Albanian Archaeological Parks: Top 10 Ancient Sites to Explore in Albania
Albanian archaeological parks are among must-visit attractions in Albania. Almost all of them date back at least to Antiquity revealing artifacts of a sophisticated civilization. The following are our top 10 picks of Albanian archaeological parks.
1. Pojan / Apollonia
Apollonia is one of the richest archaeological centers in Albania. Standing on a landscape not harmed by human urbanization, the complex amazes visitors with the way its monuments blend with the pastoral scenery. The city of Apollonia was first established in the VI century B.C.E. as a Corinthian colony. Since then and for a Millenium it was one of the most important and prosperous cities along the Ionian coast.
The most iconic monument of Apollonia is the “bouleuterion”, built during the II century C.E., with its stunning facade of Corinthian columns still standing. One of the latest monuments is the monastery with a core built during the second quarter of the XIII century and the church complex developed later around it. There are countless monuments of every era in Apollonia making it a magnetic site for tourists, scholars, students, and travelers. Thus, the city fully deserves its label as Albania’s Pompeii.
Apart from the abundance of archaeological monuments and ruins visitors can also enjoy a guide into the nearby Museum of Apollonia where other cultural treasures await. The location of the Archaeological Park of Apollonia is easily accessible, standing on a hill plateau not far from the city of Fier. From here travelers can enjoy an amazing view of the surrounding valley, Myzeqeja plain, and the sea dipping into the far horizon. This unmatched beauty may explain why the first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus chose to carry his youth studies here.
2. Saraqinishtë / Antigonea
Antigonea is the site that illustrates best the architecture of the Hellenistic era. The city was founded in the early III century B.C.E., by Pyrrhus of Epirus, ruler of Epirus, who named it after his wife Antigonea. The city itself covers a surface of 45 ha while the whole archaeological complex spans over a total of some 90 ha. The city had a complex road network within its walls, still visible, designed in the then-popular Hippodamian style.
The easiest route into the archaeological site of Antigonea is the road from Gjirokastër to Saraqinishtë, a distance of only some 14 kilometers (8.7 miles). The most important and astonishing site of the Drino valley served as a city for only just more than a century since it was destroyed completely by the Romans in 168 B.C.E.
3. Finiq / Phoenice
The Archaeological Park of Finiq is a very popular tourist destination near the seaside city of Saranda in southern Albania. The site stands on top of a hill two hundred eighty-three meters above sea level that can be reached easily through the Sarandë-Gjirokastër road. The ruins at Finiq are those of the ancient city of Phoenice, the capital of the Chaeones tribe that thrived in the southwestern region of current Albania and, later, the capital of the whole state of Epirus.
The most spectacular monument in this area is the theater that cuts into a hill, built sometime during the IV century B.C.E. It could once seat some 17,000 people, making it the largest ever of this kind in Albania. However, due to war destruction and damages, only the ruins of the lower part have survived. Apart from its historic and cultural values, those who reach Finiq can experience the natural landscapes stretching below, including the plain of Bistrica River, the lake of Butrint, and the whole region of Delvina.
4. Plloçë / Amantia
Amantia is an ancient city that stands on top of a rocky hill over the left bank of the Vjosa River. On the hill plateau, the ancient city covers a surface of 13 ha. The ancient stadium is the best-preserved monument of this ancient complex. One side of it uses the hillside as support for its 17 rows while the other side, with some 8 rows, stands over an artificially gathered sediment. Overall, the complex offers some sort of archaic perception of an urban area with citizens who must have once sought to prosper but with cautiousness and not leaping their native traditions.
5. Klos / Bylis
Bylis is one of the most important archaeological centers of Albania, often compared for its monumental values with Apollonia and Butrint. The complex holds a dominant position over the hills of Mallakastra and over the Vjosa River. Thus, the ancient Illyrian city offers a rare view different from any other settlement of Classical Antiquity.
The theater is the most important site of the Antique era in the Byllis Archaeological Park. An estimated number of 7,500 could sit in its semi-circular shaped 40 rows rising some 16 meters (52 feet) in total. Other important ruins include multiple stoa-s, gates, houses, basilicas adorned with rare mosaics, and towers. Bylis was inhabited for about a millennia until it was destroyed by Slavs in the VIth century C.E.
6. Zgërdhesh / Albanopolis
Zgërdhesh is an archaeological site near the city of Krujë, just 30 kilometers (19 miles) drive from Tirana. This site is believed to have been the location of ancient Albanopolis mentioned by Ptolemy in the first century C.E., home of the Illyrian small tribe of Albanoi. It’s toponymy is especially meaningful because it appears as the origin of the name “Albania” with which the country is known worldwide. It also puts the Albanians as direct descendants of Illyrians, one of the oldest populations in the Balkans.
In reality, only a few ruins remain at present at the site. These limited but important features include a 90 meters (295 feet) long wall, remnants of three rectangular watchtowers dated to III century C.E. and the foundations of an early Christian chapel.
7. Shurdhah / Sarda
The ruins of the ancient and medieval town of Sarda stand on a small picturesque island on the Vau i Dejës Lake, some 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) with boat from the Vau i Dejës village in northern Albania. The island of Shurdhah was home to an important culture beginning from the VII-VIII century C.E. until the XV-th century C.E (once known as Sarda).
The ruins of many churches have been identified in the land turned into an island by the rising water levels caused by dam constructions along the Drin River. The surrounding nature is as impressive as the rich archaeological monuments, making the location a favorite destination among tourists of all ages.
8. Lezha / Lissus
The archaeological park of Lezhë is located on the eastern hill of the city of Lezha. This site corresponds to the ancient Illyrian city of Lis or Lissus, one of the most fortified and defended fortifications of that period. The ancient castle dates back to the IV century B.C.E. with other added defenses in later periods.
The ruins of Lis have intrigued scholars throughout the years when considering matters such as original constructors, urban evolution, and construction techniques. Located just 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Tirana in the south and 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Shkodra in the north, the landmarks of Lezha are the ideal and convenient attractions for transit tourists.
9. Durrës / Dyrrachium
The whole city of Durrës is, in a way, an archaeological park filled with cultural treasures of all eras. Ruins of new monuments get discovered continuously in this seaside city despite the congestion of modern urban neighborhoods. Durrës is Albania’s Rome, one of the oldest cities in the country. It has played an important role as a naval, religious, commercial, and political center in the history of the Adriatic throughout the centuries.
Since its foundation, cyclopic walls surrounded the original city, with the traditional founding date as early as 627 B.C.E. Called Epidamnus and then Dyrrachium, the city expanded into the walls that are visible nowadays and that were built by the emperor Anastasius I Dicorus (born himself here and reigned over the Byzantine empire during the years 491-515 C.E.). He built them after the earthquake that damaged the area in 345 C.E.
Another must-visit highlight is the amphitheater, built during Roman rule. It’s one of the largest ancient amphitheaters in the world valued as an engineering masterpiece. Other marvels involve ancient churches, old mosques, markets, basilicas, and countless of mosaics (inciting some to call Durrës as “the city of mosaics”.
As a hub with geostrategic importance, the city was the starting point of Via Egnatia along which commerce thrived. In a sense, the city still serves as the shortest route to connect Italy with the eastern Balkans. Another landmark part of your tours should be the Archaeological Museum of the city.
10. Butrint / Buthrotum
Butrint National Park stretches on the southwest corner of Albania, facing the Greek island of Corfu. Since the earliest of times, the site served as a safe anchorage for many ships because of position at the entrance of a lake/lagoon and along a naval route connecting southern Italy with Corfu island, and the following hinterland.
Legends suggest that Butrint/Buthrotum was built by Trojans who escaped the fall of Troy and in a fashion resembling their fallen city. This “Second Troy” continued to thrive in the Hellenistic and Roman periods as a rich and safe settlement. It was during this time when its iconic theater took shape, a one-of-a-kind venue where theatrical dramas can still be performed. Later, other monuments such as amazing basilicas, Venetian fortresses, and Ottoman towers all spread in the small isle, wowing visitors in each corner.