08 Days / 07 Nights
South Albania Guided Tour
Tirana – Berat – Gjirokastra – Riviera – Camp Nivica – Tirana
An eight-day tour of south Albania, including two nights at the wonderful Camp Nivica.
Day 01 – Arrive Rinas TBC
Day 02 – Tirana to Berat
Day 03 – Berat to Gjirokastra
Day 04 – Gjirokastra to Riviera
Day 05 – Riviera to Nivica
Day 06 – Nivica
Day 07 – Nivica to Kruja
Day 08 – Depart Rinas TBC
Albania’s chaotic capital is undergoing a mini-revolution, as decrepit Communist-era buildings and pre-War Italian villas are torn down, sometimes seemingly overnight, to be replaced with huge, modern tower blocks. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of personal taste - the government's plan seems to be to turn it into a Balkan version of Singapore. Amid the construction/destruction you'll find a friendly and fascinating city, with great bars and nightlife and without doubt the best food in the entire Balkan region. Be sure to visit the House of Leaves museum, which explores the role of the feared Sigurimi secret police under the dictatorship, and the "secret" nuclear bunker built with Chinese cash and expertise in the 1970s - Bunk'Art.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Tirana – Hotel Boka
Berat – Hotel Onufri
Gjirokastra – Hotel Praga
Qeparo – Hotel Riviera
Nivica – Camp Nivica
Kruja – Hotel Panorama
English-speaking driver/guide, his accommodation & expenses
Accommodation as indicated or near equivalents
All breakfasts (unless super-early departure flight); 02 x evening meals at Camp Nivica
Personal travel insurance
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)
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.
If you're spending any time in Tirana, you really should visit the "secret" nuclear bunker built by the Communist regime back in the 1970s, Bunk'Art. It's huge, and very, very creepy. It's also wonderfully cool in high summer - a real relief from the ferocious heat of Tirana. There is a second Bunk'Art in the centre of town, but we reckon this is the one to visit.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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. "