Tucked away in the mountainous highlands of northeastern Albania is the highly underrated city of Kukës, also known as Kukësi. Located roughly 30 minutes west of the Albania/Kosovo border, this beautiful and culturally-rich city is a must for those looking to explore northern Albania. Several of the top things to see and do in Kukës stem from its unique history and its breathtaking location.
The History of Kukës
The history of Kukës goes back over a millennium. Initially, the area where the city now stands was the home of several ancient Illyrian tribes. Many Illyrian tombs have been discovered in the surrounding area. The city itself lay on a road that branches off from the Via Egnatia. This 2nd-century Roman road connected Rome with what is now the European side of Turkey.
Kukës is unique in that the city is not one city, but three. The first of the three found itself flooded by the waters of Fierza Lake in 1978. The second is the modern-day city that stands today. The third, more mysterious city comprises a labyrinthine tunnel network built beneath modern-day Kukës during the Communist regime!
In more modern times, Kukës played an integral role during the Kosovo War. During the war, which raged from February 1998 to June 1999, As Kosovar Albanians fled the country and crossed into Albania. The city of Kukës embraced the displaced refugees.
They were housed in camps in and around the city, providing them with much-needed shelter and safety. Because of the city’s efforts, it was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. This marked the first time a city was nominated for the prestigious award.
In the years since the Kosovo War, Kukës’ reputation as one of Albania’s most hospitable cities has endured. The inhabitants of the city’s traditional houses often hosted guests, serving them local treats like chestnut honey and alpine trout.
Kukës lies among the beautiful but ominously-named Accursed Mountains, which offers unparalleled hiking and other nature-related activities. The alpine town of Valbona lies less than three hours away by car. Also, nearby Valbona National Park boasts stunning mountain forests, lakes, and rivers.
The city’s history is proudly displayed, from its above-ground memorials to its dark subterranean tunnels. It’s also one of the best places to try one of Albania’s most popular foods, and there’s no shortage of spots to grab a drink with locals!
It’s one of the most unique cities I visited in Albania and is yet another I highly recommend. These are the top 5 things to see and do in Kukës, Albania.
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Explore the Communist-Era Tunnels
Arguably Kukës’ most unique feature is its network of subterranean tunnels roughly 30 meters beneath its streets. Also known as “Underground Kukës” or “the underground city,” the state constructed them during the Communist era. They were meant to serve as a shelter for the city’s inhabitants in the event of potential attacks or bombings.
The tunnels date back to the 1970s. Initially, they were supposed to be a full-fledged city with government offices, residential areas, a hospital, and more. Today, there are many unfinished rooms branching off from them. Some contain electrical sockets and toilets. You’ll also find storage rooms, working water spigots, and even wine cellars.
The tunnels are long-abandoned now. That said, you can still find entrances leading into the dank, damp subterranean city scattered around the city. Every Communist-era building in Kukës has a stairway leading down to the tunnels, and you can also find entrances in residential neighborhoods as well.
Roughly 6,000 people could have lived in these tunnels at a time. They’re currently being converted into a tourist attraction, but right now, the only way to visit them is to arrange a tour through my friend Ermal.
The tunnels are partially flooded, and there’s quite a bit of piling and construction materials lying around. Add in the loose wires, low ceilings, and pitch darkness, and you have a place that can be quite dangerous to explore on your own. Safety is key here, so I highly suggest wearing a hard hat and plastic bags over your shoes to protect them from the dirty standing water and mud.
While exploring these tunnels may not be for everyone, I recommend them if you enjoy diving into local history. They’re easily one of the top things to do in Kukës, Albania and make for a one-of-a-kind experience!
Check Out Memorial Tower
Located along Rruga Eksod in Kukës is the city’s most prominent reminder of the role it took on during the Kosovo War. There, you’ll find Memorial Tower, also known as Kulla Monument.
The tower immortalizes the 450,000 Kosovar-Albanian refugees who fled the Kosovo War and arrived in Kukës. Inside, visitors can view a photo exhibition documenting the exodus and the hard conditions the refugees endured along the way.
Next to Memorial Tower is a small ethnographic museum where travelers can learn more about Kukës and the surrounding area. On display are photographs, traditional clothing, and household items. Visitors can also find facts about local plants and endemic species.
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Have a Drink at Hotel Bar Restaurant America
Anyone who has visited the Balkans will tell you that drinking is a big part of the culture. That is certainly the case in Albania, where it’s never too early or too late to imbibe with locals! One of the best spots in Kukës to enjoy a drink is Hotel Bar Restaurant America.
This beautiful restaurant boasts a hotel, an outdoor bar, indoor dining areas, and even an outdoor elevator. The bar is located on the seventh floor and includes a rooftop terrace. From there, guests can enjoy incredible views of the city, lake, and mountains.
The most popular drink of choice in Albania is rakija, or raki. This is a type of brandy from the Balkans that can be made from a number of different fruits, including apple, quince, apricots, plums, berries, and pears.
Hotel Bar Restaurant America claims to serve the best raki in the north! It’s smoother and easier to drink than a lot of the other types of raki I drank in northern Albania, so I have to say I agree! Enjoying some while kicking back and enjoying the views of Kukës is definitely among the top things to do in Kukës, Albania!
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Eat Traditional Flija
If raki is Albania’s most popular drink, its most popular food is a savory cake called flija. You can find this dish throughout the country, but it’s a traditional specialty in Kukës County. One of the best places in Albania to try it is five minutes outside of Kukës.
For this food adventure, my guide Erjan from Travel Media EU and I met up with his friend Edison, who owns a business called Bio Taxi that delivers flija anywhere in Albania. We arrived at an inconspicuous building outside of town that houses baby cows and chickens. But in their yard in the back is a woman who makes some of the best flija in the country!
How to Make Flija
The flija contains flour, eggs, butter, milk, and water. The woman mixes the batter as she heats large tava lids over a fire. She uses a whopping 15 eggs to make one flija, and adds butter so the batter doesn’t stick as it cooks.
Making flija is a time-consuming process, as each crepe-like layer must be baked individually. She places eggs between each layer and constantly swaps the lids to continue the cooking process. All in all, it takes about three hours to make the dish properly.
The long cooking process is well worth it, as flija is one of the tastiest dishes I ate during my time in Albania. After it finishes baking, the scorching-hot cake comes out crispy and golden-brown, with softer layers in the middle.
After the flija is sliced, it’s time to dig in with your hands—just don’t burn your fingers! It’s quite rich, with an eggy flavor, and is like a unique, crunchy cross between an omelet and a pancake.
The dish is so highly regarded that many local men joke that they won’t marry a girl unless she knows how to make flija! After my first bite of the crispy crust and soft, chewy layers, I could understand why it’s one of the top dishes in the country. The balance of textures and rich, savory flavors had my mouth watering!
Enjoy your flija with a drink called lala. It’s essentially a milky, chunky yogurt that has a hint of sourness. It’s the perfect thing to pair with it! And regardless of where you try it, having flija is one of the top things to do in Kukës, Albania!
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Visit Kantina “DOGJANI”
Just a two-minute drive from the flija yard is yet another local spot travelers must visit in Kukës, Kantina Dogjani. This cantina winery and distillery produces a number of different types of wine and raki, as well as Albania’s first dry gin!
The smell of alcohol hits you square in the face as you enter the facility, run by a friendly and enthusiastic man named Bleron. During my visit, I got a peek at their distilling process and tried several of their products. I admit, I’m not much of a fan of gin, but theirs is quite smooth and tasty.
I also tried a smooth and palatable blackberry raki that contains 40% alcohol and a light and fruity wine made from indigenous grapes. The wine would pair best with a nice, juicy piece of meat!
As a wine lover who enjoys sampling local wines, my experience at Kantina Dogjani was a treat. The people are hospitable and kind, and spending a bit of time with them was the perfect way to cap off a day in Kukës. It’s one of my favorite things to do in Kukës, Albania!
Kukës may not get much fanfare in travel guides and blogs, but in my opinion, it deserves more attention. From its unique history to its underground tunnel city to its bars to its flija, Kukës is truly one of a kind. When I travel, these are the types of places I seek out—places where I can meet and mingle with locals and enjoy experiences I can’t get anywhere else. When you travel through northern Albania, don’t pass this city by. In fact, book a trip to Albania today to check out the wonders of Kukës for yourself!
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