I never thought I’d find myself in Albania. It wasn’t exactly near the top of my list of places to visit, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been.
Tiranë is one of those places that after spending 5 nights there, well, I still don’t get it. As an introduction to Albania, Tiranë is horrible. I was second-guessing my entire trip to Albania after my arrival and walk through the city. Could the rest of the country possibly be this bland and backwards? Thankfully, no, and seeing Tiranë every day made the rest of my visits to different cities that much more pleasant and enjoyable. It definitely isn’t a beautiful or welcoming city that will make you want to stay, but it has a sort of dysfunctional charm to it that can grow on you. There are also some surprisingly good restaurants.
One warning: Take a good map with you if you feel like being adventurous. It’s very easy to get lost in the backstreets. Most of Tiranë’s main sights are conveniently located on major streets, making it a very walkable city, but wander off the main streets and you could start to feel as if you were a rat in a maze.
I arrived at Mother Teresa International Airport in Tiranë around 11am, passed through customs, got my bag, and was off to the city center to find my hotel. Once I exited the airport, I was attacked by several taxi drivers soliciting rides. The best quote I got from a taxi driver was 2000 lek. I politely declined and made my way past the drivers directly to the Rinas Express airport shuttle near the taxi stand. It leaves every hour on the hour between the airport and the city center, from 6am and 6pm, and only cost 250 lek at the time of my visit. It was well worth it. I had to wait about 45 minutes for the shuttle, so I grabbed a coffee until the bus arrived for me to claim my seat. Then it was about 25 minutes to get downtown.
I stayed at a budget hotel called Areela Hotel. It was tough to find at first, tucked away down a diagonal street about seven minutes from the main square, Sheshi Skënderbej, and less then 5 minutes from the train station. The hotel staff was helpful and friendly and the room was clean and comfortable, complete with a fridge, TV, and A/C.
Language isn’t usually a problem in Tiranë. Many young people and those in the service industry speak English, and many restaurants will have an English or a picture menu. If you speak Italian, you shouldn’t have much difficulty as many Albanians speak Italian (I got by with some Spanish when I encountered Italian speakers). In other places, I was able to communicate in Turkish or Greek.
Getting to other cities for day trips is the tricky part. Most guidebooks and people who have been to Albania will tell you it is a very difficult place to get around. It can be. Tiranë is the only major city I’ve been to that doesn’t have a central bus station. Buses and furgons (minibuses) leave from several different points in the city. If you know where to find your ride, it isn’t as bad as others make it seem. Or you could simply jump into a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the correct bus/furgon. There is train service to some cities, but it isn’t worth the journey if you value your time. Trains are excruciatingly slow in Albania. On the map at the end of this post, you will find the departure points to different cities that I traveled to, and a few others.
The trick is to get your traveling done early, or you may be stuck without a ride back to Tiranë at night. In summer, I was told that buses run later, but not in fall or winter. For example, after 3pm or 4pm, buses from some cities stop running, and sometimes furgons stop shortly after. I had a big problem leaving Berat at 3pm, but some friendly locals were able to help me out. My other day trips to Durrës, Krujë, Shkodër, and Fier went more smoothly.
Overall, you will find Tiranë and Albania in general to be a fascinating place full of contrasts. While about 60% of the population is Muslim, 17% Christian, and the rest other/atheist, it’s a much more relaxed and open society than I had expected. I didn’t expect to find pubs right next to mosques. Furthermore, while it was an atheist state under communism, only about 30% of the people practice religion regularly. You will also find remnants of communist rule under the enigmatic Enver Hoxha, who plunged Albania into isolation and made it the most backwards country in all of Europe.