Lively, colourful Tirana is where this tiny nation's hopes and dreams coalesce into a vibrant whirl of traffic, brash consumerism and unfettered fun. Having undergone a transformation of extraordinary proportions since awaking from its communist slumber in the early 1990s, Tirana's centre is now unrecognisable from those grey days, with buildings painted in primary colours, and public squares and pedestrianized streets that are a pleasure to wander. Trendy Blloku buzzes with the well-heeled and flush hanging out in bars and cafes, while the city's grand boulevards are lined with fascinating relics of its Ottoman, Italian and communist past – from delicate minarets to loud socialist murals.
Durrës was once – albeit briefly – Albania’s capital. It’s now virtually an extension of Tirana, joined to the capital by a ceaseless urban corridor full of hypermarkets and car dealerships. Blessed with a reasonable 10km stretch of beach, Durrës is a pleasant – if rather built up – escape from Tirana and has a charmingly Mediterranean air once you get off the seafront, which can be very crowded, noisy and a bit tacky during the summer months. The town has a long and impressive history, and for international visitors, the main reason for coming to Durrës isn't for the beaches but for the interesting Roman amphitheatre and superb archaeological museum.
Saranda is the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera, and come the summer months it seems like half of Tirana relocates here to enjoy the busy beach and busier nightlife along its crowd-filled seaside promenade. What was once a sleepy fishing village is now a thriving city, and while Saranda has lost much of its quaintness in the past two decades, it has retained much of its charisma. The town's beaches are nothing special, but Saranda is a great base for exploring the beaches of the riviera if you have your own transport.
Vlore lies in the southwestern coastal region of Albania, at the southern end of the Adriatic Sea and the northern part the Ionian Sea. The Vlore coastline accounts for about 30% of the entire coast of Albania and in its proximity is located the Albanian Riviera. It is 135km from the capital city, Tirana, separated by only 72km from Italy (Channel of Otranto) and 123km from Greece (the island of Corfu). The surface area of Vlore is 1609km2 and includes 4 cities; Vlore, Selenica, Himara and Orikum.
Delightful Ksamil, 17km south of Saranda, sits on a narrow arm of land between a sparkling lagoon famed for its mussels and a cobalt-coloured sea. The entire area surrounding the small town is a protected zone and the dusty tracks and pathways leading over olive-studded hills and along ancient water canals are a joy to explore. The coastline around Ksamil is also unusually attractive. Blessed with three small, dreamy islands (sadly, one of which is being quarried for construction material) within swimming distance of shore and dozens of pretty cove beaches, Ksamil is the kind of place where you can happily while away many sun-drenched days. Late September is idyllic.
Shkodra, the traditional centre of the Gheg cultural region, is one of the oldest cities in Europe and arguably the most attractive urban centre in Albania. The ancient Rozafa Fortress has stunning views over Lake Shkodra, while the pastel-painted buildings in the Old Town have a distinct Italian ambience. Many travellers rush through here while travelling between Tirana and Montenegro, or en route to the Lake Koman Ferry and the villages of Theth and Valbona, but it's worth spending a night or two to soak up this pleasant and welcoming place. Check out the interesting museums before moving on to the mountains, the coast or the capital.
Berat weaves its own very special magic, and is easily a highlight of visiting Albania. Its most striking feature is the collection of white Ottoman houses climbing up the hill to its castle, earning it the title of 'town of a thousand windows' and helping it join Gjirokastra on the list of Unesco World Heritage sites, in 2008. Its rugged mountain setting is particularly evocative when the clouds swirl around the tops of the minarets, or break up to show the icy peak of Mt Tomorri. Despite now being a big centre for tourism in Albania, Berat has managed to retain its easy-going charm and friendly atmosphere.
Pogradec. This ancient tectonic lake is one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. The lake is divided between Albania and North Macedonia. The Macedonian side, which centers on the dreamy town of Ohrid, was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979 and there is talk of that distinction being extended to the Albanian half. For the moment, though, tourism in and around Pogradec is minimal and on the surface this is perhaps understandable. That said, for an off-beat adventure and the opportunity to stroll quietly around the lake, without the masses of tourists who define its Macedonian side, Pogradec ticks all the right boxes.
Korça is southern Albania's intellectual centre and a town with a proud cultural heritage. It's an exceptionally pleasant and well-cared-for place by Albanian standards; recent efforts at urban renewal have made this even more so, with a showcase pedestrian avenue linking the town's main square to its rebuilt Orthodox cathedral. The main reason to come here is to visit the town's excellent Museum of Medieval Art, but even though there's little to keep you here for much longer, many visitors are charmed by this characterful, green place, with a friendly population and some gorgeous countryside nearby.
Defined by its castle, roads paved with chunky limestone and shale, imposing slate-roofed houses and views out to the Drina Valley, Gjirokastra is a magical hillside town described beautifully by Albania's most famous author, Ismail Kadare (b 1936), in Chronicle in Stone. There has been a settlement here for 2500 years, though these days it's the 600 'monumental' Ottoman-era houses in town that attract visitors. For Albanians, the town is also synonymous with former dictator Enver Hoxha, who was born here and ensured the town was relatively well preserved under his rule, though he is not memorialised in any way here today.