The Balkans are a special place, so choosing whether to visit Albania or Montenegro can be a tough choice. Situated on the southeastern side of Europe, the region has seen the rise and fall of empires, as well as a recent struggle to catch up with the economic power of Western Europe.
Tourism within the region has only really picked up over the last 20 or 30 years. Because of that, Balkan countries remain an oasis of pristine natural beauty and incredible cultural traditions.
Choosing where to go on a Balkan holiday can be tricky though. Every country has its own charm, and due to their lack of popularity (which is undeserving), it can be tough to work out which place would be the most interesting to you.
However, if you’re looking for a combination of beaches and mountains, with some internationally recognized historical sites sprinkled in as well, you should look no further than Albania or Montenegro.
Below we look at both countries, outlining what to expect and where you should visit in terms of beaches, natural landscapes, and the capital cities in Albania and Montenegro.
Albania vs Montenegro: What to expect and where you should visit in Albania
Albania is the more off-the-beaten-track option for the adventurous traveler. The currency they use is the Lek (although the Euro is sometimes accepted as well), and there’s less luxurious accommodation options than in some neighboring countries.
In general, Albania also has worse infrastructure than Montenegro. However it has incredible beaches, mountains, and UNESCO sites.
Due to an authoritarian regime which prevailed until the nineties, Albania was virtually closed off to the rest of the world until recently.
Since then, the world has been reluctant to discover all that Albania has to offer, allowing it to remain a diamond in the rough for those adventurous enough to make their way here. This means that the beaches remain uncrowded, prices remain ridiculously low, and people are sincerely hospitable.
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, it is more than possible to describe Albania as Europe’s undiscovered gem.
Beaches to visit in Albania
The heart of the Albanian Riviera is located in Saranda, once a sleepy fishing village which has slowly but surely become a thriving seaside hub. It’s a great place for people looking to lay on the beach by day, but also party at beach bars by night.
It is significantly more developed than other beach towns, yet it remains authentically Albanian. It is usually the starting point for most travelers who go on to explore lesser known beaches and seaside spots up and down the coast.
For turquoise swimming waters, head to Dhërmi beach. This picture-perfect spot can get a little crowded in summer though, so if you’re looking for a quieter more rural beach, then the seven-kilometer long Borsh beach is perfect. (Related: Camping in Albania)
Tirana: Albania’s capital
Tirana, Albania’s capital city, is a sight to see on its own. Compared to other European capitals, Tirana is harsher on the eyes – lots of brutalist architecture leftover from authoritarian rule, and significantly less infrastructure than you find in other cities.
However, that in itself makes it one of the most interesting places you can visit in Europe. The Natural History Museum in Tirana is well worth visiting to learn more about the city and country.
A visit to the Gondola and forested slopes of Dajti will also make for a great day-trip from the capital.
In contrast to what the architecture might tell you, people in Tirana are some of the warmest, most inviting people you will ever meet. You will definitely find yourself having coffee with Albanians who will love to tell you about their country’s fascinating history.
Mountains to visit in Albania
No mountain range in Albania is better known than the Accursed Mountains – also called the Albanian Alps.
This must-visit mountain range of thick forest, icy lakes and stunning greenery is also home to beautiful little Albanian villages, where the houses are made of stone and traditions remain unchanged for generations.
We recommend visiting the village of Theth – arguably the most beautiful in the country. Situated high up in the Alps, Theth is home to historic buildings and sits in a national park which is full of great hiking routes. A good hiking map of the region can be found here.
If you’re looking for another good base to walk the Albanian Alps, then staying in Valbona is recommended. This mountain hamlet lies beside ancient forests that are home to countless walking routes.
These villages are a real oasis of olden times, and not only are they an incredible sight to see, but also extremely interesting to get to know.
Albania vs Montenegro: What to expect and where you should visit in Montengro
Montenegro, a former Yugoslav state and one of the youngest countries in the word, is a more tourist friendly option.
They use the Euro, have more hostels and hotels than Albania, and generally speaking, the country also has better infrastructure.
Regardless of this, Montenegro remains a very affordable destination, and its combination of UNESCO sites, mountains and beaches makes it the perfect destination for anyone looking to both exercise and relax.
Beaches to visit in Montenegro
Montenegro seaside towns are a lovely combination of cobblestone and seaside promenades, the most significant of which is Kotor. This old medieval town has a walled historical center full of street cats that will quickly purr their way into your heart.
Budva, a seaside town with a bustling nightlife is well worth visiting too. The little island directly opposite the town is known for its wonderful seafood specialties.
We also have to mention Ulcinj, a fantastic little Albanian haven in Montenegro which is home to stunning mosques and delicious kebab stands.
The golden sands and turquoise waters at the two beaches situated in Petrovac shouldn’t be missed for any beach lover either.
Or if you fancy something more secluded, then Dobrec beach is perfect. Only accessible by boat (from Herzeg-Novi, Rose, Zanjice and Miriste) this beach has hammocks available to use for adventurous tourists that make it here. The locally caught seafood at this secluded cove is well worth trying out too!
Podgorica: Montenegro’s capital
If you’re looking for a real urban hub, Podgorica is the place to go!
Montenegro’s capital city is regarded as a strange melting pot of all the cultural influences the country has been under throughout its history.
Intricate Ottoman-built mosques, as well as Soviet cement block houses and Western-looking cafes and storefronts cohabitate across Podgorica’s skyline and give it a fascinating sense of intrigue and mystique. Visit the 400-year old clock tower to get your history fix.
Home to ancient monasteries, beaches and wildlife, the nearby Lake Skadar National Park is well worth a day-visit from the city too.
Mountains to visit in Montenegro
Montenegro is known as Crna Gora in Montenegrin, meaning Black Mountain – and is very aptly named.
Although the country is more famous for its beaches, Montenegro has a huge amount to offer to those with a heart for hiking. Some of the country’s best walks can be found in this fantastic book.
Durmitor is the most significant mountain to mention. This spot is perfect for winter skiing and summer hiking.
Durmitor also harbors the Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site with gorgeous glaciers, as well as Europe’s deepest gorges.
Recommended for your trip to Albania or Montenegro
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