There are few places left in Europe that can truly be considered off the beaten track, but in Albania, you can still forge your own path. Long considered the Wild West of Europe, Albania is fast becoming the hottest ticket on the continent.
This little-visited Balkan nation has an unusual mixture of Ottoman and Mediterranean influences, a testament to Albania’s long history at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. This is one of Europe’s only Muslim-majority countries, and you’ll be fascinated by the sight of minarets rising above the towns and cities and the sound of the call to prayer in the mornings.
But Albania is only just re-finding its sense of identity after decades spent under the cruel rule of Enver Hoxha, a paranoid communist dictator who was shunned by the rest of the world. Next to mosques, along beaches, and even in public parks and city centers you’ll see the unusual sight of concrete bunkers, hundreds of thousands of which were built on the orders of Hoxha.
They litter the landscape, and while many are just concrete scars of a time Albanians would rather forget, many more are being turned into art pieces and memorials in an attempt to understand the past rather than simply forget.
Your 14-day Albania itinerary will take you to famous sights in Tirana, the capital, and onto the beautiful nature and wildlife of Lake Shkodër. From the wild mountain passes and timeless villages of the Albanian Alps, you’ll explore ancient Roman ruins and Ottoman fortresses as you work your way south for a relaxing stay on the Albanian Riviera.
Albania can satisfy the tastes of beach lovers and adventure travelers, you’ll revel in the blend of Mediterranean and Turkish cuisines, and you’ll quickly fall head over heels for the stark and uncompromising beauty of the land and the culture.
Be quick about it, though, because Albania won’t stay so untrodden for long. If you’re planning a Balkan break, then keep reading as we explain how to spend a perfect 2 weeks in Albania!
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Two Weeks in Albania
Preparing for Albania
There are a few things to know as you prepare to visit the must-see places in Albania during your 2-week vacation. First of all, your planning will be made easier knowing that Albania has a fairly loose immigration policy for citizens of 88 nations, including passport holders from the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union.
Passport holders of these countries can stay in Albania visa-free for up to 90 days within 180 days. It’s the same visa policy that the Schengen Zone has (but Albania is not in the Schengen Zone), and if you’re staying in the country for longer, you’ll need to secure a longer-term visa from a consulate.
The Albanian Lek is the currency in circulation, but given the weak status of the Lek, many prices in tourist areas are often quoted in Euros. Hotels and tour operators often prefer taking Euros over Lek, as the Euro is more stable, but be careful as you could end up with a poor exchange rate. US Dollars and British Pounds are typically widely accepted, with the USD being roughly equivalent to 100 Lek.
There’s no reason not to use Lek, though, and indeed, costs will likely be lower if you do. You can change money at exchanges, or better yet, just withdraw cash at ATMs. While cards can be used in Tirana and other tourist hubs and towns, you’ll need cash for local transport and in remote mountain villages.
While Albania is nominally a Muslim nation, decades of communist rule mean that the religion is no longer particularly widespread. In rural destinations, traditional customs often supersede religion anyway, and you’ll find it fascinating to delve into a Balkan culture that’s been lost in the cities.
Albania did have a reputation as a lawless, Wild West, and while this was true immediately following the fall of communism in the 1990s, the country is now developing quickly. Things are modernizing, and it’s getting far easier to travel around Albania than it was even a few years ago!
The Best Time to Visit Albania
Albania is located in the southern section of the Balkans, and with a coastline that stretches along the Adriatic Sea, rest assured that much of the country enjoys a beautiful Mediterranean climate. In fact, the weather in Albania is just as sunny as in neighboring Greece to the south, Montenegro to the north, and Italy across the sea to the west, but there are far fewer tourists around to get in your way!
If you love scorching hot weather, this means that the best time to visit Albania is in the summer months. Temperatures often reach highs of 31°C (88°F) in June, July, and August, which is perfect weather for sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling all along the Albanian Riviera. Prices remain competitive even in the peak season (and a fraction of the cost of a holiday to Greece), and tourist numbers are comparatively low.
If you prefer your weather to be a little cooler, we recommend visiting in spring or autumn, when the most popular destinations are also a little quieter, too. In April and May, temperatures still reach above 20°C (68°F), as they do in September and October as well. Even in winter, the coast sees highs hovering around 11°C (52°F) in January and February, although parts of the country can be considerably colder and very rainy.
If you’re interested in hiking in the mountains, the best time to visit is from March to June or September to November. The climate is cooler, and Albania’s nature and wildlife are simply glorious. Tirana has enough interesting sights to be a city-break-worthy destination all year round, although again, the capital is best enjoyed in spring or autumn when it’s not too hot or too cold.
Getting Around Albania
If you’re flying into Albania, the vast majority of international flights land in Tirana. The international airport is a half-hour taxi ride away from the city center, or you can jump on the airport shuttle buses, which have hourly departures. You may also arrive overland or by ferry, depending on where you choose to start your itinerary.
Albania has a land border with Montenegro to the north, and while there are few buses on this route, you can take shared taxis over the border to Shkodër and then travel onwards to Tirana or Durres.
From Macedonia to the west, there are bus connections to Tirana, Durres, and even Saranda in the south of Albania. From Greece, you can travel north to Saranda by bus or take the ferry from Corfu. There are overnight ferries from Bari in Italy to Durres, from where you can connect to most other destinations in Albania.
Albania is one of the most beautiful countries to visit in Europe, but it’s not the easiest country to travel around. This is one destination that’s best enjoyed by seasoned travelers, and it’s important to be flexible when you’re planning your itinerary because not everything is going to go as planned!
Much of this is down to a lack of reliable public transportation, and it’s often difficult finding out accurate information about departure times or even departure points when you’re getting around. In Tirana, there’s a central bus station just outside the city center, which has timetabled departures to most major cities and towns.
In other destinations, the timetables might be a bit looser, and smaller buses and minibuses often depart only when they are full. Ask at your hotel or speak with local tour guides for up-to-date info on routes and times when you’re on the ground. While unreliable, transportation in Albania is excellent value!
Albania Itinerary: 2 Weeks to Explore the Highlights of the Country
Tirana – 2 nights
If you’re flying into the country, then the best place to start your 2-week trip to Albania is in Tirana, the capital. However, if you’re arriving overland or sea from neighboring European countries, you may find it more appropriate to move around the itinerary below to suit your direction of travel.
For example, if you’re traveling south from Montenegro, it makes more sense to start in Shkodër and then travel to Tirana. If you’re traveling from Greece, you can reverse the itinerary and start in Saranda and then end in Tirana or Shkodër.
In Tirana, we recommend spending at least two nights in the city. Start by exploring the city center, a compact area that’s focused on Skanderbeg Square, a pedestrianized public square surrounded by many of Tirana’s most important sights and attractions.
In the middle of the square, you’ll find a statue of Skanderbeg, a historical character you’ll hear much more of during your stay in Albania. Skanderbeg was immortalized after resisting the Ottoman invasions in the 15th century. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful (the Ottomans would go on to rule Albania until 1912), Skanderbeg has become Albania’s defining national hero.
You can then visit the Palace of Culture and the National Historical Museum, two very communist-looking buildings which are in stark contrast to an old Ottoman-era bridge, and the Et’ Hem Bey Mosque, which are also found in the same square. Nearby, you can explore Tirana Castle and see the Albanian Parliament, then stop for lunch at one of the many cafes and restaurants on the pedestrianized Rruga Murat Toptani street (try Millennium Garden or Noki).
Next, you’ll want to head underground into Bunk’Art 2, an old nuclear fallout shelter built during the communist era. The old bunker is now an art gallery and museum, and you’ll have a harrowing look at the reign of Enver Hoxha.
Continue to the unusual “Pyramid of Tirana” (now being refurbished, but originally built as a monument to Hoxha), then round up a day of sightseeing with a visit to the Sky Tower, where you’ll have excellent views of Tirana from the revolving restaurant and bar. After a drink, head to Artigiano Vila or Oda for dinner!
On Day 2, you can take the cable car to the top of Mount Dajti, where you’ll have uninterrupted views across Tirana. This is a chance to escape to the countryside, and you can spend the morning hiking in Mount Dajti National Park or just taking in the views.
In the afternoon, you can either head back to Tirana to visit a few more museums (such as the House of Leaves or the Grand Park) or visit Bunk’Art 1. This is the original Bunk Art Museum, and it’s located inside a nuclear bunker built into a mountainside.
Lake Shkodër – 2 nights
Your next stop is Lake Shkodër, one of the most beautiful places to see in Albania. It’s a two-hour drive north from Tirana to the city of Shkodër, which sits on the banks of southern Europe’s largest lake.
Lake Shkodër is so large it spans the border between Albania and Montenegro. You’ll have two days to explore the history and nature of the city and the lake, and you might find it helpful to rent a bicycle to get around quickly.
Start by hiking or cycling to Rozafa Castle, an Ottoman-era castle that looks out across the lake from a hilltop high above Shkodër. You can visit Shkodër Historical Museum to learn more about the local history, then visit the Site of Witness and Memory to better understand the lasting legacy of the communist era in Shkodër.
We recommend spending the next day exploring the lake. You can hike or bike around the lakeside, rent a kayak or canoe, or join a boat tour. In Shkodër, you can enjoy some excellent cuisine for excellent prices at Fisi Restaurant and Vila Bekteshi.
Kolman Lake/Valbona/Theth – 3 nights
By now, you’ll be settling into the Albanian rhythm. That’s good because from Shkodër, you’re going to be getting well off the beaten track, as your adventure really begins in the Albanian Alps.
Make your way from Shkodër to Koman, where you begin one of the most beautiful yet little-known ferry journeys in the world. You’ll be making the two and half hour ferry ride across Lake Komani, a spectacular voyage that cruises across azure waters and past tall cliffs on its way to Fierza.
Valbona National Park
This is only the start. You’re taking the ferry because it’s the best way to reach Valbona National Park, where stunning mountains and alpine views to rival anywhere in Austria or Italy await you. From Fierza, take a minibus to Valbona, where you’ll then start exploring.
Theth National Park
If you’re feeling fit, then one of the best things to do in Albania is the Valbona to Theth hike. The stunning hike takes around 9 hours (it can vary dramatically depending on your fitness and the weather, so allow yourself the entire day), and you’ll spend the night in Theth, which is the main settlement within Theth National Park.
You can arrange logistics with local guides in Valbona, who can organize luggage transfers and book homestays. From Theth, you’ll then take a minibus back to Shkodër. You’ll need three nights to make this roundtrip journey. If you’re not up for a tough full-day hike, you can also opt to stay in Valbona and then take the minibus and ferry route back to Shkodër.
Durres – 2 night
From Shkodër, it’s a two-hour drive to Durres, although you’ll need to transfer through Tirana if you’re traveling by bus.
Durres is a large port city on the Adriatic Sea, and with a history dating back to 700 BC, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Mediterranean. It was also one of the most important because, during the Roman era, this is where the Via Appia met the Via Egnatia.
Romans would travel along the Via Appia from Rome to Brindisi, where they’d jump on a boat to Durres and then continue along the Via Egnatia to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Many Roman ruins still remain in Durres, including a magnificent Roman amphitheater that could hold some 20,000 spectators. You can visit the ruins before exploring Durres Castle, the remains of a Byzantine Forum, and the Archeological Museum.
Durres isn’t just a stop for history lovers. The surrounding coastline is known for its beaches, and it’s a popular spot for a sunny coastal getaway. You’ll only need one day to see the city’s sights, but we’ve factored in an extra day in case you’re delayed traveling from northern Albania or just want to enjoy a beach day.
Berat – 1 night
Beautiful Berat sits on the banks of the River Osum, where the steep sides of a beautiful valley inland offered protection in ancient times. The Illyrians first settled the valley as far back as the 7th century BC, before the city came under the control of Macedonians and then Romans.
Berat is a one and half hour’s drive from Durres, and while it’s possible to visit on a day trip, Berat is also a much nicer place to spend the night. Durres is a big port city, while Berat is a charming small city with UNESCO World Heritage status (feel free to spend one night in Durres and two in Berat if you’re ahead of schedule!).
Many of the ruins and the great citadel on the hill that you see today were built by the Byzantines, who controlled the region after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Byzantines were replaced by the Ottomans, who are responsible for the marvelous architecture and mosques you now find in the stunning Old Town today (Berat is also known as the “City of a Thousand Windows”).
Gjirokaster – 1 night
Keep traveling south along mountain roads away from the coast, and you’ll reach Gjrokaster. This is one of the top places to see in Albania, and you’ll soon fall in love with the Ottoman architecture and mountain scenery.
Gjirokaster has several claims to fame in Albanian history. The city, like most in Albania, dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks, while the Romans and Byzantines left much behind after Gjirokaster was conquered by the Ottomans (visit the staggering citadel on top of the hill to learn more). It was the Ottomans who then left their mark on Gjirokaster and many of the Old Town buildings and the Bazaar debate to this long period in the city’s history, which only ended in 1912.
Explore the city, and you’ll also learn that this is the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the paranoid dictator who cordoned Albania off from the outside world for much of the 20th century. The city then became the scene of riots and protests in 1997, which led to the Albanian Civil War, although these days, you’ll find Gjirokaster to be a peaceful place to visit.
Saranda – 3 nights
Your Albania Itinerary is nearing the end as you depart Gjirokaster along winding roads that traverse the high mountains. You’re heading southwest, and the mountains end dramatically as they swoop down toward the Ionian Sea.
Your final destination is Saranda, a coastal city that sits at the heart of the Albanian Riviera. We recommend 3 nights here, not just because there are lots of fantastic things to do, but to give you a well-earned day at the beach club sipping on cocktails before you head home.
Take a stroll along the seafront boulevard during the day, and you can pop into bars for a refreshing Korca (Albania’s national beer) or soak up the sun on the public beach. You’ll find a few Roman ruins dotted around the town, alongside the odd communist-era bunker looking forlornly along streets now busy with holidaymakers.
If you’d rather not spend your last days in Albania as a beach bum, then fear not, because we’ve got many an activity for you to sign up for. Scuba divers and snorkelers can explore the many wrecks that lie at the bottom of the bay, including the SS Probitas (a sunken hospital ship from WWII) and Antonio Shipwreck (a car ferry that sunk in the bay).
Butrint National Park
You can join a trip to Butrint National Park, explore Ottoman castles in the mountains above Saranda, and visit local wineries and mussel farms for a culinary adventure. You can even take a day trip on the fast ferry to Corfu, in Greece, where you can compare one of Europe’s most visited and well-established destinations with its underrated neighbor!
There you have it! That’s our perfect 2-week Albania itinerary. Where will you be traveling on your trip to Albania?
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