to keep you entertained for long, you will find a cool castle and a vibrant pedestrian street filled with well priced local food.
Highlights of Shkoder including a hilltop castle
From Shkoder, you can easily organise your trip to the mountains and do the famous Valbone to Theth hike. You can organise the trip either through a tour agency or many hostels arrange transport and accommodation for you.
Minibuses leave daily at 6.30am from Shkoder to take you to the Koman Lake Ferry, which departs at 9am. The ferry is a sightseeing adventure in itself as you get a great view of the Accursed Mountains as you sail along.
After three hours you’ll arrive at the Fierza ferry stop and then it’s an hour drive to the village of Valbone. My hostel in Shkoder arranged for a driver to pick us up at the ferry stop. You’ll arrive around 1pm and have time to fit in a hike to warm up your legs ahead of the Valbone to Theth hike.
I recommend you stay at the Arben Selinaj Guesthouse, run by a lovely local couple. You definitely won’t go hungry here – filling up on hearty meals, and then sleeping in a cosy bunk.
Valbone to Theth
One of the must do activities in Albania is it’s most famous hike extending from Valbone to Theth. This 12km trail offers up some of the country’s best scenery, as you traverse a mountain pass running across the Accursed Mountains.
The trail is classed as moderate grade as there are some steep and rocky sections, but there’s no technical sections, so can be completed by most people with a moderate level of fitness.
You’ll finish your hike in the beautiful village of Theth, which offers up amazing views of the surrounding mountains, as well as a waterfall and a turquoise waterhole named the Blue Eye.
The hike to the Grunasi Waterfall is very easily accessible and can be reached in about 45 minutes from the centre of Theth. You can see the trail on Maps.me.
There’s dozens of places you can go to enjoy the beauty of Albania’s stretch of coastline. The roadtrip itself is stunning. To see the best of the coastline, make sure you take the bus from Vlora to Himara to Saranda. Buses from Tirana to Saranda go via the inland road as it’s faster.
The most popular destination along the Albanian coast is Saranda, which is home to tons of accommodation options, ranging from hostels to luxury hotels.
In Saranda, you can simply enjoy some beach time on one of the city’s beaches or take the bus half an hour to Ksamil for more beaches. Don’t forget to get a good vantage point to see the sunset over nearby Corfu Island, an island belonging to Greece and only a short ferry ride away.
If working on your tan isn’t for you, then brush up on some history and explore the ancient ruins of Butrint.
You can also enjoy the beach in Himara, located a couple of hours north of Saranda. Himara is essentially a village and offers up a more chilled vibe than Saranda – and also less people. There’s some secluded swimming areas located near the town off a scenic trail hugging the coastline, or you can also head over to the Gjipea Canyon. You hike into the canyon, and then arrive at a secluded beach only accessible on foot or by boat.
The beautiful beaches and coastline near Himara.
Gjirokaster is a small town that offers up an impressive castle on the hill above. Not only do you get to explore the restored fortified walls, you also get a great view of the town below.
Most people head to Gjirokaster from Saranda as a day trip, but it really is worth staying the night to have some time to really explore the town and the many corridors of the castle. You can also catch the sunset from the castle walls.
If you want to get off the beaten track in Albania, then you can take the two-hour bus ride from Gjirokaster to Permet. You’ll be hard pressed to find another tourist here – but everyone else is missing out.
Permet has more to offer than first meets the eye. As the town slogan says “Besides the sea, Permet has everything else.” They’re not wrong. Permet has a beautiful river running through it, and at sunset you get a great view from the aptly named Big Rock. Literally a Big Rock near the centre of town that has stairs set into it so you can easily reach the top.
Permet’s “Big Rock” and the view from the rock at sunset.
There’s also a regular bus from Permet to the thermal springs – which was the highlight of my time in this town. The bus runs five times a day from the town centre to the Benje thermal springs and takes about 30 minutes. The cost is 150 Lek return.
You can opt to simply laze in one of the thermal springs for a couple of hours – there’s a few to choose from as you head up the river. But if the pool party vibe isn’t for you, then you can explore further up the river into the Lengarica Canyon. Every twist and turn of the river takes you further into the canyon and stunning views around each corner.
The Benje thermal springs and wading through Lengarica Canyon.
There’s also a medieval bridge at the thermal springs offering up a good photo opportunity.
During your Albanian adventure, you can also make a stop in Berat. You can come here on a day trip from Tirana, or stay the night. The bus ride is two hours each way from Tirana. Berat is known as the town of a thousand windows due to the unique architecture of the local houses. There’s also a fortress looking over the town that you can reach with a short 10-15 minute hike from the centre.
Things to know
- Albania is a cash economy and small notes are preferred. The currency in Albania is the lek, however Euros are also accepted. Most hostels will accept payment in Euros. It may also be possible to pay in buses and at supermarkets in Euros.
- You’ll be hard pushed to find an ATM that accepts Mastercard – and if they do, you will usually be charged a large transaction fee. Visa cards are accepted by most ATMs.
- If you’re craving kebabs and gyros then you’ve come to the right place, there’s plenty of yummy food here. And also rakia if you’re craving some local alcohol!
- It’s easy to get around Albania with many buses going between the cities tourists are likely to go. Most buses will cost between 300 and 400 Lek. Payment in cash only. In the larger towns like Tirana and Saranda, you can usually just show up and you’ll be directed to the next bus heading your way. In small towns like Berat and Permet, buses run on a schedule so check times the day before and show up about half an hour before to reserve your seat. You can reserve your seat simply by placing something like a water bottle or book there rather than sitting on the bus.
- English is not widely spoken in Albania, especially if you get off the beaten track. However, in places where lots of tourists go such as Shkoder and Saranda, most staff in accommodation and restaurants speak at least a little English.