It’s hard to find countries in Europe that are still off the beaten track. Before we considered going to Albania we didn’t think of this country, that had been isolated from the outside world in East Bloc times, as one of them. After visiting some outstanding places in Albania we had to change that view.
We were surprised by the low numbers of visitors that we saw in some of the most beautiful cities on the Balkans. We can only guess at the reasons. Do people still see Albania as some bleak communist state? Do they think there’s not much to see? Is the country just too strange?
Over the course of two weeks of traveling to several places in Albania we met wonderful people, ate some great food, saw many outstanding sights, relaxed on quiet beaches and were stunned by some amazing scenery. Add the low cost of travel (Albania is one of the cheapest countries in Europe and euros are more than willingly accepted over the Albanian Lek) and you’d think it should be a popular travel destination.
Even driving through Albania – which had us worried a little bit – was a breeze. Major roads are in good condition (and many roads are being improved), traffic is low on most of these roads while donkeys are becoming a rare sight, we’ve never seen more gas stations and car washes before and even the driving habits were no worse than in other Balkan countries (except for some crazy driving in Tirana).
The only complaints we could think of is that Albania’s infrastructure planners have not heard of ring roads yet, all major routes leading you inconveniently through cities, and that there are very few big supermarkets with a wide selection of products (are we sounding very spoiled now…?). But the country is developing at a rapid pace, so we think that will change soon.
Anyhow: Albania sooner or later should become a traveler’s favorite, so get here while it’s still a bit ‘undiscovered’ (we hate that word). Below you find some of the places in Albania we visited and liked.
Places in Albania
This elongated lake in northern Albania was created after a hydroelectric project in the 1970’s. The three hour ferry ride across the lake is incredibly scenic with views of mountain gorges, vertical cliffs and the blue water of the lake. We made the ferry ride to get to Valbona in the Albanian Alps.
Even if you’re not a real hiker doing the Valbona-Theth hike in the Albanian Alps comes highly recommended. Granted, the hike is not easy but anyone with a reasonable fitness can complete the day hike which crosses 1.759 meter Valbona Pass to the charming off-the-beaten path village of Theth. Along the way you will be rewarded by fantastic mountain panoramas.
You can read more about the Lake Koman ferry ride and Valbona-Theth hike here.
Just 20 kilometers north of Albania’s capital Tirana is Krüje castle. The historic but almost new looking castle houses a quirky museum glorifying Albania’s 15th- century national hero Skanderbeg. Regular furgons make the trip from Tirana.
Albania’s capital has left bleak post-communist times behind and is transforming into a colorful and modern city. Look closer, though, and you see enough remnants of its dark past. Make sure to visit Bunk’art 1, the former atomic bunker complex where Albania’s paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha and his cronies could go into hiding in case of war.
You can learn what to see during a visit to Tirana here.
Nicknamed ‘The City of Thousand Windows’ you won’t easily forget the first sight of the white houses stacked upon each other against the hill leading up to Berat’s still lived-in castle. Despite its unmistakable beauty this Unesco World Heritage listed city is still pleasantly off the beaten track. Get here before it gets really discovered.
We wrote this post about our visit to Berat.
One of the most scenic drives in Albania is the winding road over the 1.043 meter high Llogara Pass. Coming from the north fantastic vistas of the beaches of the Albanian Riviera unfold before your eyes (when it’s not too cloudy or hazy, that is).
Albania has a coastline that has not been discovered by mass tourism. Yet. New developments are quickly changing the once unspoiled beaches, although on more difficult to reach places they can still be found. Even then, the beaches are much better value than in neighboring countries. Take advantage while you still can. It’s a great coastal drive too.
About 20 kilometers from the beaches of southern Albania the Blue Eye is a popular excursion. Crystal clear and intensely blue water arises from a small spring deep in the earth’s crust. Only the most hardened dare to dive into its frigid cold waters.
In this south Albanian city the Unesco World Heritage listed old center invites for some aimless wandering. Visit old homes of eminent Gjirokastër families, appreciate the once strategic importance of the biggest castle in Albania and walk the cobblestoned streets admiring the unique Albanian-Ottoman architecture.
Read here why you must visit Gjirokastër, aka ‘The Stone City’.
Vjosë river bends
In the deep south of the country flows the Vjosë river through one of the most beautiful valleys in Albania. Three scenic bends in the river are a worth the detour in itself. We found it one of the most awesome places in Albania.
Bënjë thermal springs
Located near the town of Përmet on a side road off the Vjosë river is another hidden Albanian gem. The therapeutic qualities of the Bënjë thermal springs have been known since ancient times and still people come to bath here. Many springs can be found in the scenic Lengaricë Canyon. At the entrance to the canyon you’ll find a very picturesque Ottoman bridge.
Learn more about these unknown places in Albania in this post.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha had around 168.000 small bunkers built to protect the country against foreign enemies (that was basically everyone outside of Albania). Ruined concrete bunkers can still be found at many places in Albania, especially along the coast. You’ll be hard pressed to leave the country without at least having spotted a few of them.
You can also read more about our two week visit to Albania in the following two blogs: