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Albania is a hot travel destination these days, but up until very recently, most of us would not have been able to even locate Albania on a map. This formerly Communist country located in the Western Balkans of Eastern Europe did not emerge from Communism until 1991. The pace of change is incredible and in just 30 years, the country has changed rapidly as it seeks to reinvent itself to both its citizens and the rest of the world. Tourism has exploded in Albania in the last decade with photos of its crystal clear waters and beaches flooding Instagram and rumours of rock bottom prices.
After visiting in Summer 2023, we can definitely say that the reputation is warranted. As budget travelers, Europe in summer is difficult, but Albania offered excellent value and incredible sights. We visited Albania as part of a 3-week roadtrip through the region, visiting Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia, in addition to Albania. In this Albania travel guide, we hope to answer any questions you might have about visiting Albania and help you plan your trip. As with all up-and-coming destinations, getting to Albania sooner is recommended before it becomes even more popular.
- 1 Where is Albania?
- 2 Should I Visit Albania?
- 3 Getting to Albania
- 4 What are the Highlights of Albania
- 5 Sample Albania Itinerary
- 6 Is Albania Dangerous
- 7 When to Visit Albania
- 8 How Long in Albania
- 9 Albanian Currency and Costs
- 10 Getting Around Albania
- 11 Driving in Albania
- 12 Albania with Kids
Where is Albania?
Albania is located in Eastern Europe in the Western Balkans. It is located above mainland Greece, under Montenegro, to the west of Kosovo and North Macedonia and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.
Should I Visit Albania?
Do you like beautiful Mediterranean beaches, alpine mountains, picturesque Ottoman towns, quirky cities and getting off-the-beaten-path? If you do, Albania is a great destination for you. Do you want to visit Europe on a budget? Albania is one of the cheapest countries in Europe (although we think that is going to change) and offers incredible value.
While many are attracted to the Albanian Riviera, the country offers so much more than just beaches and turquoise waters. The history and culture of the country is fascinating and there are a multitude of outdoor activities and nature to explore. But, as we said earlier, Albania is on the cusp of change and there is a ton of construction going on as the tourism industry grows rapidly to accomodate the millions of visitors that have started coming to Albania. This is definitely a country that we would recommend visiting now!
Getting to Albania
Most visitors will arrive to Albania’s capital of Tirana by air which has excellent connections to European airports, including the budget airlines. Another easy way to get to Albania is by flying into the Greek island of Corfu, which is just a 30-60 minute ferry to Sarande in Albania. The advantage of this route is that you start your trip in the Albanian Riviera and there are more flight options.
It is also very common for visitors to cross into Albania by land borders with Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo or North Macedonia in either your own vehicle or a rental vehicle. You can take a rental vehicle between the Balkan countries, with some restrictions and additional costs – we will cover that below.
Most nationalities enjoy visa-free access to Albania for 90 days.
What are the Highlights of Albania
While the Albanian Riviera brings many to Albania, there is so much more to experience than just the beaches.
Tirana is a fascinating capital city and definitely worth at least a day. Tirana is a unique city with a mixture of brutalist, communist era buildings and modern buildings. You can visit most of the major sights in a day and it will give you a good introduction to the history of the country. We recommend visiting Tirana at the beginning of your trip so that you can better appreciate and understand the country.
We generally do a free walking tour in any new city we visit and the Tirana Free walking tour in Tirana was a fantastic introduction to the city and country. Their 10 am tour is offered everyday and starts at Skanderbeg Square in front of the Opera House. Our English guide provided so many tidbits of information as we toured around the main sites like the old mosque, clock tower, government buildings and statutes. We learned about Albania’s on-and-off relationship with the USSR and Italy, why Mercedes are so popular in Albania and that that there are over 175,000 bunkers in the country. We also learned about Albanian’s hopes for the future, including their 20-year EU candidacy. As with any free walking tour, you pay what you wish at the end of the tour. We generally pay about 20-30 euros for our family.
After the walking tour, we recommend you visit one of the unique BunkArt museums, located in a bunker of course! If you are only in Tirana for a day, BunkerArt 2 is the best option since it is located just off Skanderbeg square. Enver Hoxha, the long-time leader of Albania was paranoid of a nuclear attack and in addition to building those 175,000 bunkers for the citizens, also built some elaborate bunkers for him and government officials. This bunker was built for the Interior Minister and has excellent information focusing on the gendmarie and police. Visiting BunkArt is one of the most unique and best things to do in Albania. Entrance costs 500 LEK and it is open 9:30-6 Monday-Thursday and 9:30-8 Friday-Sunday. If you are planning on visiting BunkArt 1, you can purchase a combined ticket for 800 LEK.
We loved BunkArt2 so much that we made the 30-minute jaunt out to see the original Bunk Art – BunkArt 1. If you have a second day in Tirana, you can take the bus 30 minutes out to Bunk Art 1, which is much larger and more focused on life under Communist rule, Enver Hoxha, and the history of Albania. This can be combined with a visit to the Dajti Express, a scenic cable car that that takes you to the top of Dajti Mountain. Entrance to Bunk Art 1 is 500 LEK (cash only), and it is open 9-4 Monday-Thursday and 9-5 Friday-Sunday. Take bus P (Porcelan) (40 LEK – purchased on board) from Rruga Ludovik Shllakuto, near the Clock Tower to get there or grab a taxi.
Tirana has a great coffee and café culture and due to its proximity to Italy, excellent pizza. Albanian food is very good with Greek, Turkish and Italian influences. Compared to other Balkan countries, it is very vegetarian friendly. One of the best Albanian restaurants in Tirana is Oda, which turns out classic Albanian food in a lovely courtyard. Order a bunch of different items to share. This is a busy restaurant, so you may need to make a reservation or go early. We also really enjoyed Pizzarte, a fantastic pizza place right near Skanderbeg square. Meat eaters will want to try some of the very popular grilled meat joints throughout the city like Zgara Te Pazari.
Where to Stay in Tirana:
We stayed at this apartment in Tirana, which was just a few minutes walk to Skanderbeg Square and had plenty of space for our family. Other highly recommended hotels include Plaza Tirana (luxury) and Grand Hotel Colosseo (mid-range).
The Albanian Alps
You might not expect a country known for its beaches and turquoise water to also have snow-capped mountains, but that is what makes Albania so great. The most popular thing to do in the Albanian Alps is the hike between Theth and Valbona – a 20 km hike between two remote valleys. However, there is so much more to the Albanian Alps other than this really popular hike. There are waterfalls, turqoise blue rivers and swimming holes and the opportunity to experience traditional Albanian village life.
If you enjoy hiking or enjoy mountains, we would encourage you to add this into your Albania itinerary. The Albanian Alps, also called the Accursed Mountains are located in northern Albania, right near the Montenegro border. In fact, they may be best known as part of the multi-day Peaks of the Balkans trail. If you want to visit this region, you will need to allocate a minimum of 3 days as it takes some effort and time to get there. Most visitors access the area from the city of Shkoder, 2 hours north of Tirana.
The Theth Valley has recently become easier to access with a new paved road, so it is possible to drive yourself. However, if you are wanting to do the hike over to Valbona, you will return a different way, so you are better to leave your rental car (if you have one) in Shkoder. We have a full post about our time in the Albanian Alps and information on logistics, what to do and see and of course, the Theth to Valbona hike.
Where to Stay in Theth:
We stayed at Bujtina Pllumi Theth and loved its central location (right near the iconic church), great views from its elevated location, friendly family and excellent meals. Breakfast is included – heaps of Albanian pancakes and the dinner is very good (12 euros/person). Other guesthouses that come highly recommended are Gjin Thana, Shpella Guesthouse, and Guesthouse Rrashkadoli.
Where to Stay in Valbona:
Guesthouse Drino’s Valbona is consistently recommended, as is Bujtina Albjoni. There were both booked for our dates so we stayed at the newer Bujtina Brahim Selimaj. The price was excellent and the rooms were new and very comfortable. There was limited English spoken, no wifi and it is located a ways from the Theth-Valbona trailhead. But, the meals were good, the staff very kind and it had great views. We would stay there again.
Gjirokaster and Berat
As you travel through Albania, you will frequently see evidence of its Ottoman past. If you only visit one Ottoman town in Albania, make it Gjirokaster. Gjirokaster is located in the south of the country and is a town that is easy to love. It is known for its Ottoman architecture, stone roofed buildings, Castle and Old Bazaar. Gjirokaster is also where we consistently had the best Albanian food at very affordable prices. It is also famous for being the birthplace of Enver Hoxha.
While you can see Gjirokaster in one day, we suggest staying two days so you can soak in the great atmosphere. Start with a visit to Gjirokaster Castle, which is really a fortress. The Balkans have lots of fortresses, but this was our favourite one. The castle is very well preserved with an intriguing history, including its use as a jail for dissidents during the Communist era. There is a well-done Museum within the Castle that is worth a visit and of course, there are wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Give yourselves 2-3 hours to visit. Open April to September 9 to 7, October to March 9 to 5, 400 LEK/adult for castle, plus 200 LEK/adult for the museum.
The Old Bazaar is centered around a cobblestone intersection where five streets come together. This is the centre of tourism in Gjiokaster and you will find lots of souvenir shops and restaurants and the old town’s only surviving mosque from the Communist era. This is the best area to stay in Gjirokaster – just be prepared to walk up hills!
The food in Gjirokaster is excellent. We recommend Snack Bar Simple where the owner is really sweet and everything we ate was great, especially the meatballs and eggplant. We also really loved Restaurant Tradicional Odaja – great prices, very homey and authentic, excellent dishes like eggplant, pie, moussaka, pastille, rice balls, and feta with honey – we had 7 dishes for 28 euros. Bakery Antigonea 2000 was great for treats, ice cream, sandwiches, and burak. Right beside, Café Te Sava had excellent iced coffees.
Have a wander around the Memushi neighborhood, near the Old Bazaar. There are numerous large homes that date from the 19th century. We visited the best preserved one, Skenduli House which was really intreresting (300 LEK/person).
If you have more time, a walk to Ali Pascha Bridge, which is the remains of an aqueduct from the 19th century. It is a 2 km walk there, mostly up hill. Wear walking shoes and bring water. You can can walk on bridge, making for a nice photo.
If you have more time in Albania or want to see more of Albania’s Ottoman towns, you can add Berat to your itinerary. We really enjoyed our visit to Berat, known as the city of a thousand windows. While Gjirokaster is located on the side of a hill, Berat is located in the valley with a river running through it. It also features a Castle on a hill above the city, which is still inhabited. You can wander through the fortress for free.
Walk across the Gorsica Bridge to really appreciate the view of the houses and windows on the hill. We ate at the much-recommended Antigoni restaurant, which has great views, excellent food and prices and good service. You should also join in on the traditional evening walk that is common Albania. Called “xhiro”, you will find the streets come alive with people on Boulevard Republika in the late afternoon and early evening.
Where to stay in Gjirokaster
We stayed Friends’ Hostel & Guesthouse (budget), a lovely guesthouse run by a very sweet family. The views from the terraces were amazing and it is just a couple minutes walk to the centre. Rooms were clean and comfy – we had the quad room which was perfect for our family. Stone City Hostel is another really popular budget place to stay. Hotel Bebej Tradicional (mid-range) and Boutique Hotel Musée (historic) come highly recommended. You can also enjoy a luxury resort stay at Kerculla Resort, taking advantage of those great Albanian prices.
Where to stay in Berat
We like to stay in hostels occasionally for the social experience and we had a nice stay in Berat at Hannas Hostel. Hotel Rezidenca Desaret is a great boutique option and Guesthouse Arben Elezi is an excellent mid-range choice.
The Albanian Riviera is no longer a secret destination and when we visited in July, it was busy. Unfortunately the rampant construction seems to lack planning and many beaches have been taken over by restaurants and beach clubs. Sarande and Ksamil in the very south (near Corfu) tend to get most of the Instagram attention and therefore crowds. We opted to spend our few days on the Albanian Riviera based further north in Himare. We had spent a month in Greece prior to our visit to Albania, so beaches weren’t our focus in Albania, but we still wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Himare was a good choice for us, but in July, it was still very busy. In addition to having great beaches in the area, the drive between Himare and Vlore is really impressive. Generally we like to seek out beaches off the beaten path, but many of the beaches were tiny and overcrowded, plus we like renting beach umbrellas and chairs. Therefore, we spent a day at Lukove Beach, which was a great beach. When going to Lukove, once you hit the ocean, keep driving around to the left for lots of parking and different options for chairs. We set up at La Onda (10 euros/set of chairs), the first place and while it was nice, they gave us a hard time about not eating at their restaurant, souring the experience. We ate lunch at Hi Lukove, which has an awesome, elevated location overlooking the water. They had good prices, good seafood and friendly service. While we were there, there were large waves and a strong pull. I am not sure if that is the location or just the weather that day, but it definitely required care in the water.
Our second beach day was spent at Jala Beach, another beach with the perfect balance between quietness and services. We rented chairs from Bazz Beach Bar (10 euros/set) and enjoyed swimming in the calmer turquoise waters. There are a number of restaurants to eat and a couple of small shops. The drives all along the Albanian Coast are beautiful, but the highlight has to be Llogara Pass. If you are prone to car sickness, be prepared cause the roads are very windy. Llogara Pass is at 1,043 m and as you ascend to the Pass, you get the best ocean views. There is an area at the top to get out and take in the view. The Pass is gorgeous, but it does make the drive between Tirana and Sarande much longer and soon the road will be quicker and more comfortable with the tunnel that is currently being built.
Where to stay in Himare
You can stay in the Rea Boutique Hotel or Miamar Resort, taking advantage of Albania’s great prices while in Himare. Scala Bungalows is located at Livadhi Beach and with its beachfront location, is a great quieter, mid-range option.
Sample Albania Itinerary
If you are trying to plan your trip to Albania, this is a great itinerary that hits all the main highlights. If you want to skip the mountains, you can add more time to the interior and have more time to explore the coast. Or you can get your itinerary down to one week this way.
Day 1-2 Tirana
Day 3-5 Albanian Alps (from Shkoder)
Day 6-8 Gjirokaster
Day 9-12 Albanian Riviera
Our trip to Albania was part of a 3-week road trip through the Balkans. We started in Tirana, went up to the Albanian Alps, then over into Montenegro (Kotor and Durmitor), followed by Kosovo, North Macedonia (Skopje and Ohrid) before returning to Albania and visiting Berat, Gjirokaster and Himare and then returning to Tirana.
Is Albania Dangerous
An Albania vacation is considered safe for travelers. Like any destination, there might be certain areas or situations where you should exercise caution, but overall, Albania has become a more popular and welcoming tourist destination in recent years. We didn’t take any extra precautions in Albania than we would in any other European country. The most dangerous part of Albania was the driving, but even that was manageable with extra care.
When to Visit Albania
The best time to visit Albania depends on what you want to do, your budget and preferences. While summer is the most popular time of year to visit Albania, Spring and Fall will offer less crowds and better prices.
Summer (July to September): Summer in Albania can be quite hot, especially in July and August. However, it’s also the peak tourist season due to the warm weather and the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful beaches along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts. If you prefer beach activities, swimming, and sunbathing, this is the best time to visit. Keep in mind that popular coastal areas may be crowded during this period.
Fall (October to November): Fall brings milder temperatures and fewer crowds compared to summer. The landscapes are still picturesque, and it’s an excellent time for sightseeing, exploring cities, and enjoying cultural events. The weather remains pleasant during this season, making it suitable for outdoor activities like hiking or visiting archaeological sites.
Spring (April to June): This is a beautiful time to visit Albania, especially in April and May when the weather is mild and nature is in full bloom. It’s a great time for outdoor activities, such as hiking in the mountains, exploring national parks, and visiting historical sites.
Winter (December to March): Winter in Albania can be cold, especially in the mountainous regions. However, if you enjoy winter sports like skiing, you can head to popular ski resorts such as Brezovica or Korça. The cities are less crowded during this time, offering a quieter and more authentic experience. Just be prepared for colder temperatures and occasional snowfall.
How Long in Albania
We would suggest spending 1-2 weeks in Albania, and slow travellers can spend even longer. There are three main areas visitors explore: the Alps in the north, the Albanian Riviera on the coast and the internal cities and towns.
Albanian Currency and Costs
Albania has a reputation as one of the cheapest countries in Europe and we found prices significantly lower than western Europe. The currency is the LEK, with a current exchange rate of 1 euro=104 LEK. Euros are accepted in many places, but we recommend exchanging some money into LEK since small establishments may not take Euros and you will get a better exchange rate. ATMs give LEK throughout Albania, however, there are a few banks that will give Euros.
Cash is king in Albania; don’t expect to rely on credit cards, which isn’t widely accepted in Albania. We suggest bringing Euros to exchange or taking LEK out of the ATMs.
Getting Around Albania
How you get around Albania will depend on your budget and preferences. There are good bus options connecting major towns and tourist destinations. However, if you want more flexibility, renting a car may be the best option for you. Just be aware that driving in Albania is a unique experience. We rented our car from Keddy by Europcar, through Discover Cars, which was a smooth process.
Driving in Albania
Albanians have a reputation for being bad drivers; even Albanians will tell you this. In makes sense when you consider that before 1991 and the fall of Communism, there were only 5,300 private cars in the entire country and that ballooned to 120,000 within two years. We only recommend renting a car if you are a confident driver, who can drive standard. Driving in the countryside isn’t too bad, but driving in towns and cities can be stressful.
There was lots of cursing as we drove around Albania from Paul. Why?
- There is no right of way in roundabouts
- Cars randomly stop in the middle of the road (even on a highway!)
- you have to be prepared for everything and anything
Albania with Kids
Albania is a great destintion to visit with kids. Kids of all ages will enjoy the beaches and quirky sites. The beaches for the most part are calm and there are many boat trips to explore the coast. Our teens and tweens really got into the history of the region and especially enjoyed visiting the bunkers in Tirana – they even learned how to use a rotary dial phone! Families that enjoy the outdoors will like visiting the Albanian Alps, the National Parks and Blue Eyes (Albania has two). It is easy to get kid-friendly foods in Albania – pizza, grilled meats and burak are all readily available and were hits with our kids. They did get sick of visiting fortresses (castles) by the end and found the summer heat to be challenging, but overall they really enjoyed Albania.
We hope you found our Albania guide helpful. If you have any questions – get in touch!