The small Mediterranean country of Albania is still largely an enigma to most foreigners. Largely isolated from the rest of the world until the 1990s, the wonders of this beautiful nation have only been open to foreigners for a handful of decades. One of those spectacular locations is Valbona, a quaint alpine village nestled deep in the ominously-coined Accursed Mountains in northern Albania. For such a small town, the top things to see and do in Valbona, Albania are numerous and offer everything from incredible food to life-changing adventure.
Largely abandoned during the cold, icy winter months, the Accursed Mountains, better known as the Albanian Alps, come alive during the summer months. It is then that domestic and foreign tourists flock to northern Albania to experience its soaring, craggy peaks; dense mountain forests; and rushing rivers for themselves.
The Wonders of the Albanian Alps
The region, best known for its popular hiking trail connecting Valbona to the small village of Theth, is like a scene out of a storybook. The stunning mountain vistas would not look out of place in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Pockmarked with rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, there are new gems to discover around every turn. The scenery is bolstered by the friendliness of the locals, who are remarkably hospitable and welcoming to foreigners.
Albania may now be best known for the warm, sun-drenched beaches in its southern reaches, but the opportunity to explore its northern extremes shouldn’t be missed either. It’s a true alpine paradise, largely untouched with the exception of a handful of rustic settlements. I adored every moment I spent there and I’m sure you will, too. But before we jump into the top things to see and do in Valbona, Albania, let’s talk about how to get there!
How to Get to Valbona
There are a few ways to get to Valbona. If you’re traveling from the city of Shkodër, simply follow SH20 north. You’ll have to cross into the neighboring country of Montenegro and follow P9 for a stretch of time and turn onto PL01. From there, turn onto Top Biking Trail 3, which becomes Kakanjska Road. Follow that to PL02, which eventually loops back south into Albania. Continue onto Rruga Gogaj and eventually Rruga Azem Hajdari, and follow it into Valbona.
But by far, the better option for reaching Valbona is by approaching the city from the lakeside port town of Koman. Located on Lake Koman, the route north to Valbona is one of the prettiest and most scenic in the country. This is the route I chose to get there!
Ride the Lake Koman Ferry
Hands down, one of the best travel experiences you can have in northern Albania is riding the Lake Koman Ferry. The ferry shepherds travelers and their cars across the picturesque mountain lake from the town of Koman on the south end of the lake to Fierzë on the north end.
In addition to being known for its sensational views of the surrounding greenery-covered mountains, the ferry is also infamous for its unpredictability. Locals and tourists frequent the ferry, and sometimes the locals bring their animals onboard!
Keep in mind that the ferry is only operational during the summer months and ceases operation every October. It takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to reach Fierzë, and the ride only costs 800 leke, or just under $8 USD. There’s certainly a lot to do onboard if you’re a social butterfly, as chatting with the locals and fellow tourists is a great way to pass the time. But even if you’re more of an introvert, the magnificent mountain lake scenery should be more than enough to keep you occupied until you arrive in Fierzë!
Komani Lake Ferry Berisha
Koman, Albania 4013
Eat Northern Albanian Food at Guesthouse Kujtim Cocaj
After you arrive in Fierzë, head north to the small mountain village of Çerem. As you approach the village, you’ll have to turn onto a rough, unpaved road, so I recommend driving a 4×4. Follow the dirt road to a small collection of rustic houses. This is Çerem!
Kujtim Cocaj Guesthouse is the best spot in town to get a taste of authentic northern Albanian cuisine. It also offers two downstairs bedrooms and a living space with multiple beds upstairs if you want to stay the night. When I visited, construction had started on a second guesthouse overlooking the valley.
This guesthouse is the epitome of rustic living. They use an old-school wood oven to cook. Don’t be surprised to see the employees drying wild apples outside. It’s a fantastic escape from technology and visiting forces you to put down your phone and be present!
My excursion through northern Albania was short and quick, so I, unfortunately, didn’t have time to stay overnight. But I did have time for a delicious meal of hearty northern Albanian favorites.
My feast, which I shared with my friend and guide Erjan from Travel Media EU, was an extravaganza of flavor. I couldn’t get over the incredible aromas wafting from the kitchen as we prepared to dine al fresco with an unparalleled view of the valley. Enjoy the view while drinking some local rakija!
Best of all, our hosts were nothing but kind and accommodating. I’ve long felt that it’s the people you meet who you ultimately remember when you travel. They’re the ones who make the locations memorable. The kindness they showed us certainly made Çerem a special stop on my trip through northern Albania.
Northern Albanian Favorites
I started with an unreal cornbread, which had a fantastic nutty flavor, and some hearty beans. I also loved the lakror, which is a pie-like dish. I’d had a couple varieties on my first trip to Albania, but this one was different—it contained cabbage and was sweet with some herbal notes.
I also can’t forget the crispy pumpkin byrek and the cream cheese-like yogurt. I also enjoyed a fantastic cheese-and-pepper tava, which was nice and spicy. The cheesy sauce tempered some of the heat and was perfect for dipping some crispy bread into.
One of the more unique offerings was the sheep milk, which was thick and had an almost yogurt-like consistency. It was so thick, I had to eat it with a spoon! I loved the creamy, silky texture!
The main course was some outstanding baked beef. It was nice and fatty and paired nicely with the sheep milk. It was an amazing way to cap off a flavorful and filling north Albanian meal. It’s one of the best things to do in the Valbona, Albania area!
Guesthouse Kujtim Gocaj
+355 68 491 1513
Surrounded by jagged, imposing peaks near the Albania/Montenegro border, the village of Valbona is quite the sight to behold. Compared to the village of Theth roughly 17 kilometers to its southwest, Valbona is much more expansive.
Theth is quite concentrated, with most of its traditional homes, hotels, and guesthouses concentrated around the village center. Valbona, on the other hand, is quite spread out and boasts more non-traditional architecture.
The village is a fantastic spot to serve as a base of operations, as it’s just minutes away from a number of impressive sites. It’s a popular relaxation destination for families and solo travelers who come to bask in its unparalleled beauty.
Along Rruga Azem Hajdari, the main road that winds through town, you’ll find a small shop that sells local goods and handmade souvenirs. If you’re into high-quality tea and locally-produced honey, you can find both there.
You’ll also find unique, handmade keepsakes like woven scarves, socks, and hats there. They make great souvenirs to take back home with you! Buying something there is for sure one of my favorite things to do in Valbona, Albania!
Check out the Top 15 Things to See and Do in Tirana, Albania
Check Out the Valbonë River and the Old Mill of Valbona
One of the prominent landmarks in the Valbona area is the Valbonë River, known locally as Lumi i Valbones. It snakes along just west of town, quite calm during the summer but becoming increasingly swollen and agitated as autumn and winter approach.
The river is gorgeous. Along Rruga Azem Hajdari, you’ll find a narrow footbridge that spans the river just north of town. I visited Valbona in October, so the wood-and-metal bridge made for a perfect perch above the rapids rushing between the craggy gray rocks below.
The air quality along the river’s banks is extraordinary. Here, you’re far from the exhaust and air pollution of the big cities, so you’re breathing nothing but pure mountain air. Breathing the fresh, crisp air there is among the top things to do in Valbona, Albania. It’s invigorating!
On the other side of the bridge is a traditional-looking stone building. This building, built a few hundred years ago, serves as a corn mill. Known as Mulliri i Vjetër i Valbonës, or the Old Mill of Valbona, it’s a fantastic peek into the culture of the Valbona area.
Inside, you can see the mechanism that’s used to grind corn kernels into flour. The flour is then used to make cornbread, which is a staple in the diet in the northern part of Albania!
Mulliri i Vjetër i Valbonës
Hike to Xhemes’ Lake
This area of northern Albania is a hiking hotspot, and with the rugged natural terrain there, it’s not hard to understand why. While there are hiking trails in the area geared more toward moderately experienced and expert hikers, one of my favorites was one that caters toward beginners.
Along Rruga Azem Hajdari, between Valbona and the Old Mill, is the beginnings of a path that leads deep into the surrounding forest. The 220-meter-long path winds around massive boulders and between densely-packed pine trees.
The path is pretty easy to navigate, but I do suggest wearing hiking boots as it can become slick from rain or snow. Don’t worry about getting lost, as boulders along the path have been painted with yellow-and-red trail markers. Keep an eye out for them if you’re unsure where to go, but the path is pretty straightforward.
At the end of the trail is Xhemes’ Lake. This small, natural lake boasts shockingly blue waters so clear that you can see the lake bottom. The lake, actually a large pond, is framed beautifully by the encroaching pine trees and the distant mountains.
Surrounding the lake itself are jagged stone boulders and a few large, smooth ones. If you want, bring some food and enjoy a picnic lunch with friends or family! There are also some large mushrooms growing near the road. They’re cool to look at but don’t eat them!
Stay at Guesthouse Kol Gjoni
If you’re planning on staying in Valbona overnight, I’ve heard on good authority that Guesthouse Kol Gjoni is one of the best places to lay your head. I personally didn’t have time to stay the night there, but I did get to meet the amazing staff and enjoy an unforgettable meal there!
This homey, rustic stone-and-wood guesthouse was built in 1960, but was restored in 2016. It boasts clean rooms and an excellent location in the Valbona Valley. The large room on the top floor boasts four beds, ample cabinet space, and a balcony with a view of the valley.
I’ve heard it gets very busy during the summer, so I suggest planning a reservation well in advance of your arrival to ensure you have a bed. A bed, breakfast, and dinner start at only €25, or roughly $30 USD.
Mealtimes at Guesthouse Kol Gjoni are a fun affair. Outside, you can watch employees make some rakija out of plums. I suggest trying some, but beware—it’s very strong, so take it easy!
As should be expected in northern Albania, the food at Guesthouse Kol Gjoni is hearty mountain food. It’s heavy, stick-to-your-ribs food that includes a lot of cheese, cream, and meat. But best of all, everything that winds up on your plate is locally produced and farm-to-table!
I suggest the beef, which is fatty and juicy, as well as the cheesy, creamy potatoes. They also serve fantastic roasted peppers stuffed with sour cream, as well as a crunchy cabbage salad.
Another of my favorite dishes was the pastiche, which is a cheesy pie containing noodles. It’s so unique and fresh! Enjoying a meal at Guesthouse Kol Gjoni is one of the top things to do in Valbona, Albania, so I highly recommend it!
Guesthouse Kol Gjoni
Rruga Azem Hajdari
Check out the Things to See and Do in Krujë, Albania
Hike to Theth
Of course, one of the highlights of any trip to northern Albania is the famous hike between Valbona and Theth. I personally would have loved to have done this hike myself when I visited Theth in August of 2020, but I just didn’t have the time to make it happen. For a complete look at what to do in Theth, check out my full travel guide here!
Hikers from around the world converge on this region of northern Albanian every year. Their goal is to hike the old mule trail that links the two alpine villages. These villages are both quite remote, and driving from one to the other is an arduous 7-hour journey that takes you in a big loop around northern Albania.
The hike itself is far more scenic and takes roughly 6-10 hours, depending on your speed and fitness level. From Valbona, you’ll follow a paved road to Llomi and eventually make your way through riverbeds and stunning mountain forests.
From what I’ve read, the view from atop the hike’s highest point is breathtaking. Then, from that point, hikers will enjoy views of both the Valbona Valley and the Theth Valley below them. Then, the trail continues into the Theth Valley, through dense green forests until you reach the village below. Exploring both villages is easily one of the top things to do near Valbona, Albania. The hike, in particular, is something I hope to do someday!
Check out the 15 Things You Must Do on the Albanian Riviera
Regardless of how you get to Valbona and what you choose to explore, the list of fulfilling travel experiences is long and varied. From its epic hikes to its stunning mountain lakes to its mouthwatering food, northern Albania truly is magical. It boasts a level of beauty that only became known to outsiders within the past twenty years. That said, once you visit, you’ll never forget it. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever traveled to and one I’m thrilled to share with you. Book a trip to Albania today to experience the wonders of Valbona and northern Albania for yourself!
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