The culturally rich country of Albania has many mysteries to unfold and beauties to behold. If you’re seeking an adventure that’s out of the ordinary, Albania, with its historical and natural wonders, is a great next step on your journey.
The Republic of Albania is just a bit smaller than the American state of Vermont. Therefore, its charms are not far-flung and can be reached by driving or bussing around the country (there are no domestic flights or connected trains within Albania). To take them all in, you’ll travel from sandy shorelines to rugged mountain tops - although not necessarily on the same day!
You have to actually experience the crystal-clear aquamarine and green waters of Ksamil to believe that a place so beautiful exists on earth. The sleepy fishing village on the Albanian Riviera comes alive in summer, when the waters are welcoming and the islands are calling.
The area, with its alluring white sand beaches, is quite economical for such a stunningly beautiful seaside location and offers a wide array of accommodation for all budgets. Ksamil hosts a surprising amount of excellent beach bars, and restaurants with mouth-watering seafood menus.
You can reach the four tiny islands just off the coast by swimming through the turquoise waters, by sail or paddle boat, or by water taxi.
Accommodation recommendation: Hotel Meta Ksamil
Note: Ksamil is a peaceful, gorgeous beach town, not a “happening” party place. If that’s what you’re looking for, nearby Sarande is a better idea...
Just a 30-minute drive from Ksamil is the small, but stunning Blue Eye, a geologically-formed water pool fed by a fresh-water spring.
The outside spring, similar to cenotes in Mexico, is named for its mesmerizing deep blue central round spot (eye) surrounded by turquoise and green water. It’s estimated at over 50 meters, but the pressure of the water currents keeps divers from discovering the exact depth.
The spring sits within the larger Blue Eye National Park, in a small forested area surrounded by towering sycamore and oak trees, lush foliage, and a few short walking trails for meandering.
Reserve a couple of hours to enjoy this natural beauty. There’s a restaurant for snacks/meals, and an outdoor drinking fountain for sips of delicious ice-cold spring water, directly from the Blue Eye!
For the record, it’s prohibited to swim in the (very cold water of the) spring, but many visitors ignore the rule and jump right in from a viewing platform above the centre point.
You can reach the Blue Eye from Ksamil or Sarande via mini-bus (less than one Euro) or taxi (€25 – €30). There is a small entrance fee to the park for people walking in (less than €.50), with a larger fee for cars (approx. €1.50).
Note: There is a second Blue Eye in Northern Albania (more below).
If you love history and losing your sense of modern times, Gjirokaster is a great medieval town to visit. Having endured multiple rulers, the ancient Illyrian settlement showcases the times of the conquering Romans, Byzantines, and the far-reaching Ottomans.
The old city, situated on a steep hillside atop the small town, is home to Gjirokaster Castle (one of the finest in Albania!) along with many historic mansions and turreted houses that exemplify the traditional architecture of the various conquerors.
As you wander the cobblestone streets, you’ll want to visit the bazaar, and feast at one of the many tavern-style restaurants offering up home-cooked regional delights.
For the most authentic experience, stay in the Old Town in a family guesthouse or quaint hotel.
Accommodation recommendation: Stone Sky Hotel
Tip: Buses will drop you in the modern lower town area, and narrow roads to the old town are difficult to negotiate with large vehicles. Be sure to hire a taxi (€4-6) if you have heavy luggage!
The Butrint Archaeological Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site, spans almost 86 square kilometers. Situated on a peninsula of hills and forests in the south of Albania (within 20-30 minutes from either Sarande or Ksamil), the vast complex combines architectural ruins, terraced city remains, natural wetlands, lakes, lagoons and olive groves.
You can wander the remnants of a 2,500-year-old Roman city high on the hilltops, and view the remains of an enormous amphitheatre, an Ottoman castle, and a mosaic-floored Christian temple complex.
The preserved area is home to nearly 1000 plant varieties, and over 1000 species of wildlife, including red fox and golden jackals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even dolphins in the nearby sea channel.
The fee to visit the park is about 700 lek (around €7) per person, less for large groups. Allow at least 3 hours for walking around, more if you want to picnic on the picturesque hills.
The lovely historic centre of Berat, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with Gjirokaster), is a fascinating example of Ottoman-influenced 13th-century architecture.
The city, built along a steep hillside, has rightly gained the name “City of a Thousand Eyes or “City of a Thousand Windows” due to its many large-windowed two-story houses built atop one another. The Osumi River divides the town at its base, with a bridge connecting the two sides.
From below, you can gaze up at the impressive mass of terraced homes (that appear to gaze back at you!). The medieval section, inhabited continually through the ages, hosts a number of Muslim mosques and Orthodox churches decorated with exquisite murals and frescoes. Climb the labyrinth of cobbled streets to reach the citadel for stunning views of the old and new towns.
Quaint guesthouses, authentic cuisine (named by many as the best in Albania) plus friendly locals, make Berat a beautiful place to experience.
Accommodation recommendation: Hani i Xheblatit
The Nivica village, located near the town of Tepelene, sits perched in the mountains, at 750 meters above sea level. Once a crossroads of ancient Illyrian settlements, the newly renovated Nivica town offers a quaint look at unspoiled Albanian village life. Not to be missed is the sacred forest, featuring a stand of majestic 250-year-old oak trees.
The isolated Nivica Canyon nearby is a gorgeous spot for adventure seekers. It’s possible to trek the canyon (tours advised, though expert level not required) or ride through on horseback. The area is resplendent with 75-meter waterfalls, caves, and emerald-green swimming pools.
Accommodation recommendation: One family guesthouse recently opened for eco-tourism, so you can stay overnight overlooking the canyon, and enjoy Albanian hospitality while dining on fresh organic local cuisine.
Tucked into the far south-eastern side of the country, Korçë (Kor-sha), a lovely small town of 75,000, is also known as Albania’s Little Paris, or Albania’s Most Beautiful City. Offering relief from the steaming coastal heat in summer, pretty Korçë is situated in the mountains at a cool 850-meter elevation.
Korçë is a cultural walking town, with a charming mix of old and new. You can stroll the city streets, admiring the blend of ancient Ottoman and modern architecture, or sip a coffee at one of the trendy cafes on Korçë’s popular tree-lined Republika Street.
Korçë also draws many visitors to its pride and joy, the Birra Korçë Factory (Korçë Beer), Albania’s original beer since 1928, and the huge Korçë Beer Festival every November.
The old town area features a shopping bazaar sprinkled with tiny cafes and restaurants, plus some fascinating museums. Several religions coexisted peacefully here through the ages, as evidenced by impressive ancient mosques positioned next to historical Orthodox Christian churches.
Winter is also a favourite time for travellers to visit Korçë, as it turns into a snowy winter wonderland of Christmas/New Year celebrations, festivals, and shopping.
Accommodation recommendation: Vila Borgjeze
The legendary Osumi Canyon is an over-3-million-year-old natural wonder found in south-central Albania. It’s so massive that it is also referred to as Albania’s “Grand Canyon.”
Visitors to the 26-kilometer canyon can behold awe-inspiring views from the staggering cliffs, explore vast caves, raft or kayak the river, swim under towering waterfalls, or hike steep trails on the 70-80 meter-high cliffsides.
Springtime, when the water level of the river is highest, is the best time to explore the entire canyon in all its natural glory.
About one hour’s drive north of Korçë is the tiny town of Pogradec, perched on the shoreline of beautiful Lake Ohrid. The majority of the enormous lake lies in North Macedonia, with about 36% in Albania. It is one of the oldest lakes in the world, as well as one of the deepest, with a maximum depth of 288 meters. The entirety of Lake Ohrid is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The lake’s unique nutrient concentrations render its azure waters amazingly translucent, up to 22 meters depth. The Albanian surroundings of the lake are a Managed Nature Reserve, its large number of endemic species of fauna making it one of Earth’s most biodiverse lakes.
Take a walk or bike along the long, appealing promenade in Pogradec, feast on a lakeside Koran-fish dinner (a speciality of Lake Ohrid), relax on sandy beaches or set off on a sailing trip.
A 20-30 minute hike will take you high above the town for spectacular views of the lake and city below, as you explore the ruins of what used to be Pogradec Castle. Pogradec and Lake Ohrid are also stunning in winter.
Accommodation recommendation: Garden Villa Boutique Hotel
Tirana, Albania’s capital city, emerged from its dark, oppressive Communist past to become thebright and colourful expression of progress and hope that it is today.
The walkable city is not what you would call traditionally “beautiful” but it has an irrepressible energy and vibrancy that can fill a person with wonder.
The best way to experience Tirana is via a walking tour, strolling through the central square (featuring a monument to national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, on his horse) and through museums, historic neighbourhoods, mosques, and churches.
Enjoy the brilliant murals and quirkily painted buildings that speak to Albania’s future in freedom. In the year 2000, Tirana’s mayor, Edi Rama (now Prime Minister) instigated the color campaign to remind the people that dark times were in the past.
The bright shades of the buildings, the lovely tree-lined streets, and the lovely park add to the upbeat vibe of the city. A real foodie’s haven, Tirana boasts an amazingly high number of excellent restaurants that offer not only delicious Albanian food, but cuisines from around the world.
To really get the feeling for the high-energy Tirana culture, be sure to visit as many coffee shops as you can – Albanians do! You’ll clearly see why Tirana is famous for its huge number of coffee cafes per capita, with lots of trendy cocktail bars and clubs, too.
Right at the edge of town, you can take a gondola ride up the daunting Dajti Mountain, a favourite activity in summer and winter. The amazing panorama from the viewing complex is best enjoyed over coffee or a meal.
Accommodation recommendation: Crown Boutique Hotel
In far northern Albania near the Montenegrin border, you’ll find Shkoder (also called Shkodra), one of Albania’s oldest cultural settlements. The charming walkable city is located on a wide plain between the Albanian Alps, Lake Shkoder, and a coastal beach. Shkoder is also popular as a jumping-off point to hike and tour the Albanian Alps (see below for details).
For a traditional city experience, rent a bike for the day and join Shkoder’s local bicycle culture. Shkoder’s attractive pedestrian walkway lined with boutiques, bars, cafes and restaurants, also houses the only photography museum in Albania, plus grand cathedrals and impressive mosques. Participate in the local custom of a traditional evening “xhiro” or stroll, have a gelato, and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
A four-minute drive above the city (or a 45-minute walk), will find you at famous Rozafa Castle. There you can explore ruins of an Illyrian fortress, a Venetian settlement, a 13th-century church, a museum, and exhilarating views of the city and surrounding area below (Note: Small fees charged for viewing the ruins and for museum).
It’s also an easy bike ride or quick taxi to visit the stunningly beautiful Shkoder Lake, or Lake Skader, which straddles the border with Montenegro. It’s the largest lake in the Balkan region, and home to numerous bird species, so is a favourite for birdwatchers. You can have a coffee or a fresh fish dinner in one of the many restaurants in the lakeside town of Shiroka, or rent a kayak, go fishing, sailing, hiking, or have a picnic along the lovely lake.
Hotel recommendation: Cocja Boutique Hotel
A trip across glorious Lake Koman, about 1.5 hours outside of Shkoder in the north of Albania, is an extraordinary experience.
In the 1980’s, a hydroelectric dam was built on the Drin River, near the village of Koman. This created the spectacular reservoir lake that covers over 70 kilometers through steep vertical canyons.
With stunning views reminiscent of Scandinavian fjords, you’ll glide through narrow gorge passes (50 meters wide), then cross through the expansive 400 meters wide emerald-green lake, passing picturesque villages along the way.
Tour companies offer day trips that include a pick-up from your hotel in Shkoder, transfer by minivan to the lake (1.5 hours), ferry ride through the canyons (1.5 hours), lunch at an island restaurant, and return ferry and minivan ride. You can also reach the ferry via Tirana (3-hour drive).
The lake is the jump-off point for hiking the Valbona and Theth trails, two breathtakingly scenic alpine hiking routes that attract hikers from across the world. Trekkers often do self-guided hikes through the moderate terrain, although pre-arranged guides are also available.
The best weather/time to hike the trails is between late May–October. Although you may pass other hikers on your way, the remote areas are never glutted with other tourists.
A visit to the village of Theth also offers a hike to Albania’s second Blue Eye, an enchanting emerald and blue deep well spring, fed by the Black River. The trek from Theth village is a 7-kilometer moderate hike.
For those who want a longer stay, there are guesthouses with restaurants on Lake Koman, and in Valbona and Theth.
Accommodation recommendation: Kulla e Vjeter
The Castle of Krujë (Kru-yeh) is notable not only for its unusual elliptical shape, but because it was the stronghold of Albania’s national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg (whose statue you’ll see throughout the Balkans). A military general, Skanderbeg is credited for holding off the Ottomans from overtaking his homeland for 23 years!
Set on a hilltop about one hour’s drive from Tirana, the sweeping views from the castle are unparalleled and gorgeous. From on high, you can see the Adriatic Sea sparkling blue in the distance, and even the capital city!
There is a small museum within the castle ruins, and a holy cave on the mountain dedicated to a famous Bektashi (Islamic) saint. The cave is a spot for religious pilgrimage. Fortunately, all guests, regardless of faith, are welcome to visit and enjoy the tranquil setting.
For a remarkable look at Albanian village life, stay at a quaint guesthouse in the Krujë village below, dine on regional delicacies and browse through the authentic old bazaar in the town centre.