5 reasons Tirana took me by surprise

You always travel to a new place weighed down by expectations. From the pictures I had seen of Tirana, I anticipated to step into a concrete jungle of unsightly apartment blocks spilling out beneath Mount Dajti – hardly an alluring image. And while these preconceptions were not far off the mark, Tirana turned out to be so much more than that.

A lively city

What struck me first when entering Albania’s capital was the palpable energy that seemed to pulsate through its central thoroughfares. At 9pm on a Thursday night, the city was buzzing, its pavements and squares lit up and bustling with life. Although Tirana might lack an impressive skyline or a historic old town, its vibrancy felt invigorating, and I instantly itched to explore its every niche and corners, and find out what the city had to offer.

A seamless mix of new and old

Despite this liveliness, Tirana somehow still manages to convey a homely feeling. Tucked next to its fancy bars and modern shopping centers are small fruit and vegetable stalls, traditional bulmets selling Albania’s finest dairy products, bakeries exuding the smell of freshly baked Burek, and old-fashioned barbershops. It is not uncommon to turn from a main boulevard into a smaller side street and disturb a neighbourhood football match or glimpse the sight of old men engaged in a serious game of cards. Tirana might be Albania’s cultural and economic hub, but it is a city that is very much still lived in, offering a mix of modernity and traditional ways of life.

A green city

One of my favourite things about Tirana was the amount of green spaces dotted around the city. The centre is graced with several green squares, most streets are lined with trees providing respite from the sun, and many cafes are thoughtfully decorated with potted plants. To escape the hustle and bustle without leaving the city centre, head to Tirana’s Grand Park where you can visit the Tirana zoo or botanical gardens, stroll around the artificial lake or pick a seat at one of the cafes to people-watch and soak up the laid-back atmosphere.

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A colourful city

Tirana’s architecture is dominated by Communist-style apartment blocks in desperate need of some TLC. These buildings are not only remnants of a troubled and dark past but are a stark reminder of the country’s current economic challenges. In an attempt to ‘revive the hope that had been lost in his city’ and lift the spirit of its citizens, former mayor Edi Rama championed the use of colour to counteract Tirana’s somber appearance. Splashes of red and yellow, bold greens and pinks are strewn across the city and its façades, making everything feel less drab and grey, and conveying the city a funky flair.

Another initiative seems to be to paint the electrical boxes throughout the city and display a famous person or comic characters. You can spot these everywhere!

A city that likes its coffee

You won’t be able to wander down any of Tirana’s streets without stumbling upon a café with a stylish interior or cozy terrace that begs you to take a seat. As is common across the Balkans, coffee culture is thriving in Albania with people commonly seen to be meeting and chatting over a cup or two of strong espresso or Turkish coffee. Spending an afternoon strolling through Tirana’s streets and hopping from one café to the next is a sheer delight.

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Tirana might not sweep you off your feet with its beauty but I promise it will entice you.

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