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.
Defined by its castle, roads paved with chunky limestone and shale, imposing slate-roofed houses and views out to the Drina Valley, Gjirokastra is an intriguing hillside town described beautifully by Albania's most famous literary export and locally born author, Ismail Kadare (b 1936), in Chronicle in Stone.
Saranda has grown rapidly in the past decade; skeletal high-rises crowd around its horseshoe shape and hundreds more are being built in the outlying region. Saranda is bustling in summer – buses are crowded with people carrying swimming gear and the weather means it's almost obligatory to go for a swim.
Shkodra, the traditional centre of the Gheg cultural region, is one of the oldest cities in Europe. The ancient Rozafa Fortress has stunning views over the nearby lake, while a concerted effort to renovate the buildings in the Old Town has made wandering through Shkodra a treat for the eyes.
Just 25km east of Tirana is Mt Dajti National Park (1611m). It is the most accessible mountain in the country, and many Tiranans go there to escape the city rush and have a spit-roast lamb lunch. A sky-high, Austrian-made cable car, Dajti Express, takes 15 minutes to rise to (almost) the top. It's a scenic trip over bunkers, forest, farms and hilltops.
Dhërmi beach is well and truly under the tourist trance in summer: expect booked-out accommodation, loud music and half of Tirana sprawled on the beach. Despite this, there is fun to be had, and as the beach is so long, even in high summer it's possible to find quiet, unspoilt parts of the lovely rocky beach.
This unique mountain village has traditional houses, an imposing church and a riverside setting dominated by a rare surviving example of a lock-in tower, where in the past locals under a blood feud could retreat to safety. Theth is now a popular summer spot for hikers and nature lovers; the countryside all around is simply breathtaking.
Llogaraja Pass National Park
Reaching the pine-tree-clad Llogaraja Pass National Park (1025m) is a highlight of travels in Albania. If you've been soaking up the sun on the southern coast's beaches, it seems impossible that after a steep hairpin-bend climb you'll be up in the mountains tucking into spit-roasted lamb and homemade wine.
The Accursed Mountains
The 'Accursed Mountains' (Bjeshkët e Namuna) offer some of Albania's most impressive scenery and have exploded in recent years as a popular backpacker destination. It's a totally different side of the country you'll see here: that of blood feuds, deep tradition, extraordinary landscapes and fierce local pride.
As you zigzag down the mountain from the Llogaraja Pass National Park, the white crescent-shape beaches and azure waters lure you from below. The first beach before the alluvial fan is Palasa, and it's one of the best, and least developed beaches around, perfect for chilling out for a night or two if you have a tent.
Ksamil, 17km south of Saranda, has three small, dreamy islands within swimming distance and dozens of beachside bars and restaurants that open in the summer. The Saranda–Butrint bus stops twice in the town (100 lekë; leaves hourly 1am to 5pm); either stop will get you to the pristine waters.