Following on from my Guide to Sofia, here’s another Balkan city guide. It’s nowhere as comprehensive as my guide to Sofia, as I only spent 5 weeks in Tirana. However, hopefully it will prove useful if you’re visiting this vibrant city, in this beautiful, friendly, oft-misunderstood country.
Let’s start with the most important thing – Everything you’ve heard about Albania is probably wrong.
Albania is easily the friendliest, safest place I’ve ever visited. I was treated with nothing but courtesy, smiles, and hospitality every single place I went. It may be a country still rebuilding after decades of North Korea style isolating communism, but you have nothing to fear from the amazing people here.
The capital city, Tirana, is a rapidly growing city. If you listen closely you can almost hear the streets creaking under the strain of the pressure of growth. Like a teenager with growing pains, it’s changing all the time, and isn’t always comfortable with what’s happening to it. But there’s enough positive traits here to know that this will one day soon be a mature, confident, vibrant “adult”.
English is very widely spoken. You can safely assume that most people under 40 will speak pretty fluently. But, of course that’s no excuse not to learn a few words (usually pronounced pretty much as they’re written)…
- Hello – Përshëndetje
- Thank you – Faleminderit
- Please – Ju lutem
- Goodbye – Lamtumirë
- Cheers – Gëzuar
Take the free tour. Even if you’re there for only a few days, it’s a fascinating two hours, and your experience of the country will be all the richer for an understanding of the people and their history.
Where to stay
If you’re only here for a short break, then stay in the district called Blloku. Or within a few streets of it. It’s a dense concentration of cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs, to the south of the centre. It’s also a short walk from the park and lake that just sits at the south of the city, and 10-15 minutes stroll from Skanderberg Square. But maybe also bring earplugs. It can be noisy, even though there is a fairly strictly observed curfew of midnight. Historically, only the elite of the communist party were allowed to live in this area, but now everyone is able to visit and get the finest food, drink, and nightlife.
Beeping of horns
Albanians use their car horns to communicate a variety of things, and you won’t go 30 seconds in the city without hearing a very loud beep. Here’s some of the things they use their horns to communicate.
- “Fellow driver. I would like to forcefully inform you that the lights turned from red to green approximately 0.000001 seconds ago”.
- “Hey Vasken! You’re looking well! Say hello to your mum for me.”
- “Hey driver in front of me. I can see that you’ve stopped to allow that pregnant woman cross the road with her elderly mother and her disabled child, and I want to express my approval and support for your act of humanity by resting my hand on the horn until we start moving again. Please take your time and don’t feel that I’m pressuring you to start moving as soon as you possibly can”.
- “Nice shoes”
Also worth noting that you need to keep your eyes and ears open around traffic. Levels of respect for pedestrians and cyclists is probably lower than what you’re used to. Somebody suggested to me that as the majority of Albanian citizens have only really been able to own cars since the nineties, there’s not a great “cultural knowledge” of driving (although I’ve no idea if this theory holds water). Regardless, it can be a little chaotic.
Breakfast & coffee
Albania reportedly has more cafes per capita than any other country, and it’s not difficult to imagine that after just a few minutes in the city. They are everywhere. And it has managed to achieve this status without allowing Starbucks to set up a single store.
Coko – the Balkan cities that I’ve visited don’t appear to have a breakfast/brunch culture in the same way that you might find in the US/UK. But this is one cafe that I found that does good eggs, toast, smoothies etc.
Destil – if you just need coffee and to hang out with the cool kids, head to this place. It’s a hostel, a music venue, gallery, bar, cafe, and all-round fun place to spend a few hours. Especially in the leafy yard when the sun is shining.
There are two main coffee chains here – Mulliri i Vjeter & Mon Cheri. Both are fine for coffee and laptops etc, and you’re never more than 400m from one of them. The safe bet i a pinch.
Lunch & Dinner
Honestly, there’s an overwhelming choice of places to eat, especially in the Blloku district. So I’m going to randomly list a few places in which I enjoyed good meals. But otherwise you can safely just stroll until you see somewhere that takes your fancy.
However, there are SO MANY cafes that it’s easy to confuse them with places that serve food, so double check before you sit down.
Bufe – more along the wine bar and meze vibe. Really good food etc though. Really like it.
Era pizzeria – apparently there are two of these, but I only went to this one (several times!). Usually quite an international crowd in there.
Serenity – the only Mexicna restaurant in town, I expect. But it’s fun. Big portions, friendly (although the staff are friendly in EVERY restaurant in Albania). and there’s some cute disclaimer on the menu saying that the food isn’t very spicy because it’s “not to Albanian tastes”, so you have to let them know if you like your Mexican food to have a little “fire”!
A La Sante – I never actually visited here, but got advised several times to go because the food is apparently fantastic. But I just never got round to it.
Hemingway – cool, hipster cocktail bar. My only drunken night in the city was here. I just remember that it had a super nice vibe!
Komiteti – cafe/bar that is also a kind of museum. Highly recommended.
Radio Bar – in the heart of Blloku, and a great atmosphere. Plenty of space both indoors and outdoors.
Things to do
- Climb the pyramid in the centre.
- Disclaimer – at your own risk.
- Use the slopes furthest away from the main entrance. They’re less steep.
- Go at sunset for the best views.
- Walk around the lake
- Go at dusk, and you’ll meet everyone from the rest of the city!
- Go up Mount Daijti for lunch.
- Get the blue bus (apparently there’s only one blue bus) from the street east of Skanderberg Square, and ride it until the ticket guy tells you to get off. Probably about 30 mins, depending on traffic.
- Ride the cable car to the top. Enjoy the views. Have lunch in the restaurant with a big glass window overlooking the city.
- If you want to climb to the peak (it’s not the greatest hike I’ve ever done – beautiful woodland, but it’s steep and there are few opportunities for views), then you need to walk straight out the back of the cable car building, up the path to the disused hotel, and round the back. You’ll find a path into the woods there. After a few mins you’ll need to turn left up the hill. If you find yourself walking “horizontally” for a few hundred metres along some almost paved path, you’ve possibly gone too far. Retrace your steps until you see the sign pointing up the hill. Now climb and follow the red and white markings.
- Hyper-paranoid communist dictator Enver Hoxher built this mammoth complex of bunkers on the outskirts of the city (it’s one bus stop before the cable car stop, so follow the instructions above). It’s a fascinating, and slightly creepy, experience. I probably wouldn’t bother with the audio guide. It doesn’t add anything above what you can read on the walls. The audio piped in of soldiers marching, air raid sirens, and dictatorial speeches, make it an atmospheric few hours.
- The tunnel you walk through to get into the museum is creepy enough on its own!
- If you don’t have time to go to the main one, there’s a smaller version (Bunk’art 2) in the city centre which concentrates a little more on the grisly elements of the dictatorship (torture etc) – I didn’t make it to this second one.
Outside the city :
If you do have time to get outside Tirana, then he’s a few places to check out. It’s a beautiful country, and tourism is apparently growing at a rate of 30% a year. So get here and visit so you can say you were here before it was cool!
Active Albania – best providers of adventure in the country. Rafting, mountain biking, hiking etc etc. Ask for Blerina!
Apparently the beaches near the south of the country are world class, and so beautiful. I didn’t manage to get down there, sadly.
I loved my weeks in Tirana. I never got bored of it’s architecture, people, or weather. And the constant coffee, of course! I hope you love it as much as I do!