THE ULTIMATE ALBANIAN ROAD TRIP
If you have a few weeks in Albania, get yourself a car (or better yet, a campervan) and experience the wild, rugged beauty of Albania. The people are great, and the scenery is even greater.
We entered Albania through Montenegro, so we did a loop from the top to the bottom, but the best parts of Albania are in the south. On our trip we started in Shkodër, but haven’t included it in this suggested itinerary because if we had our time again we would skip it in favour of Valbona Valley National Park. We didn’t get to this park because we had so many others in Bosnia and Montenegro that we were planning on visiting, but if you’re just going to Albania, it’s apparently incredible, and is definitely on our hit list for next time!
Driving in Albania
We found many of the roads in Albania to be brutal. In the more rural areas of the country we had to swerve potholes every few meters, dodge wild dogs, and stop regularly for livestock. Around the cities, there were many hair-raising moments where we narrowly avoided headlong collisions from people wildly overtaking each other without warning. For this reason, it always took us longer to get from point A to point B than in other parts of Europe - we learned not to breathe easy thinking we would have a cruisey 4 hour drive from city to city, rather, we came to expect 4 hours of relentless twists and turns and bumps - but also relentless beauty. One of our favourite experiences in Albania was our impromptu drive from Shkodër to a beer festival in Korçë, which is in the west, towards the Greek and Macedonian border. It was a loooonnngg drive through desolate landscape, but the views were incredible, and the stars and full moon when we stopped overnight in the middle of nowhere were unforgettable - for this reason we’ve recommended going to and from Korçë partly for the town but mainly for the drive! The SH37 between Korçë and Gjirokaster is considered to be one of the most dangerous roads, so you need to concentrate, but e also found it to be the most rewarding.
Eating and Sleeping in Albania
Albanian food is simple, fresh and inexpensive. You can get amazing seafood at a fraction of the price of anywhere else and it's always cooked to perfection. At every meal we ordered a giant greek salad for the equivalent of about $2AUD and we ate truckloads of mussels.
In terms of accommodation, we did a lot of wild camping in Albania, but there were also plenty of nice hotels around. If you're in a campervan, wild camping in Albania is stunning. There are plenty of locations that you can pull up for a few nights to enjoy the beauty of the area, and we always felt completely safe. Our two favourite spots were inside an abandoned castle called 'The Fortress of Bashtovë' and beside the 'Benja Thermal Baths' in the middle of nowhere.
For the nights when you need some power (or a shower) the campsites are generally decent. We stayed at Ksamil Caravan Camping in Ksamil and Camping Legjenda, just outside of Shkodër, which were both beautiful.
Deciding on a route
We suggest starting in the south and deciding if you want to do a loop, or work your way up to Valbona Valley National park.
We've compiled a brief description of the highlights in at each recommended stop, and only mentioned where we stayed or ate if it was particularly special:
We loved this region because ‘My Family & Other Animals’ is a hell of a good book, and the BBC adaptation is even better (not the 2018 TV series, we haven’t seen that). It’s an autobiographical childhood story of Gerard Durrell, a British naturalist, conservationist, zookeeper, and all round animal lover, and his family during their time on Corfu before the outbreak of WWII. Durrell recalls long days exploring the marshes and natural landscape of Butrint and Corfu and the animals he encountered.
Butrint and Corfu (which is technically Greece, not Albania) remain ruggedly beautiful places to explore. Butrint has become and entire World Heritage national park due to its eclectic mix of prehistoric, ancient and early modern ruins which reflect the years spent under Roman, Venetian, French, and British rule. It makes the perfect stop on your way to or from Corfu where you can spend hours relaxing by the water.
Ksamil is a small beachfront town cluttered with the usual beach chairs and bars. There are a few nice restaurants and the water is beautiful, but if you’re looking for something quieter, more ‘hidden’ and more relaxing (which we were), head around the corner to where the camping sites are (there are a few hotels/air bnbs as well). Here you’ll find a whole section of tiny bays and a few casual beach bars. The water is unbelievably clear and blue, and we spent a few days just lying on the beach reading in between dips. The whole area of Ksamil less well known, and therefore less manic than the more popular beachfronts along the coast of Montenegro and Croatia. Plus, you can get delicious fresh seafood at a fraction of the price - be sure to book in for dinner or lunch at the famous Mussel House overlooking Lake Butrint.
The harbour town of Vlorë is where Albania declared it independence from the Ottoman empire at the start of the 20th Century, so it is a place of national pride. As the third largest city in the country, it is also one of the liveliest with no shortage of cocktail bars and delicious restaurants around to make your evenings memorable. During the day there are plenty of architectural gems to discover, or you can relax by the crystal waters on some of the most beautiful beaches in Albania.
At almost 3000 years old, Durrës is the oldest city in Albania and it has the ruins to prove it. While not a ‘must-visit’ destination, it’s a good stopover, and you can see the huge amphitheater of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, 2nd century bathhouses, and walk along the remains of the old city walls (the same road trod by Caesar himself).
Also known as the ‘city of stone’ because of the 600 Ottoman buildings that scale the hillside and line the cobbled streets of the central bazaar, Gjirokastër oozes character. We loved it so much we wrote a whole blog post on it that you can find here.
The town is rich with architectural gems which are fun to explore, particularly the castle, which is the biggest in Albania. One of the best things to do in Gjirokastër is wander the streets and talk to the local people, then head out of the main town to a family run vineyard/restaurant called ‘The Barrells’ for an unforgettable meal.
Along the coast between Sarandë and Vlorë you'll find this series of stunning beaches. Take your pick of where you want to stop: they all offer magnificent blue waters and are surrounded by cliffs and mountains.
If you want something that caters well to visitors, be sure to stop at Dhërmi, Himara, or Borsh. Borsh is considered the largest beach on the Ionian Sea - at 7km long it's a good place to go if you don't feel like being jammed into tiny patch of sand (pebbles) like a sardine. If you want something more secluded you can hike to Gijpe beach. There is a small car park at the furthest point on the road to Gijpe, from where you take a beautiful trail down through the canyon and eventually to the beach - it takes about 30 mins. Another lesser known spot is the Karaburun Peninsula. It's a pristine nature reserve where you'll find jagged cliffs and caves.
Not far from Gjirokastër you will find the ‘Blue Eye’, a mysterious water spring. The water is the most electric shade of turquoise, turning to deepest blue at the centre of the ‘eye’. It’s quite mesmerising to look into the pupil of the spring and see softly bubbling water flowing up from far far below. The actual depth of the eye is unknown - divers have made it down 50 meters, but are yet to reach the bottom. While there is a ‘no swimming’ sign, brave divers are not deterred from leaping off the wooden balcony above and into the freezing water.
They say that you should visit Berat or Gjirokastër because they are both beautiful Ottoman towns but look very similar - we say visit both, because while they look similar, they have completely different characters. Gjirokastër is the city of stone, and Berat is the city of floating windows, because from the river you can see the old Ottoman houses flowing down the hill with their windows stacked one on top of the other. While most of the action in Gjirokastër takes place through the old town around the Bazaar, Berat’s old town is more of a tight labyrinth of steeply cobbled alleyways that will confuse and exhaust you as you climb - in the best possible way. Then when it’s time to relax, there is the newer part of town (more ‘hip’ than Gjirokastër) where you can sip beer and watch the old men gather at dusk to play chess on the wooden tables under the trees. We stayed closer to this area in a beautiful hotel called Hotel Vila Twix - we were so hot in the van we treated ourselves to some aircon for a couple of nights and it was bliss!
Berat Castle is also worth a visit - it’s unique in that it is still a small city (people still live in the castle walls) and there is an excellent restaurant called Temi Albanian Food.
Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe. It straddles the border between Albania and Macedonia and is the place to go if you want to relax and soak up some peace and quiet. There are beautiful spots along the Albanian side of the lake, such as Pogradec, Drilon, and Tushemisht, but if you can, it’s worth taking a car round to the Macedonian side where you will find stunning monasteries (such as the Sveti Naum) and viewpoints, as well as the medieval town of Ohrid itself.
Korce has a beautiful old town with a lively bar culture and amazing food. We had one of the best ravioli meals of our life at Antik Restaurant. As we said, the only reason we went to Korçë was because we read that there was a beer festival going on, which was advertised as ‘the biggest event in Albania’ (it was one of our more bizarre festival experiences, and by the way, Korçë beer is terrible…) but we ended up loving the town. It’s relaxing, easy, and budget friendly. The destination is almost as good as the journey -if you have the time to road trip it there, and back, you won’t regret it: the drive there through the Albanian landscape was out of this world.
Valbona Valley National Park
The Valbona Valley is home to the alps of Albania. As we said, we didn’t get there this time, but we wish we did and we consider it a must for anyone planning a trip to Albania. If turquoise water, majestic mountains, wildflowers and breathtaking beauty is your thing, then Valbona Valley can deliver in spades. Like other natural areas in Albania, the land has been passed down through generations, and you will find excellent hospitality in the traditional bujtina, guesthouses built and managed by local families.