This is one of Europe’s least visited countries and that is a shame because there are a lot of things to do in Albania that guarantee a fantastic holiday: a very rich history dating back to the Illyrians, kilometers of beach and fabulous cheese.
If you are reading this while considering a trip my answer is a rotund, Yes! Definitely include Albania in your next vacation if you like road trips, beautiful beaches, affordable destinations, heritage and a very fascinating albeit bleak recent past.
You can use this list to figure out what to do in Albania if you have limited time but allow yourself about 10 days and you can probably see everything that is on this list.
Mention Albania travel and Tirana is the first and best known tourist destination that comes to mind, aided by the fact that it is the country’s capital and has its only international airport.
Tirana is a vibrant and thriving city that combines landmarks that are critical to understand Albania’s recent past as well as some of the country’s oldest constructions, including an Ottoman Mosque in Skanderbeg Square.
Start your travel in Albania in Tirana so that you can better understand the rest of the country by visiting a few of the best museums. Start at Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2 where you will be acquainted with the 20th century history of Albania.
The country most recent Communist past is reflected across Tirana and the country as a whole, and Bunk’Art is one of the best ways to learn more about it. Here you will find exhibits talking about the rise of Enver Hoxha to power and its military Communist regime that brought so much isolation and poverty to the country.
Continue at the National History Museum for a longer insight into Albania’s heritage through the centuries. Here you can learn about the Illyrians that first populated this part of the Balkans, and then the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans and all the rest. A lot of the artefacts and objects excavated throughout Albania are displayed here.
For older sights, find Et’hem Bey Mosque in the country’s impressive Skanderbeg Square, near the statue to the country’s hero. The Clock Tower is also right next to it.
One of the most interesting and intriguing places to see in Albania is Tirana’s Pyramid which is abandoned so cannot be entered, but you can climb up if you are feeling brave (and are wearing the right shoes).
Tirana’s color has come back since the end of the Communist Regime thanks to the Mayor’s initiative to paint the buildings which has been complemented with murals by local artists. Some of the best murals are the rainbows painted on the building facade in Uilson Square.
For a panoramic view of the city, you can take the cable car Dajti Ekspres which climbs to the top of the mountain in 20min over a very steep slope.
Here you will find a detailed guide to the best things to do in Tirana.
Albania is full of castles and each of them has its own history and legends but Rozafa Castle has perhaps the saddest and most intriguing.
The 4th century BC fortified castle occupies almost all the space on top of a hill giving the impression that it is floating 130m above the plains below. The views are spectacular as you get a 360 perspective of the two rivers below, the agricultural land and villages in what seems to extend for kilometers.
The fortress was first constructed by the Illyrians in the 4th century BC and then expanded and reinforced by the Venetians and the Ottomans and what stands today is the result of many a siege. The name Rozafa dates back to Medieval times when the city of Shkodra which the castle belongs to, was occupied by Slavs and Byzantines.
Although the majority of the buildings are in ruins, you can still make out quite a bit of what was here thanks to the few explanations and drawings available throughout.
The castle is made of three courtyards that can be easily identified thanks to the ruined walls that separated them. The first courtyard is accessed as soon as you come in and has a few towers you can climb.
The second courtyard has the remains of a set of three cisterns that supplied water to the castle, a prison and a mosque which was first a Catholic church under the Venetian rule and was then transformed into a mosque in the 16th century.
The third courtyard has a small citadel and is located on the upper part of the hill. You can walk all the way to the edge for the best views and see the remains of a three-storey Venetian tower. Its smaller size makes this one feel cozier.
As opposed to other castles and fortresses in the area, Rozafa is very large and its position and view, coupled with the free entry, make it a popular destination for local families to enjoy a picnic.
Rozafa Castle legend states that a women was buried in the castle walls as a sacrifice to keep them from falling down as a result of a curse from the Gods. Three brothers in charge of building the walls kept trying, but everytime they would finish, the walls would fall again. One day a local man told them that in order to prevent the walls from collapsing, they would have to sacrifice one of their wives to the gods.
Legend has it that the three brothers agreed to pick the wife who would bring them lunch first the next day, and they would say nothing to their partners. But only one kept the promise, and his wife brought lunch first the next day.
A sculpture of Rozafa, as the wife was called, can be found by the side of the castle’s museum entrance with her baby breastfeeding. She had asked for a hole to be left for him, another for her arm to hold him and one for her feet to rock his cradle.
This is a large castle you should budget a couple of hours to explore. There is a small restaurant inside the old ruins where you can have a drink and some snacks. I suspect it only opens in the summer months or maybe in the weekend.
The perimeter walls of the castle measure a kilometer long so you will be walking a fair bit. If, like me, you drive up all the way to the entry be careful, it is very steep and the narrow path makes it hard to make a u-turn so you might have to reverse for a few meters before you can park.
This 15th century castle is not as imposing as Kruje or Rozafa but makes for a good lunch escape from the city because of the nice restaurant called Restorant Kalaja E Prezës located just outside the walls by the parking lot and which has great views over the plains below.
The restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating and serves the typical Albanian food like cheese, grilled meats, and local wines. Inside is a cozy place in the winter while the outdoor area is perfect for a sunny summer day.
Preza Castle belonged to a feudal family called Topias and has a more typical castle shape with four corners and four towers. Because it is smaller and more recent than other fortifications in the area, the walls and towers are better preserved and you will be able to make out most of the constructions. Check out the mosque with its tall minaret and the clock tower.
The Castle of Kruja or Krujë Castle, is a large castle and fortress located about an hour’s drive from Tirana, on top of a mountain. Of all the castles in the country (and there are many), this is one, if not the, most important of all so visiting it is one of the top things to do in Albania.
The castle is made of a few buildings including a mosque built by the Ottoman ruler who finally defeated the castle’s defenses, an ethnographic museum and an old bazaar. Skanderbeg Museum, opened in 1982, is also located on site.
Kruje Castle history is also that of the country’s hero, Skanderbeg. Born Gjergj Kastrioti as the son of a nobleman, he was given this name by the Ottomans as an evolution of the Turkish Iskender, which refers to Alexander the Great and compares the leader to his bravery and prowess.
Skanderbeg was key in Albania’s resistance to Ottoman rule.
Taken by the Ottoman ruler as a young boy to complete his education in the Ottoman Court, as was the case with Alexander the Great, Skanderbeg then returned to lead several uprisings against the Turks, most notably from the castle which resisted three sieges between the years 1450 and 1467 before eventually falling in 1478 after his death.
The museum showcases the life of Albania’s hero and his military achievements and has a replica of his arms on display, the original ones are in the Museum of Vienna. His arms are symbols which you can see across the country.
For example, there is a popular and widely spread petrol station chain which bears his family name, Kastrioti, and has his goat-topped helmet as a logo.
You can also see artefacts and furniture of the time, books and documents that prove his political alliances and dealings with the world leaders of the time and lots of other references.
Outside the castle, there is a medieval bazaar of the time when the castle was built which has been transformed into a souvenir market of sorts but is pretty well preserved and has maintained its charm.
The wooden and stone houses are still as they once were and the street is cobblestoned. Seen from above, the market looks like it could belong to a movie set in medieval times. In the few shops that line both sides you can find traditional clothing, carpets, souvenirs and wooden handicrafts. There are also Albanian flags and Skandenberg-inspired items as well as paintings and drawings.
Be sure to wear the right footwear. The typical cobblestoned streets that are common of all other old towns in Albania are even more slippery here and the path up the castle is steep.
Driving up the castle, which is located in the town of the same name, requires a series of hairpin turns that are not for the inexperienced driver. You have been warned.
Uka Farm is an organic farm and winery in the outskirts of Tirana, in about a 45min drive.
It was founded by a former Minister of Agriculture with his name and is now being taken care of by his son. Here you will find both orchards with local fruits in season as well as vineyards.
No matter what day of the week you visit, the farm’s restaurant is always packed with locals enjoying the oversized portions of incredibly juicy BBQ meats grilled to order on site in the large wood fire BBQ.
The chef who cooks it, in front of the hot coals and fire, is incredibly skilled and the heart of this food operation, watching him grill the meat to perfection is a treat. Pair the great meats and starters with some of their red wine which is also available by the glass. After lunch, take a stroll among the vineyards and orchards.
If you have the time, make sure to book a winery tour as well, so that you can wander the organic farm and biodynamic vineyards and taste their wines while learning more about the history of wine making in Albania, which is a pretty recent endeavour still at incipient levels with only a handful of wineries producing it in the country. The majority of the wine drunk in Albania comes from Italy (and even Kosovo). A little known fact is that Albania only produces 1 million bottles of wine per year.
Durres is about an hour’s drive from Tirana and also the closest beach from the capital. But besides the long stretch of beach, the coastal city also has a rich past with several Roman remains and other ancient constructions that can be visited.
Durres was an important ancient port and was first founded by the Greek in the 7th century BC. It then became part of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century BC. It then grew and expanded as a key naval and military base.
The 2th century Roman Amphitheatre of Durres is the city’s most notable of all the tourist attractions in Durres and the largest in the Balkans. It has also been submitted for inclusion into Albania’s UNESCO site list. It measures 120m long and could accommodate up to 18,000 spectators to watch Roman gladiator games.
One of the most interesting things to see in Durres are the remains of murals and frescoes that have been preserved and are behind locked bars. They depict saints and angels. These were part of a 5th century AD church which was built to host Christian ceremonies.
Outside the amphitheatre you can’t miss the Durres walls or Byzantine walls, which surround the city, and one of the two gates that have survived. Closer to the sea there is a round Venetian Tower which is today a restaurant.
Durres Archaeological Museum is filled with all the objects discovered during the excavations in and around Durres and further away you can also find the remains of the 5th century Byzantine forum where a few of the marble columns are still standing and the 2nd century AD bathhouse which lies below the Palace of Culture.
Up in the hill is the Royal Villa, also known as Zog’s Villa, the country’s only 20th century king. It was later the guest house of the Communist Regime leader Enver Hoxha.
Last but not least, Durres is best known for the beach, which is long, sandy and closest to Tirana, making it one of the most popular beaches in Albania.
Here you will find a detailed Guide to Durres.
Apollonia Archaeological Park
Apollonia is one of the country’s most impressive tourist attractions and a reason to travel to Albania if you are a history buff or an Antiquity lover.
The Archeological Park of Apollonia is located about 20min from Durres and about an hour from Tirana. It was founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC and taken over by the Romans in the 2nd century AD.
Its importance started to decline in the 3rd century AD after an earthquake changed the course of the river banks and turned the once thriving 60,000 inhabitant city into a swamp.
The excavation works started during WWI and continued between the two World Wars. The majority of the city, which expands over two square kilometers, is still unearthed, and only 5% has been excavated, but you can visit quite a few parts of it.
Start at the museum, which is housed in a 13th century monastery and holds a lot of what was found during the excavations (the rest is in the museum in Tirana) including statues and mosaics. Next to it is the well preserved 14th century St. Mary Byzantine church and a hall with the larger excavated pieces on display.
In the middle of the ruins is the bouleuterion, the city council building, with a portico facade made of six Doric columns and a Corinthian top that still stands. You can see a virtual representation of what it must have looked like in a picture that is on display next to the ruins. The facade was rebuilt in 1978.
Next to it is the odeon or theatre constructed for performances and which was built in the 2nd century AD between the Greek and Roman times.
Largest of all the monuments left if the Stoa which dates back to the 3rd century AD and can be seen clearly near the main temple and odeon. There is not much left of the columns and none of the statues but you can make out its shape and length.
Apollonia is usually quiet but still receives a few tourists which come by car. You can park below the entrance under the shade of some trees and pay the entrance fee. There are guided tours everyday but also brochures in English and explanations next to each site. More information here.
Read all about Apollonia Archeological Park in my very detailed guide.
All Albanian travel needs to start in Tirana. Yet for a fuller picture, you should go down to picturesque Berat which is, together with Gjirokaster, one of the country’s UNESCO sites and a stunning example of Ottoman architecture, well preserved into a living city.
Berat is made of three parts, the castle at the top of the hill, and the two parts of the city, one at each side of the river. It is this location on the side of two hills with towering rows of white washed buildings which give the city its stunning appearance.
You can only reach the castle on foot, as cars are to be left at the bottom, so get ready for a good trek up the steep cobblestoned street. It will all be worth it once you get to the top. The walled area encloses a lot of monuments, buildings, religious sites and even museums.
Inside the castle look out for the Cathedral of St. Nicholas which has been turned into a museum devoted to Onufri, the most famous 16th century Albanian painter and author of many of the murals and frescoes that fill the many churches in Berat. The church itself is beautiful too, not just a vessel for the painter’s work.
The many churches, of which there were 20 for the primarily Christian population, were built around the 13th century. The caretakers should be around, ask them to show you inside for a small tip.
Outside the castle walls you can find the Church of St. Michael perched on the cliffside, above the river and below the castle, accessible only via a snaking path. The King Mosque was built between the 15th and 16th century and is located at the base of the hill.
Berat National Ethnographic Museum is a good place to learn more about everyday life with objects, clothing and furniture spread over two floors.
To cross to the other side of the city you can use the 1780 Gorica Bridge which is also a pretty landmark in Berat. Have a meal at Mangalemi Hotel which has a lovely rooftop terrace and restaurant and a nice lobby bar where you can sample some local rafia brandy and other traditional Albanian foods.
Like with all of Albania, wearing appropriate footwear is essential. In my opinion, closed shoes with grip will make your life much easier. Sandals, shoes with thin and flat soles or heels are a big no, you can easily slip and break a leg. Sunscreen and a hat are also a wise addition.
I also wrote a more detailed Guide to Berat for all your further reading.
Albania has a lot of wonderful beaches, some popular with tourists and others completely hidden. But there are also lakes and rivers and one particularly interesting place to visit: the Blue Eye, locally known in Albanian as Syri i kaltër.
This gem of Albanian tourism is a hot spring stream of such clear water and round shape that it looks like a blue eye from above. If you check out my drone shots you will exactly what I mean.
The site is very popular with tourists and locals who like to come here to spend weekend days relaxing, having a picnic and hiking around the area.
You will not be able to get wet, at most dip your toes in one of the edges for a photo op, else there is a small platform on top it which you can walk up to for photos and to watch it from above (if you don’t have a drone).
The Blue Eye is quite small in diameter but it is said to be 50m deep, getting a darker shade of blue in the center and lighter on the edge.
If you don’t arrive early in the summer months you might struggle to find a parking spot. There is a small parking lot by the stream and when it gets full, cars park on the path leading to it so traffic jams are common. The entry ticket is paid at the entrance to the bridge that crosses the stream.