Located in the Balkans, Albania could be a cheap alternative to Greece or Italy with their Mediterranean temperatures, Roman and Greek ruins and abundant cafes. Though their tourism service may not be at the same level as other European countries, Albania is a rough diamond with great potential as a top tourist destination.
There has been a growing trend in the last couple of years to visit places less touched by tourism and Albania fits the profile.
Getting to Albania
The only international airport in Albania is Rinas Airport (also known as the Mother Teresa airport) in the country’s capital Tirana. When you exit the airport, there will be a taxi rank lined up outside and just a few metres further, you will find the bus stop for the local bus which takes you right into the town for just 250 lek (about £1.50). The bus runs once every hour on the hour and takes about 30 minutes. It drops you off around a five minute walk from the main square.
Main border crossings via land
Albania is bordered by Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. International buses are available from the main tourist towns including Tirana and Saranda. The Lonely Planet has more detailed information on this.
Albania can be accessed by ferry from Italy or Greece. From Italy, ferries go from Brindisi to Vlore whilst ferries from Ancona and Bari dock in at Durres on the northern coast of Albania.
From Greece, ferries dock in at Saranda in the south of Albania. During the off-peak season, ferries run once a day at 1pm but in the peak season, ferries run three times a day at 9am, 1pm and 4.30pm but it’s worth double checking the times. The 1pm ferry which we took during the off-season took only 45 minutes. To check the timetable, visit Ionian Cruises website here.
Getting around Albania
With a small public transport network, getting around Albania, as highlighted by various other travel bloggers, can sometimes be a bit difficult. The roads have a lot of pot holes as do the general pavements which have random (large and deep) holes, so make sure you look where you’re going. On top of this, Albanian drivers are a bit mental with road discipline a rarity, so you need to keep one eye on the road and one eye on the ground.
Buses in Albania are very very cheap. In Tirana, there are a fair few local buses which take you in and around the city and a short journey costs as little as 30 lek. Apart from the first and last stop, bus stops don’t really exist. You just stand on the road and wave it down when you see it. Simple!
Long distance buses, meanwhile, can be a bit more difficult to catch. From Tirana, there are hourly buses to Berat though they do not necessarily stick to the timetable. Along the coast, the local buses going south (Tirana or Vlore to Saranda) tend to leave very very early in the morning, around 6am, with about one a day and will stop anywhere en route.
Furgons, or shared minivans, are an alternative to buses and usually go similar routes to the buses. They are only slightly more expensive than the bus. The only downside in taking a furgon is that you don’t know when it will leave. For shorter trips, furgons will usually wait till they are full. For longer trips, it really is just up to the driver. They will usually pick people up along the way.
With only a few local buses running along the coast and even less out of season, and with a non-existent timetable, hitch hiking may be the only other option to get around in Albania. In my opinion, it is relatively safe to do so along the coast but use your common sense. If a car stops and offers you a lift but you don’t feel safe, don’t get into the car. We ended up hitch hiking south from Vlore to Dhermi (about 40km) and discovered just how friendly Albanians really were. In some instances, we didn’t even have to stick our arm out, they just pipped their horn and shouted out the destination.
Accommodation in Albania
Accommodation in Albania is of a good standard and are cheap compared with other European countries. However, what I did find particularly impressive was Albanian showers. Every shower I took had an amazing hot water system and was also pretty powerful. This was because every shower appeared to have its own boiler system whilst a lot of the hotels had a solar thermal system installed.
Hostels are available in the major cities including Tirana, Berat and Saranda. In Tirana we stayed at Tirana Backpacker Hostel in a 4 bed dorm for 13 euros each. The beds were very comfortable and bathrooms were very clean. Downstairs, the hostel has a bar with an outdoor seating area which is very nice for relaxing.
In Berat, we stayed at Lorenc Guesthouse which is next door to Berat Backpackers. The guesthouse is situated in the old quarter, the most beautiful part of Berat.
In Saranda, there are two main hostel options – The Hairy Lemon and Saranda Backpackers. Hairy Lemon is a little bit out of the way from the main centre but we bumped into some backpackers staying there which gave it rave reviews. We ended up staying in Saranda Backpackers after the owner Tommi (the friendliest and most helpful Albanian I’ve ever met) found us on the street and offered to take us in for a discounted price of 9 euros each. The location was perfect as it was a 2 minute walk to the port and a minute walk to the local bus which takes you to the archaeological site at Butrint.
We weren’t massively impressed with the food in Albania and found that pretty much every dish contained cheese with an extra unnecessary spoonful of salt. Most of the restaurants offered Italian food in the form of pizza, pasta or risotto. The other abundant option is fast food in the form of sandwiches or kebabs. However, there are a few local dishes which you should try when you go to Albania.
Byrek – These are sold all over Albania and appear to be one of the most popular snacks among locals other than kebabs. It is made from thin layers of pastry filled with various fillings including cheese and spinach.
Buke (Bread) – There are many buke or bread shops in Albania which sell all sorts of bread in various shapes and sizes. It’s worth going into one and just trying their fresh bread, crusty on the outside and soft and warm on the inside! Yum!
Harapash – Mainly consisting of polenta in a porridge like consistency, this dish also contains lamb intestines flavoured with butter, cheese and corn flour. This dish was actually quite nice but I found it quite salty but then again, my palate in general is quite salt-sensitive.
Tave kosi – If you see the word ‘Tave” on the menu, it means the dish has been cooked in a claypot. There are various claypot dishes including this one which is lamb baked in yoghurt.
Raki – A national alcoholic drink popular in the Balkans. Most Albanians appear to make their own Raki from the grapes in their owns gardens but it can also be purchased very cheaply from the bar. Albanians just drink the spirit straight by sipping it.
Espressos – Going out for a coffee is a very popular pastime in Albania and appears to be the main social event. Espressos are usually served with a glass of tap water and are as cheap as 50p for a cup.
Places to Visit in Albania
Dajti Ekspress – The Dajti Ekspress is a cable car ride into the mountains in the surrounding area of Tirana. To get there, you can take the bus from the main square in Tirana. The journey costs just 30 lek and you get off at the last stop. From there, it’s about a 10 minute walk, just follow the signs to the Dajti Ekspress. Alternatively, you could hire a bike and cycle there but note that the last part is very very steep. At a cost of 700 lek for a ticket, the cable car takes around 15 minutes to reach the top and is very very steep. If you’re scared of heights, this probably won’t be an enjoyable ride. At the top, you will get a great view over the city of Tirana and can dine at one of several restaurants or take a walk around the national park but as with everywhere in Albania, the place is ruined by litter. There were also guys offering horse rides but we declined – the horses looked so miserable!
National History Museum – Located in the most dominant building in the main square with a giant mural on the face of the building, entrance to the museum is just 200 lek and will give you a good insight into the country’s journey to independence.
Berat Castle – As a UNESCO site, the main attraction of this small town is Berat Castle, a fortress overlooking the town. Dating from the 13th century, the castle is located at the top of a hill which takes about 20 minutes to walk up. Entrance costs 100 lek and once inside the gates, you can explore the whole fortress including several Byzantine churches and Ottomon mosques with nothing out of bounds. What also surprised us is that within the castle walls is a community where Albanians live. It was like entering a small village.
Ethnography museum – On the way to the castle, stop off at the ethnography museum for a quick break. Here, you can walk around and learn about traditional Albanian homes. It is a rather grand house and very interesting. Information is offered in a number of different languages.
Dhermi is a beach town though when we arrived out of season, it was dead with only a handful of hotels and restaurants open. We stayed in a beach hut for 15 euros a night. The beach is a pebble beach and the water is a clear turquoise blue. I imagine this place would be heaving in the summer months though much of the place was a construction site as is everywhere else in Albania.
Another beach town, this is a much livelier place than Dhermi though this may just be the case when it is out of season. It is very small with only a handful of restaurants and accommodation options including those directly facing the beach. In the evening, eat at one of the restaurants with an outdoor terrace on the beach.
Butrint – An archaeological site located about a 45 minute bus journey away from Saranda town. Many holidaymakers in Corfu have started to come over to Saranda as part of a day trip just to visit this Greek and Roman site and it’s well worth it. To get there, take the local bus for 100 lek which drops you outside the entrance. A single adult ticket cost 700 lek but group tickets cost 500 lek each. There is no definition of a “group ticket” so me and my boyfriend teamed up with a group of three other tourists at the ticket booth and asked for group ticket price which the lady happily gave us. Inside, you can explore pretty much everywhere but the most impressive part was the amphitheatre and a large mosaic baptistery. The site will take a good couple of hours to explore.
Ksamil village -You can take the Butrint bus to Ksamil village which drops you off on the main road. From here, head towards the sea where there is a walkway around the coast. Follow the walkway round and you will come across several beautiful beaches with clean turquoise waters.