This upland city in south-central Albania has 2,500 years of history, which has bestowed it with stunning archaeology, quaint residential areas and preserved monuments. Berat’s appeal lies in its UNESCO World Heritage architecture and the epic mountain scenery that shelters the city. Since coming under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s Berat is also a place where Christians and Muslims have lived together in relative peace, with churches and mosques sharing the same space. The cityscape is part of Berat’s charm, where picturesque stone houses on the steep hillsides seem to be stacked on top of each other. Let’s explore the best things to do in Berat!
1. The Kala
Berat’s ancient citadel looms high above the newer part of the city and you can get up there on a tricky cobblestone path – don’t underestimate how steep this is! There’s been a fortress here since the 300s but the walls and towers as they appear today are from the 1200s. What’s fascinating is how this lofty defensive structure from medieval times still sustains homes and local businesses, including a number of bars for welcome refreshment. The combination of historical significance and the elevated setting make the Kala the ideal introduction to Berat. With a guided tour you’ll the inside story about these defences.
2. Iconography Museum
The Onufri Museum of Icons is set in the 18th-century St. Mary’s Church, which lies within the part of the Kala that is still inhabited. In a city famed for its Byzantine heritage, the Iconography Museum will offer some background on one of the artists who worked on the churches in the 1500s. Onufri is considered to be Albania’s most important orthodox iconographic painters, and he broke the mould in the way he imbued his subjects with humanity. An interesting titbit – Onufri developed a pink dye for his works, but he kept the recipe secret and took it with him to his grave.
3. Mangalem and Gorica
Downwind from the Kala are these two old neighbourhoods, which sit on either side of the Osumi River. On the north side is Mangalem, which is traditionally Muslim, while Christian Gorica is on the south bank. Both districts are composed of narrow alleys of ancient white stone houses with terracotta tiles, timber doors and fresh flower arrangements. You could easily lose a few hours exploring these ancient neighbourhoods. Gorica and Mangalem are connected by the Gorica Bridge, from 1780, made up of seven arches and suffused with folklore. One story goes that there was a secret dungeon on the bridge where a girl was imprisoned to appease the spirits who watched over the crossing.
4. Bulevardi Republika
On the weekends and evenings this wide promenade is just the ticket for a gentle stroll. It’s set in the modern part of Berat and connects with the river. The walkway is lined with cafes with outdoor tables and chairs, and on the other side of the path there are rows of trees. It’s a good place to see how Bernat’s locals unwind. Something that makes Bulevardi Republika so appealing is the stunning backdrop of The Tomorr Mountain in one direction and the citadel in the other – this view is particularly memorable when the architecture is lit up at night.
5. Local churches
Berat is a city where Islam and Christianity have coexisted for centuries. Within the citadel, the orthodox Church of St. Mary of Vllaherna is from the 1200s and has wonderful murals depicting saints from the 1500s. It’s set on the side of the steep hill, within the Kala, and if you enter be sure to admire the beautiful floor mosaics. The Church of St. Mitri isn’t in a perfect state of preservation, but inside large portions of the original murals are still visible and date back to 1607.
6. Berat’s historic mosques
You should also take in the city’s historic mosques. The Lead Mosque, at the centre of Berat, is a good place to begin and goes back to the 1500s, just when the city was gaining status as one of the most important locations for religion and trade in the western Ottoman Empire. It’s built in the Turkish style and takes its name from the cupola, which is covered by a layer of lead. The Red Mosque meanwhile is in ruins can be found just beyond the walls of the citadel. Dating right back to the 1430s it is one of Albania’s earliest mosques, from the years directly following Berat’s conquest by the Ottomans.
Down by banks of the Osumi River you can see the earliest remnants of civilisation in Berat from 200 BC. Dimal held vital strategic and political importance as a Macedonian stronghold in southern Illyria and played a key role in the Illyrian-Roman war. When the site was discovered in the 60s one of the first things uncovered was a stoa, a kind of covered walkway flanked by columns, 30 metres in length. The site closely resembles the archaeological complex in the nearby city of Fier, and the numerous stamped tiles recovered from Dimal give an indication of the wide variety of workshops located in the ancient settlement.
8. National Ethnographic Museum
An 18th-century stone building with wooden beams and stairways, this attraction offers a fine overview of life in the city since its foundation. There are plenty of artefacts on display related to local artisan industry and domestic life, so you can check out an authentic antique olive press and see displays of the ceramics that were used in the city hundreds of years ago. Have a peek at the traditional textiles and costumes, as well as the methods used to weave them. A couple of the rooms have been set up as traditional lounges or dining rooms, so you can picture yourself as an Ottoman hundreds of years ago.
9. Tomorr Mountain
Always visible to the east of Berat is the Tomorr Mountain National Park, the highest peak of which soars to 2,416 metres. For much of the year the range is capped with snow. If you’re holidaying in Berat in the summer then the high temperatures will make an ascent on foot difficult, but there are operators in the city offering 4×4 trips to the top of Mount Tomorr. At the top there’s a shrine belonging to Shia Islam’s Bektashi order. The route to the top is wonderful, passing olive groves, pine forest and highland pasture before entering a stark landscape of exposed rock.
10. Osumi River Gorge
You can trace the Osumi River back to the town of Çorovodë, where one of Albania’s wildest natural wonders lies hidden. Just south of the Tomorr National Park is this gorge, the deep walls of which have eroded to created an odd assortment of caves, passages and ledges. At places the cliff-faces are several hundred metres in height, and the shelter created by the gorge results in an microclimate that ensures year-round greenery. The best time to explore the gorge is in spring, when melt-water makes the entire 26 kilometres accessible by raft. Enquire in Berat for guides and tours to the gorge.
11. Bogove Waterfall
Every hour there are buses from Berat towards Skrapar and if you hop off at Bogove you’ll be on your way to this glorious waterfall, which is surrounded by untouched nature. There’s a dirt trail that leads directly from the bus stop up to the hills, and after a walk of about half an hour you’ll come to stream that you can follow until you reach the waterfall. What’s interesting is how even at the searing height of summer the water is breathtakingly cold. It’s a lovely setting for a photograph, with a set of cascades feeding a jade-coloured pool and green vegetation all around.
12. Cobo Winery
Large patches of the countryside around Berat are covered with vineyards, and wine production is starting to flourish in the region again after years of neglect during Communist times, as private enterprises like this were forbidden. The best place to find out about this rebirth is the Cobo winery, a few kilometres northwest of Berat. Despite the 50-year hiatus the Cobo family has more than a century of winemaking experience, and if you join a tour here you’ll be able to see a number of vineyards, the Cobo family home, the winery facilities and finally a tasting room where you can sample the five premium wines produced here.
13. Sufi Teqes
There are two Sufist buildings in Berat and both have been declared cultural monuments of Albania. The Halveti Teqe was built in the 1400s and has a patio in front. The building boasts a portico made up of five stone columns. Once you enter you’ll notice the delicate tilework on the walls. Up one side of the structure is old stone staircase that leads to the Teqe’s prayer hall, a chamber with a carved wooden ceiling inspired by the European baroque, but boasting an Arabic twist. Berat’s Rüfai Teqe meanwhile was founded in the 1700s by Ahmet Kurt Pasha, the first ruler of the Pashalik of Berat, which had semi-autonomy within the Ottoman Empire.
14. Tasting traditional food and drink
Unique to this area is an unusual artisanal summer drink made from rose petals, lemon juice, water and sugar brewed over several days and served cold. A beverage that is famous throughout the region is raki but in the Berat area it is made by distilling walnuts, similar to the Italian spirit, Nocino. When it comes to local food, the fertile landscape yields abundant figs and olives, both of which are of exceptional quality and enjoyed as snacks. Local dishes to try are Byrek, a meat and leek pie, baked stuffed zucchini. For dessert there’s Kabuni, a fried rice dish with raisins and cinnamon, or the regional classic, baklava.
Fier can be reached within an hour by car, and just outside this city you can step back in time to antiquity. Apollonia, or Illyria, was an ancient Greek city founded in 600BC but which enjoyed tremendous prosperity during the Roman era. The ruins stand atop a hill and all are easily accessed by the public, labelled with useful signs and featuring the remnants of an amphitheatre, temples and the remnants of the city’s infrastructure. There’s also an on-site museum where artefacts recovered from the site are on display inside a monastery from the 14th century.