We were initially going to visit Albania back in 2021, before we’d decided to head to Bosnia instead. After that trip sparked my love for the Balkans, I just knew we had to explore more of the region soon. When we started putting together our 3-week Balkan trip itinerary last year, Tirana was a no-brainer. I’d say 3 days were more than enough to see most of the highlights, especially now that many of them were under construction.
Here’s how to make the most of your time in the Albanian capital, including the top things to do in Tirana, best restaurants to visit, and the most brilliant hotel with a whole lotta pink to make all Instagrammers wink 😉 Let’s go!
How to get from Ohrid to Tirana
If you’re going to be travelling to Tirana from Ohrid, I’d like to touch upon our experience as a word of warning. We read online that it was possible to arrange a private transfer, but when we turned up at the specified address, the travel office was no longer there. So, at the end of August 2022, our only option was to get a morning bus, which cost 1,200 MKD (around £17.20/€19.50) per person and took around 3 hours. If you’re travelling outside of the summer months, be aware that it might be even more challenging to find a transportation option that isn’t a taxi.
Travelling from Ohrid to Tirana by bus
The route was operated by a bus company called EuroBus. When we got to the station, we had to deal with the rudest bus driver we’ve ever encountered. He told everyone we couldn’t board the bus until we left all rucksacks in the luggage compartment. Naturally, people started protesting. Some (like Mac) had their camera equipment there, others had their meds and documents, and we didn’t feel safe leaving it all down there.
What made matters worse was that the driver let some people with rucksacks in. He let me board the bus with my tote bag too. When people started politely asking the driver for an explanation as to why they had to leave their belongings in the luggage compartment, he suddenly got all riled up and started hurling abuse at them. He must have had some personal vendetta against German tourists, as a lot of the swear words he used were in German, regardless of people’s nationalities. He even went so far as to call Mac a pig for no apparent reason.
Now, as much as I love travelling to Balkan countries, the one thing I don’t like is that customer service is often poor or nonexistent there. A lot of people found this behaviour appalling, so we wrote official complaints to EuroBus. I personally didn’t even get a generic email like “thank you for contacting us, we’ll look into the matter”. Nothing. Complete radio silence. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect this outcome, but it was still disappointing. I realise it was probably just one rude driver, but if I had a choice, I’d probably go with a different company anyway because of how they approached (or rather failed to approach) the problem.
Where to stay in Tirana
Now, on to more pleasant things… The moment Mac spotted the Rosa Blu hotel on Booking.com, we knew that it was – to quote All Time Low – so wrong it’s right 😉 The amount of kitsch was on a whole another level and we just had to see it with our own eyes. At the same time, the hotel was within walking distance from the main square and really reasonably priced – 3 nights including breakfast only cost us €149.
There were so many photos of different rooms online, each tacky in its own unique way, and we didn’t know which one we were gonna get until the last moment. When we checked in, the receptionist gave us 2 keys and told us to check out both rooms and pick the one we wanted. The first one looked rather shoddy, with cigarette burns on the table, but when we opened the door to the second one, it felt like we hit the jackpot.
With pink fluffy carpet to match the bright pink walls, leather and gold dripping from every corner, it was absolute perfection. And the best part? We had our own blooming jacuzzi in our room! All jokes aside, getting a 60-square-metre room overlooking Tirana for that price was a total steal. You also get free 2-hour access to the gym and swimming pool area, complete with lion and crocodile statues, although it was a bit much for us 😉 The breakfast was average at best, but you can always stop by for some brunch later – stay tuned for recommendations…
Best things to do in Tirana
1. Walk around Skanderbeg Square
If you read my Pristina guide, you might remember that Skanderbeg was a 15th-century military leader who’s celebrated as a national hero in Albania for his successful rebellion against and defeat of the Ottoman Turks. That’s why you can find Skanderbeg statues in the three Balkan capitals of Pristina, Skopje, and Tirana.
As Tirana’s main plaza, Skanderbeg Square is where you can find many of the city’s most popular buildings, including the National Opera, the Ethem Bey Mosque, the Clock Tower, and the National History Museum. We wanted to check out the latter, but its famous mural mosaic above the entrance showing different figures from Albania’s history was under renovation.
As a matter of fact, you can see that the entire area is changing very rapidly. When I did my research, the square I’d seen in the photos looked nothing like what I saw in person. There were plenty of new buildings around the square, as well as several other skyscrapers under construction.
When we were there, they were also setting up for a free Rita Ora concert taking place the day after we were leaving. If we’d known before, we would have considered altering our travel plans. Oh well, maybe next time…
2. See Enver Hoxha’s former residence
One thing you should know about Albania is that from the 1940s until his death in 1985, Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an iron fist, creating a one-party state that was among the most repressive in the world. Under his leadership, Albania became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, with strict restrictions on travel and communication with other countries.
The government kept a surveillance file on virtually every citizen and controlled all aspects of life, from the economy to education and the media. Any dissent was met with harsh punishment, including imprisonment, torture, and even execution. You could even get in trouble for saying you didn’t like the potatoes you had for dinner, as that was seen as equal to criticising what the Albanian soil provided for you.
Today, the country continues to grapple with the trauma and scars of this dark period in its history as it works to build a more open and democratic society. To get a sense of the disparities that existed in Albania, you can see Enver Hoxha’s former residence in the Blloku district – currently only from the outside. However, there are rumours that it may one day reopen as a museum.
For decades, the Blloku district used to be closed off to ordinary citizens and served as a heavily guarded centre of power for Hoxha’s regime. Recently, it has been transformed into a bustling neighbourhood where you can find some of the trendiest restaurants and cafés in Tirana.
Right across the street, you can also visit the country’s first KFC branch. The location doesn’t seem completely random, as it’s exactly the kind of thing Hoxha would’ve hated. We hardly ever eat at popular fast food branches, but this time we just couldn’t resist a little snack 😉
3. Dive deep into Albania’s history at Bunk’Art 2
One of the most striking symbols of Enver Hoxha’s regime is more than 750,000 concrete bunkers that were reportedly built throughout the country, although the government claims that number is 4 times lower. They were meant as a defence against potential invaders, but they also served as a reminder of the constant fear and paranoia that permeated Albanian society during that period.
You can now explore two of the most famous bunkers during your time in Tirana. If you have more time, I’d highly recommend visiting both to get a fuller picture of Albania’s past. But, if you can’t, Bunk’Art 2 is definitely more accessible, as it’s located right in the city centre, within walking distance from Skanderbeg Square. The entrance costs 500 LEK (around £3.90/€4.40) and you should allocate a minimum of 2 hours to explore it in detail.
As the former top-secret nuclear bunker for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Bunk’Art 2 focuses on telling the story of how the state persecuted the regime’s opponents. Through a number of multimedia installations and personal testimonies, you can learn about the brutal surveillance methods used by the secret police force to maintain control over the Albanian citizens.
One thing to bear in mind, though, is that you go REALLY deep down. We went on a hot summer’s day and it was extremely humid and packed with tourists, so we didn’t explore as long as we wanted to. After a little over an hour, we had to return to the surface for some fresh air. If you’re sensitive to these things, it’s worth dressing light and bringing some water with you.
4. Visit a former nuclear bunker – Bunk’Art 1
Bunk’Art 1 is located on the outskirts of Tirana, close to the entrance to the Mount Dajti cable car. The entrance costs 500 LEK too, but you can save some money if you buy a combined ticket in advance.
The bunker was constructed in the 1970s as a refuge for the country’s political elite in case of a nuclear attack. Enver Hoxha suffered from paranoia and strongly believed that a nuclear war was imminent. The massive, concrete structure was built to withstand an atomic bomb and was equipped with everything the leaders would need to survive underground for months.
If you thought Bunk’Art 2 was an impressive feat of engineering, wait until you see this one with tunnels and chambers that stretch for over 2,600 square meters across 5 levels. The inspiration for it came from none other than the country of North Korea, which can give you an idea of what it feels like.
Due to its location, it’s understandably less popular with tourists. So, if you don’t like to beat the crowds, it might be a more suitable place for you. You need to prepare yourself to ward off mosquitoes, though – in my almost 3 decades on this planet, I’ve never been attacked as badly as I was there. It’s also way colder than the other bunker, so it’s better to layer up, even during the summer months.
As compared to Bunk’Art 2, Bunk’Art 1 offers a more conceptual experience. The rooms have been meticulously restored to show their original intended use. In one of them, you can even pretend to speak to Enver Hoxha on the phone. There’s also another one that allows you to simulate a chemical attack, but it wasn’t working when we visited.
5. Learn about the country’s dark past at the House of Leaves
If you’d like to learn more about the country’s surveillance apparatus, the House of Leaves is a great place to visit. Originally built as a medical clinic, it was then turned into the Gestapo headquarters, only to later become the headquarters of the Sigurimi, the Albanian secret police. Aside from being their listening post, the House of Leaves was also where they interrogated and tortured countless Albanians who were suspected of being enemies of the state.
For decades, the building was shrouded in secrecy, with no one allowed inside except for the secret police and their prisoners. It was in operation until 1991, and reopened as a museum back in 2017 with the aim of shedding light on Albania’s dark past. Entrance costs 700 LEK, which is around £5.30 or €6.10.
The museum houses a collection of artefacts and documents that reveal the horrors that took place inside its walls. What I personally found most fascinating was learning how the Sigurimi used various devices to spy on the locals.
There were also some rooms where you could try your hand at finding the hidden bugs. We failed miserably, which was very telling in how easily they could manipulate you!
6. Admire Reja – The Cloud sculpture
If you like modernist art, you might want to check out the Cloud sculpture designed by a Japanese artist, Sou Fujimoto. You can even go inside and admire it from different angles. In the summer, it turns into an open-air cinema and hosts various workshops in front of the National Gallery of Arts.
If you’re in the area, you can also check out the famous pyramid of Tirana, but it’s currently undergoing renovation.
7. Take the Dajti Ekspres to see Tirana from above
If you want to see the city from above, you can take the cable car up to Mount Dajti. To get there, you can take a Porcelan bus from a stop near the Skanderbeg Square. There are also several other options, depending on your location and budget. We personally followed the instructions from the official website. They even have a short video guide to show you how to get there step by step!
If you read my Pristina guide, you’ll already know how to navigate public buses in Tirana too. Once you board the bus, you just have to wait for the person selling tickets to approach you. Single tickets are only 40 LEK (~£0.30 or €0.35). We told the man where we wanted to go, and he kindly made sure we got off at the right stop. You can also combine your visit with Bunk’Art 1, as they’re within walking distance from each other.
A round trip costs 1,200 LEK (~£9.20 or €10.50), or you can use the cable car for free if you’re a guest of the Dajti Tower Hotel. After our Sarajevo trip, we had high hopes for this place. As the panoramic bar in downtown Tirana was closed for renovation, we were particularly excited to check out the rotating bar on the 7th floor of the hotel. But, once we got there, we found out it was – yep, you may have guessed it – currently unavailable.
Other than that, if you’re not a hiking enthusiast, there’s not that much to do. You can either grab something to eat, but the restaurant was full when we came, play mini golf, or visit an adventure park. It’s worth coming for the views alone, though – and we also came across this utterly adorable heart:
8. Have brunch at Çoko
The first place we checked out once we arrived in Tirana was Çoko. Unfortunately, we were a little late for their breakfast menu, which I was particularly excited for. On weekdays, they serve it until 12:30 pm, while on weekends they extend brunch until 3 pm.
As their main courses are mostly meat or fish fillets, neither of which I’m particularly crazy about, we decided to try out their pasta instead. The one thing I didn’t like was the fact that we didn’t get a physical menu and had to scan a QR code to access it on our phones. I’m not a fan of this solution, as you don’t always have Internet access, especially when travelling between different countries. It also irks me when waiters ask if you’d like some water and then charge you for it, even if it’s just a small amount of money.
Other than that, I have to say the food was really tasty, even if the portions were rather small. I really liked the atmosphere and design of this place, with an entire wall covered in plants and all windows thrown open to give you that semi-outdoor dining experience. Next time, we’ll have to come back for brunch, especially their croque madame (my all-time favourite breakfast item) and Albanian petulla, aka fried dough balls!
9. Have cocktails at the retro-styled Radio Bar
Located in the trendy Blloku neighbourhood, Radio Bar is the perfect place for retro lovers to unwind with a cocktail or two… Although I wish you the best of luck stopping at that after seeing their cocktail menu!
Radio Bar draws inspiration from Albania’s heritage and communist past to deliver a unique nightlife experience. The place is filled with various vintage pieces, including furniture, posters, kitchenware, and – of course – radios.
Aside from the laid-back vibe, what I liked most about this place was the almost overwhelming variety of cocktails. The menu is divided into categories based on the main ingredient (gin-based, sparkling cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks etc.). You can find classics such as Negroni, Bellini, or Old fashioned. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can try some more unique options like Monkey’s coffee or Grasshopper.
There’s also an entire section dedicated to traditional Albanian drinks, with quirky names like Balkan Collins or Tirana Mule. You can tell they use high-quality alcohol and fresh seasonal ingredients to make their cocktails. If I lived in Tirana, this would definitely be my go-to spot!
10. Step back in time at Komiteti – Kafe Muzeum
Another place where you can explore Albania’s Communist past is Komiteti. Aside from serving coffee, it’s also a museum housing various relics from the decades past. As a Polish person, I didn’t find it as striking as others, purely because I’m more than familiar with the reality of that era even if I didn’t live through it myself. Still, if you’re a Western tourist, I imagine you’ll find it fascinating to be able to step back in time.
We got to try some traditional Shëndetlie cake made of walnuts and honey with our coffee, but it sadly wasn’t to my liking. Another thing that Komiteti is known for is their wide selection of raki, which is a famous alcoholic drink across the Balkans. If you read my post about the 10 main things you need to know before visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina, you’ll know I’m not really a fan. But, if you drink alcohol, you should definitely try it at least once, and Komiteti is just the place to do that in Tirana.
11. Treat yourself to fine dining at Salt
If you’re looking for a fancy restaurant in Tirana, whether it’s for a romantic dinner, lunch with friends, or solo date, it honestly doesn’t get much better than Salt.
We made a booking for 5 pm, but once we got there, it was actually rather empty. It looked like they had just started setting up for dinner, so perhaps Albanians just prefer late dining.
Before we even got to try the food, the restaurant’s decor already stole my heart. The floor-to-ceiling bar that the mixologists accessed with a rolling ladder was absolutely dreamy. I also appreciate an open kitchen, as it’s a great testament to the quality and freshness of the dishes.
When it comes to the food, we tried the avocado crispy rice for a starter, followed by a Salt burger each for our main. It’s a rarity for me to have a full three-course meal, but I simply couldn’t resist their dessert options. Mac went for a pistachio baklava, while I opted for their Salt lava cake. When the waiter brought out our desserts, he also showed Mac how to properly cut a baklava, which was a really nice touch.
Everything we tried was absolutely scrumptious, and I can safely say Salt is now one of my top 3 restaurants. Some fine dining places can feel rather stiff and uncomfortable, and make you nervous about accidentally doing the wrong thing. I truly appreciate any restaurant that serves top-notch food and knows how to put you at ease with excellent service.
For a three-course meal with drinks, we paid 5,932 LEK (~£46 or €52) between the two of us, which I’d say wasn’t too bad. Again, if I lived in Tirana, I would definitely be a regular visitor here!
12. Try local Albanian dishes at Oda Restaurant
For our final meal in Tirana, we chose something more traditional. Oda is a restaurant specialising in authentic Albanian dishes, with its name meaning an Ottoman-era guest room. The restaurant can be a little difficult to find at first, as it’s in an inner courtyard, but I promise it’s worth the effort.
One thing you need to know about travelling to Albania is that a lot of places don’t accept cards, so you need to carry cash on you. As this was our last full day in the city, the amount of the money we had left dictated our menu choices, but it was still a great dining experience.
I settled on the meatball soup (Supë me Pasha Qofte) and a piece of lakror, which is a traditional Albanian pie dish with various fillings. I absolutely love anything with spinach, so that’s the filling I chose for my pie. The portion size was really generous, as they ended up giving me 2 big pieces for the price of 1.
Mac skipped the starter and ordered a main course, which was grilled veal with potatoes. I especially liked the soup, and would definitely consider going back for it alone. All that, including 2 beers, only cost us 2,200 LEK (~£17 or €19.30). Next time, I’d happily try more menu options – the waiter spoke perfect English, so I’m sure it’d be great to ask for recommendations too.
Which of these things would you like to enjoy first? Would you add anything to this list?