Where to dine, shop, sightsee, and experience local life in one of Europe’s most underrated capitals.
To Europe or not to Europe? That’s the question on the minds of countless GCC residents ready for a getaway and eager to escape the heat. But between overcrowding, peak prices, and an often-frustrating visa process, the likes of Barcelona, Paris, Santorini and Venice can feel less appealing. One country in Europe, however, remains under the radar despite occupying prime real estate: Albania.
Located between Italy and Greece, it boasts beautiful beaches, delicious Balkan cuisine, a Mediterranean climate, a fascinating past, and the kind of hospitality that restores one’s faith in humanity. And because the country is no closer to joining the EU – despite receiving candidate status in 2014 – its e-visa process is a breeze. Bonus: Albania is yet to be overrun by mass tourism, so visitors can still enjoy authentic cultural experiences and untouched natural beauty from the northern city of Shkoder to the Albanian Riviera in the south. As for what the vibrant capital of Tirana, easily accessible via direct flights from Dubai, has to offer? Read on.
One of the first things you may notice as a tourist in Tirana is the absence of F&B chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks — and that’s a good thing. A stop at Mulliri Vjeter, for example, will allow you to fuel up on pastries and macchiato alongside the locals (who seemingly linger with friends and colleagues at cafés, even on weekdays) before you begin your exploration. Start at Skanderbeg Square to take in a handful of the city’s major attractions, the Clock Tower and Et’hem Bey Mosque included.
The former is a 35-metre-high cultural monument that was built in the Ottoman period and has shown the time since 1822. Comfortable with heights and confined stairwells? Climb up to the top for impressive views over Tirana’s biggest square and beyond. The latter is a mosque that was designed by poet Haxhi Et’hem Bey and closed under communist rule due to a complete ban on all religions. Et’hem Bey Mosque reopened as a house of worship in 1991 and is considered special due to beautifully detailed frescoes that depict forests and waterfalls, a rare sight in mosques worldwide. Visits outside of prayer times are not only permitted, but also recommended.
A towering statue of military commander Skanderbeg himself (dubbed a national hero for resisting the Ottomans) and a must-visit outpost of Adrion bookstore aside, Skanderbeg Square is also home to the National History Museum, instantly recognisable by a massive mosaic that adorns its facade and depicts Albanians fighting against occupation. And although it’s the largest museum in Albania, we recommend skipping it entirely. To learn more about the country’s dark past and how it has shaped modern-day Albania in a truly engaging setting, head to Bunk’Art 2 instead. Situated just south of the Clock Tower, this nuclear-bunker-turned-museum tells the gruesome story of life under the reign of paranoid communist dictator, Enver Hoxha.
Dedicated to the victims of communist-era terror, it reconstructs the history of the Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1912 to 1991 and reveals the secrets of political police Sigurimi, one of the many harsh persecution tools employed by Hoxha’s 45-year regime in all of its 24 rooms. Like the other 173,000 bunkers built as part of his bunkerisation programme, it was designed to withstand a potential chemical or nuclear attack, but never actually used until it started welcoming museumgoers in 2016. Between images, videos, recreation cells, interrogation rooms, and art installations, some of the exhibits are expectedly dark and deeply disturbing, so take caution if travelling with children. Incidentally, there are two Bunk’Arts in Tirana, but more on that later.
Only a three-minute walk away from Bunk’Art 2 is a large-scale art installation by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, renowned for his forward-looking approach that blurs the line between public and private. Affectionately known as ‘The Cloud’ (Reja on Google Maps), this three-dimensional sculpture and exhibition space seems to hover over the ground when viewed from afar, despite its construction calling for white steel and polycarbonate panels. You can walk inside and observe it from various angles before heading in the direction of Oda, a homely restaurant serving traditional staples, for a light lunch.
Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, the stuffed eggplant (heaped with flavour) and spiced rice balls (think arancini, but Albanian) come highly recommended. Oda is conveniently located near the Pazari i Ri, or New Bazaar, a great spot in which to interact with locals making a grocery run and vendors selling fruits, vegetables, honey, nuts, spices, vintage kitsch, and all manner of tobacco paraphernalia. The bazaar is a 24-hour recreational space, so even if stocking up on pitted green olives and homemade fig jam isn’t on the agenda, it’s always atmospheric, especially if a festival or cultural gathering is taking place onsite.
More upscale trinkets and handmade accessories, meanwhile, can be found at the nearby Artizanes, a tiny but well-stocked boutique beloved for its wide range of gift options. Round off your first day in the city with dinner at Mullixhiu, where chef Bledar Kola of Noma fame is at the helm and the finest seasonal produce is at the heart of all dishes. Priced LEK 3,000 (AED 107), the tasting menu features its greatest hits, ideal if you’re hungry enough for up to eight courses. Mullixhiu’s setting at the Grand Park of Tirana is a nice bonus.
Begin your second day in Tirana at Noor Fine Food & Coffee, where the paninis and weekend brunch rave reviews. This trendy café is ideally suited to your first adventure on day two: taking the blue Porcelan bus to the base of Mount Dajti for a ride in the Dajti Ekspres, the longest cableway in the Balkans (the bus stop is only three minutes away on foot). Not only is the Austrian-built cable car one of Tirana’s popular attractions owing to the breathtaking views, but there’s also plenty to do after the 18-minute ride that takes you up to the top — roller skating, mini golf, paragliding, and an adventure park included.
For history buffs and dark tourists who want to immerse further in Hoxha’s iron fist, Bunk’Art 1 also happens to be in the area; it’s a seven-minute walk between the cableway’s lower station and the history and contemporary art museum. A secret for much of its existence as it was built for Albania’s political elite in the 1970s, this particular bunker is even more startling at first as it spans five floors and almost 3,000 square metres of space. Today, it showcases the daily lives of ordinary Albanians under the communist regime through poignant exhibits, some of which are interactive. Be sure to visit the meeting halls, complete with 200 seats, while you’re there.
Back in the city centre, your bus will stop near the Friendship Monument, which means Kalaja e Tiranës (or simply Tirana Castle) is easily accessible. Head to this pedestrian-only street for a leisurely stroll and more shopping opportunities — Subashi (high-quality products created from olive trees in centuries-old groves) and Porcelain Studio Seferi (handpainted porcelain vessels depicting cultural motifs) are our two favourites. Artisan finds in tow, make your way to Blloku for dinner, dessert, and drinks paired with live music. Once reserved for the elite, this area now hosts some of Tirana’s trendiest bars, cafés, and restaurants. Walk down Rruga Ismail Qemali and you’ll inevitably spot Hoxha’s three-storey villa, which remains closed to the public and ironically faces an outpost of KFC.
Considering Albania’s proximity to Italy, it comes as no surprise that most of the Italian restaurants in Tirana are top-notch. Artigiano is always packed; order the Queen Margherita and you’ll see why. Dessert follows a similar theme at Cioccolatitaliani, where the gelato is creamy and dangerously delicious. Grab yours in a cone and walk over to Postbllok – Checkpoint, an open-air museum of sorts. Here await only three, yet powerful exhibits dedicated to the end of communism, including another bunker and a graffiti-covered section of the Berlin Wall. There’s also an abstract sculpture made using columns from a mine shaft at Spaç, Albania’s most notorious political prison.
But that’s Tirana for you; reminders of its troubled past stand alongside symbols of social progress and economic development — and hipster cafés aplenty. You can unwind and reflect on your first two days in Albania over craft raki and jazz music among 17,000 antiques at the eclectic Komiteti – Kafe Muzeum, which (as its name suggests) is a café-museum hybrid. Also in the Blloku neighbourhood, it’s the perfect place to mingle with young locals, many of whom have strong opinions on what it means to be Albanian today. Listen in.
GO: Visit https://albania.al for more information.