Albanian adventure

Europe’s last hidden corner has stayed firmly off the tourist trail – until now. Here's why this little-known gem should be on your radar.


Clock Tower of the castle on the top hill in Gjirokaster, Southern Albania. Gjirocaster is Historical UNESCO protected town.

It may be next door to Greece, Croatia and Montenegro but Albania has long been overlooked by tourists, who instead head in their droves to the country’s better-known neighbours. Just 22 miles by boat from Corfu — which by contrast sees around half a million British tourists visit each year — the south-eastern Balkan country has struggled with an image problem that it’s found hard to shake off.

Under the rule of a communist dictatorship for decades, its lingering Eastern Bloc connotations have simply not appealed to carefree holidaymakers wanting to soak up the sun.

But since the end of the communist regime in the 90s, the country has been slowly opening up to tourism, with its untouched coastline, natural beauty and rich history tempting more intrepid travellers.

Post pandemic, the word is finally out: this untapped and stunning travel destination, easy to reach from the UK, is perfect for those who are itching to explore somewhere new again.

Leading travel companies are reporting that bookings are on the rise, while a number of new flight routes by EasyJet and Wizz Air to the capital Tirana mean that the destination is becoming more accessible.

Emma Heywood, director of UK adventure travel company, Undiscovered Balkans, agrees: “Since travel restrictions have ended, we’ve noticed a rise in customers asking us about Albania, compared to previous years. It’s quite possibly because it’s more talked about these days as a destination on the rise — and, of course, our clients are adventurous.

“It’s the next logical step after visiting Adriatic countries like Croatia and Montenegro, but the appeal is that it’s more under-explored.”

Describing it as a slice of “long-forgotten Europe”, Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers, also reports that enquiries for Albania are up — 30% compared to this time last year — and suggests that part of its growing appeal is being great value for money.

“Pre-Covid, tourism to Albania was just taking off, as people began to discover this beautiful country,” he says. “Now the country has begun to truly establish itself as an adventure travel destination.

“What’s more, a little-known and well-guarded fact is that Albania has amazing cuisine. It’s a great foodie destination, with many dishes influenced by the best of Greek, Italian and Turkish cultures, not to mention an increasingly impressive selection of home-grown wines on offer.”

And with a rise of more than 220% in both enquiries and bookings for Albanian holidays, compared to 10 years ago, Responsible Travel predicts that Albania won’t stay under the radar much longer. “Albania is still a bit of an enigma for most travellers, but that’s certainly starting to change,” says Tim Williamson, the company’s customer director.

“It really has everything you want for a great holiday — astonishing scenery, rich culture and great food. It’s a jewel of a country, with a fraction of the tourists that nearby Greece and Italy has, but well deserving of the greater interest it’s beginning to command.”

Here’s our pick of the most inspiring holidays that Albania has to offer.

Best for adventure seekers

For those after an action-packed experience, the Super-Active Albania trip from Undiscovered Balkans is an immersive, adrenalin-fuelled romp around the country.

There’s hiking in Albania’s Alps — during which you get to visit the country’s two spectacular national parks, Thethi and Valbona — and kayaking in the vertical cliff-fringed Lake Koman, renowned for its remarkable sapphire waters.

During the seven-day break, holidaymakers can also explore the Unesco Heritage Site of Berat, an extraordinary hillside village on the steps of the Tomorr mountains, and go rafting in the wild Osumi canyon.

From £1,045 per person, excluding flights.

Best for culture vultures

Focusing on the central and southern regions of the country, Original Travel’s 10-day Coast, Countryside & Culture itinerary takes in the capital of Tirana, the historic coastal city of Durres, founded in 627 BC, and the Ottoman city of Berat.

Along the way you’ll be able to wander around a string of monasteries, medieval fortresses and ancient sites.

From £2,410, including flights.

Best for young adults

Battle zones, beaches and bars are some of the sights you can soak up on Intrepid Travel’s Essential Southern Balkans trip. Aimed at 18-29-year-olds, the nine-day tour also includes side trips to Corfu and Dubrovnik.

In Albania, you can visit Tirana’s wacky art museum, found in an underground bunker, and the seaside hotspot that is Dhermi Beach on the Albanian Riviera.

From £920, excluding flights.

Best for families

Recently opened on Lalzi Bay beach, a pretty spot on Albania’s Adriatic coastline just 40 miles from Tirana, is the new Movenpick Hotel Lalez Durrës.

Perfect for a family bonding holiday, there are indoor and outdoor pools to dip into, a luxury spa for pampering treatments, and plenty of fun activities on tap. Highlights include horse-riding and nature trails through the surrounding pine forest.

From £65 per person per night.

Best for nature lovers

Following remote mountain trails through the Albanian Alps, in the north of the country, Wild Frontiers' trip, The Accursed Mountains, lets you experience one of Europe’s last great, untouched adventures.

From the breath-taking expanse of Lake Koman, deep in the heart of the Valbona Valley — known as the ‘Miracle of the Alps’ — to trekking over the imposing Bori and Valbona passes, the seven-day walking trip leads you through the best of Albania’s epic countryside.

From £975 per person, excluding flights.

Albania's Jewish Pride

Ever since I gazed across the sea at Albania from Corfu in the 1980s, I have wanted to visit the country. And 30 years after the end of its brutal communist regime, with the country opening up more and more to tourists, I finally managed to fulfil that wish on an eight-day tour.

As well as a long history dating back to the 6th century BCE, there’s also some fascinating Jewish heritage to discover as you explore, along with the remarkable archaeological sites of Butrint, Bylis and Apollonia.

Between the mountains, rivers, forests and beautiful beaches of the Riviera, there are Roman temples to discover, built at a time when the first Jews arrived in the country, as well as the fortresses, citadels and mosques of the Ottomans, who ruled Albania for 400 years. By this point, there were Jewish communities in most major cities, with many settling here after being expelled from Spain.

During the Italian and German occupations of the Second World War, Albania refused to comply with the demand to provide lists of names of all Jewish citizens. Instead, they were protected, with Albania also providing a safe haven for the many Jewish refugees who fled here.

By the end of the war, the Jewish community had increased from several hundred to over 2,000 people.

The story is told in detail at the Solomon Museum in Berat, opened by Simon Vrusho, a local professor and Orthodox Christian, in 2018. Created to house his collection of hundreds of documents, photographs and artefacts retracing two millennia of Jewish history in Albania, it also recounts how Muslim and Christian Albanians sheltered hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust.

Funded at first by small donations left at the door and Simon Vrusho’s own pension, French-Albanian businessman Gazmend Toska decided to continue financing the museum after his death, moved it to a larger site in 2019.

Arriving in Berat after the museum had closed, following a phone call to the museum and some help from our hotel manager, who knew the museum’s curator Angelina, widow of Simon Vrusho, we were given an after-hours look.

While she did not speak English herself, with the help of English descriptions next to the photographs, she managed to convey the story behind the photographs, documents and artefacts which tell the stories of more than 60 Muslim and Christian families who hid Jewish people in their homes and basements during the war.

It is a remarkable museum and a moving testament to the remarkable acts of bravery of the Albanian people, with 75 citizens recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

To find some of the earliest evident of Albania’s Jewish heritage, head to Saranda. This coastal city is still home to the remnants of a synagogue dating from the 5th or 6th century CE, originally discovered when Albania was under Communist rule, and partially excavated 20 years ago.

A joint excavation between Israel and Albania has uncovered two mosaic pavements, one featuring a seven-branched menorah flanked by an etrog and a shofar and another showing animals, trees and the facade of a structure resembling a temple — although all are hidden away from public view under a protective tarpaulin.

Today, only a small number of Jews remain, mostly in the capital Tirana, with the majority being airlifted to Israel after the fall of Communism in 1991. But with its examples of tolerance, long Jewish heritage and its own fascinating history, it’s time to discover Albania for yourself.

The eight-night Jules Verne Classical Tour of Albania costs from £925 including flights.

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