Durres is a versatile port city with both a modern and ancient appeal. If fun in the sun is in order look no further than the waterfront, where Albania’s largest and liveliest beach buzzes with activity in summer. Durres is also replete with Roman and Byzantine heritage – you can discover the remnants of Albania’s biggest amphitheatre here, while both the city defences and forum date back 1500 years. You could also travel inland to see the castle where Albanian national icon Skanderbeg fought off three Ottoman sieges in the 1400s, or continue on to Tirana to visit the nation’s capital.
Also see: Best places to visit in Albania.
1. Durres Amphitheatre
Surely one of the greatest pieces of ancient architecture in Albania, if not the Balkans, the Durres Amphitheatre was built in 100AD by Hadrian and was only rediscovered in the 1960s. It was used for about 300 years and back then it could as many as 20,000 spectators. This grand scale is part of what makes the landmark special, but archaeologists are also intrigued by how the building demonstrates the Roman transition to Christianity. Within this site is a chapel with stunning wall mosaics of saints, showing how the amphitheatre took on a religious purpose later in its life.
2. Durres Castle
This monument consists of a single tower and wall, and is referred to in many guides as the Venetian Tower. It dates way back to the 400s, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I who was born in this city. Since its construction Durres Castle has seen some serious action, having been reinforced by the Venetians just before the city’s conquest by the Ottomans. In 1939 the castle was the base for a ragtag collection of Albanian patriots trying to delay the advance of the Italian army. Some 360 locals held their ground successfully until armoured Italian units disembarked at the port and took the city.
3. Durres Beach
Albania’s most popular destination for a day by the sea, Durres Beach stretches out for more than ten kilometres along the city’s waterfront. The urban part of the beach is crazy in the summer, when it’s packed with people from all walks of life. There are all manner of things going on, from games of table football to water sports events. You’ll never need to leave your seat for a snack as hawkers patrol the arteries between the tight grids of sunbeds, selling a huge array of drinks and foodstuffs, often from the packs of donkeys that they lead along the sand.
4. Royal Villa of Durres
The Albanian monarchy, which lasted from 1928-1939, has been defunct for more than seven decades, but this building atop a hill in Durres stands as an interesting reminder of this era. These days the Royal Villa is derelict, but it has a fascinating history. It was built in 1937 for King Zog I, who only got to enjoy the residence for a year. After the monarchy was dissolved the villa became a grand communist reception building, welcoming both Nikita Khrushchev and Jimmy Carter on official visits. When Albania descended into temporary civil unrest in 1997 the villa was ransacked, and has remained unaltered since then.
5. Archaeological Museum
The largest archaeological museum in Albania, here you can see what all the different civilisations that settled this region left behind. It’s just a few steps from the waterfront and was established in 1951, with collections that cover every period from the Ancient Illyrian culture, through the Roman era, Byzantine times and the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The Roman items are particularly intriguing and include miniature busts of Venus and stone sarcophagi. The museum as an institution has its own story to tell, as it was ransacked in the unrest in 1997 and has only recently been renovated.
6. Byzantine Forum
At the heart of Durres is the modest but evocative collection of colonnades that made up Macellum’s forum after the Roman era. It dates between the 600s and the 800s and is paved with excavated marble stones. You can get up close to the Corinthian columns in the forum to see the exquisite detail of the stonework. At one time there would have been a statue at the centre of the plaza for whichever Byzantine emperor was in power at the time. Close to the forum are Durres’ Roman thermal baths, which were discovered along with the amphitheatre in the 1960s. What remains is a hypocaust and a pool five metres by seven.
7. Durres Mosques
There are two impressive mosques to track down in Durres, as Albania’s relationship with religion was disrupted during communist times, and each place of worship has its own story. The Great Mosque is the younger of the two structures, having been built in 1931 by King Zog I on the site of an earlier Ottoman building. After 1967 its minaret was destroyed and the building was used centre for local youth organisations. Smaller and much older is the Fatih Mosque, which dates to 1503 in the first decades of Ottoman rule. This was also closed down during communism but was declared an Albanian cultural monument in the 70s.
8. Spille Beach
A few short kilometres south of the city, just after Kavaje, is this natural beach that offers a contrast to the hectic waterfront at Durres. Spille is for those who want a more relaxed day by the sea and attracts fewer visitors, making it easy to find a spot to yourself at any time of year. Despite the seclusion and natural setting, all the services you could require are on offer. You can rent chairs and parasols for extra comfort, and throughout the day fruit sellers will sell fruit fresh from the market.
It’s easy to catch a bus east to Albania’s capital, which is where the country’s past and present clash. If you want to see some real soviet architecture get to the Piramida, which has lain empty since the end of communism and was built as a monument to the dictator Enver Hoxha. For further proof of Albania’s complicated connection to Hoxha, you can visit his grave, which has frequently been vandalised. Bunk’Art is also exciting, as you get to tour a nuclear bunker from the 1970s that is made up of 100 different rooms, giving it the air of an underground city. Also see: Things to do in Tirana.
10. Krujë Castle
If you’d like you to witness the scene of a momentous event in Albania’s history then head northeast to Krujë Castle, popularly named after the Albanian national icon Skanderbeg. As the Ottoman Empire conquered the surrounding region this fortress stood firm, holding out against Mehmed II’s armies in three successive sieges during the 1400s. To give you an idea of its national importance, the castle is on the back of Albania’s 500 Lekë banknote. Inside the gothic building is an exhibition devoted to Skanderbeg, and you should also take a moment to bask in the rugged upland beauty of the setting 550 metres above sea level.
11. Krujë Bazaar
This neighbourhood of Krujë is a step back in time, as Krujë’s entire 18th and 19th-century commercial district has been carefully preserved and continues to thrive. The market extends all the way from the gates of the castle to the centre of Krujë and is made up of a single cobblestone street along which all sorts of sellers tout their wares from wooden stalls. As you stroll through the bazaar you’ll also even get to see artisans crafting items in their workshops. For a keepsake you could pick up hand-carved wooden ornaments, a bottle of locally distilled raki or hand-woven textiles.
12. Shën Mëhill Basilica
Located in Arapaja, a southeastern suburb of Durres, are the ruins of St. Michael’s Basilica, a palaeo-Christian church from 400 AD. The basilica was rediscovered during an archaeological dig in 1974, when several remarkable features were unearthed. The headline here is the church’s large and detailed mosaic that covers 54 square metres, and thanks to its many years under the soil is in a near-immaculate state of preservation. Also on the site are the remnants of the church’s naves and a fragment of a pillar with a decorative relief carved into it.
13. Via Egnatia
Much as it is today, in Roman times Durres or Dyrrachium was the gateway to Southern Europe for visitors from the Italian mainland. And in those days there was a Roman road that began in Durres and led all the way to Byzantium, modern day Istanbul. So if you’re up for a hike with a historical flavour you could retrace the steps of the merchants and legionaries in ancient times and walk a portion of Via Egnatia. The route has been mapped out all the way from Durres to the city of Thesalonniki in Greece, but at 475 kilometres don’t expect to complete it in one afternoon!
14. Rodoni Castle
For an adventurous day out follow the coastal road north to this fortress in a photogenic setting at the end of a rugged peninsula. When the famous castle at Krujë withstood its first attack from the Ottomans, Albania’s feudal lords took the opportunity to bolster the region’s coastal defences. The castle was built in 1452 and at the time covered most of the tip of the cape. The Ottomans did return to complete their conquest in the 1460s, and Skanderbeg used Rodoni Castle as a point of embarkation for his escape from Albania to Brindisi in Italy.
15. Shtam Pass National Park
Happily you can take in the vast mountain scenery of this national park from the comfort of your car. The road from Krujë to Burrel twists through the park and reaches heights of 1250 metres. You’ll pass through many hectares of virgin pine forest, and at phases will turn past precipitous drops. You could also stop by Kroi i Nenës Mbretëreshë (Source of the Queen Mother), which is natural spring that has been tapped and you can fill your water bottle. The name comes from the 1930s, when the story goes that the Albanian royal family used this spring as their only water supply.