Have a week to spend in Albania? I suggest you follow this amazing itinerary that I created for my Dad’s first trip outside of North America. My Dad and his partner Nancy recently came to visit me to celebrate the end of my Peace Corps service and to get a taste of the beautiful country I have been inhabiting for the past two years. I wish we could have spent more time together traveling the country (because there are SO MANY WONDERFUL PLACES to visit), but sadly I am extremely busy trying to finish everything up before I officially end my time as a Peace Corps volunteer on May 29th. Luckily, they were both able to take a week off work and we were able to see a good portion of southern Albania. Check out our trip below!
Day One: Arrival in Tirana, Night in Kavaje
My parents arrived at the Tirana International Airport in the afternoon after a long trip from Colorado and they were pretty tired. We rented a car because public transportation can be unreliable and often tacks on several hours of travel time. We also wanted the freedom to travel in the evening and see things on our own time. I’d definitely recommend renting a car if you can afford it. It is only about thirty euro per day to rent a car here, so it’s pretty cheap.
Our first day we spent exploring the city of Kavaje. This is the city I have been living in for the past two years, so it was a must that my family experience a night in my town and a night living in my apartment. I think they both got a kick out of the layout of my apartment and it was definitely an experience for them using a Turkish toilet for the first time. We went to my favorite seafood place in town with my sitemate before they fell asleep from exhaustion. Kavaje is not a tourist city in Albania, but it could become one in the future because the local government is redoing the entire city center and making everything a lot more bukur (beautiful).
If you’re traveling to Albania I would recommend spending your first (or last) couple of nights in the capital city of Tirana rather than in Kavaje. There is a lot to do there and you can find many delicious restaurants and bars in the block area.
Day Two: Kavaje to Berat
The second day we traveled down to meet my boyfriend Quinn and visit the UNESCO heritage site of Berat. Berat is a must-see city for tourists because it is full of history, hiking, and beautiful scenery. While in Berat we went on the herbatorium hike up the mountain on the other side of Osum river. To get to the top of the mountain it took about an hour. I was surprised because the trail was actually marked well in the beginning (although towards the end it wasn’t quite as easy to follow). After the hike my parents went up to the castle and then we all had dinner at Mangalemi. My parents also stayed at the Mangalemi hotel and it was very impressive. Mangalemi was the most expensive hotel during the trip, but it also had some of the nicest amenities and all of the rooms have been renovated.
Day Three: Berat to Himare, Excursion to Apollonia
We went from Berat to Fier and took a small side-trip to the ancient site of Apollonia. Apollonia was a beautiful place to stop and see some ancient architecture and statues. I am not sure what the normal price is to enter Apollonia because no one actually charged us to enter the sites or the museum. You never know whether you’ll luck out while visiting Albanian castles and historical sites because sometimes you have to pay and sometimes you don’t.
After Apollonia we stopped for pizza in Fier. Peace Corps volunteers love to have pizza in Fier because they have barbeque chicken pizza, which is extremely rare here. It’s always nice to have a taste of home right in our own backyard. Once we filled up on pizza, we continued our way down south to the small beach town of Himare. Himare is on the southern coast in between Vlore and Saranda. It takes a while to travel down to Himare, but the view along the way is beautiful. Most of the drive is along the coast, with a short portion in between the southern mountains. In Himare we stayed at an Airbnb apartment that another volunteer recommended to me. It was absolutely wonderful and had a beautiful panoramic view of the coast and town with breakfast included. We went to dinner at a seafood restaurant in town and had coffee the next morning in the center near the beach. I went for a brief swim, but the water was still pretty cold. I hear it begins to warm up a bit more in late-June and remains that way throughout the summer. Beware though because there are a lot of tourists in July and especially August.
Day Four: Himare to Ksamil
On our fourth day we continued driving down the coast to Ksamil which is one of the most southern cities in Albania. On our way down we came across a castle that was built on a small island in the sea. We thought it looked neat and it was only accessible by private vehicle (or by walking from the highway), so we decided to check it out. Before we headed up to the castle I noticed an abandoned building that was decorated with colorful street art. The paintings masked a portion of the cracking exterior of the concrete block structure, so of course that was very intriguing. Me being me, I decided to check out what was inside and was in shock at what I found. Not only was there more street art, but there was also gigantic piles of çaj mali (Albanian mountain tea) everywhere. I was so surprised to find enough tea to supply an entire village for the whole winter. It was so unexpected and I definitely think it was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in Albania. Then we went to the castle, which was also pretty neat, especially for those historian buffs.
As we continued our way down the winding road I was curious if we’d ever make it to Saranda. Even though Albania is a small country, about the size of Maryland, it sure does take a long time to travel across. We also took the scenic coastal road, which added on several hours of winding roads. After we finally made it to Saranda we had lunch near the port with the volunteer who lives there and she gave us some suggestions on things to do in the area. We made it down to Ksmail in the mid-afternoon and went for a swim and a xhiro around town. The water was crystal clear and pretty warm once you got used to it.
Day Five: Excursion to Butrint
We stayed an extra night at Hotel Castle in Ksamil so that we could go on a mini day-trip to the best-preserved UNESCO heritage site in Albania. It is another must-see if you are in southern Albania. We spent hours walking around the various sites in Butrint and one could honestly spend an entire day exploring and reading about all the history from that region. My dad even met a new friend, a random sleeping dog, off one of the main roads while we were hiking around Butrint. In the afternoon we went for another swim and then had the best seafood dinners I’ve had in Saranda at Demi Restaurant. One plus to having tons of delicious fresh seafood is pairing it with the tasty, yet cheap, white wine.
Day Six: Ksamil, the Blue Eye, and Gjirokaster
The next day we continued our journey back up north to Gjirokaster. Along the way we stopped at the southern blue eye, which was on my Albanian bucket list. Thanks dad! At the blue eye we were able to relax right next to the water and have an afternoon coffee to keep us going for the rest of our drive north.
In Gjirokaster we stayed at an adorable, traditional bed and breakfast. Kotoni BnB was a great deal because it was inexpensive and the hosts were great! Both of them spoke fluent English, gave us tips on things to do in Gjirokaster, and provided a pretty nice breakfast complete with Turkish coffee and mountain tea. Both rooms we had gave us a lovely view of the castle and old town Gjirokaster. Definitely a place that I would recommend staying at!
We toured some traditional houses in the city and also went up to the castle. The city was preparing for the traditional Albanian folk dance festival, so tourist season was just about to begin. If only we had planned their vacation a week later we could have experienced some traditional valle dances from different regions all over the country. Of course we tried lots of traditional Albanian food all throughout our trip and we couldn’t leave Gjirokaster without trying qifqi, rice balls made with egg and seasoning, a dish known in the Gjirokaster region.
Day Seven: Back to Tirana
My parents trip came to an end and we traveled back up to Tirana so that they would be ready for their early morning flight at 5am the next day. If you have some time in the Tirana area before you go other places I would recommend checking out are Kruje and Mt Dajlti. There is a cable car that runs up Mt Dajti and there is a traditional market and castle in Kruje (plus there is also a statue of US President George W. Bush).
If you’re staying longer than a week in Albania, I would recommend spending an extra day down south and going to the Benji hot springs near Permet. Northern Albania is also especially beautiful because it is full of mountains and friendly people. Shkoder is a beautiful city with a great evening xhiro and a beautiful lake (plus another castle). And if you like hiking you should check out the hike from Valbona to Thethi in the summer months!
I am so happy that I was able to share a bit of wonderful Albania with my dad, Nancy, and my mom back in March. Now I feel like my family a better understanding of where I have been living these past two years. Goal three of Peace Corps is to share Albanian culture with people back in the states and there was no better way for me to show them with Shqiperia has to offer than by giving them a complete tour. This trip was also very special for me because I am used to living the lifestyle of a volunteer and it was interesting for me to experience Albania as a “tourist.” The country is really making great strides in the tourism industry and I know that in five to ten years Albania will be one of the top spots to visit in the Balkans because of the stunning nature and hospitable locals. Just FYI, Albania was voted #4 of the top 52 places to visit by the New York Times in 2014. So this is me telling you that you should visit Albania while it’s still cheap and undiscovered!