Albania, where do I even begin? This country is special. Albania is untamed, and overflowing with those unfiltered adventures that simply fill your soul. Adventures like diving into freezing waterfalls, floating down rivers flanked by towering canyons, and holding on for dear life as the guy you hitchhiked with swerves his way through the narrow mountain roads. He takes a sip of his half-empty beer and turns the radio up, and you sing and clap along and simply hope for the best. Albania is wild, and to fall in love with this country, you have to embrace your own wild side.
Albania, having only opened up to the world in 1991 after an isolationist Communist regime, is a country yet to be jaded by mass tourism. It is truly one of Europe’s last hidden gems. This shows not just in the less-crowded destinations, but in the people as well. The attitude of the Albanian people towards travelers is one of warmth, hospitality, and genuine intrigue. As a traveler, you will never feel more welcomed and at home in a country. Whatever shortcomings Albania may have, it makes up for with the kindness of its people, the beauty of its untamed landscapes, and the unbridled freedom of its often chaotic adventures.
Is Albania Worth Visiting?
Absolutely. Albania took a little bit of getting used to, but by the end of my time there, my heart and soul were absolutely overflowing with love for this country. The people are among the most welcoming and hospitable I’ve ever met in my travels. I didn’t realize how good I had it in Albania until I made it to the other Balkan countries and quickly learned that that level of hospitality was unique solely to Albania. I felt so at home in this country, which was crazy considering I spent less than two weeks here. In no other country have I felt so at home so fast, so do not take that statement lightly.
Quick Things To Know About Albania
Albania’s Currency – Albania uses the Albanian Lek (ALL), which as of summer 2021, converts cleanly to around 100 Lek to $1 USD. You can exchange money, including US dollars in most major Albanian travel destinations. The euro is sometimes accepted, more commonly in the north near the border by Montenegro. Throughout the rest of the country, Euro was either not accepted, or begrudgingly done at a less advantageous exchange rate. I recommend pulling out Lek from an ATM. Credins Bank and Alpha Bank don’t charge extra fees for taking out money.
Entry Requirements for Albania – Albania is super chill about coming in and out of the country. I hopped off the ferry from Corfu and went through the border control building. They glanced at my passport, ignored my vaccination card, and let me in. As far as COVID goes, there are no restrictions coming in or out whatsoever. It seems like everyone is welcome in Albania. I met quite a few travelers from countries I don’t usually meet travelers from, like Pakistan and Russia. I realized one thing they had in common is that Albania didn’t require a visa to visit from their country. In short, you won’t have much issue getting into Albania.
Main Entry Points to Albania – If you’re flying, you’ll likely fly into Tirana, the capital city. There are other airports, but Tirana will be the cheapest to fly into. If you’re coming by land from Montenegro or Serbia, then your first stop will likely be Shkoder. From the south, you can catch a ferry from Greece and arrive in Saranda. If you’re coming from Macedonia or overland from Greece, Korcë is a good entry point. I never made it to Korcë, but I heard great things about that city, and their beer is my favorite in Albania.
Budgeting For Albania – As far as European destinations go, it doesn’t get much cheaper than Albania. I was paying less for private rooms than I was for shared dorms in Greece. If you plan on staying in dorms, accommodation shouldn’t run you more than 15 euros a night. Even then, that’s for a top-tier hostel, like Stone City in Gjirokaster. In other parts of the country, you’ll be paying less than 10 euros a night, like at Wanderer’s Hostel in Shkoder. Private rooms at hostels and cheaper hotels will be around 20-30 euros per night. Once I secured a few travel buddies, we’d often split a private room and save even more money.
Food in Albania – Even if you’re eating out every meal, you might not spend more than $20 per day. Food in Albania is very affordable, whether you’re grocery shopping or fine dining. Salads and starters are around 200-300 lek each. A Greek salad (or village salad as it’s called here) and stuffed peppers or eggplants was more than enough to satisfy me. Albania is a meat-heavy country, and you can have lamb and goat for cheap here. Even a nice treat yo’self type of meal won’t cost you more than $15 in Albania. I’ll be honest, though. The food in Albania is hit or miss, even more-so as a vegetarian. Many of Albania’s best dishes are meat-based, so maybe I just didn’t get a chance to try their specialties.
In total, I spent around $450 in my ten days in Albania, and that was with a jam-packed schedule. I was going on an excursion nearly every day and eating out for every meal. If you really wanted to stick to a budget, you could easily spend about half of that. I met plenty of people who camped or van-lifed their way through Albania. Cooking your own food, hitchhiking, couchsurfing, and so on can drive costs down even further. I was content with enjoying life in Albania so I wasn’t too concerned about sticking to a strict budget. Albania is also one of the poorest countries in Europe, so if you have money to spend, do your best to support their economy.
Travel Insurance For Albania – This latest trip was the first time I purchased travel insurance, considering the pandemic and all. I definitely think it’s a good thing to have for Albania, as you’ll be going on quite a few adrenaline-inducing adventures. When you’re hiking in remote mountains, rafting through a canyon, or driving down those narrow mountain roads, you’ll be glad you have it. I use SafetyWing, which is a combination of health and travel insurance. Their plans start at $40 a month and cover pretty much anywhere in the world, including everywhere in the Balkans. Since I travel full-time nomadically, I just have a monthly recurring plan while I’m on the road. I know my fellow backpackers tend to avoid spending money any way they can, but I am genuinely glad I have it for the extra peace of mind.
How To Get Around Albania
Buses are the main form of transportation. However, the buses are closer to Latin American-style than European. By that, I mean efficiency and schedules are all out the window, but you will get to where you need to go. The people will make sure of it. It was reminiscent of when I was traveling in Cuba and had yet to become fluent in Spanish. I’d say the name of where I was going and a local would escort me to a random street corner and wait with me until the bus got there. He’d tell someone on the bus where I was going, and I’d continue getting passed around like a relay baton until I got to my final destination. That’s what you can expect from Albania. Learn to love the journey as much as the destination, and you’ll do just fine.
My usual method of traveling in Albania was to try and go find a bus. If a bus didn’t leave within an hour or so, I’d stick out my thumb and hope for the best. Albanians are super friendly, and I’d say it’s one of the best countries to hitchhike in. I grew so comfortable with hitchhiking that I never gave it a second thought. Oftentimes, whoever picks you up will offer you to stay with them or at least have a meal at their home. I had a few friends who were trying to hitch a ride to a trailhead, and ended up at a local family’s house drinking raki and playing music instead. Sometimes, you have to let the adventures choose you. Just go with the flow. Few things in this country make sense, but that’s what makes it unforgettably fun.
Buses in Albania are quite cheap, especially if you’re going to and from a major destination. My most expensive bus was from Gjirokaster to Berat, which required three separate buses and still worked out to less than $10 total. Unless you’re going all the way across the country, a bus shouldn’t cost you more than $10-15.
Renting a Car in Albania
While I’m all about the randomness of Albania’s public transportation, I know that it can be frustrating for those of us with time constraints. No one likes losing an entire day on public transportation when a city might only be two hours away with your own car. Thankfully, renting a car in Albania is pretty easy, and I definitely recommend it. I didn’t do it myself because I had the power of my thumb and the patience for public transportation, but I had a few friends who did it and I definitely envied their freedom. Your best bet at renting a car will be in Tirana. If you’re flying into the airport, that’s the best place to rent a car. Try to do so in advance to get the best rates and try to secure an automatic car if you’re like me and can’t drive manual.
Another option is to rent a scooter. I inquired about scooter rentals, and they could be as low as 10 euros a day. However, I’d only recommend using a scooter to get around a city and its nearby area, rather than scootering your way up and down the entire country. Albania is a pretty small country, about the size of Maryland. However, most of the scooters available to rent that I’ve seen did not seem capable of surviving a cross-country road trip.
The Hostel Scene in Albania
The hostels I stayed at in Albania were among my favorites in the world. There is something special about hostels in countries that haven’t been overwhelmed by tourism yet. After hostel-hopping in over-touristed Greece for a month, the difference was clear. Don’t get me wrong, the hostels in Greece were amazing, but some had lost their soul and culture in the name of prioritizing profit. The vibes of the hostels in Albania were just clearly different. Every hostel I stayed at was run by someone who had a genuine love for Albania and travel. The owners were almost always present onsite. Despite meeting new faces day in and day out for years, they never hesitated to mingle and share their knowledge of the area.
Many of the excursions I did in Albania were done directly through the hostels. Oftentimes, the owners themselves were the ones leading the experience. We’d go on full-day road trips for a fraction of the price that local tour agencies would charge. And when I’d ask why, the owners always responded with a way that made it obvious they put the travelers’ experience first over their own pockets. The hostel scene in Albania was truly special, and one that I hope doesn’t change as the country continues to grow in popularity.
There is a network of hostels in the Balkans called I Travel Balkans. The first one I stayed at was Stone City Hostel in Gjirokaster. Wouter, the owner told me about the hostel network, where you can get stamps at each hostel. Once you get enough stamps, you get a reward, like a free cocktail or laundry or something. After our stay in Gjirokaster, he called up Berat Backpackers over in Berat to book us a room. It turned out to be yet another amazing hostel. We followed it up with the extremely helpful Wanderer’s Hostel in Shkoder. From then on out, we would only stick to hostels in the I Travel Balkans network. The first time we strayed was a hostel in Budva, Montenegro and it was one of the worst hostels ever. That’s a horror story for another time. Stick to I Travel Balkans if you can.
The hostels in Albania were extremely helpful every step of the journey. I grew comfortable in Albania almost immediately knowing that everyone, from the hostels to the locals, were always willing to help out.
Best Destinations For Backpackers in Albania
Albania has so many more hidden gems to be discovered. For now, these are the must-visit destinations that I would recommend. I’ll be back one day to explore this country deeper, and will undoubtedly be adding to this list as my adventures through Albania continue.
Gjirokaster was my first stop after a relatively disappointing start in Saranda. Despite being a smaller village, it was the turning point of my time in Albania, and would set the tone for the rest of the adventures I would have in the country. From epic road trips, amazing hiking, historic architecture, and the first good food I’d had in Albania, Gjirokaster packed a punch for its small size. I’d recommend at least two days here, although you could spend much longer just soaking in the small town vibes and mountain landscapes.
After finding out about the Albanian Alps, I highly considered just skipping the entire central part of Albania and hightailing it to the north. Thankfully, I made a stopover in Berat. As soon as I got to Berat, I extended my stay and took to exploring the Old Town. A hike up to Berat Castle for sunset is a must, and then a walk along the strip to dine and drink. Make a day trip over to Osumi Canyon and Bogove Waterfalls, which can be arranged with Miri from Berat Backpackers. It was yet another hostel that knocked it out of the park, with great location, incredible views, and one of the most charming properties I’ve ever stayed at. The generous servings of byrek for breakfast helped, too.
The gateway to the Albanian Alps , Shkoder is a can’t-miss destination. While one of Albania’s larger cities, it maintains a small town vibe in the historic city center. Rozafa Castle offers some striking views of the mountainous Albanian landscapes, its vast rivers, and the sprawling city of Shkoder. Across Lake Shkoder, you can catch a sneak peek of the adventures to come for those crossing over to Montenegro. Lake Shkoder is also a great spot for a chill and a swim. From Shkoder city center, it can be reached by a short car ride or less than an hour of cycling. Don’t worry, Shkoder is super bike-friendly. It’s one of the top ten cities in Europe for cyclists. Shkoder was probably my favorite actual city in Albania. Although you can cross off the must-sees in a day or two, the vibe here is nice for relaxing. The variety of restaurants and nightlife options also keeps things interesting.
Valbonë and Theth
Ahh finally, we’ve made it to my favorite part of Albania: the Alps. From Shkoder, a popular thing to do is take the bus-ferry-bus over to Valbone and then hike to Theth. That’s what I did, leaving my bags behind at Wanderer’s Hostel, who also organized the entire journey for me. I only packed what I would need for a couple of days. It was a decision I ended up regretting because I would have loved to stay in this area for at least a week. I had no idea what to expect from Albania’s Alps, but these mountain ranges are gorgeous.
I have no doubt I’ll come back one day with a tent and proper camping equipment just to spend some time living wild and free out here. The people here were some of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve ever met in my travels. Small town Albania is next level. You won’t find too many hostels here, at least none that show up online. Wanderer’s Hostel organized a place for me to stay in Valbone, and then the people in Valbone organized a place for me to stay in Theth. If you don’t mind going with the flow, just do that and don’t bother booking anything in advance. The places were both wonderful and cozy, with epic views of the mountains. At 25 euros a night, they included three hearty meals a day to keep you energized for all the hiking there is to do.
The Albanian Riviera
There are many destinations on the Albanian Riviera. Vlore, Himara, Dhermi, Durres, and Sarande are a few of the main cities that travelers flock to. During the summer months, these places are absolutely packed. After over a month of island hopping in Greece, it wasn’t a priority of mine to see more beaches. I basically skipped all of the towns along the coast, so I can’t help you out too much here. I’ve heard amazing things about Dhermi and Himara. Vlore is also a great destination if you want a mix of mountains and beaches.
July and August are the main tourism months in this part of Europe. Everyone in the Balkans flocks to the Mediterranean Coast, and that means things are very crowded, and by Albania’s standards, expensive. If you can visit during the shoulder season, the Albanian Riviera might be quieter, less crowded, and less expensive.
While Albania’s capital might not be the most alluring destination, it is worth a stop to learn more about Albania’s history. It’s home to the best museums in Albania, like the National History Museum and National Archaeological Museum. Another must see is BunkArt1 and BunkArt2, former Commie bunkers that have been turned into art galleries. There’s also Dajti National Park nearby. You can ride a cable car up into the mountains to catch some great views. If you’re flying into Tirana, it’s a great home base for finding your footing in Albania.
Two other cities that I heard great things about were Kruje and Korce. Korce is in the Southeastern part of Albania, close to North Macedonia and Greece. Few travelers make it there, but from the ones that have, I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews. Kruje is a smaller town to the north of Tirana. From what I was told, it was a perfect destination for travelers who enjoyed Gjirokaster.
Of course, there are plenty more things to see all over Albania. There are numerous national parks, such as Fir of Hotova and Tomorri Mountain National Parks. Albania is still relatively new to tourism, so they don’t quite have the infrastructure to make everything super accessible just yet. This is especially true the deeper in the mountains you go. If you’re looking to hang around the beach and relax, Albanian is an excellent destination. However, the rest of the country is quite rugged. You’ll need a bit more effort and some local knowledge to dig deep to find those hidden gems.
Final Thoughts on Albania
Just go. I really don’t have the words to describe this country because it’s unlike any I’ve ever visited before. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I would just have to go with the flow and let the adventures choose me. Few things went as planned, but every day was overflowing with adventure. I left Albania with a full heart and an indelible gratitude for this country and its people. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I don’t sugarcoat my travel experiences. If I don’t vibe with a country, you’ll know. I’ll never bash a destination or a country, because I know everyone has different experiences, travel styles, and so on. However, I’ll never gush on and on about a country just because that’s what ~ travel bloggers ~ are supposed to do.
But I will gush on and on about Albania. This country is one hell of a ride, and one that I’ll be coming back to again and again.
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