This relatively unknown gem in Eastern Europe has recently begun making waves on the tourist trail, with visitors being rewarded with untouched beaches, stunning lakes, ancient ruins, and quaint mountain towns.
It is very hard to summarize a brief history of the incredible country that is Albania. One could start by describing it as a majestic land with a beautiful topography, an ancient civilization with a most tumultuous history, having seen more than its fair share of wars and occupations, as well as the rise and fall of multiple empires, to finally now reach a period of rest and peace.
Tourism is a fast growing industry in Albania, yet is often overlooked by tourists who head for its more famous nearby neighbors, such as Italy, Greece and Turkey.
It is to their loss, though, for those who travel to Albania enjoy authentic local experiences with few 'tourist traps' in sight, as the people remain down to earth and humble, so far unchanged by the pressures of mass tourism. This also makes it an affordable country to explore, whether it is guest houses, hotels, tour guides, or cold beer.
If you're not convinced that Albania should be on your Bucket List in the near future, here are 20 breathtaking photos that will make you want to check it out.
20 Gjipe Beach - They call it 'Heaven on earth'
Hidden away between the high cliffs of a canyon, and only accessible by foot on a dusty footpath, this remote beach is difficult to reach, but worth the journey if you really want to feel like you've got a little piece of paradise all to yourself.
Described by travelers as a 'heaven on earth', this is considered one of the best beaches in Albania, perhaps because getting there is a bit of an adventure of its own.
You have to hike roughly half an hour from the car park down a steep cliff to access the beach, and the only way back out is, you guessed it, by foot back up the cliffs.
Gjipe Beach is located in the Albanian Riviera, on the country's southern coastline. According to TripAdvisor, you can also rent tents to camp on the beach, which would surely be an unforgettable night under the stars. The Gjipe Eco Campground can be booked in advance, and talk about enjoying a million dollar view when you wake up, open your eyes and see a perfect turquoise beach at your feet.
19 Thethi Village, Albanian Alps - Thank you mother nature!
Albania is truly blessed when it comes to Mother Nature, as it has not only incredible beaches, but also towering snow capped mountains. Thethi National Park in the Albanian Alps is a must-see, with tour groups arranging hiking trips that can range from three to eight days or more, often camping out in the great outdoors.
Thethi is a small and isolated town in the mountains, where time seems to have stood still. It has become a popular area to stay, with many guesthouses and guides available to take you trekking.
One of the interesting historical spots is the 'Lock-In Tower', which has been standing since the 6th century. This stone tower was used to help settle feuds between families, whereby the person involved in the feud would be locked up to prevent bloodshed.
18 Berat Town - A living museum like no other
This small town in south-central Albania has charmed tourists with its laid back atmosphere and historical architecture. Dubbed the 'Town of 1000 Windows', it is known for its distinctive collection of white Ottoman houses that climb the hills overlooking the Osum River.
There are many things to do in Berat, which has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to AlbanianTourist, the town is so well preserved it is considered a living museum.
Its most famous site is the citadel - Berat Castle, which has been standing for some 2,500 years. Inside the citadel is a Red Mosque, an Orthodox Church, a museum, a courtyard, and a maze of residences, which are still inhabited! This makes it a very interesting place to visit because it is not just a physical building or a ruin, but an actual living community, within the castle walls.
17 Osumi Canyon - natural beauty that carries you away
Adventurous tourists who are fit enough to take on the challenge of rafting in Albania will be blown away by the natural beauty of the mighty Osumi Canyon.
Located deep inland, Osumi is the country's largest canyon, with walls 150 meters high. According to Outdoor Albania, it is about 13 kilometers long, and can be done as a day trip, but only between March and May, when the snow has melted and the water is deep enough, so time your trip carefully.
The scenery in the canyon is incredible, with towering limestone cliffs which have been carved away by millions of years of rain and flowing water.
A number of beautiful waterfalls, inlets and caves are also revealed as visitors travel the length of the canyon, making it an unforgettable natural wonder.
16 Benja Thermal Baths - heal those wounds, admire those views
After a long day of hiking, there's nothing like soaking in a hot spring. But at Benja, you also have a pool with a view - an iconic stone bridge built in the Ottoman era that crosses the river is the perfect backdrop for spectacular photography.
According to Atlas Obscura, the sulphur springs which appear along the riverbed are said to have medicinal qualities, so don't be surprised to find the locals soaking there to cure their ailments.
Walking across the narrow stone bridge also gives you fantastic views of the deep valley, with huge mountain ranges and snow capped mountains in the background.
The springs are found about a 20-minute drive south of the small town of Përmet, where there are a few hotels, such as the Funky Guest House and Bar. If you want to add the Benja Hot Springs to your itinerary, use Përmet as a stop over for the night and explore the river. Another scenic spot is the Kosine Monastery, tucked away in the hills, with a beautiful view of the river.
15 Gjirokastra Old Town and Castle - Add The City Of Stone to your bucket list
The historic town and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gjirokastra was once an Ottoman trading post, perched on the hills in southern Albania. The cobble-stoned winding roads and footpaths of the town have earned it the nickname ‘the city of a thousand steps’ or the 'city of stone'. The architecture is distinctive, with hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses with stone roofs, wooden balconies and whitewashed stone walls.
One of the top sights of the town is the Gjirokastra Castle. Built in the 12th century, the castle sits on a rocky bluff with the city laid out below it, with spectacular views of the Drino valley.
There is a tomb, a prison, a number of cannons and guns, and, strangely enough, a real United States Air Force T33 Shooting Star airplane, which was forced to land in the Albanian capital Tirana in 1957 due to mechanical problems.
There are a number of hotels in the 'old town' section, as well as cafes, bars and restaurants, and a quaint local bazaar for shopping and sightseeing, which makes Gjirokastra worth seeing for at least an overnight trip.
14 The Blue Eye - Freezing water doesn't stop the brave
If visiting Gjirokastra, then the remarkable natural wonder known as the Blue Eye is not far away, and sometimes these two sites are combined as a day trip.
The Blue Eye is a fresh water spring that boasts the most intense shades of blue, with almost translucent turquoise in the more shallow parts, and the darkest emerald hues at the deepest part of the spring.
The darkest part of the pool is believed to be more than 50 meters deep, so while it may be tempting, it is not possible to dive to the bottom.
According to EternalArrival.com, "The Blue Eye is constantly gushing out freezing cold water, and the bravest amongst us (read: not me) flout the no swimming and no diving signs and take the plunge. You can see the force of the current, as it sends jumpers quickly downstream."
13 Pellumbas Cave - Watch out for cave bears
The Grand Cave of Pellumbas, located about 45 minutes from capital city Tirana, is an enjoyable day trip to see an archeological spot.
Skeletons of extinct cave bears which lived some 400,000 years ago have been found inside, as well as signs of human settlement. The cave is about 360 m long, and filled with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.
Because the cave is located in a quiet village, this trip is often combined with hiking, exploring the village, having a local lunch, and swimming in the nearby river when the weather is warm.
According to Outdoor Albania, which runs day trips to the cave, getting there requires a 2km walk from the village, and the view from the trail is spectacular, with the mountainside dropping down into the canyon of Erzen River. In addition, torches are needed before entering this dark cave.
12 Llogora Pass - Make sure your camera is charged... Incredible photos await
Considered one of the most breathtaking drives in Albania, Llogora Pass is a mountain road which sits at an elevation of 1,027 m, and its insane winding roads overlooking the Albanian Riviera make the drive an adventure of its own.
Travellers often take this pass when driving from the capital city of Tirana down to Saranda, a gorgeous coastal town famous for its beaches.
The road is at times dangerous, with some land slides and earthquake damage, not to mention the odd herd of goats in the middle of the road.
Visitors gloat about it: "the drive... should have only taken 5 hours but it took us 9 as we couldn’t resist stopping to take photos. If you only do one thing in Albania, take this road trip through the pass down to the coast." (ReaviewMirror.tv)
After surviving this intense but scenic drive, relax and enjoy the beaches in Saranda, and walk the oceanfront promenade enjoying the sunset.
11 Mali me Grope - Hole-y moley that's a sight!
Translated as 'the Mountain with Holes', Mali me Grope is a secluded mountain range about an hour from the capital, Tirana, with rugged terrain that attracts adventurous hikers and, in the winter, snowshoers.
According to TripAdvisor, the mysterious holes in the mountain, which can be as big as several meters in diameter, are formed by the karst process, whereby limestone rocks slowly erode into a funnel shape.
The mountain range is dotted with these strange holes, making for interesting photo opportunities.
Due to its proximity to Tirana, this is an easy day trip from the city, giving visitors beautiful mountain views of the rugged terrain.
10 Komani Lake - stunning, unmatched cliffside views
With deep gorges, vertical cliffs, and perfect blue water, the Komani Lake offers one of the most beautiful boat tours in Albania.
The ferries which ply the lake are mostly for transporting people to more remote villages, as the ride typically takes about 2 hours to travel from Roman to Fierza.
Recently some ferry companies have started offering sightseeing trips to allow you to admire the incredible scenery, and kayaking through the cliffs is also becoming popular.
There are some guesthouses along Komani Lake where you can stay and explore the small towns, hike around, and take in the magical views.
9 Ksamil Beach - for the lively local atmosphere
Some travelers like to go to really remote places - which there are plenty of in Albania - but some like to be in the middle of the action, with beach bars, cafes, and waiters serving cocktails with tiny umbrellas.
If you don't mind the crowds and like a lively local atmosphere, then head to Ksamil, one of Albania's most famous and busy beaches. Especially in the summer, locals and tourists alike flock to this spectacular strip of sand, covering it with beach mats and the ubiquitous umbrellas. With fantastic swimming and turquoise waters, it's easy to see why it can get so crowded.
There are lots of seafront hotels in Ksamil, which makes for some amazing views from your balcony, and for some night time fun, head to Poda Beach Club to enjoy some music, drinks, and dancing under the stars.
8 Winter sports - Have the amazing slopes all to yourself
The Albanian Riviera is full of incredible beaches, said to be the best in all of Europe, but winter time offers its own attractions and scenic beauty.
While Albania may not be famous as a winter sport destination yet, this is to your advantage, as you can enjoy having the slopes all to yourself, without the long lines that you have to put up with in places like Switzerland and France.
Those who make the trip in winter will find snow-capped mountain ranges, with perfect conditions for skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, and strangely enough, few tourists to compete with.
According to Tourism Albania, the city of Korca is a top spot for ski resorts, though the region near Voskopoja offers the best slopes. Outdoor operators also conduct multi-day trips through the mountains, staying in remote villages, offering a true winter adventure.
7 Krujë Town and Castle - Fit for a king
This small town nestled in rugged mountains is rich in history, and while many visit as a day trip it is worth spending a night to explore its local attractions.
The town itself is very quaint, with cobble stoned streets, churches, and a 17th century bazaar selling local souvenirs and handicrafts, including traditional Albanian weaving.
This town's claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of an Albanian national hero, who led his troops to fight back against the Ottomans for 25 years. You can visit the hero's statue in the town.
The castle is located at 2,230 feet above sea level, and overlooks Kruje below. Inside the castle walls are a watchtower, a shrine, two museums, a 15th century church, and a mosque. From the watchtower, you get panoramic views of the mountains and valley below.
6 Valbona - Incredible views and... Wolves?
The Valbona Valley National Park is a stunning area in northern Albania, a large preserved ecosystem with with mountainous terrain, alpine landscapes, glacial springs, striking rock formations, waterfalls and dense forests.
Because of its remoteness, Valbona Valley remains pristine and untouched, making it a dream for people who truly love the great outdoors.
Within the valley of the national park is the Valbone River, which gets water from several springs, and there are also two glaciers. This area is also home to wildlife, including Albania's endangered brown bears, grey wolves, lynxes, deers, and wild goats.
There is little tourist infrastructure, though some areas have cabins that tourists can rent. But most tour companies arrange spectacular hiking trips, setting up camp at the end of each day.
5 War-time bunkers - Ever wanted to sleep in a communist-era bunker?
They dot the landscape - hundreds of thousands of small, concrete domes, found from the mountain tops to the beaches and everywhere in between. Albania was under communist rule from 1944 to 1985, and the leader, Enver Hoxha, ordered the bunkers to be built in preparation for invasion.
Now they sit, mostly unused, except for a few, which have become a bit of a tourist attraction.
According to the Daily Mail, some creative Albanians have been converting the bunkers into simple sleeping pods, beach bars, and restaurants. Many have been covered with graffiti, or painted and beautified.
Not many tourists can claim to have slept in a Communist-era bunker, so if you like to have some bragging rights, try out these unique little mushroom-shaped structures.
4 Seaside Hotels - Wake up to that crystal clear blue
If sleeping in a war-time bunker is not your idea of fun, have no fear, there are plenty of amazing hotels to stay in Albania, and at a fraction of the price of what you could pay in other European nations.
While there are so many to choose from, one particularly popular one is Liro Hotel in Vlora, pictured above. Nestled amongst the cliffs, this small hotel has amazing ocean views, a small beach below, and a pool built out into the ocean.
But this is just one example of amazing seafront hotels along the Albanian Riviera, and with so much coastline, you are spoilt for choice.
Saranda and Dhermi are both very popular coastal towns that attract tourists with its bays and beaches. Book well in advance because ocean view rooms fill up fast!
3 Butrint - Imagine the ancient livelihood of this place
For history buffs, Butrint is a must-see when in Albania. Visited as an easy day trip from the coastal town of Saranda, this archaeological national park and UNESCO World Heritage site has a long history of almost 2,500 years.
According to Wikipedia, though this area was settled more than 2,500 years ago, the ruins that stand today date back to the 7th century when the Greeks arrived, and was then influenced by the Romans and the Byzantines as the centuries passed.
This historical site is unique in that each group that came brought with them their distinctive architecture to form a stunning acropolis.
There is a Greek theatre, colorful stone mosaics, a basilica, and stone churches, to name a few. One could spend hours exploring what was once a vibrant and important city.
2 Lake Shkodra - The picture says it all
Laying on the border of Albania and Montenegro, this is the largest lake in Southern Europe. Its waters flow to the Adriatic Sea, and it can be explored by foot or by boat.
Exploring by foot and hiking the lush mountain paths allows you to see the lake from above, and enjoy the stunning scenery, particularly the iconic horseshoe curve.
Shkodra Lake is less than two hours from the capital, Tirana, so it is possible to visit it as a day trip and enjoy a scenic boat tour, but it is recommended to stay for at least one night.
There are guesthouses that dot the lakeside, as well as camping, glamping, and wooden cabins. At certain parts of the lake you can swim in the cool river water and enjoy paddle sports, when you're not too busy laying in a hammock. The lake is located within a nature reserve, so it is also a popular spot for bird watching.
1 Diving Albania - So much to sea (get it?)
It should come as no surprise that a country with a rich history and miles and miles of coastline on the Adriatic Sea should have some awesome wreck diving.
According to Smithsonian Mag, although Albania does not yet have a scuba diving industry that caters to tourists, the country is keen on bringing in divers to see its incredible underwater world.
Surveys have found dozens of shipwrecks, including six boats that are at least 2,000 years old, and relics from World War II, making it a prime spot for marine archaeology.
Wreck diving often requires an advanced PADI license, so even if you are a beginner to diving, there are still beautiful reefs to explore that are appropriate for lower levels.