Wait Albania, why would you want to go there? Is that a real country? Oh, in Eastern Europe, is it dangerous? Isn’t it in the news for mafia, drug trade and human trafficking? Didn’t they kidnap the girls in Taken?
Common questions I received after visiting Tirana, capital city of the small, mostly unknown Balkan nation of Albania. Preconceptions run deep. And as one of the poorest, least developed countries in Europe, is it any wonder outsiders would be concerned? I debated even covering this destination. Would it spark any interest when I wasn’t sold on it myself?
It’s pure fear of the unknown. Albania never appears in top travel destinations and most couldn’t even point it out on a map. In all honesty, Tirana was a stopover en route to Greece. Nonetheless, I was curious to see what I’d discover. My expectations weren’t high, so they could only be exceeded.
Since the collapse of communism in early 1990’s, Tirana has undergone a transformation of epic proportions. From its dark, isolated past to a thriving, inclusive present with public spaces where locals and visitors alike are safe to roam. Today, Tirana wears its history with pride, and is just begging to be explored.
All roads in Tirana lead to Skanderbeg Square (Sheshi Skënderbej) in the center of town. A bronze equestrian statue of National Hero George Castriot will greet you. Better known as Skanderberg, this man freed Albania from the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.The National History Museum sits at the north side of the square, adorned with a mosaic mural of victorious Parisians on the front facade. Inside, discover ancient artifacts (including a replica of Skanderbeg’s massive sword!) and eye-opening exhibits on grotesque labor camps led by former Communist leader Enver Hoxha. Admission is just 200 LEK ($2 USD). Bonus: Stop by the museum steps at 10am for a free daily walking tour of the city!Heading clockwise around the square you’ll find the Palace of Culture, which houses the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Climb to the top of the 19th-century Clock Tower for the best view over the minaret of Et’hem Bey Mosque. This holy site was closed off during Communist rule until religious freedom was granted again in 1991.You can’t miss Boulevard of National Martyrs (Dëshmorët e Kombit Boulevard), a long strip of road built in 1939 during the Italian occupation of Albania. It is lined with government buildings, headquarters of the secret police, and prime minister’s residence. During Communist rule Ish-Blloku “The Block” was reserved solely for the residence of government officials and was not allowed to be entered by the commoner. It was reopened to the public in 1991 and today is a bustling social area full of cafes, restaurants, night clubs, and casinos.A rather bizarre angular building, the Piramida is a concrete pyramid built by the daughter of former tyrannical ruler Enver Hoxha in 1987. Originally created as a commemorative museum for her father, today it serves little purpose, stripped of its tiles and splashed with graffiti.
Mother Teresa Square, named after the only Albanian Nobel Peace prize winner, is where you will find the University of Tirana, National Stadium, Palace of Congress, and a passable Archaeological Museum.Find the double headed eagle of the Albanian Coat of Arms looming over various parts of the city.Colorful façades line the Lana river thanks to former mayor Edi Rama. As an artist, he made it his mission to lift the spirits of the downtrodden city, by painting the dull buildings in vibrant color and designs.
700,000+ concrete bunkers were scattered around the city to protect the country from an invasion that never happened. One of these bunkers is open to visit in a park next to Parliament on the main boulevard.
I was surprised to stumble across George W. Bush Street, named in honor of our 43rd President after his visit to Albania on 10th June 2007.
Language barrier. It can be difficult to find English speakers since Albania is not a major tourist destination. Their national tongue is a unique Indo-European language, not related to any other living language in the world.
Public transportation system. There are no timetables or marked bus stops. And when you do finally get on a bus, expect to be packed in there like sardines. The roads are in poor condition, full of potholes, and Albanian drivers don’t tolerate pedestrians so watch out. Opt for a cheap taxi over a bus or frugon (mini van).
The water. Unsafe to drink for foreigners whose bodies aren’t used to it. You’re better off opting for sparkling bottled water. Or better yet a Rajika, Raki or Cognac Skënderbeu.No credit cards. Albania is not advanced enough to take plastic so be sure to withdraw plenty of LEK from the ATM. If a local asks you to pay with Euros, the exchange rate will be terrible, insist on using LEK. Be sure to get rid of all your LEK before leaving the country, because nobody will exchange it, as its worth very little.
The food. The cuisine has a Mediterranean influence, a mashup of Greek, Turkish and Italian. It wasn’t terrile, but I honestly was a bit confused. Common dishes are stews and salads. The national dish is tavë kosi, baked lamb and rice with yogurt sauce. And the main meal is lunch instead of dinner. Psh!
Dirty. Garbage bins are turned over and trash is everywhere. Small fires are often lit on the side of the road in an attempt to get rid of the wast.
Safety. Coming from a history of communism, fear and isolation from the outside world due to a paranoid leader (think North Korea in Europe), Albania remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It is tied at 113 out of 176 with Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Niger. But aside from a brief period of unrest in 1997, Albania hasn’t been in a conflict since WWII.If you take the same necessary safety precautions you would in other places of Europe, you shouldn’t have an issue. Albanians are hospitable towards foreigners, despite media frequently portraying them as thieves and mobsters. After being cut off from the rest of the world for more than 4 decades, they are curious about foreigners in a very friendly way. The worst experience you may have is with erratic driving style of Albanians.
Not too touristy. It has yet to be corrupted by mass tourism, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.
It’s quirky. Tirana is where old meets new. Unpaved streets lined with brand new Mercedes and lofty glass towers look down on abandoned construction projects. Former military bases now serve as seaside resorts.
A shake of the head means “yes,” while a nod means “no.” Greetings are made with not one but four cheek kisses.
Dirt cheap. I very rarely spent more than $5 or $10 on a meal. Drinks were only $1-2. Accommodation is also extremely affordable.
Religous tolerance. Under Hoxha’s rule, atheism became the official state religion. But today, you can find a church right next to a mosque, with a synagogue just a block away. Albania is a Muslim country, but relgion is kept separate from its government.
Stunning countryside views on your way in! Albania, you are a quirky country, I will give you that. If you are looking to get off the beaten path, Tirana is worth a stop for a day or two!
Have you visited a lesser known country that others were weary of? Share your experience below!