Albania seems to be a country in Europe that no one really knows much about. When I first started saying I would be going to Albania, I was met with off hand, intelligible comments asking me if it would be safe and jokes about me being kidnapped while I was there. I was very rarely met with a positive response and it even got me wondering ‘is this the right place to go?!’. Thankfully, I can start this post by saying that absolutely everyone who has negative thoughts associated with Albania can completely disregard them, as it was one of the most friendly and safe countries that I have visited to date!
We had a few days to visit Albania and with an itinerary stretching on to Kosovo, North Macedonia and Greece we decided to play every day by ear. In the end, we spent a total of four nights/five days in Albania but this could definitely be stretched longer, and other areas such as Shkodër, a city in North Albania with a national park and abundance of outdoor activities to indulge in.
The easiest way for us to arrive to Albania (as there are no direct flights from Dublin) was to fly directly into Corfu with Aer Lingus and get a ferry across to Sarandë. The ferries are €20 each way and there are several companies on the port of Corfu that offer the trip. We opted to go with Finikas as their boat gets you from A to B in 30 minutes. Please note that the ticket offices are not actually at the port, they are a several minute walk away so unlike bus and train stations, you must purchase your ticket elsewhere before you arrive. There are a few small quirks that should be known before travelling to Albania.
- The first, and most important is that virtually no where takes card. This is no exaggeration! Everywhere from cafés to ferry operators – we never came across anywhere that accepted card payments. Thankfully there are several ATMs in Sarande if this is your first destination.
- Driving in Albania is an experience. There are very few road signs, traffic lights or to be honest rules in general. People will overtake you in their 20+ year old cars on the bend of a steep incline up a mountain with a sheer cliff edge without a bother on them! Roundabouts are a bit of a situation as well. You just have to slowly edge into the mess of it all and hope for the best. Indicators are barely used but they really love throwing their hazards on randomly. I don’t really have any tips on driving apart from be alert, go slowly in more built up areas (because people will just do whatever they want) and try not to stress too much. I read beforehand that Google Maps might have some other ideas when it came to getting us to where we wanted to go but once you are alert to the route and keep your eye on it, it shouldn’t be an issue. The driving is without a doubt crazy but the public transport isn’t reliable so it’s the best way to travel around the country.
- If you are renting a car in Albania but crossing the border to North Macedonia or Greece note that you need a ‘Green Card‘ to cross the borders. We asked Enterprise for the Green Card when we rented the car but they only gave us a letter of authorization and spoke about ‘buying insurance at the border of Kosovo’. Since we opted for Premium Insurance with zero excess on our rental car the thoughts of purchasing further insurance was really confusing for us, but once we arrived at the border of N.Macedonia and Greece we learned that our rental agent meant we had to buy our Green Card at the border by Kosovo (which is what they meant by ‘insurance’ as far as we could gather). What should have only been an extra €40 on top of our rental turned into an extra €230 due to our mistake!
- In built up areas people will try and clean your car windscreen and then knock on your window for money. They are pretty cute with their strategy and will always target cars with rental stickers or foreign plates so there is nothing to do apart from be stern and tell them no.
- Your internet coverage will be surprisingly perfect! We had absolutely no issues throughout the whole of Albania in terms of phone service, something that I probably struggle with daily in Ireland!
Sarandë will be your first taste of Albania if you choose to arrive by Corfu. It’s a really nice coastal town, but probably one of the more touristy parts with hotels and apartment blocks as far as the eye can see. In Sarandë you can choose to either take it easy and lie by the beach, or get more adventurous and visit places such as Lëkurësi Castle, a castle on top of the hill giving stunning views of the town down below.
We actually didn’t stay very long in Sarandë as our final destination for that evening was roughly four hours up the coast in Vlorë. We rented our car from Enterprise which is situated in the port that you arrive in by boat and hit the road after taking in the beach side views and having breakfast.
TRAVELLING FROM SARANDE TO VLORE
Travelling from Sarandë to Vlorë has some of the nicest views in Albania and without a doubt, this is where you will find the most beautiful beaches.
Some of the places in between these two destinations are:
- Borsch Beach (1 hour from Sarandë): This was probably our favourite beach on that stretch. Because we visited in low season, we snuck onto a bed that was part of the Sole Luna hotel and enjoyed a drink at their cozy beach bar. Borsch is just outside the small town of Qeparo.
- Himarë (1 hour 20 from Sarandë): This is a sand beach that stretched along the town, and there are ample amounts of restaurants and bars to choose from across the road.
- Gjipe Beach (2 hours from Sarandë, 2 hours from Vlorë): Between Himarë and Dhërmi lies Albania’s apparently most beautiful beach. We were getting from A to B on a bit of a time limit so regrettably we didn’t get to visit here as there is about a 30 minute hike to get there – and from what I have read, the views are by far worth the reward!
- Dhërmi (1 hour 30 from Vlorë): The beaches here are really beautiful and offer a wide range of water sports. When you are on the beach, make sure to turn around and take in the view from behind as well as in front! There is such a stark contrast between the crystal clear water and the towering mountains behind. It’s really beautiful!
- Vlorë: Driving into Vlorë there are beaches all along the side of the road that you can stop and enjoy. They are really beautiful, with a stunning view across the water of Llogara National Park and Sazan Island. Vlorë is a fairly large town, so you can take time to walk around and enjoy if you wish.
TRAVELLING FROM VLORE TO DURRES
Sadly, the route from Vlorë to Durrës doesn’t have as many beaches as before, but in a way it is also a welcome change of scenery to see what the rest of Albania looks like. On this route, you can choose to veer off and visit the town of Berat. We had this on our itinerary but got distracted by the National Park we went to visit, and by the time we checked back to the map we realised we had more or less gone too far to go back and visit Berat. It is probably one of our biggest regrets from the journey as it looks like a beautiful place. We ended up visiting Divjaka-Karavasta National Park on the coast – but to be honest, I would recommend visiting Berat instead of here. It’s a nice place, but not the most exciting National Park to visit.
Durrës is Albanias second largest city, after Tirana. The city is filled with Grecian and Roman influence and many ruins can be viewed throughout the city such as the old Roman Amphitheater and inside the archaeological museum. There is also a beach in Durrës that you can enjoy, and there is a beautiful walk way all along the water front.
TRAVELLING FROM DURRES TO TIRANA
Going from Durrës to Tirana, we decided to make a pit stop at a National Park north of Tirana called Djati National Park. There is a cable car called the Djati Express that takes 15 minutes and brings you very near to the top of the mountain. We opted to go a different route and visited Bovilla Lake north of the park. Bovilla is a reservoir with the most amazing blue/green water. Admittedly, the road to the lake is probably one of the worst that we have ever taken – but it is 100% worth it for the views you are rewarded with. There is a view point that you can hike to by typing in ‘Bovilla Lake Climbing Area’ into Google Maps and then following the painted red arrows on boulders and rocks along the way. The climb isn’t too strenuous, but it is one of the less safe climbs I have done in my time! We did visit in late September, but that aside we were absolutely shocked with the lack of people there. We were the only people who did the climb while we were there, with just two other small groups of people having picnics there.
Tirana is such a gorgeous capital city, and completely unlike what we had expected. I had anticipated the city to be more on the dreary side due to their communist history that stretched for 50 years under leader Enver Hoxha – but that was completely not the case! Edi Rama became mayor in Tirana and during his time he built parks, and created an initiative to paint buildings in bright, vibrant colours across the entire city. By doing this, he created a city that was beautiful and showed no history of oppression in its facade. You can spot all the amazingly painted buildings as you move throughout the city!
There are plenty things to do across the city and you could easily spend more than one day exploring here. You can spend your time visiting these areas:
- Tirana Castle. This isn’t a legitimate castle, just the castle walls with various shops and restaurants inside.
- Pyramid of Tirana: Built by Enver Hoxha’s daughter as a tribute to her father, this is now an abandoned
- BunkArt and BunkArt2: Once the fallout shelter of a dictator, this sprawling bunker is now a combined history museum and contemporary art gallery.
- Skanderbeg Square: The main square in Tirana, named after a national hero in Albania. It is a huge, beautiful square in the centre of Tirana and the perfect place to sit and relax.
Once we left Tirana we drove through Kukës and into Kosovo (which I highly recommend if you are doing a Balkans road trip), down through North Macedonia and Greece. In Kukës, there are a few things you can do should you choose to spend a day here. You can visit Fierza Reservoir which is similar to Bovilla Lake outside Tirana. Alongside this Reservoir, you can also visit the Gjallica mountains if you are into hiking!
Once we got back into Albania from Greece on our roadtrip, we got the pleasure of exploring South of Sarande! You can circle back on yourself and visit Ksamil if you don’t want to leave Albania by following directions back to Sarande and continuing down the coast.
Looking for a more adventurous idea? Why not continue up the coast of Albania and into Montenegro? From Tirana to the nearest town to the border Ulcinj is only 2.5 hours and you can even make a stop at Shkodër along the way! From Ulcinj you can explore the coast of Montenegro and visit Budva and Kotor which are both less than a two hour drive away. From here, you can continue your journey into Croatia and fly home from Dubrovnik (only two hours from Kotor) or if you are sick of crossing borders, fly back from the capital of Podgorica. For Irish flyers, Ryanair has now started direct flights between Podgorica to Dublin making visiting Montengro easier than ever! Anyway, I digress….. !
BUTRINT NATIONAL PARK & KSAMIL
We entered back into Albania from Parga in Greece by the Border Crossing Qafë Botë. If you are using Google Maps and travelling into Butrint & Ksamil, make sure to keep your eye on the map so it doesn’t send you all the way up into Sarande inland first and make you go back down the coast. If you follow the map the direct route to Butrint National Park you get to drive onto a very interesting car ferry. We got charged €5 for our car which for Albania seemed quite steep. We weren’t sure if we got the wool pulled over our eyes, but it didn’t seem like the time to pick a fight and we had exactly €5 on us. Bare in mind if you do come to Butrint through Greece that you should have some form of Albania Lek on you as they don’t take card at the ‘ferry’, nor at the National Park.
Once you cross the water with your car, you are more or less at the car park for the National Park. Butrint National Park costs 700 Lek (€5.65) entry per person The park is an amazing 9,424 hectares (94.24 km2) of hilly terrain with freshwater lakes, wetlands, salt marshes, open plains, reed beds and islands – not to mention the amalgam of monuments and ruins representing over two thousand years of history from the 4th century Hellenistic period to the Ottoman defenses created in the early 19th century.
The park is really amazing to walk around and there are signs and notices informing you of the history of Butrint throughout the centuries. There is quite a lot of walking to do, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water. We didn’t find a restaurant while we were there, but we did find a nice little café where you can sit and enjoy a coffee.
Once you are done at Butrint, Ksamil is only a short distance away. Ksamil is one of the most popular areas on the Albanian Riveria for it’s beaches and nightlife. To be honest, we didn’t find that the town itself had a whole lot to offer, and the best parts really are down at the water front. Saying this, the beach is absolutely stunning and there are a range of different water sports that you can indulge in while you are there.
From Ksamil, we made our way back up to Sarande where we returned our rental car and took our ferry back to Corfu.
Have you ever considered visiting Albania before? Or is it somewhere you have already been? Let me know!