The best things to do in Albania
Updated: 6 days ago
The cause of much recent hype, Albania has soared in popularity! Instagram reels have been blowing up showing the clearest waters, the most beautiful beaches - and basically dubbing Albania the Maldives of Europe. And whilst eager Instagrammers have been flocking to the Riviera in search of the perfect coastline, let's not forget that the country has so many other diverse and rich experiences to offer: historic towns, winding roads, epic mountain scenery and much more. Read on below for a guide of the best things to do in Albania!
Firstly, some useful info...
Currency: Albanian LEK, or Euro. Albanian LEK is only available in Albania, and you can exchange when you land in the airport. We brought cash in British pounds (GBP) and exchanged to LEK. We also used our credit cards in the more built up cities.
Transport: Most of the info we'd read online said that the bus system in Albania isn't particularly reliable. That, and the fact that we planned to visit some places off the beaten track, led us to rent a car instead.
Phone: Vodafone seems to be the number one (and maybe only?) phone supplier in Albania and you'll see them advertised everywhere! You can purchase a local SIM card for relatively cheap and this will give you plenty of data. When we arrived in Albania there was a sudden crazy storm which caused power outages, so we couldn't buy or register a SIM card 😅 Instead of hanging around and waiting for the power to return, we chose to wing it with pre-downloaded Google Maps and then use the WiFi in our hotels, deciding we could buy a SIM elsewhere if needed (which we didn't end up doing - but if you don't have as fixed an itinerary and will need access to information on the go, you might want to buy a SIM).
When to go: The best time to visit Albania is April-June and September-October. Tourist numbers will be relatively low, and the temperatures won't be as hot as in July and August. If you plan on visiting in winter, access to some parts in the north won't be possible - such as the village of Theth, and the hike from Theth to Valbona.
And now for the best things to do in Albania! I've broken it down day by day - but if you have more time, I've mentioned places where it would be good, or even ideal, to spend an extra night. Read on...
Bovilla Lake from Gamti Mountain
First things first, we got our bearings with driving on the right-hand side and headed out of Tirana pronto towards a beautiful viewpoint just outside Tirana. Bovilla Lake is a 1-hour drive from Tirana airport - and then depending on where you park, either a 1 or 2-hour roundtrip hike. Warning: the drive will be uncomfortable for a lot of people and I wouldn't recommend attempting it if you're a new driver or are not comfortable driving on the other side of the road. About half of the journey was over heavily potholed roads - and on the smooth roads, there were multiple hairpin turns, so do take care. It is definitely manageable and lots of other cars were doing it - but I'd say only attempt it if you're comfortable with the above!
Getting to Bovilla Lake
There are tour companies which offer transportation to the Bovilla Lake viewpoint on Gamti Mountain but if you have a car, you're better off driving there yourself. If using Google Maps, type in Bovilla Climbing Area, and this route will take you towards the lake. If you want to do less walking, drive up as much as you can; there is parking by Bovilla Restorant (a restaurant with the most beautiful view) but there are also lay-bys you can leave your car along the road (which is what we did). We went at the end of June and there were spots to leave our car but I imagine in peak months, these probably get quite full. We then walked up and started the ascent just by the restaurant (there was a man asking for a small entrance fee per person).
The hike up to the viewpoint
We were expecting it to be a hike up but it was really just a walk and then a very scary climb up a few metal staircases, and then a bit of scrambling up the rocks (it's a bit of a nerve-racking ascent for anyone with a fear of heights). The views at the top are superb; the lake is an artificial lake and sits in between two mountain ranges - and on a bright sunny day, the lake is a fantastically green colour. There is also a viewing platform which juts out from the cliff-face. Seeing the view of Bovilla Lake from Gamti Mountain really is one of the top things to do in Albania. Bear in mind that the descent back down is just as scary as on the way up, so tread with care!
We then headed back down to our car, to do the return journey over all those potholes, and made our way to Shkoder. We were on a tight schedule to get to Shkoder so that we could start an epic hike early the next morning - which meant we didn't see much of Tirana. If you plan to spend more time in Tirana, be sure to take the cable car - the Dajti Ekspres - up Dajti Mountain for amazing views of Tirana.
Shkoder is a pretty city in northern Albania, packed with culture and a lovely lake. Top things to do are a visit to Rozafa Castle, Shkodra Lake and Mesi Bridge. After spending the night in a lovely cabin-like hotel with the most scenic view of Shkoder, we left early the next morning to begin our hike.
Hiking Theth to Valbona
Albania is full of amazing experiences but out of all of them, hiking from Theth to Valbona was my favourite! I'd do it again in a flash. I don't know if it was the combination of the beautiful scenery and the fact that we were carrying our bags on our backs with clothing and food for two days, making us feel even more remote - but regardless, it was an epic two days and if you have the time in your itinerary, I would add it in! You'll be hiking in the Albanian Alps, from Theth National Park to Valbona National Park - and this is the only way to get from one park to the other; there is no road between them! The trail takes you over a mountain pass and the views at the top are glorious!
Although it is a day hike, in the sense that it takes between 7-10 hours, you really need to plan in advance, as you won't be hiking back that same day - and in order to get back to Theth the next day (instead of hiking), you'll need to take a minibus, a ferry and another minibus. This therefore becomes a 2-day trip minimum. However, it is absolutely worth it! You can read my detailed guide here (link to follow) to plan your hike, with tips on getting from Shkoder to the start of the hike in Theth, where to stay in Valbona and how to get back to Shkoder. It's a hike not to be missed and definitely one of the best things to do in Albania.
If you don't have time to do the above hike, you can still go to Theth to explore the charming village. It is located in the Albanian Alps, in Theth National Park. The easiest way to get to Theth is from Shkoder - where you can either drive your hire car or get a minibus or taxi (the journey is approx 2 hours). I'd recommend staying at least one night in Theth at one of the guesthouses; if we had had more time, we would have stayed a night in Theth before the hike.
Popular things to do in Theth
Blue Eye Theth: The Blue Eye of Theth is a beautiful (but freezing) very blue pool of water (hence the name). It is about 7-hours roundtrip hike, and if you're planning on hiking Theth to Valbona the next day, you might not want to take on two big hikes two days in a row! You could pay for a taxi to take you from Theth to Nderlysaj, which is most of the way to the Blue Eye, and then you'd walk from Nderlysaj to the Blue Eye. This takes 40 minutes but would be pricey as you'd need to get them to wait for you to take you back to Theth (I think it's about €60). Fear not though: if you don't manage to see the Blue Eye Theth, there is one other Blue Eye in the south of Albania, which you can aim to see later on during your trip.
Grunas Waterfall: There is also a popular hike to the beautiful Grunas Waterfall, and this is about 1.5 hours roundtrip.
Kisha e Thethit: The Church of Theth is a popular landmark, set against a backdrop of mountains. It is particularly nice to view in spring and summer mornings.
Komani Lake (Part of Day 3)
We took the ferry along Komani Lake as this is the only way to get back from Valbona after the hike. However, Komani Lake is an excursion and experience in and of itself! The views along the lake are truly spectacular and unlike anything we'd seen in Albania until this point. This journey is actually hailed as one of the best ferry rides in the world 🤯 and it felt quite similar to the boat trip along Naeroyfjord in Norway. I definitely recommend doing it, even if you don't undertake the Theth to Valbona hike.
The ferry runs once a day between the towns of Koman and Fierze (and then back to Koman) and is a 2.5 hour journey one-way. To get to Koman, you'll need to either get a minibus or taxi (or drive yourself) from Shkoder. Your minibus and ferry trip can be booked on the Komani Lake Ferry website. When booking your ferry ticket, select "Add service pickup" and this will allow you to select the option/s for any minibus journeys you'll need.
Daily ferries are:
9:00am - ferry from Koman to Fierze
1:00pm - ferry from Fierze to Koman
Ways to incorporate the Lake Komani Ferry into your itinerary:
Take the 9am ferry from Koman to Fierze, and then the 1pm return ferry from Fierze to Koman. This would take up most of your day and it would mean you'd be hanging around in Fierze for a couple of hours until the return ferry at 1pm. Note that there isn't much to do in Fierze, other than a small cafe. But if you don't have a hire car, this is probably your best option of seeing Lake Komani.
If you hire a car, you could take your car on the 9am ferry from Koman to Fierze, and then drive back yourself from Fierze to Shkoder (which would take about 4 hours). In high season, car spaces onboard the ferry will fill up - so make sure you book well in advance if you plan on taking a car onboard.
As mentioned above, many people will take the ferry as part of the Theth to Valbona hike. This involves a minibus, the ferry, and then another minibus - and this can all be booked here.
A few things to note about the ferry experience:
It was very crowded onboard, probably because it only runs once a day - so expect to be sitting very close (if not on top of) your fellow passengers.
It is also extremely hot as you are exposed to the sun and there is very little shade onboard. The ferry is quite basic and originally wasn't set up as a tourist attraction (but it has become hugely popular over the years), so there isn't an indoor space for cooling off out of the sun. Also make sure to bring your own food and drinks as you can't buy anything onboard.
Once we alighted back in Koman, it was absolute chaos! There weren't enough minibuses for everyone so one group of people had to wait a while until another minibus was called to come. Just something to bear in mind if you're on a tight schedule. Generally the consensus is that not everything runs on time in Albania, especially transportation - so expect delays.
The bus journey from Koman is extremely bumpy and winding - bags were falling from the luggage racks. Be sure to grab a seat near the front if you're susceptible to carsickness and/or don't want luggage falling on you.
Above points aside, it is absolutely worth it as Komani Lake is a beaut! Just manage your expectations before you go - Albania has soared in popularity in recent years and they are trying to manage the rise in tourism, so expect a few hiccups.
If all of the above doesn't convince you to add Komani Lake Ferry to your Albania list, I don't know what will! It's definitely one of the most scenic things to do in Albania and I highly recommend it 🤩
The ferry ride finished at Koman and our minibus was there waiting to take us back to Shkoder. We then collected our suitcases and car from the hotel and started our journey to the south of Albania. We drove directly to Berat, which is a 3 hour journey, where we stayed overnight. If you didn't get to see Tirana before, you might want to stop off in the capital city and explore, as this is basically en route to Berat.
Berat. Is. Beautiful.
Known as the City of a Thousand Windows, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made up of the most picturesque Ottoman houses that climb the hills of Berat. I still can't believe the photo below is real! It looks like something out of a movie.
Before we arrived, we weren't sure where we'd head for that 'perfect view' of the houses that you might have seen cropping up on Instagram - but as is the case with most places in real-life, just go for a wander, forget what you've seen online, and you'll find your own unique viewpoints. And anyways, it always looks better in real!
The Old Town:
Head to Mangalem to see the Ottoman houses, then walk along the river and cross over the famed Gorica Bridge to see the other side of Berat, which is the neighbourhood of Gorica. Mangalem used to be the Muslim quarter, and Gorica the Christian quarter. Nowadays it's all a mix of cultures and both are equally lovely to walk around!
Once you've walked through the winding alleys and got lost between the houses, head up to Berat Castle to see the ruins and also the amazing views of Berat below. This fortress dates back to the 13th century and the area is big enough that to this day, it houses locals within its walls! The castle has a life of its own - there are houses, shops and restaurants all within the citadel walls, and the locals may even share some of their experience with you about life inside the castle. The castle is open 24 hours a day, so you can enter any time; there is a charge of 300 LEK per person if visiting between 9am-6pm. Berat Castle is very large, so you will likely be doing a lot of walking. Bear in mind that there isn't much shade, so if you're going midday or in the afternoon, prepare to sweat! It's also a long, steep walk up to the castle.
Once you're back in Berat itself, take a stroll along the river in the evening and be sure to explore Bulevardi Republika - a pedestrianised street with shops and restaurants. It's always bustling at night and there is a lovely vibe! All in all, Berat was one of my favourite places to visit during this trip and I rank it high on the list of the best things to do in Albania.
Head to the coast!
Finally! Sea! Glorious sea. Our next stop was Vlore, a coastal town, where we'd be staying the night. This was our first experience of the Albanian beaches. As you arrive in Vlore, you'll pass Plazhi i Ri which is a nice stretch of beach, perfect for a relaxing afternoon. Or if you're more the daredevil type and fancy hurling yourself off a cliff, you can find Vlora paragliding near here 🪂 We popped to La Plaia beach, as this was right by our hotel; our concierge arranged for a golf buggy to take and collect us. It's a pebble beach and the water is blue and clear! Other than the beaches, there isn't much else to do in Vlore, so one night is perfect as a stopover before you head further south. Do pay a visit to the small Vlora Old Town, with its colourful houses and streets. And whatever you do, be sure to stop and watch the sunset one evening! It is absolutely beautiful from any beach in Vlore and definitely one of the most beautiful things to see in Albania.
From Vlore, as you head further south, you'll be passing the famous Albanian coastline. We drove from Vlore to Sarandë along the SH8 via Llogara Pass, a famous mountain road affording beautiful sea views.
There are lay-bys you can stop at along the way, including a lovely spot with panoramic views; you can it find on Google Maps labelled Panorama Llogara.
As you continue along the SH8, after about 25 minutes you'll reach Dhermi. Dhermi is known for having lovely beaches - but we didn't realise the village was scenic as well! As we drove through, we knew we had to park up and explore. Dhermi is the cutest little village with orange roofed houses climbing the hillside, almost a mini version of Berat.
There is a secluded beach in Dhermi which is rising in popularity but as it isn't easy get to, it still remains relatively quiet; why not head here if you're in the area! Gjipe Beach is a beautiful spot with white sand and blue-blue sea. If you input 'Gjipe Beach' into Google Maps, drive as far as you can along the road to the beach and park in the car park. It's then about a 45 minute scenic walk down the canyon, leading to Gjipe Beach. Alternatively, you can kayak to Gjipe from Dhermi, Himara and Jale beach.
We parked up here for most of the afternoon to enjoy the crystal clear water at Jale Beach. It's a pebble beach and there are sun beds for about 600 LEK for the day. There are also a couple of restaurants and bars on the beach. You can kayak from here to Gjipe Beach, as mentioned above.
Sunbathing done (yes, we're still on Day 5), we zipped in the car to Sarandë - the resort town on the Albanian Riviera - and our final accommodation on this whistle-stop tour of Albania. After checking in to our hotel, we headed out again to find the famed Blue Eye Saranda.
Blue Eye Albania, Saranda
A Blue Eye is a natural phenomenon unique to Albania. There are two Blue Eyes in Albania - one is in the north, in Theth (mentioned above) and the second is this Blue Eye Albania, near Sarandë (a forty minute drive from the bay of Sarandë). A Blue Eye is essentially an underwater spring; there is a cave deep in the water which pumps fresh water to the surface at an enormous speed, creating this constant bubbling effect. The Blue Eye in Sarandë is over 50 metres deep and the water is extremely cold, even in summer. The spring got its name 'Syri i Kaltër' in Albanian, which literally translates as 'Blue Eye'; the cave underwater looks like a pupil and the blue water surrounding it makes it look like a blue eye. It really is a sight to behold and has to be seen in real life to truly be appreciated.
There is parking at the Blue Eye, and then a 20 minute walk each way on a lovely paved road. Entrance fee for a car is 100 LEK, and per person it is 50 LEK. You can also hire an electric scooter by the parking lot for a couple of Euro - but we preferred to walk, as you get to take in the lovely scenery and the nearby lake.
Fun fact: No one knows exactly how deep the spring is; the furthest a diver has gone is 50 metres but due to the water pressure, it is extremely difficult to dive down, or to throw an object in to measure the depth, as anything will just be pushed back up. The water is remarkably clear - if you stand on the balcony at the Blue Eye, you will be able to see underwater.
Diving and swimming in the Blue Eye is officially prohibited - but when we visited, loads of people were jumping in from the balcony (and then swimming straight out because of the freezing temperature). It's definitely worth visiting - the Blue Eye is one of the coolest things I've seen and up (or down) there with the best things to do in Albania.
If you have more time, you could detour to Gjirokaster - a lovely historic town, similar vibes to Berat but worth a visit in its own right! It is about an hour's drive from Blue Eye Albania to Gjirokaster. You might want to make your way from Vlore to Gjirokaster and then stay overnight in Gjirokaster, before carrying on down the coast to Sarandë. We didn't have time to stop in Gjirokaster and had seen Berat, so we were happy to spend the last few days of the trip on the coast instead! But if we had had more time, we would definitely have added a day here.
We spent the last couple of days in Sarandë. Top things to do are seeing the view from Lekuresi Castle, visiting Blue Eye Albania, or taking a trip to see the ruins at Butrint National Archaeological Park. Be sure to take a stroll along the waterfront at night, to see all the buildings reflected on the other side of the bay. From Sarandë, it's only a 20-minute drive to the renowned Ksamil, which has beautiful beaches galore, and probably what drew you to visit Albania in the first place!
From Sarandë, you can take the ferry across to Corfu (which is what we did for the weekend). Make sure to book this in advance as it can get pretty full in summer. Also note that it does take quite a bit of time, as you will be crossing over to a different country, so you'll be travelling with your passport and you'll have to go through security.
And one of the final best things to do in Albania...
Catch a sunset!
We saw a few beautiful sunsets in Albania! Some of the best sunsets can be seen from the lake at Grand Park in Tirana, over Rozafa Castle in Shkoder, from almost any beach in Vlore, and from Lekuresi Castle in Saranda.
And that's a wrap! I hope you enjoy travelling this diverse country and manage to visit some of the places that are off the beaten track. It's quite incredible how the north and south parts of Albania are so different from each other and so unique! Hope you find this post of the best things to do in Albania useful, and it helps you plan a trip soon. This really is one of the coolest places I've been 😎