Bus ticket in my hand, I hopped into the bus. My backpacking journey continues – the second country. Albania it is! I only spend three days (with one traveling day) in Albania but it’s nevertheless worth talking about. I spend one night in Gjirokaster, a city in the south of the country, and two nights in Tirana, the capital city. Gjirokaster was one of my favourite towns I visited during my two-months backpacking trip. Read on to learn why!
ARRIVING IN GJIROKASTER
I crossed the border with a bus from Ioannina in Greece. Passing mountain landscapes, green fields and small villages. The bus stopped all the time because people wanted to get out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not so easy to travel between Greece and Albania by public transport. There are only a few direct busses and I think Ioannina is actually one of the few cities that offers a direct service.
If you can, you may consider renting a car, it seems like the easier way to actually get to Gjirokaster. If not, you should ask a local in Ionnina to call the bus station and ask for bus times as there is unfortunately no website I can point out. My couchsurfing host really helped me out here. However, once you are on the bus, you will be fine, Gjirokaster is the last station and you basically can’t miss it because the bus driver will kick you out 😉 The bus stops randomly in the middle of nowhere, so don’t get nervous, they are just picking up more people.
Be aware that neither Greek nor Albanian people speek good English. Try to learn some common phrases (I’ll do that the next time, would have made things easier). However, people are really helpful and hospitable and always tried their best to help me.
FUN FACTS ABOUT GJIROKASTER
A big shout out to Wikipedia at this point! 😉
- The old town of Gjirokaster is on the World Heritage List as an example of a well-preserved Ottoman town.
- In Gjirokaster – as in most places in Albania – you can still experience the impacts of communism. The Republic of Albania was only established in 1991.
- 70% of the country are covered in mountaints – and Gjirokaster is surrounded by them! The city is situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and is the perfect place for all outdoor-lovers.
- Gjirokastër is home to the National Folklore Festival which is held every five years.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHAT TO DO IN GJIROKASTER
After the bus driver somehow explained to me that I have to get off, I just had to somehow find my hotel. In Gjirokaster there are no hostels. In general, there is not much tourism going on. But I guess, in a few years, when Albania extends it’s infrastructure, the place will be crowded. Because it’s just beautiful there! I stayed at a lovely B&B called “Bed and Breakfast Kotoni”. It was simple but I had my (own) room and bathroom (as every traveller will know: after sleeping in a dorm room for a while, that’s quite the luxury). The woman who owns the B&B was incredible helpful and friendly and she recommended some restaurants. I unfortunately can’t remember the name of the place I went to but it was only a 10 minutes walk away from the B&B.
I only had half a day to explore Gjirokaster and I asked the B&B owner what I had to see. She recommended climbing up to the Castle of Gjirokaster. From the castle you can overlook the city and the area around the river valley. It’s open for visitors for a small fee which also includes the entry to the small military museum inside the castle. Something you wouldn’t expect to find in a castle but, well, there is a United States Air Force plane as well.
GETTING FROM GJIROKASTER TO TIRANA
There is a direct mini-bus from Gjirokaster to Tirana which should take you about 4 hours. I don’t remember the exact price but it was really cheap (I think around 3€). If possible, try to figure out where your hostel is before you arrive in Tirana – the bus station is not in the city centre. I chose to take a taxi because I had no idea where to go.
However, if there is one thing I learned through my backpacking trip, it has to be: Never trust a taxi driver. I showed him the address (and he could speak English a bit) and, well. Let’s say, he drove me in the right direction but not the right street. Thankfully, Albanians are helpful: I asked for the way and he walked me to the hostel’s front door to make sure I’ll find it. He even called his father to make sure he’s showing me the right way!
I stayed in the Tirana Backpacker Hostel which has a beautiful garden with cozy sofas and a (coffee) bar. Breakfast is included which is always a big plus point for me and you can buy more things for your meal at the bar (e.g. fresh fruit salad or pancakes). When I was there, the hostel was pretty empty but I think when there are more people around it’s a super nice backpacker hostel.
INFO FOR WOMEN TRAVELING AROUND ALBANIA
I enjoyed the few days I had in Albania, it’s a truly beautiful country and just perfect for hiking- and outdoor-lovers. I didn’t see the coastal area but I think this would be worth a visit as well. However, a downside of Albania that I, personally, experienced, was that you get a lot of attention from men as a foreign woman. It’s nothing serious and I didn’t feel in danger or anything but I just want to mention this here so that others know what they can expect. This doesn’t mean that Albanias are unfriendly (quite the contrary) but that you might experience that people stare at you or give you some unwanted attention from time to time. In rural areas, every tourist will be a little sensation, both men and women, as there are really only a few foreigners there.
THINGS TO DO IN TIRANA
To be honest, there is not too much to see in the city itself. I’ve done a free walking tour (meeting point is in front of the National History Museum; ask the hostel for details) which took around two hours. And in those two hours you can see the most important things in Tirana – Skanderbeg Square and Skanderbeg Statue, the Orthodox Autocephalous Church, the Clock Tower, the Enver Hoxha Pyramid, and the Peace Bell.
Of course, if you’re into museums you can check out the National History Museum or the National Gallery of Art but after spending so much time in Greece looking at archeological sites, I didn’t have too much energy for that. If you’re up to explore the surroundings of Tirana, I heard good things about the Dajti Ekspres Cable Car. It’s only a short bus trip away.
Fun fact: There is a Berlin Wall Fragment in Tirana! We walked past it during the Walking Tour and I was thinking “this looks a lot like the Berlin Wall but we’re in Albania…” and a second later, the tour guide confirmed – yes this is a piece of the Berlin Wall! The graffiti-covered slab fragment of the wall was donated by the city of Berlin to honor the victims of the former communist regime. It’s part of a bigger memorial and is set next to a mushroom-shaped bunker.
Overall, I think Albania has a lot of potential for the tourist industry if they manage to expand their infrastructure a bit. I haven’t been to the coastal area but I heard good things about this part of the country as well. Tirana and Gjirokaster are definitely worth a visit if you’re into hiking. If you want to read a bit more of Albania or its neighbour country Montenegro, you can click here and read my article on this as well.
CONTINUING TO MONTENEGRO
This part of the journey can be a bit tricky. If you’re planning to leave Albania and go to Montenegro next, it is best if you organise a private car or see if your ho(s)tel in Montenegro offers a form of transportation. Unfortunately, my private transport organised by my hostel got cancelled, so I had to take the public transports – which took me 10 hours. Which route to take? The first step is to get to Shkoder, a city in northwestern Albania. If you’re in Tirana it’s no problem at all to get to Shkoder, there are several busses leaving a day. You should be able to buy the ticket from the bus driver.
Once you arrived in Shkoder – don’t be like me! When you get out of the bus there will be many very helpful Albanian “taxi drivers” offering you to drive you over the border. Because this was my first ever backpacking trip and I had no idea what to do, I agreed. Don’t be so credulous. Do not do that! (To be honest, this is probably one of my best travel stories from this backpacking trip; however, you don’t want to spend an uncomfortable amount of time at the Albanian border with an obviously illegal taxi driver.) There is a bus from Shkoder to the bus station in Ulcinj, Montenegro.
Tadaa, now you’re in Montenegro! From now on, it gets a bit easier, buses drive more regularly and more people speak English. Last part of the journey is to take a bus from Ulciny to whatever place you want to go – probably Budva or Kotor.
Have you been to Albania? What were your experiences? I’d like to hear them.
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