City Break Tirana, the cheap, quirky and rewarding capital of Albania...

Why go? If you’d like to try somewhere decidedly different, the Albanian capital has friendly locals, fascinating history, quirk galore and jaw-droppingly low prices: half a litre of beer costs £1, museum entry £1.25 — the opera is only £1.75, for heaven’s sake. It’s not the prettiest of cities, but it has Ottoman, Italian and communist-era highlights, and there are several fabulous day-trip options.

By day: the giant Skanderbeg Square, started by the Italians and finished by the communists, belongs in a far larger city. In a non-monumentalist corner is the little Et’hem Bey Mosque, a real treat with a gorgeous prayer room. And there’s a tremendous collection of socialist-realist art at the National Gallery of Arts (Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit;; £1.25) — look out for the statues of Lenin and Stalin at the back.

For lunch, you could opt for traditional Albanian cuisine in a shaded courtyard at Sarajet (Rruga Abdi Toptani 7;; mains £3.50). Or, for more sophisticated food, decor and service, try Vila Alehandro (Rruga Asim Zeneli 2;; mains from £4.50). It’s in a grand white mansion that was formerly the Romanian ambassador’s residence.

Now head up to the mountain fortress of Kruja, where the weavers are making a kilim. The smooth-stoned main alleyway leads past dozens of carpet and souvenir shops, where you can haggle rugs down to about £30 and Hoxha mugs to 50p. Beyond, you enter the 5th-century castle walls that the national hero, Skanderbeg, defended stoically against the Turks — there’s a reverent museum dedicated to him (£1.25). Get to Kruja, 20 miles north of Tirana, by taxi (£25 return) or bus (90p). Or make for the ancient seaside capital, Durres, which sees Albanians in beach mode — it’s a £14 taxi ride.

By night: the Blloku neighbourhood shows a metaphorical two fingers to the former dictator. Albanians were barred from the area in his day, but now it’s as good a nightlife centre as any in the Balkans, with boutique shops, restaurants, pavement bars and clubs surrounding the 17 oversized villas where Hoxha and his coterie once slept. The incongruous Sherlock Holmes bar (Bulevardi Bajram Curri) is trendy, with white furniture, arty lighting and a beau monde clientele. Radio (Rruga Ismail Qemali 29/1) is a cracking bar with a very happy ambience and marvellous cocktails. In low-rise Tirana, the 15th floor feels giddying, but that’s where you’ll find the revolving restaurant Sky Club (, with great views, cheap beer and a comically hesitant rotation.

One more thing...Enver Hoxha was the dictator of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. His legacy includes a pyramid structure built as a museum to him (now derelict) and, on Ishmail Omera street, a one-man concrete bunker — a reminder of his pet 'Bunkerisation' project that saw the country pebbledashed with perhaps 200,000 pillboxes.

They were - and thanks to their robust design and construction - in many cases still are evident throughout the country. They were prefabricated dome-topped bunkers set into the ground and with slits for firing weapons out of, and from the late 60s to the late 80s became a part of life for ordinary Albanians. People knew where their nearest bunker was, and even youngters were trained in how to defend the homeland from inside of them.  

Some of the bunkers were on a much larger scale though, and two new projects have opened in the city since I visited, which have opened up larger bunkers used by the Hoxa regime. Bunk'Art2 opened in November 2016 and reveals the murky history of Albanian Ministry of Internal Affair from 1912 to the fall of Communism in 1991. Sister project Bunk'Art1 is also sited underground, but on the outskirts of Tirana. It was the shelter in which the government planned to hole up in after a nuclear attack, and contains many rooms exhibiting the history of the Communist period of Albania, plus the room readied for the use of Enver Hoxha himself.



Fitting Tirana into a holiday: Tirana is a great and refreshing city break, especially if you like somewhere unusual, yet welcoming and with lots going on. There aren't as many 'sights' as in some larger Balkan cities, but the quirky history and proud independence make it a very rewarding destination. Holidays to the Albanian mountains or coast are growing in popularity, and it's easy to travel on to other Balkan nations.  


Getting there: Tirana Airport saw about two million passengers in 2016. Useful direct routes include from Athens with Aegean Airlines, from Rome with Alitalia, from Vienna with Austrian Airlines , from London Gatwick with British Airways, from Frankfurt with Lufthansa, from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, and from Budpest with Wizz.


When to visit: Albania is a relatively mountainous country in the southern Balkans. The best time to visit is June_September, when days are long, warm or hot and sunny. The atmosphere on the streets is great in summer too. Hiking is good in Spring and Autumn, before winter temperatures fall and sporadic snows arrive.


More info: I travelled as a guest of Cox and Kings. Or try Regent Holidays, or the locally based Albanian Holidays. For general info on the city see Visit Tirana, and for country info Albania Tourism


Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.