Though I hadn’t done much research on the city, I was aware that the country as a whole was much cheaper than the UK, so we were looking forward to indulging ourselves with meals out, some bar hopping and a little culture without feeling like we’d have to remortgage our (tiny) flat.
We saw decent hotels starting at around $45 – but we chose to splash out a little more on somewhere independent that had a bit more personality.
Accommodation: It cost about $270 for three nights at the charming Areela Boutique Hotel, located in a quiet, leafy, residential neighborhood and just a 15-minutes walk from the central Skanderbeg Square. Stylish rooms had vibrantly colored walls hung with Vogue-style photographic portraits of actors and singers (ours featured Boy George). The room rate included a “traditional Albanian breakfast” of eggs, sausage, sliced tomato and cucumber, which was served in a small but stylish, plant-filled space next to the reception area on the ground floor.
On the ground
Airport transfer: We landed at around 1:30pm and came out of the baggage hall…just in time to miss the bus into the center of town. So we hopped into a metered taxi ($28).
Aperitivo: After spending the afternoon exploring the center, we headed back to the hip Blloku district for drinks and dinner. First up, an aperitivo at the Colonial Cocktail Academy, whose outdoor terrace, draped with foliage and the odd Buddha head, had a laid-back Southeast Asian-y vibe. We had two rounds of drinks each, our bill (with a small tip) came to $28.
Dinner: The first restaurant had a queue; we ended up at Mystic 2, with a menu of Mediterranean cuisine. A hearty slab of baked local cheese, a Greek salad, spaghetti carbonara, grilled octopus and a couple of beers and glasses of wine (again, plus a small tip) came to $28.
Drinks: After a nightcap at the buzzy outdoor courtyard of Radio Bar, (two beers and two margaritas cost $24), a metered taxi back to the hotel cost us $5.
Street art tour: After our Albanian brekkie we set off on a more leisurely stroll to take in Tirana’s sights; the center is highly walkable. I’m mad about street art, and we found plenty of murals adorning tall buildings on the streets leading down to Skanderbeg Square. We admired the exterior of the impressive Namazgah Mosque and the nearby modern, abstract Orthodox Resurrection Cathedral, then explored what remains of Tirana Castle, a medieval fortress that now houses a selection of restaurants and artisan stalls. On our way back to the square, we peered around the intriguing Reja (or Cloud), a contemporary art installation in front of the National Gallery of Arts. I love the mix of design and architecture in the city.
Museum: To escape the heat of the afternoon, we visited a museum called Bunk’Art 2, housed in one of the over 750,000 bunkers Albania’s former Communist ruler Enver Hoxha had constructed during his regime (from 1941 to 1985). We bought a combined ticket for this the original Bunk’Art (on the outskirts of the city) for $10.50 each. Inside, the corridors were cool but slightly creepy, with exhibits about things like Hoxha’s secret police and his safe room.
Lunch: Still full from breakfast, we paused for a coffee at CaféBotánica, an elegant dining spot with a large, pleasantly shaded outdoor terrace next to the starkly beautiful, modernist Palace of Culture. Two lattes came to $4.25.
Drinks: Dan had done some research on the perfect place for a sundowner: a bar called Piano Bar Observator, on the 13th floor of an office tower. It offered a panoramic view of the city with mountains looming behind; we toasted the sunset with a couple of beers (Dan) and Bellinis (me) totaling $20.
Dinner: We made our way to the lively Pazari i Ri, featuring a series of bars and restaurants clustered near a big open-air market that by day sells all manner of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, honey and more. Spoiled for choice, we took an outdoor table at what appeared to be a family-run taverna called Tradita Te Meri, drawn by its array of local, traditional dishes. We sampled fasule (butterbean stew) and pastico (baked pasta) and with some grilled chicken, two beers and a half-liter of local wine: $18 in total.
Museum: We took the bus (tickets $.45 each) to the original Bunk’Art, using the combined ticket purchased the prior day. This one was bigger than its centrally located sibling, with five underground floors and unsettling areas like (unused) radiation treatment rooms.
Lunch: Not far is the Dajti Express cable-car station that takes you up to the top of Mt Djatji for $30. The 15-minute journey resulted in phenomenal views that stretched across forests and lakes toward the city. We had lunch at the enjoyably wooden-clad, chalet-style Ballkoni Dajtit resturant (at 1100m / 3600ft above sea level), tucking into tove kosi Elbasani, a delicious stew of lamb cooked in yogurt, and ragu me jufka, noodles mixed with beef. With another portion of tasty fasule, a couple of beers and a glass of wine, our bill came to to $36.
Drinks: We headed back to our new favorite neighborhood, Blloku and had a pre-dinner drink at a friendly bar on a leafy street corner called Tribeca, where a couple of beers and a glass of wine came to $12.
Dinner: We’ve managed to bag a table at the restaurant that was full on our first evening, Piceri Era. From the good list of local dishes, we tried petulla të fshira, a stack of layered thin pancakes cooked with garlic, feta cheese and butter (amazing!), and patëllxhan i mbushur, eggplant stuffed with tomato and peppers. We shared a very nice bottle of local red wine; the bill came to $36. A taxi back to the hotel ran to $5.30.
Visit to the mosque: We start the day visiting the small Et’hem Bey Mosque, with delicately hand-painted walls and ceilings dating from the early 19th century (free entry).
Coffees: Afterward, we walked half an hour south to Tirana’s Grand Park, a 715-acre green space with a man-made lake. Its trees provided welcome relief from the hot summer sun, and we stopped for a couple of iced coffees and espressos at one of the lakeside cafes ($8.50).
Lunch: We headed back to Pazari I Ri for lunch at Oda Garden, a cute restaurant set around a shaded outdoor courtyard dotted with small trees. It was packed and they were short-staffed, but since we were in no rush, we enjoyed our drinks – a carafe of wine and three beers – before sharing fergese, warm cottage cheese mixed with peppers and olive oil, and mish qingji ne sac, stove-baked lamb with potatoes. With a tip, lunch came to to $40.
Museum: We took in a last dose of Albanian culture at the National History Museum, an imposing building on Skanderbeg Square with a mosaic in Socialist Realist style charting important milestones of the country's history on its facade (two tickets: $10.50). We wandered around remnants of the country’s past, from Roman statues to Byzantine icons and Stalinist busts.
Dinner and cocktails: A friend had recommended Salt in Blloku (where else?), an upmarket and evidently popular restaurant with an extensive menu covering everything from ceviche to sushi. We splashed out here, ordering a couple of cocktails, a bottle of Minuty rosé wine, spicy edamame, two plates of sushi, a pasta with duck ragù, grilled corn and creamed spinach. This feast set us back $133: a delicious and totally worthwhile finale to our trip.
The final tally: $762 for two (or 761,73 in Albanian lek)
Cost vs value
I’d say Albania offers great value for money, and we were firmly within our budget. For someone so passionate about food, I found eating out the biggest bargain. I found Albanian cuisine to be delicious and tasty, and enjoyed trying new things.