Fun Things To Do in Tirana, Albania
When I told people I was going to visit Tirana, Albania for a holiday weekend, I got a lot of strange looks.
Everyone said the same thing: “Why would you go there? Isn’t Albania dangerous?”
Even a good friend of mine who had dated an Albanian guy for a while had warned me not to visit Tirana alone. “Yeah, you should probably go with someone,” she said.
Naysayers and scaredy-cats! There are good people everywhere and I was sure I would find them and that there would be plenty of things to do in Tirana. So I ignored all my friends and booked myself a flight, which had the added bonus of securing my BA Gold Status for the next year.
And I loved Tirana. I really did! And I felt really safe walking around and taking taxis by myself. And everyone was so kind to me! And parts of the city are so green and leafy! It’s really lovely. There’s this one street that projects out of the city centre to the mountains (where the cable car is — keep reading) and it was just this lovely long shady leafy road that I loved.
I also learned that Albania is one of the sunniest countries in the world. A far cry from this dark and dangerous place everyone had me imagining. So if you want a hot sunny and relatively inexpensive weekend away, consider a visit! There are plenty of things to do in Tirana!! It’s great. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t spend more time in the country. Now that I know more about Albania, I wish I had headed down to Sarande for the beaches and then taken the ferry over to Corfu! NEXT TIME.
Where to Stay in Tirana
Because everyone had me freaked out about personal safety, after consulting the only guide book on Albania I could find, I booked the nicest hotel in town, The Tirana Plaza. (A reasonable 112.50 euros per night for the quality, IMHO.) It’s a five star hotel with a great gym and spa area. Service was that confusing Soviet-bloc style you get sometimes in low income countries where they’ve never experienced 5-star service. But…
…the location and view out my hotel window made up for that. (You can see that green and leafy street in the top left quadrant of the photo.) There’s a very nice Italian-ish restaurant attached to the hotel that I enjoyed as well. (More under Where to Eat below.) The hotel is a very short walk from all the main attractions, including Skanderbeg Square, so you’ll find no shortage of things to do in Tirana. While I was at the hotel, the Prime Minister of Belgium also stayed a few nights, which tells you something. In short, you should stay here! Book the Tirana Plaza.
Things to Do in Tirana: Tirana Sightseeing
Take the Tirana Cable Car
The first thing I did when I arrived in Tirana was hop in a taxi to the city’s famed cable car (aka the teleferiku or the dajti ekspres). I imagined a quick jaunt up the mountain and a beer at the top. Well, I got the beer but the Tirana cable car is not a quick jaunt! It takes 20 minutes each way. And you know what you really shouldn’t do when traveling alone? Take an empty cable car up (and down) a deserted mountain by yourself. This was a bit frightening. But nothing happened and I was fine and the cable car guys and I had a good laugh about me being scared.
At the top of the mountain, I had a beer at the rotating bar in the space-agey hotel building. I wanted to go to the place with the nice outdoor terrace looking down at the mountain, but they wouldn’t let me have a drink without eating. So the space-agey hotel bar it was. (It’s one of those bars from the 80s that’s all red and black.) Service was really sweet and it was kinda fun to slowly rotate around. In short, if you are into nature and beer, this is one of the more things to do in Tirana!
Join the Tirana Free Walking Tour
There’s a free walking tour of Tirana that I did and I’d highly recommend it as one of the best things to do in Tirana as soon as you arrive. It really helped me get my bearings, and at about 2.5 hours long, it was the perfect length for me. My Tirana Free Walking Tour guide was born right after the Berlin Wall fell so he only really knew the “new” Albania but still shared stories from his parents and grandparents about life under communism. We strolled down Rruga Murat Taptani, the pretty pedestrian street, checked out the “Cloud” (a modern sculpture) and saw Tirana’s famous pyramid. Bring a hat, sunblock, and water for this one as it was a scorcher when I visited and it was only April. I mean, it’s free making it a no-brainer when you’re looking for things to do in Tirana. Check out the Tirana Free Walking Tour!
Visit the Tirana Pyramid
The Tirana pyramid is on most lists of the top things to do in Tirana. To be fair, it’s not very exciting. I mean, you can climb up to the top if you want to (note the figures at the top of the photo), but I preferred just to walk around the outside. The pyramid has had many lives…it’s been a museum, a conference center, and a nightclub. Now it’s just a mess but it’s an enduring symbol of Tirana. The latest idea is to turn it into a technology center for young people.
Take a Food Tour of Tirana
I signed up for a food tour of Tirana with Sondor Travel and lucked out and was the only participant. My tour guide was my age (so definitely born before the Berlin Wall fell) and was able to provide that interesting pre- and post-communism perspective. He told me how little meat they were allowed to have each month as well as how little coffee. The small amounts of coffee led to a strong tradition of nursing an espresso for hours and hours at an outdoor cafe, something that you’ll still see in Albania today.
We ate a ton of food on this tour!! We started with a beer tasting with little sausages, then a huge tasting of different salads and cheeses.
Then we did a seafood tasting and then a fruit and cake tasting. I did not do it all justice and wish that others had been on the tour with me to share the bounty. This was a fantastic food tour of Tirana that I highly recommend — it’s one of the best things to do in Tirana, in my opinion. Book this tour.
Understand Tirana’s Communist Past
One of the most important things to do in Tirana, in my opinion, is to understand Albania’s communist past. This is why it can be helpful to have older tour guides…my tour guide that was in his mid-40s was able to share so much more about life before and after communism than my 20-something tour guide. So while you are in Tirana, make sure you visit The House of Leaves (where the secret police kept their files on everyone) and at least one of the two BunkArt musuems. Rather than try to do this all on your own, I recommend booking a tour of Tirana’s Communist past.
I had seen pictures online of a place called Kruje, about 45 minutes outside of Tirana. It looked really beautiful and the reviews were great so I booked a tour. Again I got lucky..,a private tour to Kruje! My tour guide was fantastic and again closer to my age so he was able to share what Albania was like when he was younger vs today.
If you want to learn about Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero, this is the place to do it. The museum is all Skanderbeg all the time. (Albanians are very hopeful that Russel Crowe will play Skanderbeg in the eventual Hollywood biopic.)
Although some reviews online complained about the touristy shops on the way up to the fortress, I really liked them and found some nice, high quality stuff that seemed more locally sourced that other places I’ve been. I wish I had brought a larger suitcase because some of the carpets and blankets were quite nice. There were also some really beautiful dowry chests for just 300 euros that I desperately wanted. This was a great tour and Adrian my guide was a star! Loved my lunch — a nice big green salad and some white wine– overlooking Kruje as well. (Not included in the tour but a necessary stop given that we started early and I was hungry.) If you have a little extra time, I think this is one of the best things to do in Tirana while you are in town. (Make sure your guide points out the George W. Bush statue on the way there. Albanians love Dubya.) Book this tour.
If you have a day free in Tirana, use it to discover the UNESCO-listed city of Berat. You can explore the historic neighborhoods of Mangalemi, Gorica, and Kala and admire architectural landmarks including Berat Castle, the Red Mosque, and St. Trinity Church. You’ll also have a chance to visit the Museum of Iconography and National Ethnographic Museum and enjoy some free time to sight see independently or shop for souvenirs. Book a tour of Berat.
Check out The Cave of Pellambas
If you are looking for more outdoorsy things to do in Tirana, just outside the city, you will find the huge Cave of Pellambas. You can do a nice organized hike from the village through the canyon to visit this cave. Just make sure you go with others because the cave is very dark inside! Book a tour to the Cave of Pellambas.
Where to Eat in Tirana
If you’re looking for tips on where to eat in Tirana, you must must must must must eat at Uka Farm. It’s about halfway between the airport and downtown Tirana, so it was the first place I went when I got off the plane. I think this whole experience makes it one of the top things to do in Tirana.
The farm makes everything itself…wine, cheese, bread, meats. It is a lovely way to spend a few hours.
My only complaint was how my server explained portion size. He suggested I get a combo meat platter and I said “Not too big?” and he shaped his hands to about the size of a newborn’s head. The platter that arrived was about four times that (as you can see in the photo) with enough food for 4 people. My bill still came to less than 20 euros though so there’s that. Also, I learned afterwards that most people get a tour of the farm and I didn’t so definitely ask for one! Prices are reasonable. But honestly, this is a fantastic an experience and if you like food, it’s one of the coolest things to do in Tirana.
Sofra e Ariut
My hotel suggested Sofra e Ariut but what they didn’t tell me is that it’s sort of a zoo!! With animals in cages! So you should get there before it’s dark out so you can check this all out. I missed this entirely, unfortunately. But I had an okay meal with really really nice service. It is probably expensive for what it is and it definitely seems to be the place every Western tourist in Tirana goes, but the atmosphere was nice and I had a great chat with my server that I will always remember so there’s that. Expect very Western prices. Almost too expensive, really. It feels like one of those very touristy things to do in Tirana. Honestly though, the setting is very nice.
Panevino is the Italian-ish restaurant attached to the Tirana Plaza. I had a few meals here and really liked the modern setting and friendly service. They also let me order off menu which was nice. (I don’t know about you guys but sometimes when I travel, all I want is some vegetables. So they did a great salad for me when I asked and the tomatoes were fantastic and I am not a huge tomato fan.) Perhaps not a destination itself but if you are nearby, it’s worth a visit. Expect Western prices.
Things I Learned about Albanians
- They like the color red.
- They REALLY love George W Bush because he is the only American president to ever visit Albania. There are streets named after Dubya and he even has a statue in a small town outside Tirana on the way to Kruje.
- Average income is about 300 euros per month.
- Many people try for the US green card lottery.
- Per above, Albanians like to take two hours to drink an espresso, a holdover from communism when coffee was distributed in small quantities.
- Albanians are polygots. Most speak Greek or Italian or both. The younger generation speaks English well.
- 500 years ago, a bunch of Albanians went to Calabria in Italy and they still speak Albanian there, sing the traditional songs, and wear traditional Albanian clothing.
- The Balkans are complicated. Don’t ask them about Kosovo or Macedonia.
- Albanians really want Russell Crowe to play Skanderbeg in the movie they all hope will one day get made.
- Many young Albanians leave Albania for work. Official unemployment is 16% but most estimate it’s higher.
- Boats are illegal in Albania (!) after all the smuggling that occurred after the fall of communism. This kills me because Albania has a lovely coast!
- Albanians and Macedonians fight over who really “owns” Mother Theresa. I have so many thoughts about this!! You can’t own a nun!! And especially not one who is a SAINT like Mother Theresa!
My hotel had a pretty crappy map of Tirana. You can pick up a tourist map of Tirana at the Tourist Information Office behind the National Museum. It’s on Rruga Ded Gjo Luli, just north of Skanderbeg Square. There’s also a good Tirana map for tourists over here.
Because I’m always curious about this stuff…Tirana itself has a population of 400,000 while the great metropolitan area is about 800,000.
Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Tirana
I loved Tirana! And I really want to go back. There are so many things to do in Tirana and I didn’t really have a chance to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere. (And, uh, go shopping.) I was always on a tour! I’d basically like to have more downtime in Tirana to just wonder around and spend an hour (or two) drinking an espresso.