Albania is a country filled with picturesque towns, pristine beaches, ancient castles, snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. Then throw in long months of sunshine, friendly locals with ready smiles and a cuisine influenced by neighbors far and close, including Greece, Italy and Turkey. (For the uninitiated, that means flaky pastries and stuffed peppers, piquant meat kebabs and qofte, hearty stews and soups for every season and excellent coffee to wash it all down.) In other words, it has the best of Europe, with a fraction of the crowds and costs. What’s not to love about Albania?
Although the country has a majority Muslim population, it is also now one of the most tolerant nations in the region. As a result, Ottoman mosques rub shoulders with Orthodox churches, while apartment blocks painted in cheery colors stand next to the stolid government offices. World-class art museums exist along with monuments dedicated to reminders of the worst phase of the country under Communist rule.
It’s a country worth discovering — and we suggest you get there before the tourist hordes do. Here’s how to spend a perfect week (or two) exploring this beautiful Balkan country by car.
Land in Tirana
With a busy international airport, Tirana is an obvious starting point for your Albanian holiday. The capital city is also ideally located in the middle of the country, offering easy access to both the beaches in the south and the mountains up north.
Head first to Skanderbeg Square, Tirana’s beating heart, beloved by both locals and tourists. Start with the 18th century Et’hem Bej mosque with its exquisite wall and ceiling murals, and then spend some time at the National Museum at the other end of the plaza. Bunk Art 2, a Communist era bunker now converted into a museum, is just around the corner, and the striking Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral is a short walk away.
You might want to catch a quick lunch around the city center, but in the evening, definitely make your way to the bustling Blloku neighborhood, once reserved for the residences of senior party officials. Another great dinner spot is the Tirana castle (also known as Fortress of Justinian), now repurposed into a lively shopping and eating hub.
First Stop, Berat
From Tirana, drive south to Berat, which is known as the “town of a thousand windows” after the clutch of white homes that seem to cascade all the way down from the castle. Cross the exquisite stone bridge over the river for the best views of these hillside homes. Berat was added to the UNESCO world heritage sites list in 2008 as a “rare example of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period.”
Kalaja — the 13th century castle, also called Kalasa — is the brightest star among Berat’s architectural attractions. Inside this inhabited castle, you’ll find houses and churches, along with souvenir shops and traditional restaurants. Don’t miss the Onufri Museum, known for its remarkable collection of Albanian Orthodox icons painted by iconographic artist Onufri during the 16th century. The other old quarters of Mangalem at the foot of the citadel and Gorica across the river are also worth exploring now for glimpses into a rapidly disappearing way of life.
Albania has an interesting evening tradition known as “xhiro” — literally translated as “stroll” — but really signifies a regular evening socializing ritual. So, after a long day of sightseeing, chill with a glass of raki (distilled fruit alcohol) at one of the restaurants lining the pedestrian avenue of Boulevardi Republika, where families and friends gather every evening to practice their xhiro and catch up over coffee and chess.
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Then Go to Gjirokastra
Another UNESCO World Heritage site known for its superb Ottoman age architecture, this hill town goes by the moniker “city of stone.” The core of Gjirokastra is the bazaar area with its narrow, cobbled streets, where shopkeepers will wave you into their shops with a disarming readiness to bargain.
The Gjirokastra Castle perches dramatically on top of the hill, overlooking the town’s two-storied homes, the busy market directly below and the rolling hills at a distance. For a castle built in the 4th century, it is remarkably well preserved, complete with a clock tower, stone tunnels and a tiny museum. And as a quirky bonus, there’s a fighter plane that was shot down during the Second World War sitting in the open lawns.
If all this feels like too much of a history lesson, then drive an hour to Blue Eye, a natural spring with sparking turquoise waters, located right in the middle of a forest.
For some beachside R&R, go further south towards Sarande, part of the Albanian Riviera, which is much quieter and nicer than many other popular European beach towns. The Albanian Riviera has a rugged coastline stretching for nearly 75 miles from Vlore to Sarande, the entire route dotted with postcard pretty villages like Himarë, Vuno, Dhërmi and endless powder white sand bays and coves that seem to be made for Instagram.
Close to Sarande are two unmissable stops. The first is Ksamil, a secluded beach from where you can almost reach out and touch Corfu in Greece. And then there’s Burtrint Archaeological Site and National Park with its collection of Roman and Greek ruins, including an amphitheater, aqueducts, baths and temple ruins.
If the call of the mountains is just too strong to ignore, then head north towards the Albanian Alps — also known by the fanciful name of “Accursed Mountains” — via Tirana, with quick stopovers to explore the markets, museums and castles in Kruja and Shokdra. Shkodra is the ideal base for hikes around the two spectacular national parks of the region: Valbona and Theth, both teeming with green valleys, pristine lakes, high mountain passes and the occasional churches and waterfalls. Of the two, Theth is more easily accessible by car and has another marvelous Blue Eye where swimming is allowed. And the only way to access Valbona from Theth is by hiking the 10.5-mile trail connecting the two via Valbona Pass.
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