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6 Top Places to Visit in Albania

Overlooking the UNESCO city of Gjirokastra, Albania

When we decided to travel to Albania, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. We’d heard a little about bad roads and transportation challenges and a few vague assertions that it was an inexpensive place to visit – nothing to help us form any good ideas about what we would see. It was a completely dark place on our mental maps. That made it that much sweeter when we uncovered so many unexpected highlights and beautiful places to visit in Albania.

Stone gate covered in flowers
The beautiful flowers of Kruja

What we found in Albania was a mix of remarkable natural beauty, deep history, tempting food, and some of the nicest people you’ll meet anywhere. It’s like Italy with limited public transportation and the French Riviera with more partially-constructed buildings and less attitude. Albania is like its neighbor to the south, Greece, but with far fewer tourists and a whole lot of Cold War bunkers. In a lot of ways, it’s probably like other parts of Europe were 30 or 40 years ago, which gives it a feeling all its own. You won’t find a McDonald’s or Starbucks here. And, yes, it is cheap. And safe.

Our week visiting some of the best cities in Albania gave us a chance to scratch the surface of all that this lovely country has to offer. In our brief time, we uncovered some of Albania’s highlights.


People relaxing under umbrellas on the beach
The seaside in Ksamil, Albania, is just about as pretty as it gets

Ksamil is a dream. Turquoise water, fresh seafood, hospitality beyond compare…and all at an absurdly affordable price. This little sea village just an hour from Greece was the most beautiful place we visited in Albania.

Islands on the Albanian Riviera
If you can’t stay on the beach all day, explore Ksamil’s nearby islands

Part of the Albanian Riviera, Ksamil echoes some of the best parts of Europe. It has the seas of the South of France, the beaches of the Italian Riviera, and the food of the Mediterranean, minus the people. Most of the coves and small beaches are privately owned, but you can rent a chair and umbrella for about $4 USD a day. Because a lot of the spots are connected to restaurants and bars, they’re just a few steps from amazing fresh fish and even a mojito or two.

If lying on the beach all day isn’t your style, you can do what we did and rent a boat to visit the three nearby islands. An hour in the boat – plus a captain to drive us – was only $30. You can also rent wave runners, paddle boats, and all manner of other water equipment.

We hear that it can get busy in Ksamil during the summer season, which is roughly mid-July through August. But, in early July, there was just a handful of people taking advantage of the beautiful scenery.

Mussels, salad, and other food on a table
The seafood along the Albanian Riviera is as fresh as it can be


Stone arch ruins of the early Christian basilica at Butrint
The early Christian basilica at Butrint

We had no idea what to expect when it came to historical attractions. It turns out that some of the history of this little-known country mirrors that of the rest of the region–it’s Greek and Roman. Our first stop was Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site less than 10 minutes from Ksamil.

Seats and stage of the Greek amphitheater
The site’s Greek amphitheater is amazingly intact

Unlike many ruins, Butrint hasn’t been overrun by a modern city. Instead, it has been mostly undisturbed. It is also bordered by hills and a lake, making it a unique combination of nature and an archaeological park

A colony since prehistoric times, Butrint (then known as Buthrotum) was controlled by Greeks until the Romans took over in the 1st century BC. By the 5th century AD, it was an early Christian center. It was then briefly occupied by the Venetians before being abandoned in the Middle Ages. Remarkably, evidence of each civilization is still clear as you walk around the massive site.

Mosaic and remains of columns in the baptistry at Butrint Albania
We were lucky to find the baptistry mosaic partially uncovered

The most interesting remnant of the Greek era is the well-preserved amphitheater that dates from the 4th century BC and still hosts yearly events. One of the other most recognized features of Butrint is a Greek monument that was adapted by the Christians into a baptistery. Its floor is an intricate mosaic that is only uncovered every few years in order to protect it. We were fortunate that the mosaic had been partially revealed just a few days before our visit because it’s one of the best things to see in Albania.


Cobbled street lined with stores
The cobbled streets of Gjirokastra

Another of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the town of Gjirokastra is situated in the Drinos river valley in southern Albania. Wherever you look around the stunning landscape, unique buildings coat the hillsides. From the town’s 13th century castle to its slate-roofed houses, the effect is nothing short of magical, especially at sunset.

Tunnel lined with cannons at the entrance to the military museum
Gjirokastra’s castle is now a military museum

There has been a settlement in Gjirokastra for 2500 years, but it is the town’s 17th-century homes that have put it on UNESCO’s list. The houses from the Ottoman period are designed to look like small castles with stone roofs and whitewashed stone walls. One is now open as an ethnographic museum.


Skanderbeg statue and Albanian flag in Tirana
Skanderbeg Square is the center of Tirana’s historic sites

The capital city, Tirana is one of the top places to visit in Albania. Unlike many European capitals, Tirana is not full of traditional monuments and an overwhelming list of things to see. Instead, it is a vibrant city still finding its footing in post-Communist times.

Pyramid-shaped building with windows
The main thing to do at Tirana’s Pyramid is climb it

There is an interesting mix of historic and modern sites to see in Tirana. The primary historic sites are concentrated near Skanderbeg Square. They include the intricate decorations in the 18th century Et’hem Bey Mosque as well as Tirana’s Clock Tower and the National History Museum.

On the more modern end of things is the city’s crumbling Pyramid. Built as the Enver Hoxha Museum, a monument to Albania’s former Communist leader, the building is now mostly a curiosity for visitors who want to climb to the top of its steep peak.

There is also the unusual Bunk’art. The massive bunker, which was built to house the Albanian government during the Cold War, is now a fascinating exhibit space featuring unique contemporary art as well as artifacts from the Communist period.

Room with red chairs and movie screen in museum
Bunk’art, a recently-opened bunker from the Communist era

The most energetic part of Tirana is the Ish-Blloku (ex-Block) neighborhood. Formerly the home of the Communist elites, the neighborhood is now filled with cafes, coffee shops, and cocktail bars. From listening to live music to visiting the rotating bar at Sky Tower, there’s something going on there pretty much every hour of the day.


Vendor stalls in Ottoman bazaar with mosque minaret in the background
Kruja’s Ottoman-style bazaar has just about anything you could want to buy

Just 45 minutes outside Tirana, Kruja (Krujë in Albanian) is a small medieval village perched at the foot of Mount Kruja. Its position on the hillside gives it a rustic ambiance and sweeping views of the nearby valley and the Adriatic Sea.

In addition to its natural beauty, Kruja also has enormous historical importance. In the 12th century, it was the capital of the first independent Albanian state. Later, it became the place from which Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero, defended the country from the invading Ottomans for over 25 years. Kruja Castle is now the Skanderbeg Museum and features exhibits about the sieges. A few steps away, the excellent ethnographic museum shows how people lived in the mid-18th century, long after the Ottomans finally gained a foothold in Albania.

Stone building, a former castle
Kruja’s castle is now a museum

But it’s not just about mountainous views and important history in this charming town. One of tiny Kruja’s central features is its old Ottoman-style bazaar. Down the ancient cobblestone lane, it’s possible to find all manner of souvenirs from coffee mugs to handmade kilims (old style rugs) being weaved on-site. There is also a wide variety of antiques and crafts.


Chairs and umbrellas on the beach
The beach is one of the most popular attractions in Durres

About 30 minutes west of Tirana is Albania’s “first city” — Durres. One of Albania’s oldest cities, Durres has a rich, 3,000-year-old history. The strategic location of the city’s port was recognized by early Greeks, Romans, and Venetian explorers throughout antiquity.

The compact city center is easy to explore on foot. The Durres amphitheater is one of the largest Roman amphitheaters in the Balkans, accommodating over 20,000 people. The site is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but it is also one of the most endangered cultural sites in Europe because of its crumbling stone work. The buildings surrounding the amphitheater are covered with beautiful murals and street art depicting important events in the town’s history.

Nearby, part of the old town wall and fortress still exists. The wall leads down to the port where the Venetian Tower stands guard at the entrance to the city. This fortification dates back to the 5th century when it was the anchor of the Durres Castle.

Round stone Venetian Tower
The Venetian Tower dates from the 5th century

Most people coming to Durres head to the broad sandy beaches south of the city. This is where people from Tirana come for the weekend to soak in the sun and cool in the water. The beaches are some of the largest we’ve seen anywhere.

We visited Albania as guests of JayWay Travel, specialists in custom tour packages across destinations in Central and Eastern Europe. All opinions of the ancient and beachy are our own.

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Sunday 25th of June 2023

Thanks for your insights! In Durres would you recommend staying in the city center or near the beach?

Lance Longwell

Monday 26th of June 2023

If me, I'd stay at the beach and go into the city. In Durres, the beach starts at the city center and extends south. The further you go, the more remote and isolated you are. My experience is also that the beach gets nicer the further south you go (better sand, less trash, etc.). So I'd probably stay south and then come back to the city to explore a bit.

Paula Passaia

Saturday 12th of September 2020

I just came back from a very interesting holiday to Albania horse riding over the mountains i thoroughly enjoyed it & i raccomand it

Mark Gniewyk

Tuesday 3rd of September 2019

Interesting. What alphabet do they use? Are you aware of any self drive tours? What would you recommend timewise to drive and see most of the country? Like to see historical sites. Photography is my passion.

Laura Longwell

Thursday 5th of September 2019

They use the Latin alphabet. Albania isn't a large country--we visited these sites over six days, but the driving time between them is only about 5-6 hours in total.


Thursday 22nd of August 2019

Awesome tips! thanks a lot ! I'm going there in about a month :)))


Saturday 13th of May 2017

Thanks for the interesting info. I am living not to far from Albania, but I've never been there.

Maybe you remember the movie "Wag the Dog"? -

Lance Longwell

Wednesday 17th of May 2017

Yup, during our time in Albania, we had a lengthy conversation about the film. Good movie. Even better country.

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