All the best things to do in Korca, Albania’s ‘City of Serenades’ and unofficial capital of culture.
Korca (Korçë) in far-southeastern Albania is a little bit off the beaten tourist track. As soon as I saw photos of the city’s distinctive architecture online, I made a point of including it in our Albania itinerary – even if it did involve making a detour.
The country’s sixth-largest city, Korca (pronounced kor-cha) is known for its cultural and intellectual heritage, including being home to the nation’s first Albanian language school.
It gets its rather idyllic nickname, ‘The City of Serenades’, from the love ballads men used to belt out from the balconies and courtyards of the city’s European villas. Sadly, the sounds of guitar and mandolin don’t fill the streets of Korca like they did in the 1930s – but the city still has a particular charm and a feeling of nostalgia.
Depending on your direction of travel, there’s a good chance Korca will either be the first or the last stop on your Albania itinerary. Either way, you’ll immediately notice how different Korca feels to the rest of the country.
In contrast to ‘living museums’ Gjirokaster and Berat, which are beautifully preserved but feel a bit claustrophobic, Korca is a very livable city. Parks, beer gardens, a large university campus and several important museum characterise the centre.
Strong connections to both Greek and Aromanian heritage give Korca a distinctive flavour – you can immediately feel it in the architecture, the cuisine, and the overall feel of the city.
Not many tourists venture out to Korca, but I think it’s more than worthy of a few days of your time. My Korca guide covers the best things to do in Korca, and will hopefully convince you to spend a few days in this beautiful little town near the Greek-North Macedonian border.
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Where to stay in Korca
Boutique: Set inside a historic inn inside the Old Bazaar, Hani I Pazarit features a sweet internal courtyard and an acclaimed restaurant. Rooms are opulently decorated (even if they are a little boxy), with wooden bathtubs and exposed brick walls. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Luxury: At the opposite end of the design spectrum, Life Gallery Hotel is a modern and minimal boutique choice with white-washed timber throughout, floor-to-ceiling windows, and in some rooms, a free-standing bath. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Mid-range: A solid mid-range choice on the north-eastern side of town, Bujtina Oxhaku feels a bit like an Alpine lodge. Large balconies boast city views and rooms are homely and comfortable. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Budget: Simple but friendly Stacioni Hostel has dorm rooms and private doubles. Free bikes, a beautiful garden and bottomless cups of tea with owner, Juxhin, make this hostel the top choice among backpackers. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Airbnb: Stone and timber Art House is exquisitely decorated with antiques and Albanian rugs. It’s located in a local neighbourhood walking distance from the cathedral. Sign up here for a $55 AUD discount off your first booking with Airbnb.
Things to do in Korca
I recommend setting aside one full day to see Korca – although you could comfortably stay for longer. We spent three nights in the city and didn’t get bored – we really enjoyed our lunchtime feasts, afternoon beer sessions and evening strolls!
Here are my favourite things to do in Korca, organised into a logical Korca itinerary.
Resurrection of Christ Cathedral
The Resurrection of Christ Cathedral in the heart of the city is Korca’s defining landmark. Finished in 1994, it’s one of the largest Albanian Orthodox cathedrals in the country.
The design and colour scheme is reminiscent of a Greek Orthodox church – that’s partly because Greece patronised the reconstruction (along with Romanian and Aromanian benefactors) following the demolition of the original St. George Church in 1968 on orders of the ruling Communist Party.
Inside, the cathedral is cavernous and minimally decorated, bearing a resemblance to the cathedral in Tirana that carries the same name.
Walk down St. George Boulevard
Step out the doors of the cathedral, cross the street, and you’ll find yourself on St. George Boulevard, Korca’s main pedestrian drag. Rows of apple trees stand like a guard of honour separating foot traffic from the rows of outdoor coffee shops, bars and ice cream parlours that line both sides.
Along with Boulevard Fan Noli, Korca’s main arterial road that has a long park through its centre, St. George Boulevard is the place to come for an evening stroll or xhiro, a much-loved Albanian tradition.
Even during the day, the shady boulevard is usually thronging with people. There are a couple of noteworthy points of interest along the way, including the First Albanian School. When it opened in the 1880s, the Mësonjëtorja was one of the first places where the written Albanian alphabet was taught to students. Today, it houses a small museum.
Opposite the museum, the canary yellow Romanian House is one of the city’s most distinctive modern buildings. Finished in 1908, it’s a stunning example of the connection between Korca and Romania, which goes back centuries.
There is a fantastic museum inside the Romanian House which I’ll get to in a moment.
Climb the Panoramic Tower for a city view
When you reach the top of St. George Boulevard you’ll see a rather odd modern building near the tourist information office. Korca’s Panoramic Tower isn’t terribly tall, but it’s high enough to offer pretty incredible city views from an observation deck.
From the top, you get a 360-degree aspect of the city, including a view all the way down the boulevard to the cathedral. Korca looks like a model city – almost too cute to be real. I especially love the retro corner building that houses the BKT bank. From up high, you also get a feel for how green and clean Korca really is.
Entrance to the observation deck costs 50 Lek. Tickets can be bought with cash from the desk at the bottom. Note that the tower is only open between 7am and 10pm.
Be warned – the elevator is usually out of service so you’ll probably have to climb the stairs to get to the top!
Visit the Gjon Mili Photography Museum
As you twist and turn your way up the stairwells of the Panoramic Tower, you’ll notice art posters have been added to jazz up some of the concrete walls. These are works by photographer Gjon Mili, who was born here in Korca.
Having learned about Mili’s work at university, I was very keen to check out his museum on the top level of the Romanian House. Entrance is free, and you’ll more than likely be treated to a guided walkaround with the very knowledgeable curator.
Mili, who was was born in Korca in 1904 and raised in Romania, is best-known for being a photographer for New York’s Life magazine from the 1940s until the time of his death in 1984. He pioneered experimental light photography, worked with the likes of Man Ray, and counted Pablo Picasso among his portrait subjects.
The museum exhibits a huge collection of Mili’s photos alongside touching family portraits and letters penned by the artist. Given his extensive career, Mili’s story is tied in with many important historical events. It’s fascinating to see the moon landing, Watergate, and other milestones through his iconic images – you’ll surely recognise more than a few of the photos.
The museum even has a light experiment room where you can try your own light painting.
And the National Museum of Medieval Art
If I had to choose a favourite museum in the region, it would be this one. The National Museum of Medieval Art was built to house 7,000 individual works, mostly Orthodox icons crafted from wood, metal and stone. The collection includes a particular Byzantine icon of Archangel Michael that has been dubbed the ‘Mona Lisa of the Balkans’.
As you enter the museum, the first thing you see is the imposing ‘Golden Wall’ – a 9.5m high wall covered from top to toe with 16th-century icons, each one unique and imbued with history. You could literally stand for hours admiring the intricacies in the paintings and woodwork.
Built in 2016, the museum itself is nothing short of an architectural masterpiece. The layout is meant to mirror the elements of iconographic art (you can read more about the design and see some photos here). Visitors’ movements are choreographed around open staircases, vast gangways and tight hallways, with colour and light employed to add drama and emphasise different works. The only way I can describe it is a full body experience.
At 700 Lek per person, entry is definitely on the expensive side (I think this it the most we paid for any museum in the Balkans). But I think it’s totally worth it.
Photography is strictly prohibited, so you’ll have to take my word that visiting the museum is one of the best things to do in Korca (or follow the link above for a glimpse). It’s open from 9am until 7pm daily.
Cafe hop through the Korca Bazaar
Korca’s Ottoman Bazaar once held more than 1,000 stores and two renowned inns, the Old Elbasan and Old Monastery. It was completely refurbished in 2015 and is probably the Balkans’ best example of how an Old Bazaar can be reborn as a community space.
A central cobbled square is surrounded by cafes and tavernas. In the late afternoon, families and groups congregate under the awnings, making this the most atmospheric time to visit. There are a couple of cool cafes, including a branch of Komiteti Kafe Muzeum and the Communist-themed Kooperativa, which reminds me of Cong in Hanoi.
Needless to say, locally brewed Birra Korca is the beverage of choice.
Pedestrianised streets wind around the square, leading to little shops, galleries, community spaces and antique vendors.
Korca’s 15th-century Iliaz Bej Mirahorit Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Albania. Inside, a series of celebrated frescoes depict Mecca and other important Islamic sites.
The minaret was ceremoniously torn down in the 1990s on the orders of the Communist regime. And just like the cathedral was reconstructed, the minaret was rebuilt to mark Albania’s freedom from religious oppression. The complex also includes a Medressa and a stone Clock Tower, which has long been a symbol of the city.
Explore the backstreets to discover Korca’s cute architecture
It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, I’ll take any excuse to get lost down a cobbled backstreet. In Korca, I spent a whole afternoon wandering in search of a particular house I had seen in a tourist brochure.
On my travels through the backstreets, I stumbled on some incredible facades. I also met some incredible people – including a beautiful old woman who clasped both my hands and spoke to me in Albanian for a full 3 minutes, not minding that I couldn’t comprehend a single syllable of her gushing pleasantries!
If you love street photography, I highly recommend setting side a few hours to walk through the labyrinthine streets behind the cathedral. Some of the cobbled alleys turn into shallow stairs that track up the hillside.
After inquiring at the Tourist Information office, we eventually found the house in question – the little yellow corner number with the manhole cover in front, pictured above.
It was worth the wait!
Grab a beer at the Birra Korca Brewery
Founded in 1928 by an Italian investor, Birra Korca is one of Albania’s flagship breweries. The brew house closed during the war, was nationalised under Communism, and finally reopened under new leadership in 2004. Today, Korca’s beer factory churns out an eye-watering 120,000 hectoliters of beer every year.
Made using natural spring water from the nearby Morava Mountain, Blonde Birra Korca is light and fresh. They also do a dark lager and a dark ale.
You can the whole range (and then some) at the Birra Korca beer factory, which doubles as a restaurant and a huge beer garden. Located on a leafy property in the city’s east, an easy 1.5km walk from the Old Bazaar, this is honeslty one of the nicest places to hang out in the city. Fresh keg beer is on tap, and the kitchen serves a great menu of salty nibbles.
I recommend visiting in the late afternoon, when the light filters through the trees and groups of friends congregate. It’s a very family friendly place with a friendly atmosphere. Behind the tables, you can walk up to see the beer brewing facilities – and maybe even tour the brewery.
There is a beerfest held at Birra Korca every year in August.
Feast on lakror
Korca is famous for its lakror, Albanian-style burek. The flakey pastry is typically filled with cheese and spinach or leek depending on the season and served in bite-sized squares. It’s very different to the ‘regular’ burek you find across the rest of the Balkans – I think it’s lighter and less oily. It reminds me a bit of Greek filo.
We really loved the white bean lakror at Find Four, a trendy little cafe we stumbled on in Korca. We also enjoyed their chicken, bacon and almond risotto.
But our favourite restaurant in Korca is Vila Cofiel (we ended up eating there no fewer than three times). The balsamic pork and the house salad are both amazing. It’s a student favourite, so portions are large and prices are good.
Every July, Korca hosts a lakror Pie Fest (Festa e Lakrorit) to showcase the pastry dish and other local delicacies.
Celebrate at the Korca Carnival
If you have any sense, you’ll want to visit Korca in July/August so you can take in the beerfest and the Pie Fest. The second-best time to go is the weeks leading up to Orthodox Easter, when Korca hosts the largest Carnival cultural parade in Albania.
How to get to Korca
From Saranda/Gjirokaster: There is a single daily bus that leaves Saranda at 6am and stops at Gjirokaster at 7am. The trip takes 5 hours from Gjirokaster along bumpy but scenic roads. Tickets cost 1,300 Lek per person, but the price may fluctuate depending on the cost of fuel.
From Tirana: Buses bound for Korca leave from Tirana’s south-east bus terminal throughout the day beginning at 5am and ending in the mid-afternoon. Some continue on to Thessaloniki. The trip takes 5 hours and costs 500 Lek. More info and times here.
7 things to pack for Albania
- A good quality backpack. The easiest way to get around Albania is with an anti-theft day pack and a large pack for your main luggage. Here are a few of my favourite minimalist backpack designs for inspiration.
- A scarf (women). A lightweight cotton scarf is my number one travel item. In Albania, it will come in extra handy for covering your hair when entering a mosque or Orthodox Cathedral. This neutral travel scarf goes with anything, and it even has a hidden pocket.
- Walking shoes. From cobbled streets to rocky peaks, comfy walking shoes are absolutely essential for Albania. I love these ones for women, while my partner lives in these waterproof shoes.
- A reusable water bottle. Avoid single-use plastics whenever you can. I love my S’Well water bottle for warm climates because it doesn’t sweat. Silicone bags, a reusable straw and a portable cutlery set might also come in handy.
- Wine Wings. Should you decide to buy a drinkable souvenir in Albania, these handy custom-made bottle protectors will keep your vino safe and sound in your luggage. A travel corkscrew and a wine stopper are bound to come in handy, too.
- Entertainment for long bus/furgon journeys. If you don’t suffer motion sickness, an e-reader is great for passing the time on long road journeys. If you have a travel buddy, pick up a headphone splitter – probably my favourite travel gadget of all time – so you can share a screen or a podcast. Check out my full list of essential items to make a long train or bus journey more comfortable.
- Biodegradable wet wipes. Try this convenient travel pack.
Here are a few key resources and websites that might come in handy for organising your trip to Albania.
– Find affordable flights to Albania using Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Albania and apply for an expedited visa online.
– Find a great price on a hire car in Albania using the comparison website, Discover Cars. Check out my Balkans road trip guide for route inspiration!
– Find the best Albania hotel deals on Booking.com, book an Albania hostel, or find a unique Airbnb (use this link to sign up and get $55 AUD off your first booking).
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Albania on Get Your Guide.
– Pick up a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for the Western Balkans (published October 2019).
More Albania inspiration
- Recommended itinerary for 2 weeks in Albania
- The perfect one-day itinerary for Tirana, Albania’s dynamic capital city
- Visit Gjirokaster, Albania’s beautiful stone city
- Guide to Berat, the ‘City of a Thousand Windows’
- Trekking in the Albanian Alps: My guide to the Valbona Theth hike
- Fancy an Albania road trip? Here is some Balkans self-drive itinerary inspiration
- My guide to travelling between Italy and Albania with the Bari Durres ferry