There are only a few places in Europe that have managed to stay off the tourist radar. While its more famous neighbours Greece and Montenegro are already well established on the Central European tourist-trail, Albania somehow seems to have been largely forgotten. Is it Liam Neeson’s fault for trying to scaremonger us by fighting the Albanian mafia in “Taken”? Is it because the communist regime wasn’t exactly welcoming towards foreigners wanting to visit the country? Or is it maybe because there isn’t all that much to see or do there?
After having spent one month in the country, I can definitely say that it’s not the latter! Albania might be relatively unknown so far, it’s only a matter of time before more & more travellers will discover this Balkan beauty! Curious? Check out this Albania itinerary below!
The perfect Albania itinerary
1. Tirana: the capital
An intriguing mix of old and new, that’s how I would describe Tirana in a nutshell. Hidden communist relics, grand boulevards, history, a vibrant nightlife and dusty, chaotic street markets is what you can expect from a visit to the Albanian capital! If you have a soft spot for charming chaos , then Tirana will be your kind of place! You can easily linger a few days and discover the best things to do in Tirana.
2. Berat: the town of a thousand windows
I spent 2 weeks working in a hostel in Berat. It was a wonderful opportunity to slow down and discover what Albania’s most famous Ottoman town has to offer! The city is over 2000 years old and Unesco protected.
The Mangalemi neighbourhood consists of beautiful Ottoman houses that climb up towards the castle.These houses, belonging to the late 18th&19th century, have large wooden windows which, because of the steepness of the hill and close construction of the houses, appear to be stacked one over the other. This has earned Berat the nickname “City of a Thousand Windows”.
Berat castle dates back to the 13th century and is home to a myriad of Byzantine churches. A great place to stroll around!
The Gorica neighbourhood, on the other side of the Osum river, displays narrow, cobble-stoned alleys that lead to gentle tree-covered slopes.
Make sure you spend a few days here to do Berat justice! I can highly recommend Berat Backpackers!
3. Gjirokastra: another Ottoman jewel
Although smaller, Gjirokastra is just as gorgeous as Berat! Its well-preserved castle is the largest one in Albania and definitely worth a visit, not in the least for the gorgeous views it offers over the slate-roofed houses. Inside the castle walls you can find a recovered US Air Force jet that was shot down during the communist era and a military museum.
Wandering around the streets of the enchanting old town, it is easy to see why this town is Unesco protected World Heritage. The town is covered in stunning Ottoman-era houses and buildings that are now home to artisan shops, restaurants and lovely hotels. Most of them are located in or near the Bazaar district and date back to the 17th and 19th century.
Gjirokastra is the birthplace of Albania’s most famous writer, Ismael Kadaré. He used the town as a setting for his novel “Chronicles in Stone”. What better way to immerse yourself into Albanian culture than reading the work of the country’s biggest author, in the very same place he grew up in?
4. Butrint: ruins steeped in history
It seems that Albania is full of Unesco-sites, who would have guessed, right? The ancient ruins of Butrint are close to the seaside “resort” of Saranda and famous with day trippers who take the short ferry ride from neighbouring Corfou, so you better plan your visit early morning to avoid the crowds!
Butrint has been a Greek colony and a Roman city. It has known prosperity under Byzantine administration, and has also been briefly occupied by the Venetians. It was finally abandoned in the late Middle Ages after marshes formed the area. The site is situated in a fantastic natural setting and is absolutely stunning!
It is a mere 20 minute bus ride from Sarande.
5. The Albanian Riviera: Italy, minus the price tag
Love the clear blue waters on the eastern coast of Italy? Cross the Adriatic Sea and you’ll find exactly the same thing on the Albanian side, minus the price tags! Wait, no, that’s not exactly true, you will not find any over-crowded beaches on the Albanian Riviera either!
The area is changing rapidly though…
Sarande is the main coastal town on this stretch of the Albanian coast. It is a modern place and probably the only place in Albania I didn’t like. Apart from a boulevard to stroll along the beach, I failed to see any charm.
You are better off heading towards Ksamil, to the south of Sarande or Himara to the north, where the villages are still much more laid back and have preserved that chaotic, charming Albanian feel.
6. Underrated Voskopoje
Voskopoje is a small mountain village, near Korça, south-east Albania. During the 18th century it was a cultural and commercial centre. Nowadays, Voskopoje is known for its beautiful churches and fresques. They are among the most representative of 18th century ecclesiastical art in the Balkans! Unfortunately during my visit they all seemed closed so I had to peak through the fences to see some of the beautiful fresques.
The place is not overrun by tour groups (yet) and the surrounding nature is the perfect place for a picnic amidst the ruins.
I feasted on a packed lunch accompanied by passing goats, donkeys, cows and chickens and occasionally the odd farmer too.
It is probably one of the most underrated places to visit in Albania, but one that you should definitely include in your Albania itinerary!
There are plenty of more places to add on your Albania itinerary: the mountain peaks, Lake Ohrid, the cultural city of Shkoder …
But don’t wait too long, Albania seems to be more than ready to establish itself firmly on the tourism market!
Over to you! Have you been? What were your favourite places to visit in Albania?