Stunning shores, fabulous beaches, great food and a wallet-friendly economy only scratch the surface when describing this lively Balkan country. While it is becoming more popular with tourists, Albania (the correct name is Shqipëria or, more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) remains undiscovered. Certainly there are the terrific coastlines and historic attractions, but the best reason to come to Albania is to discover a completely unknown country wrapped in mystery after decades of isolation.
Prepare to fall in love with this wonderful place: from the capital city Tirana to the stunning clear waters of the south through to the ancient towns, an excursion through Albania is a real adventure. Let’s have a look at the best places to visit.
Forget London, Paris or Rome. For a city break rich with culture, history and gastronomy—yet unspoiled by the tourists masses—try Tirana instead. The Albanian capital city is the Balkans Peninsula’s (southeastern Europe) next upcoming travel spot. The vortex of this lively destination is Blloku, the Block, the most famous neighborhood in town. One must-stop in this area is the Colonial Café, a beautifully design spot to chill out, where the staff will help you to pick one of their custom-made cocktails based on a very specific series of questions about your personal tastes.
The heart of the town is Skanderbeg Square with the Mosque, Skanderbeg statue and Clock Tower. Take a tour in the National Historical Museum, adorned with a terrific mosaic, to learn more about the history of the country. Check out the Bunk’Art2, a recently opened museum dedicated to the victims of Communism, located in a bunker in the centre of Tirana. Best restaurant in town? Go to Padam, a new point of reference for the Albanian gastronomy housed in a villa with a gourmet menu. The best thing you can do here is to ask for a recommendation by the genial chef Fundim Gjepali.
Few people can resist the unique charm of the UNESCO-designated old town of Berat. The heart of this lovely city, Mangalem, is an impressive Ottoman center with typical white houses with small windows climbing up to the hill to its castle, earning it the title of ‘town of a thousand windows’, and many mosques. Albania is a country with a Muslim majority but it was also the only European country to end the WWII with more Jews than it had at the start of the war. It is also tolerant of the other prominent religions in the region; Orthodox and Catholic.
During Communist era, dictator Enver Hoxha banned religions altogether. Even after the temples were reopened in the 1990s, Albanians keep their religion private. You will see more women in headscarves in London or Paris than in your travel through Albania. Berat is the symbol of this religious tolerance. This is one of the reasons it was included on UNESCO’s list.
But despite now being a big tourism center, Berat has managed to retain its pleasant atmosphere. If you want to learn more about the history of this wonderful town remember to visit the Muzeum Ethnografik, housed in an Ottoman-era home.
Reach the citadel of ancient Gijrokastër for dazzling vistas. Once here, you’ll understand why it is UNESCO world-heritage site. One of the oldest cities of Albania, the name means Silver Fortress, and it clearly shows the confluence of Albanian, Greek and Turkish cultures. But Albania is not an extension of Greece or Turkey: the country has a big national identity, the Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin but is totally different from other languages in the area. Even though the alphabet is based on Latin, the sounds the letters make are very different.
Gijrokastër owes its preservation to the fact it is the birthplaces of the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha who ordered that the city remain untouched during the Communism, except for destroying the mosques (the city today has only one mosque). The former house of the Communist dictator is now the beautiful Ethnographic Museum that deserves a visit. The city is also the hometown of the most important Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare (nominated five times for the Nobel Prize), who wrote Chronicle in Stone, which is set in Gijrokastër and tells the history of the city during the Italian and Greek occupation in World War I and II.
Driving along the Albania’s coastline means rolling past 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 because these are among Europe’s last untouched beaches. The exploration of this magnificent shore, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet, is a must.
Start your journey from the city of Vlora (two hours by car from Tirana) and head into the unspoiled Karaburun Peninsula and Island of Sazan with the help of Teuta Boat. This area was once a military base, but today is a National Park and the best place to visit in Vlora.
Then it’s time to head into the south. Despite the Riviera’s transformation in the past few years, there are still idyllic and breathtaking spots along this rugged coast. Palasa is the first accessible beach on the Riviera after negotiating the extraordinary descent through the Llogara Pass. For dazzling vistas go to Dhërmi. This is one of the most famous beaches in Albania (here you’ll find also good restaurants, the best is Sofra e Pashait, remember to order the linguine with sea fruits). Outside peak season, it is very quiet, and while the summer months now get very busy, the beach is long enough for those looking for a quiet spot away from the crowds (including the beautiful Drymades beach). The seven-kilometer beach near the village of Borsh is the largest in the Riviera. Despite its dimensions, the tourism has barely touched this area. On the contrary, Ksamil, a wonderful beach close to Saranda (the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera) is a big tourism centre and it can get very crowded in summer.
Before leaving Albania you have to spend 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 are in a fantastic natural setting and from a variety of periods, spanning 2,500 years. Although it was inhabited long before, Greeks from Corfu settled on the hill of Butrint in the 6th century BC. Within a century the site had become a fortified trading city. Butrint’s prosperity continued throughout the Roman period and the Byzantines made it an ecclesiastical centre. Then the city went into a long decline and was abandoned until 1927 when Italian archeologists arrived. The most amazing ruin is surely the 3rd century-BC Greek theatre, secluded in the forest below the acropolis. The park, famed for its beauty and tranquility, is a microcosm of the Mediterranean culture, surprisingly devoid of tourists even in the peak of summer and the viewing points are the perfect place to snap your last photo of this incredible country.
Pro tip: To learn more about many of the destinations listed above—and for expert guides along the way—contact Saranda-based Our Own Expeditions.
Francesca is a journalist and blogger based in Florence, Italy, with a love of travel and an addiction to the Balkan countries.