Albania travel guide
2 MINUTE SUMMARY
This forgotten country was once in the middle of great empires – Roman, Grecian and Ottoman. Although staunchly communist, it escaped the clutches of the USSR – and was instead ruled by its own Stalinist despot. Under his dictatorship the country was cut off from the world for the best part of half a century, and even today it remains a travelers’ enigma.
There may be clear cultural differences (nod head for no, shake for yes…) but the awesome scenery transcends language. The Accursed Mountains, once the land of blood feuds, rise up in the north, a haven for hikers and cyclists in summer and snowshoers in winter. UNESCO-rated Ottoman architecture tumbles down a hillside in the Town of a Thousand Windows, the bunker-dotted coastline is lapped by the turquoise Mediterranean, and inland, boats cruise between sheer cliffs, carrying white-capped villagers back to the land they have tended for centuries. With Albanians clamoring to show guests the beauty of their country and culture, we’d put our money on this secret not being kept for much longer…
Find out more in our Albania travel guide.
Europe, but not as you know it.
just the place where Hollywood’s bad guys come from.
Albania map & highlights
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Many trips to Albania focus on the north or the south – with Tirana in the middle. The north is all about the Albanian Alps: tiny villages, trekking and traditional ways of life. The south has more classic tourist haunts – the Ottoman towns, and the “Albanian Riviera”. Getting around independently can be tough; Albania is unconnected to international railway lines; it’s serviced by schedule-free furgon minibuses; street signs were only widely installed in 2010; and – as private car ownership was banned under communism – driving is a relatively new pastime, and one best described as reckless. But tour companies have their own private minibuses, and combined with the wonderful Komani ferry ride, traveling around these dramatic landscapes is a pleasure rather than a pain.
Storytellers no doubt look to the Albanian Alps for inspiration – the so-called “Accursed Mountains” are spattered with “Blood Feud Towers”, but the scary names and brutal topography belie their gentler side. You’ll barely believe you’re still in Europe as you pass traditionally attired villagers and farmers leading donkeys through this astounding, wild landscape. Take a multi-day hiking or cycling tour to explore deeper.
Butrint National Park
These ancient Greek and Roman ruins are surely one of Europe’s most beautifully situated archaeological sites. Dating back 1,500-2,000 years, the remains of the acropolis, huge theatre and detailed mosaics sit on a hill jutting into the sea, overlooking Corfu. Being in Albania, however, this incredible UNESCO site receives just a fraction of the visitors of its Mediterranean neighbours.
Stone-walled, tile-roofed Ottoman houses tumble down a green hillside in a scene that could be right out of a fairytale. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gjirokaster is rightfully one of Albania’s most popular stops; trek up the steep cobbled streets to the 11th century castle at the top of the hill or wander through the recently restored bazaar and some of the surrounding homes which are open to the public.
One of the world’s most impressive ferry journeys is found in Albania – and costs the same as a pint of beer. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, the three-hour cruise takes place on a manmade reservoir, between sheer limestone cliffs worthy of Tolkein. Even more surprising: the Albanian passengers aren’t here for the scenery; it’s simply the easiest way to travel between villages in this remote region.
Filled with cultural and natural treats, Shkodër (or Shkodra) is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and it sits on the shore of picturesque Lake Skadar, which stretches into Montenegro. The old city, bazaar and mosques have benefitted from recent renovation to enhance their charm, but the Rozafa Fortress steals the show – especially at sunset. The Museum of Memory is dedicated to the political prisoners of the communist era.
Vibrant Tirana is the place to experience culture clash, a city of Italian architecture, Ottoman minarets and mosques and crumbling communist murals, now contrasting with the signs of contemporary capitalism. There are wide avenues, a rainbow of painted buildings and fashionable bars and shops – but also the modest home of former dictator Hodxa, and the controversial pyramid designed by his daughter.