One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to travel more and explore the world. If you are one of the people that pledged to do just this in 2020, then you should really consider putting Albania on your list.
Nestled in the heart of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Italy, by way of the Adriatic Sea, it is one of Europe’s hidden gems, and last remaining wild frontiers. With white sandy beaches, majestic mountains, rolling countryside, and fascinating and quirky capital, it has something for everyone.
For the traveller that wants a truly authentic experience as well as amazing food, great wine, wonderful scenery, and unparalleled hospitality, a trip to Albania ticks all the boxes. But where to go once you are there? After two years of being here, I have done a bit of exploring and these are just five of the places you should put on your list.
Ok maybe I am a bit biased because I just got back from a wonderful visit to this region, but trust me it is worth it. Situated in the north of Albania, around an hour and a half from Tirana, Lezhe and its surrounding area is well worth a visit. A culturally rich area of outstanding natural beauty, you can enjoy mountains and beaches within a short drive of each other.
First stop is Mrizi i Zanave around 30 minutes outside of Lezhe in the village of Fishte- the birthplace of one of Albania’s most famous and renowned poets. Here you can sample the truly unique kitchen of Altin Prenga who brings traditional food with a contemporary twist for less than 20 EUR a head, including wine. After lunch, you can stroll around his agrotourism farm and also visit the nearby pottery studio of Vasili. Here you can buy beautiful ceramics, hand-painted with Albanian ethnographic patterns.
Once you have walked off the food, you can drive through the Zadrima plain to visit one of Albania’s finest wineries- Kallmet. This area is known for being one of the best areas for producing wine in the country, and Kallmet red wines are incredible and can easily rival well known Italian and French grapes. You can organise a wine tasting with the friendly family that runs it, or just pick up a couple of bottles at around 10 EUR each.
By now, you are not fit to drive, but luckily there is the perfect place to rest nearby. Hylli i Drites is a beautifully designed hotel and restaurant sat upon a hillside. The view from the restaurant is incredible, particularly at sunrise and sunset and they serve up a fine selection of fresh, seasonal traditional food. Downstairs, they offer a number of spacious rooms- think pine, vast, luxurious beds, floor to ceiling windows, and sprinklings of traditional fabric. This is the perfect place to sleep off the day’s excess.
After a good sleep and a strong coffee, head over to the city of Lezhe to visit one of its hidden wonders. This region of Albania is famous for its brightly coloured, hand woven fabric and intricate golden embroidery. Tereze Gega has a small studio in the centre of town where you can pick up scarves, laptop cases, bags, traditional costumes, or even coats, made the traditional Albanian way.
While in Lezhe, you should also visit the Ethnographic museum and the tomb of Albania’s national hero, Gjergi Skanderbeg.
Lezhe is a 20 minute drive from the seaside resort of Shengjin where you can swim, relax on the beach, or fill your stomach full of delicious and fresh fish and seafood.
Time needed: 2-3 days
Saranda is about four hours drive from the airport, but you can also get there via Greece or a short ferry ride that connects the island of Corfu with this delightful part of the country. Saranda is nice- much like any other southern European/Mediterranean city, but it is the surrounding areas that really make it worthwhile.
The Blue Eye is a curious place- around 30 mins outside of the town, it is a natural phenomenon that releases bubbling, bright turquoise water into a small lagoon. No one knows how deep it is or why the water was so blue, and its mysterious depths make it one of the areas biggest tourist attractions.
Just a short drive up the coast are the beaches of Ksamil which are some of the most popular stretches of sand in the country. In these waters, you will find three small islands that you can access either by swimming or by boat- they are uninhabited and you can lounge away the summer days, relaxing on their shores or diving into the incredibly clear, turquoise water, from the various jetty’s around the water’s edge. The area is famous for its mussel farms, so after a day of tanning, be sure to fill up on fresh mussels and salad, washed down with crisp, local white wine.
Heading away from the beach, the road twists and turns through forests and over hills as you make your way to Butrint. Bouthroton, or Butrint as it is known today was allegedly founded by Helenus, the son of King Priam of Troy. The earliest evidence of settled occupation dates back to the 10th and 8th centuries BC although some claim that it could have been inhabited as far back as the 12 century BC.
You cannot visit Albania and not visit this wondrous place which offers a literal walk through the ages of a bit part of Albanian history. Amphitheatres, castles, battlements and incredible views, Butrint is one of those places that will stay in your mind forever.
Sarande is full to the brim with hotels ranging from back-packer style, to relatively high end. Depending on what you want and how much you have to spend, there is a large variety to choose from. Be warned however that in the summer months, rooms become expensive and harder to come by, so if you plan to visit, book in advance.
Time needed: 2 days + (depending how much time you want to stay on the beach)
One of my favourite places in Albania is the city of Berat in the south of the country. Situated in a valley, flanked by impressive mountains, my great uncle visited here and painted the river, the city, and its inhabitants, over 150 years ago.
Everytime I visit, I stay in the Hotel Berati which offers modest and comfortable accommodation with an incredible breakfast, and lots of traditional touches. The staff are incredibly friendly and it is located in the centre of the city with easy access to anywhere you want to go.
Visit Cafe Gimi for the finest Turkish coffee (which is ground in Berat and you can buy to take home with you) and go for a walk along the river, stopping at a small shop selling handmade lace and finely embroidered fabrics. You can check out Albania’s only Jewish Museum that tells the story of how Muslim Albanian’s protected some 2000 Jews from fascist forces during WWII, and you can get information on Berat’s centuries old Jewish past
There is a delightful antiques shop on the main highstreet, run by a chap called Sami. Here you can purchase art, trinkets, big Ottoman rings, old fabrics and rugs, and all sorts of curiosities at a very reasonable price.
Continue your stroll and visit the Edward Lear Museum, the King Mosque, he Onufri Museum, and walk across Gorica Bridge to take in the stunning architecture left over from Ottoman times. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can climb through the winding cobbled streets and visit what’s left of Berat Castle which is still magnificent, despite its state.
In the evening, dine at Wildor restaurant and tell the waiter to bring what the house recommends. Then stagger back to your hotel after one too many local wines.
Berat is home to many wineries, all of which offer tastings and tours. My favourites are Kantina Nurellari which in my opinion, offer some of the best wines in the country, and Kantina Alpeta, which also has a restaurant serving some of the best baby goat I have ever eaten.
If you are visiting during the autumn, you might be lucky to catch the two weeks where the saffron flowers are in bloom. A visit to the mountains reveals rolling fields of purple flowers, accompanied by a sweet aroma and the buzzing of happy bees. Make sure you try some local raki with a few strands of saffron in, you won’t be disappointed.
Last but not least, see if you can set up a visit with The Stone Cutter of Berat. In a stunning house overlooking the river, the Fani family sometimes allow visitors to see the workshop of XhoniFani, a master of the art of stone carving. If you are lucky, they may invite you to sample fruit liqueurs, sweet treats, and wonderful conversation on their terrace that is framed with flowers.
Time needed: 2 days
The capital city of Tirana is a must-visit and an obvious choice for anyone visiting Albania. A sprawling mish-mash of colourful painted buildings, noisy streets, friendly people, and confused architecture, it manages to be both a mash up of many other cities, and completely and totally unique. Home to around half a million people, you can visit most of the city on foot- a method that is most definitely preferable in order to soak up the sights and atmosphere of this vibrant place.
My favourite place to stay is the Areela Boutique Hotel, or the Mondial. The former offers a cosy, stylish, and quirky stay with an impressive breakfast, and the latter offers chich with a rooftop pool at an affordable price. Both are in walking distance of the centre, in safe, well lit areas.
As most capital cities are, Tirana is home to a wealth of museums. The National Museum on Skanderbeg Square is home to relics, artefacts, art, books, and offers you an in depth look at Albanian history. The House of Leaves is situated in the former secret police headquarters and is an eerie and atmospheric look at the way the Communists used to surveil and persecute their people. Bunkart 1 and 2 (a taxi ride apart) are must visits, and take you into the dark, (literal) underground world of dictator Enver Hoxha. These bunkers that were once built to house the communist elite if war ever came to Albania, are now museums that lay bare the horrific crimes of the regime. Never forget, or you are doomed to repeat.
Tirana really comes into its own when it comes to food and drink. Visit Buf for breakfast (petulla with strong coffee), Sita (Albanian street food) for lunch, and Mullixhiu or Luga Argentes (traditional, ‘slow food’ based on the farm-to-table concept) for dinner, and Nouvelle Vague, Radio, or LaVeen for a cocktail or a glass of wine before bed.
Time needed: 2 days
The Albanian Riviera
There is no doubt in my mind that the Albanian Riviera is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Europe. Stretching along the northeastern Ionian Sea, it starts at Vlore/Radhime and carries on all the way to Saranda.
It features the Ceraunian Mountains, traditional Mediterranean villages, hidden beaches, turquoise waters, islands, white sandy bays that stretch for miles, monasteries, castles, mountain passes, forests, caves, orange, lemon, and olive groves, churches, and cliffs that will take your breath away. Here you can hike, snorkel, swim, sail, kayak, climb, abseil, hang glide, lounge, eat, and drink the whole summer long without getting bored or tired of your surroundings.
Some of the most popular villages are Dhermi (bars and beaches), Himara (beaches and families), Qeparo (more secluded paradise), Drymadhes (one of the most stunning beaches in the country) and of course, Saranda.
Drive from Tirana to Radhime, and check into the Hotel Picasso which has front row seats to the most beautiful sunsets in the country and is also an art gallery. From here you can meander down, stopping at guest houses on the way, and spending a day or even just a few hours at every beach on the way.
I recommend staying overnight in Himare- be sure to visit its castle, before spending a day kayaking along the coast at Jale as this is the only way to see some of the hidden beaches and truly enjoy the stunning coastline.
Time needed: 3 days +
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.