Berat is a town that feels stuck in time – in a good way. While once an outpost of the Byzantine Empire, the town emerged as a thriving crafts center from the 17th century, becoming one of Ottoman Albania’s most important cities. And modern Berat remains home to hundreds of well-preserved houses, making it one of Albania’s most endearing destinations. In the following Berat guide, we’ll cover the top things to do and see in the ‘Town of a Thousand Windows.’
While Berat is quite small, give yourself at least two nights to explore everything it has to offer. A big part of Berat’s appeal is taking things slow and soaking up the atmosphere at a leisurely pace.
Both an archaeological site and a modern village, Berat Castle is one of the most interesting parts of the city. At an elevation of 214 meters, it’s walkable from the town center in about 15 minutes. Inside, you’ll find museums, restaurants and even guesthouses.
Entry to the castle costs 300 lek, while an extra ticket is required for the Onufri Iconographic Museum located inside (more below).
Dating back to early Roman times, the fortress walls were repeatedly rebuilt and strengthened throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras. And the oldest structures still standing within were established in 13th century.
The Ottomans later took over Berat Castle in the 15th century during their long feud with Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, then based at Krujë Castle.
Interestingly, Berat Castle remained predominantly Christian throughout the Ottoman era, and the castle was once home to as many as 20 churches. None remain in active use today, however.
One of the highlights of the fortress is the Church of Saint Trinity, established in the 13th century. While the Byzantine structure is said to contain beautiful frescoes, it was closed during my visit. And judging by comments online, it’s been inaccessible for some time now.
Arriving at the acropolis, you’ll find the ruins of the White Mosque. Built in the 16th century during the reign of Sultan Fatih, it was largely used by the Ottoman military garrison stationed here. Unfortunately, not much is left of it today.
Another of Berat Castle’s mosques is the Red Mosque. Constructed sometime in the 15th century, only its towering brick minaret remains, though it can be seen from all over the acropolis.
Most of the structures around Berat Castle are unlabelled, but still worth a look. Be sure to seek out the cistern, which can be easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.
Peeking inside, you’ll find a dark but vast Byzantine-era chamber which remains half-filled with water. Nowadays it seems to be a popular hangout spot for bats.
Another interesting landmark of Berat Castle, meanwhile, is the Church of St. George, located in the northern part of the fortress.
The Onufri Iconographic Museum
The number one attraction in Berat Castle, and one of the main highlights of this Berat guide, is the Onufri Iconographic Museum. Situated in the Assumption of Saint Mary Church, the museum is named after the 16th-century icon painter Onufri.
Active in both Albania and North Macedonia, he was known for his realistic style and mastery of dyes, being the first icon painter to use the color pink.
The centerpiece of the museum is the cathedral nave and its intricately carved wooden wall, consisting of 12 large icons and dozens of smaller ones. It was painted in the early 19th century by various master painters.
More original art can be found behind the altar, while the rest of the museum displays various icons by Onufri and other artists.
In total, the museum contains hundreds of pieces from different churches around Berat. With that being said, a visit shouldn’t take you more than around 20 minutes.
Entry costs 400 lek, and the museum opens from 9:00. In the winter it closes at 16:00, while in the summer it’s supposed to close at 18:00. But despite visiting in the summer, I was told it was closing at 16:00 anyway.
Note that photography is not actually allowed inside.
Before leaving, be sure to head all the way north where you’ll find Berat Castle’s best lookout spot. Standing atop one of the original bastions, you can get a clear view of Gorica, the traditional Christian quarter, down below.
And on the walk over, you can also enjoy fantastic views of the rest of Berat and the Osum River.
National Ethnographic Museum
On your way to or from Berat Castle, be sure to check out the National Ethnographic Museum, situated in a traditional 18th-century house. Berat’s traditional houses have become a symbol of the city, but this is the only one that visitors can step inside of.
This two-story structure was inhabited by an elite family of the Berat land-owning class. If you happen to have visited the Ethnographic Museum in Krujë, you’ll notice major similarities.
The house features a living room, utility room, bedrooms, and a kitchen. In addition to the original household items, you’ll also find numerous costumes on display. Tools used by weavers, silversmiths and other craftsmen can be found as well.
The National Ethnographic Museum offers a rare glimpse into how people lived during Berat’s Ottoman heyday and is well worth a visit.
Divided by the Osum River, Berat was traditionally divided into two sections: Mangalemi, the Muslim quarter, and Gorica, the Christian district. Mangalemi is the larger of the two, and it’s on this side of the river that you’ll find many of Berat’s prominent landmarks.
During your visit, be sure to take a walk down Boulevard Republika, the city’s main pedestrian avenue. One side is entirely lined with restaurants and coffee shops, while a long public park lines the other.
Reaching the end, you’ll be greeted with a view of Berat’s famous traditional houses and Berat Castle above them.
The Riverside Viewpoint
The best views, however, can be found by the river. Looking up at Mangalemi from here, it’s clear why many call Berat the ‘Town of a Thousand Windows.’ And it’s also easy to understand why the entire town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
After dark, be sure to return to the riverside viewing area to see the ‘thousand windows’ of Berat lit up.
Various Mangalemi Landmarks
Among Mangalemi’s notable landmarks is the former Palace of the Pasha of Berat. Once a large and elaborate palace, only a few small portions remain today, and the grassy field surrounding it reveals the true extent of the original complex.
Another section of the ruins can be found after walking through the ‘Gate of the Pasha’ a bit further uphill.
As you explore Mangalemi, there’s one impressive building that feels a little out of place. The large white Neoclassical building in the eastern part of town was formerly home to the Albanian University of Berat. But after a decade or so as a center of learning, it now functions as Hotel Colombo.
Another interesting activity to do in Mangalemi is to hike up the side of the hill to St. Michael’s Church. Unfortunately, the church was completely locked up during my visit, but the views are well worth the climb. You’ll also walk through some interesting-looking cobblestone streets on the way up.
Elsewhere around Mangalemi is the 16th-century Lead Mosque, the city’s largest. The 18th-century Bachelor’s Mosque, meanwhile, can be found right by the Osum River.
Also within the area is Berat’s newest cathedral, Saint Demetrius, inaugurated as recently as 2014.
The Halveti Tekke & Sultan's Mosque
As far as landmarks go, the main highlight of the Mangalemi would have to be the Halveti Tekke and neighboring Sultan’s Mosque.
The Halveti Tekke was used by the Bektashis, a Sufi sect prominent in both Anatolia and the Balkans. The Bektashis are a dervish order and carry and out the sema, or Whirling Dervish ceremony. While this building is no longer in use, Bektashis are still around and their world headquarters are based in Tirana.
The neighboring Sultan’s Mosque, meanwhile, was established in the 15th century by Ottoman sultan Bayezid II, and it was later reconstructed in the 1600s. The two-story mosque is perhaps best-known for its painted ceiling.
The mosque no longer appears to be in use, but during my visit, a local staff member was kind enough to guide me around and point out the notable details of each structure.
A walk around Gorica, the traditional Christian quarter, is easily one of the top activities featured in this Berat guide. It’s quite similar to Mangalemi overall, but even less developed. As such, you can really feel as if you’ve transported back in time a few hundred years.
Just after crossing the bridge from central Mangalemi, you’ll walk past the Church of St. Thomas, which is certainly interesting, but by no means a must-see. Especially considering the unusual opening hours.
Open from 8:00-10:00 in the morning, it doesn’t open up back again until 16:00. And even then it might be locked. I just happened to get lucky as a boy with the keys was on his way out as I arrived.
One of Gorica’s other churches, the Church of St. Spiridonit, is supposed to reopen from 17:00, but it was completely closed when I returned in the evening.
The main thing to do in Gorica is taking a stroll through its narrow and ancient streets. You’ll even find some English information posted about some of the historic houses, though they didn’t seem accessible as far as I could tell.
On the other end of the district is the Gorica Bridge, one of Berat’s most famous landmarks. The original stone bridge was added in 1777 by Ahmet Kurt Pasha. But following flood damage, it was later rebuilt in the 1930s.
At 130 m long, it features nine semicircular arches. From the middle of the bridge, the views of the Osum River are excellent.
For those feeling especially adventurous, it’s also possible to walk up Gorica Hill. You can find the path up over at the eastern edge of the district. You’ll have to walk through a few overgrown side alleys to get started, but it’s not too difficult to figure out.
While there’s nothing atop the hill other than some trees, the views are some of the best in town.
Also near the eastern bridge, the restaurant Antigone is a favorite amongst locals and tourists alike. From the terrace, you can enjoy traditional Albanian food while looking out at the river and Mangalemi in the distance.
I stayed in Villa 97 in the heart of the Mangalemi district. The location was perfect, with all of the landmarks in the Berat guide above within easy walking distance. This is a budget hotel featuring two guest rooms with one common bathroom and a shared kitchen.
Given Berat’s size, you really can’t go wrong with location as long as you’re relatively central. But staying in one of the hotels inside Berat Castle would probably get tiring.
Coming from Tirana, various websites recommend you use the ‘South Terminal.’ But based on recent Google reviews (summer 2021) this no longer seems to be the case. Instead, visit the terminal labeled ‘Regional Bus Terminal – North and South Albania’ on Google Maps. You can get there via public bus departing near Skanderbeg Square.
Berat-bound buses are said to leave frequently throughout the day, going through Durrës.
Coming from Vlorë, you will want to find a minibus near Independence Square, a bit north of the old mosque. Despite being one of Albania’s largest cities, Vlorë completely lacks a bus station and the minibuses to various destinations simply park along the road next to the monument.
There are numerous direct buses to Berat, and they seem to leave pretty regularly – but seemingly only in the morning. There’s apparently no set schedule and the buses will depart when full.
The bus timetable website Gjirafa.com, which you’ll often see recommended by people online, is completely inaccurate when it comes to transport from Vlorë. It’s best to ignore it entirely and simply show up in the morning.
Note that there’s an additional bus terminal in Vlorë nearby the train station. But the one time I tried to visit in 2021, it was under construction and no buses seemed to be leaving from there.
Incredibly, Berat is one of the few cities in Albania with a proper bus station. It lies about 3 km out of town but you can easily catch a public bus to the town center.
Gjirokastër and Berat were both declared UNESCO World Heritage towns at the same time and are considered sister cities. But while the locations are both known for their Ottoman architecture, they’re distinct from one another both architecturally and atmospherically.
Neither should be seen as a substitute for the other, and both are must-visits during your travels around Albania.