If you hadn't noticed by now, Albania is full of surprises, and Tirana was no exception. It’s the capital and by far the nation’s largest city, but it’s still Albania so we figured it would be pretty small and low-key.
Turns out we couldn’t have been more wrong. Crazy drivers and minibuses aside, Tirana is wildly different from the other cities we’ve visited in Albania, and we absolutely loved it. Wandering around at night with bright lights and outdoor seating and loud music coming from every bar and restaurant we passed, parts of the city felt more like Miami than the Balkans. We only spent two nights there - and I was sick one of those days - but we found ourselves deeply engrossed in the strange and fantastic chaos that is Tirana.
This city is incredibly vibrant, there’s no other way to describe it. Every hour of the day and night (except siesta - oh yeah, if you didn’t know, Albania has siesta and *everything* shuts down in the afternoon) the streets are jam-packed with people out and about. Cafes are bustling, parks are crowded, and the traffic is horrific even on the tiniest roads. At night, once the heat of the day is gone, it somehow gets even more lively, with most people eating dinner very late and staying out at the busy nightclubs until the wee hours. Even the playgrounds were chock full of families and kids playing well after our bedtime each night. Albanians know how to live it up from a young age, I guess.
We were surprised by just how new Tirana seemed considering the rest of the country looks pretty old, not just because of the UNESCO sites and castles we’ve visited but because most of the communist architecture in the small towns looks quite dated. In Tirana though, there are tons of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and office buildings, with new construction sites all over the place. It’s seems like the economy is doing quite well, and for a country that’s relatively new to capitalism (Albania was communist until 1990), it was good to see some success. There are still historical sites, religious buildings, and even some archaeological ruins within the city limits, so seeing the contrast of old and new was pretty interesting.
One of our favorite things about Tirana is the city's thriving bar and restaurant scene. Far from the traditional Albanian kitchens we've been to in other cities, in Tirana you can get pretty much any food you want. We noticed that Italian was popular, but there was everything from seafood to barbecue and I think we even saw Tex-Mex burritos on a menu once. The bar scene was amazing and super trendy: we visited an Ernest Hemingway-themed jazz lounge that looked like it was teleported right from Havana (it only served rum and gin), and a cocktail bar decorated with tons of old radios, vintage movie posters and Communist-era memorabilia. These bars wouldn't have felt out of place in Chicago, or in pretty much any of the cities we've visited, but with drastically cheaper drinks which was a huge plus.
Of course, as different as Tirana was from the rest of Albania, much of it still felt the same. Locals still sit outside cafes and chain-smoke while sipping Turkish coffee, toothless old men seem to spend their entire days going for long walks, and transportation still mostly involves putting your faith in random people that they won’t murder you. For example, to check into our hostel we had to go to a different partner hostel run by our hostel owner’s son, Freddy. When we got there, Freddy walked outside and flagged down what appeared to be a random man on the street. He handed the guy some cash and told him to drive us to the hostel we’d booked. At some point Freddy’s daughter got dragged along. Or rather, we think she was his daughter. She barely spoke English, but she was our designated ‘translator.’ Naturally we treated all of this as completely normal, got in the car, and hoped for the best. It felt good to know that even in Albania’s biggest city, everyone seems to know everyone and you can put your faith in random people. Like I said in our last post, it’s not something I'd do in every country. But in Albania that’s just how things are done, and I for one am really into it.
Sadly, Tirana was the last stop in our whirlwind tour of Albania. Months ago, when we were in the early stages of planning our Europe route, I read a couple Reddit threads (in r/travel) that discussed how awesome Albania was and encouraged people to visit. After seeing a few pretty pictures I fell in love and got it in my head that we needed to go. Now that we’ve spent a week here, I’m so glad I found those posts way back when. Albania is an amazing country with so much to offer. It’s affordable, it’s spectacularly beautiful, it’s easy to get around (unless you get carsick easily), and it’s full of the most warm, welcoming humans we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Both Alex and I left the country with heavy hearts and I know for sure we will be back at some point. It's still a relatively new country to tourism and it’s definitely not as easy to get around as most other countries in the Balkans, but it's so worth making the effort. This place does not disappoint. Until next time, Albania!