Long isolated from the rest of Europe and buffeted by the vicissitudes of history, Albania has now emerged as one of the most entrancing corners of Europe. The country offers a captivating blend of the ancient and the brand new, from sprawling archaeological sites and age-old mountain codes of behaviour to the riotous colours of the thriving capital, Tirana, and beaches to rival anywhere else in the Mediterranean.
An eclectic capital
Tirana's 'pyramid' © Elizabeth Gowing
Albania's capital city since 1920, Tirana is an essential stop on any trip to Albania. It has several very good museums, lots of green spaces and a range of cultural activities. It has hundreds of cafés; dozens of modern bars, popular with younger people; numerous clubs, some with live music, particularly at the weekends; and an array of restaurants, many of them excellent. It’s most famous feature is the brightly coloured apartment blocks dotted around the city, which only add to its eclectic architectural mix.
The great outdoors
Head to Thethi for a taste of the highland life © Tomas Laburda, Shutterstock
Lovers of the outdoors will be happy just about anywhere in the country. The Albanian Alps in the far north and the mountains between Berati and Përmeti in the south are probably the best organised in terms of accommodation, guides and so forth. The Lura Lakes, between Rrësheni and Peshkopia, and the Lunxhëria and Nemerçka ranges in the southwest, are more remote but offer fantastic hiking or cycling opportunities for those with more time at their disposal.
A wealth of archaeological treasures
The sanctuary of Asclepius in the UNESCO’s World Heritage Archeological Site of Butrint © Pecold, Shutterstock
Those who are interested in archaeology and history will find Albania full of delights. In the southwest of the country, the ancient city of Butrint already draws thousands of visitors every year across the Corfu Channel. It richly deserves its status as the country’s best-known archaeological site, but there are many other interesting Illyrian, Greek and Roman remains. No visit to southern Albania would be complete without the ancient cities of Gjirokastra and Berati, with their hilltop castles and unique architecture.
A world-class boat trip
© Przemyslaw Wasilewski, Shutterstock
The journey along Lake Komani deserves to be one of the world’s classic boat trips, up there with the Hurtigrut along the Norwegian coast or the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in Chile. Lake Komani is narrow and twisting, with sheer cliffs right down to the water in some stretches, complete with breathtakingly high waterfalls.
St. Mary's Church, Voskopojë © Markussep, Wikimedia Commons
Lovers of medieval art should visit the icon collections in Berati, Korça and Tirana, and the whole of central and southern Albania is full of half-forgotten churches with magnificent frescoes.