Albania map & highlights

Many trips to Albania focus on the north or the south – with Tirana in the middle. The north is all about the Albanian Alps: tiny villages, trekking and traditional ways of life. The south has more classic tourist haunts – the Ottoman towns, and the “Albanian Riviera”. Getting around independently can be tough; Albania is unconnected to international railway lines; it’s serviced by schedule-free furgon minibuses; street signs were only widely installed in 2010; and – as private car ownership was banned under communism – driving is a relatively new pastime, and one best described as reckless. But tour companies have their own private minibuses, and combined with the wonderful Komani ferry ride, travelling around these dramatic landscapes is a pleasure rather than a pain.
Accursed Mountains

1. Accursed Mountains

Storytellers no doubt look to the Albanian Alps for inspiration – the so-called “Accursed Mountains” are spattered with “Blood Feud Towers”, but the scary names and brutal topography belie their gentler side. You’ll barely believe you’re still in Europe as you pass traditionally attired villagers and farmers leading donkeys through this astounding, wild landscape. Take a multi-day hiking or cycling tour to explore deeper.
Apollonia & Ardenice Monastery

2. Apollonia & Ardenice Monastery

The Greek city of Apollonia was founded in 588 BCE and seized by the Romans 250 years later. This thriving, wealthy city met its end when an earthquake silted up its natural harbour and it became a swamp; it was excavated in the 1900s. 40 minutes away, Ardenice Monastery was built by a Byzantine Emperor in 1282. Within the monastery, the Church of Saint Mary is filled with frescoes.

3. Berat

“The City of a Thousand Windows” is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world. Geographically beautiful, Berat was built around a precipitous river gorge, leading up to pine forests. Its UNESCO-listed historic centre reveals cobbled streets, ancient churches and mosques, a fascinating ethnographic museum and very pretty white, Ottoman buildings tumbling down steep slopes.
Blue Eye National Park

4. Blue Eye National Park

The fairytale forest of this national park encloses several natural springs filled. The Blue Eye is the largest spring – divers have descended to 50m in its bright blue waters but have yet to find the bottom, and stones tossed into the pool bubble back to the surface. It’s not surprising that this spot was the chosen retreat for the communist leaders; today, happily, it’s open to all.
Butrint National Park

5. Butrint National Park

These ancient Greek and Roman ruins are surely one of Europe’s most beautifully situated archaeological sites. Dating back 1,500-2,000 years, the remains of the acropolis, huge theatre and detailed mosaics sit on a hill jutting into the sea, overlooking Corfu. Being in Albania, however, this incredible UNESCO site receives just a fraction of the visitors of its Mediterranean neighbours.

6. Durrës

Albania’s second largest city and one of its most ancient overlooks the Adriatic Sea. Durrës’ Roman amphitheatre dates back to the 2nd century AD and is one of the largest in the Balkans, while the archaeological museum displays artifacts from across this history-rich region. If time allows, head up to King Zog’s pink and white palace on a nearby hilltop; you can’t enter but there are wonderful views from the top.

7. Gjirokaster

Stone-walled, tile-roofed Ottoman houses tumble down a green hillside in a scene that could be right out of a fairytale. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gjirokaster is rightfully one of Albania’s most popular stops; trek up the steep cobbled streets to the 11th century castle at the top of the hill or wander through the recently restored bazaar and some of the surrounding homes which are open to the public.
Komani Lake

8. Komani Lake

One of the world’s most impressive ferry journeys is found in Albania – and costs the same as a pint of beer. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, the three-hour cruise takes place on a manmade reservoir, between sheer limestone cliffs worthy of Tolkein. Even more surprising: the Albanian passengers aren’t here for the scenery; it’s simply the easiest way to travel between villages in this remote region.

9. Krujë

This medieval citadel was originally inhabited by Illyrian tribes before being captured by the Romans. Today’s visitors head for the Krujë Castle, now a cultural hub which houses the National Skanderbeg Museum (in honour of Albania’s national hero), the remains of a mosque, a Turkish bath and an ethnographic museum. The Old Bazaar has been beautifully restored, and features textile and carpet workshops.
Shkoder & Lake Skadar

10. Shkoder & Lake Skadar

Filled with cultural and natural treats, Shkodër is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and it sits on the shore of picturesque Lake Skadar, which stretches into Montenegro. The old city, bazaar and mosques have benefitted from recent renovation to enhance their charm, but the Rozafa Fortress steals the show – especially at sunset. The Museum of Memory is dedicated to the political prisoners of the communist era.

11. Tirana

Vibrant Tirana is the place to experience culture clash, a city of Italian architecture, Ottoman minarets and mosques and crumbling communist murals, now contrasting with the signs of contemporary capitalism. There are wide avenues, a rainbow of painted buildings and fashionable bars and shops – but also the modest home of former dictator Hodxa, and the controversial pyramid designed by his daughter.
Vlore & Albanian Riviera

12. Vlore & Albanian Riviera

The Riviera covers a stunning section of Ionian coastline packed with beautiful beaches and ancient history, from castles and coves to churches and orange groves. Go for a dip at Port Palermo Bay; visit Ali Pasha Castle which was a Cold War military base; and head to Vlore, a Greek city founded in the 6th century BCE. The Albanian Declaration of Independence was proclaimed here in 1912.

Travel Team
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Albania sample itineraries

Albania walking holiday (8 days):
Tirana > Shkoder > Rozafa Castle > Theth > Grunas Waterfall > Blue Eye of Kapre > Trek over Valbone Pass > Valbone > Rosi Peak > White Circle > Komani Lake cruise > Berat > Kruje

Albania cultural tour (10 days):
Tirana > Elbasan Fortress > Pogradec > Voskopoje > Permet > Gjorokaster > Blue Eye of Kapre > Butrint > Saranda > Vlore > Ali Pasha Castle > Apollonia > Ardenica Monastery > Berat > Kruje

Albania travel times

The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in Albania.

Berat – Durres: 2hrs by road Gjirokaster – Blue Eye: 30 mins by road Blue Eye – Butrint: 1hr by road Saranda – Vlore: 3.5hrs by road Vlore – Apollonia: 1.5hrd by road Apollonia – Ardenice Monastery: 40 mins by road
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: SarahTz] [Accursed Mountains: Hladnikm] [Apollonia & Ardenice Monastery: ShkelzenRexha] [Berat: GjataErvin] [Blue Eye National Park: Pudelek (Marcin Szala)] [Butrint National Park: Geoff Wong] [Durrës: Jed Horne] [Gjirokaster: Armin Flickr] [Komani Lake: gailhampshire] [Krujë: Nicolas Vollmer] [Shkoder & Lake Skadar: Tobias Klenze] [Tirana: Albinfo] [Vlore & Albanian Riviera: godo godaj] [Albania travel times: USA-Reiseblogger]