Albania was a place that until recently wasn't on my radar. I hadn't been planning this trip for years or dreaming of the day I would step foot in Albanian soil. But, if I could go back in time, my mindset would have been much different.
I don't think I'm alone by not having Albania on my travel bucket list, and I also don't think I'm alone in realizing how wonderful this country really is. Now that I've spent 3 months in Albania, I can safely say it's an incredible country with loads of natural beauty, a sad yet rich history, friendly locals, and plenty to see and do.
To get around Albania, we rented a car. It's more than possible to travel via bus and public transportation, but by renting a car, we were able to travel on our own schedule, make pit stops (we never would have visited Gjirokaster without this!), and could rest assured that Bandido, our dog, was relaxed while traveling. While we took a full 3 months in Albania, you could do a pretty epic 14-day road trip.
For the best deals on rental cars in Albania, check out Discover Cars. You can pick up your rental at a number of different pick-up points throughout the country and can opt for a 1-way rental or roundtrip. While it does cost more, we're huge fans of 1-way rentals so we don't have to circle back to drop the car off.
While Albania doesn't yet offer a digital nomad visa, they do allow U.S. citizens to stay visa-free for up to 1 year. I'm honestly not sure why they have this agreement with only the U.S. but it is an appealing deal for American passport holders looking for an affordable place to call home for a bit.
Before I dive into the best places to visit in Albania today, I want to take a step back in time.
A Quick Look into Albanian History
Albania's past can be traced all the way back to 10th century B.C. Personally, that's a number that's really hard for me to wrap my head around. Albania, and much of the Balkans, was part of the ancient state of Illyria. They are still uncovering new ruins today that continue to spread light on their incredible history.
Fast forward to early A.D time and Albania came under Roman rule. Given its strategic location across the boot of Italy, bordered with Greece to the south, and its long stretch of coastline, it's no wonder this area was such a hot commodity throughout history.
Later, in the 14th century, the Turks invaded and Albania became a part of the Ottoman empire. It wasn't until centuries later that Albania finally gained independence in 1912. Even after their independence, during the World Wars, power changed hands a few times. In WWII alone, the town of Gjirokaster switched back and forth from Greek and Italian control before shortly being overtaken by the Germans.
At the end of WWII, Enver Hoxha gained control of the country and established it as a firmly communist regime. During this time, Albania was slowly cut off from the rest of the world, even abandoning their last few allies, the Soviet Union and China, because they weren't seen as communist enough. Hoxha became increasingly paranoid that the country would be bombed during the Cold War that he ordered the building of nearly 200,000 bunkers. You can still see these little mushroom topped bunkers spread throughout the country. Some are small and could house only a handful of people, others are massive and could take in entire towns.
It was until 1992 that communism officially ended and the country democratically elected its first president. Since then, the country has been integrating itself into the modern world. While you won't see many gleaming skyscrapers or incredibly modern facilities, it's hard to believe it was under such a tight grip for so long. Communism was so strong here that even religion was banned for a few years.
I don't know about you, but that's a whirlwind of history that's too powerful to overlook. Once you have the backdrop of how this country became what it is today, you'll find so many more quirks and historical relics on your visit to Albania.
A Sneak Peak at the Weather in Albania
Now, I know you're here because you're deciding which destinations in Albania you should visit, but it's also important to choose wisely when to visit Albania.
Albania sees four distinctive seasons so the time of the year you plan your trip to Albania will make a difference.
- The winters are colder than I expected, with strong winds, rains, and pretty nasty weather.
- The spring took longer to warm up than I had hoped and I went from needing a warm jacket to only a short dress in just a matter of days.
- The summer gets really hot, so if you plan your trip then, I'd suggest sticking to the Albanian Riviera and taking full advantage of the cool waters in the Ionian Sea.
- The fall is said to be the best time to visit Albania since the weather is nicest and the crowds are less.
Do note that a lot happens outside in Albania. Being there as spring turned to summer, you could see more movement on the streets, cafes opening up, and tables lining the sidewalks for al fresco dining. As people who travel with their dog, outdoor living is a huge perk for us.
It was also greatly appreciated due to the huge number of smokers in Albania and the fact that smoking indoors is still widely accepted. During the first few coldest weeks of our trip, if we wanted to eat out or visit a coffee shop, it most likely meant eating or drinking inside. And that meant, leaving feeling like we had smoked a pack ourselves.
If you're a smoker, you've found your dream destination. If you're not, you might prefer visiting in warmer months and enjoying the fresh air.
With that, it's time to start planning your trip with these 10 best places to visit in Albania. I've built my list in geographical order, from north to south to help you best understand which places are nearest to each other if you have limited time on your visit to Albania.
1. Shkodër / Shkodra
Shkodër (Shkodra) is the northernmost city in Albania and sits right near the border with Montenegro, just a few quick hours from the beautiful Bay of Kotor. In the middle of these two countries is a massive, incredible green lake. In Albanian, this is Shkodra Lake and in Montenegro it is Skadar Lake.
I, like most people, assumed the city was actually on the lake but it's actually not. The city center is near the lake, yes, but to get to the actual shoreline, you'd have to head to the outskirts of the city.
While you don't get the lake in Shkodër, you do get a really cute and vibrant city. The heart of downtown is a few blocks of pedestrian-only streets, lined by shops, cafes, and restaurants. This area of the city is certainly the most touristic but not overtly. Most young Albanians also spend their time hanging out in this area. There are parks, churches, and mosques lining the streets as well.
While in Shkodër, you'll most likely be tempted to spend most of your time in this area. I do suggest getting out of this bit and exploring the rest of the city as well. The entirety of the city is pedestrian and bike friendly so it's easy to get around. It's also really flat, unlike most other places in Albania, so walking around isn't as exhausting.
While in Shkodër, you should:
- Visit Shkodra Lake
- Enjoy the views from Rozafa Castle
- Wander the walking street
2. Albanian Alps
The Albanian Alps are awe-inspiring. After seeing so many beautiful places in Albania, I can safely say this was the most incredible. We spent two nights in the area with the sole purpose of hiking through Thethi National Park and taking on the Valbona Pass. If you have the time and energy, I highly suggest you add this hike to your list.
If you're not into hiking, the Albanian Alps are still incredible to visit. You can simply spend time at a quaint guesthouse and relax while soaking up the views. The two main options for places to stay in the Alps are in either Theth or Valbona. These two towns are also the starting and ending point to the hike.
It's up to you if you start in Theth and end in Valbona or vise-versa. We did the hike this way and I'm really happy we did. It's pretty steady uphill the first half, but the second half you're rewarded with a not so steep downgrade and incredible views ahead of you. If you started in Valbona, those spectacular views would be to your back.
Shkoder is considered the gateway to the Albanian Alps, so if you plan to visit this region, you'll most likely start or end (or both) your trip in Shkoder. It's easy to get a taxi or a bus from Shkoder to Theth and then a boat ride and bus from Valbona to Shkoder. If you hike like we did, this is the roundtrip you'd take. Reverse it if you'd rather start your hike in Valbona.
While in the Albanian Alps, you should:
- Hike the Valbona Pass
- Stay (and eat!) at a guesthouse
- Hike to Blue Eye (note there is another Blue Eye between Saranda and Gjirokaster)
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3. Komani Lake // Lake Koman
Most people visiting Albania only pass quickly through Komani Lake on the way back from or to Valbona. To be honest, it's one of the prettiest ferry rides I've ever had. So, if like us, you have limited time in Northern Albania, you'll be happy you at least saw this area on the ferry.
If you have extra time and are looking for somewhere remote to getaway, there are a handful of guesthouses on the lake and its rivers that make for a relaxing stay. In a lot of this area you'll have limited service or wifi and some places might not even have electricity, just a generator.
Friends of ours stayed at Blini-Park Guesthouse and had nothing but great things to say about the family that ran the hotel and also the surrounding nature. They said the water was bone-numbingly cold and they visited in June. So if you're most interested in swimming, you'll want to visit this area in the summer so the cold water is refreshing, not a turn off.
When is Komani Lake, you should:
- Get a seat outside on the ferry so you can enjoy the views
- Stay a night or two at a guesthouse
- Go for a chilling swim
4. Tiranë // Tirana
As the capital of Albania, Tiranë is the largest city in Albania. Although only around 500,000 people live here, it's a big jump compared to other places in Albania. The next largest city in Albania is Durrës with only about 100,000 people.
Tiranë was much more lively of a city than I expected, but in all honesty, I didn't expect too much. Our decision to work remotely from Albania was a relatively last minute one so we didn't do too much research before landing here. I was pleasantly surprised to see it surrounded by snow-capped mountains, friendly people, and more cafes than I knew what to do with.
You'll notice a lot of the architecture is reminiscent of its communist past with block-style apartment littering every corner. Many buildings though are brightly painted which adds a uniqueness to their low skyline.
The city itself is pretty easy to navigate on foot and while there's a lot of pedestrian traffic, I prefer the sidewalks to the pretty chaotic street traffic. If you're a foodie or a coffee drinker, you won't lack for bars and restaurants to try. There's also a handful of parks, plazas, and museums to add some variety to your days.
When in Tiranë, you should:
- Eat Tavë kosi at Era Vila
- Spend your time in the Blloku neighborhood
- Go underground at Bunker Art
Berat is a city south of Tiranë, in central Albania. Dubbed the "City of a Thousand Windows," you'll quickly see why when you arrive and see the white Ottoman architecture houses built on a hill, cut with quite literally a thousand windows combined.
Given its well-preserved history and surrounding nature, it's no wonder that it's one of the best places to visit in Albania. In complete transparency, we didn't visit Berat while we were in Albania. On our road trip through Albania, we had to make a decision between Berat and Gjirokastra. While I can't say if it was the right decision, I can say I very much enjoyed our decision.
When in Berat, you should:
- Check out the view from Berat Castle
- Explore Mangalemi Old Town
- Take a peek into the past at the National Ethnographic Museum
6. Llogara National Park
Llogara National Park is another one of Albania's best places to visit and another that we didn't have time to see for ourselves. Just south of Vlorë and north of Dermë, this national park lines the coast. On one edge of this national park you'll have mountains and lush forests, and on the other, you'll have the rich blues of the Ionian Sea.
This is a great place for nature lovers to visit if you want to spend some time outdoors hiking, enjoying the views, or making your way to untouched beaches. When deciding where we wanted to hike in the country, we opted for the Albanian Alps but if you'd rather have views of the sea than mountains, hiking here might be preferable for you.
When in Llogara National Park, you should
- Drive the Llogara Pass
- Visit Palasa Beach
- Take a hike down one of the many trails
7. Gjirokastër // Gjirokastra
I'll go right out and say it, I love Gjirokastër. The Ottoman architecture, the mountain views, the cobbled streets, and the castle offer incredible views of the city below. Honestly, what's not to love?
I will say, we visited in March and we're one of just a handful of other tourists. We had the run of the place to ourselves and while the space was nice, not many places were open. Personally, I was OK with that and happy to ogle at the Ottoman style houses without crowds but if you're mainly interested in the open air bazaar, you might be happy visiting closer to the summer tourist season.
Since it's such a popular destination, visiting in the peak of summer might be a little too hot and a little too crowded, but I can't speak from experience. Regardless of the time of year you visit Albania, I'd say Gjirokastër is worth a visit.
If you're a fan of historical fiction and like reading about places you visit, check out the books by Ismail Kadare. He's one of Albania's most famous authors and is from Gjirokastër. I read Chronicle in Stone which is set in Gjirokastër during WWII and taught me a lot about the country's history.
When in Gjirokastër, you should:
- Take in the views at Gjirokastër Castle
- Grab a souvenir in the Old Town Bazaar
- Go for a tour in the Cold War Tunnel
8. Sarandë // Saranda
Since we work online, we prefer not to keep a heavy travel schedule and instead pick a town or two to spend most of our time in a new country. We'll fill in the blanks with some travels but enjoy having a home base, primarily to make sure we get our work done while we're on the road. It's also been helpful while traveling with our dog to give him stability in our wild lifestyle.
In Albania, we chose to Sarandë as our home base and stayed there for 2 of our 3 months in the country. This Albanian Riviera town is geographically blessed. The town itself is built on a hill, so when picking accommodation know that the farther away from the beach you are, the more uphill you'll be. We found a great apartment on 5th Street and getting up and down required you to enjoy some exercise.
While we did have to work to get up and down, the views from our apartment were well worth it in my opinion. Across the bay is the Island of Corfu, a hilly and green Greek mountain that's easy to stare at all day.
In general, Sarandë is a quiet town. There's restaurants, bars, and cafes, but the options aren't nearly as vast as in Tirana or Shkoder. Personally, I like quiet places so I was happy to spend 2 months here, while friends of ours who stayed the same amount of time said it's better for just a weekend trip. Regardless, we all agreed it's worth visiting and definitely a beautiful place.
When in Sarandë, you should:
- Spend your time walking the promenade
- Get an eagle eye's view of the city at the Lekuresi Castle
- Take a day trip (or longer) to Corfu, just a quick ferry ride away
Another Albanian Riviera hotspot is Ksamil. Ksamil is easily one of the best places in Albania to visit if you're after beautiful beaches. Much smaller than its already quaint neighbor, Saranda, Ksamil is a great spot for relaxing in the sun and eating fresh seafood. Mussels in particular are a delicacy in this region and are simply delectable.
If you're a hiker like we are, a unique way to get from Saranda to Ksamil is to walk. While there is a main road, opt instead to follow the coastline and explore hidden beaches instead. We did this hike twice, once with a guide and once on our own. I'd highly recommend going with a guide. Just ask on a Facebook group when you arrive and people will be able to point you in the right direction.
Another interesting thing to do in Ksamil is to visit Butrint National Park. Butrint is an archaeological park right near the border of Greece. Many of the sites in the park have only been excavated years before so the vastness of the compound is still growing. This zone was an important piece of land throughout history, with signs of civilization going as far back as Albanian history does. The area itself changed hands quite a few times and those architectural styles are represented in the ruins. I'm honestly not a big museum person but the archaeological museum at the park was done in a way that it was easy to digest the 1000s of years of history without feeling completely lost or overwhelmed.
When in Ksamil, you should:
- Put in the effort to visit some hidden beaches
- Visit the world heritage site of Butrint National Park
- Relax and enjoy mussels with a glass of white wine
10. Korçë // Korca
Last but certainly not least is Korçë. Korçë is one of the more difficult places to visit in Albania, with the exception of Theth and Valbona. It sits to the southeast, equal distance from North Macedonia, Lake Ohrid, and Greece. Do note that nowhere in Albania is really that far away from one another, given the small size of the country. What does make it difficult to get to though is the lack of roads and options on how to drive into town.
This is another one of the best places to visit in Albania that we actually didn't get a chance to see. While I would have liked to have popped into Berat for a short visit, Korca is a place that I've heard has that liveability aspect that us digital nomads are always looking for.
While it's definitely one of the popular tourist destinations, it doesn't see nearly as many visitors as other places on this list do. Which depending on what you look for in a destination could be reason enough to move to to #1 or #10 on your list.
When in Korçë, you should:
- Enjoy a walk down St. George Boulevard
- Do some shopping in the Korca bazaar
- Grab a beer at Birra Korca Brewery (by far the most popular beer in Albania)
With this, you're ready to pick the places to visit on your trip to Albania. Regardless of where you choose, I'm sure you can't go wrong. You'll fall quickly in love with the welcoming locals, stunning scenery, and fresh food just like we did.
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