Travel Budget: Albania

Gjirokaster Castle
The old castle in Gjirokaster

If you’re planning on heading to one of the coastal countries in the Balkans, then Albania is definitely the cheapest when compared to Montenegro and Croatia! Hostels are about a third of the price of those in Croatia and the food is equally cheap- and delicious.

Here’s a breakdown of what I spent over two weeks exploring Albania solo.

Towns Visited: Shkodër, Valbone, Theth, Himare, Sarandë, Gjirokastër, Tirana

Travel Style: Budget

Currency: Albanian Lek (Euro also widely accepted)

Duration: 17 nights

Season: End of Summer (September)

Total Spend: 544€

Daily Spend: 32€

Beach
Enjoying the southern coast of Albania

Accommodation: 

241€ for 17 nights

Guesthouse
One of the guesthouses I stayed at in Theth
  • 11 nights in a shared hostel dorm, averaging 9.5€ per night, the cheapest being 7.5€ per night including a large breakfast (Shkoder)
  • 2 nights in a private room at a hostel for 21€ per night
  • 2 nights in a shared room in guesthouses in Valbone (20€) and Theth (23€) including all meals
  • 2 nights in a (very nice) private AirBnB in Tirana at 27€ per night

Transport:

83€ for 17 days

Bicycles in Tirana
Getting around by bicycle is a favourite choice for locals
  • Local buses: around 2€ per hour. For example, 10€ for the 5 hour trip from Tirana to Himare. In total I spent 70€ on local buses which enabled me to see the majority of the main towns and sites in the country.
  • Boat: 7€ for the Koman ferry as part of the trip from Shkoder to Valbone
  • Bicycle hire: 3€ for the day, I hired a bike for two days to explore around Shkoder

Food & Drink: 

150€ food, 25€ alcohol for 17 days

Local Breakfast
Breakfast at guesthouses usually consists of small traditional pancakes, home made butter, jam, honey, fresh milk and strong coffee

Carbs feature heavily in the Albanian diet, as does cheese- mainly a strong form of feta. Salads are also abundant and mainly consist of cucumber, tomatoes and cheese. As these ingredients are all produced locally, the salads are delicious and fresh. There’s a strong Italian influence throughout, with pizza, pasta and gelato available everywhere, while close to the Greek border calamari and gyrus are common and delicious. Strong Balkan coffee is served everywhere.

Over the course of 17 days I spent 25€ on groceries, 125€ eating out and 25€ on alcoholic drinks.

  • Breakfast: everywhere I stayed breakfast was included the hostel or guesthouse rate
  • Coffee: 1.5€ for strong Balkan coffee, 2€ for an interpretation of cappuccino
  • Lunch: Panini and smoothie at a nice cafe will set you back around 4€
  • Beer: Very cheap. Around 0.8€ at supermarkets and 2€ at restaurants
  • Dinner: At local ‘fast food’ places you can get a filling, tasty kebab for 1-2€. In most towns dinner at a nice traditional restaurant with a selection of local specialties, a glass of wine and Raikia (local spirit) will set you back around 10€ (for everything). Near the Greek border you can get amazing seafood dinners for 5-10€ at local restaurants.

Activities:

45€ over 17 days

  • 15€ for a 4 hour boat trip along the coast from Himare
  • 8€ for a double deck chair at the beach with a large sun umbrella
  • 2-3€ entry fee for most attractions

 

Total spent:   544€ / 17 nights = 32€ per day

Top 5 Things To Do In Albania

Albania was full of surprises for me. I hadn’t really planned an itinerary and had heard mixed reviews about how easy it would be to travel through the country. It turned out to be very straightforward to get around by public transport, and I found the country to be a wonderful mix of mountain hikes, stone cities, beaches, Roman ruins and incredibly cool cafes and bars.

Here are the highlights from my 5 favouite places I visited.

1. Hike from Valbone to Theth & Visit the Blue Eye

This 6-8 hour trek takes you through stunning mountain scenery to arrive in the beautiful Theth Valley. Once you reach Theth the Blue Eye is another highlight. But possibly my favourite thing about visiting Theth was staying with local families at guest houses. You can read more about how to get to Theth and do the trek here.

2. Bicycle Around Shkodër

Pleasantly reminiscent of colonial Italian architecture and atmosphere, this relaxed town is both near the border with Montenegro and Albania’s capital Tirana. This makes Shkodër the perfect place to either start your journey in Albania or relax after the hike in Theth. A great way to see the surrounds (including the hilltop castle and lakeside villages) is to hire a bicycle for the day. Read more about Shkodër here.

3. Enjoy the Cafe Scene in Tirana

With a population of one million, the capital of Albania holds a third of the country’s residents. There is no official “downtown” yet, with much development going on in the city. However the large open Skanderbeg Square is the cultural heart of the city and is bordered by the National Library, National Opera and National Historic Museum, among other important buildings.

The famous free walking tour leaves from the steps of the opera every day at 10am and 6pm and is a great activity to learn about the city and history of Albania.

The district of Blloku was previously an area only accessible to the elite during communist times. Now, it’s a trendy restaurant, bar and cafe area with a bunch of great eateries and shops. AirBnBs are also incredibly good value in the area and I’d recommend staying here.

4. Beach Hop Along the Southern Coast

The far south of Albania is touted as the best coastline in the country- start at Himare and work your way down to Sarande. As a lot of the best beaches are not easily accessible by public transport or walking, either hire a car and stop along the coast (you’ll still need to do a fair bit of walking down and up cliff paths), or take a boat trip for the day. Unfortunately there is quite a lot of rubbish along the coastline, and you will rarely find a beach with no one on it.

Just past Sarande are the ancient ruins of Butrint, a settlement that dates back to the 8th century BC. Over the millennia the city has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans, providing a fascinating window to the past.

5. Relax in the Stone City of Gjirokaster

The old town of Gjirokaster is UNESCO heritage listed, mainly due to several well preserved Ottoman houses. There’s also a large fortress to explore- where a national folklore festival is held every five years. I loved the relaxed atmosphere of the town and found it the perfect place to take a break from travel for a few days. I’d highly recommend staying at Stone City Hostel, where the owner Walter is so renowned as a great host that he’s mentioned by name in the Lonely Planet guide.

How to Hike Albania’s Stunning Theth Valley Independently

One of the biggest highlights from my recent trip to Albania was hiking through the Theth Valley- between two small towns in Albania’s far north; Valbone and Theth. While it does take some effort and many travel hours to get to the location of the hike, it’s incredibly worth it, both for the natural beauty and the experience of staying with local families.

In this post I share my experience on traveling to the Theth Valley as a solo female traveller. I’ve listed 7 steps on how to get to and do the walk, followed by some of my photos from the trip.

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1. Start at Shkodër

This is the easiest jumping off point to head to the mountains. I’d recommend staying for a night or two to as there is quite a bit explore in and around Shkodër- see this post for ideas. I stayed at the Wanderers Hostel which had a great atmosphere and the hosts helped organise my transport to the mountains.

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2. Get to Valbone

The trip to Valbone includes a 2 hour bumpy mini bus, a three hour stunning ferry ride, followed by another shorter, less bumpy bus ride on the other end.

The Wanderers Hostel can organise tickets for a mini bus to pick you up bright and early in the morning (6.30am) from the hostel, take you to the ferry and have a mini bus waiting at the other end to take you to a guesthouse in Valbone. For all three tickets it was 23€ (8€ for each bus ride and 7€ for the ferry).

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3. Stay at a guesthouse in Valbone

The hostel also organised accommodation at the Arben Selinaj Guesthouse, a lovely home run by friendly locals, perched above a crystal clear stream. For 20€ a night you get a comfortable bed in a shared room and four home cooked meals; lunch when you arrive, dinner, breakfast and packed lunch for the walk. In summer each meal is served at a large outdoor table under the shade of a tree, with around 15 other travellers to share the meal with. It was one of the most relaxing experiences I had on my trip.  The lack of WiFi might also have contributed to the relaxation!

If you don’t book ahead there are also several other options for guesthouses in Valbone. Just take a minibus from where the port docks and walk through the town asking locals with guesthouse signs out the front of their houses.

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4. Walk from Valbone to Theth

The next morning you have the option of rising early to start the hike or spending another day at the guesthouse, swimming in the stream and exploring some small day walks around Valbone.

When you do head off for the hike it’s definitely a good idea to start early in the morning as the first few hours are in direct sunlight without much shade. After breakfast the guesthouse host will drive walkers down the road 5km to the start of the trail.

It’s then around a 12km walk to Theth, but with quite a high elevation of 1,000m. It took me and two other travellers around 6 hours, including a stop at the summit for lunch, a long break for coffee at a cafe on the way down and numerous other small water and photo breaks. We were all relatively fit and experienced walkers, so it can take several hours more if you are not so experienced. Definitely wear good walking shoes for the trek- especially on the way down there is a lot of loose gravel and it can be easy to slip.

The path is relatively well signed with white and red painted marks along the way. In peak season there are many others walkers heading in both directions and a few guesthouses and cafes on the way.  I recommend downloading Maps.me as the trail is well marked and GPS tracking is available offline.

5. Visit the Blue Eye

Once you arrive in Theth you’ll find a small, somewhat sprawling village. There are also several day walks and attractions in the area- my favourite being the trek to Blue Eye.

This incredibly blue waterhole is one of the most stunning swimming spots I’ve seen. It’s a 3 hour walk one way from Theth village but if you’re lucky as we were some fellow travellers may offer you a lift. Otherwise buses or taxis can take you for around 10€ one way. The final kilometer or so must be walked. After an icy dip in the pool you can have coffee or food at the restaurant perched above the waterhole.

I loved the place so much that I asked the restaurant owner if there was a guesthouse nearby and was overjoyed when they said we could stay in their home, a 10 minute walk further up the valley.

The next morning we swam at the Blue Eye with no one else around- it was the perfect end to my stay in Theth.

6. Stay in Theth

There are several options for guest houses in Theth, most being slightly more expensive that Valbone at around 30€ including two meals, although I did see some cheaper ones at around 15€ with breakfast.

As I mentioned above, after falling in love with the Blue Eye I ended up staying the night at the guesthouse above the waterhole. A further 10 minute hike, it had a perfect local feeling to it. For a a bed in a shared room with up to four others and a wholesome dinner and breakfast, expect to pay around 23€.

The next morning we got to see the mother of the family making bread on their fireplace in the living room, the father making Rakia (traditional Balkan brandy often made from plums) and the neighbour collecting honey from his bees. While there was no hot water or wifi (or maybe because there wasn’t) staying with this local family was my favourite part of my whole visit to Albania.

7. Take a minivan back to Shkodër

The next day we walked half the way and caught a ride with the local minibus half the way, back to the main village of Theth. Here the bus to Shkodër leaves from the main restaurant– ask a local if you are unsure of the location. A ticket is 10€ pp and there are usually two trips a day, one in the morning and again at around 1pm. Again, for more up to date times ask one of the locals- they are incredibly helpful.

 

Below are some more photos from the trip. I hope you enjoyed this post and it gives you some inspiration to travel to the north of Albania!

 

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Exploring Shkodër, Albania

Nestled in the southern corner of Lake Skadar, just across the border from Montenegro, you’ll find the small city of Shkodër. With a lingering Italian colonial feel and relaxed pace, the town is a welcome break from nearby cities. Much of the town center is solely for pedestrian and push bike use- earning Shkodër the nickname of City of Bicycles. At night, the wide paved streets come alive with al fresco dining, street stalls and rooftop bars.

Here’s what I loved most about Shkodër

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Rozafa Castle

Perched high above the river, fortifications on the hill date back to Illyrian days, over two thousand years ago. However, much of what remains of the castle today is from the Venetian period. It’s is a short bike ride from the center and you can leave your bike at the bottom of the hill and climb the rest of the way on foot. Entrance is 2€ and it’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset as you have 360° views of the river, lake and towns below.

Ride along Lake Skadar

Renting a push bike for the day only costs a few euro and it’s the perfect way to see more of the lake area. From the town center head down towards the castle then across the Bojana river and along the bank of the lake- there’s a walking/riding track most of the way. There are several small villages to stop at for coffee, lunch and beautiful views.

Head North and Hike in the Theth Valley

Shkodër is the jumping off point for the amazing hike from Valbone to Theth. The views in this full day hike are incredible and it was hands down my favorite experience in Albania. I’ll have a separate with details about the hike over the coming days.

Getting There

From Montenegro it is relatively quick and easy to take a bus from either Bar or Podgorica. The longest aspect can often be the border crossing, but outside peak tourist season this should only take around 30 minutes. From Bar the fare is 6€ and the journey takes around two hours.

From elsewhere in Albania, especially Tirana, there are very frequent minibuses. The trip to Tirana takes around two hours and costs 2.5€.

For timetables ask at local bus stations, information booths or hostels. Tickets often can’t  be bought in person before departure. Some longer trips can be bought online but be aware that you’re often required to print the ticket for it to be valid. I only ever bought my tickets on the buses and never had a problem with tickets selling out- Albanias seem to find ways to squeeze everyone in.

Where to Stay

I really recommend The Wanders Hostel, there was a great atmosphere, amazing staff and unbeatable rates (7.5€ including a huge breakfast). They rent push bikes, provide a plethora of information about activities in the area and organise the transport and first night of accommodation for the trek to Theth. There are many other good value hostels in the town.

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Have you been to Shkodër?

Should You Travel to Albania?

I recently spent two weeks exploring Albania as part of a larger trip through the Balkans. In this post I’m sharing some aspects of my trip and whether I’d recommend it as a travel destination- especially for solo female travelers.

Theth Morning-13

I recently spent two weeks exploring Albania as part of a larger trip through the Balkans. In this post I’m sharing some aspects of my trip and whether I’d recommend it as a travel destination- especially for solo female travelers.

Albania was the main reason I chose to come to the Balkans, as I’d heard from a friend that it was like Croatia twenty years ago- a hidden gem with a beautiful coastline, great hikes and incredibly hospitable people. So I had high expectations.

Below is an overview of my thoughts about the country, specifically touching on safety, transport, cost of living and what I liked and didn’t about the scenery. In subsequent posts I’ll share more detailed information about costs, including exactly how much I spent over two weeks, as well as and my favorite five places in the country- and how to get to them.

Mountains, Trekking and Inland Areas

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Hiking through the Theth Valley
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The Blue Eye at Theth

By far my favourite aspect of Albania was the mountains and the hiking. Not really knowing what to expect, I was blown away by Theth Valley in the north east of Albania.  I did a six hour hike from Valbona to the small town of Theth, with stunning scenery every step of the way. Once I got to Theth, the crystal clear turquoise water of the Blue Eye was another unexpected highlight. I also loved the ancient stone city of Gjirokaster, the riverside town of Shkodër and the cafe filled capital Tirana.

The Coastline

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Sunset at Ksamil Beach in the far south

While I would still consider the coast beautiful and the water an amazing blue colour, overall I found Albania’s coastline fell short of my expectations. Sadly there was a lot of rubbish all along the coast and there was hardly a spot without a tonne of people, beach umbrellas and deck chairs. Even in mid September, which is shoulder season. I found the most beautiful places were quite isolated and best reached by boat, as opposed to long bus rides followed by sweaty hour long treks. On the plus, boat trips are quite cheap- around 20€ for half a day.

Transport

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Shkodër is wonderful for bike riding

I’d heard that getting around the country was challenging and very time consuming- that there was no bus schedules and that you simply had to hail a minibus anywhere on the road to get a ride. Most of the time this was far from the truth. There are timetables and the buses are often very regular and reliable.

You can book online, however I never did, instead I got my ticket directly on the bus. The hostels I stayed at were a wealth of information about when and where the buses were going from (often a small bus stations) and this is a great reason to stay with the I Travel Balkans hostel group. Each hostel helped with my onward bus, booked my next nights accommodation and filled me in on all the great things to see in the area.

Travel times mentioned in guides like the lonely planet (especially through the center of Albania) are outdated and slower than reality. For example, a ride from Gjirokastër to Tirana is quoted at around 8 hours when it took only 3. In recent years there have been many highway upgrades and travel has vastly improved.

The coastal roads are still very windy and slow, with the longest trip I took being the bus ride from Tirana to Himare at 5.5 hours.

The roads in the north to and from Theth and Valbona are also incredibly bumpy and windy, from Theth to Shkodër it was a 3 hour, very bumpy ride.

Cost

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Albania is cheap. Especially compared to neighboring Montenegro and Croatia. One of my favorite hostels (The Wanderers in Shkodër) was 7.5€ a night including a huge breakfast. Transport was between 2-10€ for bus rides between cities and sightseeing was normally 2€. Beers were less than 2€, cocktails around 5€ and coffee around 1.5€. In most places you could eat a decent dinner for 5-10€.

Safety

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One of the local families I stayed with in Theth

When I mentioned to friends that I’d be traveling through Albania, many told me it was an unsafe place to visit and that I needed to be very careful. I took this with a grain of salt- I’ve traveled to many places throughout the world that are considered risky- especially for female solo travelers. It’s an unfortunate reality of being female that you are treated differently to men when traveling. Over the years I’ve accepted this and come to terms with the fact that I need to be more careful than male travelers.

For me, this includes respecting local customs, being aware of potential dangerous areas, being aware of my surroundings and belongings, knowing where I can find help and what the emergency numbers are, following my gut feeling, not being afraid/embarrassed to ask for help and avoiding unnecessary risks- like drinking too much or walking in dimly lit/quiet areas at night.

Having said all this, I don’t let fear stop me from experiencing the world and exploring. And I rarely feel unsafe when traveling.

During my visit to Albania I met so many like-minded travelers at the hostels I stayed at that I ended up mainly exploring the sites and catching local transport with these people, so I actually wasn’t traveling by myself very often.

The vast majority of the time I felt completely safe and comfortable. Even more so than I do at home in Australia or Finland- because the locals were so friendly and willing to help if I needed directions or anything. During my trek through the mountains I stayed with two lovely local families- they were both so welcoming and kind. There wasn’t a pushy culture of trying to sell souvenirs or day trips- just a genuine desire to be hospitable and helpful. 

However, there was one exception to this feeling- during my last days in the capital Tirana. While I was in a popular, busy cafe area in broad daylight, a man followed me on his motorbike, leering, staring and generally making me feel extremely uncomfortable. He wasn’t subtle about it at all, driving quite close to me and at one stage when I turned around and walked back in the opposite direction he still followed me.

This kept up for about 20 minutes and I debated asking him what he thought he was doing or even yelling at him to leave me alone but worried this would anger him and make things worse. So instead, when he rode ahead at one point, I ducked into a leafy cafe where I couldn’t be seen from the road, grabbed a coffee and decided to wait until he left before emerging. I started to feel better when I saw a security guard across the road outside some official looking building. I felt that I could go up to him if the man hadn’t left while I was in the cafe.

Luckily the man had gone when I emerged and I didn’t see him again. However, it was still a very unnerving experience and something that made me incredibly angry– how could someone feel that they could act like that towards another person? What was he expecting me to do? What would have happened if I hadn’t lost him in the cafe?

A very similar thing has happened to me in three other countries I’ve visited in the past- unfortunately this is not an isolated incident and it’s one of my least favourite things about travel. However this is the first time in nearly 8 years that I have had this experience, it is definitely rare for me to feel unsafe when I travel.

I am also adamant that experiences like this will not stop me from traveling and will not make me afraid of traveling solo.

 

So The Verdict?

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About to swim at the Blue Eye in Theth

 

Yes! I definitely recommend traveling to Albania and traveling there solo as a female. I felt safe, comfortable, happy and excited to be there 99% of the time. It was an amazing experience of stunning mountain scenery, ancient towns, good food, hospitable locals and all at a bargain price.

There are so many unique and beautiful places to visit, however, if you are looking for unspoilt sand beaches or private rocky coves, it might be a better choice to head to nearby Greece or Croatia. 

I’m already looking forward to returning Albania- I ‘d love to visit the south-western region that boarders Macedonia, especially Lake Ohrid and the town of Korçë.

 

Have you been to Albania? What did you think of the country?