Explore this most beautiful and friendliest country in the world - its not scary as people say.
My personal list of handy Albania travel tips. All first hand knowledge - written during my travels in Albania. Albania is not scary!
All the tips have been categorised into sections. Just click on each tab to fully open and start reading.
- You hardly see bus stop signs anywhere. That's because bascially you can flag down a bus from anywhere you stand – follow what the locals do and stand under a tree!
- No need to pre-book bus tickets in advance, even in high season. I always bought my bus fare at the bus station at least 40 minutes before departure.
- Ferry travel from the island of Corfu (Greece) to Saranda in Albania is quick and cheap. Direct ferries take 30min. Two ferries a day load cars as well – these ferries take about 70-90 minutes.
During the summer season, book your ticket online at least 24 hours prior to departure to avoid disappointment, or turn up very early at the ticket agencies across the road from Sette Venti café at Corfu domestic port.
- Hitchhiking seems to be quite safe in Albania. Locals will stop and offer you (tourists and locals alike) a ride even if your thumb wasn’t asking for a ride. I saw drivers stopping at bus stops asking if anyone wanted a ride. I guess to save them a bus fare. When the locals tell you to hitch to places of interests, then you know its safe. I found the Albanians to be so friendly and helpful.
- Be prepared to pay cash everywhere you go in Albania, as majority of places do not accept credit cards except for large hotels and supermarkets. The 3 banks ATMs that dont charge a fee to withdraw cash (excluding what your bank may charge) are: BKT, Alpha Bank and Credins (valid August 2019).
- Before you leave Albania, ensure you have used up all your Lek cash or change it all to Euro's at a money changer. I found that no other Balkan country would accept Albanian Lek or exchange it for local currency.
Albania travel tips by City
- Saranda is a huge sprawling seaside resort, overcrowded with tourists in high season. I would only stay a couple of days to do two interesting day trips:
- Butrint ruins
- Blue Eye
- Must visit the old Butrint ruins. Avoid the huge crowds or tour buses by taking an early local bus to Butrint – departs every hour. One hour journey from Saranda. Takes about 2 hours to explore the whole site. The Basilica is a great photo opportunity. The famous mosaic floor is uncovered for tourists for a short while in April only.
- Another must see day trip is to the Blue Eye – the most amazing coloured and freezing cold natural spring. Most people drove their rented cars there but parking is a nightmare if you don’t get there early. I caught the local bus for the 35 minute journey. The bus drops you off on the main highway. Then it’s a 5 minute walk to the ticket booth. Then an 18 minute walk on a dusty road to the natural spring. Aim to arrive before 10am to avoid the mass of tourists and to marvel at the deeper vibrant colours of the water (makes better photos).
- Half way down the main promenade (in front of Saranda Marina) is a Vodafone shop. It sells tourist prepaid SIMs. 1300lek/AUD18 for 14 days validity with 500min talk time and 10GB of data. Or a 21 day tourist SIM for 1500lek/AUD20 with 20GB.
They will register it and set it up on your phone for you. Consequently there are long queues for this service – I had to wait 1.5 hours for my turn. Note – must bring your passport with you for registration.
- To avoid the boat activity in front of the town beaches along the main promenade, walk north. There are little pebbled beaches with their own beach bar, serving people on the dutifully lined sunbeds. Aloha Bar was nice. It also has a small patch of public beach in-between the Aloha Bar and Africa Bar, if you don’t want to pay for a sunbed.
- For tasty, good quality kebabs and burgers that are cheap in a non-fancy bamboo bar, you can’t go past Ine’s Grill Beer. Definitely worth a stop for dinner or late night snack.
- Visiting this Unesco world heritage listed town isn’t complete unless you also take a look inside an original house from the Ottoman empire period. There are two houses open for tourists. I would recommend to do both in the following order:
Skenduli House. Closer to the centre but the entry fee includes a tour of the whole house. Listening to each rooms functions and rules gave you a glimpse into the life during the Ottoman empire. It brought the house to life.
Zekata House. Located further away, up a hill without any direction signs (had to rely on Google maps). Unfortunately the entry fee does not include any tours. But as you’ve just done the tour at Skenduli, you already understand what you are looking at in each room. The best part is the views of the castle in the distance from the balcony. It makes up for the lack of richness inside the house when compared to the Skenduli House.
- If you like to sample local food, you must try the local traditional dish of Qifqi – riceballs. Made with herbs, egg and milk – no flour. They were very tasty and complimented well with a side dish of grilled vegetables at restaurant Check In.
- The best restaurant in town for traditional Albanian food is Wildor. It was the tastiest food I had in all of Albania.
- A surprising find about this Unesco World Heritage Listed site is that it is surrounded by a few wineries. I can highly recommend Alpeta Winery in the village of Roshnik. Their white wine made from local pules grape was divine. The 2015 reds were their best year. They even provided us with snacks, all made from the village. It was the best goats cheese I’ve ever tasted. This winery also has accommodation if you wish to experience typical Albanian country life.
- I can highly recommend local tour operator called 1001 Albanian Tours. I joined their Waterfalls and Canyon tour. Genty, the guide, was so knowledgeable and thoughtful. Always found interesting plants to tell us about and fed us with wild fruits and berries. He was also an excellent photographer – single handedly managed to take photos from all our cameras at every vantage point, even in Osumi canyon. A great day out. TG Tip: best time to go canyoning is from 12.00-2.00pm while the sun is still high shining down into the canyon.
- Highly highly recommend doing this free walking tour before you even start to explore the city or country. Tirana Free Walking Tour operates twice a day for a two hour guided walk that is so informative and interesting. The guides share their passion for their culture and history with tourists. They nut down the whole Albanian history and politics in small, easily digestible chunks that you leave feeling like you are a history expert. It gives you a better appreciation of the country and its people. The guides are so entertaining in their information and explanation that you are totally engaged for the whole two hours. It was the best city tour I’ve ever done (free or not).
- The most interesting touristy city site to visit is BunkArt 1. The largest and best bunker to visit in Albania, built by the dictator Enver Hoxha. The rooms are converted into a museum. Everything was written in Albanian and English. It was well worth the visit for the historical information. So glad I did the free city walking tour earlier as it made things clearer for me in the bunker and not have to read every single thing.
The cheapest way to get there is by taking the blue bus with Porcelan written on the front, from the city bus station (Tirana Rinas Station, in front of Plaza Hotel). It drops you off right in front of the tunnel entrance.
- Outdoor flair! For a great selection of fruits and wares in an outdoor market surrounded by trendy bars and cafes, make your way to the New Bazaar. So much to choose from.
Alternatively, for an upmarket outdoor mall lined with trendy shops and cafes, go for a stroll through the Castle of Tirana.
- The best place to hang out in this city is the colourful Sheshi or Piazza. Its an outdoor street mall called Rruga Kolë Idromeno. Many cafes and bars. But for the best traditional Albanian food in town, then you must try Sofras.
- Definitely worth the 40 minute walk to Rozafa Castle for the most magnificent Albanian sunset over Lake Shkoder. The castle ruins were pretty too.
- If Shkoder is your last stop before heading into Montenegro, you will want to use up all your Albanian Lek. No other Balkan country will change Albanian Lek. So you either use up all the cash in Albania before you leave, or change it into Euros at the money changers behind the mosque on the main pedestrian mall (the Sheshi).
VALBONA TO THETH TREK
- Arrangements. My hostel (The Wanderers Hostel) made all the arrangements on my behalf and it all ran so smoothly. So if your hotel/hostel can do the same, I would highly recommend it. I met people who purchased the journey segments separately (bus transfers and ferry tickets) and in the end they didn’t really save any money but had more stress along the way.
- Valbona accommodation. The best place to stay in Valbona before starting on the hike is Arben Selimaj guesthouse. For 2200lek we got one nights accommodation and 4 meals (including a packed lunch for our hike). This family is so friendly, speaks english and even made me gluten free meals. So accommodating. It’s located right on the river, great for a dip in the heat of the day. And only a 15min walk to the village.
- Valbona town. There is nothing in this sparse town to buy and make your own meals/lunches. We only found a small kiosk selling canned drinks and crisps. You have to rely on the guesthouse. And you will want to pick a good one. We met two Czech guys that were starving as their guesthouse gave them rice and chicken for dinner which was mainly bone, so our gracious hosts gave them a decent feed. Then their guesthouse did not have breakfast ready for them at 7am. The bus to the trail start was at 7.30am! It pays to research for a good place to overnight in. We found only one small kiosk selling drinks and crisps.
- Water. No need to bring large bottles of water with you. There are three bars/coffee stops along the trek providing free running mountain water to top up or relax with a coffee/tea and canned drinks.
- Blue Eye hike. If you have time, I would spend an extra night in Theth and do the hike to the Blue Eye. Its about a 3 hour hike in each direction and you do want to spend some time at the vibrantly coloured pond. We had to rush back to make it for our scheduled jeep transfer back to Shkoder. Which meant we missed out on seeing a waterfall along the way. Would have been nice to walk at a leisurely pace and spend one more night relaxing in the mountains.
- Transfer Theth back to Shkoder. There are minivans that go back to Shkoder in the morning, the last being 12.00pm at EUR10 pp. After that the guesthouse owner can arrange for a jeep to take you at EUR60/jeep that fits six people. So, if you have six passengers, you will pay EUR10 each. Which we did.