A small country, but one packed with charm, Albania has everything from the urban chaos of its capital Tirana, including its not-to-be-missed extravagant Christmas market, concrete pyramids and other nods to its turbulent history, to cable cars and bumpy roads to quant, rural, and underpopulated paradises such as Berat, Kruja and the Dajti mountain.
Affordable and on the doorstep of Europe, Albania has plenty to offer any traveller, whether they have two days or two weeks. Here are five recommendations for anybody going to, or thinking about going to this hidden gem.
One of Albania’s most unique and identifiable features is the hundreds of thousands of small concrete bunkers that dot the landscape, an unavoidable reminder of the paranoid dictatorship that once rules this country. Built en masse (up to 750,000 bunkers for a population of less than 3 million people) by the government which ruled Albania for much of the 20th century, these bunkers were designed as a form of Cold War shelter in the event of any attack.
Perhaps most famous and accessible is the bunker in the centre of Tirana, now named BunkArt2 , which has been converted into a small underground museum with tales, relics and stories of Albania’s recent communist past under dictator Enver Hoxha. An enlightening, must-see destination for anybody with a few hours to spare in Tirana.
BunkArt 2 is affordable and accessible, just a few minutes’ walk from the very centre of Tirana.
Cable Car and Dajti Mountain
Tirana is a charming, yet chaotic city, so it is almost surreal to find a modern cable car on the edge of the urban sprawl that leads up until the peaceful mountains that overlook the capital and surrounding countryside.
At the top, a restaurant, farmland, tourist and holiday lodgings, and even a mini-golf course greet you, as does a unique view out over the urban sprawl of Tirana bleeding into the rural pastures, mountains and coastline that surround this extraordinary place.
A more often than not slightly intense taxi drive to the cable car terminal from the centre of Tirana will only cost a couple of Euros (or Lek), and whilst the cable car itself is proportionately expensive for Albania, it cannot go unmissed for anybody wanting to escape Tirana’s hectic pace.
More information on the cable car, including its opening days and times, can be found on the Dajti Ekspres website.
Tirana’s history … pyramids, museums, and the past, present and future!
Like many countries in the Balkan region, modern day Albania is a mixture of history from centuries old conflicts, 20th century political order and disorder, and modern investments and developments. Tirana is one of the most fascinating examples of this, with ongoing renovation and rebuilding taking place to replace the damage done during the 20th century due to the fascist regime of Enver Hoxha, and the subsequent riots and civil war that took place in the 1990s. Modern day Tirana is therefore an eclectic mixture of statues and museums celebrating the likes of the national hero, the 15th century ‘Lord of Albania’ Skanderbeg, bunkers and oddball buildings like the Pyramid of Tirana from the 20th century, and skyscrapers and rebuilt religious buildings from modern investment from Albania’s move towards democracy post-Hoxha.
The streets are often strangely colourful, with buildings painted in a way that celebrates the simple freedoms that Albanians were withheld for decades. Buildings, old bridges, new churches are all fascinating to see, and museums tell stories of everything from medieval revolutions and heroic battles for independence, to spying, the dictator’s name written on mountains, civil war and pyramid schemes, from what was, until the 1980s, one of, if not the most communist country in the world.
A couple of hours drive from Tirana, Berat is often used as the postcard picture, or travel guide cover image for Albania.
Known as “the city of a thousand windows”, although anecdotally it seems few have taken the time to count them, this beautiful city sits across from the lake of the old town and seemingly stares back, with the windows of each house pointing directed seemingly in unison.
As well as a beautiful city, complete with ethnographic museum and cathedral, Berat Castle sits ominously overlooking towns both old and new. The castle grounds contain museums, woodworkers selling their wears, and restaurants. Perhaps most impressively is the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church. Spared from centuries of invaders that seemed consistently intent on wiping away Albania’s religious history and architecture.
A trek from the capital, day tours are offered throughout Tirana to visit Berat Castle and the town itself. To find out more, Inspire Me World Travel offer these and other tours.
A short trip out from Tirana, or as short a trip as Albanian traffic will allow, is the beautiful town and region of Kruja (or Kruje).
Whilst partially damaged by the deadly earthquake that hit Albania in late 2019, Kruja is a beautiful mixture of historic ruins, cobbled market streets, and modern museums built in honour of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg.
Further up the mountain that looms over the town is one of the most impressive view points in Albania, and is accompanied by a unique religious shrine buried within the mountain, welcoming pilgrims who brave the walk up the mountain every hour of every day. For those less inclined to endure the vertical climb, there is a smooth road that snakes its way around the mountainside, and a city full of taxi drivers and tour guides who will make the journey for a reasonable price.
Read more about the history Kruja by clicking here, and its modern-day markets and stunning views by clicking here!
Similar to Berat, Kruja is a day trip from Tirana, and tours are offered throughout Tirana. To find out more, Inspire Me World Travel offer these and other tours.
In 2019, we had the pleasure of visiting Tirana in December and were welcomes with an extraordinary display of lights, oranges still growing on trees in near-20-degree climates, and an almost fairground atmosphere in Tirana’s square. Read more about Tirana at Christmas, and see our image gallery by clicking here!
For our trip around Albania, we used Bradt’s travel guide to Albania, available on Amazon by clicking here.
Visiting Albania? Why not check out Inspire Me World Travel for ideas and tours of this fascinating country!
by Tom McBeth