Tirana Albania - Travel Blog 2021 (Skanderbeg Square in Tiranë, Dajti Mountain, & Traditional Food)
This blog provides full details on our trip to Tirana (Tiranë) Albania in 2021! We hung out in Skanderbeg Square, took public transportation, rode the longest cableway in the Balkans to the top of the Dajti Mountain, and ate Traditional Albanian food.
After almost 17 hours of traveling (with a layover in Germany) we have arrived at our first stop in our journey to see the entire world. We are in Tirana (Tiranë) Albania. In this blog, we will tell you about the Grand Park of Tirana and its huge artificial lake. We will talk about taking the largest cable car in the Balkans to the top of a mountain. We will even go over the lounges, cafes, and traditional food. But first...
When we landed at the Tirana International Airport, also known as Nënë Tereza or Mother Teresa Airport, it was like no other experience we have ever had at an airport. We landed on the runway, but not right up to a jet bridge (tunnel that connects an airplane to the airport). Instead we landed in what appeared to be the middle of the runway. Usually once you land, you disembark from the front of the plane. For this one, we had our eyes peeled to the front to see when we could get off the plane and finally be in our first international city (post honeymoon trip to Mexico). Instead the flight attendants whispered from the back of the plane to turn around and exit out of the back.
As we gathered our things and began to walk to the back exit we saw that there was a covered staircase pushed up to the plane. We walked down these steps and saw that we were basically in the middle of the runway. Keep in mind that one of the main reasons we chose Tirana as our first stop in Albania is because this was the major international airport in the country. So to get off of the plane like this was a quite a surprise. Once we were on the ground we turned around to notice beautiful mountains behind us and two airport shuttle ahead of us. I looked to the right of us to see another staircase for the passengers who had to deplane from the front. We all loaded into the shuttles; some of us standing and holding onto the handles above our heads or the poles connecting the floor to the ceiling. Others sitting in seats on the back or sides of the shuttle.
As soon as everyone from the plane was on one of the two shuttles we took off. We arrived at the proper terminal about two minutes later. When we unloaded from the shuttle we saw what appeared to be metal detectors before the entrance to the terminal. As we walked through though we were blasted with sanitizer. After being disinfected in a human-style car wash we were inside of the terminal and saw lines leading to immigration officers. After a brief wait, we handed our passports to the officer who typed a few things into her computer and then let us through to the baggage check. We found our items and then began to get situated for our journey into town.
We grabbed some cash from the atm to make sure we were covered for the rest of the day. We went to the Banka Kombetare Tregtare atm (the red one) but there was also an OTP Bank atm (green one), and I think a Tirana Bank atm as well (yellow).
Airport to AirBnb
After the atm we walked past 2 secuity guards who let us right past on our way out of the airport terminal. Once we were outside we saw a sign for "Buses" overhead. We walked that direction and only saw vans. There was a guy, not wearing taxi or bus gear who tried very hard to get us to go with him to the city square but we were not in the mood to be murdered, so we told him no. He told us that there were not buses and then that the buses come every hour. Either way, we were outside for about 10 minutes and could not figure out how to buy a bus ticket. Everyone else on the flight must of had private cars or jumped immediately into taxis because by the time we walked out of the airport lobby there was no other passengers still around. It was also later in the afternoon so the sun was beginning to set and we we didn't want to be wandering around the airport at night.
Close to where the vans were was a proper taxi kiosk. There was a man behind the counter and a man in front of the counter talking to him while smoking a cigarette. We approached these men and asked him what would be the best price that would could get on a taxi to the city center. He said normally it was 2500 Lek (which is what our research told us) but he could give us a deal for 2000 Lek. He also gave us the Euro price but we told him had the Lek. We asked who we would pay, and he said the driver. We asked if the driver had change (we only had a 5000 Lek bill from the atm) and he said yes. The stars were aligning!
After we agreed to the price the man smoking the cigarette walked us over to the a row of taxis. He handed us over to 2 men; one who spoke English and communicated the price we agreed to and our destination to the other man who did not appear to speak any English. Since we were taking a tax and not a bus we asked if we could be dropped off at our exact location instead of the bus area in the city center (we were about a 15 minute walk from the city center).
The English speaking man said this was fine. The other gentleman loaded up our bags for us in the trunk and we got into his taxi. We saw that he loaded a flat rate into his meter, so we felt good about not getting ripped off from this point. We even saw a chart on the back of the driver's headrest that said from the airport to the city center would be 2500 Lek so that matched what the attendant at the airport told us. There was some traffic so the ride took closer to 45 minutes than the 30 minutes it could have taken, but at least we managed to get transportation from the airport. The driver dropped us off at the corner of our where our Airbnb was and we were ready to go upstairs and get a good night's sleep.
The next day we walked to the Tirana city center. Tirana is the capital and largest city by area and population in Albania, and Skanderbeg Square is the main meeting point of Tirana. This area is huge! It is about 40,000 square meters. Everything is on the outskirts of the square creating a huge open space in the middle. The main statue here is the Skanderbeg monument which is 11 meters (36 feet) tall.
This statue features a man riding a horse on top of a stone pedestal. The man riding this horse was born Gjergj Kastrioti and his story is really cool. He was born an Albanian noble but was sent as a hostage to the Ottoman Empire. He was educated there and was in the service of the Sultan for 20 years.
Around 1443, he deserted the Ottomans and rejoined his Albanian countrymen as their single military leader. From there he fought off over 10 Ottoman invasions. Skanderbeg means Lord or Leader Alexander in Albanian. He was given this name by the Ottomans to compare his Military skill to that of Alexander the Great. The current flag of Albania is a black double eagle emblem on a red background that is similar to the one that Skanderbeg raised in battle.
Also in the square is the National History Museum. In the front of this museum in a mosaic called The Albanians. It is an example of socialist realism art. It was done by five Albania artists for the museums opening in 1980. It tells the story of how Albanians fought off invasions and occupations throughout history.
Walking around Tirana is quite a challenge. There are traffic lights and there are cross walks but they serve as suggestions instead of requirements. There are even some fancier intersections with crosswalk lights of red men who illuminate when you are to stop and green men who illuminate when you are supposed to walk. There are countdowns on these to let you know how much time you have left to cross the street or until you are supposed to walk again. We even saw one intersection with yellow caution lights running up the poll to warn of taking too much more time to cross the road. All of these are nice, but not reliable. Do not be too arrogant walking the streets of Tirana and don't risk your life!
Walking around and crossing roads becomes a game of "chicken" in Tirana. The question becomes "Who wants to cross the road more; the pedestrian or the vehicle driver?" It is best to give the cars the right away because even if the bright green man tells you that you have the right away the big heavy automobile may say otherwise. But walking is not the only challenge...
Bus to Dajti Ekspres (Dajti Express)
If we had left earlier and had more time we may have been more patient, but that was not the case the day we went out to find the Dajti Ekspres. We watched some videos and saw that we wanted to take a blue bus called the Porcelain. We heard that there were 17 stops so we thought it would come around a little quicker. We saw a slew of buses ranging from all white to white with stripes. We didn't see a pure blue bus so we jumped on a turquoise one when it approached the bus stop we were standing at thinking maybe the bus we needed was not actually a pure blue.
We got onto the bus and saw that it was on the Unaza route which we remembered from our research. As we were standing and holding onto the handles hanging from the ceiling, we thought a man was trying to get past us to get to the front. We looked down and saw he had some bus tickets in his hand. Interesting way to collect the fair for the bus ride. We gave him the 80 Lek that we knew we owed him (40 a person for the ride out of the city) and he returned to us our tickets.
This was not our first time riding buses in another country. In Mexico, we used buses or vans to get from Cancun International Airport to Playa Del Carmen, to get to the Cenotes in Mexico, and even to one of the 7 Wonders of the World Chichen Itza in Mexico. Usually when we bought these tickets we purchased the tickets at a bus station ahead of time. That way we were clear what time the bus was to come and where the bus would take us. Buying our ticket when already on the bus from some not so friendly man walking around was a far cry from our Mexico experience.
We kept our Google Maps open to track where we were. As we got to a fork in the road (either the bus could turn left and take us away from the Dajti Ekspres or it could turn right and take us closer) the bus just stopped. The doors opened and the bus driver and ticket taker walked out. Nothing was wrong with the bus, they just wanted to take a smoke break. After a few minutes of waiting an older gentleman walked to the front and yelled at them in Albanian; obviously not happy about their random time out. When they got back inside the driver made a left; the direction we did not want to go. So we got off at the next stop and back track toward the Dajti Ekspres.
Later walking around the city we saw the actual bus we were supposed to get on. It was a proper blue and said "Porcelain" on the front LED sign. Definitely make sure to get on the proper bus as this will save you a lot of walking and headache.
Dajti Ekspres (Dajti Express)
So what is the Dajti Ekspres? It is Albania's top tourist attraction. It is a cableway that takes you from just outside of the Tirana city area to the top of Dajti Mountain and is the longest cableway in the Balkans. The hours of operation are every day except Tuesday from 9 am until the last car takes off at 5 pm. The ride itself is 15 minutes. It goes level by level until you reach the top. You go over some farm land, some lakes, and some destroyed houses.
This may not be your cup of tea if you are afraid of heights or claustrophobic but the the views once you get to the top are amazing. Besides the views of all of Tirana, there is also an Adventure Park with zip lining and horseback riding, miniature golf courses, and a playground. There is the Dajti Tower Belvedere Hotel which has 24 rooms and a conference center and a restaurant.
Knowing it was a major tourist attraction we didn't want to spend too much money but we did have a nice bruschetta and a bottle of water at the restaurant to sit and take in the views of the Tirana. The bruschetta was about 240 Lek and the water was about 200 Lek. Not too expensive and they gave us tons of bruschetta which featured soft bread and fresh toppings. We made sure to see as much as we could, but also ensured we did not have to hike down the mountain. When buying the tickets for the cable car (800 Lek a person) it included the return from the top of the mountain. About an hour before closing we got back into the cable car to head back to the city.
Coffee and Cafes
One of the benefits of taking the wrong bus, was that when we were let off we saw a "FRIENDS cafe." We saw someone walking around the day before with a FRIENDS sweater and thought that they may have gotten the sweater here. Being big fans of the show we told ourselves we had to check this out on the way back; and we did. We know that there was a FRIENDS Experience Pop Up in Chicago with replicas of Central Perk (and other notable sets in the show) so we thought it was going to be similar (and that they may of had some FRIENDS merchandise); but that was not the case. But what we had was yummy. We got aroma lattes which smelled and tasted fantastic. The sugar packs the provided did have the proper FRIENDS logo on them, which was pretty cool.
We also went to Mon Cheri which was a chain of coffee shops in Tirana. But those were far from he only two coffee shops in the city. In 2016, Albania passed Spain as the country with the most coffee shops per capita. This is not just a marketing ploy in Albania, but a way of life. Albanians conduct business, catch up with friends, and venture out of their house to cafes. Most cafes we passed; whether it was in the morning or at night were filled with people having a cup of coffee (and usually a cigarette). There are not many proper restaurants so most Tiranans meet up for coffee in a cafe or a drink in a lounge.
If you are not in the mood for coffee, you can also visit a lounge, and most lounges doubled up as cafes. This is the second most happening aspect of Tirana. Here you can grab a drink of Raki (or Rakia), white Albanian white wine or a foreign red wine. Raki is a clear liquor from Turkey that is also very popular in Albania. They say it is consumed throughout the day, but we never saw anyone drinking it for breakfast. The most common version is made from grapes, but there are versions made with plums as well as a few other fruits. No matter what fruit is mainly used it has a very high alcohol content and is more for sipping than taking shots.
The vibe of lounges are cool on the inside and the outside. Some have vines or lights. Others have retractable ceilings to adjust to the temperature. Many of them are all glass so that you can see the bar area and the seats while walking by. It certainly provides FOMO if you are not on your way to a lounge. There is a chain of lounges called "Glow" that is dark inside with he exception of blacklight. Most lounges, however, are one offs and all have a unique look to them. They're usually is not a full menu of food, instead just appetizers or pizza if you are hungry.
We've talked about how there are a small percentage of restaurants that actually serve proper meals. This is because the number one food item in Tirana is the byrek. A byrek is a baked or friend pastry made of phyllo dough. If eating fresh the crust is warm and flaky. It can be filled with different toppings, but the ones we had were filled with either, cheese, yogurt, or spinach. These were delicious and we had one every day we were in Tirana. They prepare them for you to take on the go so that you can sit down and enjoy it or easily consume it while walking to your next destination.
Other street foods are quiches and calzones. You can also get pizza. I know pizza is not traditional Albanian but it is absolutely fantastic and we recommend you have a pizza while in Albania and eat it as soon as it comes out of the oven. We ordered a margarita pizza, which in Albania is just cheese and sauce on a delicious crust.
A hidden gem that we found after checking out the former residence of Albania ruler, Enver Hoxha, was the Ejona restaurant. When we stumbled upon the restaurant we met the nicest and most patient waiter; Eraldi. When we asked for a menu, he took the time to read and translate the entire menu for us. Having an act like that we had to give this restaurant a shot!
Ejona is a Mediterranean sit-down restaurant down an alley and it was fantastic. We had ravioli with blueberry and truffle sauce; which we didn't even know was a thing; but it was so yummy. We also had an eggplant with mushrooms; which had a nice smokey flavor.
We also ate at a more traditional restaurant; Oda. We felt like we were in an old Albanian home. There was art and pictures on the wall. Our server didn't speak any English, but somehow the menu was in English which was good. We had fërgesë which is a dish of cottage cheese baked with red and green peppers. We also had rice balls which were cooked perfectly, had some spices on it and it had a crunch due to being crisped on the outside.
The food, the sites, and energy of Tirana were incredible. We had a great time and we highly recommend you take a trip there when you feel comfortable enough to travel again.
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This travel vlog provides full details on our trip to Tirana (Tiranë) Albania in 2021! We hung out in Skanderbeg Square, took public transportation, rode the longest cableway in the Balkans to the top of the Dajti Mountain, and ate Traditional Albanian food.
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