You may know little about Albania because of its 20th-century isolation and communist dictatorship that invaded the country with thousands of bunkers and rigid obscurity. However, after the fall of the communist regime, this Balkan country began the revival of its outstanding world heritage and cultural traditions. That is why several of its prominent places have become an object of the thorough attention of international organizations and were assigned the status of UNESCO World Heritage in Europe. These destinations are absolutely worth visiting and Albania as a country is safe for travel.
These days, there are four UNESCO World Heritage sites in Albania, and several others are on the tentative list. The two UNESCO sites are located entirely on its territory, while the two others are shared with the bordering counties. So, we want to introduce these fascinating places to you.
Butrint National Park
Butrint is the first Albanian spot that was assigned UNESCO World Heritage status in 1992. It is a 2,500-year-old city located on 11 square hectares south of Ksamil sea resort (Albanian Maldives). It is the most interesting historical and cultural site in the country located just a few kilometers from the Greek-Albanian border.
You definitely need to visit this breathtaking archaeological area to see the magnificent ruins of the ancient world on the top of the forest-covered peninsula. The old city is located on the channel between Lake Butrint and the Ionian Sea.
See stunning views from these picturesque hills and also arrange a picnic on one of the specially equipped spots with wooden tables and benches.
The archaeological site is open every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., while the museum works only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. before the sun sets and the entry ticket costs about 10 USD. Though, the park itself is absolutely free to move around.
The initial name of Butrint was Buthrotum, and the ancient Greek myth assigns its foundation to Andromache and her cousin Helinus, the son of King Priam. They did it while escaping from the ruined and burning Troy.
Historians can only approve of the information about the city’s foundation by the first evidence that dates back to 10,000 BC. Greeks came and settled there later, in the 8th century BC and turned it into a fortified site with an acropolis. The Romans captured the city and turned it into a colony in 44 BC. They built the aqueducts over the Vovari Channel and expanded the city by drying out the surrounding marshland.
Butrint became a religious center of the Byzantine Empire and then was taken over by the Franks, Venetians, and Ottoman Empire in a row. Nowadays, it is one of the most visited and appreciated UNESCO World Heritage sites in Albania.
You will need some time if you want to see the whole archaeological site because it is huge. However, at least two hours will be enough to see the most important monuments and landmarks, such as the ancient theater that dates back to the 3rd century BC, the Roman forum from the time of Emperor Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), the baptistery, a Roman building that was remodeled for Christian purposes, the basilica with its impressive mosaic on the floor, and of course, a museum housed in the 14th-century Venetian Castle. You will see the statues of Roman gods and emperors, ancient inscriptions, and manuscripts.
If you want to check out some smaller sites, such as Roman villas, Venetian towers, palaces, or Greek gates, add several more hours to your tour. If you can spend more time here, the rope ferry and Ali Pasha’s castle are some more wonderful attractions.
The rope ferry is a true adventure. It is a wooden platform that carries people and cars to the other bank of the Vivari Channel. You will see a little Venetian castle and the Vrina Plain with traces of Roman buildings.
Or you may want to go to the west from the main archaeological site and visit a small island located at the mouth of the channel. A magnificent castle of the 18th century that belonged to Ali Pasha is there. You can also reach the place by boat from June to September. The boat rides are available from the parking lot.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to Butrint National Park is to fly to the Greek island of Corfu and take a fast ferry to Albania which will take you to the city of Sarande in 30 minutes. Buses go from there to Butrint every hour, and your road trip will take you about 30 minutes.
But the best option is to arrive at Saranda sea resort, enjoy Saranda or Ksamil beaches and visit Butrint on a certain day. You can do it even in February as Saranda and Ksamil are becoming European winter sun destination. Check the full list of best Ksamil hotels and Saranda accommodations with 9.5+ rating.
Historic Centers of Berat and Gjirocastra
Berat, located in the central part of the country, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Albania in 2005, while Girocastra, found in the southern part of the country, became enlisted three years later. Both ancient cities are famous for their remarkable samples of Ottoman-style houses that have been perfectly preserved.
Most structures in the centers of both towns represent the tower house or Kulla. Such constructions were erected for defensive purposes. The lower floors are made of stone combined with wooden elements, while the upper layers use a wooden frame.
The roofs are made of stone in Gjirokastra, while in Berat they feature roof tiles. Berat is often called the city of a thousand windows because the design of the houses is very specific and you can see the windows everywhere around you. You will see traces of Greek, Roman, Illyrian, Byzantine, and Ottoman cultures and architectural styles here. There are many old churches, mosques, strongholds, and palaces in the town. You will need about a couple of days to explore everything you would like to see.
Gjirocastra’s geographic location is pretty prominent - it is situated in the valley of the Drinos River. The most outstanding place in the town is the 13th-century citadel and the houses that surround it date back to the 17th century.
When in Berat, go to see Kala, an ancient citadel that can be found on the hill and the walls and towers of which were built in the 13th century. You may get there walking along a cobblestone path which is rather steep but not too long. It is interesting that this ancient structure still houses local homes and businesses. You will also spot numerous bars and have good refreshments there or you may take a guided tour and learn more about this place.
The Onufri Museum of Icons housed in the 18th-century St. Marry’s Church is also worth visiting. Onufri was a prominent iconographic painter of the 16th century. His masterpieces painted with the help of a unique technique are a part of Albanian cultural heritage.
When you go down the hill in Berat you will see the two ancient neighborhoods located on both banks of the Osumi River. They are Mangalam (the Muslim area) and Gorica (where Christians lived). Walk along their narrow streets and enjoy ancient architecture for several hours. This way of spending time will bring you a lot of unforgettable experiences.
The earliest remnants of civilization from 200 BC can be seen in Dimal antic city, while the National Ethnographic Museum in Berat will tell you about the household habits of the local people of the past.
Visiting Gjirocastra is a must-do for those who tour Albania. The old center of the town is very beautiful. Numerous Ottoman-era houses and architectural structures have become cozy artisan shops, hotels, and restaurants nowadays. Most of them date back to the 17th-18th centuries and are located around the ancient bazaar. Walking along its rows is a true pleasure for any tourist because it’s the best way to get immersed in the local atmosphere.
You may also hike to the Ali Pasha’s Bridge which is, in fact, an ancient aqueduct taken over by Albania’s Ottoman ruler, Ali Pasha, in the early 19th century. Visit the Ethnographic Museum located in Palorto Quarter at the place where Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator, was born. Or go to Manalat Quarter at the sunset to get the most beautiful views of this ancient place ever. Walking around, you will spot interesting garden fences made of metal sheets from the local cutlery factory. In addition, enjoy local cuisine in Taverna Tradicional and other fascinating restaurants in these old quarters.
How to Get There
Let’s find out how to get to the historic centers of Berat and Gjirocastra. You can get to Gjirocastra by bus from Saranda. The trip will take you about an hour. Or you can even take a taxi. Berat is another bus station that can take you to Gjirocastra three times per day. You may also take a bus from Tirana, and the trip will last 4-4.5 hours.
The distance between Berat and Tirana is 100 km and it is 2 hours drive. Hire a car in Albania or take a bus from the capital.
Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe - Kukes, and Elbasan
Nature is stunning here and such natural areas are strictly protected in 12 countries of Europe, and Albania is among them. There are two areas of this kind here - the Gashi River in Kukes county which became a reserve in 1996, and Rrajse in Elbasan county. A large part of the area there is covered with these magnificent virgin beech forests, and no densely inhabited places are located on this territory of Lumi I Gashit within Valbona Valley National park.
You will see how well the beech and conifers coexist on one territory. Apart from the beeches, you will see Macedonian and Bosnian pines, silver firs, and Norway spruces.
The fauna is also rich there. It is the habitat of wolves, brown bears, wild boars, deer and mountain quails. In total, about 64 species can be found in the woodland area.
The city of Kukes is located next to Albania’s border with Kosovo and it is an ancient place where Illyrian tribes used to live. It has a reputation as one of the most hospitable tourist destinations which always offers chestnut honey and alpine trout to its guests.
Another area with beech forests is Rrajce in Elbasan located in Bistrica valley in the northeastern part of Elbasan county. The primary forest remnants survived here on steep slopes and it is also the main habitat of the endangered Balkan Lynx.
If you are a nature lover, you should visit these two remote destinations with their specific climate, historical flair, and culture. These unique old-growth beech forests have not been significantly influenced by humans. The difficult access to these areas and lack of infrastructure account for the primeval forest survival in the look and shape that were observable during the end of the last Ice Age. At that time, European beech trees spread out in the Alps, Carpathians, Pyrenees, and Mediterranean regions. Why are these trees so valuable and strictly protected? They are great, and you will have a chance to see their primeval magnificence on your own in this one of the most outstanding UNESCO World Heritage sites in Albania.
How to Get There
The city of Kukes has its own international airport, so you can get there from such European cities as Zurich, Basel, Vienna, and Memmingen. You may also use the regular bus service from Tirana, Peshkopi, and Prizren, or be ready for renting a car in Albania for 12 - 15 Euro in low season and travel easily across Valbona Valley National Park.
There are many different ways to reach Elbasan, too. You can either take a regular bus or a shuttle bus from the Airport of Tirana which is the cheapest way of traveling. If you want to get there quickly and comfortably, you may take a taxi. Hiring a car is also a great way to travel, especially if you want to see all the natural beauty of this region.
See accommodations in Elbasan here.
Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region in Korce
Here is another great tourist destination and the Albania UNESCO World Heritage location - Ohrid Region in Korce, which simultaneously is one of the Europe winter destination due to Korce Christmas Market and ski resort in Dardhe. The Albanian part of the Ohrid Region was included in the World Heritage list in 2019.
Ohrid Lake is one of the oldest and deepest lakes in the world, it is about 4-10 million years old and is located on the border between Albania and Northern Macedonia. The area is home to rare plants, endangered fauna species, water birds, prehistoric ruins, ancient Byzantine cathedrals, and many other unique sites. The breathtaking mountain views and crystal-clear water make the area a mecca for nature lovers.
The first recorded settlement here dates back to the Bronze Age, and later the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans conquered it and settled there. Don’t miss your chance to admire the natural beauty and historical atmosphere of the area. The best time to visit it is June and September.
Get to know more about the natural and cultural heritage of the Ohrid region in Korce starting from the city of Pogradec located on the lake shore. You will take the first sight of Lake Ohrid just after passing the final hill before entering Korce county. Korce is a city with 76 000 inhabitants and is surrounded by the Morava Mountains. You can enjoy perfect views of the countryside from its modern-looking Red Tower, visit the National Education Museum and Korce bazaar.
Pogradec is the center of this site, that's why the tours start here. Take a full-day private tour to the Ohrid Lake, go to Voskopoje village with reach ups and downs in its history or the cosy village of Lin. You can also admire nature on a day trip to Driloni National Park, go across Golek Bridge, visit Pogradec castle, go hiking to Guri I Kamjes, or tour the Lake of Ohrid in a boat. All your trips and tours here will be remembered for many years.
How to Get There
You can get to Pogradec from Tirana. It is 124 kilometers away from it. The ride with all the stops takes 3 hours by bus. Or you may take a taxi which will be more expensive. If you're renting a car in Albania, you will be able to visit all the beautiful places of the Ohrid region and get to authentic restaurants with Albania cuisine.
All in all, Albania is an enchanting country that has just opened its doors to the world’s tourism. It has a long history, rich culture, stunning natural areas, and hospitable people. Visit fascinating Albania UNESCO World Heritage locations, and you will never forget those travel emotions that will make you come back to this beautiful country over and over again.