18 Days / 17 Nights
Albanian Family Self Drive Tour
Tirana – Lake Ohrid – Korça – Gramos – Përmet – Ballaban – Zagoria – Gjirokastra – Nivica – Riviera – Berat – Kruja
A 16-day summer family self drive tour through southern Albania, including three nights on the Albanian Riviera and some epic hiking opportunities.
Day 01 – Tirana to Lake Ohrid
Day 02 – Lake Ohrid
Day 03 – Lake Ohrid to Korça
Day 04 – Korça to Gramos
Day 05 – Gramos to Përmet
Day 06 – Përmet to Ballaban
Day 07 – Ballaban
Day 08 – Ballaban to Gjirokastra
Day 09 – Gjirokastra
Day 10 – Gjirokastra to Zagoria
Day 11 – Zagoria to Nivica
Day 12 – Nivica
Day 13 – Nivica to Riviera
Day 14 – Riviera
Day 15 – Riviera
Day 16 – Riviera to Berat
Day 17 – Berat to Kruja
Day 18 – Kruja to Rinas Airport
Created January 2023 for travel in June, July, August and early September.
Most people associate Lake Ohrid with North Macedonia and the eponymous UNESCO City. But if you want a less touristic experience, the Albanian shore is the place to go. The city of Pogradec on the lake’s southwestern corner is all very well, but we much prefer the sleepy little village of Lin (secretly we want to live there). There is an extremely simple hotel, but better to stay in one of the friendly B&Bs on the waterfront. You can swim from the gardens if you like, or walk 20 minutes to the other side of the Lin peninsula for complete privacy.
Without a doubt, Korça is our favourite Albanian city. It may not have the UNESCO prestige of Berat or Gjirokastra, but it’s much more energetic and competes with them for charm and architectural interest. Its cobbled streets are endlessly diverting, and the Museum of Medieval Art has some quite extraordinary icons by the famous Onufri. In the evening the city comes alive - be sure to head to the recently restored bazaar to eat and people-watch, and later on we’d stroll down Boulevard Republika to one of the extremely chichi bars.
The mountain range that separates Albania from Greece is beautiful and very, very wild in comparison with the much-visited Albanian Alps to the north. The easiest way to access them is from Albania's highest "city", Ersekë (a small town, really), which sits at 1,050m. In days gone by Ersekë was often cut off by snow in winter, but a new road means it stays connected these days. You'll sleep at a very simple and friendly hotel owned by Lula, who is renowned across the region for her knowledge of local medicinal herbs. From here you'll make a day hike up into the mountains, and take an (organic) lunch at a traditional house, returning to the hotel by around 18.00. After a beer or two, you might like to sample one of Lula's herb rakis (she has one for just about every ailment).
The drive from Korça to Gjirokastra is far too long for one day, so we always recommend breaking the journey. If you need a hotel then Përmet is the obvious choice. But if you enjoy village guesthouses, there are few better in Albania than Traditional Guesthouse Përmet, which you'll actually find in the village of Bual, about a 20-minute drive (on a dirt road) from Përmet itself. This extraordinary old stone building was used as a headquarters by the Italian Army in both World Wars, and has wonderful views across the Vjosa valley. Expect one of the best home-cooked meals of your tour here, too - which you can wash down with the local raki, for which Përmet is famed.
A magical two-night stop for lovers of nature. You’ll stay at a small guesthouse with just three rooms hidden away in the mountains north of Këlcyrë. The young owner, Elona, left the bustle of Tirana about eight years ago to return to her home village, and has created a charming rural idyll with very simple family friendly rooms. You’ll be able to make a guided hike, and perhaps enjoy some wild swimming, too. Elona’s mother is in charge of the kitchen, and loves giving cookery demonstrations for anyone who is interested to learn more about traditional Albanian dishes. This is about as far from mass-tourism as you can get.
The “City of a Thousand Windows” is a must-visit on any south Albania tour. Berat was an important strategic hub well before the Roman era, and its imposing Citadel has been inhabited continuously for at least 2,500 years. Berat owes its UNESCO World Heritage status to its three surviving historic neighbourhoods, Mangalemi, Gorica and Kalaja (castle). We recommend it for a one-night stay, which gives you plenty of time to explore its cobbled alleyways and take in the views from Kalaja.
Until 2021, the village of Nivica had no asphalt road connections, and accordingly no entries in guidebooks. The asphalt has arrived now, but it's going to take a year or two for the guidebooks to be updated to include what is one of Albania's most enticing destinations. Undoubtedly the place to stay is Camp Nivica - six luxurious safari-style tents (with private en suite WC/shower) perched right on the edge of the huge Nivica Canyon system. The views are incredible, and the hospitality offered by Astrid, the camp's Swedish owner, is faultless. The camp has a two-night minimum stay policy, meaning you have a full day to hike down into the canyon, enjoy the extraordinary scenery, and generally disconnect from "civilisation". In 2022 the camp was featured in Condé Nast Traveller's feature on Albania - and deservedly so.
Zagoria is one of Albania's hidden delights, but isn't much visited due to a lack of ashphalt roads. It is possible to drive in a road car up to the fabulous Camping Çajupi, though, where you can stay in a simple wooden hut built by an enterprising local shepherd family. You're well away from any villages here, isolated on a high plateau that until a few years ago was used strictly for grazing. Expect a spectacular night sky, and in the morning you can make a (sometimes tricky) hike along the mountain ridge to take in the views.
Albania’s second UNESCO World Heritage City is like something from a fairytale, with crumbling old stone mansions clinging to the side of a mountain, in the shade of a huge and frankly creepy fortress. No, Gjirokastra doesn’t lack for either history or atmosphere. We think it offers so much interest, in fact, that we recommend it as a two-night stay. Be sure to visit one of the better-preserved houses (not the ethnographic museum; it’s a fake), the Cold War Tunnels and of course the castle. It’s even worth paying a couple of euros extra to visit the castle’s unreformed military museum, which is a real throwback to the Communist era.
The Albanian Riviera has a very short season - in July and August it is rammed with tourists; in the spring and autumn shoulder seasons, almost empty. At either time of year our favourite place to stay is the village of Qeparo, about 20 minutes' drive south of Himarë. Even in high summer it retains a chilled-out vibe in comparison with the party spots of Saranda and Dhërmi, and is the perfect spot to relax for a few days. If you get the chance, drive up to Old Qeparo, the most picturesque village of the Albanian Riviera (phone ahead if you want to take lunch in the tiny village shop / taverna).
OK, Kruja is touristy! But we don't always think that's a bad thing. In fact, we think Kruja is the perfect spot to end any tour of Albania. For starters, it's just half an hour from Rinas Airport. Secondly, its cute little bazaar provides the best shopping opportunity in Albania, and is the place to pick up detritus from the Communist and Ottoman eras (always exit via the gift shop…). If you've the energy, you can visit the frankly weird museum dedicated to Albania's national hero, Skanderbeg, or the surprisingly good ethnographic museum. But most people we find prefer to do a spot of shopping then enjoy a relaxing meal, with epic views to the plains below.
Lin - Rosa's B&B (02 rooms)
Korça - Bujtina Oxhaku (02 rooms)
Gramos - Hotel Inxhujo (02 rooms)
Bual - Traditional Guesthouse Përmet (01 room)
Ballaban - Ferma Grand Albanik (01 room)
Zagoria - Camping Çajupi (cabin)
Gjirokastra - Hotel Praga (02 rooms; with swimming pool)
Nivica - Camp Nivica (02 tents)
Qeparo - Hotel Te Stefi (02 rooms)
Berat - Berati Castle Hotel (02 rooms)
Kruja - Hotel Panorama (02 rooms)
euros €1,080 per person based on 02 travellers sharing a Double or Twin room
Land Rover Discovery 3 or 4 diesel automatic (or similar large SUV) with full insurance, delivered to Tirana and drop-off at Rinas Airport
Accommodation as indicated or near equivalents
All breakfasts (unless super-early departure on final day); lunch at Gramos & Ballaban; evening meals at Gramos, Bual, Ballaban, Zagoria & Camp Nivica
Route-planning; road books (PDF format)
Rafting on River Vjosa, Përmet
Guided hike at Ballaban
Guided canyon hike at Camp Nivica
Personal travel insurance
Fuel (car will be delivered & returned full)
Any road tolls or fines
Meals not indicated on itinerary
Museum & attraction entrance tickets
Local guides unless indicated (can be arranged on request)
Unscheduled excursions, taxis
Alcohol (unless indicated on itinerary)
Book With Confidence
As a UK company, we have to comply with strict consumer protection laws. If you book a trip with Drive Albania Tours, your payment will be made to a British HSBC account administered by the trustees of Protected Trust Services, for your peace of mind. You can read more about the scheme here.
Lakes of Belsh
If you're driving from Tirana to Berat, we always recommend taking the scenic backroads rather than the highway. Firstly because the highway route is so ugly you'll want to scratch your eyes out and secondly as taking the backroads allows a detour to a wonderful wild-swimming spot at a clean karst lake near the town of Belsh. On a hot day, you'll really appreciate the chance to cool down in the clear waters, and even sunbathe on the "beach" for an hour or two.
Borovë War Memorial
If you're driving the road from Korça to Përmet, be sure to make a stop at the village of Borovë. In July 1943 Nazi forces took revenge for an attack on a convoy in brutal fashion. The memorial to the memory of the 107 villagers who were killed (mostly elderly and young children) is extremely moving.
Ujërat Termale Bënjë
A wonderful stop at any time of year are the sulphur springs close to the village of Bënjë, about 15 minutes east of Përmet. Here you can soak in the warm thermal waters, which are famed for their health-giving properties. The Ottoman bridge here is one of the most photographed spots in Albania, and a must for any Instagrammers.
If you've an interest in learning more about Albanian cuisine, let us know and we'll be able to arrange a cookery class or two along the way. Albanian food is the finest in the region, and completely different from Former Yugoslavia where the meatball reigns supreme. There is a strong Ottoman influence, obviously, but also Italian and Greek as well as many dishes that you just don't find elsewhere in the region (such as Albania's favourite hangover cure, paçe, tava kosi - lamb slow-cooked in yoghurt and qifqi rice balls).
South Albania has three opportunities for rafting. In winter and springtime we generally recommend Osumi Canyon, though road infrastructure means this will in most cases require two nights in Berat. For the rest of the year the river Vjosa near Përmet is our preferred option - even in high summer there's enough water to provide a thrill (and sometimes a spill). Both can be enjoyed by anyone over the age of five years old.
This picture-postcard beach between Dhërmi and Himarë is best visited by boat – if you try to drive you’ll be stopped a good half-hour’s walk from the beach itself, unless you have a serious 4×4 with suspension raise! There are a few beach-shack-style restaurants and bars, and of course the canyon which winds its way into the mountains from the Ionian.
Porto Palermo Castle
Halfway between Qeparo and Himarë on the Albanian Riviera is the picture-postcard bay of Porto Palermo. It's obviously a strategic spot - the Soviets built a large submarine base there back in the 1950s, seemingly inspired by the infamous Ali Pasha, who built a small fortress close by in the Napoleonic era. The submarine base is off-limits, but you can visit the castle and learn a little about its fascinating Ali Pasha, who had total control of this region till the Sultan ordered his death from the safety of Istanbul.
The hilltop village of Qeparo (not to be confused with the more modern settlement on the beach) is one of the most scenic spots in Albania, and remains wonderfully undeveloped. We recommend heading up there to stroll its atmospheric alleyways, and ideally to take a meal at the tiny café / taverna (advance notice required). Most of our clients tell us this is one of their favourite meals of the tour.
Ujëvara e Peshturës
Undoubtedly one of the most scenic waterfalls in Albania! So scenic, in fact, that one of our clients was shortlisted for a US Fujifilm competition for her photograph. You can expect plenty of water throughout the year, apart from in high summer and autumn, when the falls dry up. Visit in springtime and you'll certainly be tempted to take a "shower", but be warned - the water's icy cold!
There are several opportunities on this tour to stop for a wine-tasting. We try to focus on smaller family owned wineries rather than the larger more commercial places. If you've an interest in wines and gastronomy, be sure to let us know so we can plan accordingly!
Tucked right down in the southwestern corner of Albania, about half an hour from the sprawl of Saranda, is Butrint, considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the western Balkans. It has enjoyed UNESCO status since the late 1990s, and is well worth taking a couple of hours to explore - ideally towards the end of the day, when the crowds have vanished.
DOESN’T HIT THE SPOT?
"About 20 per cent of Albanian drivers have the firm conviction that traffic on the roundabout has right of way. Another 20 per cent believe traffic entering the roundabout has right of way. Then a good 30 per cent believe they have right of way, in any circumstance whatsoever. The remainder seem to be under the impression that a roundabout is some kind of strange circular car park, with an ornamental garden in the middle. "