Updated: Nov 9, 2021
Back from our fifth trip of 2021 but, if you noticed, it hasn't been without a theme. This year has been all about discovering off beat unconventional countries. We started our year in Uganda, then went to Kyrgyzstan for Spring. That was followed by a non-beachy to Seychelles, and a whirlwind trip to four Central American treasures and now - Albania.
The Balkans have always been popular with crowds, why then has Albania been left behind I wonder? Is it because of their previous communist rule? I have no idea about why but I do know that traveling to these hidden countries in an instagram-obsessed world has been the biggest joy of my year.
Though this feels like a packed itinerary, it was surprisingly relaxing since we were back to the room by 5 p.m. on all days. Let's jump right into the detailed guide, including a day wise breakdown and tips to make your trip extremely memorable. Read on.
Day Wise Itinerary Breakdown
Day 1 Tirana to Shkoder
Day 2 Shkoder to Theth
Day 3 Theth to Kruje
Day 4 Kruje to Prespa Lake
Day 5 Kruje to Korca
Day 6 Korca to Gjirokaster
Day 7 Saranda, Butrint National Park
Day 8 Himare, Vlore & Berat
If you are traveling with Fly Dubai, from Dubai, you don't need a PCR test to go to Albania. Just your vaccination certificate.
You do need a PCR test to re-enter Dubai.
The test should cost 6000 LEK or EUR 25 per person.
You have to make sure the test is RT-PCR and not an Antigen test. Also make doubly sure that you are doing your test with a registered clinic that is recognized by the Albanian Airport. If you do it at any clinic you found, you could get rejected at the counter.
Testing Tip: we got ours done at Berat on the day before we were due to fly. Got the results in 8 hours.
Flights, Visa and Immigration
We flew direct with Fly Dubai - directly to Tirana, around 5.5 hours.
Albania offers visa on arrival for residents of UAE. No visa cost.
The immigration was quick and efficient. Not a lot of questions.
Safety and hygiene
Not the safest of places from a COVID point of view. Though they say most people are vaccinated in the bigger cities and towns, not a single person in any city or town was wearing a mask. If this bothers you, perhaps you are better off picking another place.
We wore ours every time we sat in a restaurant or entered a museum. Since most places were empty, social distancing was no hassle.
Best time to visit
May - August if you want to party it up in the sandy beaches. Also a good time to hike. September-October is the best time to avoid crowds. We had most places to ourselves, just what we love.
Language and People
People are genuine and welcoming. Not everyone speaks English but if you have your guide with you, you should be able to manage.
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel Insurance is highly recommended. USD accepted at all resorts. Carry local currency for small purchases.
Safety for Traveling Solo or as a woman
The country felt extremely safe. Should be no a problem to go solo here.
Albania is still relatively untouched by mass tourism - so it is extremely backpacker and budget-friendly. Most hotels or lodges are small or owned by locals. We stayed in a mix of hotels and private bnb's. If you stay only in small scale lodges, you should expect to spend no more than EUR 800-900 per person for this 9 day trip.
Choosing your guide (this is not a sponsored post - I paid in full)
As with any country where roads are tricky and language is an issue, I choose to go with a local guide. The benefits are two fold - one, you get to have a fuller, more meaningful local experience and two, you get to support their families in some small way.
For this trip, I went with Visit Albania Tour Operator. The owner, Isuf, was friendly and responsive. He was more than happy to accommodate all my wild requests. Our driver, Dritan, was a real star. Always on time, extremely safe and knowledgable. We had a bit of a snafu at the Macedonian border but Dritan and Isuf were wonderful and quickly turned things around without a single penny added to our tour prepaid tour cost. If that is not exceptional customer service, I don't know what it is. They really made our trip memorable. Highly recommend you get in touch with them if planning a trip to Albania.
Vegetarian Food in Albania
I will be honest, Europe is our least favorite place to travel in because of lack of variety for vegetarians. We had to go for Pizza or Pasta, barring the occasional instances when we managed to find something local. The food was economically priced though - a whole week of eating out (that is 9 x 2 meals) cost us less than EUR 90!
What I recommend you try - Qifqi, Okra Casserole, Speca te mbushura (9stuffed peppers with rice), Byrek (cheese or spinach pie)
Where we stayed
There were a lot of misses on this trip, especially with respect to breakfast. There was hardly any warm food. It was just your usual B&B with basic necessities.
The only exception was at Berat, where we stayed at Hotel Rezidenca Desaret, a privately run cozy boutique 4* hotel. The food was freshly made with lots of love. Check out the view of the old city from our room. It was amazing to wake up here. Definitely recommended.
We landed around noon in Tirana, after a quick immigration procedure, we were out. Our driver was waiting for us. After a quick stop for lunch, we made our way to Shkoder. This small town which forms a natural boundary between Albania and Montenegro, has a sleepy laidback vibe, not unlike many other similar smaller European towns.
We were tired from our journey.. so it was a very light day. Our first stop was a visit to the Shkoder Lake - a massive lake, one of the largest in the Balkans. In the summer, you can kayak or hike around the lake.
We made our way to the city center around sunset... where there was definitely more activity. We also stopped at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral. There was also a mosque and a mausoleum not two blocks away from this church. That was one of the most remarkable things about Albania - the religious tolerance.
Fun Fact: did you know Mother Theresa was born Albanian? She last visited this country in the early 90s. You will find shrines of her all around the capital city. You can also find a cafe where George Bush II had coffee when he visited Albania.
For dinner, we just took a walk around the old bazaar. That is, after all, the charm of Europe.. the endlessly picturesque pedestrian streets.
We stayed at Garden Hotel B&B.
Our first stop was the Mesi Bridge. This is one of the largest bridges that still remain from the Ottoman period. It is called mesi aka middle because it is centrally located.
It is a treasured Albanian monument. It is also extremely picturesque with stunning blue crystalline waters of the river flowing below. Amazes me how architecture survives for centuries even after weather, war and destruction.
After an hour, we started making our way up the scenic roads to the Northern Alps, towards Theth. This is easily one of the best places to chase fall colors in Albania. This jaw-dropping scenic village is a must-see on any trip to Albania. We made a hundred stops every 5 seconds because look!
The drive alone was quite a sight to behold with a breathtaking view of the Albanian alps on every corner.
After a mediocre lunch, we made our way towards the famous Theth Church. This is probably the picture you see of Albania on every travel magazine.
We started our hike towards Grunas Waterfall. More than the waterfall, I actually enjoyed the hike up. It was seriously postcard perfect.
The hike itself is a simple 4km track which can be done in about 2 hours at a medium pace. The waterfall isn't very big but definitely worth a visit to cool off on a hot day.
Don't miss the little bridge on your way back. Cutest picture spot! I recommend taking your time to relax in this picture-perfect village.
The rest of the evening was spent chilling at the small lodge - Thethi Paradise.
The highlight of our morning was waking up to some of the most magical views we have seen in a while. Fall colors galore, with the clouds and sun playing hide and seek.
Doesn't get more pretty than this and it is probably the only reason I would recommend staying at Thethi Paradise.
After skipping breakfast, we made our way towards Kruje, a historic city in Central Albania. While this town is small, it is also extremely significant, given that it is the birth place of the Albanian hero Skanderberg. There are a few things to do here like visiting the Skanderberg Castle and Museum. I recommend going with your guide to get a better understanding of how and why he is still a revered figure in Albanian culture. If you are not into history, then definitely go for the panoramic views.
Last stop for lunch was the Old Bazaar. You will find plenty of trinkets and street food here. It was similar to the bazaars in Istanbul but smaller.
We had to drive back to Tirana but we stopped by the city center before heading to our B&B for the night.
Today we were supposed to be in Macedonia but as racism would have it, we were denied entry because of random bit of made up information. What was supposed to be a simple cross over the border turned into a tremendous waste of time and energy. Nevertheless, we didn't let it deter our plans in anyway. The guide quickly reshuffled helping us make it to all the posts we were supposed to see in Macedonia.
First stop was Lake Ohrid, the largest lake in the Balkan's region.
Then we stopped at the city of Pogradec for a coffee and more scenic views. While nonsensical racism let us down, the weather did not disappoint. As we drove up to our final point, we were welcomed by everything from rainbow to misty clouds for miles.
By the time we reached the Prespa Lake, the weather had finally cleared.
With a surface area of 300 sq km, the Prespa lake is massive, shared between three countries. Split in two, these beautiful lakes here have kept each other company for millions of years. They are the heart and soul of this incredibly off beat town of Albania!
Though there are over a thousand lakes in Albania, not all of them are natural. So why did we choose Lake Prespa over the other 200 odd natural lakes? Well for one, unlike the more popular Lake Ohrid, the two Prespa lakes are much more secluded and off beat.
You won’t find hordes of tourists here.. making it the perfect place for a peaceful getaway in nature.
Would you look at that golden hour reflection? We had all it to ourselves the entire three hours we spent there.
What a fabulous way to turn around a ridiculous travel day, eh? You not just welcomed us back but also gave us a stellar day when we returned. Albania, you stunner!
Yet another early start in Korca as we headed out to the old bazaar for coffee and byrek.
The drive was stunning as well.. seemed like we had walked into a giant Van Gogh painting. We stopped on the way to visit the second longest lake in Albania - Vjose.
Our first stop for the day was an exciting one - the Benja Thermal Bath. Located at a short distance from town or Permet inside the Kruje National Park.
There are three pools here - a main one and two smaller ones. The main pool obviously looks the best but it is always busy. We avoided it and went straight for the smaller one. The water is perfect to swim in on that chilly fall day. Don't forget to pack your swimsuits and dive in.
After another couple hours, we made it to our final destination for the day - Gjirokaster. This is an extremely picturesque museum town perched on top of a hill facing the Drino river. This city, a UNESCO site, offers a few different things to do like the castle and museum.
The castle itself is impressive, sitting on top of a majestic hill facing the old town. As soon you enter, you will find huge tanks from the world war. The castle is not huge but it is not small either, if you like history, expect to spend a couple hours. You must definitely visit both the arms museum and the Gjirokaster museum.
The castle was built on top of a plateau, making it the best place to capture the old and new towns converging against the stunning mountainous landscape.
We finally made it back down and walked to our beautiful hotel in the middle of the old bazaar. Spent the night taking in the moonlight and the hustle bustle of a quiet European town.
What a view to wake up to. This was just the most wonderful mood with the pastel hues and foggy clouds.
After a delicious breakfast, we left the mountains to head towards the West where we were welcomed by wide salty seas and got ready for sandy toes. Our first stop for the day was the famous Blue Eye - one of the most touristy places in Albania. Don't let the tourist trap tag deter you from going here - it is quite the natural phenomenon.
This is a deep, fresh water spring that looks like a glowing human eye. The color is something you have to see to believe. Go as early as possible in the day to avoid the tourist buses.
Our next stop was in Saranda. During the summer, all three are extremely popular among the affluent Albanian families. Saranda is smaller than Vlore but bigger than Himare and is known for clean beaches, a vibrant town, amazing seafood and ocean cruises. So if a laid back beach holiday is your thing, this should be your next summer destination.
Definitely visit the Saranda castle for great view of both Saranda and Korçë in Greece at a distance.
Our last stop for the day was the Butrint National Park. My history obsessed husband fell in love with this little gem of a place.
With a picturesque mountainous setting and lagoon at the center, the scenery alone makes this park a must visit. Add to some history and mystery, you have got yourself an unmissable sight on your hands. What we saw was an amalgam of monuments spanning over two thousand years of history from the 4th century to the Ottoman era in the 19th century. From the sculptures to the scripts on walls, the signs are unmissable and fascinating.
Don't miss the theatre from the Roman era, and after Julius Caesar and Augustus founded a colony here the city was extended through building of a bridge, causing commerce to boom!
As we explored the crumbling ruins we had truly stepped back 2400 years. The ancient city of Butrint was one of the finest and most beautiful cities in all of the Roman Empire.
We got back to our room for a light dinner and enjoyed a moon lit walk by the Sarande promenade.
On our trip, we planned to hit all of the Southern Coastal towns from Sarande to Vlore to Himare. Though Himare is smaller than Saranda, it is still a cute lazy beach town that comes alive in the summer. It has a distinct Greek influence - don't miss those blue roofs on your drive up through the Llogora Pass.
The Llogara Pass is one of the highlights of your drive through the South-West region of Albania. It is a winding road reaching up to a height of 1027m overlooking the Ionian Albania riveria.
After a quick stop at Vlore and onwards to the Karavasta Lagoon to pay a visit to Johnny, the humungous dalmation pelican. Another highlight here are the lovely mangrove forests - if you go during certain times of the day, you can ride a boat. It was closed when we went, so we climbed the observatory tower.
Around 4 p.m. we made it to the incredibly stunning Berat. where we will be spending two days exploring the UNESCO town filled with Ottoman style houses, ancient churches and mythical castles. Berat decided to gift wrap a special sunset for us!
Our last full day started with an unbelievably delicious breakfast. After finishing our PCR test, we headed straight up the holy mountains of Tomorr.
Mount Tomorr is not just the highest mountain in Albania but also a place of holy significance for the locals who visit the alps during the summer months to perform sacrifices. Apparently, the mountain tops are permanently covered in fog but you can't help but be impressed by the height of this giant mountain.
Once you make it to the top, you will be left wonderstruck with the sight of the scenic roads and awe-inspiring fall colors.
Next up was a rustic hike to the Bogove Waterfall. Unfortunately the path leading up to the falls was under construction but we still made it there. It is a small fall but still worth a visit.
Final stop for the day was a hike up to the Berat Castle. We were surrounded by views on either side of the Osum River - the traditionally orthodox Gorica and the Ottoman inspired Mangelam.
Gratefully ended our trip with yet another astounding view of the Berat city at dusk. It felt like Albania was bidding us adieu in top style.
This was a trip where we went on to uncover one of the last few stellar gems left in eastern Europe. From the stunning peaks of the Albanian North to the pristine beaches of the Albanian Riviera in the west, to the historic South and East.
The husband loved soaking up the crazy dose of history. Of course, the highlight for me was the unfiltered nature minus the maddening European summer crowds. Ignored by the Instagram crowd in favor of the more popular Montenegro, Croatia or Serbia, Albania is still untouched due to its turbulent history. It was our kind of place.
It was not only safe and cheap but shockingly beautiful. The road trip across the countryside was one of the highlights for me. It is a photographers dream.
Albania is also a hotpot of cultures - not unlike Turkey. Yet what struck me most was the religious tolerance. Ancient mosques sit next to massive churches, while modern and quirky cafes line the colorful streets leading up to traditional houses.
Berat is, rightfully, one of the most popular cities in the country, which means people often only make it to Berat. I wouldn't blame them. It is not just charming but is also brimming with history. You will find Ottoman influences blending in with the characteristic orthodox structures. My two cents - as much as I loved Berat, don't just go here to do the touristy bits, there is so much more to this country.
Give Albania a chance, it can be mesmerizing, eye-opening and jaw-dropping!
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