Durrës, just an hour from Tirana, is Albania’s most developed and crowded beach town. But whether or not the party atmosphere is what you’re looking for, the city also happens to be one of Albania’s most historically significant. In the following Durrës guide, we’ll be covering the top attractions the city has to offer, all of which can easily be seen in a day.
Known as both Epidamnos and Dyrrhachion in antiquity, Durrës was initially a settlement of ancient Illyria. It was later settled by Greek colonists in 627 BC who intermixed with the native population.
Durrës quickly became a prosperous city thanks to its thriving port, and it was renowned throughout the ancient world for its architecture. It remained important throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras, and it still acts as a major economic and tourism hub to this day.
The following Durrës guide is presented in no particular order, as the city is small enough to see everything on foot regardless of which route you choose.
Walking Up to The Royal Villa
If you’re looking for views of the city, there’s no better place to go than Durrës Hill, an easy walk from the city center. And the hill is home to one of the city’s most unique landmarks, as it was built during a brief period in which Albania was ruled by a king.
A lot went on in Albania during the 20th century. Upon achieving independence from the Ottomans in 1912, the country was split up by other European powers following World War I. The United States, however, was a big supporter of Albanian independence and sought to protect it from the Italians and the Serbs.
Following more political instability, a man named Ahmed Bey Zogu took control, though numerous rebellions attempted to oust him. After retaking power as president, he ruled for several more years during the 1920s. But in 1928, he dissolved the parliament and declared himself king.
He continued to rule the country as King Zog I until 1939. And throughout that time, this hilltop building in Durrës served as his summer residence.
The villa was restored in 2007 and has hosted various world leaders over the years. Unfortunately, it’s not an official tourist attraction and can only be admired from the outside.
As for King Zog? Despite starting off as an ally of Mussolini, the relationship soured over time. Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and Zog fled to Greece with his family, taking the country’s gold reserves with him.
The Durrës Amphitheater
The highlight of the city is undoubtedly the Durrës Amphitheater, dating back to Roman times. Durrës was taken over by the Romans following the Roman-Illyrian wars of the 3rd century BC, and it quickly became one of the most important cities of the Adriatic region.
Perhaps most famously, from 48-43 BC, the city saw heavy fighting between the forces of Julius Caeser and Pompey, with Pompey coming out victorious.
The city then remained prosperous for the next several centuries. And this amphitheater was constructed in the 2nd century AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117).
With a diameter of 26 meters and 20 m-high stands, the amphitheater could seat somewhere between 15-20,000 spectators. But despite its size, it was only rediscovered in 1966, which explains why so many buildings are situated around its top.
Throughout its first few hundred years, gladiator and beast fights were the most common spectacle here. They persisted until 404, the year such events were banned throughout the empire by Emperor Honorius.
Decades before that, however, this amphitheater was damaged in a large earthquake in 346 and had to be rebuilt.
The highlight of the theater is walking through its dark inner corridors. Despite having been lost for centuries, they still remain in great condition.
Within the amphitheater, don’t miss the small Byzantine chapel featuring well-preserved mosaics along the walls. Also during the Byzantine era, the area around the theater was used as a necropolis.
The center of the amphitheater remains a grassy mound, but there are surely more interesting discoveries to be found should excavations continue.
More of Byzantine Durrës
After the fall of Western Rome, Durrës remained an important city under the Byzantine Empire, and numerous remnants from this period can be found throughout town.
Just behind the amphitheater is a well-preserved portion of the city walls. Durrës was the birthplace of Eastern Roman emperor Anastasius I in 430, and he rebuilt and expanded these walls following a major earthquake.
According to a group of locals I met, a legend states that a vast treasure is hidden somewhere within the walls. The problem is, nobody knows exactly where, and the whole thing would have to be dismantled for a serious search!
Given the ongoing economic problems in Albania, however, many are tempted to look.
In the city center, you can find the remains of a former Byzantine market. It took on a circular shape with a well in the center, and some of the old columns have been re-erected by archaeologists.
In ancient times, the open courtyard would’ve been surrounded by various shops, and it would’ve likely been the busiest part of the city. Fittingly, it’s located just next to one of Durrës’s busiest roads today.
On the other side of the street, meanwhile, you can find a Byzantine-era well tucked down a side alley.
Near the water, you’ll find Durrës Castle, which is really just one surviving bastion of the original city walls established during Byzantine times. Subsequent empires would then rebuild and expand the walls, and this particular tower was erected by the Venetians.
Centuries later in 1939, Albania was being invaded by Fascist Italy, who arrived at the port of Durrës on 7 April. But despite being far outnumbered and outgunned, an Albanian marine named Mujo Ulqinaku would not be deterred.
He, along with Abaz Kupi, commander of the local gendarmerie, gathered a group of several hundred brave resistance fighters. Despite only having three machine guns, they managed to hold off the much larger Italian navy for a few hours.
While some of the action took place on the water, many of the fighters took refuge in Durrës Castle, shooting at the invaders from atop the tower. Despite their best efforts, however, the city was eventually taken the same day.
The Durrës Archaeological Museum
Durrës is such a historically significant city in Albania that it has its own archaeological museum. Established in 1951, it’s among the largest of its kind in all of Albania.
Thanks to recent renovations in 2015, the museum has a modern feel and informative signage, and it’s easily one of the top places to visit in this Durrës guide.
The museum houses a few thousand artifacts in total, with the oldest dating back to the 7th century BC. There are also sizable collections from the Classical Period (480-335 BC) as well as the Hellenistic Era (323-30 BC).
Aside from some larger sculptures in the center, most of the items here are smaller pieces of ancient Greek pottery or fragments of funerary stelae from the Roman era.
You’ll also find various heads of small limestone statues in addition to a large marble sarcophagus carved in the mid-2nd century. Nearby is a collection of storage vessels used to transport various goods to and from the thriving port of Durrës.
While no individual piece is too terribly impressive, the museum is well worth visiting for the comprehensive background info it provides about ancient Durrës. You should be able to see and read everything in about an hour.
And while at the National History Museum in Tirana, don’t miss the large mosaic piece which depicts a young girl. It was discovered in central Durrës during World War I.
Aside from the attractions mentioned in the Durrës guide above, one of the most popular activities in the city is walking along the seaside promenade, lined with restaurants and public parks.
While I visited outside of the summer tourist season, there didn’t seem to be any swimmable areas around the promenade. Durrës does, however, boast the 10 km-long Durrës Beach, among the most popular in the country. But it appears to be a 5-10-minute drive from the city center.
Durrës is situated about an hour away from Tirana and regular buses depart until evening. From the city center, you will first need to take a public bus to the ‘Regional Bus Terminal – North and South Albania’. From Skanderbeg Square, it’s about a 15-minute ride.
Once at the terminal, which is really just a large parking lot filled with buses, look for a bus with Durrës written on it. In my case, it was a coach bus and they seem to depart every hour.
You may also be able to find minibuses or shared taxis from other parts of Tirana. But online information regarding transport in Albania is either nonexistent or unreliable, so it’s best to ask at your hotel.
Arriving in Durrës, be sure to memorize the location of the bus terminal and return there for a bus back to Tirana. Despite having taken a coach bus in the morning, I took a minibus back, but it still arrived at Tirana’s main terminal.
Tirana isn’t a huge city, and most of its main attractions are accessible on foot as long as you’re somewhere close to Skanderbeg Square.
I stayed at a place called Villa Center, located within short walking distance of Skanderbeg Square. Even though I booked it through Booking, it felt more like a typical Airbnb experience.
I stayed in a private room with a private bathroom, but the kitchen and living area were shared with the other guests staying down the hall.
While the host lives out of the country, communication via WhatsApp went very smoothly and he was always quick to answer my questions. The neighbor in charge of looking after the apartments also speaks English.