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.
Albania’s capital used to regularly top lists for Europe's worst city. Decades of Stalinist rule left Tirana grey and grim, lacking in both infrastructure and services. Today Tirana is – while still often chaotic – a very pleasant little city with enough interesting things to do.
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.
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If you are wondering what to do in Tirana away from the city centre, head to Mount Dajti National Park, popular with Tirana's residents for fresh air and countryside walks. You can either take an Austrian-built cable car (expensive) or the city bus (cheap) and once there you’ll find hotels, guest houses and restaurants if you feel like staying overnight.
There are few better places to be in Albania than standing on the footbridge in the charming, easy-going town of Berat. From this vantage point, you’ll be surrounded by huddles of Ottoman houses, their dark, rectangular windows staring from whitewashed walls like a thousand eyes.
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.
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Albania has some wonderful stretches of beach along its Ionian shore - and there is still a good chance you'll have the beach to yourself. With its jumble of rugged mountains fringed by pristine curls of beach, Albania’s south is the most appealing part of the country.
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.
Sitting proudly above the sparsely inhabited Drinos valley, Gjirokastra is one of Albania’s most attractive towns and home to some of its friendliest people. It was once an important Ottoman trading hub and today a sprinkling of nineteenth-century Ottoman-style houses line the maze of steep, cobbled streets. Gjiro is also etched into the nation’s conscience as the birthplace of the world-renowned author Ismail Kadare.
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.
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On the way between Gjirokastra and Saranda is the wonderful Blue Eye, an underwater spring forming a pool of deepest blue (50L). Its setting in a cool, remote grove is quite spectacular, but the water is bracing, to say the least. Hop on any bus or minivan plying the Saranda–Gjirokastra route, and ask to be let off at the Syri i Kaltër; the pool is 20min from the road on a clear path. There’s also a decent restaurant and hotel on site.
Lofty Kruja, 35km from Tirana, was the focal point of national hero Skanderbeg’s resistance to the Ottoman invasions of the fifteenth century, and you’ll see his likeness all over town. Most people make a beeline for the castle, which houses several restaurants and an excellent History Museum, whose diverting collection of weaponry, icons and the like is augmented by an impressive modern interior.
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.
These remote mountains make up the southernmost part of the Dinaric Alps that stretch from Albania, through Serbia and as far north as Slovenia. The range is best explored by trekking around the valley of Valbona. it’s a long but enjoyable journey from the capital, taking in a ferry crossing on the emerald waters of Lake Koman, but entirely worth it for this magnificent mountain scenery.
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 main activity around Saranda is a visit to Butrint and the fantastic beaches of Ksamil, which can both be visited in a single day trip from the town.
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.
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Splendidly sited on an exposed nub of land, the isolated ruins of Butrint National Park offer a peek into over 2500 years of history, and are a delight to explore on its eucalyptus-lined trails.
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.
Oozing over the Albanian border, beautiful Skadar is the largest lake in the Balkans, and also one of its most untouched. However, since it lies on the train line, it’s easily accessible and can make a good stop-off on your way to or from the coast. The main jump-off point is Virpazar, a cute little fishing village at the northern end of the lake, 1km back down the line to Podgorica from the station.
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.
Albania’s largely meat-based cuisine brings together elements of Slavic, Turkish and Italian cuisines. Spit-roasted lamb is the traditional dish of choice, though today it’s qebab (kebabs) and qoftë (grilled lamb rissoles) that dominate menus, often served with a bowl of kos (yoghurt). Another interesting dish is fergesë, a mix of egg, onions and tomatoes (and meat in some regions) cooked in a clay pot.
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.
In the southern part of Albania, not far from the town of Pärmet, are the Benja Hot Springs. They are located in a beautiful gorge of the Benja River, surrounded by lush greenery and spectacular mountain landscapes.
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.
Cross into Albania by land or sea, and you’ll soon notice clutches of grey, dome-like structures dotting the countryside. Under Hoxha’s rule, these bunkers were scattered around the country in tremendous numbers – estimates run as high as 750,000. These were no family shelters, but strategic positions to which every able-bodied man was expected to head, weapon in hand, at the onset of war.
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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