Tirana – Let’s start with the capital city, which has been the capital of Albania since 1925 but was founded in the 17th century by Ottoman landlord Suleiman Pasha Bargjini.
How to get there? There are several European towns which offer direct flights to Tirana. If you are already in the Balkans you can reach Tirana with a direct flight from Belgrade. You can also reach it by bus from neighboring countries.
What to visit?
First, take a walk around the city center: It is an interesting combination of historical monuments, a few old mosques and hamams, still-dominant communist architecture, and some emerging modern architecture. You will see there a contrast between a rich history, a continuing presence of poor people, and promising future as more prosperous people are emerging. In same block you will notice young people with smartphones and street vendors selling fruit and street shoeshine boys. In the same block you will see an Audi A6 and a Trabant. The scenery surrounding the city is beautiful, and you will see many mountains in the near background.
Skanderbeg Square: This is in the middle of town and is the largest public area in Tirana, named after Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who is one of most important national heroes in Albania. He lived in the 15th century and held the title Lord of Albania. In the beginning he served in the Ottoman army, but later he declared war on the Ottoman Empire to defend Albania from invasion. Today an equestrian statue of him dominates the square and is one of the main tourist spots in Tirana and also a meeting place for locals. Around the Square there are a few beautifully painted and designed buildings that date from the beginning of the 20th century, such as the National Opera, the National Historical Museum, and the National Theatre, among others.
For only 1.5 eur you can buy a ticket to the National Museum of History to see many artefacts that date from ancient times to the present. One of best ways to understand a country is to visit its history museums in order to learn about its past and therefore understand its present.
In the city center there is a very beautiful clock tower which dates from the beginning of the 19th century. It is one of most beautiful structures in Tirana. Next to the clock tower there is the large Ethem Bey Mosque, which dates from the 19th century. It is one of oldest, best preserved, and most beautiful mosques in Albania. Its exterior is beautiful, but its interior is even more amazing. You will be stunned when you see the wall paintings and how colorful they are.
Sali Shijaku house: This was the home of Sali Shijaku, a famous 20th century Albanian painter. His very beautiful house dates from the 19th century and is in the Ottoman style. The house has exhibitions of Sali Shijaku’s paintings and also displays his personal effects and beautifully decorated oriental rooms, including many interesting objects and colorful carpets. In the courtyard there are many palms that signal a location that is near the sea. If you want to take a glimpse at what typical houses looked like in Albania in the beginning of the 20th century you are in the right place.
This is one of the most important cities in Albania in terms of culture and historical events. The town is located near Skadar Lake, a lake that forms the border between Montenegro and Albania and is the largest lake in the Balkans. During its long and eventful history Shkodra has served as one of the major trade centers in the Balkans, a place where goods passed between Europe and the Middle East. The city has frequently been conquered by Serbs, Byzantines, and Bulgarians. Later it fell under Ottoman rule and was a focal point of fighting between Turkish and Montenegrin troops in 1913 before passing into Albanian hands in the same year. There are several locations worth visiting in this lively and picturesque town. It is one of most beautiful cities in Albania, a place where Mediterranean architecture and vegetation leave their mark.
How to get there? From Tirana it takes only 90min via a bus ride which costs only 4eur.
What are the major attractions?
Pjaca Kole Idromeno – the main pedestrian street in the town. It is a nice old street with buildings that date from the early 20th century, generally well preserved with facades that are very colorful and well maintained. This street is full of clothing and souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. In addition to taking pictures and looking around you can enjoy a cup of domestic coffee similar to the domestic coffee of Serbia, Bosnia, Greece, and Turkey. Off the central street there are several narrow old streets which feature Turkish and Mediterranean architecture and are in slightly worse condition, with faded facades. In the city center there are sites of all three of the faiths that are present in Albania including mosques and Catholic and Orthodox churches. Also there is a statue of Mother Teresa, the famous nun who did many noble things for humanity.
Rozafa Fortress – a fort on a hill only 2km from the city center. The fortress is very old and dates from the pre-Roman era, when Illyrians constructed it. It has been conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Albanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Venetians, and Ottomans. The most famous battle here occurred in 1478, when Albanians, Serbs, and Venetians defended the town against the Ottomans. The fortress isn’t renowned and has not been commercialized and is decaying, but the effect is to underscore how original it is. There is a perfect view over Shkodra town, the mosques, the churches, the mountains, and Shkodra Lake. If you are not afraid you can explore the interior parts of the fortress and pass through dark stone corridors which frequently go underground. Turn on a flashlight and discover its corridors. During the summer there are folk and traditional music festivals at the fortress with music from all parts of the country. If you like different types of traditional music you may enjoy this specific mixture. Albanian music is very lively and warms the heart.
Mes Bridge – a stone, single arch bridge which is similar to the bridge at Mostar. It was built in the 18th century by local lord Mahmud Bushati. Mes Bridge is less well maintained than the one in Mostar, but its decaying appearance makes the past come alive.
Shkoder Lake (Skadarsko) With a short bus ride you can reach the largest lake in Southeastern Europe, in a very well preserved natural landscape. The area is rich in both flora and fauna and is a popular place for exploring and relaxing. There is a nice promenade next to the lake with a few hotels and restaurants. Shkoder Lake is an excellent place for boating or swimming, and you can join the local fishing club and go on a fishing tour along the lake shore. The Lake is also popular for camping and outdoor grilling, so if you like this sort of thing pack your tent or sleeping bag and come here.
Durres – This is one of the most famous seaside resorts in Albania, located only 33km from Tirana with buses departing nearly every 20 minutes. Sea tourism has grown apace over the last 10-12 years, and a significant tourist infrastructure has been built in many coastal towns. This one offers a great combination of ancient history and up-to-date resort amenities.
What to do and see?
Walk around the Old Town. There are several narrow streets which you can check out for souvenirs. Most of the houses are in Turkish style. There are also significant remains of the medieval city wall built by Skanderbeg and a stone tower built by the Venetians for defense purpose. The tower is in circular form, and there is a restaurant on the top. Also in the center of the Old Town there are old Turkish baths which date from the 17th century. In addition to the Turkish baths there are the remains of Byzantine baths which date from the 5th century. And there are even older historical remains such as the ruins of a Roman amphitheater built before the New Era.
Go to the promenade, where you will see many bars and coffee shops next to the sea. Order a cocktail or some fresh juice. Check out one of the many beaches and swim in the clean, warm water of the Adriatic Sea.
Time for a good meal
Like other places in the Balkans, Albania offers a very rich and diverse cuisine. In Albania you definitely won’t go hungry even if you travel on a budget since prices are even much below the Balkan average. For a starter you can order Tarator soup (yogurt and cucumber soup) which is often eaten in Balkan countries. Another good soup is Jahni bean soup. As a main course you can order roasted lamb or roasted pork on wood. You can also try Japraks, a stuffed cabbage with minced meat and rice – it is equivalent to Serbian sarma and Middle Eastern dolma. Also commonly eaten are Qofte meatballs with rice or fried potato. A lunch can be very cheap in all three of the above-mentioned towns, costing on average only 4eur. There are many restaurants in the city centers or along the coast which meet modern standards by all criteria and are very pleasant.
Like everyplace else in the Balkans, nightlife in Albania is vibrant and rich. If you like clubs, then in Tirana, Shkodra, and Durres you can find at least a few clubs that are open until 4-5am. If you are a fan of bars and meeting locals, there are many to choose from which are very beautifully designed. There is a big choice of bars to suit any preference. In smaller towns such as Shkodra and Durres the locals are even more friendly than in the capital city, but generally Albanians are friendly and easy-going. In Durres you may meet also foreign tourists from Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. When it comes to beverages I have good news: a domestic draught beer is less than 70 cents. The most popular beers are Malto, Korca, and Kaon. Besides beers there are various fruit brandies. But definitely you must try Albanian Skanderbeg cognac. A glass will cost less than 3eur and a bottle 15eur.
Ranges between 15 and 20eur per night in central locations.