Albania, a little country in the Balkan regions in South Europe, is a highly underrated and often misunderstood destination. A lot has to do with the way Albanians have been portrayed in movies like 'Taken', and of course, the brutal communist regime of about half a century post World War 2 that locked away this beautiful gem from the rest of the world! But in reality, the country boasts some of the most enchanting landscapes, a rich history from the Illyrian and Ottoman times , a vibrant culture with the influence of its neighboring countries, and most importantly - unparalleled Albanian hospitality :)
Traveling to Albania was a very spontaneous decision. We wanted to visit an off-beat destination, but at the same time get a little bit of the 'European' experience. After a quick research, we decided to drive across the country for 10 days to get a taste of both - the Albanian Alps in the north, as well as the Albanian Riviera in the south. And then of course, we traveled to some of the most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage sites spread across the country.
So here are our TRIP HIGHLIGHTS >>
Day 4 - Syri-i-Kalter, Drive along the Albanian Riviera Drive along the riviera, stop by the Blue Eye of Sarande, Stay overnight at one of the beach towns. We stayed at Ksamil but we would recommend Sarande or Himare instead
If you're in a hurry, you can skip the Q&A below and head straight down to the ITINERARY.
The Theth Church, North Albania
When is the best time to visit Albania?
We visited Albania in the beginning of July. The peak season is from July-August, when it tends to get crowded in certain spots, and the weather in the coastal areas can get really hot (the mountains in the north are still cool though). We recommend visiting the country in the shoulder seasons, that is between April-June and September- October. However, do note that some of the hiking trails in the north (most importantly, the Valbone to Theth trail) are closed to tourists in the winter months up until late-May because of snowfall!
How many days do I need in Albania?
Ideally, you would need at least 10-14 days to fully explore the country (if you have your own rented vehicle). But if you are short of time, then we recommend at least one week where you choose to do either only the north, or the south. Tirana, the capital is situated somewhere in the middle of the country, and this can be your starting point to head towards the north or the south.
The north is known for its mountainous topography - the Accursed Mountains, also known as the Albanian Alps, as well as the ancient capital, Kruje, a very culturally-rich, medieval town.
The south is known for the Albanian Riviera and all the beaches along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, as well as some of the UNESCO heritage towns of Berat and Gjirokaster.
Flights & Visas
*Please note that this article was written in August 2021. Rules related to visa applications are subject to change*
Please check the website of the Albanian Embassy in your country of residence, to check for visa requirement and the application process. As UAE residents, we can obtain a visa-on-arrival for a maximum stay of 90 days. At the immigration check at Tirana International Airport, we were asked to present any one of our hotel bookings, and a proof of a return or onward ticket. Please note that passports must be valid for a minimum of 3 months from the arrival date.
We traveled via FlyDubai Airlines that has direct flights between Dubai to Tirana. We recommend running a quick search on Skyscanner to check for flight routes and rates based on your location. It takes about 30 minutes to travel from Tirana airport to the centre of the city. By bus it costs 300 Lek (€2.45), and by taxi it costs somewhere around €20-€25.
Do I need to take a COVID-19 RT-PCR test for Albania? Where can I get tested in Albania?
*Please note that this article was written in August 2021, and rules related to COVID-19 protocol are subject to change*
Please check the IATA Travel Centre website before your flight to get the latest updates on the requirements of the country you are traveling from and arriving to. At the time we traveled (July '21), Albania was open to all tourists with no requirement of an RT-PCR test nor any proof of vaccination. However, we required a negative RT-PCR test to fly back into our home country.
Tirana International Airport has its own testing facility, where you can get your results within 90 minutes! Passengers are advised to reach the airport at least four hours before their flight in order to get the PCR test results in time before their departure. There are several other testing centers in clinics across the country, but from our research, the Tirana airport provided the cheapest and quickest option of all.
RT-PCR Test Cost - €35 per person
How do I get around in Albania?
Roads leading to Gjirokaster Castle
Public transport - There is no rail system in Albania, and it's mostly buses or 'furgons' (shared mini-vans). We had heard that they do not run on any fixed time-table, so we are not too sure if they are reliable. However, we did meet a few travelers on our trip who were getting around only using public transport.
Driving or Hiring a Driver - We rented a car and drove ourselves, which gave us so much flexibility and freedom to explore areas we would have otherwise never seen. Driving in Albania.....is quite an experience! The highways are great, the direction signages are straightforward, and the views are absolutely stunning. Expect a lot of hairpin bends too, especially around the mountain regions. However, watch out for some really crazy, dangerous drivers inside the major cities, like Shkoder and Tirana, where people (and pedestrians!) tend to flout traffic rules. But it was definitely not impossible to drive, and as long as you stick to the speed limits and practice safe driving, you should be fine :)
GPS Apps - Google Maps is the usual go-to navigation app, BUT in Albania you can't completely rely on it! It did take us on crazy detours, so we highly recommend using Maps.Me side-by-side to cross-check your route. Maps.Me was also useful during our hikes in the north as it identifies hiking trails as well.
Google Translate - This is hands down, one of the the best inventions ever! English may not be widely spoken or understood in Albania, but with an app like this, you can manage to have a somewhat-complete conversation with the locals.
Where can I rent a car from?
Our rental car! The only one that was left in all of Tirana - what happens when you travel during peak tourist season
There are many car rental offices right outside Tirana airport. You have options from Avis, Europecar etc. to local companies as well. The advantage of renting your car from the airport is that you can drop it off there at the end of your trip. However, we arrived during peak season when all the affordable cars were sold out, and we had no choice but to look for options inside the city centre.
During peak season, a basic sedan (such as a Nissan, or a VW Polo) starts at €25 per day for a manual, and €30 per day for an automatic car. It was quite a challenge finding a car at this price point, but we finally managed to do so. THE ONLY one car that was left available in all of Tirana - a bright, yellow Nissan sedan 😂 We found it at a local rental company called Makina Me Qera Danieli (which translates to Danieli Rental Cars) and you can contact them on WhatsApp at +355 693191919. You may find trouble communicating with them in English, but we used the Google Translate app and copy-pasted our translations and managed to converse. :)
Budgeting for the trip
The Lek (plural Leke) is the official currency of Albania, although the Euro is widely accepted. The money exchange centers in Dubai did not have any Albanian Lek, so we carried Euros with us and converted some of it to Lek at a local exchange centre in Tirana.
1 Euro = 120.97 Albanian Lek (dated August 2021)
Food, accommodations, and getting around in Albania, in general, is so much more affordable when compared to other mainstream destinations in Europe. Listed below are our average expenses on our trip (we travelled during peak season), but your final budget would also depend on your travel style and preferences.
Average price for a 2 or 3-Star hotel/guesthouse, inclusive of breakfast - €35 per night
An average meal for one person (main course + drink) - €4
Average rate for a basic, automatic rental car (not including fuel) - €30 per day
Accommodations in Albania
One of the best hotel experience ever at Vila Dini, Valbone
Finding an accommodation in the country is very easy, and they are quite affordable as well. From hostels and guesthouses, to AirBnBs and luxury star hotels, there is something to fit into any type of budget! We traveled during peak season, and we were mostly staying in either hotels or guesthouses, spending an average of €28-€35 per night for a spacious double-bed room, inclusive of breakfast. There are plenty of group hostels too, but we chose not to stay in shared-spaces as precaution during the pandemic.
NOTE : *We have listed the exact names and costs of accommodations under the relevant headings in the itinerary below this Q&A.*
Food in Albania
At Homemade Food Lili's , treating ourselves to some traditional Berat cuisine
We would return to Albania just for the food! Albania's rich gastronomical scene has its roots in the Ottoman empire, and Turkish influences are quite noticeable too. Modern day dishes are hugely influenced by Greek and Italian cuisines. THE BEST PART - quite a few of their traditional dishes are completely vegan, and that made our dining experiences so much more enjoyable and easier than in other countries we have visited.
Some of the MUST-TRY Albanian dishes are
Byrek (Savoury crepes with a spinach filling)
Imam Bayldi (Stuffed Eggplant)
Stuffed Bell Pepper
Bamje (Okra stew)
Yaprak (Stuffed vine leaves like the Greek 'Dolmas')
Qifqi (Stuffed rice balls) - a dish native to the town of Gjirokaster
Grilled Vegetables (seared in olive oil)
Good food is very affordable in most restaurants across the country. A dish from the main course is priced at an average of 300 Lek (approx. €2.47!)
NOTE - *We have recommended restaurants for each city we visited under the relevant headings in the itinerary below this Q&A.*
Day 1 - Explore the capital city of Tirana
Tirana may not be the prettiest European capital city, and is not the best example of what Albania has to offer, but it has a few gems and pockets of culture and history that are worth exploring. We landed here on a weekend evening and wanted to set off on our road trip the following morning. So we decided to explore more of Tirana at the end of our trip (Day 10). But we did get to experience the bustling night life and restaurant scenes on our first day.
We highly recommend staying around Skanderbeg Square, the public plaza in the city centre. This place has got a nice chilled vibe, with locals walking and cycling around, or just chit-chatting away to glory. The square is named after Skanderbeg, the 'national hero' of Albania who successfully resisted the Ottoman invasions during the mid-1400s. You can also find Skanderbeg's famous statue on his horse in the center of this Square.
If you've got more time on your hands, we recommend visiting Bunkart 2, which is actually an anti-nuclear bunker built by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, now converted into a fascinating museum! It is open on all days of the week, from 9 am to 8 pm. You could also explore the surrounding hipster neighborhood of Blloku, which used to be the centre of the communist rule, but is today very popular among the locals for its trendy restaurants and cafe scenes.
Where we stayed in Tirana
We stayed at Urban Rooms, perfectly located close to the main city sights yet nestled away from the noise and bustle. The rooms are spacious, and very tastefully designed with contemporary elements. The owner Armand, an architect, designed the property himself! He is a wonderful person to chat with and will also help give useful recommendations on things to see and places to dine at.
COST - A double-bed room with a private bathroom cost us about €35 per night. Super worth it during peak season considering the quality of our stay and its prime location!
Restaurant recommendations in Tirana
On our first night we stepped out for dinner quite late when most restaurants were already shut (post 10 pm on weekends), although the bars and cafes were still open and buzzing! We did manage to grab a bite at a local eatery serving Greek food. However, we recommend that you visit Oda Restaurant which is highly rated and serves some of the best traditional Albanian cuisine in Tirana.
Day 2 - Visit Cobo Winery, Explore Berat - Town of a Thousand Windows!
On Day 2 early in the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Tirana and set off on a hunt for our rental car! You can scroll up to this section for more details on the costs and process of renting a car in Albania.
By mid-day we set off to Berat, which is about 100 km from Tirana, a two-hour journey by road. On our way we stopped by Cobo Winery, a family-run business that has a long tradition of producing wine from native Albanian grapes, dating back to the early 1900s. We were offered a tour by their lovely daughter, Ermi who showed us around the vineyards, wine cellars, followed by a fantastic wine-tasting session. We were also introduced to the famous 'Raki', which is the most popular alcoholic drink consumed in Albania. In fact, Cobo has its own version of the 'walnut raki' besides its signature red and white wines!
We stayed back at the winery for a couple of hours, spending time with the warm and hospitable Cobo family. After the alcohol wore off 🙈 we finally drove to Berat! Famously known as the 'town of a thousand windows', Berat is a 2400-years old museum city, known for its white stone Ottoman houses with dark mahogany stucco roofs, all stacked up along a beautiful hillside. It has rightly earned its place on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites! While Tirana lacks the old-world charm due to Communism, Berat makes up for it with its picturesque landscapes and strong traditional vibe.
We recommend staying AT LEAST one night in Berat. There's so much you can do - from exploring the countless stone alleys, to enjoying a traditional Berati meal in one of the many cute restaurants adorning the town. But our FAVOURITE part was the Castle of Berat, situated atop a hill, where every corner seems like a picture-perfect postcard from the medieval times!
Early morning views of beautiful Berat - the cute little old Ottoman houses adorned with countless windows and chestnut colored roofs makes it a picture-perfect postcard!
Views of Kalajat-e-Berat (Castle of Berat) - This was easily our most favourite part about Berat
Cobbled streets and houses with chestnut-colored roofs cascading gently along a hillside - These views are timeless!
Where we stayed in Berat
We stayed at Timo's Guest House and we HIGHLY RECOMMEND this beautiful traditional home, hosted by the most adorable couple, George and Maria. ❤ They welcomed us with some fresh bread and berry jams along with some 'Raki', and we had some of the most touching and heartwarming conversations with them on their terrace (thank you, Google Translate 😊) The rooms are incredible, and the views from our room and the breakfast terrace were simply the BEST!
COST - A large double-bed room (with an additional single bed) plus private bathroom cost us around €37 per night, inclusive of breakfast. Super worth it on a weekend especially during peak tourist season!
Restaurant recommendations in Berat
If we have to recommend just one restaurant in Berat, then it has to be Lili Homemade Food! This family-run restaurant is the epitome of Albanian hospitality. The owner, Lili, is the friendliest soul with a big smile on his face. And the food, oh you won't be disappointed AT ALL! We had some of the best stuffed eggplant here, also known as Imam Bayldi! Some other dishes that we recommend are stuffed bell pepper and byreks.
Day 3 - The Silver City of Gjirokaster
The next day we drove off to Gjirokaster, which is hands-down, our MOST FAVOURITE part of Albania! We took the SH4 highway from Berat, around 120 kilometers long or two-hours by road, but the views are just gorgeous!
Gjirokaster, like Berat, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and although both are historical Ottoman towns, they are both unique in their own ways. We liked Gjirokaster as the city is more compact which renders it a small-town vintage charm. But we still recommend not skipping either of the cities! 🙈
The streets of Gjirokaster are some of the most beautiful we have ever seen. Silver limestone cobbled streets with traditional colourful shops on either sides, sometimes with items spilling onto the streets, is such a wonderful sight to behold. We also highly recommend visiting the Gjirokaster Fortress and the museum (a part of the castle has been converted into a museum). The museum is so beautifully done, and was an eye-opener to the challenging history of Albania!
It's pretty clear why Gjirokaster is called the Silver City ❤
Two joyous backpackers in the bazaars of Gjirokaster!
Stone Ottoman houses with cute-little arched windows make the perfect backdrop for pictures!
The attention to detail is just outstanding! With cute signages, wooden window frames, and plant baskets lined along a cobbled stone street, Gjirokaster transports you to a medieval fairytale
Stunning Gjirokaster from a bird's eye view
The Castle of Gjirokaster
Where we stayed in Gjirokaster
We stayed at Stone House Obelisk, a beautiful guesthouse right next to the famous Obelisk of Gjirokaster, yet situated in a quiet, secret corner away from the hustle and noise of the centre. The host is a beautiful, old mother who manages the property and we shared an incredible bond in the little time that we were there.
COST- We got a massive room (almost like a junior suite) that cost us only about €25 for the night, inclusive of a splendid breakfast prepared by the host herself.
Restaurant recommendations in Gjirokaster
We had some of the most mouth-watering Albanian food in Gjirokaster! Do try out the 'Qifqi' which are these traditional stuffed rice balls and are native to Gjirokaster (we had a hard time finding Qifqi in other parts of Albania!). For restaurants, we highly recommend these two :
Restaurant Tradicional Odaja - This is a highly rated venue, and the food and quality ingredients justifies so! We loved their Imam Bayldi (stuffed eggplant), stuffed bell pepper, and this is also where we tried our first Qifqi!
Kujtimi Tradicional Restorant - This place has one of the most beautiful and romantic setting, under a canopy of ivy leaves and fairy lights! We went for dinner here, as recommended by our host, and had a 'vegan' version of the moussaka (which the chef kindly customized for us) along with some traditional stuffed vine leaves called Japrak!
Day 4 - Drive along the Albanian Riviera (Syri-i-Kalter >> Sarande>>Ksamil)
After spending the first few days of our trip in the cultural parts of the country, it was then time for the much-awaited drive along the great Albanian Riviera!
We left Gjirokaster by mid-day and our first stop on the way was, Syri-i-Kalter, also known as the Blue Eye of Sarande. Located around 37 km south of Gjirokaster, it took us about an hour to get here. Syri-i-Kalter transported us to a tropical forest, with its clear blue waters shimmering under the sunlight seeping through a dense green canopy! Do note that Syri-i-Kalter can get crowded in the peak summers, so it was a little challenging to find a quiet spot all to ourselves.
The Blue Eye of Sarande (Syri-i-Kalter). The water here is unreal!
We then continued our journey to the coastal town of Sarande. We were mesmerized throughout the drive, with our jaws dropping after every few kilometers on the riviera. There are plenty of beaches that you can stop by along the way. We went to Plazhi Pasqyrave (Mirror Beach) in Sarande, a stunning pebble beach with beautiful blue waters surrounded by white stone cliffs.
We spent the evening at the beach watching the sunset, and we stayed overnight at the nearby coastal town of Ksamil. Staying in Ksamil was not a good idea as it felt extremely touristy and chaotic. But the advantage is that it's an easy start point to get to the amazing Butrint National Park. But if you want to give Butrint a miss, we would recommend staying further up-north on the riviera, in a town like Dhermi or Vlore.
Views along the Albanian Riviera
Magical sunset at Plazhi Pasqyrave, also known as the Mirror Beach
Day 5 - Visit Butrint National Park >> Drive up north>> Camp overnight in Gjipe Beach
The following morning we drove to Butrint National Park, one of the highlights on the south of the riviera. This UNESCO protected archaeological site is situated on an island and is a delight for history lovers like us! The ancient port city offers a remarkable journey through the ages of history, which dates back to 8th century BC. The old city and its heritage retain a unique testimony of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilizations. We spent around two hours exploring these ancient ruins, and the sea views around the park made it the most scenic history tour ever.
The Great Basilica, built in the 6th century AD, marks the establishment of the early Christian period in this region