Tirana: the capital of Albania. A place whose existence is known to few Brits beyond die-hard pub-quizzers and backpack-bearing interrailers. To those who know of it, the name is connotative of the monuments of fallen communist rule, the crowds of elderly men outside coffee shops, and the brash, gaudy consumerism of a nation scrabbling to catch up with the rest of Europe.
All these exterior impressions are well-founded, but beneath this peculiar and malfunctioning exterior is a warm, lively and proud city, with some of the best food in Europe at the best prices.
With its comparatively low-value currency and high quantity of young, western tourists, this city has become a hotbed for affordable, veggie-friendly, and very cool restaurants and eateries.
This guide will offer a number of solid suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well a few things to do in between. Because you can’t just eat all day, apparently.
Day one: Breakfast
For your first meal in Tirana, head to the Blloku district. This is the most trendy and well known part of the city, and you’ll quickly notice how well dressed everyone around you is. The women often wear summery floral dresses or chic all black, and the men borrow from the well-cut shapes of Italy, whose culture influences so much of the dining and dress of the city.
The first restaurant on our list is on Rruga Pjetër Bogdani, which has so many amazing food places on it that you’ll inevitably find yourself returning there with an appetite, whether it’s to follow my recommendations or try some places yourself. The numerous outdoor seating areas are all on one side of the road. On the other is a wall which fences off the rear of the abandoned residence of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator. Those with a strong sense of history might find it chilling being so close to his homestead, but it’s fun to imagine what stories the walls hold while taking in any of the street’s impressive bars, cafes or restaurants.
Çoko Bistro and Bar at number 7
For breakfast, I’d recommend Çoko Bistro and Bar at number 7, where you’ll find a bustling outdoor seating area and an over-the-top art-deco ornate interior. The ornate coving might not be to your taste, but I’ll bet the freshly squeezed orange juice is, so sit back and enjoy the aesthetic excesses. This is Tirana, after all. Like most places in Tirana, the mood is very casual; people talk loudly over long-since empty coffee cups, and waiters hurry through the crowded wicker furniture to reach every corner of the establishment.
The breakfast menu is extensive, and offers a range of cuisines. Croque Monsieur, full English, eggs Benedict, pancakes, granola and so much more is available, and everything is served with a keen eye for detail. All their food is beautifully presented, and there are plenty of options for meat eaters, veggies and vegans. The coffee is the usual Italian inspired espresso-based stuff you find everywhere in Albania, so either stick with OJ or order a cappuccino and make peace with your over-extracted espresso.
A no-holes-barred brunch here with coffee, juice and maybe something sweet to finish will only set you back around £5 a head, so do as the locals do: relax, order a second coffee and take in the surroundings. This city is best explored at a leisurely pace.
Day one: Lunch
Having had a slow breakfast, you probably won’t want a full sit-down meal for lunch. Instead, grab a Byrek to go, and jump on the bus to see Bunkart, the enormous bunker which the dictator built to shelter his cabinet from nuclear or chemical attacks. Byrek is a staple food all along the Balkans, originating from Turkey, but it is incredibly popular in Albania. It is a long flakey pastry, usually filled with spinach and cheese, rolled up like a Cumberland sausage. Every bar, bakery and newsagents sells it, but not all Byrek is created equal. Steer clear of non-bakery byrek at all costs – it usually tastes like it's sat under the heat lamp for just a little too long. Most bakeries will do it properly, though, so grab one to eat on the bus as you ride out of the city.
The bus ride to Bunkart takes you five kilometres east from the city centre to a suburban spot. We were expecting it to be rather empty, but even this far out there is a surprising amount of bustle and life. There are plenty more cafes and bakeries for those of us who might need a bit of caffeine and sugar to get around museums without losing momentum.
Entering the bunker itself is rather exciting: there are huge, multi-door steel hatches and low ceilings – sometimes it feels more like a submarine than a building. While this is a far from polished exhibition, it is absolutely worth the small entry fee, and the incredible history of Albania comes through, despite the sometimes poorly written informative plaques. Visitors can discover the variegated history of occupation, fascism and communism which shaped this country, and gain insight into the closed off lives of Albanians before the fall of communism in 1993.
Day one: Dinner at Salt
This place is super suave. Photo: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g294446-d10475249-Reviews-Salt_Restaurant-Tirana_Tirana_County.html
Once you’ve travelled back to the city and freshened up at your hotel, head back to Rruga Pjetër Bogdani. It might seem silly going to the very same street for dinner, but trust me, this is where some of the best food in the city is found. What’s more, you might have some more informed guesses as to what went on behind that wall now you’ve found out some more about Hoxha’s regime.
The food in Salt, a few doors down from the breakfast place, is as sleek and elegant as the decor. The interior of this restaurant is absolutely stunning; there is a beautiful mezzanine level and a towering display of liquor which stretches up over both floors. An angular, red ladder rests against the enormous display to allow bar staff to reach the higher bottles. There are bright blue leather booths, indoor trees and well-placed underlighting throughout. It is truly a lovely place to be.
The bar is fantastically well-stocked, and there is a brilliant range of high-quality wines to choose from. They have an entire vegan menu (available in English), which is full of incredible, high-quality food, including vegan sushi and risotto. Each dish is served with the attention to detail you might expect of a fine dining restaurant, and yet the prices are no more than you would expect to pay for a bog standard restaurant meal. Fresh flavours and exciting adaptations define every dish on Salt’s menu, and their world-class sushi team never fail to impress.
After dinner, stay to take advantage of the expert bar staff, or, if you’d prefer a change, explore the myriad other bars within walking distance from here. Blloku is the perfect neighbourhood to brush shoulders with eclectic and well-heeled locals.
Day two: Breakfast at Bufe
Entering the garden of Bufe through a gap in the hedge separating it from the Rruge Reshit Çollaku, you will likely see a fashionably dressed young woman standing at a small lectern, chain smoking. The decor at this incredibly cool bistro and wine bar is a refined type of DIY: the bar is made from pallets, but clearly the work of a craftsman. The furniture is losing its paint, but not through neglect. The atmosphere is distinctly sophisticated, and this is no doubt due to Bufe’s involvement in the Albanian Wine Society, whose venue is right beneath this eatery. The garden is decorated with the paraphernalia of wine-making; industrial vats and scales, huge empty bottles, and hundreds of corks can be spotted in this pretty garden, which is lined with plants to protect diners from the noise of the street.
Having been led to your table, you will be privy to another impressive breakfast array. I found the eggs Benedict here to be particularly good, and the staff were more than happy to refrain from adding the salmon which usually comes with it. Once again, the juice here was top notch. I can only assume this is due to the locality of the orange plants; the ripeness and fleshiness was just perfect. The prices were outrageously cheap once again: a plate of American pancakes topped with honey, fresh strawberries, apricots and walnuts cost 270 lek, or £1.96.
After breakfast, spend some time wandering the city. Experience the blend of Ottoman, Italian Fascist and Albanian Communist architecture that Tirana is famous for, and is seen most clearly in the grand promenades leading to the Palace of Culture. The juxtapositions are extreme, and they attribute the city an unmistakable aura, albeit an aura complicated and perhaps threatened by a slew of high-rise hotels that have been erected in the land-grab following the fall of the communist regime.
Day two: Lunch at Gjelber Resto-Lounge
Eating out so much can make me feel unhealthy, so for lunch, head to Gjelber Resto-Lounge on Rruge Andon Zako Cajupi for a health kick. This healthy eating veggie and vegan restaurant is in the Movida area, near to Blloku. While the restaurant itself is unremarkable in appearance, the food here is very well-considered and highly modern, and the staff care a great deal that you have a good experience: when we visited, the chef came out to check we had enjoyed our dessert. Every dish is bursting with colour from the wide array of vegetables and lentils which constitute them; you’re guaranteed to leave with a spring in your step. If one of your number isn’t feeling like a healthy meal, don’t worry. There’s a veggie burger and chips too.
Consider exploring the museums in the city centre for the afternoon, most important being the National History Museum with the unmissable mural. These museums have amazing information about Albania from the neolithic times to modernity. It’s a historical narrative entirely different to the ones we are familiar with in the UK, and visitors will come away with a sense not only of how interesting Eastern European history is, but how ignorant us Brits are to globally significant societies like the Byzantines and the Ottomans.
Day two: Dinner at Pizzarte
After so much time in restaurants, you might want to slob out a little. So make your way over to Pizzarte near the bus station. Make a custom pizza, box it up, and head to wherever you’re staying. The pizza here is great. Thin crust, stone oven cooked, and topped to the perfect quantities. When you get back, sit on your bed and watch youtube videos about communism while you dip crusts in the delicious garlic dip, and consider whether you fancy a few drinks in Blloku or an early night.