Albania appears to be the ‘next best thing’ in travel! Recently (especially Dutch) television shows and global social media have been pushing this destination as ‘The Maldives of Europe’. As part of our larger road trip we obviously have to check out and see what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, I was not that impressed at all… Let me share with you why you should think twice before booking your Albania trip!
Understanding current day Albania
Until 1991 Albania used to be a closed off, isolated country, comparable to present day North Korea. It used to be a communist police state with Hoxha (and some others before the regime’s collapse) as its dictator. Directly after 1991, the poor state wanted to destroy everything that reminded of the communist’s regime. The first things people bought were TV sets and luxury western cars. Unfortunately, this also meant that (formerly communist) productive factories and other infrastructure were destroyed, throwing the country and its citizens even further back. People were given freedom to develop land and build houses, with not much oversight, which also led to various pyramid schemes ruining many families.
You can still witness the ‘messy’ city planning and architecture throughout Albania (we come to this later). The country still seems to deal with high levels of corruption, which for you as a tourist translates to a very bad road network, still making large parts of the country inaccessible without a 4×4 car.
Despite the rapid transitioning from a poor country to a middle-income country, the bad road network is not the only sign of the still existing poverty. Other examples are the begging children and the many Lavazh (car wash) setups next to the streets., where people try to make some money via the ‘grey’ service industry.
Top Tip: Many restaurants, hotels or ‘grey’ service providers do not accept cards. Ensure to get cash (this can also be Euro, but you will always pay more). Also check when paying by card that they charge you in Albanian Lek (and do not swap to Euro, as you instantly pay significantly more)!
The Albania hype; potentially a curse, rather than a blessing
The current ‘boom’ in tourism, as Albania is being (incorrectly) marketed as the ‘next best thing in travel’ has led to a wildfire of, often cheap and quickly built, tourist hotels across Albania. Once tranquil beach destinations are now overrun by tourists, without any surrounding infrastructure like restaurants, sufficient amounts of beach beds, etcetera! All resulting in long queues for ‘shabby’ restaurants and overcrowded, noisy beaches.
Top Tip: Please check my tips below on where NOT to go in Albania! Some places are without a doubt the worst (beach) destinations you can ever visit!
Getting to Albania
We entered Albania overland via our Balkan road trip, from North Macedonia. We could have also done this from Kosovo (as originally planned) or Montenegro (our next destination). In addition, many (day trip) tourists travel to (south) Albania from Greece, mostly from Corfu island. Some travel by ferry from Italy and the vast majority arrives via its (only) international airport in Tirana.
Albania has one of the worst road networks of Europe
As said, the first thing that surprised me when entering Albania is the ‘messy’ city planning, cheap architecture and poor quality of the roads. Compared to neighboring Macedonia, or Albania’s strong ally Kosovo, Albania is ages behind. The main road network is ‘ok’ (comparable to Romania), but can get poor very quickly on certain stretches. Albania’s main problem, which is keeping its economic development behind, is that some key roads to its hinterland are still unpaved gravel roads. These are (almost) inaccessible by normal (rental) car meaning unnecessary detours, or worse for the population, they remain unvisited and underdeveloped. Also, this means unnecessary traffic (jams) on the ‘developed’ road network.
If I have to compare Albania’s road network it comes closer to destinations, like Djibouti or Ethiopia. Where you have a minimal, single lane network connecting some of the major cities and the rest is all non-maintained and unpaved.
Top Tip: Research your route and ensure you have the right car for your itinerary! Certain destinations can have long travel times, or can be just impossible to reach! Obviously, you should see this as part of the adventure, but can also mean 4 hour long detours (for example to get from Gjirokaster to Osumit Canyon, as some Belgians who stayed in our guesthouse, experienced the hard way).
Well, with those very important logistics out of the way, let’s explore Albania!
First Albania stop: Berat
Our first destination is the lovely mountain town Berat. Especially, compared to most ‘modern and messy’ Albanian towns, historic Berat definitely stands out! This town was hit by an earthquake, after which the old city center has been reconstructed and most of the houses mostly serve as bed and breakfasts. This means that unlike other towns, Berat’s old town is not ‘lively’ with restaurants or shops. Rather find a place on the opposite of the river for a nice scenic dinner!…
In addition, check out Berat Castle for great views and some nice restaurants and coffee shops. (Instead of walking up, save time and energy and drive up the very steep hill towards the castle).
Top Tip: Berat is nice to stay for 1 night! Given the earthquake reconstruction it is mainly ‘nice to look at’, as the old city center is not ‘lively’. Have dinner at the opposite side of the river for stunning views of Old Berat and Berat Castle!…
Meeting my parents in Berat!
Berat was also the place where we met my parents! Already planning to travel to Albania since they were in Corfu in the early 80s, they finally made their way!… Coincidentally joining the legions of Dutch visitors, due to a recent popular television show.
Top Tip: When traveling to the coastal area from Berat you pass the town of Fier. Make a visit at the ancient archeological site Apollonia.
Check out Kanionet E Osumit!
One of Albania’s natural highlights, just a 1.5-hour scenic drive, south of Berat is Kaniot E Osumit, or Osumit Canyon. You could do this as a daytrip, but we stayed one night at the family-owned Berclaj Guesthouse. This gives you more opportunity to explore the various viewpoints or even undertake some activities like hiking, swimming, snowshoeing or rafting, depending on the season!
The best stops at Osumit Canyon, Albania
Place these stops in your GPS for the best Canyon experience!
- Bogova Waterfall – On your way to Osumit Canyon, you pass the Bogova waterfall. A fun brief (photo)stop. There are some children who ask money for parking, but you can just drive further onwards and park (much) closer to the waterfall! Rather let these children go to school!… Bring your swimming gear, just in case for a freezing dip.
- Kanionet E skraparit – A fun photo stop, also making you skip the city center of Corovoda town.
- Osumi Canyon viewing point – A nice viewing point, with a bar and restaurant next to it. A bit further down the road you find another viewing point!
- Albania Adventure Park – In case you are interested in rafting (in the right season) you could visit the Albania Adventure Park. In summer the river is too low and they only offer hiking trips (for insane amounts that you could also do yourself easily).
- Osumi Canyon Bridge – This bridge leads you to one of the gravel roads to Gjirokaster (which is most of the time impossible to take by normal sedan car). The bridge offers nice views over the Canyon.
- Summer Bar restaurant – This is a great place for a 15-minute mini hike along the river to an old footbridge. Or a dip into the cold waters from the riverbed!…
- Ura Lapanit – This is more or less as far you can get in the Osumit Canyon with a normal sedan car. A shame as it is only a small section towards Gjirokaster which is unpaved, which would make it much easier to explore Albania. (Instead it takes you about 4 hours to get to Gjirokaster via the main road network. Albania has a lot of improvement potential).
Why you should NOT go to Albania’s beaches!
Do NOT go to the beach in Albania! ‘Huh?’ I hear you say… ‘But I thought Albania is The Maldives of Europe’, as many social media ‘influencers’ are suggesting? Well, for lack of a better word, that is just a bunch of crap!… Unfortunately, it is quite the opposite, Albania is NOTHING like The Maldives, and likely it is one of the worst beach destinations I have ever visited, let me tell you why, and some tips to somewhat mitigate the troublesome situation…
Albania’s main road lays directly next to most the beaches
Most of Albania’s ‘beautiful’ beaches are found along the SH8 road running from Vlore all the way down to Khsamil. This means that you either have to cross a busy road from your hotel to get to your beach, or (slightly better) have the noisy road behind your beach and hotel. The loud bumping pothole sounds, overtaking activities and car horns, do not provide the most tranquil beach experience.
Top Tip: If you ‘have to’ stay at one of the beaches along this road, try to stay as far from the main road as possible. Either inland, or better, at some of the beach-side land tongues. Likely the best example is Dhermi Beach. Dhermi is one of the very few beach destinations along this stretch of coastline that would be nice for a night or two.
Top Tip: Do NOT visit Albania’s beaches! However, DO drive along the beautiful scenic SH8 road! This takes you along Albania’s very impressive coastline and sights as Porto Palermo Castle.
Disastrous city planning and tourism development
Even more terrible for Albania (especially in the longer term) is the wildfire of cheap and ugly developed hotels. This will be impossible to fix in the future and is a ‘missed opportunity in the making’. The best example of this is the disastrous town of Khsamil. Stay far away from here! Often still marketed in (outdated travel guides) as the ‘tranquil alternative’ for the (even worse) city of Sarande, where most Corfu day-trippers arrive. The road network is almost non-existent with traffic jams, cheap hotels are scattered everywhere, the beaches are overcrowded, there are only a handful of (shabby) restaurants, catering queued-up hungry tourists. What a disaster…
Top Tip: If you ‘have to stay’ in Khsamil, go to the (less crowded) Pema e Thate beach and stay at one of the few nice(r) accommodations (that also serves dinner) somewhere outside of the city.
Top Tip: Do NOT stay in Khsamil or Sarande. Stay far away from it! Your time and money are much better spend in Corfu, which is only a 30-minute boatride away from Sarande harbour…. The only highlight here is the archaeological site of Butrint, which reminded me a bit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Ancient ruins, taken back by the forest, or in this case, the swamp…
Most of Albania’s beaches have pebbles
As most Mediterranean beaches, also most Albanian beaches have (annoying) pebble stones. Even the handful of sandy beaches do not come close to the white sandy beaches of The Maldives. This type of mismarketing lures in tourists with wrong expectations, who then have to ‘make the most’ of their hard-earned holiday on the spot. This will work for a few years, until word-of-mouth catches up and tourist numbers start to drop at Albania’s beaches with names like ‘Bora Bora’ and the likes.
All the above combined definitely made us change our travel plans (on the spot, as I am sure – and hope – many others will do). We left Khsamil as soon as possible and exchanged its disappointing crappy beaches for the cultural highlight of Gjirokaster!…
Top Tip: Unwilling to take our loss, we found one semi-nice beach later on our travels, not far from Tirana; (sandy) Karpen Beach. Here you also find ‘Restaurant on the Island’, which during sunset and with some imiganation, starts to resemble The Maldives. If not staying on the campsite you have to pay a (hefty) 10 Euro per person entrance (comes with a sunbed) to the restaurant. However, if you visit just for dinner I believe they need to be happy to have you. Therefore, I highly recommend just bluffing your way in where needed. (Again, one of the many examples where Albania’s hospitality industry can be improved.)
Definitely visit Gjirokaster, Albania!
As mentioned, most of the beauty of Albania lies inland! We exchanged terrible Khsamil for beautiful Gjirokaster! When in Girokaster, roam the Old Bazar (the city center) where you’ll find great shops, restaurants and the Old Bazar Mosque. Walk (or better drive) up to the Gjirokaster castle and visit Skenduli House (the best preserved ottoman house). You can also visit the Cold War tunnel (but no one was present to tour us around, rather skip this and save this for your Tirana visit – see below).
Top Tip: When in Gjirokaster stop for coffee (or breakfast) at Antigonea bakery! Amazing cakes and coffee for bargain prices!…
Top Tip: On your way to Gjirokaster (or as a daytrip) visit The Blue Eye. A freezing cold spring with very blue waters. Divers have descended up to 50 meters in this karst hole, but it is still unclear how deep the waters really are.
Tirana, an unexpectedly nice city!
After experiencing most of the (non-)touristy towns of Albania I was expecting the worst. However, do yourself a favor and reserve at least one day in your trip to explore unexpectedly nice Tirana!…
What to see in Tirana, Albania?
Most of the key things to explore are all around the large Skanderbeg square (named after the Albanian hero that fought the Ottoman rule). Here you also find the Namazgah Mosque, the Opera and the National History museum.
Just off the square, you find Bunk’Art 2, an insightful museum about the dark recent past of Albania, certainly worth a visit. Already well explained at Bunk’Art 2, but if you are really into more details about Albania’s secret service, you could also visit the House of Leaves museum.
Some other nice sights in Tirana’s fairly compact city center are Tirana’s Bazar, Tirana castle (nowadays nicely renovated with shops and restaurants), the Pyramid of Tirana (one of the many modern architectural highlights of Tirana).
From here you can make your way to Biloku, a neighborhood that comes to life at night (but is boring during the day)… We enjoyed a great tasting menu at Mullixhiu next to Tirana Lake.
What to visit in Albania, North of Tirana?
Leaving my parents in Tirana, we made our way north towards Montenegro. There are a few stops North of Tirana that make a nice (photo) stop. In my opinion, if you have a full day (and do not fancy a long drive or hike in the Theth region) you can easily make most, if not all, these stops on a full day driving towards Montenegro.
Castle of Kruja and Tekke of Dollma
A nice first town to explore is Kruja, high up in the Albanian Mountains. The main draw here is Kruja castle offering great views over the city and surroundings. If you wander just south of the castle you’ll find the Tekke of Dollma, one of the most important holy sites for the Bektashi religion. 20% of the Albanian Muslims are Bektashi, forming one of its largest communities in the world.
Lezhe Castle and Skanderbeg Mausoleum
About an hour drive onwards, you’ll reach the town of Lezhe, with yet again a nice castle and the Mausoleum of Skanderbeg. The outside of the Mausoleum is more impressive than the inside. We just glanced over the wall (from the road) and peeked through the door, as we found it a bit ridiculous to buy a ticket for someone’s grave in a public park.
Our experience at Mrizi I Zanave Agroturism
We got this tip from an Albanian to visit Mrizi I Zanave for the food. Unsure what to expect, it seems more people know about this as the place, as it is buzzing with (tour bus) crowds in this enormous venture. Next to the (large) restaurant, they also run a large (seemingly cramped) campsite and organize tours over their farm (could be nice for children).
We arrived just before 16h, and they were almost about to close the kitchen (to reopen at 18h). Perhaps it was our timing, but the staff was chaotic, and did not take the time to offer us a nice(r) table (we took the liberty to find a nice one in their ‘forest area’ ourselves). Also, the Mrizi I Zanave concept was not explained properly at all. Luckily I am here to decipher the madness for them to you…
The Mrizi I Zanave concept – somewhat – explained…
Originally we planned to stay the night here, but from what I have seen I was happy we did not and I suggest you seek somewhere more quiet. The food is actually all homemade and organic, but there seems to be no ‘fixed’ menu. You just pay one price per ‘tasting menu’ and your entire table will be filled with all kinds of local delicacies. (This took a long time to be explained, and when you pay, make sure they actually charge you just a fixed amount, I am still a bit confused). The food is and the concept (when explained) is nice!… Located, just off the main road north, it makes for a nice (lunch) stop… But do take your time and plan to spend a great part of your afternoon here. When in a rush this is NOT the place to go.
The Mrizi I Zanave grounds also house some of the 750.000 bunkers you find throughout Albania. A leftover from the police-state regime. A good opportunity if not already seen these on your tour throughout Albania. Nowadays many of these are colorfully painted.
Shkoder and surroundings
Shkoder pops up on many itineraries as a key place to visit in Albania. However, it is mostly the natural surroundings that make this place interesting. The town itself is not attractive. We stayed the night just outside of Shkoder at Shiroka, with beautiful views over the region’s main draw; Shkoder Lake.
A visit to Rozafa castle is nice for unparalleled views over Shkoder’s surroundings in all directions! Another nice photo stop is the ancient Mesi Bridge. We have seen more of these medieval bridges in the Balkans, but this one is nice to get to with a nice Balkan backdrop!
Conclusion; Should you visit Albania?
The problem with Albania is that the current wildfire of (often) quickly built and ugly tourist infrastructure cannot be easily undone. This would make Albania a (very) unattractive (beach) destination in the near future (if it not already is). Especially if prices keep rising, Albania will not be able to compete with other beach destinations like Greece, Italy, Turkey or other Balkan countries. In my opinion this is a missed opportunity in the making! I am about to publish this post from Montenegro, and what a difference, it is almost a relief to have crossed the border…
Then again, given Albania’s recent past, combined with its natural and cultural highlights, away from the overcrowded and messy beaches, you find an interesting (and still low-cost) country to explore! In addition, if you do your research very well, you could still top off your Albania explorations with some nice days of tranquil beach. However, the latter will get more and more difficult as time passes and you may want to combine your Albania trip with some of the destinations listed below for much better beach relaxation…
What to combine with your Albania trip?
From Northern Albania, we made our way onwards to Montenegro. Read all our travel tips & tricks via the link… Or read some of the other Ghost around the Globe adventures via the links provided below:
- Czechia – Road trip along all the country’s highlights!
- Poland – Best things to do in Krakow
- Hungary – Best highlights of the country, with deep dive of Budapest
- Romania – All you need to know!
- Bulgaria – Great short road trip along all highlights!
- Kosovo – The best things of the youngest European country
- Greece – Road trip over the beautiful mainland
- Montenegro – All you need to know!