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24 hours in Tirana: a first-timer’s guide to exploring Albania’s spirited capital 

24 hours in Tirana: a first-timer’s guide to exploring Albania’s spirited capital 
Two women sit atop the Tirana Pyramid. Image: Claudio Poli/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

Albania is reinventing itself as a destination for stunning beach getaways without the crowds — with Tirana poised as one of the liveliest, most easy-going capital cities in Europe.

11 December 2019

If you’re looking for a quick jolt of caffeine before you start exploring, you’re in luck: cafe culture is a huge part of life in Albania. Even chain brands, like the popular Mon Cheri found nationwide, are constantly full of espresso-sipping Albanians. It’s not unheard of to loiter for an entire afternoon over the same cup of coffee.

If you’re after something lighter, head to Çoko Bistro & Bar in the trendy Blloku neighbourhood to enjoy a variety of fresh fruit smoothies along with your morning espresso.

If you’re looking for a full breakfast meanwhile, Bufe is the place to go. Centrally located by the river, between Blloku and Skanderbeg Square, stepping out from the busy streets into this restaurant is like escaping into an oasis. Plants surround the wooden tables of the front patio, secluding you from the main street, so you can enjoy traditional petulla (fried dough) with honey and jam in peace. The wine list and Bufe’s cosy interior make this a great place to come at night, too.

After breakfast, have a walk around the stylish cafe- and bar-filled Blloku. You somehow always find your way back to these modern streets during a day in Tirana. You’ll be back later for the bars and an incredible Italian dinner (with a very minimal price tag).

In the meantime, start your explorations by getting centered in Tirana at the sprawling Skanderbeg Square. From this massive open space, you’ll get a good introduction to the leisurely pace of life in Tirana. Despite being the capital, you won’t find people hustling through the city centre. Albanians will frequently be found on the benches or gathered in groups, greeting friends in the square. Surrounded by the Opera House, a prominent statue of Skanderbeg (who led Albania, as well as parts of modern-day North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia in rebellion against the Ottoman empire), the stunning Et’hem Bey Mosque, and an unassuming carousel, this square is the heart of the city.

If you’re interested, have a look inside the mosque. Completed at the start of the 19th century, Et’hem Bey is made all the more precious by the fact that Albanians were once banned from practicing religion at all, with the communist authorities shuttering all churches, mosques, and shrines in 1967.

Other sites on Skanderbeg Square include the National Art Gallery, with its bold outside mural depicting history’s patriotic Albanians, ready to defend their country against intruders. Inside the building, meanwhile, you’ll find a range of works, including hundreds of examples Socialist Realism, propaganda that’s fascinating to see in person.

The bold and colourful mural is just one example of the colourful architecture and art all over the city. Unlike the museum, many of these vibrant touches were added less than a decade after the fall of communism, when one of the first mayors of Tirana — Edi Rama — decided the buildings should be painted as a tangible sign of change from the grey, dreary concrete buildings of the past. It was an effort to enliven the morale of the country — and it worked.

One of the first mayors of Tirana decided buildings should be painted as a tangible sign of change from the grey, dreary concrete buildings of the past

But this modern facelift is just one layer of Albanian history — even here, more secrets lie underneath your very feet. Albania’s former socialist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985, believed that foreign powers would try to take control of the country in the midst of the Cold War. His paranoia led him to order the construction of more than 700,000 bunkers across the country. In the past few decades, these have been turned into everything from tattoo parlours to animal shelters. Just off Skanderbeg Square the BunkArt2 museum, is an offshoot of the hugely popular BunkArt, a little further outside the centre. BunkArt 2 reconstructs the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1912 to 1991, with an interactive exhibition revealing secrets of the Sigurimi, Hoxha’s secret police. It describes itself as the first major video museum exhibition dedicated to the victims of communist terror.

From Skanderbeg, head to the New Bazaar neighbourhood, where you’ll be able to find an open air market. Buy some fresh fruit or stop by one of the local bakeries and sample the byrek, a flaky-crust pie typically filled with djathë (cheese) and spinach. If you’d rather sample the local Greek cuisine meanwhile, the Grill House Greek Original Souvlaki is great for a snack. A local favourite, you can have a quick souvlaki pita here before walking down to the river.

If you’re looking for a full lunch however, then there’s only one choice for a traditional Albanian meal. Named Oda, this quirky spot is frequented by both locals and tourists, and remains one of the last remaining über-traditional Albanian restaurants in Tirana.

Pots and pans hang among ornately framed black-and-white pictures, placed haphazardly on the walls. It’s the kind of restaurant that feels like your grandmother’s living room and you’re treated with the same “relax and make yourself at home” attitude. They’re best known for their meat (“mish” in Albanian), but they have an extensive vegetarian section on the menu as well. You can’t go wrong ordering here; or if you trust your server implicitly, you could always ask them to choose for you. Round off your meal by doing as the Albanians do, and try one of the many-flavoured rakis on offer: options include plum, blackberry, and mulberry.

Walk off your lunch by heading back along the river and towards Blloku. On the way, you’ll come by Tanner’s Bridge — a short, modest stone walkway that makes up one of the last remaining elements of the city’s Ottoman past.

A visit to Tirana wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the Albanian Pyramids of Giza. Okay fine, it’s just one pyramid. And it’s made of cement. And, since being fenced off by the government, it has become quite an eye sore. (Rumour has it the city may destroy it soon, although other plans have it earmarked as a future culture and tech hub). But this pyramid — which was built to honour Hoxha after his death, while Albania was still under socialist rule — has become a symbol of freedom for Albanians. Climbing to the top during sunset with an armful of beers and then sliding down the concrete became the favourite nightly activity for Tirana’s teens and young adults.

As your daylight exploring draws to a close, head to the Sky Tower just before sunset (it’s a safer view than the one you’ll get from the top of the pyramid). The view of Tirana from above is unexpectedly beautiful and it’s the best place to watch the city light up after dark. You can grab an appetizer, a coffee, or a cocktail from the rotating restaurant at the top and unwind before dinner.

Along with its Greek ties (remember that delicious souvlaki?), Albania has strong connections to its neighbour across the Adriatic Sea: Italy. Plenty of Italians live in Albania and many Albanians migrate to Italy for short periods for work. The point? Tirana does great Italian food.

Barely visible from the street and tucked into the back of a mid-street parking lot in Blloku, A La Sante is home to some of the best (and least expensive) Italian food you’ll have in your life. Two small rooms and a cosy balcony make up the extent of the restaurant, but its wonderful service and delicious, homemade pastas set the place apart. Have £3 to spare? Try the homemade pasta in truffle sauce. Or a cream sauce with salmon. The chefs here try to maintain a focus on health, which is gladly welcomed in byrek-loving Albania.

After dinner, the bars and lounges of Blloku have something for everyone. From swanky, cocktail-focused lounges to quirky, laid-back pubs and techno-filled nightclubs, Blloku plays host to all tastes. Hemingway, Small Bar, and Radio Bar are favourites for chill vibes, positive energy, and good cocktails. Try a Vodka Sour while you’re in Tirana: the city’s speciality.

In the balmy summer months, it’s great to take a drink on the terraces, but as the temperature drops, crowds of young people working their summers by the beach head back into town, transforming Tirana into a buzzing hub of night-time activity. After a day of sightseeing, it’s the perfect way to unwind — and get to work falling in love with this free and bohemian country.

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