Magnificent, fabulous shores beaches, great food and a wallet-friendly economy only scratch the surface when describing this bustling Balkan country. Although it is becoming more and more popular with tourists, Albania (the correct name is Shqipëria or, more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) has still not been discovered. There are certainly beautiful coastlines and historic attractions, but the best reason to come to Albania is to discover a country completely unknown and shrouded in mystery after decades of isolation.
Prepare to fall in love with this wonderful place: from the capital Tirana to the beautiful clear waters of the south and ancient cities, an excursion through Albania is a real adventure. Let’s take a look at the best places to visit.
Forget London, Paris or Rome. For a city break rich in culture, history and gastronomy, but preserved from the tourist masses, try Tirana instead. The Albanian capital is the next travel destination in the Balkan Peninsula (Southeast Europe). The vortex of this bustling destination is Blloku, the Block, the city’s most famous neighborhood. A must stop in this area is the Cafe Coloniala beautifully designed relaxation spot, where the staff will help you choose one of their bespoke cocktails based on a series of very specific questions about your personal taste.
The heart of the city is Skanderbeg Square with the mosque, the Skanderbeg statue and the clock tower. Take a tour in the National Historical Museum, decorated with a formidable mosaic, to learn more about the history of the country. Check Bunk’Art2, a recently opened museum dedicated to the victims of communism, located in a bunker in the center of Tirana. The best restaurant in town? Go to Padam, a new reference point for Albanian gastronomy installed in a villa with a gourmet menu. The best thing you can do here is ask the awesome chef Fundim Gjepali for a recommendation.
Few people can resist the unique charm of the old town of Berat. The heart of this pretty town, Mangalem, is an impressive Ottoman center with typical white houses with small windows going up the hill to its castle, earning it the title of “city of a thousand windows”, and many mosques. Albania is a predominantly Muslim country, but it was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than at the start of the war. It is also tolerant of other major religions in the region; Orthodox and Catholic.
During the communist era, dictator Enver Hoxha completely banned religions. Even after temples reopened in the 1990s, Albanians keep their religion private. You will see more women wearing headscarves in London or Paris than on your trip to Albania. Berat is the symbol of this religious tolerance. This is one of the reasons why it was included on the UNESCO list.
But although it is now a major tourist center, Berat has managed to retain its pleasant atmosphere. If you want to know more about the history of this wonderful city, be sure to visit the Ethnographic Museuminstalled in an Ottoman-era house.
Reach the Citadel of Antiquity Gijrokastër for dazzling views. Once there, you will understand why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the oldest cities in Albania, its name means Silver Fortress and clearly shows the confluence of Albanian, Greek and Turkish cultures. But Albania is not an extension of Greece or Turkey: the country has a great national identity, the Albanian language, Shqip, is of Indo-European origin but is totally different from other languages in the region. . Even though the alphabet is based on Latin, the sounds the letters make are very different.
Gijrokastër owes its preservation to the fact that it is the birthplace of the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha who ordered that the town remain intact during communism, except for the destruction of the mosques (the town did not has only one mosque today). The former house of the communist dictator is now the beautiful Ethnographic Museum it is worth a visit. The city is also the birthplace of the most important Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare (nominated five times for the Nobel Prize), who wrote Chronicle in stonewhich takes place in Gijrokastër and tells the history of the town during the Italian and Greek occupation during the First and Second World Wars.
4. The Albanian Riviera
Driving along the Albanian coast means passing through striking landscapes filled with traditional villages, golden beaches lapped by turquoise waters, small Orthodox churches and mountains that rise dramatically. The Albanian Riviera is a revelation for many travelers as it is one of the last untouched beaches in Europe. Exploring this magnificent shoreline, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet, is a must.
Start your trip from the town of Vlora (a two-hour drive from Tirana) and head to the unspoilt Karaburun Peninsula and Sazan Island with the help of Teuta boat. This area was once a military base, but today it is a national park and the best place to visit in Vlore.
Then it’s time to head south. Despite the transformation of the Riviera in recent years, there are still idyllic and breathtaking places along this wild coast. Palasa is the first accessible beach on the Riviera after negotiating the extraordinary descent via the Llogara pass. For dazzling views, head to Dhërmi. It is one of the most famous beaches in Albania (you will also find good restaurants there, the best being Sofra and Pashait, consider ordering the seafood linguine). Outside of peak season it is very quiet, and although the summer months are now very busy, the beach is long enough for those looking for somewhere quiet away from the crowds (including the beautiful Drymades Beach ). The seven-kilometer beach near the village of Borsh is the largest on the Riviera. Despite its dimensions, tourism has barely touched this area. In contrast, Ksamil, a beautiful beach near Saranda (the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera), is a major tourist center and can be very crowded in summer.
5. Butrint Archaeological Park
Before leaving Albania, you must spend a few hours in the Butrint Archaeological Park. It is close to the Greek border and less than an hour from Saranda. The ancient ruins of Butrint lie in a fantastic natural setting and date from varied periods, spanning 2,500 years. Although it was inhabited long before, Greeks from Corfu settled on Butrint Hill in the 6th century BC. Within a century, the site had become a fortified commercial city. Butrint’s prosperity continued throughout the Roman period and the Byzantines made it an ecclesiastical center. Then the city suffered a long decline and was abandoned until 1927, when Italian archaeologists arrived. Perhaps the most astonishing ruin is the 3rd century BC Greek theater, isolated in the forest below the acropolis. The park, famous for its beauty and tranquility, is a microcosm of Mediterranean culture, surprisingly free of tourists even in the height of summer and the viewpoints are the perfect place to take your last photo of this incredible country.
Pro tip: To learn more about many of the destinations listed above and to get expert guides along the way, contact the Saranda-based agency. Our own expeditions.
Francesca is a journalist and blogger based in Florence, Italy, passionate about travel and addicted to the Balkan countries.