First attempt

The first time me and my friend visited Albania was just for one day while we were in North Macedonia, back in 2015. Our tour operator offered this option so we thought why not. On our way to the capital, we also visited Elbasan, a smaller city nearby. Once we arrived in Tirana, we didn’t want to go to a ‘’boring’’ museum, no, we wanted to explore this still largely unknown city by ourselves.

So there we went, separate from the group and not aware that Tirana does not have an official city center like most cities, searching for the main street. Every street we walked in turned out not to be the ‘’large shopping street with the most restaurants, bars and people’’. Overwhelmed with no internet connection or map, we stayed near the national museum and made touristic pictures in front of the national hero and the striking Albanian flag until the rest of our group returned. You might call this a fail, but we were not about to give up.

Second attempt

A year later we decided it was time for a second attempt to explore the Balkans including Albania. This time all by ourselves. On our way to the beach in Montenegro, coming with the bus from Kosovo, we decided to make a short stop in Tirana so we could explore the capital and the Albanian coast for a day or two. I have to admit that we still didn’t have much information about Tirana, but now we had more time to wander around.

Still not sure where the center was, we walked through a couple of streets before sitting down and enjoying a delicious and very cheap pizza. One of the great things about Albania as a western tourist are the unbelievably low prices at restaurants, especially compared to The Netherlands. After our dinner, we walked through another street, which I now know would have brought us to the famous Blloku area with many restaurants, bars and clubs. Instead we decided to sit down at the Taiwan center (still no clue why it has this name). Here we enjoyed some nice cocktails next to the fountain that lights up in all kinds of colors.

Fountains at Taiwan center, Tirana. Photo by Sarah Driessen.

At the end of the evening, my friend and I walked back to our hotel. The streets were quite empty at this time in Tirana until a dog saw us and happily walked towards us. Being a little bit scared of stray dogs, as we are not used to them in The Netherlands and didn’t know what to do, we randomly stopped a car and the driver was nice enough to bring us to our hotel. I definitely do not encourage to do what we did (not a smart move), but it does show that you don’t have to feel unsafe in Tirana; the locals are very welcoming and helpful, plus, the dogs only take some time to get used to.

Day trip to the beach

The next day we decided to go to the beach in Durres, just 30 minutes by bus. But first, we had to find the bus station and, again, Tirana does not just have one central bus station but multiple. Asking locals on the way helped us to finally find it. I do have to say that the bus system between cities in the Balkans, also in Albania, seems to be working well. You can easily find a bus that goes directly to your destination, whether it’s 4 hours or 30 minutes away. I always enjoy the bus ride as it shows parts of the country that you would otherwise not see and you’re among the locals.

In Durres, we went to the beach that stretches over many kilometers and where you can relax and take a refreshing dive in the Adriatic Sea. It is great to have the beach at an arm’s length away from the bustling capital, so you can easily add this during a quick visit. After our day at the beach, we continued our trip to the next Balkan country.

It definitely takes some time to figure out how things work in Albania, but that is also the fun of exploring a new place. These two first, but short, impressions were enough for me to come back to Albania and enjoy more of the country in the following years (even the ‘’boring’’ museum).

Skanderbeg Statue and the National Museum in Tirana. Photos by Sarah Driessen.