Climb a pyramid, sip coffee and raki, chow on byrek or Red Bull ice cream and visit anti-nuclear bunkers. These are just some of the things you can do in Tirana, Albania’s progressive capital.
This is a city that took us both by surprise. The country detached itself from communism in 1991, and whist much of Tirana still wears that drab concrete outfit, splashes of colour have brought life to the city; thanks to Mayor Edi Rama elected in 2000.
Aside from buildings awash in patterns and pastels, one of the first things you notice is the abundance of cafés. They seem to be everywhere you look. In the main streets, beneath apartment blocks, down side streets – and they’re always busy with locals sipping coffee. Often I’d wondered – does anyone actually work here?
The REJA cloud sculpture
Thanks to the city’s flat terrain, walking around is a breeze. And there’s much to see. Stroll along the shade-dappled Shëtitorja Murat Toptani and stop somewhere for a coffee, drop by the National Gallery of Art and check out the REJA Cloud Sculpture infront of it.
Or there’s the lovely 18th century Tanners’ Bridge, once used by farmers to bring livestock and produce into the city, or gawk at archaeological treasures in the imposing National Historical Museum in the centre of town.
The National Historical Museum
Then there’s the city’s most unusual building – the Tirana Pyramid. It began its life in 1988 as a museum to honor dictator Enver Hoxha. When Communism collapsed in 1991, the museum was transformed into an exhibition and conference venue. Come the Kosovo War in 1999, NATO and other humanitarian organisations used it as a base for their operations.
These days it’s a sad old colossal lump of concrete, smashed glass and graffiti tags; occasionally home to temporary art displays. It’s the perfect object for young people to climb, and a few older travellers, such as ourselves.
When Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with his communist fist from 1944-1985, he thought it’d be fitting to build over 173,000 anti-nuclear bunkers all over the country. Just in case, you know, the Yanks or Soviets decided to invade his land. Bunkers are dotted all over the countryside and even throughout Tirana itself.
Two of these bunkers have been transformed for visitors, one of which is smack in the middle of town.
Bunk’Art 2 is a 100m² subterranean structure reinforced with walls up to 2.4 metres thick, a former top secret pad built to shelter elite police and interior ministry staff if the nukes struck. Today you can see displays of how those elite communist-era police persecuted the regime’s opponents, with photographic and equipment displays giving insight to the persecution of something like 100,000 Albanians between 1954 and 1991.
On the outskirts of town is Bunk’Art 1, the original museum that paved the way for Bunk’Art 2, due to its popularity. This much larger 3000m² bunker, built over several underground levels for the country’s political elite in the 1970s.
You can wander through furnished rooms, the sprawling Assembly Hall, private chambers and even a convenience store. It’s not claustrophobic as some may think, the air is cool and it’s utterly fascinating. Entry is 500 lekë.
Pazari i Ri (Central Market)
Hitting up the markets is a given, as far as I’m concerned, and at Pazari i Ri you can check out and buy all things fresh. Plenty of seafood, all the colourful seasonal fruit and veg you’d expect, plus a few local bits and pieces.
Everyone needs a garland of dried figs, right? How about handmade terracotta cooking pots, tobacco or pickled eggplant?
Surrounding the market and square on which it sits are many restaurants. Some a tad fancy, others not so much.
We were up for a few cold beers, so we settled into Grillet Pork Geni adjacent to the central market pavilion. This joint takes its cues from a butcher, and in fact it could be mistaken for one. You choose your cut of meat, have it weighed and they’ll grill it up for you. Herbivores can go with a salad and boozers can sit with drinks as long as they want.
Grillet Pork Geni
Zgara te Pazari
Down on the main drag of Rruga Luigi Gurakuqi near the market is a strip of side-by-side grill restaurants, all offering the same things. Here you can sit beneath awnings in the afternoon sun with local men puffing on cigarettes, sipping on Korça beer and nibbling on some kind of charred protein.
Yep, we’re in on this! Well, sans the cigarettes, but we did inhale enough from everyone else to take a few years off our own lives.
Our pick was Zgara Te Pazari, home to cheap food and very cheap beer. A basket of fresh bread rolls, a plate of kërnace a pa pjekur (14) as well as kaçkavall zgare (150). Kërnace is basically what I refer to as ćevapi, and kaçkavall is a divine firm cheese that’s served char-grilled.
Byrek Special – Rruga Bardhok Biba
NYT Bagels – Rruga Themistokli Gërmenji
Noor Coffee & Fine Food – Rruga Abdi Toptani
Breakfast for us each morning was byrek as, to be honest, there really isn’t a great deal on offer anywhere at 7am. Across from where we stayed is a pair of byrek bakers that helped us out tremendously, especially when you have an appetite early in the morning or need to eat before getting an early bus.
Byrek Special, along with neighbouring Byrek Te Çastit, offer freshly baked byrek for something like 50 lekë a slice. The best way to have this flakey, slightly oily layered pastry filled with either meat, spinach or yoghurt & cheese is with a bottle of chilled dhallë (buttermilk).
Oily byrek was proving to be a tad too much each morning, so we mixed it up with some of the wares from NYT Bagels, a small café on the south side of the Lana River. These guys have a variety of filled bagel sandwiches, they’re kinda close to the real deal and they also do cookies and muffins.
Our chosen coffee spot was Noor Coffee & Fine Food, a fab little place that does breakfast, decent coffee and some delicious salads, soups and cold pastas. They even serve cocktails. Could this be Tirana’s version of a hipster café?
Sky Club Bar – Rruga Ibrahim Rugova
Once home to Tirana’s political elite, the district of Blloku is now a lively leafy locale saturated with cafés, bars and restaurants. The joint with the best view in town would have to be Sky Club Bar, a lofty drinking hole on the top floor of the Sky Hotel.
Yes, it’s little dated up there and service can be as slow as this revolving bar does its full circuit, but the view is pretty bang on. A sunset would have been nice, but we made do with a thunderstorm that blew debris off neighbouring rooftops, straight onto the road below. I hope nobody was injured!
Another venue with a view is Ballkoni Dajti, found way up on Dajti Mountain. This is an easy side trip when visiting Bunk’Art 1 – just a 15 minute ride on the longest cable car in the Balkans to the top of the mountain which features gardens, a lookout, adventure park, restaurant and hotel.
Restaurante Ballkoni Dajti
For something this touristy, the food at the restaurant is actually really good. You can go for your pizza and other Mediterranean dishes, but the traditional choices like the fasule pllaqi (butter bean casserole; 380) and enormous mixed byreku (780) are winners. You may want to skip the tavë qofte korçe (curry meatballs), unless a very bland curry does it for you.
I’d read many great things about Oda, an eating house that serves up traditional food in a tiny dwelling not too far from the market. Albanian cuisine has some very noticeable Ottoman influences, and these are present in many of Oda’s menu items.
Vegetarian options outweigh the meatier ones, with beauties like patëllxhan I musher me perime (eggplant stuffed with veg) and pacarok (type of leek frittata).
As for the meat, it’s basically all lamb in one form or another. Try zog fshati në saç (1400), lamb roasted in a cast iron pot in coals or one of six lamb offal specialties. Kokë qingji në saç (roasted lamb’s head), tavë plënci (lamb intestines) or the very tasty kolloface (550) – a frittata of lamb’s liver, heart, rice and eggs; typical of southern Albania.
Oda Restaurant – Rruga Luigj Gurakuqi
There’s a handful of travel agencies around Plateia Karaiskaki in Athens that specialise in Albanian travel. We chose Osumi Travel for our bus to Tirana. Ours was an overnighter that departed at 7pm and arrived at around 6am. Cost is €25 per person.