Beyond vague recollections of its Communist past, few travellers know much about Albania. Its rippling mountains and pristine beaches, lands littered with historical Roman ruins and pretty Ottoman towns remain largely undiscovered. Probably because of its undiscovered nature, Albania is also one of the most budget-friendly European destinations. Here's our pick of the best things to do in Albania.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, your essential guide for visiting Europe.
The Et'hem Bey Mosque in Tirana is one of the few mosques to have escaped destruction by the Communists, which had resulted in any kind of religious institution being either closed, demolished or converted into warehouses or schools by the end of 1967. The clock tower is a symbol of the municipality of Tirana and, in an ensemble with the Et'hem Bey Mosque, is a unique architectural landmark.
Visiting Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who briefly ensured Albania was independent of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Albania.
On the south bank is the sleepy Gorica district, kept in shadow for much of the day by a muscular backdrop of rock. To the north is the relatively sun-drenched Mangalemi district, from which steep, cobblestoned paths lead up to the hill-top Kalasa, an old citadel whose wonderful interior is up there with the best old towns in the Balkans.
Also note the Cobo winery, which is located near Berat in the village of Roshnik. Also note the Kobo winery, which is located near Berat in the village of Roshnik. A visit to a winery is one of the best things to do in Albania for experiencing local wine culture.
Heading on down the Ionian Coast, you’ll find one of Europe’s few unspoilt sections of Mediterranean shore, a near-permanently sunny spot where the twin blues of sea and sky are ripped asunder by a ribbon of grey mountains. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see Italy from the 1027m-high Llogaraja Pass. Both routes converge at the beach town of Saranda, while further south is the fantastic ruins of Butrint.
The Old Town’s centrepiece is its imposing Gjirokastra Castle, which is visible from any point in town. Built in the sixth century and enlarged in 1811 by Ali Pasha Tepelna, it was used as a prison by King Zog, the Nazis and Hoxha’s cadres; the interior remains suitably spooky.
Also within the castle walls is the Ethnographic Museum, housed in a gorgeous building with a serene outdoor courtyard. Souvenir sellers have taken over the town and the best place to buy your Albania flag T-shirt, Skanderbeg statuette or Mother Teresa lighter is the restored Ottoman bazaar, just below the castle access road.
The picture-perfect valley of Valbona, which follows a river of the same name, is nestled among a collection of towering karst limestone peaks that reach heights of up to 2690m. Home to some of the country’s most picturesque homesteads, visiting Valbona is one of the best things to do in Albania for a true taste of Albanian country living.
The small coastal village of Ksamil within Butrint National Park has a smattering of lovely public beaches lapped by spectacularly clear waters. Each cove is overlooked by a restaurant serving reasonably priced seafood (Guvat is the best of the bunch). The beaches are beautiful but busy in summer, and there are a few small islands close enough to swim to if you want a little extra space.
The area was first developed by the Greeks, and the expansive theatre and public baths were built soon after. Butrint then reached its zenith during Roman times, though most of the statues unearthed from this period are now in the museums of Tirana. You can see most of Butrint’s sights on a looped footpath, though do head up to the Acropolis for wonderful views and an excellent museum full of unearthed artefacts.
From here it’s a pleasant walk along the lake’s western shore, and though there’s nowhere to rent bikes if you’ve brought one along you’ll be in heaven. An hour’s ride will bring into sight a clutch of offshore monasteries, though to get any nearer you’ll have to search for a boat.
Vegetarians will find that filling, generous salads are ubiquitous, and seafood is also plentiful around the coast. But for all this choice the modern Albanian youth – and many a tourist – subsists almost entirely on snack food, particularly burek, a pastry filled with cheese, meat or spinach; and sufllaqë, sliced kebab meat and french fries stuffed in a roll of flatbread.
Visiting Benja Hot Springs is one of the best things to do in Albania for relaxation, thanks to their waters, which are naturally heated to a temperature of about 25-30 degrees Celsius. The hot springs consist of several cascading pools, each with its temperature and depth, and the water is known to have healing properties useful for various diseases.
Though Western spies did indeed make attempts to infiltrate the country, the bunkers were never really put to the test. Huge underground government bunkers can also be found, most notably in Tirana where one 106-room shelter known as Bunk’Art has been converted into a historical museum and art space, located near the Mount Dajti cable car station.
Visiting Albania is a truly unforgettable experience. For more inspirational travel tips check our Rough Guide books.
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