Hidden away in an almost forgotten corner of Europe, Albania is Europe’s next upcoming travel destination. If you have a week to spare, this country should not be missed.
3 Reasons to go
- It’s affordable – Accommodation, eating out, transportation: Albania gives more bang for your buck than most other European countries.
- Wonderful contrasts – From stunning beaches to rugged mountain landscapes, from ancient UNESCO sites to modern city life, Albania has it all.
- Friendly people – Despite decades of communism dictator rule, being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, Albanians never lost their hospitality.
Destination A: Tirana.
Exploring Albania’s capital city is a must. Tirana has an amazing café culture, fascinating architecture and a rich history. It’s a surprisingly colourful and youthful city with a town feeling.
Destination B: Durrës
The perfect get-away from all the buzz. Durres is a seaside city less than one hour from Tirana. You can walk the seafront promenade, take in the views over the Adriatic Sea and check out the largest amphitheatre in the Balkans.
Destination C: Berat
The biggest attraction in this more traditional town is the historic castle built on top of a hill. Berat also offers a few short hiking trails and quiet nights.
Destination D: Sarandë
The top of Albania’s southern Riviera can be found around Sarandë. Stunning beaches and a great place to base yourself for short day trips.
Destination E: Gjirokaster
An optional historic day trip from Sarandë. The UNESCO listed centre is a great example of Ottoman architecture.
Itinerary and other details
Day 1: Arrive to the country’s capital
Welcome to the country of the double-headed eagle! Make sure to download the free offline map app MAPS.ME for easy (GPS) navigation, you will need it this week!
Day 2: Exploring Tirana’s city centre
On the first day you can explore the city centre of Tirana by foot. Since the Skanderberg Square is the main orientation point it’s best to start from here.
On your way to the square grab a byrek (a popular flaked pastry in the Balkans with various salty fillings) and a yoghurt drink from a bakery. Once at the square, take your time to gaze at the clock tower, the mosque in front of it and the Skanderberg statue. After taking pictures, head south towards Park Rinia. Check out the fountains (loved by locals) and cross the road diagonally to the notorious Pyramid.
Climbing this communist landmark is one of the most memorable things to do and gives great views over the city. Local youth do it often and no one actually cares about it. Take the slopes on the side as they are the least steep! Don’t forget to bring your camera!
Behind the Pyramid there is a small museum-like café called Komiteti. It’s a great place for a coffee and you will see lots of artefacts from the communist era.
From the Pyramid you can move further south along the main road where on the other side you will see a small memorial area with a communist bunker, a section of the Berlin wall and pillars of a prison.
Behind the memorial area the up-scale area Blloku will start. Stroll through the streets to find a place you like to sit down for another coffee. In the evenings I can highly recommend bar Radio. Here you will find Tirana’s most creative and open-minded youth. Great communist-style design, cozy and great drinks. Prices are above average though and there are no local beers.
Day 3: Exploring Tirana’s surroundings and Durrës
In the morning you can go for a trip to nearby Mount Dajti. There is a cable cart that in less than 15 minutes will take you to the top to enjoy views over the city. Do check with your accommodation about the opening times. If closed or rainy you can instead go to the National History Museum.
Around 1PM it’s time to go to Durrës (half an hour travel time). Buses and minibuses (furgons) are very cheap and leave when full from the Karl Topia Square (at the west end of Durrësit street, at the Tirana Ring Center). You can also take a share car for a bit more money (still cheap) and takes less time to get full.
Once in Durrës, explore the seafront along the promenade and the old ruins in the city center. Do not miss the Balkan’s largest amphitheatre! All distances are short so within a few hours you should be done. If it’s already late you can visit a restaurant to try some fish!
In the evening you should be back in Tirana and go for a drink in Blloku. You can also check out Tulla Culture Centre, located west of the Dinamo football stadium outside of Blloku. This artistic place offers occasional live performances, an exhibition space and great drinks. It’s a really local place off-the-map for most tourists.
Day 4: Berat
Buses to Berat (2.5 hours) leave from a small hidden coach park in the west of the city. It can be difficult to find so look up the location on Google Maps by searching for “Southern-City Bus Station Tirana”. Don’t leave too late so you still have time in Berat to explore the castle upon arrival.
Try to spot a mountain in the distance with a huge protest-style inscription “NEVER”, a modification to the former communist dictator’s name Enver Hoxha. In the evening you can go to the promenade in the centre of town and sit down for a coffee for people-watching.
Day 5: Sarandë, time for the beach!
After one night in Berat you should check out Albania’s Riviera! For that we will use Sarandë as a base for the two upcoming nights. To get there go to Berat’s bus station, which is on the northern outskirt of the city. Prepare for a long journey (7 hours). Once in Sarandë you can go to Ksamil to find some of Europe’s best beaches. For the rest, leave your itinerary flexible to do whatever seems best.
Day 6: (Optional) day trip to Gjirokaster
If the weather doesn’t allow for more beach you can go on a day trip to nearby Gjirokastër. The UNESCO listed centre, like Berat, is a great example of Ottoman-period architecture. Also include a visit to the Blue Eye, a natural spring so deep it gives the water a clear blue color.
Day 7: Back to Tirana
In the evening you will have to arrive back in Tirana, so it’s best to leave Sarandë early in the morning. Prepare for a trip of at least 8 hours. In the evening take your last drink in Blloku. If you want to finish in style, go to the Sky Tower Rotating Bar. For late-night dancing check out nearby Pepper Lounge.
Day 8: Travel home
After a week packed with activities unfortunately you have to say goodbye to this wonderful country. Travel safe and don’t forget to bring some souvenirs!
Tips & advice
- Tirana has no central bus station. Instead inter-city bus lines depart from strategically located spots around the city. Make sure you don’t go to the wrong one, as a newcomer it can be hard to understand this system.
- (Direct) flights to Tirana can be relatively expensive – if you’re really on a tight budget it’s worth investigating other ways in. There are cheap bus connections with Pristina and Skopje. With Wizz Air you can find one-way flights to Skopje sometimes at only €10. You will have to skip one day in the itinerary though.
- When in Albania, have a look to see if there are any football games taking place. For just a few euros it’s a fun activity and a local favourite. You can buy tickets at the ticket booth at the stadium prior to the match. Don’t worry about safety – Albanian football fans are very welcoming to foreigners.
- Never miss the following dishes cooked up the Albanian way: byrek (flaky pastry with salty filling), fërgesë (fried curd) with veal, qofte (meat), sufllaqe (fast-food), pasta (Italian food but Albanians do it better!) and many others!
- Albania is a great country for hitchhiking. Sometimes it’s even quicker to go by the thumb than to wait for the next bus.
Bart is a Dutch independent adventure traveller fascinated by different cultures, places and people. From troubled regions and abandoned places, to countries that don’t officially exist, his adventures have taken him off-the-beaten-path in 65+ countries. Bart is a strong believer that low-budget travel is fun, leads to more unique experiences and more meaningful interactions with the locals. Check out his website at offbeattravelling.com and follow him on:
Photo credit: Bart van Eijden