It might be famous for moody communist-era architecture, but Tirana has an upbeat liveliness and friendliness unusual for a capital city. Albania is a poster child for religious tolerance and getting on with the neighbours and Tirana is a microcosm of this: the city was first built by the Muslim Ottoman Turks and is the home to some stunning mosques, which means in some parts of town you can hear the call to prayer in one ear and the gentle beat of electronica from the bars in the other.
It was a quiet town until 1912 when Albania’s capital was moved inland from Durres to the safer confines of Tirana, meaning it’s full of leafy wide 20th century streets with plenty of shade from the heat. The city’s epicentre is the sprawling, pedestrianised Skanderbeg Square, which is a showcase of the best architecture in town. For food, you’ll want to head south of the river to Blloku. This buzzy corner was formerly a residential neighbourhood for governing communist politicians, but now it’s a vibrant hub of cafes, bars and restaurants. Here’s how to get the most out of this rich tapestry of a city.
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Albanian cuisine is totally underrated. Just like Greek and Turkish, expect a palette of grilled vegetables and meats (be sure to order kofte meatballs if they’re on the menu) and fresh, crisp salads at just about any grazing hole in Tirana. For a more specialist menu of local plates head to Oda Restaurant, just off Pazari i Ri market. The service and grub here are incredible.
Equally as fantastic is Restaurant Era Blloku, a branch of the much-loved chain where you must order the veal casserole. It comes with a pizza dough lid that the waiters cut open for you – quite the spectacle. Tirana is also home to some top-notch Italian restaurants given its relationship to the Mediterranean (Mussolini invaded in 1939). The best in town is Ristorante Italiano Vita99 in Blloku where the homemade pasta is famously delicious.
Make a bee-line for Skanderbeg Square. The grand, pedestrianised public space is home to some of the capital’s finest architecture: on one side you’ll see the jaw-dropping Et'hem Bej Mosque, which is full of stunning frescoes and woodwork that gives a hint as to how grand Ottoman-era Albania must have been, and on the other, there’s the Opera House and National History Museum, two bastions of communist-era modernism that cast an elegant yet sombre shadow.
If you’re up for learning about the grisly history of Tirana and Albania’s communist era Bunk Art 1, a museum in a bunker just off the square, is the best place to start. It’s pretty upsetting stuff but important to understanding what 20th-century Albania went through. Sister space Bunk Art 2 is more art-focused and mildly less bleak. Get a ticket for both to make it cheaper. To experience a full sweep of the city take the Tirana Free Walking Tour. It’s two hours and very informative, full of local tips and contemporary stories.
If you’re looking for a sociable stay in the city’s nightlife hub Blloku, Vanilla Sky Boutique Hostel is the place. For a start, it actually is boutique with bijou interiors full of velvet sofas and oak tables. It’s an ideal spot to meet fellow travellers. Book a dorm or private room, both are top of the range comfort and decor wise.
Architecture nuts will love the 1960s communist era Tirana International Hotel, on the north side of Skanderbeg Square. The retro vibes are very real and the grandeur of days gone by lives on in the posh facilities. If you fancy extending your budget, the five star Rogner Hotel Tirana is eminently affordable and has a huge garden, swimming pool and bar to retreat to after a hard day’s sightseeing.
While you could wander into just about any tiny bar in Tirana and be welcomed at an impromptu knees-up, it’s Blloku that’s really popping most nights of the week. All Balkan countries brew a liquor called Raki or Rakia, and Albania is as ferociously proud of theirs. The raki menu is huge and delicious at Komiteti - Kafe Muzeum, which has an actual local history museum inside and a huge patio outside. It’s a must, and the staff will talk you through the raki menu with aplomb.
On the other side of Blloku, Radio Bar Tirana is a fun, vibrant hangout with great music, decor (many, many radios) and a delicious cocktail menu. If you’re looking for something more intimate Nouvelle Vague Tirana shakes the best cocktails in town.
Your first shopping stop has to be Pazari i Ri. The covered food market has been in Tirana for centuries and sells the most delicious dried fruits and nuts, as well as fresh produce and souvenirs. It’s lined with cool cafes and bistros too, so arrive hungry.
More souvenirs and local wares can be found at Tirana Castle. While the castle may be disappointing (only a wall remains), the bazaar behind is full of treasures, including bars, a coffee house and handicraft shops. One of the best is Porcelan Studio Seferi, packed full of elegant plates, crockery and decorative porcelain.
Tirana in short
In three words? Big Balkan vibe.
Beers, wine, cocktails? Rakia! The Balkan liquor is king here.
Dress code? Smart casual. Shoulders and knees covered if you plan to visit churches and mosques.
Friendly locals? You’ve never met friendlier capital city dwellers.
Claim to fame? Communist era architecture.