Gjipe Beach
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 9 best places to visit in Albania

From the beaches of the Riviera to remote ruins and pretty towns, this is where to go in Albania

Stuart Butler

Albania has been having a moment for a while now. Young people have been flocking here for beach holidays that don’t cost an arm and a leg, and it’s developing a reputation as one of Europe’s most exciting music festival destinations

Expect rugged mountains laced with quiet hiking trails, ancient ruins hiding in the shade of trees, stunning beaches ripe for exploration and fast-developing urban centres. Expect tradition, and an air of an older and wilder Europe. Up for somewhere new? Here are the best places to visit in Albania. 

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Stuart Butler is a travel writer who has travelled extensively in Albania. At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines

Where to go in Albania

1. Tirana

The capital of Albania, and the only place that genuinely feels like a city, Tirana isn’t overwhelmed by its recent repressive history. Instead of hiding away the Communist-era interrogation centres and prisons, city authorities have transformed them into darkly fascinating museums, art galleries and memorials – and then surrounded them with an ever-changing cast of hipster bars and restaurants. At weekends, ride the cable car up Mount Dajti to join the locals for a spit-roast lamb lunch with a view down over the city.

2. Berat

Beautiful Berat is a town of two halves. Down on the river bank houses are clustered up tight against the side of a forested hill, their windows bouncing sunlight off the water. Take the steep climb up towards the summit of that hill though and you’ll arrive at Berat’s other – and much older – half. A restored medieval gateway leads into the Kalaja, or fortress, where wildflowers sprout from crumbling walls and a clutch of centuries-old churches and mosques have been turned into museums.


3. Ksamil

Albania’s quintessential beach spot. Although far from undiscovered, Ksamil – which sweeps around a series of low, wooded headlands and encompasses a number of still glistening bays, beaches and small islets – is something special. Mass tourism, fuelled by visitors from neighbouring landlocked countries, has dramatically changed the Albanian coastline in recent years, but Ksamil retains the laidback magic that first attracted people to the Albanian Riviera. And, of course, the seafood is excellent.

4. Gjirokastër

The story of the small hill town of Gjirokastër, in southern Albania, stretches back at least 2,500 years – with some of the treasures from this great antiquity carefully laid out in the town’s small museum. Most people today though come here to see the 600 or so stunning Ottoman-era manor houses that dot the town and surrounding hillside, some of which are open to visitors. The pretty-but-touristy centre of town (Gjirokastër is a favourite with bus tours on a day trip from Corfu) is all cobbled streets, arty cafes and less arty souvenir shops.


5. Butrint

Arguably the most impressive historical site in Albania, Butrint is an ancient Greek city of sunflower-yellow stones and rocks. Some of the ruins here – the theatre, Forum and public baths in particular – are extraordinarily well preserved, but just as much pleasure is to be had poking about the lesser-known ruins. To add to the wonder of the site, the whole complex is beautifully situated under shady woodland and on the shores of a quiet coastal lagoon.

6. Shkodër

The large town of Shkodër, which lazes on the side of a lake a short way back from the sea, doesn’t make it onto many Albanian itineraries. Yet, with its pastel-painted buildings and elegant squares, it has a distinctly Italian ambiance. Add to this an abundance of history and culture and you have yourself a perfect city break. The city boasts some of Albania’s best museums (such as the Marubi National Photography Museum, which covers the history of photography in Albania, and the Site of Witness and Memory Museum, which outlines Albania’s recent Communist past), a large fortress complex, some excellent restaurants – and yes, the Italian influence extends to dinner – and long, sandy beaches just a short drive away.


7. The Albanian Alps

The Albanian Alps, otherwise known as the Accursed Mountains, are anything but cursed. The valleys of these soaring mountains are filled with meadows, pastures and lakes in vivid greens, while beautiful, traditional stone villages dot the region. The slopes, which are thickly forested and turn a fiery red and orange in autumn, lead to summits that are licked in ice and snow for months on end. Its fabulous hiking country and numerous day and multi-day trails snake around the slopes, the most celebrated being the three-nation Peaks of the Balkans Trail, which traverses neighbouring countries Kosovo and Montenegro.

8. Apollonia

Far from anywhere, and little known to most foreign visitors to Albania, the ruins of the ancient Illyrian city of Apollonia are a huge 2,500-year-old complex of half-buried walls, mosaics and pillars, spread across olive tree-dotted hills. The theatre and the administrative centre still retain great grandeur, and the treasure-stuffed museum is well worth a visit. Away from the main ruins, one of Apollonia’s biggest draws is its feeling of quiet solitude. Come for the history, stay for the tranquility.


9. Gjipe beach

The forty-five-minute cliffside walking trail to Albania’s Gjipe beach starts from beside the thick stone walls of the Saint Theodore Monastery. The religious start is appropriate: as soon as you set eyes on this small, white-pebble beach, set below cliffs at the mouth of a wooded gorge, you’ll think you’re in Mediterranean beach heaven. The atmosphere at Gjipe remains low-key and development mercifully limited. There’s a seasonal beach café and, a short way up into the gorge, a basic camping area. Come in June or September and you might have it all to yourself.

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