If you’re like I used to be, then you don’t know the many things to do in Albania. Many Balkan countries weren’t viable tourist destinations for many decades due to their political history. Things have changed, however, and I’m personally glad I visited this nation.
The natural geography and scenery alone make a trip to Albania worth considering. It’s quickly become a favorite spot of mine, and I intend to return again in the future. Gorgeous mountain ranges are broken up by stunning lakes, and many wondrous rivers flow down to picturesque beaches that you’ll wonder why aren’t more famous.
The fact that Albania still lies off the beaten tourist paths keeps it tremendously affordable. Your money can go a long way while exploring the rich topography, but interacting with the local people and culture is also worth it. Some of the cities are quirky enough to be a unique experience, and some of the old towns are actually UNESCO world heritage sites.
Albania hasn’t had time to seep into the international vacation consciousness yet, because it only opened up following the 1991 end of communist rule. So far, only truly curious travelers have passed through, which is what happened to me. I had a trip to the Balkans planned and was going to run through several countries in one go, but I spent more time in Albania than anywhere.
I want to tell you about at least some of the things I got to see and do, from ancient fortress towns to sandy beaches. Greek and Roman ruins are plentiful for a rich sense of deep history, but dynamic festivals keep the country alive with modern flavor. This country can seem downright enigmatic with its alluring museums and art galleries that will move the heart and mind of anyone.
Albania has dozens if not hundreds of things to do. To simplify your planning, I’m going to tell you my top 10 based on my visit there.
Visit the Blue Eye
Want to see something more beautiful than nearly anything else you’ll ever visit? The Blue Eye can be just that. It’s in southern Albania in Muzine.
This natural water spring is the source of the Bistrica River and its 15 miles. The water here is so clear you’ll actually think it’s an illusion. You can look down to the bottom with your own eyes, but the bubbles are what make this place so mesmerizing. The light shimmers here in a magical fashion as the bubbles rise to the top and then pop.
While you can gaze down below the magical waves the bubbles create, you won’t actually know how deep it is. Someone dived to 164 feet once, but no one has been to the actual bottom. Swimming is listed as prohibited, but you’ll see some brave souls trying it. That water is frigid, even in summer.
Check Out Kruje Castle
Albania has many castles. Kruje is among the best-preserved. It’s also one of the more unique ones.
This castle was constructed around the 5th and 6th centuries on top of a hill. A thousand years later, it stayed beyond the reach of the Ottoman Empire during its expansionist phase into Europe. With only a few thousand men, Georg Kastriot (who is also known in English as Skanderbeg) resisted the Ottomans and foiled many of their plans.
The castle is certainly no modern fortress, but it does have a museum. Tour the exhibits in their chronological order to learn the tale of Kastriot’s military successes and life. I enjoyed seeing the Arms of Skanderbeg replica that is very different from other sets of coats of arms, partly because it has a goat head on top of a sword.
Get a Burek on the Go
For all the things to see and do, Albania also has traditional cuisine that you should try. The byrek is one of them, and they’re a great food to eat while moving around the country. Their popular across the country given their versatility and delicious taste.
I found them to be a lot like the spanakopita you can find in Greece. Multiple layers of really thin filo pastry include a rich filling that’s usually feta cheese with spinach. However, you’ll find recipes using Greek yogurt, mushrooms, beef ragout, cottage cheese, tomato, and onion.
You’ll find this dish in most restaurants, bakeries, cafes, food stores, and street vendor stalls. I’d suggest Te Eda in Tirana if you visit the capital. They serve them warm with shredded chicken, and the taste is something I very much remember.
Check Out the Riviera
Other countries in Europe might be famous for their own rivieras, but the Albanian one is a very affordable place to party, relax, and explore. I found it to be one of the country’s highlights. I think you should check it out for yourself.
The liveliest place around is easily Saranda. Get baklava and coffee to fuel up before climbing the hill up to the Forty Saints Monastery. The views over the city from up there will do wonders for your Instagram page.
If you’d rather hit beaches than hills, check out Ksamil. This trio of islands is close enough to sail to each other, and there are plentiful beaches and seafood. Butrint is the largest archaeological site in the country, but there are also some wonderful lounge bars with live music and fresh cocktails.
Theth to Valbona Is a Great Day Hike
When you think of the Alps, you probably think of France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Albania shares some of this mountain range, and Valbona and Theth are two remote villages in this region. There’s a hiking path connecting them that serious hikers should consider.
I say serious hikers because it’s 10 miles of Alpine terrain that takes 6 to 8 hours for anyone who is physically fit enough. The reward is stunning scenery the like of which you rarely see. Lush valleys are juxtaposed by dangerous rock formations and snowy ridgelines under an infinite sky.
Once I got high enough, I honestly felt like I could see the curvature of the Earth along the horizon. To be honest, though, that might have just been the lack of air in my lungs talking. Plan on a rest day or two after in one of the two villages or a nearby city. It’s a great excuse to fill up on tasty local cuisine. Just make sure you plan on a summer hike because the snowpack in any other season closes the trail.
Drive Through Scenic Llogara Pass
If you take my earlier advice about renting a car for your time in Albania, then make sure you spend some time on Llogara Pass. This scenic drive is so famous that you might recognize it once you’re up there. Still, seeing it on postcards or TV is nowhere near the same as the personal experience.
You’ll find this route inside Llogara National Park, and it will take you over 3,000 feet higher than sea level. You’ll see Albanian countryside for miles on end. You’ll even see the sea at some points.
Stop when you can to get out of your car and admire the view. The pass has a number of different restaurants serving people coming through. Try to get a window table if one is available so you can enjoy the landscape and the cuisine at the same time. You might get to see deer, wildcats, and even a golden eagle or two.
Berat is among the most charming and popular places you can visit in Albania. It’s probably one of the country’s oldest cities. The enchanting architecture has earned it the name “City of a Thousand Windows”.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes and think the name is fitting because the buildings look like someone stacked them up on one another. The sea of windows is endless to the eyes and goes quite high. You’ll almost think it’s more of a painting than reality.
Your Instagram account is going to do well once you visit here.
Use Apollonia To Go Back in Time
In its prime, Apollonia was one of the planet’s most crucial cities. The Greeks founded it along the central coast as Gylakeia around 588 BCE. The name was later changed to a Greek god.
This city was a center of libraries, theaters, temples, and philosophy. You won’t see the buildings as they once were, but I had no problem imagining what they looked like back in the day. Some of the ruins are also in tremendous shape even today.
The surrounding countryside is also alluring. Olive groves and rolling green hills are everywhere. I had no trouble seeing why the ancient Greeks decided to make a life here.
Gjipe Beach Is Worth Your Time
If you want to relax on your vacation or just for a day or so, then Gjipe Beach is where to go. You’ll find this dazzling bay set between Dhermi and Himara. The white sand was soft under my feet, almost like flour.
That’s enough to get me to any beach, but the waters were clear as glass. To top it all off, the backdrop is a remarkable canyon. Trust me when I see I haven’t seen another beach quite like this.
Best of all, it was never crowded when I went there, and that’s because it’s a bit hard to reach. Get a boat ride out of Himara, or drive to a rough parking lot and then hike for 30 minutes. Walking is worth the freedom of setting your own schedule.
Sample the Culture at a Festival
Albania has many festivals you can check out to explore local culture and food. I was lucky enough to hit the South Outdoor Festival. You can find it in Borsh from late April to early May.
Set against the wonderful Albanian Riviera, you can explore the culture and food of Albania, along with nature, music, sports, and many other national traditions. Visitors from around the globe come to Borsch to highlight their skills and talent as performers. The actual program changes every year, too, so no two festivals are alike.
When I was there, I saw cultural tours, kayaking, paragliding, and even one event mixing yoga and trail running. There’s always something for kids, and you can also find an open-air cinema and interactive art exhibitions. Street food stalls keep everyone fueled up and taste buds satisfied, and local product fairs will make holiday or birthday shopping easy for everyone you know.
I hope I’ve made you aware of at least some of the things to do in Albania. This covered a handful of options that could serve two different purposes. It could make for a comprehensive itinerary that lets you sample this wonderful country, but it could also just be the tip of the iceberg for all the things you can do here.
Depending on what country you come from, you’ll find that many of the great activities in Albania are really cheap to do. In fact, a lot of them are actually quite free. This country has opened itself to international tourism and wants very much to be an active participant in the global community.
The capital city of Tirana can easily be a great vacation by itself, although Shkoder might make a better base of operations if you want to get in some great hiking. The trails might take your breath away, but the stunning vistas definitely will. My only concern for you in Albania might be public transport outside of Tirana, so renting a car is a great idea to get around this beautiful Balkan gem.
Wondering when to visit? If you have schedule flexibility, I’d recommend that you visit in the month of September. The weather is still warm and inviting, but you won’t find many tourists on those beautiful beaches.