Albania has natural beauty in such abundance that you might wonder why it took 20 years for the country to take off as a tourist destination since the end of a particularly brutal strain of communism in 1991. So backward was Albania when it emerged blinking into the bright light of freedom that it needed two decades just to catch up with the rest of Eastern Europe. Now that it has arguably done so, Albania offers a remarkable array of unique attractions, not least due to this very isolation: ancient mountain codes of behavior, forgotten archaeological sites and villages where time seems to have stood still are all on the menu. With its stunning mountain scenery, a thriving capital in Tirana and beaches to rival any elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Albania has become the sleeper hit of the Balkans. But hurry here, as word is well and truly out.
Top experiences in Albania
The Accursed Mountains
The ‘Accursed Mountains’ (Bjeshkët e Namuna) offer some of Albania’s most impressive scenery, and the area has exploded in recent years as a popular backpacker destination. It’s a totally different side of the country here: that of blood feuds, deep tradition, extraordinary landscapes and fierce local pride. It’s absolutely a highlight of any trip to Albania, and indeed, it’s quite extraordinary to get this far removed from modern life in 21st-century Europe.
Berat weaves its own very special magic and is easily a highlight of visiting Albania. Its most striking feature is the collection of white Ottoman houses climbing up the hill to its castle, earning it the title of ‘town of a thousand windows’ and helping it join Gjirokastra on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2008. Its rugged mountain setting is particularly evocative when the clouds swirl around the tops of the minarets or break up to show the icy peak of Mt Tomorri. Despite now being a big center for tourism in Albania, Berat has managed to retain its easy-going charm and friendly atmosphere.
Heading south from Palasa, the next beach along the Albanian Riviera is Drymades. To get here leave the main road for Dhërmi, then take the first right (signposted for the Turtle Club). In 20 minutes, you’ll reach the rocky white beach via the sealed road that twists through olive groves.
Lively, colorful Tirana is the beating heart of Albania, where this tiny nation’s hopes and dreams coalesce into a vibrant whirl of traffic, brash consumerism and unfettered fun. Having undergone a transformation of extraordinary proportions since awaking from its communist slumber in the early 1990s, Tirana’s center is now unrecognizable, with buildings painted in primary colors, and public squares and pedestrianized streets that are a pleasure to wander.
Defined by its castle, roads paved with chunky limestone and shale, imposing slate-roofed houses and views out to the Drina Valley, Gjirokastra is a magical hillside town described beautifully by Albania’s most famous author, Ismail Kadare (b 1936), in Chronicle in Stone. There has been a settlement here for 2500 years, though these days it’s the 600 ‘monumental’ Ottoman-era houses in town that attract visitors. The town is also synonymous for Albanians with former dictator Enver Hoxha, who was born here and ensured the town was relatively well preserved under his rule; though he is not memorialized in any way here today. Far less touristy than Berat, the town is equally charming and has several fascinating sights, as well as some excellent accommodation options.