Albania is a fascinating mix of old and new. Once a mysterious closed off dictatorship, the country only opened its borders to the outside world in 1992 after 47 years of oppressive Stalinist isolation under Enver Hoxha.
We spent a week driving around Albania in summer 2021, and found it to be unbelievably welcoming and friendly. With tourism still an emerging industry, many people seemed to be very excited to have foreign visitors. The architecture, the beaches, the food... Albania really is a hidden gem! We've made a short list of 5 of our favourite places that need to make it onto your Albanian itinerary:
In the capital city of Tirana, you can still see glimpses of Albania’s communist past in vast Skanderbeg Square (once a parade ground decorated with statues of Stalin and Hoxha), and the building that surround it – the white stone Palace of Culture looks like many of the Soviet era buildings found in Russia; in fact it was built in the 1960s as a gift from the Soviet people, and Nikita Khrushchev laid the first stone! On another side of the square, a vast mosaic in Socialist Realist style covers the front of the National Historical Museum. Streets of flashy cocktail bars contrast with crumbling concrete bunkers, and a KFC is now opposite Hoxha's former home, a pink palatial mansion with a pool in the garden that looks like it should be in Key West.
Bunk’art II is a preserved nuclear bunker which is now a museum, with tunnels and rooms spreading far beneath the pavement. In the 1970s, Hoxha had hundreds of thousands of these bunkers built throughout the country! The exhibitions inside about the political persecution of Albanians by their own government are very moving, but we feel that it is important to learn about and remember the darker chapters of Albanian history.
Hajji Et'hem Bey Mosque: Built in 1819. Religion was banned under communist rule and many of the mosques in Tirana were destroyed or changed into secular buildings, so this beautiful mosque is seen today as a symbol of freedom. The inside is completely covered with gorgeous hand painted frescoes of flowers and bridges, and next to the mosque is a 19th century clock tower that you can climb for a small fee, for views over Skanderbeg Square.
Wondering where to eat in Tirana? For traditional Albanian food with a modern flair, we would recommend Mullixhiu, an award winning restaurant with an amazing tasting menu that will guide you through several iconic Albanian dishes such as Qifqi rice balls, meat balls and trout.
Head down to the south of Albania and you'll reach the gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Gjirokaster. As you drive through the Drin river valley, keep your eyes peeled for grey concrete domes of bunkers dotted throughout the fields and villages, a remnant of Hoxha's 70s Cold War paranoia.
Gjirokaster is famous for its historic grey stone Ottoman dwelling houses, crammed in dizzying rows up steep hills, their slate slab roofs held on only by their own weight, and walking the narrow cobbled streets is like visiting the past. It's the birthplace of both Hoxha and Nobel nominated Albanian author Ismail Kadare and is classed as a Museum City, which luckily protected it from Communist modernisation.
A typical Gjirokaster street, and the view from the top of Gjirokaster castle
A hike up the hill to Gjirokaster castle is an absolute must. Once Ali Pasha's Ottoman fortress, the castle became a prison under King Zog in the 30s and continued to hold political prisoners offers until the late 60s,during Fascist Italian and Nazi German occupation, and then under Hoxha's Communist regime. Albania certainly has a turbulent history, and it must have been unbelievably hard for the ordinary citizens over the last two centuries.
At the top of the castle is a clock tower and a concert stage with great views of mountains, the city and the valley below. Inside, past a long corridor of tanks and artillery, is a museum about the history of Gjirokaster, and another containing a large haul of captured Nazi weapons. Outside on the walls is a rusting American plane with a contested history - was it shot down during the Cold War? Was it a spy plane that ran out of fuel? No one can seem to agree...
What to eat in Gjirokaster: wander the Old Town, through the bazaar, and be sure to seek out a these two local specialties:
Qifqi, (prounounced Chiff Chee) are similar to Italian arancini - savoury rice balls bound by egg, made with herbs and crispy on the outside.
Oshaf: this divine dessert is made with dried figs topped with a whipped mousse like pudding made with sheep's milk and dusted with cinnamon.
If you love history, this astonishing ruined city is an absolute must. The archaeological site is UNESCO protected and can get very busy in the summer - it's way down south, virtually on the Greek border, and tour groups from Corfu often come across by ferry. In peak months, consider arriving as soon as it opens to avoid the crowds! We visited while staying in the nearby beach town of Ksamil and drove, but there is also a bus from Saranda.
Butrint began as an Ancient Greek settlement, famed for its sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, before being a Roman colony under Julius Caesar. The remains of the city are vast, and in many places amazingly well preserved. The gorgeous 2500 seater amphitheatre is still used for concerts today, and the nearby bath house is easily recognisable. Further in is the Triconch Palace, an elegant Roman Villa with a luxurious dining room and riverside entrance, later abandoned as water levels rose, and the Fountain of the nymphs, a huge ornamental fountain near to what would have been a city entrance, is virtually intact.
Other highlights include the 6th century Basilica, roofless but no less impressive, with its long rows of arches, and the Baptistry, famous for its elaborate mosaic floor. Year round you can see the foundations of the round building and its columns, but most of the time the mosaic is covered over with plastic sheets and sand to protect it from the elements. There are photos of it on the adjacent information boards. You can see other beautiful mosaic fragments throughout the site, still colourful after 2000 years.
At the top of the site is an 14th century Venetian castle which holds a small museum of archaeological finds from the site. It's easy to spend two or three hours exploring the site and walking around the walls and gates. Top tip, bring bug spray! The site is very marshy and tree covered, and we were eaten alive by mozzies, the only ones we saw in our whole Albanian trip.
A 34 km drive from Tirana is the Adriatic port city of Durres, the country's 2nd largest city. Its top attraction is its enormous Roman amphitheatre, which is right in the centre. Dating from the 2nd century, the area could hold more than 15000 people, and you can explore the tunnels under the terraced seats where wild animals were kept and where gladiators entered.
Only excavated in the 1960s, the amphitheatre was damaged by earthquakes in 6th and 10th centuries, and so doesn't have the high intact walls of Rome's Coliseum, but you can still easily picture what it would have looked like. One of the small alcove rooms was converted into a Christian chapel in Middle Ages and you can still see the beautiful mosaics of angels and saints - the only Medieval mosaics in Albania, and the only ones anywhere in the world found inside a Roman amphitheatre!
Walking 5 minutes further up Rruga Aleksander Goga will bring you to the Roman Forum with its lovely sweeping arc of columns, and tucked beneath the Alexander Moisiu Cultural Centre, a suitably Communist looking theatre on the main square, are the remains of a Roman bath house.
Durres is equally famous for its enormous beach, the largest in Albania, stretching for around 10km. Take a stroll along the promenade and then hire a sunbed to relax on.
Wondering where to stay in Durres? We were hosted by the Hotel Giulia Albergo, a really pretty brand new boutique hotel that's right in the centre of everything and a very short walk to the beach. Plus their buffet breakfast is A-MAZING.
We have a full write up of our stay here!
Speaking of beaches, Albania is home to some absolute gems. Down south on the Ionian Coast, close to the border with Greece, is a stretch known as the Albanian Riviera. Crystal clear turquoise water, white sands, lively beach bars... perfect for a relaxing break, and a fraction of the cost of a Spanish or Greek beach holiday!
Most people stay in the main town of the region, Sarande, but we prefer the nearby village of Ksamil. Yes, Sarande has nightclubs and more restaurants, but it also has an enormously busy and built up beachfront, with high rise hotels. Ksamil has a more laid back feel, and some stunning beaches.
Every beach has sunbeds that you can hire for the day, usually with an umbrella.
Top tip, arrive early in peak season: we were there in August and noticed that by 10am many sunbeds were taken.
From Ksamil's main beach, hire a pedalo and head out to the small islands just off the coast, or enjoy a cocktail and watch the beautiful Ionian sunset set over the islands from Bianco Lounge's rooftop bar.
Our absolute favourite beach was Pema e Thate, a short drive further south down a dirt track road, looking straight across at Greece. The water was so clear, it looked like the Maldives! They even have some super "influencer-y" over water beds, these need to be reserved in advance, and they looked amazing. So extra!
And if that still hasn't convinced you to book a trip to Albania, we'll just leave you with this: