Albania is one of those places that gives little away to the outside world, however, the beautiful nation is now coming out of its former prime minister’s shadow. Enver Hoxha’s infamous reign still has some influence on the proud Albanian people, but nowadays, the underrated Balkan gem is becoming more known for its beautiful beaches and cultural heritage.
Two cities which offer a fair share of the country’s highlights are Tirana and Shkoder, both providing a different vibe and unique attractions.
The Albanian capital oozes class as it goes head to head with other vibrant European cities, but Tirana has unmatched hospitality throughout the city. As you wander through Skanderbeg Square, witnessing first hand the modern cosmopolitan vibe throughout the hipster coffee shops, and contemporary shopping malls, it makes you realise how far the once isolated nation has progressed.
The affluent Ish-Blloku is the most popular area in the capital to grab a coffee and relax with the locals. You will also find some trendy bars and fancy restaurants in this spot. It is also home to the first International fast food chain (KFC) which opened in Albania in April 2016.
Despite Tirana’s rapid rise of modernity, the Albanian capital still proudly displays its history in many places across the city. It can’t be denied that some tourists flock to Tirana to find answers to the nation’s dark days, and the history buffs are in luck, as the famous Bunk’ Art museums provide everything they need to gain real insight and understanding in to why the nation was so isolated, furthermore, the reasoning behind the hundreds of thousands of bunkers which were built in Hoxha’s reign.
Culture and history take top spot in Tirana for visitor intrigue, but it’s a city that also has its fair share of natural beauty, and none more so than Mount Dajti. The impressive mountain stands at approximately 1600 metres above sea level and can be reached in twenty minutes by car or bus. Riding the cable car up the mountain offers beautiful panoramic views of the Albanian capital, along with the forest terrain and small villages that surround the mountain. At the summit, you can get the perfect shots of the city and some nice fresh air.
You can head back to the city by foot, which takes around an hour, and gives you the opportunity to witness the way of life in Albania on the outskirts of the vibrant city, as you pass by the local shops, markets and traditional restaurants. You are guaranteed a bargain when sampling the local cuisine, as the prices are cheap and the portion sizes are generous. Many Albanian dishes are based around meat, which ticks all the boxes for meat lovers.
Tirana might be the modern hub of the rising nation, but Shkoder is the old darling filled with traditional Albanian charm. Surrounded by the Accursed mountains, and overlooked by an ancient castle perched on top of a hill, there is no doubt that Skhoder has a real cultural undertone to the historic town. Dating back to the 4th century, furthermore, surviving the Roman & Ottoman empires, Rozafa Castle is Shkoders very own antiquity, and the perfect place to start your exploration. As one of the best things to do in Shkoder, the castle has the most beautiful views of Shkoder from above and is a great place to catch an Albanian sunset.
You can spend your peaceful evenings having a wander through one of the many pedestrianised streets, exploring amongst the friendly locals. The stone walkway passing right through the heart of the town is flanked either side by boutique cafes and shops, offering a quirky vibe during your stroll. Sheshi Street is around one kilometre long and provides street entertainment, places to grab souvenirs, and on street terraces in the summer, so you can sit outside with a drink or local delicacy and watch the world go by.
The chilled energy circulating Shkoder, along with the baking Albanian heat during the summer time makes you want to relax through the day time, and Lake Shkoder is the perfect location to do so. Sitting on the outskirts of the town, with an area of over 300 square kilometres lies the largest lake in Albania. A popular spot for nature lovers, or visitors wanting to catch a tan on one of the beaches which are filled with beach bars and restaurants. Renting a bike and cycling to the lake is a great way of getting your daily exercise in, while exploring some rural areas of Shkoder. Keep an eye out for the bunkers which have been left abandoned alongside the shore of the lake!
Albania is a secular state nowadays, which comes as no surprise as you wander down the streets and see both churches and mosques in equal measure. One of the most famous religious sites in Shkoder is the Ebu Bekr Mosque, which is nearly thirty years old now following its construction in 1995, that replaced the previously destroyed Fushe Cela Mosque. Visiting the mosque is worthwhile, but you need to plan ahead as it is an active place of worship. The main features of the mosque is its ornate interior and its tall minarets.
Albania is an off-the-beaten-path destination in Europe, therefore, still remains a well kept secret for tourists wanting a unique travel experience in the Balkans. From culture and history, to natural beauty and local charm, Tirana and Shkoder have everything you need to plan your perfect seven day Albanian itinerary.