Last September, as part of my four months in Europe traveling the Balkan Peninsula, I spent three weeks in Greece and Albania.
As usual, I documented my discoveries on social media, and I had a blast — but surprisingly (to me), this solo female traveler got some hate about Albania as a travel destination.
- Some people told me it was dangerous and that I would get kidnapped. (I felt perfectly safe, people were nice, and I never got kidnapped.)
- Another shamed me for traveling to a country with “so much corruption.” (Umm, if we don’t travel because of political corruption, there will be nowhere to travel to — including within our own country. Yes, I said it.)
Ultimately, I found Albania beautiful, affordable, and full of contradictions… and in spite of its long and tumultuous history (not unlike every other “old world” or former Communist country), Albania is being honest about its past, and it’s trying to atone.
Understanding that everybody travels a bit differently and not all of us are looking for the same experience, this guide includes information for both budget-conscious backpackers and those (with a little more to spend) also looking for a more cultivated experience.
Note: When costs are mentioned, amounts have been converted into USD at the exchange rate at time of purchase. Prices increase and exchange rates fluctuate, so use with a grain of salt.
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Day 1: Arrive to the Greek Island of Corfu, on the Ionian Sea
Your journey to the Albanian Riviera begins… in Greece?! Yes, you read that right! Because the international airport in Corfu is closer to Albania than Greece, and likewise, Corfu is closer to Ksamil than Tirana (Albania’s capital and international airport) — the easiest way to get to the Albanian Riviera is via a ferry from Corfu.
So while you’re here, enjoy it!!
Corfu is one of the top five Greek islands in terms of tourist traffic, and it’s the only part of Greece never conquered by the Ottomans. In fact, it once belonged to the Republic of Venice — and the Venetian influence in the city is strong (in its architecture and, yum oh yum, the numerous gelato shops).
Where to stay in Corfu: I love the central location (and charming ambiance) of 4.5-star Corfu Palace, right on the water and in arms’ length of Old Town Corfu, a UNESCO heritage site. For a more budget-friendly option, try Konstantinoupolis Hotel near the port of Corfu. Walk the charming alleyways throughout the town (worth seeing at night AND during the day) and have dinner on the rooftop overlooking the fortress, at Arcadion Bistrot. This was without a doubt worth every calorie!!
Day 2: Exploring the island of Corfu: Food, beaches, and villages — oh my!
Take a DIY day trip to Paleokastritsa, a picturesque coastal town located on the western side of the island. Here, you can visit the crystal-clear waters at Rovinia Beach and the 12th-century Orthodox Christian monastery (admission is free!).
Drive south to visit Glyfada Beach, one of the most popular beaches on the island, which offers a variety of watersports and beach bars. Stop in the village of Pelekas for some traditional Greek cuisine, and head up to the Kaiser William II Observatory for stunning views.
On your way back to Corfu town, visit the Achilleion Palace, a 19th-century palace built for Empress Elisabeth of Austria, which features beautiful gardens and overlooks the sea. (Currently, the museum is closed, but the gardens are open to visitors.)
Would you like to do more in Corfu? Consider an authentic culinary experience! Learn from local chef and passionate food lover Vasiliki about the Corfiot culinary culture (of Venetian influence), the ingredients used in Corfiot cooking, and enjoy a five-course meal that may include dishes such smoked eggplant, spanakopita, green salad, pork roast, or slowly cooked veal “sofritto” — plus dessert like delicious lemon tart or pudding. Your meal will be accompanied by authentic local wines produced by Vasiliki’s husband. This experience is filled with warm hospitality, delicious local food and magnificent views of the vineyard and all of central Corfu. Check availability and prices here.
For the adventurous, consider a small group escape along the coast to the North part of Corfu — towards traditional villages and far away from touristic places — in a safari tour/off-road vehicle. Following the asphalt coastline road, drivers take a small bumpy road through wild vegetation boasting the most magnificent panoramic views to the top of Mount Pantokrator, where the vistas are breathtaking. Where only a four-wheel drive can go, guests can see the entire island from East to West. This 7-hour off-road adventure day tour continues through hidden paths in the mountains with amazing views until reaching old Sinies, an old abandoned village and a hidden treasure of Corfu Island. Further in the mountains, pass through small villages and learn some of their stories and insights from professional escorts before reaching the small traditional village Palaia Perithia for lunch. Check availability and prices here. What fun!
Day 3: The Corfu fortress and ferry to Saranda
Today, check out the “Spianada,” Corfu’s main square and one of the largest in Europe — and head to the Liston, a pedestrianized street with archways modeled after the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The window shopping is fantastic! Then, visit the Old Fortress of Corfu (admission was $6 in 2022), a historic fortification that offers panoramic views of the town and the sea.
Eat at PANE E SOUVLAKI or Rouvas Tavern for authentic Greek at reasonable prices, and catch the afternoon ferry to Saranda (approximately 30 minutes). Ferry tickets can be bought online and were approximately $20 in 2022.
Hot tip for traveling in Albania: Credins Bank charges no ATM fees for foreign ATM cards (that’s unheard of)! But be careful and only take out as much lek as you need — this currency is worthless outside of Albania — I wasn’t able to change it at any currency offices, even in neighboring countries. Lesson learned! (The good news is, you’ll find that Albania is much more affordable than its Greek neighbor.)
In Saranda, you can take a taxi to Ksamil, or catch a bus (but check bus schedules; when I was there the last bus to Ksamil was at 6 p.m. and I missed it).
Check into your hotel in Ksamil (the K is silent) — I recommend Blue Eye Hotel and Delight Hotel. Both include free breakfast (you must try the puffed donuts with honey syrup), and get some shut eye so you can enjoy Albania!
There’s not that much to do in Ksamil besides the beach, so alternatively, you can make the bigger city of Saranda your “home base” — and take a taxi or bus to Ksamil when those beaches beckon (and there’s beaches in Saranda too!)! I recommend these hotels in Saranda: Glow Boutique Hotel & Suites, a 3-star hotel with a pool, and Casa Noste Apartments, a short walk from Mango Beach.
Day 4: Ksamil and Butrint, the ancient archeological site you’ve never heard of til now!
2,500-plus-year-old Butrint has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, and it is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Europe! Butrint was inhabited and controlled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans over its long history and then abandoned. Many structures remain, like a basilica, theatre, castle, protective wall, and baptistery, and you need an hour and a half or two to see everything — it’s pretty big! The area of Butrint National Park is also a marshland and ecological haven for wildlife.
From Ksamil: If you’ve spent the night in Ksamil, Butrint is pretty easy to get to: it’s 4 km away, a short bus ride. Admission is 1,000 Albanian leks, or $8 in 2022.
After you get your history in, back to Ksamil and spend the afternoon at the beach in Ksamil. Rent a lounge chair and eat some freshly grilled fish from the Ionian Sea, and tomorrow, make your way to Saranda by bus or taxi.
From Saranda: If you instead are visiting Butrint from Saranda, here’s a 3-hour small group tour to Butrint, including some sightseeing in Ksamil, in an air-conditioned van. When you return to town, go to Lekuresi Castle and enjoy the panoramic views! The former military base was built in 1537 during the Ottoman Empire and is now a tourist attraction.
Nearby, you can also visit the ruins of 40 Saints Monastery, a 6th century Eastern Orthodox monastery and pilgrimage site — and if you know your Bible history, it’s named after the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.
Day 5: The Blue Eye and Gjirokastra
From Saranda, take a taxi (30 minutes) or a bus to the Blue Eye, a natural spring that gets its name from its vibrant blue color and its resemblance to a human eye. On a sunny day, the water is so clear you can see all the way to the bottom! The surrounding area has lush greenery and stunning views of the mountains.
The legend of the Blue Eye is very interesting: according to the story, there was a beautiful and kind-hearted fairy who granted the wishes of the villagers nearby. However, one day a man wished for the fairy’s love, which angered her and caused her to disappear. As she left, she shed a tear that created the Blue Eye, and it is said that the fairy’s spirit still resides in the spring.
From the Blue Eye, board a bus bound for Gjirokastra, a medieval town known for its narrow cobbled streets and distinctive stone architecture. Spend the night at Hotel Fantasy, a 3.5-star hotel, or for a more cost-effective, no-frills option, try Hotel Palorto. Both include breakfast!
If bussing it isn’t your thing, consider a private day tour to Gjirokastra and the Blue Eye. This 6.5-hour tour departs from and returns to Saranda and takes you to the most important and beautiful, natural, and historical sites of Albania’s Gjirokastra county, accompanied by a professional guide. You’ll visit the 12th century castle of Gjirokastra, the bazaar, the Skenduli House (a well-preserved example of a traditional Ottoman-era Albanian home), and the Blue Eye.
The castle of Gjirokastra sits atop a hill and offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Within the castle walls, visitors can explore the Military Museum, which features a collection of weapons and artifacts from Albania’s communist period.
Day 6: Historical Berat, an Ottoman jewel
Take a bus from Gjirokastra (2.5-3.5 hours, depending on stops), or from Saranda (3-4 hours, depending on stops) to get to Berat, a historic city in Albania known for its well-preserved Ottoman-era architecture.
If you’d rather not explore by yourself, take a free guided walking tour (one of my favorite things to do as a solo traveler)! This one starts at Gorica Old Bridge and takes you to notable sites across Berat, including the Saint Spyridon Church, the King Mosque, and the castle. There’s both a morning and an evening tour.
Berat’s castle, which dates back to the 4th century BC, sits atop a hill and offers stunning views of the surrounding valley. Within the castle walls, visitors can explore the Onufri Museum, which houses a collection of Orthodox Christian icons and artifacts.
Berat’s “Old Town,” known as “Mangalem,” features narrow cobbled streets lined with well-preserved Ottoman-era houses, many of which have been turned into guest houses or restaurants. Visitors can also take a stroll along the Osum River, which runs through the city and offers scenic views of the surrounding mountains.
Eat at Homemade Food Lili for authentic hearty Albanian cuisine: menu standouts include eggplant, lamb with yogurt, and meatballs. Spend the night at centrally-located Hotel Colombo, a 4-star hotel in Berat with a spa and indoor pool, or 3-star Hotel Onufri.
Day 7-8: Modern Tirana and a window into the past
Time to make your way to Tirana, Albania’s capital city! A bus from Berat will take about 1.5-2 hours.
A note about the buses in Albania: in all other Balkan countries, Google Maps Transit and GetByBus is usually pretty accurate… except in Albania. There’s almost no online data! For example, in Saranda, I was told to go to the square and “someone will tell you where to buy tickets and meet the bus.” If you’re going by bus, I recommend buying your bus ticket the day before — just to be sure you have the correct schedule information and your seat is reserved.
In Tirana, head first to Skanderburg Square, a massive wide expanse in the middle of town that faces the “I ❤️ Tirana” cutout sign. Nearby, you’ll find the mega-modern Orthodox cathedral, mosque, and Catholic church, all represented in the city center in equal proportion.
Walk around Tirana’s colorful center and appreciate its many murals and buildings painted with geometric patterns — even the electrical boxes have fun cartoons! — and visit the bazaar for olives, figs, fruits, and artesanal products.
Eat at Restaurant Piceri Era “Blloku” — high-quality and tasty Albanian and mediterranean food at reasonable prices — the salmon salad was yummy and cost less than $5 (you can get a good meal for under $10 in Albania!).
Check out to Bunk’Art 2, an underground bunker-turned-museum, for a disturbing dose of post-WWII and communist history in Albania. You can also visit the House of Leaves Museum, which won the 2020 European Museum of the Year Award.
For evening dining and people-watching, visit Kalaja e Tiranes, an alley formed from the remains of Tirana Castle. Now, it makes up bougie and higher-end restaurants and shops!
Not unique to the region, Albania does have a dark modern history — however, I feel like Tirana is trying very hard to step out of the shadow of its Communist past and start afresh with a new image: a modernized, religiously tolerant city, with historical sites, charming towns, and beautiful beaches within just a few hours of travel.
Day 9-11: Boating and the Albanian Alps, hiking Valbona Pass, and Theth
Days 9 through 11 are part of a 3-day group hiking tour from Tirana, beginning early in the morning. The journey towards Komani Lake in northern Albania is designed to offer participants pristine wild nature in the heart of the Albanian Alps (on one of the world’s greatest boat trips, exploring Komani Lake, Valbona, and Theth), plus local folklore and traditions. During these three days, you will be able to visit most of the attractions of Northern Albania, combined with a variety of exciting outdoor activities and culture. A professional guide, lodging, transportation, and breakfast is included in the tour price, so all the work is taken care of for you!
Read the full description and check availability and prices here.
Day 12: Depart Tirana
I hope you’ve enjoyed your trip to Albania! And remember… Americans also can stay in Albania for up to one year visa-free (compared to 3 months in its EU neighbors), making it an ideal digital nomad destination, or at least a place to take advantage of geo arbitrage for a while.
I was told a few times that Albania doesn’t often get American tourists… other internationals, yes, but not a lot of Americans. Well, feel free to follow the leader, friends! I never once felt unsafe, and for those wanting a Balkan experience where their money goes farther, I think Albania is a great choice.
One thought on “Essential Albania Travel Guide: The Albanian Riviera, History, and Nature”
Jealous of your trip to the Blue Eye. The waters there from what i’ve seen are beautiful!!! Crystal clear with an amazing backdrop to it.