Albania, sandwiched between Montenegro and Greece on the Balkan peninsula, is having a moment. A country that was closed to the world just over 30 years ago has blossomed and is welcoming an increasing number of visitors — nearly three million in 2019 — keen to explore its unique culture and traditions.
Writer Ismail Kadare once said that “an Albanian’s house is the dwelling of god and the guest” to describe the country’s warm welcome. I know this intimately: I came to Albania for a long weekend in 2017 and never left. I’ve travelled extensively throughout the country since then, and found it unlike anywhere else in Europe. Prices are far below those in most of the traditional European holiday hotspots, which has made it attractive for visitors — you could get by on £20 a day or less, including camping or a hostel, great Albanian food and even a glass of wine. Food, drink and transport are at least half the price they are in the UK, while entrance to sites is either free or equivalent to a pound or two.
The capital, Tirana, ideal for city breaks, is a fascinating mix of fascist-era Italian-style buildings painted in bright hues of yellow and pink, mural-covered communist-era apartments, and men drinking coffee and playing dominoes in the streets. But the real beauty of Albania is found outside the cities, where vast mountain ranges run from north to south like a craggy spine, with azure rivers winding through their vast canyons. Here are the top things to do in Albania.
1. Understand Albania’s history in Tirana
Chances are you’ll start in Tirana, the capital, where you’ll need a couple of days to explore. It’s a compact city: most of the big sights are accessible on foot, and Tirana Free Tour will show you round for nothing. Don’t miss the House of Leaves and museums Bunk’art 1 and 2, all of which provide a harrowing look at the rule of former dictator Enver Hoxha.
Other must-see sights include the National History Museum, Tirana Castle, the Dajti Ekspres cable car and Tirana Zoo. Stop to see the house of Ali Shijaku, with its traditional interior, floor-to-ceiling artworks and a cobbled courtyard perfect for drinking coffee in.
2. Shop for souvenirs in the Accursed Mountains
A trip to the remote village of Theth in the Accursed Mountains — also known as the Albanian Alps — is a must, as is a ferry ride across Komani Lake to stone guesthouses only accessible via the water. Here you can hike or just relax while enjoying fresh Albanian cuisine such as meat baked in yoghurt, bean stews with peppers, or fresh fish served with seasonal salads. In the villages of Lezhe and Shkodra, there are opportunities to visit winemakers, potters and ateliers where vibrant bolts of fabric are hand-woven from wool and silk.
3. Walk through Balkan history
Visit Butrint on Albania’s western coast, a Unesco world heritage site where you can walk through thousands of years of Balkan history via ancient amphitheatres, bastions and forts; or Apollonia, which dates back to the sixth century BC. Divjake is also a must-see, with bicycle paths, lagoons and beaches, pelicans and flamingoes. Eat at restaurant Ali Kali, meaning “horse”, where a waiter serves all-you-can-eat fish on horseback.
4. See the world heritage towns of Berat and Gjirokastra
The Unesco world heritage site towns of Berat and Gjirokastra in southern Albania are unmissable for their Ottoman architecture, castles and bazaars. In Berat, visit the Solomon Museum, tracing the history of Albania’s Jews; in Gjirokaster, the historic Skenduli House and the Ethnographic Museum provide unique insight into Albania’s cultural quirks.
5. Hike national parks — but beware of bears
Heading off into any of Albania’s national parks — Llogara or Valbona being two great examples — is always an adventure; just watch out for the Balkan lynx, bears, and wolves who frequent them. Here you can walk, bike, ride, canoe, wild camp and even paraglide.
6. Relax on the Albanian Riviera
The Albanian Riviera on the Ionian Sea stretches from the city of Vlore to Saranda, just across the water from Corfu, and is a mix of whitewashed villages perched on rocky outcrops and glorious beaches that stretches for miles. Amid its winding roads and olive groves are opportunities to visit music festivals or see ancient ghost towns such as Tragjas.
7. Check into a traditional guesthouse
“Bujtinas” are found throughout the country. These traditional family-run guest houses are a great way to immerse yourself in the country, and will serve local delicacies including candied watermelon (gliko) and slabs of goat’s cheese, alongside stories from years ago. The best are found in mountainous Tropoje and in the remote southeastern town of Voskopoje — both great during the snowy winter months.
8. Visit a former communist gulag
The former communist gulag of Spac near Reps is a sobering experience that provides some context to Albania’s complex past. Clinging to the top of a mountain are the ruins of the former prison, including cell blocks, interrogation rooms, isolation cells and administrative buildings. Visitors can look down into the valley below where bodies of those who died due to malnutrition or disobeying orders were thrown, or up towards the mines where people were forced to work long hours in the freezing cold, often for decades at a time. It’s not a joyful experience, but Spac is an important reminder of the struggles Albania has endured.
9. Visit a Venetian mask factory in Shkodra
At the Venice Art Mask Factory in Shkodra, 50 staff hand-craft Venetian masks that are exported around the world — hundreds of staff produce over 30,000 masks very year of more than 1,700 distinct designs. Alongside the factory, you’ll find a museum dedicated to Italian photographer Pietro Marubi, who spent most of his life in the city. Shkodra is also home to a spectacular 4,000-year-old castle that sits 130m above the shores of Lake Shkodra and is framed by the Albanian Alps.
10. Give back to the community at the Fundjave Ndryshe centre
Visit the non-profit Fundjave Ndryshe centre, just outside Tirana, for a meal. You’ll be served dishes such as raw seafood marinated in lemon juice, pasta and risotto with locally grown truffles and a wide selection of Albanian mezze. The best part is that the money you spend is directly ploughed back into the cause, which helps vulnerable local people with housing and English lessons.
11. Find art in a monastery
Ardenica Monastery in Fier County is reported to be where 15th-century Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg, was married; much later, it was repurposed as a nightclub for the communist elite. The club is no more, but behind the carved oak doors of the 12th-century Eastern Orthodox monastery you can see intricate gold-tinted frescoes painted by some of Albania’s best artists, dating from the 1700s and 1800s.
12. Follow the path of the Vjosa river
Trace the river Vjosa through the country, stopping at towns and villages on the way. Start in Permet, famous for hot springs and roses, and head to Tepelene, the birthplace of the great Ali Pasha, before continuing to Vlora, where the Adriatic meets the Ionian Sea. (The Times)