48 hours in Tirana, Albania — the ultimate guide

48 hours in Tirana, Albania — the ultimate guide

Destinations

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If you’re planning a short trip or weekend getaway to Tirana, here’s your guide on what to see and do, where to eat and drink, top sights and attractions, local tips, a cost guide, and the best times to visit.

As the Iron Curtain fell across Europe and countries emerged, blinking, into the harsh light of western capitalism, Albania had to be dragged out of a deeper slumber than most. The continent’s most isolated country has had a brutal history but is finally asserting itself as a destination for mildly adventurous travelers like, in this case, myself. Here’s how to make the most of a 48 hour stay.

How to get to Tirana city center from the airport

In saying I had 48 hours to explore, I’m taking a slight liberty: I actually arrived around 1pm on a Friday, giving myself the rest of the day plus Saturday and Sunday before leaving on the Monday. Once I landed, I immediately headed straight for the buses.

These were a motley selection of coaches and minibusses that don’t run to a schedule; they leave when they’re full. A one-way ticket will cost you 400 lek (€4) payable to the driver when he’s happy all the seats are taken.

Here’s the first time you’ll see the wad of cash anyone dealing in service has with them at all times. Virtually everything is done in cash, which means that if you don’t know the price of something, the driver / bartender / waiter / whoever will pull the correct note from their pile and you just find the same one in your wallet.

The view from Tirana, AlbaniaThe view from Tirana, Albania

After a one-hour journey into the city (can be as little as 35 minutes, it’s very traffic dependent), I dropped my bag off and headed out. My plan was to get my bearings (which I did, pretty much — it’s not a big place).

I’d also noticed there was some football that evening, so I found a likely-looking sports bar to ask for more information. They knew absolutely nothing about it, but I did get chatting to two other English lads who were looking to go to the game as well. So we did.

KF Tirana 1 — 2 Teuta Durrës was an entertaining spectacle in front of a mere handful of fans at the shiny, new and echoing Air Albania Stadium.

Day One

In the morning, I walked a few minutes from my accommodation on Rruga Reshit Çollaku to Skanderbeg Square, the focal point of the city.

As recently as 2016, the square was a huge traffic roundabout, but is now a slightly humpbacked expanse of stone flanked on the north side by the National Historical Museum, to the south by a statue of national hero Skanderbeg, and on the east by the Palace of Culture which contains the opera house, a foreign language bookstore and four coffee shops (Albania runs on coffee, by the way; coffee and cigarettes).

Tirana walking tour

It was here the walking tours departed at 10am. I was slightly worried by the amount of people, but the guides from Tirana Free Tour were absolute pros, dividing people by language (English, Spanish and Italian), then subdividing those groups into manageable clumps of 15 or so people per guide.

This wasn’t my first time taking part in these tours (for example, Oslo: good, Copenhagen: very bad), this one proved to be superb. Our guide was a Californian called Bailey (“like the Irish liquor”) and she knew everything. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable about any element of history, religion or culture, and encouraging and fielding even the trickiest of questions: give that woman the $10,000. A better Tirana primer you will not get. Apart from this article, obviously.

After getting a spot of lunch I retraced my steps to take some photos and look at some things a bit more closely. I was very much taken with the large, white concrete pyramid that was originally built in 1988 to be a museum to former long-time dictator Enver Hoxha and, after the fall of the regime, had become at various times a conference center, a disco and a bus station. It’s now a youth education center and climbing onto the roof gives good views of the city.

Blloku

A short walk from there and you’ll find yourself at Checkpoint, a park on the corner of Rruga Ismael Qemali and Boulevard Dëshmorët e Kombit. This was the entrance to the area known as Blloku (the three-block-by-five-block section of the city once home to party superiors and now the center of Tirana’s nightlife) in which you can see Hoxha’s villa, a pastel colored building whose balcony now, ironically, looks over the street to a KFC. In the park, you’ll find a section of the Berlin Wall, given to Albania by Germany, and a couple of bunkers.

A quick word on bunkers: Albania is covered in them. Around 175,000 were dotted across the country at the height of Hoxha’s invasion paranoia; there are two in this small park alone. These two were tiny, only big enough for four people at a push. Very odd indeed.

Colorful tank in TiranaColorful tank in Tirana

The House of Leaves and Bunk’Art

After that, I headed to the House of Leaves. The romantic name adds a certain frisson of grim irony to what the building was used for: the monitoring, questioning and torture of Tirana’s citizens by the secret police. If you were being monitored at any point during the communist regime — and, let’s face it, you were — all intelligence would come through this building. It’s now a worthy but slightly dull museum to those processes, informative but dry.

You could try Bunk’Art 2 as an alternative. Housed in — you guessed it — a bunker, it’s a museum to the victims of the regime. More emotionally-driven and very honest about the horrors of life in Albania (and even by the standards of communism Albania was appalling), it’s not an easy option, but it does tell the stories of the many (many) victims in a way that’s unflinching yet empathetic.

Day two

My initial plan for my second full day was to head to the coast, but this seemed like it might be slightly annoying (you have to get a bus simply to get to the bus station, for example) and besides, I wasn’t done with Tirana yet.

Tirana Castle, Churches and Mosque

I retraced my steps and went back to Tirana Castle. It’s on the beautiful Shëtitorja Murat Toptani, a pedestrianized street full of bars, restaurants, ice cream stands, souvenir shops and people selling handicrafts and paintings, or sitting around playing traditional music. Inside the castle, there are some upmarket-looking places to eat plus a couple of shops selling wine, olive oil, chocolate, that sort of thing.

I popped into the Shën Pali (St. Paul’s) cathedral to see a portrait of Mother Teresa made out of shells (not as naff as you’d think), the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Church and then, to complete the set, the Et’hem Bej Mosque. The mosque is the most remarkable of the three structures — when all other religious buildings were torn down by the communists, the mosque survived due to the intricately painted nature motifs that begin outside and snake their way in. These murals were its savior, seen as culturally and artistically important rather than anything remotely religious.

I spent much of the rest of the day in relaxation mode. I popped into the foreign-language bookshop in the Palace of Culture and picked up a couple of books on Albanian history, then simply bounced from one cafe to another, not doing much aside from reading and watching the world go by.

Mosque in TiranaMosque in Tirana

The Dajti Ekspres cable car

It was on one of these stops I bumped into a girl who had been on the tour the previous day. Her name was Christina, from the US but studying in Rome for a few months, and she’d come to Tirana on a whim like me. She mentioned she was going to head to the cable car and asked if would I like to come.

I had nothing to lose so sure, why not?

We jumped on a bus (it’s blue, number 11, goes from the square behind the Palace of Culture; all you have to do is tell the conductor where you’re going and he’ll make it clear when you need to get off) and after 25 minutes and a 40 ALL ticket, we were at the Dajti Ekspres.

The cable car isn’t cheap — 1,400 ALL / €14 — and there was another problem. Caught up in the rush of doing something spontaneous, I’d forgotten how much I dislike cable cars. They wobble, they bang, they bounce and they’re very (very!) high off the ground.

The 15 minute trip passed without incident and we found ourselves on a mountaintop with a glorious view of the valley below, Tirana sprawling wildly towards the distant hills as the sun set. It was worth it in the end, a great way to top off my trip. Now I just had to survive the return journey.

Viewpoint from the hill, TiranaViewpoint from the hill, Tirana

What and where to eat and drink in Tirana

Albanian food is heavily influenced by Italy, so you’ll get a wide variety of pizza, pasta and seafood, but also traditional dishes involving (more often than not) lamb. On my first day I had dinner at the Griffin which provided me with Albanian hotpot. It wasn’t what I thought it would be (hotpot is very different in England), but a combination of lamb and peppers in souffléd eggs and cheese was as delicious as it was unexpected.

Lunch on day two was delicious sandwiches and fruit juice in the sunny garden of Noki near the castle, and I sat down to a rack of lamb with roast vegetables at Juvenilja on Rruga Sami Frashëri in Blloku.

For drinks, the tiny coffee house opposite the House of Leaves is cute in a ramshackle sort of way, while the corner where Rruga Sami Frashëri meets Bulevardi Gjergj Fishta has a selection of more middle-class places.

If you fancy a beer, you’ll get a lot of German stuff — Paulaner, Erdinger and so forth, like in the characterful cocktail place Radio Bar — but try The Goat Gastro Pub or Local Kitchen and Beer Bar for a slightly wider choice. I had Korça (Albanian, just a very basic lager) and Peja (from Kosovo, a bit more body to it but nothing to write home about) and realized that was about it on the beer front. 

When’s the best time to visit Tirana?

The weather in Albania is comparable to southern Italy, located as it is barely 50 kilometers away across the Adriatic. I went at the very start of April and it was between 25 and 30 degrees C every day.

Perfect sunset on a beautiful day in TiranaPerfect sunset on a beautiful day in Tirana

It’ll generally stay lovely until the middle of October, so the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are the perfect time to visit.

Summer, especially in the city, can get muggy, but the coasts are generally glorious.

How expensive is Tirana?

I, possibly naively, thought Tirana would be a cheap destination, but it wasn’t particularly.

Accommodation wasn’t too bad, but food, drinks and entry fees were more than I’d expected.

The other thing is that, as mentioned, most people pay with cash, not card, and ATMs charge high fees (the lowest / least high was at Unionbank machines), so the best thing to do is get a chunk of cash out at once and hope that’ll see you through.

Local currency: Albanian lek; €1 = 102 ALL

Coffee: €1.60 — €2

0.5l local beer: €2.50 — €6.00

Lunch: €8

Dinner in a mid-range restaurant: €12 — €20 per person

Hostel for one night: €15 — €25

3-star hotel for one night: €30 — €60 with breakfast

DAILY BUDGET (excluding accommodation): €60 — €80

That’s how to spend 48 hours in Tirana!

If you’re looking for a city break that has energy, quirks, friendly people and a sense of frantic possibility, Tirana might just be the place for you. You could even use it as a base to explore the coast and the mountains if you’re staying longer, but for a quick hop to an interesting city, it’s a great choice. Search Kiwi.com now and book your trip today!

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David Szmidt

David is a lead writer for Kiwi.com, as well as a football-watcher, music-listener and beer-appreciater. @UtterBlether