Our two weeks road trip discovering all the Albania stunning beaches, UNESCO cultural sites and lively cities. With map!
I have to admit that Albania wasn't on the top of my travel list, but after traveling to Croatia we heard so many good things about Albania beaches, food and people that we had to travel there for our summer vacation. There were many things that surprised me in Albania:
The people - Being a Balkan country that was under communist ruling until quite late (1991) I was not sure how Albanians would receive us as tourists, treat me as a woman, or how safe it would be in general. However, I had absolutely no reason to worry. We were treated with kindness and respect, and we never felt there was a dangerous moment, even walking at night in the city.
Albanians are extremely friendly people that like to talk to tourists, share their culture and are happy to recommend the best places to visit in their country.
The food - I was extremely happy with Albanese food. It is actually very similar to Portuguese food. You can expect local fresh fish or meat, grilled or in a stew, accompanied by grilled vegetables and boiled potatoes. Everywhere we ate (expensive or cheap) we absolutely loved the food.
The prices - It was by far the cheapest country in Europe I have ever been to. From accommodation to restaurants, the prices were low. The further south you go, the more expensive it gets, but still cheap compared to other European countries.
Abandoned buildings - Being a relatively poor country, especially in comparison with other countries in Europe, reflects on how the country looks like in general.
I felt I was back in time in Portugal during the 90s. People are simple, live a simple life, work hard, have old car models, live mostly in simple country side houses, etc.
There are many abandoned buildings, or buildings that have the first floor done but the top ones abandoned or not finished (also due to the big magnitude 2019 earthquake).
The beaches - We are big fans of wild, more remote, less populated beaches and Albania is the perfect place to find them! Albania is not very populated. It has some big cities, and some resort areas, but besides that it is very wild and not developed. So get a jeep and drive through dirt roads to discover all the amazing wild beaches with warm crystal blue water.
We had two weeks to discover Albania with flights to and from Tirana (the capital).
Since it was summer time, we decided to explore the coast between Tirana and Greece, and then on our way back to Tirana, drive through the mountains to visit some of the UNESCO towns. I had lots of other interesting places pinned on my map, but we will leave those for another trip.
We rented a car in Tirana as soon as we landed, went strait to the first town (Kruje), and only visited Tirana on the last days of our trip.
We stayed mostly 2 to 4 nights on the same place and drove around to visit different beaches and cultural sites. The roads are in general very good and not dangerous, until you adventure to smaller towns or more hidden beaches, then you will probably need a 4by4.
Click HERE for the map with pins
After renting the car in Tirana we drove 1 hour until we reached Kruje, a village nestled in the foothills of the Albanian Alps.
Kruje is famous for its medieval market Old Bazaar and Skanderbeg Museum in Krujë Castle
We had a lovely stroll around and ate at the famous Hotel Panorama restaurant, that has the most amazing Balkan atmosphere and view.
We arrived in the morning and left to the next place on our trip on the same day.
Our next stop was Durres, 1 hour driving from Kruje.
Durres is a bigger town with a cute promenade walk and a long city beach. It didn't seem to have many foreign tourists, maybe more local tourists enjoying the family friendly city beach, strolling along the promenade, dining at the restaurants with ocean view, and having cocktails at the cool bars.
As the whole country, Durres also has some historical monuments, traces of all the ancient civilizations that lived here once. The Durres Amphitheater is a must see. Although it could have been kept in better condition, its size still takes your breath away
BEACHES IN DURRES
The beach in Durres looked ok, but since we are not the biggest fans of city beaches, we drove away from the city center to find nicer beaches.
These two were our favorites:
The Generals Beach - This is a medium/small sandy beach at the bottom of a hill, next to a camping hotel. The beach was not crowded, had clean blue water and you could rent a chair+shade for a very cheap price. There was a small pier in the water with a bar. We had lunch at the Camping restaurant with a view of the beach.
Karpen beach - Medium/big size beach, with blue shallow waters and darker sand. The sunset here was amazing! It has a small island with a restaurant accessible by boat or by a long wood bridge over the water. We were super excited to cross the bridge and visit the restaurant but we were asked to pay almost 20 euros per person just to be able to cross the bridge, so we said no (it was clearly a tourist trap).
It took us 1:30 hours by car to travel from Durres to Vlore.
Vlore is a huge city, full of life, and full of tourists. Although it was very busy, we actually loved the nightlife with its nice bars, restaurants and lively ocean promenade full of stores, fairs and concerts.
Vlore also has a city beach but it is in Karaburun “tongue” that you will find the best beaches. Unfortunately, many of them are only accessible by boat or by difficult trails through the steep cliff tops. There was one particular beach I have heard a lot about, Gjiri i Brisanit beach, but we didn't have enough time (or energy) to hike there, since the whole hike takes around 3 hours.
A short drive from Vlore you will find Narta beach.
A long stretch of sand with pine trees in the background and numerous beach bars and restaurants hidden on the pine trees. It was one of the first beaches we saw in Albania that had waves. Not huge waves, but really fun to play in, and the water was SO warm. It's the perfect beach for families.
St. Mary's Monastery
If you keep driving pass Narta beach, there is the St. Mary's Monastery. Located in Zvernec island in the middle of the Narta Lagoon. This medieval Byzantine monastery and church are connected to the mainland by a curvy wooden deck path. This path is one of the main reasons why people visit this place.
Our next stop was Dhermi (our favorite part of Albania during the whole trip).
From Vlore to Dhermi it took us 1:30 hours driving through mountains and forests. The landscape changed dramatically every 15 minutes. Until we reached a very naked rocky top of a mountain and stopped on the Panorama Llogara view point. From here we could see the whole coast of Dhermi, with its fluorescent blue waters and long stretches of super white sand/pebble beaches.
We really enjoyed Drimadhe beach and Dhermi beach, which have endless choices of restaurants, bars and space to stretch the towel, without ever feeling crowded.
Our plan was to take the boat to the famous Grama Bay beach, but unfortunately the ocean/weather was not in our favor and the boats were not allowed to leave the port, although it was a pleasant sunny day.
From Dhermi to the south, there are numerous amazing beaches along the way. The more wild/unspoiled kind. Here are some of our absolute favorites:
After driving along a curvy road we reached a parking lot (you need to pay to park), and then we hiked along a red dirt trail for more or less 45min until reaching a marvelous beach, with the incredible Gjipe canyon on the background, and crystal clear blue water. There are a couple of coffee/snack bars at the beach and a camping ground. This was one of our favorite beaches of the whole trip! Totally worth the hike!
Livadi beach felt like a calmer version of Dhermi beach. It was very long, with white pebbles, wasn't crowded at all and had incredibly blue water.
Some parts of the beach had restaurants and sun beds, and other parts had absolutely nothing or no one. Locals would build their own shading from branches and palm tree leaves.
Himare was our favorite beach town in Albania. We even regret not have stayed there more days. Its the perfect sized town, not too big, not too small. It has surprisingly good restaurants, a lively promenade, and small coves with bars on the beach.
It was also here we ate the best ice-creams of the whole trip!
Something else we loved about Himare, was that is was conveniently located close to many different beaches and cultural sites. It is a great central point to sleep if you are traveling by car.
If you keep driving along the coast, you will at some point, arrive at Porto Palermo.
Porto Palermo is a peninsula with an old fortress: the Kalaja e Porto Palermos. The fortress has an unique triangular plan, dark vaults and a accessible roof from where you have a good view of the bay. It was once home to a famous Ottoman emperor and later part of a communist military base.
We paid the entry ticket to visit the fortress and really enjoyed it. We managed to learn a lot about the Albanian history. Definitely worth a visit!
Driving along the coast from Porto Palermo to Sarande you will find some of the best beaches in Albania (in my opinion). They are big, with florescent blue water, surrounded by nature and not crowded at all.
Some of our favorites were:
Plazhi i Borshit:
This beach was very similar to Livadi beach, but even more calmer and with a beautiful mountain landscape on the background.
The water was vibrant blue and the beach was super calm. Just the perfect beach day!
Shpellave Lukovë beach:
This was by far our favorite beach of the whole trip! An absolute treasure!
Not many know about this beach. Its big, wild, deserted and extremely beautiful. We had the beach all to ourselves (plus a couple of nudists) and I swear that if I had a tent with me I could have stayed here the rest of the vacation!
To acess the beach there is a road until a parking area, but even so, the access is extremely difficult. It's a narrow dirt road, full of holes, zig-zaging through the steep cliff. Sometimes we had a couple of cows on the way, or a car coming in the opposite direction, and no space to maneuver. We namaged to arrive to the beach in one piece but with our hearts on our hands the whole way down, and again the whole way up. If you have the opportunity, we advise you to rent a 4x4 vehicle to reach this beach.
This was such a strange, yet nice, beach. Located in a valley, surrounded by mountains, and with a river crossing in the middle. Here you can find the best of two worlds. The beach is divided in two by the river: in one side you have cool looking, more expensive bars, restaurants and sun hats; in the other side you have a cute beach restaurant with cheaper prices, and what seemed to be more local families hanging out on the beach.
We got big waves on this beach which was lots of fun!
It took us a while to understand but Lukova beach it is also divided in two sides. The right side of the beach belongs to the very first restaurant you see when you arrive. We felt so awkward because the people working for the restaurant control where you park, which sun hat you stay at the beach, and of course you need to pay all of this.
But, if you turn left on the parking lot, the road actually continues pass the restaurant and there are more free parking and other (much nicer) restaurants along the beach, as well as a bigger and nicer beach. Our favorite restaurant was High Beach Lukovë.
All I heard about Sarande was that is was a huge city, full of people. So when we planed our trip we decided not to stay there and only go for a night to visit. Yet, I kinda regret not have stayed here.
The city is indeed huge, and has indeed lots of people but has a really nice atmosphere and cool vibe. There is a super long promenade with tons of things happening. Lots of restaurants and cool bars, a great night life and crazy party boats.
Everytime you search "where to stay in Albania", Ksamil will always be there on the top 3 best places to visit. So, I had high expectations. Yet, we were so disappointed with Ksamil.
Yes it has lots of party places and bars, and yes it has a peninsula surrounded by little beaches and restaurants but... It is absolutely packed with people, its the most expensive place we were on the whole trip, the beaches are all private so you must pay to rent a sun hat, and there is little or no sand at all so you are literately laying on a sun bed 5 cm from the person next to you and with water under your feet.
We were so unhappy that we stayed there for maybe 4 hours, had dinner and moved to another place. Now writing this blog post I even realized I didn't take almost any photos.
Shpella e Pëllumbave & Plazhi i Pasqyrave
Trying to run away from the beaches in Ksamil center, we drove 15 min to Plazhi i Pasqyrave and Shpella e Pëllumbave, considered two of the most beautiful beaches in Albania. Although they were undoubtedly beautiful, with the bluest ocean we have ever seen, we didn't managed to stay there more than 2 hours.
It was completely packed with people, had big waves, and the tie was coming up quite fast leaving less and less space of dry sand. At some point we had people stepping on us and almost sitting on top of our towel.
Maybe we had bad luck... still, was a very pretty view and I dont regret that at all.
BUTRINT NATIONAL PARK
The best thing about Ksamil (in our opinion) is UNESCO Butrint national park, located just 10 min away from the city center by car.
Butrint has one of the most important archaeological sites in Albania with structures and artifacts from the Iron Age up to the Middle Ages. We learned so much about Albania's cultural heritage here.
For the first time I felt I had gone back in time to the Greek or Roman empire whilst strolling through the remaining walls of the great basilica, the roman theater and several other remains of these great civilizations. It was really an unique place and a must visit!
From Butrint we drove 1 hour to the famous Blue Eye. This was one of my favorite places in the whole trip, specially because it was something I have never seen before.
The Blue Eye is a natural water spring, the initial water source of Bistrice river. So basically, there is a big and very deep hole, pushing water out non stop, and from here starts the river.
The hole has a water discharge rate of 18400 liters per second, and although it is thought to be fifty meters deep, that is just how deep divers managed to descend inside the hole. It is still unclear what the actual depth is.
Many people come here to try and jump into the whole to see how deep they can go, but since there is constant water being expelled from the hole, people are automatically pushed out and need to swim fast our of the river current. The water is freezing cold!
Daniel (my boyfriend) was brave enough to jump and said it was a really cool feeling.
Our next stop, 1 hours driving from the Blue Eye, was Gjirokaster.
This town is a UNESCO site located on the hight mountains of Gjere and it is described as "a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate".
Gjirokaster is full of stories to tell! It was here where we learned the most about Albania's history. Is definitely worth a visit, specially to the Catsle of Gjirokastra that looks like a set from Game of thrones, holds several museums and the famous Prison of the seven windows.
The prison was built in 1932 and was later used by the Fascists, Nazis and the Communist regime up to 1968. People from Gjirokastra still recall the cries of torture coming from the prison and many people have family members who were imprisoned there for several years.
It is also in Gjirokaster where you can find some of the most well preserved Ottoman houses in Albania. We had a guided tour of Skenduli House and absolutely loved it. The owner of the house gave the tour himself. The house has been in his family for many generations so he knew all the stories and hidden corners.
Berat is another UNESCO town that we knew we couldn't miss. From Gjirokaster to Berat it took us 3 hours, a bit more than we expected when looking at the map, but we were informed that the road through the mountains was dangerous and although it looked like the shorter way, it would take us around 7 hours (if we wouldn't get lost). So we decided to listen to the locals and went along the coast on the highway.
Berat is a beautiful small town, built on top of a very steep hill, with a river at the bottom and a castle at the top. It has a unique style of architecture with influences from several civilizations that occupied this town in different times in history. I would say it is a very medieval town, with labyrinthic narrow roads full of steps and little hidden corners enclosed by white crooked houses. There are no cars allowed inside the old part of the city. Along the river bank there are different restaurants and bars full of life. A restaurant worth visiting is Homemade Food Lili.
The castle is a museum but also a town within itself. There are actually still people living inside the castle walls, in cute old traditional houses. When at the castle make sure you visit the Kombetar Ikonografik Onufri museum and its beautiful church.
From Berat to Tirana it was only 1:40 hours driving. We dropped off our rented car and stayed 3 full days in Tirana before catching our flight back home.
Tirana felt like a modern city full of new plazas and architectural buildings. At the same time there was a lot of history in every corner. During our whole trip we had been finding small bunkers here and there, but it was only in Tirana that we fully understood the bunker situation and overall communist history of Albania.
When in Tirana you need to visit both Bunk ART and Bunk Art2 to fully understand what the Albanese people went through. It is one of those things that gives you chills and opens your eyes.
I was super excited to visit the Pyramid of Tirana unfortunately it was closed to construction when we were there. They have a huge architecture rehabilitation project happening right now, which is just another good reason for me to come back to Tirana when it is done.
Our favorite restaurant was Mullixhiu.The coolest cafe in Tirana, the Komiteti - Kafe Muzeum, is also worth a visit.
I can honestly say that I never expected our trip in Albania to be as amazing as it was, and since then I keep recommending it to people. Its the perfect summer destination for you that are looking for a mix of culture and beautiful beaches, sun and warm water, and low prices.
We will definitely be coming back!
Watch the videos from our trip here: