Must-See Places in Albania

When COVID-19 shut down travel around the world for months in some places, and years in others, it was upsetting to anyone with a passion for exploring new countries and cultures. On the flip side, I have COVID-19 travel restrictions to thank for my trip to Albania! Albania was not a country that was on my radar previously, but when I could no longer stand being restricted to domestic travel I googled "countries that Americans can travel to without quarantine requirements" and Albania was the first country on the list. Don't make the mistake of requiring anything so extreme to plan your trip there! It was one of my favorite trips - the cities were lively and full of history, the people were friendly as could be, the food was delicious, and the natural beauty of the landscapes was stunning. 

My one and only complaint is that the public transport in Albania left something to be desired. There were some buses traveling between big cities, but the best and easiest way to get around is to rent a car. Needing to drive myself around, in and of itself, is no problem, but the country is mountainous, with narrow roads riddled with switchbacks, and it took several days of stressing out behind the wheel for me to adjust to Albanian driving habits. Once I did adjust, it was well worth it though, because there are amazing places to visit all over the country!

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Tirana

Tirana is the capital city, and has the country's largest international airport, so you will most likely start and end your vacation here. But it's not just a launching point! There's plenty to do in and around Tirana. 

During my visit we stayed at the Maritim Hotel Plaza Tirana, which I loved for its location right next to Skanderbeg Square. During the day, there are several things to explore in the square - the National History Museum, the Palace of Culture (houses the National Library of Albania and the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Albania), and the Bunk'Art 2 Museum. Then in the evening, the square is transformed into an event center. While we there, we saw a concert complete with firework show, and a soccer game projected on a big screen. If the hubbub of the main Square is too much, there is a more intimate outdoor seating area adjacent to the hotel with access to a full food and drink menu, or the lounge on the top floor of the Maritim Hotel that gives a good view of the square, along with the surrounding cityscape. 

There are two Bunk'Art Museums, the second one in Skanderbeg Square, and the first is less than a 15-minute drive away, on the outskirts of the city. Even though our hotel was very close to Bunk'Art 2, Bunk'Art 1 is the highest ranked tourist site in Tirana, so we chose to visit it instead. They both were originally huge anti-nuclear bunkers built to shelter the city's elites in case of an attack on the capital. An Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, ordered these large bunkers be built, as well as smaller bunkers all across the country. As you travel around, you are sure to spot a few!

When communism fell, the bunker that is now Bunk'Art 1 was discovered, and by 2016 it was refurbished and opened to the public as a museum and art center. You can spend a few hours going through the rooms of the enormous bunker and reading about Albanian history before, during, and after the bunker's use by dictator Hoxha. All the plaques are in Albanian and English, to cater to both the locals and tourists. The history is interesting and gave some really great insights into the past of a country I honestly didn't know that much about before visiting. 

Another perk of Bunk'Art 1 is that it is only a 2-minute drive, or 10-minute walk, away from the Mt. Dajti cable car, and the views of Tirana from Mt. Dajti are well worth the 8 euros per person (in July 2021) that we spent to ride the cable car up. 

At the top of Mt. Dajti there's a lot to do. In addition to the lookouts, there's a minigolf course (the first 18-hole minigolf course in Albania), an adventure park, bee keeping areas, a children’s playground, a restaurant, a rotating bar, hiking, mountain biking, mountain climbing, and even paragliding! There are maps available at the cable car station, but the hikes are not well marked, so only experienced hikers should try to make the 2 to 3-hour trip without a guide. 

Since we'd spent all morning at Bunk'Art, my sister and I headed straight to Restaurant Ballkoni Dajtit despite the reviews online warning us that it would be "expensive". Some of the barbecue meat dishes were a little pricier at around 20 USD/kg, but I thought the prices of 10 USD or less for most of the traditional Albanian dishes were extremely reasonable for the family-style portions we received. Plus, there are huge windows along the entire front wall of the restaurant to give you spectacular views off the mountainside while you enjoy your meal.

Speaking of food, there's a couple of traditional dishes that can be found all around Tirana and are definitely worth trying. Fergese is a dish of onions, peppers, and cottage cheese stewed in a tomato gravy. It can have liver or meat in it, or remain vegetarian, so make sure you specify which version you are looking for. The second dish to make sure to sample is byrek. It's basically a pie with an exterior of light, filo-like dough, and all sorts of interior options. They can be stuffed with minced meat, spinach, cheese, tomatoes, and more. The delicious smells drifting out of the byrek shops made it very difficult to resist popping in to grab a slice as we walked through the city. 

Berat

Known as the "city of a thousand windows" because of all the dark framed windows that stand out in stark contrast to the light-colored buildings, the well-preserved Ottoman architecture has earned Berat the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Berat is about half way between Tirana and the Albanian riviera, so it's a great stop if you are traveling between the two.  

Berat Castle sits up on a hill overlooking the town. For a small fee, you can enter and walk around the old stone ruins and cobblestone streets. The castle includes restaurants, shops, and houses that are currently inhabited, but it's unclear what areas of the castle are open to tourists for exploration and what is residential. I highly recommend getting a guide and doing a walking tour to learn about the history of the town and see the castle. My sister and I walked around for a while, and the architecture was beautiful and full of charm, but we were pretty lost - there are not many signs pointing out where to go, or even many people around to ask. We did see a walking tour taking place and tried to follow along behind them to make sure we were going the right way, but they quickly disappeared, so I'm sure there's a lot to see that we weren't sure how to access on our own. 

Around Berat are several wineries. One of the most well-known Albanian wineries is Cobo, which will give walk-in tours and tastings during opening hours (9am to 7pm daily). Our tour was given by the owners' daughter, who gave plenty of insight into the winery and her own family history. Afterwards, she had a table set up outside so that we could enjoy the weather during our tasting. We sampled 6 different wines along with a food pairing of olives, bread, and cheese. It wasn't a rushed American tasting with tours reserved back-to-back all day and someone hovering nearby to clear the glasses or pour the next tasting as soon as the previous one was gone; altogether the tour and tasting was a relaxed 3-hour experience. 

Llogara National Park

The major draw of Llogara National Park is the stunning biodiversity and natural scenery provided by the Ceraunian Mountains. There are several hiking trails in the park that give you up-close views of the fauna and lead to panoramic views of both the mountains and the Riviera. If you don’t have the time or energy for hiking, the Llogara Pass gives you equally impressive views but from the comfort of your car on the scenic drive.

A third option for seeing the park, and by far the best option in my mind, is to see it by air via a tandem paragliding experience! The guides are experienced paragliders, and may need to adjust your take-off location or day for the weather, but that ensures a safe ride with calm skies so you’ll have clear, unforgettable views. They will give you instructions before takeoff, and the 15 to 20-minute flight is captured on a GoPro that you control so that you can re-live the experience later and share it with family and friends.

The Albanian Riviera

The area of Albania referred to as the Riviera is a section of the Ionian Sea coastline in the south of the country. It starts at Palase in the north and goes all the way down to Ksamil, near the southern border of Albania. But the common thread between all the cities included in the Riviera is that they are all gorgeous.

There are countless places along the Riviera that are worthy of stopping at, but Gjipe Beach is a stand-out location in my mind. Located between Dhermi and Himara, it’s a wonderful day trip from either. The beach is at the mouth of Gjipe Canyon, and isn’t very accessible by car. If you have a 4x4, you can drive all the way to the beach, but the path is narrow, has no guardrails, and will have people walking along it from the parking lot at the top of the canyon. If you have a rental car, chances are you’ll need to park near the Holy Monastery of Saint Theodor and be one of those people walking to the beach. It’s about a 2km walk, that takes around 25 minutes. Alternatively, you can take a boat from Himara directly to Gjipe Beach.

If you’re walking from the parking lot, hopefully your shoes are good for walking over rocks and dirt already, but regardless of how you get there, make sure to wear or bring some sort of substantial water shoes to Gjipe. A lot of beaches in Albania are made up of rocks, rather than sand. Gjipe is a mix of sand and rock, but there are enough rocks that it is not comfortable to walk around barefoot.

Other things to make sure to bring along are water, sunscreen, and cash for parking, chairs, and/or food from the restaurants in the canyon. There is no shade on the walk down or on the beach unless you grab one of the chair and umbrellas that is set up. The setup is pretty casual, so it’s not obvious who to talk to in order to pay for parking or the chairs. If you start using them, at some point the worker will find you and ask for the appropriate amount of money. In July 2021 it only cost my sister and I about 10 USD for parking, and 20 USD for all day use of our chairs and umbrella – in my opinion, that price was a steal!

Like most beaches, the chairs all get taken as the day goes on, so for the best experience, arrive in the morning, claim an umbrella, and enjoy the beach for as long as you want! During low tides, there are caves that you can explore in the cliff walls opposite the side with the path from the parking lot. And when you get hungry, try one of the small restaurants serving up seafood and other Albanian cuisine. There are camp grounds back a little way from the beach, in the canyon, and you can stay there overnight. I’m not much of a camper though, so in the late afternoon, we made the hike back up to the parking lot and headed south for our next stop along the Riviera: Saranda. 

Saranda is one of the biggest and most well-known cities of the Riviera. It’s a great spot to stay, with all the amenities of a big city around you, but with easy access to are large portion of the smaller cities on rest of the Riviera. The Buze Hotel in particular was ideal because the staff was personable and ready to help with anything we needed, we had access to both a pool and a private (rocky) beach, the restaurant made exquisite food, including whatever we wanted for breakfast (whenever we were up and ready for it), and had bikes we could borrow to ride around town when we didn’t want to deal with walking or parking our car.

Other things you should try to do while in Saranda are enjoy a ton of seafood, check out the night life, lay on multiple beaches, visit the Greek island of Corfu, and spend some time in Butrint National Park. COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from going to Corfu or experiencing any of the night life that Saranda would normally have, but we did make sure to do everything else on that list!  

Just south of Saranda is Butrint National Park. Don’t leave before stopping by and checking it out! The guides and maps at the entrance are in a multitude of languages so that everyone can navigate the park themselves. The UNESCO site is very different from the rest of the Riviera, but I loved discovering this part of Albania’s history. Tucked among the forest and river and lake inlets, you’ll find a preserved theater, gymnasium, aqueduct, temples, gates, baptistery, castles, and an artisan market.

The Blue Eye

There are two natural wonders in Albania, called the Blue Eyes – one in the south, around 30 minutes from Saranda, and the other in the north near Theth. They are each fresh water springs that bubble up from deep underground and appear to be a bright, beautiful, blue, even in comparison to the river that the spring feeds; hence the name. The water is frigid year-round, which makes for a refreshing contrast to the summer heat. According to signage around the blue eye, you’re not supposed to do anything other than dip your feet in the waters, but you will see plenty of people ignoring the rules and swimming (for as long as they can stand the cold) and/or jumping directly into the eye from a platform above it.

To get to the Blue Eye in Muzinë, near Saranda, you’ll need to go by car or bus. The advantage of taking a car is that you can drive right up to the blue eye area. If you take a bus, they will drop you off at the main road, and then you have to traverse the 2km from there to the spring on foot. However, you will pay a small fee (100 LEK per car + 50 LEK per person, which converts to only a couple USD) for the convenience of driving.

There’s a traditional Albanian restaurant tucked in a bend in the river a little way downstream from the Blue Eye, a gift shop next to the spring, and restrooms so that you can comfortably spend several hours enjoying the unique setting.

A Complete 7-Day Albanian Itinerary

For a complete itinerary including all the places and activities discussed in this post click here!

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