Roadtrip! Part 2: How to Spend a Week in Albania, from City to Seaside
My friend Cristal and I traveled down Croatia’s coastline then made our way to Albania. While getting here wasn’t easy and involved a bus detour in Montenegro, exploring Albania is definitely worth it if you enjoy good food, cheap prices, and fewer tourists than Europe’s more popular destinations. Sounds pretty good, right?
Cristal and I visited many UNESCO sites, you know I love a good UNESCO site, and on the Postcard Academy podcast, we share what we saw in Tirana, Durres, Berat, Gjirokastra, and Sarandë. You’ll hear all the highlights from the trip — and some things that we thought were overrated — and hopefully you can use this info to plan your own trip to Albania.
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Best way to get around Albania
Buses go around all the major cities of Albania. There are also mini-buses/vans called furgons, which is how many Albanians get around. We thought about renting a car, but you need an international driver’s license. And we also didn’t feel like driving. The furgons were a great option for us, but you have to be flexible with leaving/arriving times because they take off once the van is full.
Is it safe to travel to Albania?
People often ask, “Is Albania safe for tourists?” Albania is a country that struggled after Communism fell in the 1990s, and, in Europe, it’s known for criminal gangs and the trafficking of humans and drugs. And these are big problems in Albania. But, like everywhere, it’s also a country with many good people, and here they are curious and welcoming when it comes to travelers. Albania is turning around and it’s a great time to visit and support this change through tourism. We felt perfectly safe there everywhere we went.
Albania is north of Greece and south of Montenegro. Its capital, Tirana, has about 1 million, many living in the suburbs surrounding the city. All the main areas you’ll want to see can be found within a 10 minute walk from Skanderbeg Square in the city center.
You have to do the Tirana Free Walking Tour (tip-based like all free tours — and they deserve a generous tip, in my opinion). This was hands-down our favorite experience in Tirana and the best way to learn about Albania’s history. Our guide gave us a great overview of the history, main sites, and must-try foods in Tirana.
The BUNK'ART Museums are part of a historical-cultural project that is focused on telling the story of the communist regime. You can find BUNK’ART 1 just outside Tirana, in one of the atomic bunkers that dictator Enver Hoxha erected. BUNK’ART 2 is located in the city center of Tirana, close to the Et'hem Bey Mosque. If you don’t have much time in Tirana, I’d stick to BUNK’ART 2. For me, it was cool to explore bunker in the first one, but the storytelling was lacking for me. I’m not sure if there was too much information or not enough, but I didn’t come away with feeling that I understood Albania’s history or its people any better.
For food, our fav restaurant with veggie options was Oda. Try the soup :)
My favorite museum in Tirana was the The National Gallery of Arts. i asked someone who worked there to tell me a little about the paintings, which didn’t have any descriptions. Most of the art there is propaganda, because that is the only thing that was allowed during the Communist era. Thus, the Communist party and the dashing ‘working man,’ are the heroes of the imagery. Though it’s interesting to note that women had more equality in the workplace than in many Western countries post-WWIi.
Next stop, Durres. We only had a few hours here. If you’re time-crunched, you can head straight to Berat. I think we might have enjoyed Durres more if we’d had a tour guide. Also, when we were there, we were told the water is not clean enough to swim in. There are plenty of nice beaches in Albania, like Dhërmi, Borsh, Himara, Qeparo, and Sarandë, so stick to them.
Berat is Albania’s “Town of a Thousand Windows” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Ottoman window houses were built between 1720 and 1850, though an earthquake destroyed most of them. If you’d like to stay in one, check out Guest House Vasili.
We actually stayed on the grounds of the old castle, which dates back to the 1200s. People have been living in the castle area since 4th century B.C. and the walls were refortified in 1205. The oldest houses date back to the 1690s.
The Onufri Museum in the Church of the Dominion of Saint Mary is worth a visit. You’ll find beautiful 16th-century paintings and go into a church where the Purple Codex of Berat was discovered. I’m still trying to figure out what this is, but apparently it was so significant that monks had to hide it from Hitler.
Part of this city is a UNESCO World Heritage site where you can see a lot of old Ottoman empire-styled houses and a grand castle. You’ll also find quite a few hiking trails nearby.
If you’re not driving, I think it would be worth it to join a tour going there. One of my biggest regrets of our trip was taking a furgon there from Berat. We needed to transfer vehicles half way and by the time we got there, we only had two hours until catching the last furgon to our next destination, Sarandë.
As much as I loved my tours of Tirana and Berat, my favorite place in all of Albania was Sarandë. Or more specifically Ksamil, which is a beach south of Sarandë. We had a perfect day chilling by the crystal clear water and hanging out at a restaurant called Guvat. They’ll bring your cappuccino to your beach chair — life doesn’t get much better.
I discovered this little travel hack to get to Sarandë: Fly into Corfu, Greece (there are always cheap flights here if you live in Europe), then take the 30-minute ferry to Sarandë. You’ll enjoy the Albanian Riviera for a fraction of what you’d pay in Italy or Greece.
My last stop in Albania. I came here so that I could catch the ferry to Italy. If you plan on doing the same, look into booking a cabin so you can relax in bed on the ride. If not, get there early so you can get a seat by the window. My wallet was stolen somewhere between Vlore and Italy, maybe on this ferry. So, keep your wallet in a zipped bag and always keep your credit and debit cards in separate places.
Where nature lovers should go in Albania
Here are a few places that we didn’t make it to, but were highly recommended to us.
Theth. This area is called the “Accursed Mountain.” The “Albanian Alps” is a big destination for hiking and looks like a magical fairytale land. Close by you’ll also find Valbona, a traditional town, and popular hiking path. Further north you’ll find Vermosh in Kelmend, which has fantastic views and is perfect for hikers and nature-lovers. You can drive there, but you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle with off-roading capabilities. Compact cars can’t handle the journey.
Pogradec. A city around Lake Ohrid and on the border with Macedonia. You’ll be able to go boating, kayaking or cycling along the lake.
Dajti. A national park where you can take a cable car to the top of the mountain and go on nature excursions or try out the hiking trails.
Grand Park of Tirana. Just outside the city, you’ll find this park, which includes an artificial lake and an open-air theatre where regular stage shows featuring talented artists take place. The Grand Park is also home to several memorials and the remains of the Church of St. Procopius.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.