If there was only one true hidden gem travel destination in Europe, Albania would be it.

Being a compact country, it’s generously blessed with pristine sandy beaches that rival Greece, dramatic Balkan mountainscapes, deep river canyons and fascinating history. Not to mention the very respectable cuisine, lots of fresh seafood and the thousands of abandoned bunkers dotted across the country that alone make this country stand out from the rest. 

And all this at less than half the expenses of visiting its more glamorous seaside neighbours Croatia and Greece.

So what gives? Like the best underrated destinations, Albania is still shaking off a negative reputation (the film “Taken” didn’t exactly help!) – so make the most of this fascinating country now, before the rest of Europe realises what they’ve been missing out on!

Suggested Albania Itinerary

This road trip itinerary focuses on Southern half of Albania for the best of its seaside and the unique inland cities. It’s best done by car in 7-10 days (of course, add more if you have the luxury of time off!). Starting in Tirana, head anticlockwise along the coast. Or to be honest, a clockwise itinerary works too depending on how desperate you are for the beaches.

Albania Travel Itinerary Map

Tirana – the Capital

Tirana Pyramid Albania

While by no means the highlight of Albania, the capital Tirana will probably be where you start and end the epic trip, so you’ll probably want to spend a night or two in the city.

Tirana is a lively capital with a fairly ugly façade but enough things to visit, savour and drink. Introduce yourself to the country by enjoying a raki at the Komiteti Kafe-Museum. And make sure to spend some time in the upscale Blloku area. Formerly home of the Communist elite, it’s now the artsy part of town with the best choice of restaurants, cafes and nightclubs.

Visit a bunker! In the decades ruled by the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was covered with over 170,000 concrete bunkers, built in fear of enemy invasion that never came (if only the money was spent on better roads…). While Hoxha is long gone,the bunkers remained spread across the country and some have been converted. One such is Bunk’Art (and Bunk’Art 2), an underground history museum and art gallery.

Curiously, one of the main landmarks of the capital is the dilapidated Pyramid of Tirana – once a museum dedicated to the aforementioned leader it’s now a thing you walk up. Plans are in place to renovate the eyesore, so by the time you visit the city who knows what it will be.

 

Zvërnec Island

Zvernec Island & Monastery Albania

As you make your way South from Tirana, make a stop at Zvërnec near the seaside city of Vlorë. A wooden footbridge invitingly winds its way to the picturesque Zvërnec Island, home to a tall pinetree forest and a Byzantine-period St Mary’s Monastery. Be sure to stay for some lunch and a glass of local wine in the village of Zvërnec.

 

Llogara Pass

Llogara Pass Albania

The zigzaggy Llogara Pass connects Vlorë to the Albanian Riviera and is one of the most panoramic coastal drives you’ll come across in Europe. Despite the switchbacks and climbing to over 1,000m, the road is in a good condition and it never felt particularly treacherous so long as you’re not too distracted by the views. Make sure to stop and admire some of the abandoned bunkers with the inviting Ionian Sea backdrop.

 

Albanian Riviera

Albanian Riviera Beaches

As you descend down Llogara Pass, you enter the so-called Albanian Riviera. If you’re into beaches, this Riviera is the caviar of Albania that makes it a true hidden gem of Europe. 

Curiously, much of this region feels pretty much exactly like Greece, but cheaper and with fewer tourists. The towns of Dhërmi and Himarë, and pretty much everything in-between, are very much Greek. Greek place names, Greek churches, countless Greek tavernas, every other guy is named Nikos. Eternally protected by the surrounding terrain, this is the only strip of Albania not conquered by the Ottoman Empire and so managing to preserve its Greek identity.

Himare Landscapes Albania

The cute seaside town of Himarë was my personal favourite, and a perfect base to explore the hills or the countless beautiful beaches. If I had just one recommendation for the entire trip, it would be that you rent a private (captained) boat from Himara Seas the Day. It’s not expensive and you get to spend a few hours exploring and swimming in the crystal clear waters, reaching secluded beaches, pirate caves and an abandoned submarine bunker at Porto Palermo.

Albanian Beach Himare Seas The Day

Besides the boat trip, you’re spoilt for choice as far as beaches go. The most famous are at Drymades, Jale and Dhërmi – the latter requires a sweaty hike, but this in turn filters out the crowds. For easy access you also have the very long beach at the appetisingly-named Borsh further to the South. 

 

Sarandë

Sarande Sunset Panorama

The resort town of Sarandë at the Southern end of the Riviera impresses as a tightly-packed, bustling place. It’s the type of destination that triples in size in the peak tourist months. Being near more glorious beaches, the Ksamil Islands, Butrint and the Blue Eye, it makes for a great base for a day or two.

For sunset, head up the (slightly hair-raising) road to Lekursi Castle – won’t judge if you take a taxi up. It’s an idyllic spot to sip a cocktail and enjoy the sun setting over Sarandë, with the Greek island of Corfu seemingly at touching distance just across the strait. (And yes, you can take a ferry onwards onto Corfu if you feel like combining it into the trip).

In the evening, there’s nothing like a stroll alongside the long seaside promenade and indulging in fresh seafood to make you feel like you’re on a proper Mediterranean holiday. 

 

Butrint National Park

Butrint National Park Albania

For a change, time for a brief break from all the beaches and a little history instead. Butrint is a once-mighty ancient settlement and now a gem of an archaeological site spread across a peninsula. Expect the full Roman ruin package, enough to be recognised by UNESCO: amphitheatre, baths, columns, mosaics. Coming from Sarandë, take the inner road SH98, cross the cute ferry and head back the coastal route stopping at some beaches on the way.

The Blue Eye

The Blue Eye Albania

On the way from Sarandë to Gjirokaster lies The Blue Eye, known here as Syri i Kalter. A deep blue vividly contrasting the shallow turquoise, this natural spring comes from so deep underground that no one knows quite how deep. What we do know is that it brings up freezing cold water no matter the season, handy if you feel like a crude break from the searing summer heat (for me a toe dip sufficed). As it’s a small spectacle, crowds can build up in the busier summer periods. So head there first thing in the morning ideally on a weekday, have a coffee (and maybe a dive!), and drive onto Gjirokastra.

 

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra Fortress Albania

This UNESCO-recognised stone city is a must on your itinerary, and a good option for an overnight stay. 

Once you’ve explored the cute cobbled streets of the Old Town, the fortress that dominates over the city is more than worth the climb up. You are sure to enjoy some fantastic views of Gjirokastra and the looming mountainscapes across the valley, but there’s more to it. This fortress is abound with history. It’s lived for centuries through invading empires and even dictators who turned it into a prison. Amongst the random collection of captured military artefacts from those days you’ll even find a US fighter plane.

 

Berat 

Berat Ottoman Windows, Albania

Drive onto Berat from Gjirokastra, making sure you take the longer-looking route E853 via Fier. You’ll thank me. The tempting SH74 that’s marked an “A road” on the map eventually turns into a rocky gravel track so unless you have a 4×4 – avoid!

Berat is a unique, charming city you might just feel is your favourite in Albania. With its large wooden Ottoman-era windows dominating the hilly cityscape, Berat is literally known as the “City of a Thousand Windows.

Berat Castle Albania 

When you’ve done wandering the cobbled streets of the old town and the old Gorica Bridge, make your way up to the castle (or what’s left of it) for some incredible views. But why stop that – ever wanted to stay in a castle without paying a fortune? Don’t pass up on the chance to stay in a beautiful stone house right in the heart of the castle

 

Osumi Canyons

Osum Canyons Albania

A couple hours’ drive from Berat are the incredibly picturesque canyons of the Osum river, the same river that flows through the city. It’s the most off-the-beaten-track part of this itinerary.

Depending on the time of the year, the river can be perfect for rafting, kayaking or river walking if the levels are low. Having visited in August, we could only opt for the latter – arranged with a company who sorted a guide and transport. We loved the experience as you walk and float on your back past the waterfalls and pristine diving spots. If you’re doing this DIY, stop over for lunch at Bogovë on the way back.

Osumi River Canyons Albania


When is best to visit Albania?

May to July or September would be the best months to visit Albania. These months give you a very good chance of mostly sunny, warm days. August is also game especially if you’re focusing on hiking in the higher terrain, but keep in mind the heat can otherwise get pretty intense and the crowds do tend to build up on the coastal towns, as is normal across most of Europe.

Is Albania safe to visit?

Pretty much. Locals are almost always warm and friendly, keen to make your Albanian visit as positive as possible. At no point did I feel any less safe than walking around in London – just keep a wary eye out as you would anywhere else.

That said, when the same locals get behind the wheel, some can be quite aggressive (see below), so take extra care on the roads.

Driving in Albania

Not gonna lie – Albania isn’t the safest place in the world for driving, but still totally doable. The main thing to watch out for is aggressive, careless drivers. There seems to be an unwritten rule that if you own a big, expensive-looking car then you are the king of the road. Free from following the usual road rules. So always keep an eye out for those.

The other part is the road condition: careful with using Google Maps. One ‘A’ road can be a brand new, smooth highway and yet another, also marked as an highway, can turn out little more than a boulder-covered dirtroad. Then there are often roadworks and road closures. So my main tip is to ask the locals (and save yourself some time having to backtrack like we ended up doing).

Albanian Highway


I hope this travel guide helps you plan your trip across this fascinating off-the-beaten-track country. If you have any questions or suggestions, leave a comment below.

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