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From north to south of this small but naturally rich country, you will encounter historic cities, natural wonders, and artforms that echo from antiquity.
For a decidedly small country, Albania boasts an impressive six UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one ancient artform of profound significance: Iso-polyphony, considered a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Below, find the full list of UNESCO-protected natural and cultural monuments and the reasons why these particular seven are worth visiting.
This microcosm of Mediterranean history was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992 and tops every international list of must-sees in Albania. Butrint’s glorious 2500-year-old ruins, within a majestic 30 km-wide natural reserve, are some of the most well-preserved in Europe. These monuments include the Greek Theater (3rd century B.C.), Temple of Asclepius (1st century), ancient god of health, a floor mosaic composed of 69 church medallions, and many more. They reflect each distinct stage of Butrint’s rich history, starting from the Hellenistic period and continuing on to the Roman, Byzantine and Venetian periods. Truly epic, Buthrotum, as it was once called, is even mentioned in Virgil’s ancient poem, Aeneid.
One of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, the well-preserved and singular “City of Stone” is built on steep slopes covered in stone-roofed houses. Alongside Albania’s most beautiful traditional houses and the city’s famous limestone and shale paved roads, Gjirokastra houses its gorgeous castle, one of the oldest in the Balkans, and famous bazaar, filled with crafty artisans, among other attractions. The city is famous for its gastronomy and the awe-inspiring panoramas of the surrounding mountainous. In its outskirts, you’ll find the ancient cities of Antigonea and Hadrianopolis as well as some of Albania’s natural splendors, starting with the spectacular Blue Eye, continuing on to Viroi Lake, Lengarica Canyon and many more.
It is the distinctive traditional architecture of the “City of 1000 windows” that has placed Berat in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Beautifully split by the Osum River into the two historic neighborhoods of Mangalem and Gorica, the city is joined by the gorgeous Bridge of Gorica. The characteristic windows of the traditional houses mirror one another beautifully from across the river! Once called Antipatrea, the medieval city is flanked on both sides by Tomorr and Shpirag, two of the most mythical mountains in Albania, making Berat a nature lover’s paradise. Mountain climbing, cycling, hiking, rafting and kayaking are only some of the preferred outdoor activities around this city. The medieval Castle of Berat houses old churches, museums and iconography by the greatest Albanian artists as well as old bazaars, cafes, and a surprisingly vibrant local life. Not to be missed are also the Medieval Center of Berat and the city’s delicious cuisine!
Honorable Mention: The Codex Beratinus
A very valuable global treasure that is affiliated with Berat is worth mentioning here. That is the Codex Purpureus Beratinus, a manuscript of a Gospel Book written in Ancient Greek. The Codex was inscribed on the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2005 in recognition of its historical and liturgical significance. Comprised of two codices, part of the “seven purple codices” written in 13 European countries between the 6th and 8th centuries, its text was published in 1887. The Codex Beratinus was once kept in St. George Church in Berat and is now preserved at the Albanian National Archives in Tirana.
With a depth of 285 meters, Lake Ohrid is the deepest in the Balkans and is split between Macedonia (in Ohrid and Struga) and Albania. UNESCO proclaimed the “Lake of Light” a Natural Heritage Site as early as 1980 but the Albanian part was added to the list only in 2019. The lake was created from soil shifts on the western side of the Dinaric Alps more than 4 million years ago! Now, this picture-perfect swan lake is an ecosystem that includes over 200 species, including the national treasure of Koran, the delicious world-famous fish (also known as the Ohrid trout), found only here. The best place to experience the lake is the city of Pogradec or Lin Village, though there are plenty of other picturesque villages around the lake that are definitely worth seeing.
The Gashi River Valley is one of the two natural reserves in Albania included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This incredibly beautiful national beech forest preserves some of the last entirely virgin woods in Albania! Similar to other countries that host ancient beech forests, the one surrounding Gashi River is fiercely protected. The 3000-hectare-reserve is located northeast of the Albanian Alps, in Tropoja, and is entirely removed from any inhabited areas. Here is where you will encounter some of the richest flora and fauna in the entire country! Some amazing trees include conifers, various pine species, spruces and silver firs, among others, a landscape that is entirely surrounded by glacial lakes.
The second in UNESCO’s natural reserve list is Rrajca, part of the European Green Belt of beech forests, and home to the Balkan Lynx, a rare and endangered mountain cat. Located in Përrenjas, near Librazhd, this gorgeous area is also surrounded by awe-inspiring glacial lakes and is part of the vast 4,700-hectare space that is known as the Shebenik-Jablanica National Park. During Communism, entrance to the park was forbidden resulting in today’s untouched and absolutely gorgeous forests of Rrajca, among others. The entire park hosts 32% of the entire nation’s flora and is increasingly popular among hikers and nature lovers.
This unique and ancient art form, a UNESCO masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is included in the world’s top 50 most fascinating attractions. Lord Byron has famously described it in his lengthy poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Like nothing else in Albania, iso-polyphony was strictly and loyally preserved and protected throughout history, and not a single original sound has been lost. The slow-tempo, low-pitched iso-poliphony consists of multi-part songs with usually four or more singers joining voices in a gradual, harmonious manner. Somewhere between reciting and singing, this artistic communication form, practiced in both southern and northern Albania, is thought to be directly linked to Homeric or epic oral tradition.
From national to privately-owned, from small and intimate to large spaces, from traditional to contemporary art exhibits, in Tirana you will find the right gallery for you. Allotting some time to art on a visit to any city is always a good idea! As luck would have it, Tirana is full of great art galleries! [...]
Splitting life between earth and sky is one of professional paraglider Xhonatan Islami’s greatest pleasures. Below, he lets us in on how and where he spends his time while on the ground in Albania’s capital. Favorite Café My daily ritual is coffee with Alket (Xhonatan’s father and professional paraglider) at Capriccio, where we talk about [...]
Designed to warm you up for the end-of-the-year festivities, this month will equip you with food and wine, books and plenty of culture. November is the month of mandatory celebrations in Albania! Whether you feel up to it or not, the countless events on this list will get you out and partying in no time. [...]