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By Julia Van Peer
"Built on the remnants of a predominant communistic reign, Albania shows its scars."

The Land of Eagles, more commonly known as Albania, has been tussling for autonomy long before there was even talk about the Balkan Peninsula. The history of this only recently independent country reaches all the way back to the 4th century BC, the time of the Illyrians. Perhaps it’s there you can find the heritage of the ferocious Albanian morale that has aided the nation through tough times, from suppression during the Early Ottoman Period, to the national Albanian hero Gjergj Skanderberg, to a new difficult era under communist dictator Enver Hoxha, finally to independence in the 1990s.


Built on the remnants of a predominant communistic reign, Albania shows its scars. Before I arrived, I imagined it as a country with an identity crisis. However, over the next three weeks, it became increasingly clear to me why the people have fought so hard to hold onto their heroes, their heritage, and their ethnicity. I have to admit, Albania together with Kosovo and Bosnia have made the top of my Balkan list.


After having spent just under a month in Shqipëria by self-constructed van, 3 towns will always be close to my heart. Berat, where the facades play hide and seek with the infinite amount of windows. Shkodër, where the Islam meets Catholicism and the Orthodox Religion. And Krujë, in my eyes the most charming village of them all. Read on to learn more about the highlights of each town.


The majority of the Albanian people are muslim, however Catholocism and the Orthodox Religion are present as well.


Designated the epithet of ‘The City of a Thousand Windows’, Berat is a must-see for culture lovers. Here are five unforgettable things to behold in Berat. 


Its history dates back to the 6th century BC when the Illyrians founded a settlement here. Back then known as Antipatreia, the town has endured a turbulent history including Illyrian tribes, Roman legati, Ottoman sultans, brutal Slavs, and many more. Today, Berat is a charming old town clinging lovingly to a mountain slope, overgrown with fig trees, and split in two by the Osumi River. World known for the portals carved in the stone-and-alabaster facades, hence the epithet ‘The City of a Thousand Windows’, Berat was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


The Berat Castle, with its impressive fortress structures, sits at the top of the Gorica hill and offers a bird’s-eye view over the bronze-coloured rooftops. Mangalemi Old Town stretches out along the eastern bank of the Osumi River, with the rest of the town being a diverse mix of Ottoman mosques, mystical Christian churches, and Ottoman-era houses. Meanwhile Boulevard Antipatrea, a wide pedestrian promenade chiselled between elegant facades, is coated with trendy bars and invites you to take a traditional xhiro-stroll at sunset. 


Most famous for it's 'Thousand Windows' facades.

Discover Mangalemi Old Town and Gorica’s Quarter

Split in two by the Osumi River, Berat is divided into two neighbourhoods – Mangalemi, the old Muslim quarter, and Gorica, its Christian equal. Although today you will not be able to distinguish between the two anytime soon, this was once a different story. 


Picture impressive stone-and-alabaster facades and Ottoman-era mosques, linked by twisted cobblestoned streets and you will soon understand why the Mangalemi Old Town was listed as UNESCO World Heritage site. The ancient quarter sits in the shadow of the towering Berat Castle on the Gorica Hill, yet lights up with a vivid daily hustle-and-bustle. 


Though to get the postcard picture of ‘the Thousand Windows’, you will have to cross the bridge to Mangalemi’s opposing neighbour, Gorica. Climb the steep alley up to the castle, like described below, or find yourself a nice place in one of the lower back streets to install your camera. Either way the views will be breathtaking. 


Houses line every inch of the hillside, waiting to be captured on photograph. And with the top of the slope towering high above, the picture becomes complete. Amble a bit more in the tiny streets before commencing the steep climb up towards Berat Castle.


It truly is a wonderful sight, houses lining up on the mountain slope.

Enjoy stunning vistas from Berat Castle

It will only take you a sloping pathway, 20 minutes of exhaustion, and some short breaks to reach the top of the Gorica Hill. Once at the roof of the mountain, the ramparts and fortifications of the ancient site make an appearance. Not only can you enjoy a lovely walk along these impressive walls, the various lookout platforms offer amazing views on Mangalemi’s houses clear-cut against the hillside. 


Being the biggest castle on Albanian grounds, it is definitely worth undertaking the journey. Don’t expect to find faded ruins like many other ancient, destroyed castles in the Balkans. Berat Castle holds a vast, mostly intact complex of private dwellings and charming guesthouses, authentic restaurants and traditional souvenir stalls, Byzantine churches and generations of shepherd families. It really is a district in itself. 


The site of Berat Castle is very inviting.

Visit one of two museums

The National Ethnographic Museum of Berat reveals a glimpse of the everyday life and traditions of the town’s citizens in the 18th century. The museum was built to educate the visitor a little more about how a typical house was designed and decorated during this time. Some things will be very surprising, while others will come across as recognisable. 


I should mention that these are domestic objects of the most prominent families of the time, which will also be reflected in the richly decorated furniture. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth taking a stroll through the pavilions and admire the antique artefacts. Begin on the ground floor with the replica of a traditional bazaar, and make your way up to the second floor where the resident’s lifestyle is displayed. 


Located within the castle grounds, there is the Onufri Iconography Museum, housing both a beautiful cathedral and an exhibition of numerous icons, paintings and other artefacts. Upon entering the museum, a beautifully ornamented original altar and Bishop’s Throne make an appearance. While the second part of the museum includes a collection of mostly conserved Orthodox icons and artworks. 


Make sure to check the opening hours, because it could well be that it is closed, or closes the doors at an unexpectedly early hour.


Catch a glimpse of the everyday life and traditions in the 18th century.

Take part in a traditional xhiro on Boulevard Antipatrea

The so-called xhiro is nothing special in Berat itself, but in Albania in a whole. It is the moment just before sunset when all the residents of the cities and villages leave their homes and take to the streets. Friends gather in bars to have a last coffee of the day, old gentlemen come together on the side of the road to play handcrafted boardgames, and people walk up and down the avenue chatting. 


So if you really want to be a part of one of the most famous traditions in Albania, this is the activity to participate in. It doesn’t require a lot of energy, jus ta little sauntering combined with the juiciest gossip of the day. Every city has its popular boulevard where the xhiro is most present, and in Berat this is the Boulevard Antipatrea. 


Enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.



Osumi Canyon & Bogove Waterfall – Whether you drive down to the area, or undertake a stunning 18 kilometre trek, the viewpoints along the road will leave you breathless either way. The lavish-looking cascade, silhouetted against a background of remarkable mountains and rims, invites to take a dip in the transparent swimming pools. A little bit further on the road Albania’s largest canyon offers divine panoramas and sweeping vistas. 


The charming town of Krujë is a must-see on any Albania trip. Take a look at some wonderful things to explore in Krujë. 


Despite its small size, Krujë oozes with old-town charm. The charismatic town is famed for its spiralling stone streets, narrow alleys lined with impressive Ottoman-style houses, but above all for being the spiritual capital of the nation’s hero Skanderberg. As well as ambling along in the Old Bazaar, Krujë boasts a hilltop castle that houses a very interesting museum.


After a day of taking a step back in the history of both the city and Albania as a whole, it’s time to find yourself a place in one of the many cosy bars. No restaurant will disappoint, either in culinary terms or in spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. 


Whether your visiting Krujë as a day trip from Tirana, on your way to Shkodër, or as a main destination, it won’t disenchant you. In my opinion this is one of the towns that will stay with me the most after my Balkan trip. It may be a popular day trip destination, but it is so much more than that. Warm earthy brown and orange hues, traditional clay residences, and handwoven Ottoman blankets, the town is incredibly snug and charming. 


The Old Bazaar lures everyone in.

A small piece of history with big consequences

Once inhabited by the Illyrians, in 1190 this tribe granted the region the title of ‘capital of the first Albanian State’. The fairy tale lasted for three centuries, before the city was seized by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Fierce as they are, the Albanian people didn’t leave it at that, and none other than Gjergj Skanderberg stood up for his people. 


He successfully withstood three sieges from the Ottomans, from Krujë Castle, and was seen as the saviour of the Albanian residents. In fact, until the end of his life, he continued to fight to restore the people’s voice and freedom. However, after his death the Ottoman camp undertook a fourth siege and the Turks gained control of the city in 1478.


In addition, Krujë played a central role in the 20th century, in the conflicts between the Republic of Central Albania and the Principality of Albania, and World War II. After which Albania became a free nation in the 1990s.


Once known as 'the capital of the first Albanian State', Krujë is a very charming old town.

Find out more about the nation’s hero, Gjergj Skanderberg

In the same historical line, I can only recommend that you trek to the highest point in the city, the hilltop castle. Like a crowning jewel, the castle looks out over the old town from its highest point. Construction on the walls began as early as the 5th century, and it withheld several Ottoman attempts in taking over the area. It should be on top of your list. 


Besides the ruins of ancient walls and fortifications, the castle offers another, far more important landmark, the museum of Gjergj Skanderberg. This military hero left a lot of legacies behind. After the Ottomans had captured Albania, in the early 15th century, this meant the end of a careless and free life for many inhabitants. With Skanderberg, however, came a time of renewed faith and hope for a better future. Today, Skanderberg is still the most memorialised Albanian in history. If I were to recommend two museums across Albania, Bunk'Art in Tirana and the Skanderberg Museum in Krujë make this list, if only to shed a little light on the ghastly veil of the nation's history. Don't expect the most impressive museum, with rooms full of artefacts and personal belongings, but rather a somewhat simple reconstruction of Albanian history.


If you're impressed with this ruined location, you can take it one step further and spend the night in one of the charming guesthouses. It is truly a unique experience that you will not be able to encounter in many other places.


The nation's hero, Gjergj Skanderberg, is still one of the most worshipped figures in history.

Stroll through the Old Bazaar

Like every medieval town in the Balkan Peninsula, Krujë is home to a compact but very alluring Old Bazaar. The Ottoman-style Bazaar was constructed in ancient times and has been accustomed little by little to keep up with the tourists passing by. Nonetheless, it is one of the most charming Bazaars I have visited, maybe because it is so modest. The one street that holds the Bazaar is decorated with gorgeous embroidery, handcrafted souvenirs, and beautifully decorated coffee and tea cups.


Among the stalls, where vendors sell the somewhat lesser unique souvenirs, you will find stalls where they only sell one of a kind handmade pieces. You will find a shop that exclusively sells handmade decorated wooden crafted items. In front of it there is a stall that has the most colourful, and let me say of the most beautiful, hand-woven carpets hanging on the walls outside.


What gives extra charm to the whole Bazaar is that everyone knows everyone here. If you walk down the pavement you will see sellers sitting together and sharing a coffee, you will hear them calling to each other from one shop to another, and above all you will be charmed by the warmth they all radiate. You just have to look beyond the typical sales tricks they've taught themselves to lure tourists.


Beautiful handmade carpets hanging outside on the wall.

Discover the life outside of the well-visited centre

If you have some time to spare, it's definitely worth strolling around in the alleys outside of the centre. Don’t expect to encounter any world famous monuments, nor highly rated museums. Instead you will notice residents living their everyday lives and dealing with their day-to-day affairs. 


You will pass run-down mini shops selling only a few vegetables and a pack of cigarettes. You will be stared at and approached by curious locals and, who knows, maybe even invited inside for a cup of coffee. Old gentlemen will be sitting on the side of the street playing a board game, or women spreading the town's gossip. But above all you will see the most charming people living side by side, and welcoming you in their lives. 


Located in the country’s far northwest, touching borders with Montenegro, Albania’s multi-cultural capital will always have a special place in my heart.The town may be 5 times as small as Tirana, but it boasts an incredible selection of museums, religious monuments, shops, and other cultural attractions. More than that, Shkodër has a unique feel about it. 


There are two things people travel to Shkodër for: the wonderful Lake Skadar and it being the jumping-off point for onward travel to the ‘Accursed Mountains’. Lake Skadar is a can’t-miss in the Balkans, whether you’re visiting it as part of your Albania trip or from the Montenegrin side. Thus the town of Shkodër forms the perfect base for exploring this alluring lake, or even some further surroundings such as the Albanian Alps. The mountain range is home to a plethora of untrodden hiking paths, as well as the world famous hike from Valbona to Theth


Shkodër flaunts a charming centre, filled with cute restaurants, bars and shops. My personal highlight was wandering through the streets and finding a cute little pastry shop, a picture-perfect crumbling house, or some kids playing outdoor games around every corner. I visited the town as part of my 3 week Albania road trip, and I’ve already planned my next visit. 


Perfect for a traditional xhiro-stroll in the evening.

Explore the old town of Shkodër

Like most cities in Albania, Shkodër is a township with a great deal to explore. Among other things, you can discover the Old Bazaar, where unique (and lesser unique) souvenirs can be found. Or if you’re more into learning about the town’s gruesome past, the Museum of Memory is another fascinating site worth visiting. Here you can walk around and take in the stories and memories of the crimes against humanity during the communist times of dictator Enver Hoxha. It is a very touching experience indeed. As icing on the cake, there is Rruga Kolë Idromeno where you can drink an invigorating coffee in the morning, enjoy the views on the traditional architectural styled facades, or take part in the traditional evening-xhiro.


On a more religious note, the town is a crossroad for the three main religions that dominate the Balkan Peninsula nowadays. The Catholic Church, the Orthodox house of worship and the Ebu Bekr Mosque are only a stone’s throw from each other. In fact, if you’re standing next to the Mosque you can even see the three religious monuments at the same time. This is something you won’t experience every day, a multi-cultural city where three systems of beliefs coexist in peace alongside each other.


Traditional facades on the main pedestrian street.

Lake Skadar

Shared between Albania and Montenegro, Lake Skadar is the largest lake on Balkan grounds, covering an area of over 500 square kilometres. Despite it being one of the most picturesque lakes in the Balkans, especially on the Montenegrin side, it has somehow managed to stay out of the spotlight. And this benefits the diverse biodiversity that the lake attracts. More than 280 species of birds have made their nesting grounds here, where they either reside all year round, or which they use on migration journeys.


It’s cobalt waters are an attraction point for both international and native tourists. There are several ways to explore the lake. Drive there by car (or taxi) and find yourself a secluded spot where you can spend the day relaxing with a book, a refreshing beverage, or together with some friends. Or you can also rent a bicycle in the centre of Shkodër, and explore the shore of the lake on two wheels. Along the branching rivers you will come across several smaller villages and cute waterfront bars. Either way, the water will provide you with the necessary cooling on a hot summer’s day.


You'll get to see stunning sunsets over the lake.

Take a much needed trip to the Albanian Alps

I promise you, you won’t be disappointed if you decide to undertake this trip. Whether it’s a freezing winter period, or a hot summer day, the Albanians Alps offer everything you need for a perfect getaway.


Ranging from easy day treks to the well-known but very demanding Peaks of the Balkan Trail, it is one of the most highly valued hiking destinations in the Balkan Peninsula. Pristine rivers flow from magical mountain lakes (including the Blue Eye), while rare species of fauna such as bears, wolves en lynx know their way through the mountains like the back of their hand. How endless the hiking possibilities are, so spectacular are the sweeping panoramas.


To read more extensive articles about this region of Albania, be sure to check my other posts about the Accursed Mountains.


The village of Theth makes for the perfect getaway.


Berat – From Tirana you really only have two options. Either you rent a car, offering you the freedom of departing whenever you like to, stop wherever you please, and take detours to remote sites. Another great alternative is taking the bus. Mini-buses depart roughly every hour from Tirana’s South Regional Bus Station, and the ride will take you around 2 hours, depending on the traffic. You have to buy your ticket on the bus, which will cost you 400 lek per person. When arrived at Berat Bus Terminal you will have to take another green bus directly to the city centre, seeing it is still 3 kilometres away.


Krujë – Most people visit Krujë en route to Shkodër or as a day trip from Tirana. Just like Berat, you can opt for your own transport, or by public transport. The bus to Krujë leaves from Tirana’s North Bus Station roughly every hour. It takes around 1 hour to arrive, depending on traffic, and it will cost you about 200 lek per person.


Shkodër – Located 100 kilometres from Tirana, Shkodër is easily accessible in 2 hours, via one of the two Albanian main roads. On top of that, there will be nog big time difference whether you opt for public transport or your own transportation. The bus bound for Shkodër leaves Tirana at Terminali i Autobusave të Jugut dhe Veriut, and will cost you about 400 lek per person.


However written in Albanian, this is a very useful site to guide you through the public transport in Albania.


Various affordable accommodations are to be found in all of the above mentioned towns. According to your own preference you can go a little bit more luxurious or when traveling on a budget there are some very charming campsites. Sites like,, and make your search much easier. These are few of many options:

  • BeratBerat Backpackers Hostel – Budget

  • BeratWhite City Berat - Mid-Range

  • KrujëCastle of Krujë - Mid-Range

  • KrujëHotel Panorama - Luxury

  • ShkodërWanderer’s Hostel - Budget

  • ShkodërHotel Tradita - Mid-Range

If you travel by (camper)van, check out my post about easy ways to find an idyllic camper spot.


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Hi there!

I'm Julia, a Belgian native who loves to travel and explore off the beaten places all over the world. Discover more on how to fill your travels with adventure, warmth, and colour. Learn more about me here.

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