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Rugged Albania has been invaded and conquered by one army after another—with two long periods of isolation in between. The first was the four-century rule of the Ottoman Turks, which ended in 1912; the second was the communist rule of Enver Hoxha during the second half of the twentieth century. When Albania emerged into freedom in 1991, it began a whirlwind of reinvention that still continues today.
Albania is now an official candidate for the European Union, and while it is still one of Europe’s poorest countries, foreign investment is pouring in. Thriving capital city Tirana embodies the word vibrant, and the Adriatic and Ionian coastline is one of Europe’s new Rivieras. However, there are plentiful reminders of the past—whether it’s the windswept ruins of Butrint, the Ottoman mansions of Gjirokaster, or the Communist bunkers that sprout like mushrooms across the entire country. The craggy Albanian Alps loom over it all, and a turquoise sea laps at the edges of this fascinating Balkan outpost.
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Dajti Ekspres Cable Car
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Once a chaotic jumble of gray, Tirana today is a pleasant, bright little capital city. Grand squares, wide boulevards, and lovely wooded parks serve as gathering places for locals and visitors alike. A convivial, majority-Muslim population welcomes foreign tourism, and visitors should not be surprised if a local invites them to join a toast of rakija, the local brandy. The Blloku neighborhood, once restricted to Albania’s political elite, now welcomes all to its ritzy bars, restaurants, and abundant sidewalk cafes.
Although Tirana has undergone quite a transformation in recent decades, relics from the past abound, from Ottoman mansions to the Soviet-era apartment blocks—which these days sport a vibrant assortment of murals in every color of the rainbow.
One of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Berat is appropriately known as Albania’s museum city. Locals still inhabit the Ottoman-era homes of Old Town, which rises in tiers up the hillside toward the citadel. Locally known as the Kala, Berat Castle dates back to the fourth century. Within the castle walls, red-tiled Byzantine churches meet the minarets of Ottoman mosques, a mash-up of religions, eras, and architecture that encapsulates the town’s diverse history.
Thanks to its well-preserved, unique mix of influences, Berat’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Despite an influx of tourism in the last few years, Berat has maintained an easygoing, welcoming air—with locals and visitors alike gathering together in the cafes and wide avenues around town.
Sandwiched on a hillside between snowcapped mountains and a widely-curving river, Gjirokaster is a charming Ottoman-era merchant town in the Drino Valley. The city’s name comes from the Greek word for silver, argyrókastron, likely a reference to the shimmering gray stone that lines the town walls, streets, and roofs. Excavations in the city have revealed settlements that date back to the 2nd century BC; however, the earliest recorded mention of Gjirokaster was in 1336. It rose to prominence a few hundred years later as a center of Ottoman administration.
The past still echoes through Gjirokaster; cobblestone streets rise from the bazaar, winding past turreted old mansions until they reach the hilltop castle. Originally built as a utilitarian fortress, the castle was made elegant and refined by the Ottomans, and today it houses a collection of WWII tanks and an American fighter plane shot down during the war. The castle and the 600 well-preserved Ottoman-era mansions that surround it are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Soar above Gjirokaster for a unique perspective on the Albanian hillside town's Ottoman-era historic structures.
Produced by Ervin Habazaj
The past is present in Butrint, a sheltered hilltop settlement surrounded by a lagoon on the Straits of Corfu. Inhabited since at least the eighth century BC, the area was only abandoned two hundred years ago, when the land became marshy. Once a Greek outpost, it became a Roman colony, a Byzantine bishopric, a Venetian annex, and finally an Ottoman fortress—and the well-preserved ruins found here today span that entire 2,500-year history.
Deep in the forest, a 3rd-century-BC Greek theater once sat thousands of people. Further on, a beautiful stone mosaic floor lies hidden within the crumbling round walls of a 6th-century Christian baptistery. Atop the hill, where citizens once gathered in the acropolis, the visitors of today find a castle with views across the now-quiet city and the waterfront beyond.
In Tirana, you’re never far from the fresh air of a mountain escape, thanks to the Dajti Ekspres Cable Car. The longest cable car ride in the Balkans, the Austrian-built Dajti Ekspres whisks riders from the Tirana suburbs to the “balcony” of Mount Dajti in just 15 minutes. At the top, visitors can relax at a café or restaurant, or set out on a hike—the summit of Mount Dajti is a mile and a half away. Either way, the views are stunning, extending out over Tirana toward the Adriatic coast.
Once used as an Albanian military defense, these concrete bunkers now draw tourists
Discover Albania’s concrete bunkers—sites that, though built for potential warfare, have more creative uses today.
Gjirokaster and Libohove, Albania
Out of Sight
Meet four children from Albania and discover their big dreams for the future.
Produced by Paul Kurti
Immerse yourself in Albania with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Travel back to antiquity to discover the legendary history of the Albanian city of Butrint.
Can you guess what country is sprinkled with about 750,000 unused military bunkers—some decorated and some untouched?
If you look at Butrint’s ancient ruins as a core sample of Albania’s history—indeed, of the entire history of the Mediterranean—you will quickly see how these remote grounds yield up timeless treasures from ages immemorial. The numerous archaeological digs in and around Bouthrōtios (as it was referred to by the ancient Greeks) have even exhumed evidence of human habitation from Neolithic times; tools of stone and flint long buried in silt and clay as the landscape shifted drastically over thousands of years.
The Importance of Connections
It is clear why this site was inhabited, coveted, and disputed over by so many people. Located on a hill in the middle of a peninsula, the site was a significant port on the way from Greece to Italy. It was valued for its safe anchorage and easy access to major bodies of water, inland cities and trade routes; for cultural and strategic purposes; and for the exchange of commercial goods and new ideas. The activity on the top of the hill was constant and ever-changing: from the small settlement of Stone Age fishermen into the occupancy of the tribal Chaonians, to the Greeks and the Romans, through Christianization, Byzantium, the coming of the Venetians, and the conquering Ottomans. Butrint is not only an important place of connection geographically but also in the flow of events called “history.” Visiting the site is becoming a witness to, and a link in, a chain that reaches back to prehistory, through today and into the future.
A Legend is Born
Some currently believe that Buthrotum (Latin for Butrint) was derived from an Illyrian word rendered in Greek as bouthos, which is related to the Albanian buzë, meaning “shore.” Others believe Buthrotum means “place with much cattle and grazing land.” However, the giants of antiquity had other ideas, as evidenced in the interpretation of Buthrotum that suggests a bull sacrifice.
Not satisfied with the modest beginnings of the city, both the Greeks and the Romans had a little fun embellishing of Butrint’s origin story. The Roman poet, Virgil, wrote that Butrint was founded by the hero Helenus—son of Troy’s King Priam, twin brother of the prophetess Cassandra, brother to the hero Hector, and husband to Hector’s widow Andromache. As Virgil’s telling goes, while fleeing the destruction of Troy, Helenus landed on the island of Korkyra (modern Corfu) and decided to sacrifice an ox to the god Apollo. Wounded, the animal escaped and swam to the mainland, whence Helenus followed by boat. There he slaughtered the ox, and took it as a sign from Apollo that this was the site on which his “new Troy” should be built.
Both the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Virgil wrote that Aeneas (Trojan hero of The Aeneid fame) visited the city proceeding his flight from the destruction of Troy and preceding his legendary journey that would bring him to Italy and lead to the eventual founding of Rome.
Not a lot of information is established about the earliest settlers of Butrint. From archaeological discoveries, we know that Neolithic settlements were both at the epicenter of the site and in the surrounding areas. When kingdoms began to form, Butrint was occupied by a tribe known as the Chaonians. The Chaonians were one of the dominant tribes of the kingdom of Epirus. Experts disagree if it was the twelfth century BC or the eighth, but at some point, Butrint came under Greek rule. The polis that proves this stands on top of the remains of the original hamlet.
The Classical Period to Late Antiquity
This vast period of time captures the imagination in a way nothing else does: shifting alliances, brutal wars, an unprecedented flourishing of art and knowledge. But it was still a time when gods and goddesses could be as vengeful as they were solicitous; involving themselves in human affairs; and whose divine disputes spilled down from on high, throwing the mortal world into chaos. Greek occupation brought with it expansion, stronger fortifications, a theatre, a gymnasium, processional roads, sacred fountains, temples and the cult of Asciepius, to whom a healing sanctuary surrounding a hot spring was dedicated.
Butrint became a Roman protectorate in 228 BC. In 48 BC, Julius Caesar harbored in the city during the civil war against Pompey. As a reward to his soldiers, he later established it as a colony for veterans. Augustus contributed to the city’s prosperity further by investing heavily in its success. This is conspicuously also the point of time when court-sponsored poet Virgil created his story The Aeneid which gave special significance to the port both in Greek and Roman history and mythology.
It’s not all Ancient History
With Christianization of the Roman Empire, Butrint became a bishopric. Shortly thereafter, the Byzantine Empire absorbed the municipality. A huge earthquake struck in AD 365 causing extensive structural damage from which it never fully recovered. Nonetheless, the dogged city rebuilt and in the following century it gained a massive baptistery and basilica, though the palace was deserted and transformed into workshops.
While the Roman Empire began to fall, the eastern half of the empire survived for another millennium. There were changes to tradition, art, literature and learning. Social change led to different ways people lived and built. A rising sea level contributed to the shrinking of Butrint, and perhaps even its ultimate abandonment. The city came under the rule of the Venetians in the 14th century and eventually it came into the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century.
Remnants from all these time periods, evidence of the fascinating differences and developments in art, architecture, culture, and technology, are scattered around the hill and pristine woodlands of this spellbinding site. Especially with its new museum, a trip to Butrint is not just a discovery of an interesting space, it’s an adventure through time.
from The Inside Scoop
Question: Which country’s landscape is dotted with more than 750,000 abandoned military bunkers?
Stroll along any sandy beach, rolling hill, or city street in Albania, and you’ll see them: weathered concrete bunkers swelling unnaturally from the earth. These dystopian domes—all 750,000 of them—are the handiwork of one man: Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who lorded over Albania for nearly 40 years.
Hoxha rose to power at the end of 1944 when much of Eastern Europe was reeling from World War II and embracing communist ideologies. From the onset, Hoxha adopted a hardline style of communism that made even his closest political allies squirm. Over time, his radical ideology drove him to break with more moderate communist governments—including the Soviet Union and China—and to be openly hostile toward neighboring countries, including Yugoslavia and Greece.
As Albania became more and more isolated, Hoxha began to fear that it would be invaded by its enemies and former allies, so he initiated a policy of “bunkerization” in 1967 so the nation would be prepared to defend itself. Over the next 19 years, domed concrete bunkers with narrow gun slits—most of them only large enough to hold one or two people—were installed across Albania … and as the countryside was militarized, so, too, were Albanian citizens. Children as young as 12 were taught how to station themselves in the nearest bunkers to fight off invaders, and local families were expected to maintain and defend the bunkers on their property. By the time the bunkerization project ended in 1986 (shortly after Hoxha’s death), there was one bunker in Albania for every four people—and not a single one had ever been used.
Today, the bunkers are a fixture in Albanian life, and they’re not going away anytime soon: The cost to remove them would overwhelm Albania’s emerging free-marking economy, and so they sit—on sandy beaches, rolling hills, and city streets—reminding residents and visitors alike of Albania’s paranoid political past and fueling the country's desire to leave it behind.
In the independent documentary below, you’ll hear how locals perceive these curious domes—as well as the paranoid political atmosphere that gave rise to them. From the financial impact of national militarization to the creative ways the bunkers are being used today, find out what it’s like to live among these martial mushrooms.
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
The winter months in Albania are mild and rainy, especially on the coast. Toward the interior of the country, the climate varies notably from north to south. Temperatures in the day average near 44°F and the evenings may get colder. In the mountainous regions, snowfall may occur through March. Crowds are light in the winter months, with lower rates on hotels and activities as well.
Experience the warm hospitality of an Albanian welcome in Tirana or Berat during the winter months when you can rub elbows with locals rather than large groups of tourists.
Called Krishtlindjet, Christmas Day is a public holiday and Tirana’s main square boasts a large Christmas tree, decorated annually. Locals indulge in decadent holiday meals of stuffed Turkey accompanied by lavish desserts.
Watch this film to discover more about Albania
Trip Extension: Tirana, Albania
Experience the many changes occurring in Southeastern Europe on our trip extension to Tirana, Albania.
The springtime offers a moderate climate, with high temperatures near 77°F. Rain is common early on in the season, eventually giving way to drier weather. The landscape becomes blanketed in flowers and April makes for a great time to visit and hike throughout the countryside.
Llogara Pass is a high mountain road overlooking the Ionian coast. Nestled in the Cika Mountain range, this winding road is part of the Llogara National Park and this time of year is the best time to visit, due to the blooms.
Celebrating the end of winter on March 14, the Pagan summer Festival rejuvenates the spirit of the locals and visitors alike. Featuring street parties and artisan fairs, this festival welcomes the rebirth of nature with joy and revelry.
Mushrooms of Concrete
Discover Albania’s concrete bunkers—sites that, though built for potential warfare, have more creative uses today.
Produced by Martijn Payens
Summer ushers in high temperatures and the sunny days make swimming and beach visits enjoyable on the coast. Meanwhile, it is still comfortable enough for hikes and to see various outdoor highlights throughout the region. Tourism is at its peak and crowds may be heavy during the summer months.
The Albanian Riviera features isolated bays, unspoiled beaches and turquoise waters. The rugged coastline and rolling hills are punctuated by inlets that give way to sandy shores.
Hiking is enjoyable this time of year and trips to Grunas Waterfall, the Albanian Alps and the peaks of Thethi and Boga provide picturesque views.
The summer months are the best time to explore the historic towns of Berat and Kruja. Idyllic locale, Ottoman architecture, and medieval castles make these destinations picturesque and significant.
Precipitation is abundant starting in October and September is a dry month. Temperatures are mild in the beginning of fall, offering warm breezes on the coast and mild temperatures inland. The Adriatic is warm in September, making it a wonderful time to experience the beaches, while mountain valleys are in full autumn display this time of year.
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Take a look at the itinerary that awaits you in the storied lands once traversed by Alexander the Great.
Small Group Adventure
Days in Albania
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Small Ship Adventure
Days in Albania
5 nights from only $1195
3 nights from only $845
4 NIGHTS FROM FROM $945
DAYS IN ALBANIA
17 Days from only $4,095
Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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