The town of Berat is renowned for the architecture shown in this image. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known as the "City of a thousand windows" (Photo: Getty Images)

Albania’s capital, Tirana, has become a truly cosmopolitan European capital, brilliantly juxtaposing Ottoman architecture and dazzling, contemporary buildings. Elsewhere, the country packs in jaw-dropping mountains and pristine beaches, incredible lakes harbouring world-class birdlife, historical Roman ruins and towns dating back half a millennium.

The best places to visit in Albania

Tirana 

Tirana, the capital and largest city of Albania, is known for its vibrant colours and diverse architecture (Photo: Getty Images) 

The cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania, Tirana is fast becoming one of Europe's most enticing capitals, a city of eclectic architecture, idiosyncratic museums, and palpable energy, which is largely manifest in its street pavement cafes and pulsating nightlife. The boundless hospitality of its people, meanwhile, is likely to leave a strong impression.

The city centres on vast Skanderbeg Square, dominated by a handsome clock tower whose ninety steps can be climbed for superlative citywide views. Here too, is the all-encompassing National Historical Museum, famed above all for the mural above the entrance which depicts the march of Albanian history. The city’s standout site, though, is the Et’hem Bey Mosque, a late 18th-century masterpiece sporting a beautifully frescoed exterior. Take time, too, to visit the city’s lively daily market, which sprawls north of the Old Bazaar roundabout, before enjoying a night out on the town in the trendy Blloku district. Stay the night at the Tirana Marriott, whose dazzling white-on-white rooms promise eye-catching views over the Air Albania Stadium.

Albanian Riviera

Albanian Riviera

The Albanian Riviera boasts pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters, offering a stunning coastal retreat along the Ionian Sea (Photo: Getty Images) 

Saranda itself is a charismatic small town and self-styled 'capital' of the riviera, known for its energetic nightlife. Nearby Ksamil, meanwhile, possesses some of the coast's loveliest, most family-friendly beaches; you can even swim out to a handful of offshore islands from here. Finally, lying in the foothills of the Ceraunian Mountains, Vlore's charming old town harbours some splendid Ottoman architecture, not least a superb 16th-century mosque - and, of course, you can also swim here.

Lake Shkodra 

Lake Shkodra, Albania

Lake Shkodra, shared between Albania and Montenegro, is the largest lake in the Balkans and is known for its rich biodiversity and scenic landscapes (Photo: Getty Images)

Sharing its pristine waters with Montenegro, Lake Skadar (Shkodra) is the largest freshwater lake in southeastern Europe. This reedy expanse is also one of Europe’s most important bird reserves, home to large numbers of herons, bitterns, egrets and cormorants as well as the star species, and symbol, of the lake – the superb southern Dalmatian Pelican. Meanwhile, eel, bass, sturgeon and carp lurk deep within.

What to eat and drink in Albania

Coffee

Albanian coffee

Known for its strong and rich flavour, Albanian coffee is often served in small cups and accompanied by a piece of Turkish delight or a cube of sugar (Photo: Getty Images) 

As much as Albanians enjoy their raki, or brandy, coffee remains king here, the preferred method of consumption being Turkish-style, with thick grounds settled at the bottom. It’s served in tiny cups with a glass of water and something sweet to nibble on. Any traditional Turkish  will satisfy both those looking to sample a Turkish-style drink and those for whom an espresso or latte is more to their liking.

Roasted lamb

Albanian roasted lamb

Roasted lamb, known as "tavë kosi" in Albanian cuisine, is a delectable dish celebrated for its unique flavours (Photo: Getty Images) 

Spit-roasted lamb is the traditional dish of choice, although just as popular are qebab (kebabs) and qoftë (grilled lamb rissoles), which are often served with a bowl of kos (yoghurt). Some of the most delicious lamb dishes in Tirana are served at Oda (meaning 'guest room'), occupying an atmospheric dwelling with a fabulous garden terrace.

Fërgesë

A vibrant, colourful dish, fërgesë is a delicious mix of paprika, cheese, eggs, onions and tomatoes (and sometimes meat) prepared in an earthenware pot. To sample this dish somewhere just a little bit special, head to Ballkoni Dajtit next to the upper cable car station in Tirana, where the views are as spectacular as the food.

Fish soup

With such a fabulous coastline, it's no surprise that seafood features heavily on many menus. est of all is supe peshku (fish soup), a delicious, transparent broth whose main ingredient is sea bass, which is then mixed in with fresh vegetables like zucchini, carrots, white beans and leeks. 

Top things to do in Albania

Gjirokaster at sunset, Albania

Albania's rich historical architecture reflects a captivating blend of influences, ranging from ancient Illyrian and Roman ruins to Ottoman and Venetian structures, showcasing the country's diverse cultural heritage (Photo: Getty Images) 

Not to be missed is a trip to the coast and the country’s superb beaches, which have become justifiably popular. The pick of Albania’s many gorgeous, sun-soaked resorts are Dhërmiu and Drymadë, and with far fewer crowds than any other part of the Adriatic, there’s ample space to park your towel. 

Keen hikers and climbers will enjoy tramping the memorably named Accursed Mountains, a region of wild, saw-toothed peaks bordering Montenegro. Beautiful and challenging, the standout hike here is the one from Theth to Valbona, a distance of some 17km. No less stunning is the Llogara National Park, whose trails offer enticing seascapes for much of the way. 

For a flavour of Albania’s true pulse, make for the mountainous hinterland and the UNESCO-listed villages of Berat and Gjirokastra, the former known as the ‘town of a thousand windows’ owing to the mass of tiny glass planes that reflect off the hillside buildings, the latter showcasing some superlative Ottoman-era architecture.

Festivals play a key part in Albanian cultural life, none more so than Kala, the most enjoyable of several small boutique dance festivals along the Albanian Riviera – this takes place on Dhërmi’s silky sands at the end of May. Unum, in Shengjin at the beginning of June, is another keenly anticipated techno fest. Slightly more serene is the Tomato Festival in Shëngjergj village, although it’s about much more than just the red crop, with folk dancing and music creating a jolly atmosphere. One of the real joys of attending this festival is the drive across the magnificent Priska Pass to get there.

Hidden gems in Albania

Set in a lush green landscape in southern Albania, the Blue Eye or Syri i kaltër is a natural spring of gorgeous turquoise water (Photo: Getty Images) 

One of Albania's most irreristible hidden gems is the evocatively named "Blue Eye". Set within a remote grove between Gjirokastra and Saranda, this underwater spring forms a pool of deepest blue which has to be seen to be believed. 

Dispersed over a wild, forested peninsula a few miles shy of the Greek border, meanwhile, Butrint seems to distil more than 3,000 years of successive civilisations into one vast open-air museum: towering Illyrian walls, ancient Greek amphitheatres and temples, Roman bathhouses, Byzantine basilicas and so much more. The site is best appreciated from the looped footpath, but also be sure to head up to the Acropolis for a wonderful vista and a museum full of unearthed artefacts. Wear comfortable shoes – this is one enormous site.

Tucked away in a beautiful gorge of the Lengarica Canyon in southern Albania, the Benja Hot Springs comprise a series of crashing pools, each with its own depth and temperature – it’s believed that these waters possess curative properties. 

A long finger of land jutting out into the Adriatic, the Karaburun Peninsula is only reachable by foot or by sea. From Vlore, boats make the trip out to Haxhi Ali, Albania’s largest sea cave whose mysterious, darkened grotto conceals a miniature jungle of fantastically shaped stalagmites and stalactites.

One of Europe’s great boat trips is the Lake Koman ferry, which plies the smooth, blue-green waters up to Fierza – or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, join a kayak tour on the lake, which includes lunch.

Go deeper

Albanian is an Indo-European language spoken both here and in neighbouring Kosovo. A few words that will come in useful include tungjatjeta (hello), mirupafshim (goodbye), ju lutem (please), and faleminderit (thank you) and gëzuar! (cheers!). One of the idiosyncrasies of the language is the Albanian habit of shaking one’s head to mean yes, and nodding for no.

Published: January 31, 2024

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