Tirana, Albania

view of Tirana

Since our move to Switzerland, we had little chance in visiting countries in the Balkans. It’s mostly because I booked too many trips to other places, but also because I don’t know where to go! We decided as a start to visit Tirana, Albania.

Our trip was began on February 20, 2020, where we flew from Geneva directly to Tirana. I had booked a taxi to pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel, Areela Boutique Hotel. There weren’t many options for getting to and from the airport, so booking a taxi seemed like the best option. Our driver was very friendly, and gave us some suggestions for what to see and do.

We checked into our hotel and then set off to have a look around. To get to the city, it was roughly a 10 minute walk, but we didn’t mind. Walking around Tirana was like being sent back in a time machine, back to the early 1990s – 2000s.

For diner, we ate at Sofra Beratase. We were the only ones in the entire restaurant. I actually thought that perhaps it was closed, but we were offered seats, so we sat! The food was cheap and good — two draft beers, salad, yogurt, bread, stuffed steak, and lamb chops, all for €20.

It was already getting late, and we had work the next day so we headed back to our hotel.

Every day at our hotel, we were served the same breakfast. It was good, but also a lot of food.

Because it was a Friday, we spent almost all of the day working out of cafes. I wish I had photos of the cafes. Tirana was filled with them! It seems that the Albanians really like coffee.

Lunch time, we left the cafe in search for some food and to do a little exploration. The Toptani Shopping Center was nearby. It’s basically a shopping mall. Probably less exciting to see if you come from somewhere with lots of malls (like America), but it’s less common in Switzerland. I quite enjoyed walking around the mall. We went to the top floor and ate at the Kebab restaurant there.

Pretty much anywhere we walked around in Albania, people stared. We really stood out! Whenever we walked by groups of people, cafe windows, on the streets, people would stop what they were doing to stare at us. The staring was intense too, and apparently we were interesting enough for them to tell their buddies to join in on the staring.

I like the cities that I visit who sell lots of books on the streets. This was one of those cities.

Right next to the bookseller was Reja, also known as the Cloud Pavilion. Designed by Sou Fujimoto, Reja is offered to the public of Tirana by courtesy of LUMA Foundation for the promotion of art in Albania.

The installation itself is fairly massive with multiple platforms and levels to walk around on top or even inside of. It’s a playful piece that seems to do well in it’s outdoors environment.

Just behind Reja is the National Arts Gallery. I was taken back by the presentation of the building, unable to tell if it was closed, under construction, or what the hell was going on. My suspicion was that it was an art piece due to the weaving of the material, but I couldn’t be sure. Turns out it was!

The site specific installation is titled Palace of Dreams, by Ibrahim Mahama (2012-2019). It consists of jute sacks and scrap metal tarpaulin on jute sacks. Inspired by Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams, the piece aims to bring to the front the contradictions inherent within history and exploited labor forms in contemporary times.

Inside the museum, most of the artwork was covered up. The museum was unfortunately under construction, but we still paid to go inside.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces in the museum.

After our nice lunch break, we found another cafe to finish up our remaining work in. As the sun began to set, we packed our bags and got ready to head over to our dinner reservations.

Along the way, we did stumble across Bunk’Art 2. We didn’t pay to go all the way inside the communist-era nuclear pit bunker, but we at least saw the inside of the entrance.

Albania has over 173,000 bunkers! That’s an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometres (14.7 per square mile). Walking around Tirana, you can definitely find old bunkers.

Look at Albania’s flag. Isn’t it super badass looking?

And now here we are in Skanderbeg Square. This is where you can find the Palace of Culture and National History Museum. There are also free walking tours offered here.

To get to our dinner, we had to find a taxi.

The restaurant is called Mullixhiu. If you’re looking for the best restaurants to eat at in all of Albania, this is one of the ones that will come up.

This super fancy meal included a complimentary drink, soup with bread, and dessert. We ordered two entrees, three appetizers, and some alcohol. The total for everything was €40.

The restaurant is located next to a park. We didn’t get a chance to see the park since our dinner reservations were at night, but I heard it’s a great park to walk around in.

We were really full after dinner, so we decided to not be lazy and walk all the way back home. The walk was around 40 minutes long, but it’s the best way to see a city.

Saturday morning, we decided to figure out how to take the bus. Most of the buses that we needed to catch could be found here. It’s a confusing experience, but generally people are nice and will try to help you.

On the bus, we saw many people coming on and off. It’s funny because there’s a worker on the bus who goes around trying to collect money from new passengers boarding. The thing is, if lots of people board at the same time from multiple doors, and the bus is crowded, he can’t find them! I saw several people sneak on, quickly sit down, and pretend they’ve been there. The worker would just look at them and not be sure if they’ve paid or not.

The other thing is that a lot of people riding on the bus seemed to know each other. It’s interesting to get a chance to be a part of someone’s day. To watch the interactions that a community of people have with one another. And then you just have us two Asians sitting on the bus looking and feeling out of place, haha.

We weren’t really sure where we were going or where to get off, except that we were trying to get to the cable cars to go up a mountain. It was a good thing that I had Google maps downloaded offline. I was at least able to see where we were in proximity to our destination.

Where we got off the bus wasn’t so far from Bunk’Art. If you remember, I mentioned that there was Bunk’Art 2 in the city. It’s the same but different. This one all the way out here is the original one (and it’s rated better).

The entrance to get to the entrance was a super long tunnel. Probably the longest tunnel that I’ve ever walked. On the other side of the tunnel was a tiny ticket booth. Again, we weren’t sure if anyone was working or not, but someone was! So we paid and went inside.

This place was huge! It was like a park on top, but of course the actual bunker is underground. I can’t believe how massive the underground bunker was. I’m talking, several floors massive. It was filled with many artifacts, original rooms, furniture, art, and history. Quite fascinating, but also spooky because of how empty it was. We were the only visitors there!

Next we walked over to Dajti Ekspres, the cable car station to get to the top of Dajti Mountain. When we arrived at the window to buy our tickets, you have the option to also opt in to additional recreations, such as mini golf. We said yes to mini golf!

Here we are riding inside of the cable car to go up the mountain. This is what Albania looks like from above.

Our first stop is usually to think with our stomachs. That’s how we arrived at Ballkoni Dajtit restaurant. This is the restaurant with a view. However, I didn’t want a view because it was really sunny and hot next to the windows. We chose to sit just out of the sun.

For lunch, we indulged in lamb, more lamb, yogurt, salad, soup, two beers, and water, all for €35. Considering the price of our other meals, this was actually expensive!

Talking with our waiter was funny. Apparently this location was a tourist destination, hence the pricing. When we asked where the tourist were from, he told us Albania! And then followed up with saying that Albania doesn’t get any tourists from other countries. I totally believe him, too. We saw literally no tourists our entire visit. It’s the both the best thing and worst thing ever. Best in that you have the entire country to yourself. Worst in that the tourism infrastructure isn’t in place, so it’s a little more challenging to “do things”. If you’re up for adventure on a budget however, it’s awesome.

Now it was time for some mini golf. I can’t remember who won. Maybe that’s for the better? I do remember that it was a lot of fun. Why don’t we mini golf more often?

There was an assortment of other things going on at the top of Mount Dajt. I can’t quite tell if it is meant to be for entertainment or for food. In this case, we were quite entertained playing with the animals. The rabbit tried to piss on Erick. This isn’t the first rabbit to try either.

There wasn’t too much else on the mountain to do, so we took the cable car down and found the bus to go back into the city.

If I remember correctly, we got off the bus a little earlier so that we could walk more. During our walk I saw the Namazgjah Mosque and though it was pretty. I just had a thought, we don’t really have these types of mosques in the US, do we? Doing a quick Google search, it seems like the architecture is very different for the mosques in the US. Oh well.

Crossing over Lana River, we now arrived at the fountain with bell. I don’t know what the official name is, but this is what Google maps calls it. It’s strange, but in a good way.

Same with this historic landmark, Pyramid of Tirana. I didn’t really have anything saved to do in Tirana, but I knew that I wanted to check out this Pyramid. This structure opened in 1988 as the Enver Hoxha Museum, and later became a conference center. It was also known to be a popular hangout spot, where people would climb the sides and hang out on it.

When we arrived, the Pyramid of Tirana looked dilapidated and was entirely fenced off. I had to stick my phone camera lens between the fence openings, you know the triangle ones, to take this photo.

Slightly amused and disappointed, we moved on to the next activity. I read online that there was a rooftop bar with great sunset views of Tirana. We went to the location that I had saved and it turns out that the bar no longer exists in the hotel! Or so the workers told us.

No problem though, we went to Colonial Cocktails Academy Tirana. The cocktails and the atmosphere here is excellent. I highly recommend checking them out. The surrounding area is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for a boozy night out with friends. Tons of upscale bars, restaurant bars, and lounges.

Another great place to go if you’re just looking for an abundance of nice restaurant choices is Tirana Castle. I’d describe it as the miracle mile of food and shops. We didn’t eat here, but we at least enjoyed walking around in there.

If you’re looking for something a bit more “local” and less fancy, I would recommend the Galeria Lounge Tirane. Honestly, everything in Tirana is local because there aren’t tourists. I just call this place “local” because it’s not trying to be anything more than what it is, a place where normal people go to hang out casually.

We ate at Chili Pub. For some reason, I thought that they served Mexican food based off of some of the decorations. I was wrong, haha. The food was still good though, just more like pub style food.

My favorite was the words that they wrote all over their bathroom walls. It made me laugh and kept me entertained while inside.

That’s our trip to Albania! It was short and sweet, but I feel like we learned a lot. I would definitely recommend to travel off the beaten path and over to the countries less visited. They need love too, and are frankly quite interesting!

See you in the next post.
x Sarah

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