Increasingly becoming a popular vacation destination, Albania as a whole is a unique and beautiful country that is certainly worth a visit for its off-the-beaten-path character. For a full dose of both modern culture and communist history, head to the nation’s capital, Tirana, to get an idea of what cosmopolitan life is like in a post-communist society.
TOP SITES TO SEE
Personal Favorite: Blloku (“The Block”)
Blloku is the part of Tirana that used to be closed off to everyone except high government officials during communism, and as such, it’s the newest and most developed part of the city. It has a young and fresh atmosphere. Make sure to stroll along cute, shaded side streets and stop for a coffee or a drink in this growing district.
At the center of the city lies Skanderbeg Square, filled with a variety of landmarks that are central to the culture and history of Albania. There you can see the triumphant statue of Skanderbeg, a national hero who led Albania to victory against the Ottomans in 1441; the opera house; many of the government ministries; and Et`hem Bey Mosque, the oldest mosque that somehow survived the country’s long communist regime during the 20th century.
This history museum is the best way to learn about Albanian history in two hours or less. It will lead you through time starting from before ancient civilization through to Albanian independence, the communist regime, and today. The number of ancient, intact artifacts they have is impressive for such a small museum. Admission is less than $2.
Enver Hoxha Pyramid
Though certainly not the prettiest sight to see in Tirana, this derelict concrete pyramid is still intact as a reminder of Enver Hoxha’s ugly communist regime over Albania during much of the 20th century. If you’re feeling really brave, try climbing to the top – just be careful on the way down!
One thing you will quickly learn about Albania is that Hoxha, the communist dictator, left hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers all over the country in the wake of his extreme paranoia of invasion. One of these bunkers is open to visit in a park near Blloku right next to the Parliament Offices (Zyrat e Parlamentit) on the main boulevard. When traveling through Albania, watch for these little buggers hidden in the landscape around you – you’ll be surprised by how many you’ll find!
Artificial Lake of Tirana Park
This park is a nice place to stroll through in the evening, when every Albanian in Tirana comes out to walk around the city and get together with friends. Again, the lake isn’t the nicest sight to see (its cleanliness is questionable, so don’t go in), but the ambience of the park is gentle and friendly to enjoy in the cooler evenings.
WHERE AND WHAT TO EAT
Personal Favorite: Xheko Imperial
This restaurant is located on top of the ornately-decorated Xheko Imperial Hotel in Blloku and is one my favorite places to eat in Tirana. The restaurant has a beautiful view of the city and surrounding mountains, and the décor is spot-on. Everything is white, they have little tropical birds, and the music is nice and relaxing. Enjoy a really nice lunch or dinner here with a glass of wine, and you’re still sure to be ringing in at less than $20.
Taiwan Place is a great place to visit for a number reasons: there’s a park, a big fountain, a casino, ATMs, a restaurant, and a bar. The restaurant serves good food, from salads and soups to pasta and meat. You will usually pay less than $10 for a decent-sized meal here.
Oriental Palace is one of the places to go for Chinese food in Tirana. Most, if not all, meals are under $10 and you get to enjoy your food in a dining room or on a Chinese-themed balcony outside.
Street Food in Blloku
In Blloku, not only will you find some hip places to eat a nice dinner, but you’ll also find typical street food. This usually includes pizza, a type of toasted meat wrap with French fries in it called sufllaqe (sue-flah-tcha), and doner kebab, but sometimes you might find burgers too. If you thought food was already really cheap in Albania, wait until you buy some street food – you can usually get sufllaqe and a beer for less than $4.
WHERE AND WHAT TO DRINK
In Albania, coffee culture is huge. It’s completely normal to go out for 2 or 3 coffees every day, sometimes with coworkers or in the evening with friends. There’s a joke that most business gets done over coffee in Albania, but it’s true! Because of this phenomenon, there is a wealth of coffee shops to choose from in Tirana, with one on just about every block. The normal cafes will have the typical type of Albanian coffee, which are Italian espressos, macchiatos, and the like. If you’re interested in more specialty types of coffee, head to a coffee shop like my personal favorite, Mon Cheri. Coffee is really cheap in Albania, ranging from 60 cents for a macchiato to less than $3 for a regular-sized specialty coffee.
Bars and Lounges
Tirana, especially Blloku, is filled with hip bars and lounges. Because the city is warm, especially in the summer, every bar and lounge has an outdoor patio, which are really nice to relax on in the evening.
Personal favorite bar: Sky Bar
Sky Bar, though a little bit on the expensive side for Tirana, is a posh bar/lounge with an amazing view over the city. Enjoy swaying to the music and looking at the view while sipping on a trendy cocktail, beer, or wine.
Other good bars include Hemingway, Whiskey Bar, Duff, and New Irish.
Personal favorite lounge: Pepper Lounge
In my opinion, Pepper Lounge combines the best qualities of any lounge: great outdoor seating, lots of plants and trees, hip ambience, and a soulful soundtrack. I can sit on their outdoor deck for hours sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the scenery.
Other great lounges include City Art, Colonial Café, and the bar/lounge at Taiwan Center.
Tirana is known for a hip, up-and-coming nightlife scene. It’s very common for Albanians, especially young people, to dress up and go out for drinks or for a walk through Blloku on any night of the week. For clubs that have drinks but are also made for some dancing, check out Lollipop, The Montrose, and Folie Bar.