Travel tips for Albania: Europe’s hidden gem

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If there’s one thing I’ve heard many times over the last few weeks in person and online it’s: “Albania looked amazing!”. I probably went a bit overboard sharing photos from this former Eastern Bloc country on social media but I simply could not help it! It’s such a beautiful country with so much to offer.

Albania makes an excellent addition to any Euro trip here are some handy tips to help plan your visit.

Getting around

We got to Saranda in the south of Albania by taking an overnight bus from Athens, Greece. Trains aren’t really a thing in Albania so travel within the country is predominately by bus and car.

We took a bus from Saranda to Drymades beach for 700 lek (about 5 euros). To get the bus we just walked into the centre of town and asked each bus driver for ‘Dhermi’ until we found one going there an hour and a half later. We left our big backpack on the bus and went to have lunch in the meantime. It was a small bus that they packed full to the brim.

To get from Drymades to Tirana, the capital, we knew we had to get two buses; one from the highway near Drymades to Vlore and then a second from Vlore to Tirana. Unfortunately the first bus just didn’t seem to exist, so we paid a man to drive us. This is common in Albania, where some cars have a ‘taxi’ sign and others don’t. We were travelling in a group of 4 so I felt safe and would have if it was just the usual two of us.

To leave we took a bus from Tirana to Durres to then take an overnight ferry from Durres to Bari, Italy. This was actually less painful than I anticipated! But did involve a night of sleeping on the floor.

On one day in Saranda we hired a car to get to the Blue Eye spring, Butrint ancient ruins and a beach. It cost 40 euros for the day. The roads in this area were mostly good but the drivers were quite aggressive. Albanians like to joke they are bad drivers because they only got cars 25 years ago (after the fall of communism). You need to keep an eye out for animals; we passed goats, donkeys, horses and cows on the road!

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The beast of a car we hired in Saranda

Accommodation 

We stayed at Beni’s Hostel in Saranda for 7 euros a night (breakafst included) and at Sea Turtle Camping in Drymades Beach for 8.70 euros a night including breakfast and dinner. We stayed with a new Albanian friend in Tirana (see The Locals section below)!

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Sea Turtle Camping

Eating

It’s common for restaurants in Albania not to have menus! Most of them sell the same thing and the locals know everything they are likely to have so know what to order. It’s the same at coffee shops. Restaurants in the tourist areas will have menus and a lot of it is very similar to Greek food; meat, or fish along the coast, salads and dips. Just not quite as good as Greek food though! I’m not sure what they do to olives in Albania but they were plain awful.

The hostel we stayed at in Saranda had breakfast included and the option of having dinner as well. The breakfast was burek (filo pastry stuffed with cheese like a Greek spanakopita), a small omelette, a small piece of cake and a piece of fruit. The dinner was salad (they love to drown tomatoes in salt and oil, it’s delicious!), maybe some kind of cooked veggies, more burek and bread.

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I believe this delicious plate of calamari cost 5 euros

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Trusty french fries and BBQ meats

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Local sausage and ‘salads’ aka dips

The locals

I don’t think you will find friendlier people than Albanians. Andrew and I have noticed a trend that countries relatively new to tourism still absolutely love seeing visitors. It was a very similar story in El Salvador. People are curious as to why you’re there and if they speak English, will do absolutely anything to help.

When we got off our night bus we had no idea where to go (street addresses can be a bit complicated) and a local man from the bus said we could just come with him in the general direction of our hostel until we found it. We found it!

We made four Albanian friends in Drymades Beach, one spoke English and I was able to converse with one of the others in German. They were so lovely and invited us to lunch in the mountains; the German speaker drove us and then turned around and went back to get the other guys!

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Our new Albanian friends plus American Frankie and English Cherry with whom we travelled with

Things to do around Saranda

Saranda

Saranda

There wasn’t much to do in Saranda itself, unless you like packed beaches right next to the port! But it’s a good base to do things in the surrounding areas.

Although many other bloggers recommend it, I actually think Ksamil beach is hugely overrated. It’s just south of Saranda, an easy bus ride away, but it’s so packed with people it took us an hour just to find somewhere to put our bag down. Let alone roll out a towel! Boating and jet skiing is popular in the swimming areas so it’s not very relaxing, we were constantly worried about getting hit. Head north to Lukove instead (details below).

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Ksamil beach: ehhhh

The day we hired a car we explored Butrint; ancient Greek/Roman ruins that date back to 314BC.

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After Burint we headed to the Blue Eye, a natural spring where ice cold water bubbles up from more than 50m below. It’s stunningly clear and blue but you won’t be able to spend long in there due to the freezing temperatures.

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After the Blue Eye we headed back to the coast and drove north to Lukove Beach which was absolutely stunning. We had a delicious seafood meal at a restaurant on the beach and then relaxed on the sand, read and snorkelled.

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There wasn’t much to see under the water but it was still lovely

Dhermi/Drymades Beach

An absolute paradise and I dedicated my last blog post to Drymades, read it here.

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Tirana

Two nights is the absolute maximum you need in Tirana. It’s a very interesting capital city but there isn’t a tonne of stuff to do there. There is a thriving cafe scene though so I recommend trying out the Freddo (cold) coffees.

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I highly recommend the Tirana Free Walking Tour, it gives excellent insight into Albania’s history. Along the tour you stop at relics from the communist era (see bunker below), as well as mosques and churches, which sit harmoniously alongside one another.

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All of Albania is littered with bunkers, which are apparently impossible to get rid of!

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A pedestrian boulevard

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An apartment building and a mural

There are lots of other places we would have liked to have seen in Albania but unfortunately ran out of time. We’ll be back! We met quite a few European travellers in Albania and only one Australian. My sister travelled there about 10 years ago and I’m sure it’s changed immensely and will continue to do so as tourism builds. Get there soon!

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5 Responses to Travel tips for Albania: Europe’s hidden gem

  1. Eric Kentor says:

    Hi Bec. This was a great read for me. When I did my travels way-back-when (1982 [yes… an old man indeed]), I spent a considerable amount of time in Greece and Yugoslavia (at least it was still Yugoslavia back then… mostly in the parts that are now Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia). Albania was so tantalizingly close, and included all that great coastline on the lower Adriatic that was just a total black hole that had, as I recall, zero access. Thanks for sharing what I missed!

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks for sharing. We were only planning spending one day in Shooter but I’m thinking about longer now.

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