Exploring the Western Balkans is a bucket-list journey that every traveler should do at least once in their lifetime. This fascinating region of Europe comprises six countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania. While each of these destinations is special in their own way, Albania stands out as one of the highlights.
Albania is a small country but it packs a big punch. The Adriatic and Ionian coastlines provide an enticing entry point for holiday-makers searching for idyllic beaches and turquoise waters. Indeed, many people who travel through Croatia, Italy or Greece on their summer vacations are starting to include Albania onto their itineraries as an exciting added extra. Places like Ksamil, known as the Maldives of Southern Albania, pay testament to that.
However, there is more to this Balkan country than just the Albanian Riviera. Once you venture inland, the variety of travel experiences begins to broaden. The Albanian Alps, for example, are situated in the north of the country and offer adventurers spectacular mountain scenery and ample opportunities to go hiking. Mountains actually make up 28% of the territory.
Then you have UNESCO sites and archaeological wonders that showcase the rich history of the nation. Like much of Europe, Albania has a complex past but the future’s looking bright. Byzantine and Ottoman influences can still be found right across the country, and so too remnants of a darker communist chapter. Yet, the country has been a democracy for 30 years now and tourism is helping to fuel much needed economic growth.
Top 5 Things To See & Do in Albania
1. Go Hiking in the Albanian Alps
There are many great hikes to choose from in the Albanian Alps but perhaps the most popular one on the backpacker trail is Theth to Valbona. Starting in the mountain village of Theth, this trek takes you over a rugged mountain pass into the Valbona National Park. The nearest city to Theth is Shkoder, which usually acts as a base to go hiking in the area.
The total distance of the hike is 17km and it normally takes hikers around ten hours (including a couple of hours for breaks). Since you traverse a mountain pass, much of the trail is steep and gravelly but the views are stunning the entire way. You can also do this hike in reverse, from Valbona to Theth. This is a trail that can be done independently or with a guide.
Another option is to book a 4-Day Adventure to the Albanian Alps with the best tour operator in the country: Feel Albania. On this journey travelers are self-guided to explore some of the highlights of the Alps including Komani Lake, Shala River, Valbona Valley and Theth National Park. And it’s not just landscapes that you will experience on this adventure too. Stay in charming guesthouses and try traditional cuisine along the way.
2. Visit Berat, “The City of a Thousand Windows”
Berat transports you deep into the past when the Ottoman empire ruled this land. The white Ottoman-style homes have many windows, hence the name “The City of a Thousand Windows”. These unique houses go half way up the hill where a castle and Byzantine church can be found on top. Surrounding the city is the Osumi River and a sprinkling of fig trees.
The city is small but you will be surprised by how many things you can do. For starters, the food is amazing. There are some lively cafes where you can sample local cuisine and while the hours away. The historic mosques and medieval bazaar are fun to explore for an afternoon. Just outside the city one finds an array of canyons and valleys. Yet, perhaps the biggest pleasure on offer is the sunset – especially when the houses are all lit up.
The sheer uniqueness and cultural importance of Berat’s historic center earned it a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Center. While some visitors try to see all the sights here in a day, we highly recommend staying for two or three nights to really soak in the atmosphere. Berat makes for a wonderful trip out of Tirana (the capital city), as the drive takes less than two hours if you go via private car or just over two hours if you hop on a bus.
If you are short on time, and would prefer a day trip with everything organized, we can suggest the Berat Day Tour with Feel Albania. Departing from Tirana in the early morning (8am), this tour will give you a full day to experience the highlights of “The City of a Thousand Windows” – visit the Ethnographic Museum and Iconographic Museum, walk over the gorgeous Gorica Bridge, and discover the many mosques and cathedrals.
3. Relax on the Beaches of the Albanian Riviera
The Albanian Riviera extends from Vlore and Palase in the north to Saranda and Ksamil in the south. Visiting during the summer months of June, July and August will afford you the best weather. The area is not only home to some of Europe’s most stunning beaches, but also a range of UNESCO sites and national parks – making it a must-visit region for anyone traveling to Albania. Here is a list of some of the best beaches you should check out:
- Grama Bay, Dhermi
- Gjipe Beach, Saranda
- Ksamil Beach, Ksamil
- Dhermi Beach, Dhermi
- Mirror (Pasqyra) Beach, Saranda
4. Enjoy Fresh Trout & Wine on Lake Ohrid
Traversing parts of Albania and over the border into North Macedonia, Lake Ohrid is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Balkans. The Ohrid region has been recognized by UNESCO as a “superlative natural phenomenon” that granted it a listing as a Natural and Cultural Heritage Site. To visit the lake from the Albanian side, visitors should head to Pogradec.
This city sits on the shores of Lake Ohrid and boasts green hills to the south and west. With Pogradec as your base, you can enjoy several days of exploring the lake and visiting other notable towns such as Lin and Drilon. The food scene is phenomenal with a variety of world-class wines to try, some delicious trout caught fresh from the lake, a local favorite of pickles and many other delectable dishes served at the lakeside restaurants.
5. Experience the City-Life of Tirana, the Capital
The capital is usually the first port of call for travelers to Albania and what a destination to experience first up. Over the past 30 years, since the end of communism, Tirana has transformed into a hub of culture, consumerism and coffee houses. It is quickly becoming one of the coolest capital cities on the continent, with something for everyone to enjoy.
Escaping the city after landing would be a mistake because Tirana is a great place for a walking tour. The Blloku neighborhood has a boisterous atmosphere with plenty of bars and cafes to hang out at. Skanderbeg Square is a highlight. You can spend hours walking around the square checking out the statues, the surrounding museums, and the amazing tiled area which has tiles sourced from every corner of the country.
Tirana isn’t the most picturesque city in the world, like Paris or Rome. However, it has this unique edge to it. The sense of history here is palpable as you will see the city’s boulevards still adorned with socialist relics and remnants from former empires. Everything used to be gray and dull under communism, but the locals have added so much color and vibrancy to the city in recent years that it’s hard not to fall in love with Tirana.
*For more inspiration, see the list of places to visit on the destinations page of Feel Albania. The five experiences mentioned only scratch the surface of what this extraordinary country has to offer. There is so much more to see including Gjirokaster, Durres and Korca. But you would need a longer itinerary to travel deeper into these places, so why not visit Albania for a good month or two to truly immerse yourself in the culture.
How Long Should you Visit Albania?
The most common options for an Albania itinerary are one week, two weeks or one month. But there are no hard and fast rules. One week would be perfect for those who are seeking a taste of Albania, two weeks will give you enough time to experience most of the highlights, while one month provides the opportunity to travel slowly and with more purpose. Luckily, Albania is a compact little country that’s rather easy to get around.
For a seven day trip, you could fly into Tirana and base your travels around central Albania. This would give you the chance to tick cultural wonders like Berat, Ardenica Monastery and Apollonia off your list. You would also have time to head south for a few days to soak up the sun and visit the beaches of the Albanian Riviera. But that’s probably all you could fit into seven days.
If the Albanian Alps sound appealing (which they are) you might need at least two weeks to go from central Albania, to the north and then back down to the south. Realistically though, three weeks is a more ideal travel timeframe because you don’t want to be rushing from point to point. Keep in mind too that the neighboring Balkan countries are just as beautiful as Albania, so you might need a month or more to explore the area in detail.
Best Time of Year to Visit Albania
Albania is a country that definitely has four seasons, so you will want to pick your travel months deliberately. You can expect fantastic Mediterranean weather in the summer months between June and August. The temperatures are very hot and the beaches of the Albanian Riviera are just as beautiful as the Greek Islands (for example) but with half the tourists.
Hiking in the Alps will be harder mid-summer, due to the sweltering heat, but if you don’t mind breaking a sweat then June to August are great months to go. If you would prefer slightly cooler temperatures for hiking then May or September are good months to opt for. Even during the shoulder season, the beaches of Albania are still inviting.
If you are into sightseeing and walking, April and October are lovely times to visit. During winter, Albania gets cold and damp with the chance of some strong downpours in certain areas. One advantage of this season is the snow. Snowshoeing is a popular activity in the Alps from late January to mid March. Winter really kicks off from about November onward.
How to Get Around Albania? Transport Options
Due to its small size, Albania is a popular destination for road trips. Most of the roads are in better condition than before, but some are still quite challenging. Hiring a car is doable and affordable in Albania. This way you can travel through the country on your own and not rely too much on public transport. An International Driving Permit (IDP) is required.
The great thing about Albanian towns is that most of the attractions are walkable. For longer walks, you could always jump in a bus or taxi. Make sure you ask for the meter to be turned on as some taxi drivers may quote you a higher price than what they charge locals. Most major cities have taxis readily available. Some places you might need a private driver.
The bus system is far better than the train network in Albania. We suggest using the local buses and following their timetables (which are usually reliable, although some places more than others). Traffic can be notoriously bad in larger cities like Tirana and the roads aren’t always perfect, so factor in some delays into your schedule. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Travel Tips for Visiting Albania
- Lek is the official currency, not the Euro. However, you can bring your Euros along with you since this currency is also widely accepted.
- Albania is a relatively cheap destination for travelers. Backpackers could easily get by and see all the attractions for less than $50 USD per day.
- Travel with confidence because Albania is a safe country. Apart from the standard precautions, you can feel safe pretty much everywhere you go.
- The food scene in Albania is surprisingly good. Here are a few must-try local dishes: Tavi Kosi (a lamb and rice dish baked with yogurt and egg) and Pispili (a type of spinach and cheese pie served in the rural areas).
- Learn some basic history before you go. Albania has a complex past and so the more you learn beforehand, the better you will understand this country as you travel through it. You don’t have to dive into too many history books though. Just the 20th and 21st centuries will be enough.