The ultimate backpackers guide for Albania
Albania is my all time favourite country! In 2019, I spent ten days road tripping Albania’s beautiful coastline and historical towns and it completely blew me away. The country is absolutely incredible, full of friendly locals, relaxed rules and pristine beaches with warm weather. Parts of the riviera see a whopping 300 days of sun year round!
Aside from this awesomeness, many parts of Albania are relatively untouched by tourism, so it’s super cheap. You can get strong cocktails for $2 and tasty platters of seafood with fish, octopus, mussels and more for $5. You’ll be living a champagne life on a beer budget, as my mother always says.
Albania also has a rich and interesting history with neighbouring countries like Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, so there’s lots to learn if thats what lights you up when you travel to a new country. It feels completely different to any other country I’ve travelled.
When I told people I was going to Albania, everyone said “be careful it’s so unsafe”, but I felt safer than I did in many other parts of the EU. In fact, I felt much safer there than I do in Mexico. A local put it to me like this: There is certainly crime and a mafia presence, especially as Albania produces most of the marijuana for the Balkans and surrounding regions, but as a tourist, you’re small fish. They don’t give a shit about you, unless you’re helping supply and demand baby.
I encountered so many amazing locals in Albania, who went out of their way to help me. When I first arrived, I was alone in a bus station and a lady who spoke no English realised I needed help, called me a taxi and got me to my hostel. Another time, I went to one of the only hostels in Berat and it was booked out. Myself and the other two people I was with had no where to go, so the owners gave up their beds and let us stay there for less that $10 a night. There are many other instances like this I could write about but after reading this blog, I’m sure you’ll go there and experience them yourself.
So to me, the country feels safe. My only advice is don’t be a dickhead tourist and use common sense, the same thing I would say for all countries people tend to deem unsafe and don’t travel to. Hopefully, that covers this space and I don’t need to write a blog about how not to be a dickhead tourist. On second thought, maybe I will.
Where to go, where to stay and what to do there
Tirana, capital of Albania
Tirana is inland and is a great place to start your travels and learn the fascinating history of this country. Starting there is also the easiest way to get to Albania.
I spent three nights in Tirana which was more than enough for a beach bum like me. You could even spend two if you’re eager to get to the coastline. If you go in summer, Tirana will be HOT, maybe 35 degrees with little respite. The city is full of concrete which bounces the heat back up at you and unless you’re in a fancy hotel (boring), there won’t be much accommodation with air conditioning.
Where to stay in Tirana
I stayed at Trip n’ Hostel and highly recommend this place. The owner is a legend and creates a really nice community of like minded travellers. It’s also super cheap and in a good location! As the name suggests, people might be trippin’ there and you can buy weed and shrooms from reception. Not that I endorse drugs or anything. If you’re not into hostels, I’m sure you could find a good hotel or Airbnb. The regions of Pazari I Ri or Ali Demi are the nicest.
Things to do in Tirana
Below are a few of my highlights from the city. I could write an extensive list but if you do the walking tour through the hostel or through another tour company, you’ll see most of the city’s big landmarks in one hit and learn the history of Albania.
1. Visit Bunk’Art, an underground bunker constructed for Tirana’s communist-era politicians and military in case of nuclear war with over 100 underground rooms.
2. Learn about Albania’s rich culture at the National Historical Museum.
3. Walk around the Pyramid of Tirana. This interesting building is from 1987, completed before the fall of communism. Albanians are divided on whether it should be made into a monument to honour their previous dictator or torn down so for now, it’s used by local graffiti artists and skaters. If you’re brave, you can even climb to the top and look out at the city with the locals.
4. Ride the Dajti Ekspres Cable Car across the city!
Berat, in land historical town
Berat is a gorgeous little town about a two hour drive from Tirana. It’s a great place to stop for a couple of nights on your way to the coast and is a must see in Albania.
The town is known for being full of a thousand tiny windows and special architecture. It’s surrounded by a gorgeous river, remarkable nature and a unique community. Berat also has incredible wineries near by and local cuisine all within one little pocket of Albania!
Where to stay in Berat
Berat is a compact town so most of the accommodation you choose will be within walking distance to everything you want to explore. I stayed at the Berat Backpackers and it was terrific! The staff are friendly, you get a nice free breakfast and the view is incredible. The white walls are covered in luscious greenery and they also have cute hostel dogs, always a plus, right?!
Things to do in Berat
1. Cross the seven arched stone bridge connecting the two old towns of Mangalem and Gorica and wander around taking in the unique architecture.
2. Climb to the Berat Kalaja Castle, the biggest castle in Albania with an incredible view at the top. This 13th Century landmark is surrounded by rivers, greenery and families! Yes, Albanian families still reside in and around the castle and you can watch kids playing and men herding sheep.
3. Visit the 15th Century Red Mosque and take in even more remarkable views.
4. Enjoy an evening of Xhiro. This is an Albanian tradition where residents living in old towns meet in the streets (maybe they party in the sheets?), chat with friends, enjoy the sunset and spend quality time together. It’s rather beautiful. My favourite place to do this is along the Boulevard Republika.
5. Shop at the markets and eat delicious local cuisine on the cheap.
There are two things I wish I did in Berat but didn’t have time for. The first is the Bogove Waterfall. You’ll need to find a tour to get to this as it requires some 4×4 driving. The second is a winery tour!
Himarë, Albanian Riviera
Himarë is a bilingual town south of the popular Vlorë City, populated predominantly by an ethnic Greek community. Vlorë city is the third largest city in Albania and is perhaps more ready for tourists but I didn’t like it nearly as much as Himarë. In Himarë, the beaches are nicer, things are cheaper and it’s less crowded with tourists.
Where to stay in Himarë
I stayed at Himara Hostel and I absolutely loved it. This is the hostel I mentioned earlier who gave up their beds for us, who even does that?! This hostel is not on the beach but it’s only a short walk or drive away. Since my visit to Albania in 2019, there are two more hostels in Himarë you could also visit and plenty of hotels.
Things to do in Himarë
Just live on the beach hey. No seriously, there isn’t a lot to do except live your best beach life, eat and drink. My favourite beach in the area is Gjipe Beach as pictured above. It’s about a 25 minute drive from the centre of Himarë, surrounded by cascading cliffs and clear blue sea. You will need to walk down a steepish cliff to get there but I did it in my birkies (Birkenstocks for you non Australians). When I went, my two mates and I were the only white tourists on the beach and I loved every minute. Make sure to pack snacks and beers!
You can also visit other nearby beaches and soak up the sun and sea in a free cabana with a $2 cocktail in hand. Spile Beach, Jale Beach and Livadi Beach are all good options! One thing I didn’t get to that may be of interest if you love history is the Porto Palermo Castle, built in the 19th Century.
Borsh and Lukovë villages, Albanian Riviera
Both Borsh and Lukovë are little villages in the municipality of Himarë, within close proximity of each other, and I loved them equally. The villages are so close to Greece, you can see the Greek Islands from the shore, it’s awesome! Borsh is also the longest beach on the Ionia Sea Coast at seven kilometres long. The water is sparkling clear blue, the seafood is fresh and delicious and you can grab a free cabana with the ocean literally a few steps away from you.
Where to stay in Borsh
I stayed at Hotel Erviniliano in Borsh (there aren’t any hostels there yet). You can get a whole ground floor apartment that sleeps four people for only $38 a night with a kitchen, patio, bedrooms and a nice bathroom. If you went with four mates, it’s less than $10 a night each, unbelievably cheap! The beds were comfy, the owners were friendly and the location was fantastic.
Where to stay in Lukovë
This is a quiet village with little accommodation so randomly enough, I stayed at a Bio Campground. They provide everything you need and there is only a quiet road separating you and the beach for less than $10 a night. It was super comfy and there were even charger ports inside the tent. There weren’t many hotels when I visited in 2019 and there are still no hostels. After a little search on Booking.com, there are many more places you can stay though!
Things to do in Borsh and Lukovë
Similarly to Himarë, Lukovë and Borsh are relaxing beach towns but my favourite thing to do was watch the sunset over the Greek Islands! Closely followed by eating, drinking, chilling by the beach and soaking up the sun while you’re surrounded by rolling hills and friendly locals. The best beaches in the area are Lukovë Beach, Buneci Beach (Lukovë) and Plazi i Borshit (Borsh).
Sarandë, Albanian Riviera
Sarandë is a resort town on the most southern tip of the Albanian Riviera. It’s becoming more popular with tourists, especially as it’s right next to Greece’s Corfu Island. You can even get a cheap ferry between them in under two hours! Greeks have been coming to this part of the world for years, so you’ll see plenty of Greek influence around (hello souvlaki life). There are many beaches to explore, great places to eat and more hostels than other areas. If you do want to meet some tourists and expats, you’re more likely to find them here.
Where to stay in Sarandë
On Hostelworld, there are 21 hostels in Sarandë, far more than anywhere else in Albania! As it’s so small, most places will be within walking distance to Hasan Tahsini Boulevard (main strip) and the best beaches. My top choices would be Saranda (SR) Backpackers as it is right on the beach or Hasta La Vista Saranda.
Things to do in Sarandë
Obviously beach hopping is number one but the below are some other fun things to explore in the area.
1. Browse the summer markets on the Hasan Tahsini Boulevard.
2. Visit the 16th Century Lekuresi Castle and view Sarandë and nearby beaches from the top.
3. Stroll around Butrint National Park, a World Heritage listed site by UNESCO. You’ll see ruins from the 4th Century right up to the 19th Century, crazy! You can also observe native wildlife and take in the gorgeous views of Sarandë.
4. Swim in the Syri i Kalter, also known as The Blue Eye in Albania. It’s a fresh water spring with sparkling blue water that looks like an eye. There’s a bottomless cave underneath and the eye and the luscious green surrounding it are truly spectacular!
5. Get litty titty on a night out and dance the night away at the local beach clubs!
Getting to Albania and getting around the country
So, I’ve totally convinced you to go to Albania but now you’re wondering how the hell to get around this awesome, mostly tourist free country. Don’t worry, I got ya covered.
Getting to Albania
To get to Albania, you can fly into Tirana or Sarandë, or get the two hour ferry from Corfu Island if you’re down that way. You can get a cheap ticket at the ferry station and there is over fifteen departures a day.
The other option, which is what I did, is to get the bus from Montenegro (another amazing country). It’s super cheap and the bus goes directly from Kotor in Montenegro to Tirana, taking a little under four hours. I used Old Town Travel and you can buy a ticket at the bus station for under €20.
Be warned, this was one of the worst bus rides I have ever taken as there was no air conditioning or toilet on board and it was a 40 degree day. The heat was manageable but I drank heaps of water without realising the toilet didn’t work and my bladder has never taken such a beating. This could have simply been bad luck that the toilet was broken, but make sure you check if it works before trying to keep hydrated as the bus didn’t stop for three (bladder filled agony) hours.
Getting around Albania
I met two lads in Trip n’ Hostel in Tirana and we hired a car and drove the Albanian Riviera. If you can do this, I’d highly recommend it as your mode of transport. It’s much easier than the buses, super cheap and gives you lots of freedom to explore. But first, be prepared for the car rental process to be nothing like any other countries in the area.
Hiring a car in Albania is another fabulous example of how nice Albanians are. We rang 10 different car rental companies and there were no cars left. After giving up on our road tripping dreams, one friendly company rang us back and magically found a car for us. It cost less than $20 each for 10 days. It was a simple, quick process and they didn’t even ask for a passport or licence to rent the car. I’m going to assume that’s because they like totally trusted us and not at all because they have mad connections to find us if we never came back….
If you do get a car, be prepared for Albanians driving like fucking maniacs. I tried to drive there twice and I was far too scared, so the guys I was with did most of the driving. The worst of it is in Tirana though, so if you’re confident to get through that, the rest of the country is fine! Also, manual cars are more common in Albania so if you or someone you’re with can drive a manual, you’ll get a car easier and cheaper.
If you don’t want to drive, you can get buses around the country. This is an easy and super cheap alternative. There are bus stations in most of the bigger towns like Tirana, Himarë, Sarandë, Vlorë and more it just might not provide you with as much freedom to see all the places above.
Other hot tips
Albania is a mostly cash country in the currency of Lek. You’ll need to get money out and carry cash with you to pay for most things, so it’d be handy to do that before you arrive in the country. There are some ATMs but they are mostly in Tirana and Sarandë, so if you’re going to the smaller towns, make sure you have enough cash dollars baby.
Uber is not a thing in Albania, so use the taxis!
The internet around the country can be dodgy and if you have a European sim, it won’t work here as Albania is not in the EU. Before you arrive, make sure you download both the Albanian language on Google Translate and a map of Albania on Google Maps for offline use. You’ll definitely need Google Translate to talk to the locals as very few speak English.
I hope this helps you travel Albania! It’s such a magical country and now you have the info to experience this part of the world before it’s overrun by tourists. If you’ve been to Albania and have anything to add, hit me up.
Yours in exploring awesome countries,