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krisek Tirana - A travel report by Krys
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Tirana,  Albania - flag Albania -  Tiranë
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krisek's travel reports

A capital city without a major sight. Tirana.

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Albania's capital would not impress many undemanding travellers. Even official travel brochures issued by the state tourism office did not have any recommendations beyond three mediocre museums. It could change. It should change. Time will tell.

Albanian flag flying by the side of the monument of the Albanian hero, Skanderbeg.
Albanian flag flying by the side of the monument of the Albanian hero, Skanderbeg.
The capital city of Albania, I am sorry to say, was ugly! Really unattractive. Furthermore, the somewhat interesting central square, the Skenderbeg Square, was being dug up for some work, which just made the things look much worse. So, it did not really matter that I was 90 minutes late.

I jumped off the coach and a rogue taxi driver summoned me to his car. I acted a little displeased that he didn't have an official taxi sign, but let him take me to my hotel. I selected Hotel Kruja, which awarded itself three stars.

My first, and most important point on the agenda in Albania's capital was to find out about transport to Pristina in Kosovo. My plan was to move from Tirana to Shkoder, and then from Shkoder to Pristina. A couple of ladies at a local travel agent advised me that it might be very challenging to move from Shkoder to Kosovo. I therefore went on discovering the method how to transport myself from Tirana to Pristina instead. The ladies at the travel agency did not know, my hotel receptionist did not know, the consierge at the four star Tirana International Hotel did nor know, their travel office did not know (they had airline tickets available for that route), the travel agent advertising coach travel Tirane -Proshtine did not know. I was about to give up, when I stumbled upon the Tourist Information Office, right next to the UFO University. It turned out that the Pristina coaches were leaving from the front of the office, everyday at 6pm.

Although Tirana did not have spectacular sights, there was something about it. It felt pleasant (but hot!) and safe. The heart of the city had two main chambers. One was the main square with its surroundings and the other was the Blloku district, south of the main square. I liked them both. The former had a handful of great places to relax over coffee or beer. The latter had superb, modern venues to go wild at night, partying amongst and within former polit-bureau properties, very hype and trendy.

Favourite spots:
The Skanderbeg Square in the evening.
The Skanderbeg Square in the evening.
To be honest, I would have to say that I did not have a favourite spot in Tirana. The main square, the Sheshi Skënderberj (Skanderberg Square), which had a couple of interesting looking buildings painted nicely in deep colours, a little charming mosque, an elegant clock tower, a monument of Gjergj Kastrioti (aka Skanderberg) riding a horse, and the intriguing, yet modest for size, headquarters of the national bank, was dug up when I visited, which totally spoiled my experience. So, it was a bit of bad luck for me that I could not see Albania's square of pride. However, when they are done with the digging and improving the place (if that was what they were doing), then this focal point of the capital could become a really pleasant spot.

What's really great:
The Et'hem Bey Mosque at the Skanderbeg Square in the evening.
The Et'hem Bey Mosque at the Skanderbeg Square in the evening.
Tirana was nicely compact and easy to navigate, even without a map. The fact that Albania had been isolated for so long meant that tourists turned locals' heads, but were treated with relative respect, and genuine attentiveness whenever any assistance was needed. The older generation, the fiftysomethings, acted a little mistrustful and somewhat awkward, but as soon as Albania promotes itself as a tourist destination, and more foreingers come for holidays, they will soon appreciate that tourism means money.

I had a situation one day, when I had to exchange some pounds into euros via leke. The bureau de change was already closed, as I was late about 6 minutes. But they still let me in and made the exchange for me. I was impressed how precise the exchange rates were. On the triangular transaction I only lost about 50 euro cents, based on the official market spot rates. Neat!

The small Ottoman Tanners' Bridge, now a spot to take posed photos.
The small Ottoman Tanners' Bridge, now a spot to take posed photos.
It would probably be too harsh to leave this section blank. Yet, even the official tourism brochures list few items in this department. The one I got from the grand and super central Tourist Information Office listed the following items in their 60 pages long book about Tirana (in order presented there): Central Market, Martyrs' Cemetery, Pyramid Cultural Centre, Skanderbeg Sq, Archaeological Museum, Art Gallery, Mezuraj Museum, National History Museum, Shëngjin Church Mosaic, four churches, the Ottoman clock tower and the Et'hem Bey Mosque (both at Skanderbeg Sq). The book also mentioned vague remains of a large Justinian Fortress (very little remains), two nice houses - Galeria Shijaku and Dervish Khorosani House, and an old Ottoman Tanners' Bridge as well as the awfully neglected Tomb of Kaplan Pasha, who'd ruled the country in early 19th century.

From all this, the Et'hem Bey Mosque is Tirana's only real sight. Built between 1794 and 1821, formerly neglected during socialist rule.

Hotel Kruja, room #303.
Hotel Kruja, room #303.
Interestingly, there were a few hostels featuring in the travel literature about and for Tirana. After thinking about it for a while, I eventually ended at the Hotel Kruja, not far from the main square. They charged €35 for a twin room. It was very basic but clean. There was nothing about the decor to write home about. Yet, the rooms were light and the bathrooms were clean, if a little small.

The personnel was not going to win any awards for being helpful or well informed about the city and transport connections. It did seem that the hotel was more geared towards business travellers rather than tourists and leisure visitors. I would recommend it for location, but overall it was not a great place to stay at.

The lounge terrace of the Metropolitan Bar & Lounge.
The lounge terrace of the Metropolitan Bar & Lounge.
Tirana was reportedly the only place in Albania with any reasonable nightlife. I heard about two Jazz Clubs, one called Imagine, so I put them on the list. But in the meantime, I met three Albanian guys, one of whom helped me with ordering at the Delle Rose bar, so we joined football supporting forces and went to a large open air restaurant right by the old Ottoman Tanners' bridge. We watched Ghana v Germany. After the match the boys were determined to show me quality nightlife. And they did!

First, we went to the Metropolitan lounge at the trendy Blloku district. It was excellent. It had a massive terrace with cool couches, and a large garden with stools, tables and a long bar. We met there a group of 38 travellers mainly from Australia, Britain and Canada, who had a jolly good time. It was easy to join them.

With them, we invaded the Lizard Club, in the next street, where a Latin Party (Wednesdays) was in full spin! They also did R&B and hip hop parties, but on different nights.

Beer and crisps at the Animus Bar.
Beer and crisps at the Animus Bar.
The Animus Cafe-Bar in a string of some seven cafe-bar venues under the palm trees near the central square played a funky 1970s and 1980s hits. Really fabulous! Overall, their terrace under the palms did not make the Animus too special, compared to the other ones adjacent to it and so on. That was until they served their olives as a free beer snack! Wow! Those olives were heavenly! Almost self dissolving in one's mouth. They should really be a separate food cathegory. I have never tasted olives this good before. I am not sure how they had managed to achieve this. So, the 0.33l bottle of Amstel at 200 leke (€1.50) there suddenly felt like it was served with a 1000 leke worth of free stuff. Seriously!

Next door Cafe Delle Rose had better seats, and a nice atmospheric semi-circular bar inside. But no Albanian beer or beer from tap. And the waiting staff did not speak any English. But I quickly found out an Albanian local to help me order.

Ulqini Petrit Kotori Bar & Restaurant, main dining hall.
Ulqini Petrit Kotori Bar & Restaurant, main dining hall.
The Ulqini Petrit Kotorri Bar & Restaurant just across the Tirana International Hotel (were free wifi internet was a good enough reason to come for a glass of wine costing 200 leke (€1.50)) was empty when I came in at about 5:30pm for an early dinner. The menu featured a few traditional dishes from 500 leke (€3.70) and more, but I was just not ready to try anything adventurous. The very young waiter seemed to speak English, but from my enquiries about certain simpler dishes featuring in the menu, he understood that this was what I wanted to order. All of it! But I managed to stop him at one spaghetti bolognese (300 leke (€2.22)) and one lasagna (300 leke), which I ate both and watered it down with two bottles of Korça (130 leke each). The food was good and it arrived very quick. The service was attentive and the beer was cold. It was not a very atmospheric spot to have dinner at. Maybe because it was totally empty when I dined. Or maybe because it was slightly too bright for my liking.

Other recommendations:
Castle in Kruja, view from the exit of the ethnographic museum.
Castle in Kruja, view from the exit of the ethnographic museum.
There were two things one could do just outside the capital. First was Krujë, a small town 45 kilometres north, boasting an interesting castle. The other one was: Patrela Castle, 15km south-east, parts of which date back to 500 AD and is amongst Albania's best preserved.

Tirana was increasingly better connected with the rest of the country, the Balkans and Europe. Regular train services returned and linked the capital with Shkoder (3.5h, twice a day). A new motorway opened to the Albanians-dominated Kosovo reducing the road travel from 12 hours to 5 hours. There were also coach services to Athens, Thessaloniki, Peja in Kosovo, Tetovo and Skopje in Macedonia.

Tirana international airport had daily services to Athens, Budapest, Istanbul, Ljubljana, London, Milan, Munich, Prishtina, Rome, and Vienna. On certain days, there were also direct flights to Amsterdam, Florence, Frankfurt, Genova, Naples, Paris, Sofia, Stuttgart, Turin, and Zurich.

Published on Wednesday July 28th, 2010

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Wed, Aug 18 2010 - 04:48 AM rating by eirekay

Even when there is little to see, you write a report that makes me want to see it! Beautifully done!

Wed, Jul 28 2010 - 11:15 PM rating by porto

Great reading again, Krys. I must stop reading your reports though or else my list of places to visit will be endless. ;-)

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