TIRANA, ALBANIA: Tirana is a flourishing metropolis and the capital of Albania. It is an interesting and charming city with hospitable and helpful locals. Tirana is considered a relatively new city, although antique monuments and artifacts can be found here and there. City’s buildings got new facelift recently with splashes of colors in a modernistic style to distinguish themselves from other grey ex-communist capitals.
To my surprise, locals speak very good English and are willing to help any tourists with questions and concerns. If you are driving in to the city, just be careful of lots of traffic and crazy drivers. One problem you may face is that there are many beggars on the street near the city center. Little boys or girls may come running to you if you are in a car or on foot, especially if they know you are a tourist. They don’t mean any harm. What we did during this trip was that we used to box our left over food from the restaurants and give it to those hungry people who were in need.
TIME of TRAVEL: We took a 2-weeks’ vacation to Eastern Europe during the Easter break of 2014. We first flew to Podgorica, Montenegro, stayed there for 2 nights, and drove about little more than 3 hours to reach Tirana. Again, we stayed here only 2 nights before heading out to Skopje, Macedonia. The weather was very mild, not hot, not cold…perfect for sightseeing. But Kruja can be a bit chilly because of its elevation, but we carried light sweaters everywhere and they really came in handy sometimes.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel Tafaj, very close to the heart of Tirana, Skander Beg Square. It may not look all that from outside because of its congested location in front of a busy street. But once you are inside the hotel, it is a gorgeous and luxurious place for accommodation. Our room was a family suite and we had free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and parking with the price. Their restaurant is also very good with traditional Albanian food and international cuisines. But there were plenty of other restaurants and sport-bars near the hotel.
EATING and SHOPPING: Food is very cheap in Tirana and very tasty too. Albania has good quality road side restaurants and inns. After crossing the border from Montenegro, we saw at least one restaurant every few kms in Albania. We stopped at one of those service places where we had Greek salad (very popular in this region), tender kebabs, and hot bread for less than 15 euros for four of us. 1st dinner was at a local restaurant close to our hotel, called Kroce. It’s a traditional Albanian restaurant with extremely tasty food. I had “Fasule” – a bean soup, my husband and kids had “Kernace” – spicy meatballs with “Simite” – fresh oven baked bread. The total bill was less than 10 euros for all of us…totally satisfied. 2nd day we were in Kruja. We had some doner kebab and Greek salad in a kebab place in the center of Kruja. There are many restaurants from all ranges here, but again, food is very reasonably priced here and you can get good portion of food for only few euros. The last dinner in Tirana, was at our hotel restaurant. They also had local dishes with some international plates.
We didn’t really see any souvenir shops in Tirana. We did most of our souvenir shopping in a village, called Kruja where you can get authentic Albanian hand-crafted items. Handmade items, Albanian dolls, carpets, teapots, jewelries, and lots of other things are some good choices to take back from Albania. There were one or two souvenir shops that I saw in Tirana when we were driving by, but nothing really in the center.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Originally, we were thinking about spending a day and half in Tirana. But after visiting Skander Beg Square on the 1st day, our hotel lady suggested that we go out in the small villages or coastal cities or to the mountains to see the real beauty of Albania. We took her words and spent the next day visiting Kruja and Petrela. But if you are spending more days in Tirana, you can visit lots of other nearby historic cities and villages. Albania is a beautiful country and you won’t regret exploring its every corner. It has something for everyone’s taste.
1) SKANDER BEG SQUARE: This big plaza is the main square of Tirana. It’s a lively and crowded place with some important and historic buildings surrounding the square, like Opera building, National History Museum, and some government buildings. National History Museum is the main museum in Tirana. The building is easily spotted because of a huge mosaic on its front façade. We didn’t go inside the museum or the opera building, just took a stroll in the square on the first evening. A statue of Albanian hero Skander Beg in horseback stands in the middle of the square on a grassy field.
2) EH-TEM BAY MOSQUE: This is a small but very beautiful mosque with a tall minaret in Skander Beg Square. It’s located right beside Tirana Clock Tower, which is the symbol of this city. The mosque was built in 1793 and is considered as one of the most beautiful mosques in Albania. The care taker of the mosque took me inside and told me to go to 2nd floor to get a nice glimpse of the whole interior of the mosque. It’s not that big but has an artistic dome as well as interestingly decorated walls. Tomb of Eh-Tem Bay is at the entrance of this mosque. It’s free to go inside.
3) KRUJA CASTLE: On our second day in Tirana, we drove to another historic town of Albania, called Kruja. It’s a small town about 35 km northwest of Tirana and rises 560 meters above sea level. It makes a perfect half a day trip from the capital if you enjoy nature and fresh air. The drive from Tirana to Kruja was very pleasant and scenic. The town of Kruja sits on a hill and is known for its hand-crafted items, such as things made with olive trees, traditional Albanian dolls, hand-painted copper items, carpets, and etc. Most of these are hand made by the villagers of Kruja. You can bargain on the price and may get a good deal if you buy more than one item from the same seller.
Before reaching the castle, we passed by the old market of Kruja where you can buy all those above local trinkets. It’s a long stretch of shops on cobbled street. There were plenty of restaurants and cafés too. The market was so colorful and lively that even if you don’t buy anything taking a walk thru it is a must. I found the people very friendly and helpful here. They will come and start conversations if you look like a tourist.
After passing the market and Skander Beg Museum, we saw the tower of Kruja Castle on a small slope. The castle is in just ruins now. But it provides a great view of majestic landscape to the visitors. The castle was built during the 5th and 6th centuries and has an elliptical shape with a total area of 225 hectors. The surrounding walls are reinforced by nine towers, which served as an observation and signaling post during the times of war. Within the walls of the castle some remains of few houses can still be found.
Although we didn’t visit Skanderbeg Museum, it is a well-known museum in Albania. Kruja has a rich collection of historical and cultural objects. For me, the old bazar and view from the mountain were the highlights of Kruja. There is no fee to see the castle. You can enjoy the view and some hot drinks or meal in the café on the hill.
4) PETRELA CASTLE: This is one of Albania’s best-preserved castles, sitting picturesquely on a steep slope overlooking a river and the nearby small towns. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Kruja. The tower in the center dates back to 500 AD, surrounding it are walls from the Byzantine period, laid out in a triangle, with round towers at the corners. This castle was used during Skander Beg’s war against the Turks.
There are many uneven stairs to climb to up to the castle. Only the skeleton of the castle stands now, but the gorgeous view of the valley and mountains are worth all the hard work. It is not stroller friendly and there is no place to keep the stroller for a while. There is a cozy little restaurant all the way up in the castle. It was empty but open and serves local delicacies.
It’s free to enter the castle complex as well as the parking was free. Petrela Castle is about 15km southeast of Tirana, takes about half an hour from the center of Tirana. I saw only one souvenir shop at the bottom of Petrela and some snack places.