Even though I had visited Tirana just last year, Albania’s capital still managed to surprise me. I had forgotten how swanky Tirana is!
Plus, there are just so many fun things to do in Tirana. I don’t know what it is about this city, but I swear you will never run out of things to do and places to see in Tirana. Like, I would happily spend a month or longer exploring this city.
Tirana Take 2 also reminded me how different of a travel experience can be depending on whether you’re Couchsurfing or staying at a hostel. I’m huge fans of both, and I think they each have different advantages.
While Couchsurfing in Tirana last year I ate at my host’s favorite student cafeteria everyday (read: cheap, not necessarily delicious), got a haircut from his friend, and spent most evenings watching the World Cup at the NGO/bar his friends had just opened downtown. It was the perfect glimpse into local life in Tirana.
However, living like a local meant that I didn’t see most of Tirana’s sights, so this time around I had ground to make up!
So here are my top things to do in Tirana, Albania:
Eat all the pizza
Before this trip to Tirana, all I really remembered about the city was 1. the incredible pizza (a lot of Albanians have worked in Italy) and 2. that I left Tirana seriously tempted to move there. No, not just because of the pizza!
I mean, of course the pizza did have something to do with it.
See and be seen
As Dan and I walked through Tirana’s tree lined streets amongst women in colorful shift dresses and men having loud debates at outdoor cafés I remembered what I loved so much about Tirana: the city feels like how I imagine European cities to have been half a century ago. I loved the pretty villas, how everyone seemed a little more dressed up, the friendly outdoor vibe, the quirky mix of Italian and plain bizarre architecture, and of course the low prices.
So one of my favorite things here is just dressing up a bit and wandering the streets – see and be seen, guys!
Visit downtown Tirana!
Overflowing with hip cafés and bars, this was the area of Tirana that made me label the city “swanky.” Since Albania has very low prices, eating out here still totally fits in a backpacker’s budget (and if not there are plenty of corner fast food shops here that will) and it is the most perfect place to people watch. Because if you’re wondering what to see in Tirana, one of my favorite things to see there was actually the people!
Go to The Pyramid
The Pyramid of Tirana was built in 1988 and originally housed a museum, and later during the Kosovo War it served as a base for NATO and aid organizations. Now it seems to be a popular hangout for Tirana’s teens and tourists with bulky cameras (oh hey guys!).
Head to the park across the street from the pyramid for some reminders of Albania’s communist past
A piece of the Berlin Wall
The first of hundreds of 1-man bunkers that I would spot around Albania
Count the bunkers
Albania is covered with bunkers (read more about Albania’s mysterious bunkers here) and one of my favorite things to do in Albania is to count all the bunkers I see. Once you start paying attention you’ll see loads of them everywhere – even in Tirana!
Stand in Scanderbeg square in awe of the Italian-style architecture and huge Albanian flags
It’s just amazing.
I know I already told you to eat all the pizza, but you also need to eat all the other Albanian food too (especially burek with a glass of yoghurt!).
Take the Dajti Ekspres cable car
There’s also a cable car on the edge of the city that takes you 800 meters up a mountainside – perfect in the summer if you want to do some hiking near Tirana, or just get some beautiful views.
Visit the National Museum
I’m not much of a museum person, but considering how fascinating Albania’s history is, this one is actually well worth a visit. I also find Albania’s history quite complex and at times confusing, so a walk through the museum helped clear up a lot of my questions about this once mysterious country!
Visit Et’hem Bey Mosque
Albania has lots of beautiful mosques, and the most notable one in Tirana is Et’hem Bey Mosque. It was built in the 19th century and while for nearly half a century Albanians weren’t allowed to practice religion, now Et’hem Bey Mosque is a symbol of religious freedom in Albania.
Admire the quirky architecture
Tirana truly does have some bizarre architecture, and I love it.
Get the bus to the seaside
The Albanian Riviera is amazing and if you ever find yourself in Tirana then you really shouldn’t miss seeing Albania’s beautiful beaches as well.
Make some new friends
Albanians are incredibly friendly, so it’s unlikely that you’ll visit Tirana without making some new friends. I found that especially at restaurants at night everyone wanted to chat. It’s a very laid back atmosphere in Tirana and an easy one in which to strike up conversations with locals. Plus, with Albania’s crazy past, they all seem to have some really good stories!
Aimlessly wander around
Okay, there’s of course a lot more to do in Tirana than these things, but the truth is I do prefer to aimlessly wander through a city than scramble to see all the sites. And Tirana is a perfect place for wandering.
Now, I feel like I should note that a lot of other travelers I met weren’t as enthused by Tirana – it seems to be the sort of place people either love or hate.
I first visited Tirana after already having spent a week on Albania’s beaches and falling in love with the country, so perhaps I was already biased. Though I suspect I would have liked it regardless – Tirana is simply my sort of city!
Don’t get lost (or maybe do?)
Tiran does require a bit of patience.
Like the time when Dan and I planned to catch a bus to the airport only to find the city center totally closed off for the Serbian prime minister’s visit, with no one having a clue where else we could go to find the bus. Luckily being Albania, a taxi to the airport only set us back 10 euros. Plus the taxi gave us a prime view of just how many policemen line the city streets when a Serbian leader is in town.
And then there was the time we needed to get a bus to Skopje, Macedonia. Tirana doesn’t have a central bus station, so we had to book our tickets at a travel agency, but when it came time to get the bus no one we asked could decide where we should go.
Luckily we ran into some Albanians with suitcases who were getting the same bus, so it all worked out. Not that I would have terribly minded getting stuck in Albania.
Where to stay in Tirana
Dan and I stayed at Trip’n’Hostel, a converted villa in Tirana’s oldest quarter which Erjon and Eni opened after being inspired by other hostels on their travels (I know the feeling!).
^^Dorm beds with curtains pretty much make any hostel an automatic win in my book.
Hostels are obviously the best place to mingle with like-minded backpackers – and Trip’n had the perfect outdoor bar area to do so, but I also love that the people working there are usually SO enthusiastic about their city. Trip’n’Hostel was no different. These guys really love Tirana. Check current rates and availability here
And if you’d rather stay at a hotel, my friends recently visited Tirana and loved their stay at the LAS Boutique Hotel. It’s in the city center, the staff are super warm and friendly, and it even has a heated pool. It’s the sort of hotel that would be really expensive anywhere else, but because it a Tirana hotel it’s totally affordable. Check current rates and availability here
Have you been to Tirana yet? Is it love or hate for you?