Tirana, Abania. Not a place where many people decide to spend their holidays, and it doesn’t usually feature on the itineraries of most people backpacking through Europe.
Tirana isn’t the glitziest of destinations, nor is Albania the easiest country to travel around as a novice backpacker. Its infrastructure is pretty poor, things don’t always run on schedule and it isn’t yet used to catering to hordes of international tourists.
Added to that, Albanians have a bit of a reputation of being the tough guys of Europe, with the Albanian mafia having ‘one of the highest criminal capacities in the world.’ Albania then, is a country that many people consider to be undeveloped, dangerous, and not worth the hassle.
However, despite this, I believe that Albania is one of the most underrated destinations in Europe, and a visit to its capital of Tirana is a must.
A Backpacker’s Guide to Tirana, Albania
How Long to Stay in Tirana
I stayed in Tirana for 4 nights and I’d say that this is probably 1 night too much. I would recommend booking 3 nights in Tirana, giving yourself 2 full days to see what Albania’s capital has to offer (if you’re arriving early in the morning, I would suggest booking only 2 nights).
What is Tirana Like?
When I crossed the border from Montenegro to Albania, I instantly noticed a change. As the bus drew nearer to Tirana, my surroundings were more reminiscent of my time in Southeast Asia than anywhere I’ve been to in Europe.
In fact, with the dilapidated buildings, men grilling corn on the cob on every other street corner and the potholed streets having ‘themes’ (for example, a street full of pharmacies followed by a street full of bicycle repair shops), I could have been back in Hanoi, albeit with less traffic.
Something that really stood out to me was that, for a capital city, Tirana sure has a lot of old people. Most capitals are full of young business professionals in a rush to get to their next meeting, but 80% of the people on the streets of Tirana are old men who congregate in groups on the park and outside cafes, smoking and playing dominos (however, I was there in early September before the students returned to university which probably has a lot to do with that).
Another thing that surprised me is how secular Tirana felt. While Albania is a Muslim country (with almost 60% of citizens identifying as Muslim), the call to prayer is really the only thing that feels remotely Islamic in Tirana. The women don’t cover their hair and the men drink and smoke to their heart’s content.
This may have something to do with something our tour guide told us – although 60% of Albanians identify as Muslim, 90% of them have never stepped foot inside a mosque!
Is Tirana Safe?
Despite Albania’s reputation, I never felt unsafe walking around Tirana. Pickpocketing and random acts of violence are practically unheard of in Albania, and perhaps because the country is so unused to tourism, locals are more likely to help you out and ask questions about where you’re from than they are to try and scam you.
Even at night, my friends and I never felt threatened. While the Albanian mafia is very much alive and kicking, their crimes of drug and people smuggling don’t affect tourists at all and Tirana honestly feels more like a sleepy town than a capital city.
Things to do in Tirana
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Tirana so I’ve put together a 3 night/2 day itinerary that will allow you to expore the main things that the city has to offer without feeling too rushed. This itinerary includes everything that I did whilst on my trip to Tirana, except that I had an extra day which I just spent drinking beers in the sun!
Day 1 – Arriving in Tirana
Depending on where you’re coming from, it may be late in the afternoon when you arrive in Tirana. I arrived at about 5pm, and so after I checked into my hostel, I asked one of the volunteers where I could grab a bite to eat nearby.
Because the staff at Trip’N Hostel are so damn helpful, he actually walked me to a nearby cafe where two of the other hostel guests were tucking into a huge portion of grilled vegetables and homemade chips. I joined them and ordered a dish that the hostel worker recommended – a huge portion of chips, sald and two pork steaks, all for 2.5 euros!
I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to begin your stay in Tirana!
After you’ve finished eating, I suggest having a walk around the city. We stumbled on a really cute market close to the hostel and stopped to look at the various souvenirs on display before grabbing a drink near the main square and heading back to the hostel for an early night.
Day 2 – Getting to Know Tirana
If you’re staying at Trip’N, be sure to kick off your day with their free breakfast. When I was there, you could choose from an omlette, fried eggs or French toast, all hot, cooked to order and served with fresh coffee.
When you’ve finished with that, head to Skanderbeg Square for the 10am free walking tour! I love free walking tours as they are a great way to find out some background information about the city that you’re visiting, as well as see some of the major sites. I especially recommend doing the walking tour in Tirana as Albania is a place with a long and rich history that most foreigners know little about, and I got a much better appreciation of Tirana thanks to the free walking tour.
The Tirana Free Walking Tour takes place at 10am and 6pm every day from the steps of the Opera House on Skanderbeg Square. It lasts for around 2 hours and is tip-based.
After you’re done with the tour, head up to the rotating bar at Sky Tower for a cocktail with a view! This bar rotates 360 degrees, giving you a view over the entirety of Tirana, and the cocktails are very reasonably priced.
If those cocktails have given you some Dutch courage then be sure to climb the pyramid of Tirana! Originally a museum dedicated to the former Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, the Pyramid of Tirana is now dilapidated and mostly unused. However, local kids and tourists often climb the 20m structure for a bit of fun and to watch the sunset from the top. If you’re going to climb the Pyramid of Tirana, just make sure you wear sensible shoes and be prepared to slide down on your butt!
For some fun in the evening, either enjoy some beers at the hostel’s bar or head to the hipster area of Blokku for some quirky (though expensive) bars. The price of a beer in Blokku was around 3x the price of a beer in some of the other city centre bars, but it’s worth going for a night to party with the Tirana locals.
Day 3 – Cable Cars and Bunk’Art
Something you can’t miss out on when you visit Tirana is a visit to the Bunk’Art museum. Located a 20 minute bus ride out of the centre of town (40 ALL), the Bunk’Art museum is a museum dedicated to the history of Communism in Albania. With 106 rooms spread across 5 storeys underground in this anti-nuclear bunker, there is a tonne of information all about Enver Hoxha’s life as a Communist dictator.
After you’ve spent an hour or two wandering around the bunker, take the 10 minute walk to the Dajti Ekspres cable cars. For 8 euros, you get a return ticket to the top of Dajti Mountain across the longest cable car ride in the Balkans. Once at the top, you can enjoy a hike or simply enjoy a meal in one of the restaurants, overlooking the stunning Albanian countryside.
Where to Stay in Tirana
I stayed at Trip’N Hostel in Tirana and I highly recommend it. Trip’N is where everyone travelling throgh the Balkans stays when they visit Tirana, and as soon as you enter, it’s easy to understand why.
With super friendly staff (including 2 cats and 2 turtles – yes, they are staff members), a sunny roof terrace, a free breakfast cooked to order and their very own on-site microbrewary, Trip’N is a great place to get stuck for a few days. Trip’N Hostel seems to attract a great crowd of friendly solo travellers, and there will always be someone in the courtyard willing to drink a beer with you!
What to Budget for Tirana
Albania is an incredibly cheap country, and while its capital of Tirana is more expensive than other parts of Albania, it is still an extremely affordable city for most backpackers.
Average cost of a bed in a hostel dorm room: 700-1100 ALL
Average cost of a pint of beer: 150-200 ALL (expect to pay double this in the hipster area of Blloku)
Cost of a meal in a mid-range restaurant: 300-800 ALL
So there you have it!
Tirana isn’t the most beautiul city in the world and there isn’t a tonne to do there, but it is definitely worth paying a visit while you’re in Albania. Tirana is a great place from which to travel to other Balkan destinations, and it’s a really good place to learn about Albanian history from the people who have lived through it.
Are you planning a trip to Tirana? Let me know if you found my guide useful in the comments below!