We love a road trip, it’s our favourite way to travel and it’s the best way to get around Albania. The north of Albania is increasing in popularity but the south seems to be a bit behind – unnecessarily so! Our southern Albania road trip itinerary takes in many of the highlights of this underrated part of Europe. It’s a perfect get away for those who love nature as well as a bit of history, there are also two UNESCO world heritage sites to visit on route.
You can squeeze this itinerary into a long weekend but it best suits a few days – you could even take a week and have a very relaxed pace.
We’re setting out this road trip itinerary slightly differently to those we’ve done before. Instead of giving you a day by day itinerary we’ll give you stop offs we recommend and what you can do there then you can decide how long to stay based on the time you have available. Let us know in the comments if this format works better than our others.
How to get to Southern Albania
This area of the country has been popular for decades with the Italians who can catch a ferry here. It’s slightly more complicated for those from further afield.
There are a couple of options to choose from when travelling to southern Albania.
You could choose to fly into Tirana which will land you straight into Albania, although in the north. The drawback with landing in Tirana when your plan is to explore the south is that Tirana is 3 or 4 hours drive from where you need to be. If you chose this option you will want to add at least a night either end of your road trip itinerary to explore Tirana since you’re there already. We also don’t recommend driving as soon as you get off the plan in an unfamiliar country.
Our preferred option is to actually fly into Greece – Corfu to be exact. Corfu is closer to southern Albania than Tirana is and has a fantastic ferry connection. The airport in Corfu is conveniently close to the port as well so you won’t have much travelling to do. You can actually see Albania from northern Corfu it’s so close.
Book a flight which lands in Corfu around lunch time and then book a ferry to Albania for late afternoon. Corfu airport and sea port are both located around Corfu Town which has plenty of options if you want to grab a bite to eat or a coffee before you board your ferry.
To book ferry tickets we recommend using Direct Ferries. We have used this site a lot, you can search and book a variety of ferry routes on this website and it clearly shows you the price and what is included with your ticket.
There are two types of ferries from Corfu to southern Albania but they all take the same route – Corfu to Sarandë (sometimes spelled Saranda as that’s how it’s pronounced). The difference between the ferries is the time it takes. There is a fast ferry (a hydrofoil style boat) and a more traditional slow ferry. There is a difference of about an hour in travel time between the two. We have used both and if you can get a good price on the fast ferry it’s definitely worth it. The views are better on the slower ferry as you sit outside but they do get a bit repetitive after a while.
Starting Point – Sarandë
Sarandë is one of the bigger towns on the Albanian Riviera. It has some beautiful spotless beaches as well as a wide variety of bars and restaurants which are all at a much lower price point than most Mediterranean coastal towns.
You will easily find a hotel to suit your budget. We recommend using Booking.com to search for the best hotel deals. When you are searching you may be pleasantly surprised that you can book a higher rated accommodation than would typically be in your budget.
We recommend renting a car for your southern Albania road trip through Enterprise who are located within the ferry terminal right in the centre of Sarandë.
Do pay the extra for full insurance cover and reducing your excess to zero. Driving in Albania is not like most of Europe. The roads here are not the best maintained and some of the sights you will want to see are down unpaved roads. We didn’t see one car while in Albania that didn’t have a scratch or bump. So even if you have never paid for full insurance on a hire car before we really can’t recommend enough that you do this time.
Pick up your car as you are leaving Sarandë, you won’t need it while you’re in town.
Things to do in Sarandë
While in Sarandë make time to visit the beaches. The Albanian Riviera is beautiful and underrated. We found the beaches to be clean and very quiet during shoulder season – we had the entire waterfront to ourselves!
There is plenty to see here those who aren’t beach fans too. Check out Lekursi Castle, it was built in the 1500s overlooking Sarandë. You can even get a good view of Corfu from the Castle. It’s under an hours walk from the centre of Sarandë but you could get a cheap taxi up there instead.
Walk Bulevardi Hasan Tahsini which stretches along the seafront. It has been recently renovated and is spotless with fantastic views. You can stop at the various bars and coffee shops along the boulevard, some have outdoor seating so you can sit out and watch the world go by.
First Stop – Butrint National Park
Pick up your car as you are leaving Sarandë. The first stop we recommend on our southern Albania road trip is Butrint National Park which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Butrint National Park contains the ruins of a Greek colony, a Roman city and a bishopric. You can see ruins here representing each of these inhabitants.
The cost to enter Butrint is 700LEK or just over €5 and they will accept Euro or LEK at the gate. No need to pre-book tickets and if you get an early start there shouldn’t be much of a queue.
At the entrance make sure you pick up a map of the park in English. This is all you will need to navigate the Butrint National Park on your own. There are tours available if you book in advance through a tour operator but we found the free maps were fine to guide you around. The benefit of using the map is you can go at your own pace.
Expect to spend a couple of hours exploring the ruins of Butrint. Then maybe an hour or two more exploring more of the national park. You can cross the river on a cable ferry which is an attraction in itself. Expect to pay €5 to the operator to cross, although not everyone seems to get charged so you might get lucky!
Where to stay
After you have finished exploring Butrint National Park consider staying the night in nearby Ksamil. Ksamil is a village on the Albanian Riviera. Although it only has a few thousand inhabitants Ksamil has a variety of hotels and restaurants. There are also some small islands to explore and beautiful beaches too. Make the most of your time on the coast before spending the next part of the road trip heading into the mountains.
Second Stop – The Blue Eye
The second stop of our southern Albania road trip is the Blue Eye. The Blue Eye is a natural spring. The experience of getting down to the spring for us was as memorable as the Blue Eye itself. You will need a confident driver to get here so plan accordingly!
It is very cheap to visit the Blue Eye, 200 LEK or about €1.50. I think the main reason for the low price and it not being particularly over crowded for an attraction like this is the road to get there is not maintained. You will have experienced some Albanian roads by this point and will be getting used to driving here. However the term road should only be loosely applied to the one that leads to the Blue Eye.
I wish I had some pictures of the road to the Blue Eye, but we were both very much concentrating on getting our rental car down it in one piece! It was like an off roading experience that came included in the Blue Eye entrance fee.
When we did get down to the Blue Eye we were surprised to find that there’s a restaurant there and a bit of a snack bar. A few cars had also navigated to road too but the car park overall was mostly empty. It is a beautiful spot though and worth the effort to visit.
The route to the spring from the car park is well signposted and just a short walk away. You can’t see it from the car park but you can see the river which is connected to the Blue Eye – you need to cross this to get to the spring.
The water here is crystal clear and make sure to bring your swimming costumes with you. Set aside an hour or two as you can swim in the Blue Eye.
Third Stop – Gjirokaster
There is nowhere near the Blue Eye to stay over night so our southern Albania road trip continues onto our third stop of Gjirokaster. Gjirokaster is a city in the hills and is a UNESCO world heritage site for its Ottoman architecture. Gjirokaster is nicknamed the City of Stone and it won’t take long for you to realise why.
Built on the side of a hill near the Gjerë mountains it can be difficult to drive around Gjirokaster. The buildings are very close together when you get off the main road and are made out of solid stone. As you get further into the city, particularly the old town area, the roads get very steep. So do be careful if using Google Maps to navigate this area. It is worth planning your route in advance and sticking to the main roads – something we learned the hard way!
We got ourselves in quite the tight spot when following Google Maps in Gjirokaster. A local had to help push our car after we get stuck between two buildings – up hill too! After spending some time in the city we worked out the main route out of the city before getting back in the car again.
We highly recommend Kerculla Resort if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Gjirokaster. It is a 4* hotel with breakfast included in the room rate – and what a breakfast it is. In all of our travels the best hotel breakfast we’ve ever had was at Kerculla Resort. Expect a room here to cost between £50 and £80 per night depending on the time of year.
The room rate includes Bed and Breakfast. There is an outdoor pool here as well as a restaurant and what has got to be the best view of Gjirokaster you can get.
Our room had a balcony overlooking the city. Kerculla Resort is actually so high up we had our morning coffee above the clouds one morning before heading down into the city to explore.
Things to do in Gjirokaster
While in Gjirokaster you must visit the old town, it is by far the highlight of visiting this city. It’s not too big and is easily navigated on foot over the course of a few hours.
There is a lot of work currently going on in the old town. You can clearly see where the work has been completed and if the on going work is up to the same standard the result will be spectacular. It’s easy to see the aim of the work going on. You can see the old town centre in all it’s glory then just a street or two away are ruins and abandoned buildings – with construction crews approaching!
Wander the Old Gjiorkaster Bazaar while in old town which makes up the main centre of old town. You will find many shops selling local produce, hand made clothes and goods as well as a few souvenirs. There are plenty of coffee shops in this area to rest your legs after all the hill walking!
Some of the main attractions in Gjirokaster include the preserved old houses. Some of them are open to the public so you can view inside. You can find out entrance fees and opening times on the Gjirokaster website.
You can also visit Gjirokaster Castle which overlooks the city. The top of the castle doesn’t offer quite the same panoramic view as that from Kerculla Resort however if you are staying elsewhere make sure you call in at Gjirokaster Castle for the view at least. There is also a museum inside and a clock tower at the top. The entrance fee is 4 Euro and the Castle is open from 9am. Although that appears to be flexible so I wouldn’t head there for 9am sharp or you could be waiting outside a while. It’s also better to wait until the mist lifts so you get the views of the valley you’re expecting!
Last Stop – Return to Sarandë
After taking in the culture of Gjirokaster head back to Sarandë to return your rental car. If you want to continue your southern Albania road trip for a bit longer you have a couple of options depending on your interests and time available.
With just a day or two longer I’d recommend you head up to Vlorë, a city on the Albania Riviera further north of Sarandë. If you have time to head up to Vlorë the drive back to Sarandë along the coast will be a treat.
With a few days extra to play with consider adding Berat to your itinerary after Gjirokaster. Berat is another hill town and shares the UNESCO world heritage site listing with Gjirokaster for their preserved Ottoman architecture. You can continue onto Vlorë after Berat before heading back to Sarandë to finish your road trip loop of southern Albania.