Craving for Old Europe? Here are Top 7 Cities to Visit !!!

It’s not just the European food or people or cultures that attracts millions of people to visit the continent each year. Yes, those are appealing, but for the most part, it’s the unique medieval charms of Europe that people can’t get enough of when they are getting lost in the narrow alleys of small towns in Europe, looking at centuries old cathedrals or  ruins of ancient fortresses,  or walking on cobbled stoned squares from the middle ages.

Every time I’ve visited the big or tiny towns in Europe, I was taken back in time. I could feel and see the life that existed hundreds of years ago. It was like an open museum that has surprises in every corner of it. From big cities like Rome to one of the smallest ones, like Cyprus have medieval elements scattered though the cities.

After visiting more than 130 cities in Europe (it’s not enough for any continent, let alone for Europe), I had hard time hand-picking cities that will give the tourists most medieval experience of Europe. Oh yes, there are plenty of these towns where you can go and feel like you traveled to the past thru a time machine in this continent. But here are 7 not-so-common places that you should visit to experience some enticing old European charms. They are not in any particular order…enjoy

  1. Toledo (Spain): Once the capital of Spain, Toledo, is a must-see city when you are in Madrid. The history of this town dates back to 192 B.C. which became a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich cultural and historical monuments. Some spots to hit in Toledo are Cathedral of Toledo, Monuments of Greco, Old city wall, the synagogue, San Martin Bridge, and finally the magnificent Alcazar.
An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

2. Volterra (Italy): This is a perfect day-trip if you are in Florence or Sienna in Italy. Volterra is one of many walled cities of Toscana and it attracts thousands of tourists every month. Other than its sweeping beauty of its countryside and other small hill-towns, it has those cozy piazzas, like Piazza dei Priori, a roman theater, couple good museums like Alabaster Museum and Pinacoteca Museum, and finally an old baptistery…Santa Maria Assunta Church. To finish off the day, have some gelato from a local store.

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

3. Plovdiv (Bulgaria): Dating back to more than 4000 B.C, Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in whole Europe. The town is very well-preserved and many old buildings, paved streets, fortifications, walls, water-supply, and sewerage survived from its early period. Visit the Virgin Mary Church, St. Dimitar Church, Roman Theater, ancient Stadium of Philippopolis, and Djoumaya Mosque from the 14th century. Plovdiv would make a perfect trip if you are in Sophia and have an extra day to taste the old Bulgaria.

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

4. San Marino (San Marino): This is one of the littlest countries in Europe yet it claims to be the world’s oldest republic. San Marino not only  offers impressive views of the surrounding hills, countryside, Adriatic Sea, and Italy, but it also has spectacular historic landmarks for its visitors. If you are in the Tuscany region in Italy, San Marino would be a perfect day-trip from there. Visit the Old Town, 1st Tower – Guaita, Basilica di San Marino, Piazza Publica, and enjoy its great Italian cuisine in any restaurants.

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

5. Luxembourg City (Luxembourg): This is probably one of my most favorite capitals to visit in Europe. The history and the beauty of Luxembourg City will truly make your trip a memorable one. Here are some places to see here: Gella Fra Monument, Notre Dame Cathedral, Grand Ducal Palace, Bock Casamates, and finally the whole town. This should be on your top list if you are visiting Belgium…too good to miss.

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

6. Valletta (Malta): This is a unique place where rich history, good Mediterranean food, scenic beauty, and colorful atmosphere come together in harmony. Malta’s capital, Valletta, was one of the earliest sites that got listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old world splendor and magnificent Baroque architectures. While in Valletta, make sure to take a boat ride to the unforgettable Islands of Gozo and Comino. But in the city, roam around its old part and enjoy places like, St. John’s Cathedral (and many other old churches), Upper Barracca Garden, National Library of Malta, St. Fort Elmo, and Great Siege Square.

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

7. Dinant (Belgium): Situated by River Meuse, Dinant is a French-speaking (Wallonia) part of Belgium. This is the hometown of Adolphe Sax…the inventor of saxophone that dates back to 800 B.C. Visit the Dinant Citadel (and enjoy stunning view from there), Collegiate Cathedral of Dinant, Saxophone Bridge and River Meuse, and get lost in the old alleys that are packed with local goods and cafes. Another sweet trip if you are ever in Brussels.

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

 

 

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Macedonia in 2 days – visiting Skopje and Matka Canyon

SKOPJE, MACEDONIA: Situated by River Vardar, Skopje is the capital, the largest, and the most diverse city of Macedonia. It gave birth to some of the greatest people of the history, like Mother Teresa and Alexander “The Great”. Historically, the earliest traces of life in Skopje Valley are from the early Stone Age around 5000 to 3000 BC. From then on, Macedonia came under many rulers, empires, and kingdoms since its foundation, from the Byzantines, Romans, Ottomans, Serbians, then became a republic of Yugoslav Federation. However the Ottomans left the most and greatest marks on Skopje than any other rulers. Ottomans ruled Macedonia for many decades until the 20th century and built a large numbers of mosques, Turkish baths, and other architectures. Even now, Ottoman’s legacy is extremely visible in all over Skopje. Overall, there are 40 mosques in Skopje and more than 100 mosques in Macedonia. This is a city where you can see a harmonic and peaceful combination of Christianity and Islamic culture side by side.

Heart of Skopje near Macedonia Square

Heart of Skopje near Macedonia Square

Unfortunately, a major earthquake in 1963 destroyed about 75% of the city in just few seconds. Many of Skopje’s historic and important buildings were leveled to ground that day. But the city did great job pulling itself back to its original look with more modern and futuristic style.

Statue of a national hero of Macedonia near Old Bazaar in Skopje

Statue of a national hero of Macedonia near Old Bazaar in Skopje

River Vardar runs thru the city and can be seen from the city center. The capital is surrounded by mountains in all directions and you can see them in the far distance. Skopje is a clean and tourist friendly city. It’s very well-marked and organized with information boards and signs near all the sites…small or big. Walking is the best way to get around but taxi is much cheaper than other parts of Europe if you need them for further distance.

An interesting statue on River Vardar near Stone Bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

An interesting statue on River Vardar near Stone Bridge in Skopje, Macedonia

TIME of TRAVEL: Skopje was one of the destinations we covered during our Easter Break Trip of 2014. After visiting Podgorica in Montenegro and Tirana in Albania, we drove more than 4 and ½ hours to reach Skopje. I know it may sound like a long one, but when you are driving thru hills, snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, small villages, and pretty valleys the few hours in the car is nothing. We entered in Kosovo for a short time too before entering Macedonia. Just an FYI, if you have a rental car and don’t have insurance to drive in Kosovo (most rental companies’ insurance doesn’t cover damages occurred in Kosovo), drivers have to buy car insurance for 15 euros at the border. From Skopje, our next stop was Pristina, Kosovo.

Don't know the name of this stunning lake that we saw in Albania, before crossing the border of Macedonia

Don’t know the name of this stunning lake that we saw in Albania, before crossing the border of Macedonia

OUR HOTEL: The hotel we stayed in Skopje, Hotel Victoria, was a family run place with luxurious rooms and excellent customer service. The owner himself gave us some ins and outs of the city and recommended us a nearby traditional Macedonian restaurant “Macedonian House” on the first night and to Matka Canyon and lake for the day we checked out to go to Pristina, Kosovo. The hotel had free breakfast buffet, Wi-Fi, and parking. It’s located in a quiet residential neighborhood, about 15 minutes of walk from the city center. We really got a homely service from the owner, his wife, and their daughter here, and our kids got some special treats before leaving the hotel.

EATING and SHOPPING: “Shkembe” is somewhat popular here since I’ve seen it in the menu of few restaurants. This soup is made with cow intestine (may be lamb too, not sure)…didn’t dare to try it. Other than that fried cheese or Greek salad are also common in many restaurants. We had our first dinner in “Macedonian House”, a place which was recommended by our hotel owner. This is a top class place to try some traditional dishes. It is a big place decorated with traditional and handcrafted items from the locals. We had breaded cheese, chicken casserole, rolled chicken with cheese, eggplant with feta, fried zucchini, and onion soup. The price was way less than our expectation and the service was fantastic. There was also some live piano at the end. Next day lunch was in the old town opposite of Daut Pasha Double Hammam. This was a small street-side place with good food. We had some hot dogs, Greek salad, and breads. Again, price of the food here is a lot cheaper than Western Europe. Next day we had lunch in Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant when we went to see Matka Canyon and Lake. This is a pleasant place for meal by the lake. It’s a bit pricey but the food was great. There were more options near the entrance of this canyon.

Some traditional food we had for our first dinner in Macedonia House in Skopje

Some traditional food we had for our first dinner in Macedonia House in Skopje

Old Bazaar of Skopje is a very good place for those souvenir hunters. Many Turkish stores sell traditional and handmade goods. You can find carpets, Macedonian dolls, home decors, and almost everything else in this market.

A big souvenir shop selling handmade items in the Old Bazaar of Skopje, Macedonia

A big souvenir shop selling handmade items in the Old Bazaar of Skopje, Macedonia

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Skopje is a city where you can do and see countless things and you won’t get bored for a single moment for a long time. We had only a day in the city of Skopje and about half a day in Matka Canyon which is less than an hour drive from city center. We only saw the highlights of this capital in a day. Some of the places we didn’t visit but sounded interesting are Holocaust Memorial Center, Macedonian Revolutionary Struggle, some old Turkish inns – like Kapan Inn and Suli Inn, Daut Pasha Hammam, and tons of museums all around the city. Most of the main attractions of Skopje are close to Macedonia Square and are within walking distance.

The scenic highway from Tirana, Albania to Skopje, Macedonia (thru Kosovo)

The scenic highway from Tirana, Albania to Skopje, Macedonia (thru Kosovo)

1) MACEDONIA SQUARE: This is the main and the liveliest square of Skopje. I just loved its big space and energetic atmosphere. There are countless interesting statues and sculptures all over this square, mostly of Macedonian revolutionary figures. But the grandest sculpture is the one in the middle with the prettiest fountain of this city. This is the statue of Macedonia’s bravest son, Alexander the Great on his horse-back (though some say it depicts a Macedonian warrior on horse). This 26 meter statue was built not too long ago in 2011 to commemorate 20 years of independence of Macedonia. At the base of the sculpture are 8 bronze soldiers and 8 bronze lions. The fountain plays classical music with the water show every now and then, not sure of the time interval.

Macedonian Square in Skopje

Macedonian Square in Skopje

 Stone Bridge and Porta Macedonia can be seen from this point. Lots of grand buildings surround the square. There are many cafes, hotels, restaurants, and bars here. The place really comes to live in the evening. This is a just a fantastic place to hang out in the heart of the city.

2) MOTHER TERESA BIRTHPLACE and MEMORIAL: Mother Teresa is the most renowned woman of Skopje who was born here very close to the city center in 1910. After spending 18 years in this house, in 1928, she left her native town and went to India, where she dedicated her life to the missionary work, selflessly caring for the sick and the poor. This Memorial Home was built in her honor, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

Mother Teresa's Birthplace and Memorial in Skopje, Macedonia

Mother Teresa’s Birthplace and Memorial in Skopje, Macedonia

 The memorial represents a modern and transformed version of the house where she was born. It was erected on the spot where a Catholic Church used to be. The new building is a tranquil place that depicts her entire life and represents a temple of spirituality, humanity and charity, as well as an eternal memory of her noble mission. Part of Mother Teresa’s remains was transferred to her sanctuary, consisted of many rooms: music room, private room, prayer room for Mother Teresa, multimedia room for chamber music and souvenir shop.

We didn’t go inside the memorial or the museum. Museum is little bit further, this particular building is just a memorial.

Feudal Tower is a 17th century tower from the Turkish era behind Mother Teresa Memorial which once served as a defense tower.

3) MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENT: We walked a bit from the memorial to come here. Macedonian Parliament is a pretty nice rustic orange building. In front of this modernistic style parliament stands a statue of Nikola Karev on the back of his horse – a Macedonian revolutionary and socialist who perished in the war with the Turks. Opposite of the parliament, on the other side of the street is like a big memorial park – a complex of many statues. The biggest one there, facing the parliament is known as “Monument to the Fallen Heroes of Macedonia”.

“Monument to the Fallen Heroes of Macedonia” opposite of Macedonian Parliament in Skopje

“Monument to the Fallen Heroes of Macedonia” opposite of Macedonian Parliament in Skopje

4) PORTA MACEDONIA: After visiting the parliament and the big park in front of it, we entered the city center again thru the grand Porta Macedonia. This is a white triumphal arch gate in between the parliament and Macedonian Square. The gate is dedicated to the 20 years of independence of Macedonia. Not sure of the statues of two gentlemen sitting on the two sides of the gate…may be two Macedonian heroes.

Porta Macedonia - a triumphal arch gate in Skopje to celebrate 20 years of independence of Macedonia

Porta Macedonia – a triumphal arch gate in Skopje to celebrate 20 years of independence of Macedonia

5) STONE BRIDGE and RIVER VARDAR: Another beauty of Skopje is their old Stone Bridge on River Vardar that connects old bazaar and main square. The original bridge is from the 6th century, from the Byzantine’s period; different reconstructions and renovations took place in the later centuries. The Watch Tower shaping like a Mihrab was reconstructed in 2008. You can see the original 6th century stone block and 13 arches of this bridge from the sides. Many important and historic buildings stand by the river bank. River Vardar cuts thru the city here and creates a pleasant place to hang out at any time of the day. There are tons of interesting statues on the both sides of the bridge and near the water. Look for the statue of a lady posing to dive into the water.

Stone Bridge on River Vardar in the heart of Skopje, Macedonia

Stone Bridge on River Vardar in the heart of Skopje, Macedonia

6) OLD BAZAAR: This is an old bazaar in the heart of Skopje and when I say old, it’s from the 12th century. But the bazaar had its greatest rise in the period between the 15th and the 19th centuries. This significant town site, where the narrow paved streets form a labyrinth, possesses a distinct oriental look. The stores, although situated between somewhat civilized frames, still nurture the traditional form of organization. They are attached to one another and most of them share identical minimalist dimensions. Apart from the numerous jewelry stores, taverns, tearooms, pastry shops, and other types of stores, in the Skopje Old Bazaar you can see the most important monuments of the sacral Islamic and profane architecture. You can find a big community of Muslims in or around this bazaar.

A scene of Old Bazaar in Skopje, Macedonia

A scene of Old Bazaar in Skopje, Macedonia

This is a good place to buy Turkish or Macedonian trinkets. It is quite big in size with countless small alleys. There are plenty of traditional cafes, restaurants, and bakeries at every corner of this bazaar.

7) SULTAN MURAT MOSQUE and CLOCK TOWER: Also known as Sultan’s Mosque, this is the biggest mosque in the Balkans and the main mosque of old part of Skopje. It was built in 1463 by Sultan Murat II on the foundations of an older monastery.

Inside Sultan Murat Mosque - a 15th century mosuqe in Skopje, Macedonia

Inside Sultan Murat Mosque – a 15th century mosque in Skopje, Macedonia

 The mosque stands next to a Clock Tower, dated from the 16th century. There is a wash area in front of the building and a tall minaret beside the mosque. Sultan Murat Mosque is still active and holds daily prayers. Visitors are to respect the worshippers and need to take off shoes before entering the prayer area.

Sultan Murat Mosque is a bit away from the center. We asked some young men about its location and they were kind enough to actually take us, which took about 10 minutes. Opposite of Sultan Murat Mosque is another 15th century mosque, called Isa Beg Mosque. You don’t have to pay anything to visit these mosques but donation is always appreciated.

8) CHURCH of the HOLY SAVIOUR: According to some historians, the original church dates from the 14th century. It is the oldest preserved church in Skopje. The church suffered a great deal from a fire in 1689. The church itself is tiny but has a pleasant courtyard.

The sarcophagus of Macedonian’s greatest revolutionary hero Goce Delchev (who fought against the Turks) lies in the church courtyard. His remains were transferred to this church in 1946. There is also a museum dedicated to the life and revolutionary activity of Delchev. I loved this small but calm courtyard with trees and a small gardens.

Sarcophagus of Macedonian Hero Goce Delchev in the courtyard of Church of St. Saviour in Skopje, Macedonia

Sarcophagus of Macedonian Hero Goce Delchev in the courtyard of Church of St. Saviour in Skopje, Macedonia

The church is interesting for its specific structure. Having been dug into ground to the depth of about 2 meters, it is a silent witness of the subordination of Christian edifices to Turkish dominant religious structures at the time. Inside the Church of the Holy Saviour, you can see an impressive iconostasis on the altar – a masterpiece of Macedonian woodcarving. This deep wood carving was done from whole wood boards and is not covered with golden paint. It is 10 meters wide and 6 meters high. It was handcrafted in the 19th century and took 6 years to finish this art. The earthquake of 1963, the south wall collapsed and unveiled a fresco dated from the 17th century.

The church is located in the Old Bazaar, near Fortress Kale. It was 120 Denar per person to go inside the church but no fees to look around the courtyard or Sarcophagus of Goce Delchev.

9) MUSTAFA PASHA MOSQUE: This significant monument of the Islamic architecture is located on a plateau east of the main entrance to the fortress Kale. This historic mosque was built in 1492 by Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman commander of Skopje. It was severely damaged by the earthquake in 1963. Currently TIKA, a Turkish organization, is conserving and taking care of Mustafa Pasha Mosque, a beautiful example of common historical and cultural heritage.

Mustafa Pasha is one of the most beautiful Islamic buildings in Macedonia with vibrant blue and white interior. Inside the mosque is very elegant, spacious, and well-preserved. The mosque has a square plan and it’s covered with a dome elevated on three-centered arches. Inside the mosque, there is a mihrab with plastic decorations carved in marble, and above the entrance door there is a gallery for muazzins (man who calls for prayer 5 times a day). The minaret of the mosque is built of freestone, and the extended part is built of marble decorated with ornaments. An ablution fountain, former structures, and several tombstones are part of this complex too.

Inside Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Skopje, Macedonia

Inside Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Skopje, Macedonia

This old mosque is still in use, therefore visitors need to take shoes off before entering the main prayer area to respect the place and worshippers. There is no fee to enter but donations are appreciated. It’s located opposite of Kale Fortress.

10) SKOPJE FORTRESS: The Skopje fortress Kale, also known as Upper Town, dates from the 4th century BC and is the oldest known settlement from the Copper Age. It sits on the highest hill in the Skopje valley. The construction of the enormous ramparts on the Kale are mainly from the 6th century by the Byzantines. However, the fortress experienced its largest growth in the 10th century. In 1391, angered by the strong resistance of the people in Skopje, the Turks destroyed the city and parts of the city ramparts. But it was during the Turkish rule when the number of towers was up to 70, now only 3 remains. After that Kale continued to function as barracks. As a result of the disastrous earthquake in 1963, a large part of the Kale was completely destroyed.

Walking on the old defense wall of Skopje Kale Fortress in Macedonia - the oldest settlement in Skopje

Walking on the old defense wall of Skopje Kale Fortress in Macedonia – the oldest settlement in Skopje

From the ancient impressive fortress today are preserved only one 121 m long rampart, three towers, and an enormous treasure of archeological finds. Among the find there are also remains of a number of churches, craftsman workshops and forges, and from the 12th century there are rare luxurious dinning dishes ornamented with painting, engraving and enameling. Some of the excavated dishes are true works of art, and the entire collection of such ceramics is one of the richest and most valuable in the Balkans.

Two towers of Kale Fortress from the Ottoman's time in Skopje, Macedonia

Two towers of Kale Fortress from the Ottoman’s time in Skopje, Macedonia

Kale Fortress is only in ruins now. But you get a fantastic view of Skopje from the castle hill and it is very attractive. We spent about little more than hour walking on its ground and on the old defense wall. There isn’t much to do other than enjoying the view and surroundings. A lot of spots were under restoration when we went, some new excavations were taking place on some spots too.

Some ruins of Kale Fortress and minaret of Mustafa Pasha Mosque in the back in Skopje, Macedonia

Some ruins of Kale Fortress and minaret of Mustafa Pasha Mosque in the back in Skopje, Macedonia

There wasn’t any fee during our visit and it is right opposite of Mustafa Pasha Mosque.

11) MATKA CANYON and LAKE: This was recommended by our hotel owner in Skopje. Next day, we checked out from the hotel and drove about half an hour to come to this beautiful gorge before heading towards Pristina, Kosovo. Matka Canyon is a fantastic place for the nature lovers, hikers, climbers, or even some expert scuba divers. This place is surrounded by mountains, lake, caves, monasteries, and appealing views. The long and snaky Matka Lake is about 35 meters deep.

Stunningly beautiful Matka Canyon and Lake in Macedonia

Stunningly beautiful Matka Canyon and Lake in Macedonia

We hiked more than 1 km to the boat rental station. The boat takes you to a bat-cave, called
“Vrelo” (means “Spring”) where hikers can’t reach without crossing the river to the other side. You can hike more after the boat station if you don’t want the boat ride or not interested in cave. It’s 400 Denar per person to take a one hour ride on a small engine boat. It took us about 15 minutes to get to this cave which is about 6km from the boat dock. This 3000 years old cave was discovered only 35 years ago. We could hear the bats screeching and smell their poops. But the best part is that it is kept in its natural state. There were some light bulbs and some wet stairs to guide you thru. Surprisingly, there is a small lake inside the cave which you can see from few meters away.

A small lake inside a bat-cave, called Vrelo, in Matka Canyon, Macedonia

A small lake inside a bat-cave, called Vrelo, in Matka Canyon, Macedonia

After the boat tour we sat down for lunch at Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant in a nice setting by the green lake and hills. This is the only eatery near the boat rental. There is an old monastery, St. Andrew’s Church, very close to the boat station and this restaurant. It was built in 1389. It’s a tiny place but has beautiful original frescoes on its old walls. It was free to enter.

Matka Canyon boat rental dock, Macedonia

Matka Canyon boat rental dock, Macedonia

There was a kayak competition that day we visited this canyon. Therefore we couldn’t park closer to the lake. We had to park near an old monastery on a slope. There is no entrance fee to check out the canyon and lake.

 

Albanian beauty – visiting Tirana and Kruja

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.

Scenic highway to Tirana, Albania (from Podgorica)

Scenic highway to Tirana, Albania (from Podgorica)

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.

The main square of Tirana, Albania

The main square of Tirana, Albania

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.

Fasule - an Albanian beans soup we had in Tirana, Albania

Fasule – an Albanian beans soup we had in Tirana, Albania

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.

Some hand-crafts from Kruja, Albania - these are handmade souvenirs with silver and copper

Some hand-crafts from Kruja, Albania – these are handmade souvenirs with silver and copper

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.

 

Skander Beg Square - the main square of Tirana, Albania

Skander Beg Square – the main square of Tirana, Albania

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.

 

Eh-Tem Bay Mosque - a beautiful 18th century mosque in the center of Tirana, Albania

Eh-Tem Bay Mosque – a beautiful 18th century mosque in the center of Tirana, Albania

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.

 

Old market of Kruja, Albania

Old market of Kruja, Albania

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.

 

Gorgeous view from Kruja Castle hill in Albania

Gorgeous view from Kruja Castle hill in Albania

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.

 

Ruins of Kruja Castle in Kruja, Albania

Ruins of Kruja Castle in Kruja, Albania

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.

 

Some more ruins of Kruja Castle in Albania

Some more ruins of Kruja Castle in Albania

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.

 

Tower of Petrela Castle near Tirana, Albania

Tower of Petrela Castle near Tirana, Albania

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.

 

Magnificent view from Petrela Castle in Tirana, Albania

Magnificent view from Petrela Castle in Tirana, Albania

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.

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