Home Tourism Albania is the European holiday you didn’t know you needed

Albania is the European holiday you didn’t know you needed

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Albania is a country filled with picturesque towns, pristine beaches, ancient castles, snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. Then add long months of sunshine, friendly and smiling locals and cuisine influenced by neighbors far and near, including Greece, Italy and Türkiye. (For the uninitiated, that means flaky pastries and stuffed peppers, tangy meat skewers and qofte, hearty stews and soups for every season, and great coffee to wash it all down.) In other words , it has the best of Europe, with a fraction of the crowds and costs. What’s not to love about Albania?

Although the country has a majority Muslim population, it is also now one of the most tolerant nations in the region. As a result, Ottoman mosques sit alongside Orthodox churches, while cheerfully painted buildings sit alongside austere government offices. There are world-class art museums as well as monuments dedicated to reminders of the country’s worst phase under communist rule.

It’s a country worth discovering and we suggest you get there before the hordes of tourists. Here’s how to spend the perfect week (or two) exploring this beautiful Balkan country by car.



Land in Tirana

With a busy international airport, Tirana is an obvious starting point for your Albania vacation. The capital is also ideally located in the middle of the country, providing easy access to the beaches of the south and the mountains of the north.

Head first to Skanderbeg Square, the beating heart of Tirana, beloved by locals and tourists alike. Start at the 18th-century Et’hem Bej Mosque with its magnificent murals and ceilings, then spend some time at the National Museum at the other end of the square. Bunk Art 2, a communist-era bunker now turned into a museum, is just around the corner, and the impressive Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is a short walk away.

You may want to grab a quick lunch in the city center, but in the evening head to the bustling Blloku area, once reserved for the residences of senior party officials. Another great place to dine is Tirana Castle (also known as Justinian’s Fortress), now converted into a bustling shopping and dining center.

A souvenir shop in Berat

Charukesi Ramadurai

First stop, Berat

From Tirana, head south to Berat, nicknamed the “city of a thousand windows” because of the collection of white houses that seem to cascade from the castle. Cross the beautiful stone bridge that spans the river to get the best views of these hillside houses. Berat was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008 as “a rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period.”

Kalaja – the 13th century castle, also called Kalasa – is the brightest star among Berat’s architectural attractions. Inside this inhabited castle, you’ll find houses and churches, as well as traditional souvenir shops and restaurants. Don’t miss the Onufri Museum, known for its remarkable collection of Albanian Orthodox icons painted by iconographic artist Onufri in the 16th century. The other old neighborhoods of Mangalem, at the foot of the citadel, and Gorica, across the river, are also worth exploring now to get a glimpse of a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Albania has an interesting nighttime tradition known as “xhiro” – literally translated as “walk” – but actually means a regular evening socializing ritual. So, after a long day of sightseeing, relax with a glass of raki (distilled fruit alcohol) at one of the restaurants lining the pedestrianized Boulevardi Republika, where families and friends gather each evening to practice their xhiro and meet up for coffee and chess.

Gjirokastra Castle

Charukesi Ramadurai

Then go to Gjirokastra

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its stunning Ottoman-era architecture, this hilltop town is nicknamed the “City of Stone.” The heart of Gjirokastra is the bazaar district with its narrow, cobbled streets, where merchants will welcome you into their shops with a disarming willingness to bargain.

Gjirokastra Castle is perched dramatically on top of the hill, overlooking the town’s two-story houses, the bustling market just below, and the hills in the distance. For a castle built in the 4th century, it is remarkably well preserved, with a clock tower, stone tunnels and a small museum. And as a quirky bonus, there’s a fighter plane shot down during World War II resting on the open lawns.

If all this seems like too much of a history lesson for you, drive an hour to Blue Eye, a natural spring with sparkling turquoise waters, located right in the middle of a forest.



Happiness by the beach

For some seaside R&R, head further south to Saranda, a part of the Albanian Riviera, which is much quieter and nicer than many other popular European seaside towns. The Albanian Riviera has a rugged coastline that stretches for almost 120 km from Vlore to Saranda, the entire route dotted with pretty postcard villages like Himarë, Vuno, Dhërmi and endless white sand bays and coves that seem made for Instagram.

Near Saranda there are two essential stops. The first is Ksamil, a secluded beach from where you can almost touch Corfu in Greece. And then there’s the Burtrint Archaeological Site and National Park with its collection of Roman and Greek ruins, including an amphitheater, aqueducts, baths and temple ruins.

Mountain magic

If the call of the mountains is too strong to ignore, head north to the Albanian Alps – also known fancifully as the “Cursed Mountains” – via Tirana, with quick stops to explore markets, museums and the castles of Kruja and Shokdra. Shkodra is the ideal base for hikes around the region’s two spectacular national parks: Valbona and Theth, both brimming with lush green valleys, pristine lakes, high mountain passes and churches and the occasional waterfall. Of the two, Theth is more easily accessible by car and has another wonderful Blue Eye where swimming is permitted. And the only way to access Valbona from Theth is to hike the 16km trail connecting the two via the Valbona Pass.

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