The Ultimate Guide to Albania Bus Travel

The Ultimate Guide to Albania Bus Travel

The Ultimate Guide to Albania Bus Travel

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Searching for information online about Albania bus travel and schedules is a tough task. My go-to websites/apps don’t have any information; they reckon that schedules don’t exist. But they do, of course they do; these websites just aren’t in the know. Getting around Albania by bus just requires being a bit braver than in other Eastern European countries.

Now, when I say ‘braver’, I don’t mean that you are taking your life in your hands by getting in an Albanian bus. What I do mean, is that you will have to do a lot of crossing your fingers, standing at the side of the road where a local thinks the bus passes, and getting up close and personal (and likely very sweaty!) with everyone else on the bus.

Travelling by bus in Albania is a whole cultural experience in itself, and I would say that if you haven’t jumped in a furgon (more on that later!), you haven’t really been to Albania.

We spent five weeks exploring the whole country by bus, and so we have put together this ultimate guide to Albania bus travel to give you the info that we wish we had!

Road through Valbona, Albania bus travel

Road conditions are improving

Road conditions along the main routes are pretty good. The older blogs with reviews about potholed and dangerous roads are becoming more and more obsolete. The road quality around Albania is improving significantly.

That being said, the road from Shkoder to the Komani Lake ferry terminal is an absolute shocker. We were being thrown around in the bus for two and a half hours because of the lumpy roads. (Fingers crossed this will be fixed because it is a main route for tourists venturing up to Valbona in the Albanian Alps.) Find out more about hiking in the Albanian Alps here.

A furgon is a minibus

Furgons are minibuses that yoyo back and forth on a specific route. They are very flexible and so will pick you up or drop you off anywhere along their route. They have their destination on a sign in the window.  Flag it down, jump in, and then pay by cash when you leave. Bear in mind that more people will be squeezed in than can actually fit. 

Furgon, Albania bus travel

Furgon down the Albanian Alps

Bus stations aren’t centrally located

Bus stations are generally out of the main part of town. Most bus stations have a public bus service nearby that can take you into the city. Buses connecting out of town stations to the city centre have a very small fee. Pay this in cash on the bus, sometimes, 30 or 40 lek.

Bigger buses have aircon

Bigger buses have aircon and connect larger cities. They tend to be more comfortable but are not necessarily more expensive. Pay on board in cash.

Cities have multiple bus stations

Larger cities may have several bus stations in different parts of the city servicing buses to different parts of the country, so make sure you check which bus station you need to go to first.

Start travel days early

Because the bus times are not always reliable, I would recommend starting your travel days early, and not to plan much else for this day. Go into your travel days with the expectation of it not going smoothly, and you will be pleasantly surprised. We didn’t have any major hiccups, but you never know with a flexible bus schedule. Under promise, over deliver; that’s what they say, right?

waiting for a furgon at the roadside, albania bus travel

Classic ‘bus stop’

You might not find direct buses

There may not be buses going directly to where you are heading. So in this case, just walk into the bus station saying your destination. Someone will tell you the best place to switch over and point you in the right direction (don’t worry, they aren’t going to expect a tip!). Tell the driver your final destination, and they will tell you where to get on the next bus, the time it leaves etc.

Don’t attempt the Saranda to Ksamil bus in the summer

The bus from Saranda to Ksamil is not worth taking in the height of the summer. Honestly, you’d be better off paying for a taxi. There were SO many people on this bus that we could barely breathe. We had 20kg of backpack on our backs and 10kg on our fronts and were well and truly sardined in this bus.

Chris was sweating so much that there was a physical puddle forming from the sweat dripping down his elbow and on to the floor as we held on for dear life (and I am absolutely not exaggerating even in the slightest!).

Locals know best

The locals will know the times that the bus leaves, where it leaves from etc. so if you’re not sure, ask around in restaurants or shops. The Albanian people are really friendly, and if they don’t know the answer, they will likely find someone else to help you.

Cute anecdote: We were staggering with our big old backpacks to the bus station. A guy in a car pulled up next to us and asked if we were going to Tirana; we weren’t. But, he had just driven past the station and had seen the bus for Tirana was being packed up. He was worried we were getting this bus and thought we were going to miss it, so was offering us a ride!

Almost beach time

Bus stations are marked on Maps.me

Bus stations and bus stops aren’t always marked on Google Maps. Download an Albanian map on Maps.me instead. It will have several bus stops/stations marked, so zoom into the city you’re looking for and search all the bus icons. They will be named something clear like ‘Bus to Tirana’, ‘Bus to Montenegro’ etc.

The Albanian transport website

Our absolute best tip is to plan your routes using Gjirafa. Secret squirrel. This is THE only website that we have found that knows when and where the buses are going. (FYI Albanians call Albania ‘Shqipëria’ and not ‘Albania’. You will see this on the website – it confused me!)

Everything is possible in Albania

And, in all seriousness, travelling is as much about the journey as it is the destination. It’s all part of that authentic Albanian experience. Furgon rides are the perfect place to get chatting to locals or other travellers. We met an Australian father and daughter on a bus and spent the journey exchanging recommendations for our next few stops in Albania. Roll with the punches, keep a very loose plan on travel days, and keep the faith that it’ll work out (because it will!).

Never ending views to Korca

Have you travelled around Albania by bus? Do you have any other tips?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

Thanks for reading!

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How to Get from Pogradec to Ohrid

How to Get from Pogradec to Ohrid

How to Get from Pogradec to Ohrid

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Planning our route through Albania and into North Macedonia, I saw a spot on lake Ohrid on the Albanian side which looked nice: Pogradec. The idea was then to find a bus to take us an hour or so round the lake through the North Macedonian border and to Ohrid city.

We arrived into Pogradec, and started asking around for our onward journey to Ohrid. The bus station said there were no buses. Why would there be no buses to drive an hour round the lake? Surely that’s a perfect day trip? Or vice versa? Confused and convinced that they must have had it wrong, we spoke to some other people; and sure enough, there is not a single bus that goes this route!

We couldn’t find much information on how to get from Pogradec to Ohrid online, so hopefully this small guide helps.

If you are in a similar situation, do not fear. You don’t have to pay for an expensive taxi ride. It will be more of a challenge, but that’s half the fun of travelling, right?

Tips for Making this Journey

1. Download a North Macedonia map on Maps.me. This has the locations of bus stops and walking paths that Google Maps has never heard of.

2. Make sure you have euro notes or Macedonian denar. The bus on the North Macedonian side will not accept Albanian lek as payment, and we didn’t see ATMs.

3. Be aware that you will have to carry luggage across the border yourself and walk for at least ten minutes between border posts.

Ok, so leg 1: Pogradec to the border/Tushemisht

There are minibuses that will take you to the border which are meant to leave at 8am, but it depends on how full the buses are. If there aren’t many people, you might have to hang around until there are enough. We were quoted 250 lek each. However, when we got the bus stop point early, a taxi driver offered us a ride for 400 lek total, so we jumped in the taxi and off we went.

how to get from pogradec to ohrid

En route to Ohrid

Leg 2: Crossing the Tushemisht/St. Naum Border

There was not a single other person here except for the guy checking passports. No queues, nothing. It was a dead easy border crossing. Bear in mind, to get from the Albanian border to the North Macedonian border, you will need to walk for about ten minutes. At the North Macedonian border, there was literally no one, not even border police! We approached the border and tried to catch their attention by making noise, talking loudly etc. and someone came out of an office. Stamped our passports, and again, off we trotted.

Alternative Leg 2.5: St. Naum Border to St. Naum Monastery Bus Stop

If you are particularly early for the bus (like we were) or didn’t know the bus drove directly to the border (like us), you might walk to the St.Naum bus stop and get picked up from there. Otherwise, skip to Leg 3 below.

Walk from the border along the road for a while, maybe five minutes, and you will see a small dirt path off to your left. Walk down here and you will hit a better trodden path. Follow this to the left and it will bring you round by a caravan park, St. Petka Church and St. Naum Monastery. You should see Lake Ohrid in front of you by this point. Follow the pedestrianised road along the water to the right. Walk through the fancy St. Naum archway and you will see a small wooden bus shelter ahead of you on the right. You’ve made it!

Leg 3: St. Naum Border to Ohrid City Centre

Sit tight at the other side of the North Macedonian border and the bus will come and pick you up. Just after 9:20 is the first bus. It costs 180 MKD each and must be paid in Macedonian denar or Euro notes (not coins). There are no ATMs at the border, so make sure you get enough currency before you cross the border. The bus will take you on a scenic drive around the lake and drop you into Ohrid city centre just before the City Central roundabout.

Looking for ideas for the rest of your North Macedonian itinerary? I would thoroughly recommend our two favourite spots in the country Bitola and Krusevo.

Bitola has a characterful Ottoman-style bazaar, plenty of restaurants catering to vegetarians, is home to the ancient mosaics of Heraclea Lyncestis, and has a great cafe culture.

Krusevo is a small but mighty mountain town known for its historic victory against the Ottomans. Perfect for street photography lovers, the cobbled streets and traditional buildings are idyllic. Make sure you head over to the UFO-like Ilinden monument too!

Have you made this journey? How did it go?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

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11 Best Things to Do in Korca

11 Best Things to Do in Korca

11 Best Things to Do in Korca

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Korca (Korca or Korça) is only a three hour bus ride away from Tirana, yet feels like it’s completely off the tourist trail. It has a bustling city, a stunning residential area full of interesting architectural points, and is surrounded by beautiful mountains that make great viewpoints over the city. Korca really feels authentic, and is the perfect destination to add to your Albanian itinerary to step away and catch your breath.

So, if Korca isn’t really on the tourist trail, is there much for tourists to do or see? Yes. We spent three nights in Korca and didn’t get bored with the place. In fact, our fondness for the place kept on growing. Could we see ourselves living here? Yes. Sign me up.

Pop of colour

How to Get to Korca

Most major cities seem to have links straight to Korca. It has a huge bus station so is pretty well-connected with the rest of the country.

We came from Gjirokaster to Korca and it cost us 1500 Lek and took about five hours. The bus leaves at 7am and takes you on a really scenic route. The landscapes are stunning, however, the roads are particularly windy. I’m not someone that gets travel sick, and at the half way point stop off, I felt rough. It took me the whole thirty minute break to get myself back together. So, maybe get yourself some travel sickness tablets.

From Korca we went north to Pogradec on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid. It took about an hour and cost 250 Lek. The buses leave every 30 minutes from Korca, so this would make a nice day trip.

Things to Do in Korca

Venture the Neighbourhood Behind the Orthodox Cathedral

The architecture round here is amazing and has such variety. Some buildings are really historic and crumbling, some have Ottoman influence, some Romanian, some have a retro and even communist feel to them. A real eclectic mix, yet it all works together. We spent a good three hours wandering around exploring each nook and cranny, but if we had more time, I probably could have spent a full day!

Take a look at the Orthodox Cathedral (Ringjallja e Krishtit) too. It is a stunning building and has intricate painting and artwork on all the walls and ceiling inside. It’s pretty new with the build being completed in 1995.

Exposed brickwork on dilapidated buildings, Korca

Exposed brickwork on dilapidated buildings

Korca Orthodox Cathedral, things to do in Korca

Korca Orthodox Cathedral

See where Shën Gjergji Church Once Stood

Shën Gjergji Orthodox Church was destroyed during the communist regime to make way for a library. Along Bulevardi Shën Gjergji, you can see the outline of where the church used to stand and a plaque to ensure that the history is not lost.

Shen Gjergji church

Reminder of where the church used to stand before communism

Find the Prominent Architectural Spots

The eclectic mix of architectural styles that I mentioned earlier isn’t just confined to the backstreets. Find the theatre, the ‘cheese’ building, the yellow Romanian house and cinema. Each is unique and in some cases, bizarre.

Yellow Romanian house, things to do in Korca

Romanian house

Cheese building

Cheese building

Climb the Red Tower Viewpoint

What appears to be a randomly placed tower at the end of Bulevardi Shën Gjergji acts as a viewpoint over the city. And that’s really all there is to this tower. Pay 50 LEK to go up, see the view, take a couple of photos and come back down.

Red tower viewpoint, things to do in Korca

Red Tower

City views from Red Tower, things to do in Korca

City view from Red Tower

Be Wowed at the National Museum of Medieval Art

We’re not artsy people, and generally, art museums, galleries etc. are not on our list. However, this is one of the exceptions. Honestly, the art was phenomenal and it’s all ancient which makes it all the more impressive. There is so much gold everywhere too. The entrance way is, just, wow. Photography is banned, so nothing to show you but the outside of the museum. 100% worth a visit. Entrance is 700 lek.

National Museum of Medieval Art, things to do in Korca

National Museum of Medieval Art

Take a Free Walking Tour with Eugene

Eugene really know his stuff when it comes to Korca. We went on a really in-depth tour around the city and to areas that you wouldn’t even know or think to explore. One of our favourite walking tours that we have taken in the Balkans. Give him a shout.

Korca Brewery and Beer Garden

So, while in Korca, its compulsory to drink Korca beer, right? Head over to Korca beer garden to drink straight from the source (the brewery is next door). Don’t have too high expectations though. The service here is not great, so you need to be a bit pushy to get your drink. Don’t wait for the servers to come to you, order at the bar instead.

You can also tour the brewery, but it seems there is no standard procedure for going about doing this. We asked at the beer garden about a tour, and they told us to turn up tomorrow at 10am. Grand.

We turned up to the brewery, and there was no official tour or anything of the sort organised. They didn’t seem to even be expecting us. We asked if we could have a look around anyway. A guy who spoke perfect English showed us round the whole site giving us loads of information as we went, and then gave us a ‘taster’ of the beer (which was much much more than a taster. Chris was beyond chuffed!) And our guide refused to take any payment at the end, not even a tip.

Korca brewery

Korca Brewery

Korca Brewery Tasting Room

Korca Brewery Tasting Room

Korca Brewery Beer Taster

The largest taster you ever did see

Walk Up to the Martyrs’ Cemetery for Astounding Views

You’re best off following the route on Maps.me. There are a lot of steps up and it’s not particularly well maintained, some slabs are broken. But once you make it to the top and look back at the city, the views go on forever. A great spot to view sunset. It’ll probably be about twenty/thirty minutes of walking up from the Orthodox Cathedral.

City Views from the Martyrs' Cemetery

Never ending views of Korca

Venture up to Shën Ilia Church (St. Ilia Church)

Follow the path round the back of the Martyr’s Cemetery (again best to follow this on Maps.me). You’ll then make it to a very quiet road and you can follow this up to St. Ilia Church. It’s a small church with a big cross that sits on top of a hill overlooking the city. The church itself is very modestly decorated inside and the views from outside were worth the climb. We ventured up in the midday heat of summer (not such a good plan), but it took us about an hour/hour and a half.

St. Ilia Church, things to do in Korca

St. Ilia Church and stunning views

Inside decoration of St. Ilia church, Korca

Sparse decoration inside St. Ilia Church

Swing by the First Albanian Language School

Up until the school was established in 1887, teaching in Albanian was only carried out in secret because of the enforcement during Ottoman rule. It’s great to take a look, maybe some photos and understand the importance of the building, however, the museum that now resides here is not worth going in.  On the Korca free walking tour, you will learn about this and you will get a much better insight from your guide than from the museum.

Albanian language school, things to do in Korca

Albanian Language School courtyard

Visit the Pazari (Old Bazaar)

This is high on most people’s to do lists, but it didn’t make enough of an impression on me to be very high on mine. Yes, there are the historic hans (inns), such as Hani I Pazarit which has been beautifully renovated into a hotel. But I feel like there has been a little too much restoration in the bazaar and it seems to have lost its charm. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from in this area, so it is very much the place to be in the evenings.

Korca Pazari

Cobbled streets of the Pazari

Where to Find Tasty Vegetarian Food

We managed to find really tasty vegetarian food throughout Albania. Find out which dishes to look out for in our post here.

Antika

Anitka does the most delicious hand-made pasta. We had the pasta with creamy truffle sauce and a simple pasta with cherry tomatoes. Both were beautiful. (We came back for a second portion of the truffle pasta the next day.) Also worth noting is the cheese croquette starter with cherry jam.

Just phenomenal

and again… phenomenal

FindFour

Find Four has plenty of veggie/vegan options. We went for the white bean lakror pie (a Korca speciality) and a quinoa salad. There is a lovely outside seating area too.

lakror pie, things to do in Korca

Lakror pie

Quinoa salad

Restorant Bujtina Liceu

Restorant Bujtina Liceu sits opposite a French language school and offers several options for vegetarians. The outdoor seating area under vines makes the perfect place to stop for a coffee too. The pllaka (large casseroled beans) and the fried mushrooms are really tasty.

Pllaka

Have you been to Korca? Is there anything else you would add?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

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The Tastiest Vegetarian Food in Albania

The Tastiest Vegetarian Food in Albania

The Tastiest Vegetarian Food in Albania

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Travelling around Albania, I was pretty convinced we would have a difficult time on the food front. My perception was a lot of kebabs and meaty stews. And although that is pretty spot on, there are also plenty of options for vegetarian food in Albania. Because even if you are eating meat, you have to eat other things that are not just meat, right?

Albania actually has loads of dishes that are traditionally vegetarian, and they’re good. At the very least, you will be able to find some sort of grilled vegetable dish, a pepper or aubergine stuffed with rice, salad or pastry filled with cheese, herbs, potato etc. My point is even if you are somewhere really remote and the options are really limited, you likely won’t starve or have to turn carnivore!

We really didn’t have much of a problem finding vegetarian food in Albania and found that we really loved the options. We gave Albania a 6/10 on the vegetarian friendliness rating.

If you’re heading over to Albania, give these vegetarian dishes a go.

Tasty Veggie Stuff

Fërgesë

One of Albania’s most loved national dishes, fërgesë originated from Tirana, but you will be able to find this everywhere. It is a chunky dip of roasted tomatoes, peppers, onions and a cottage cheese similar to feta. Served warm with some crusty bread. Beautiful.

fergese, vegetarian food in albania

Kaçkavall

Albania typically classifies cheeses into white or yellow. Yellow being a salty cheese that would melt (at least a bit). White cheese would be more of a sour, crumbly cheese like a feta. Kaçkavall falls into the yellow cheese category. It’s often on the menu as a baked cheese. A bit gooey and great with some bread.

kackaval, vegetarian food in albania

Plaki

The Balkans seem to be pretty good at cooking beans and this is a prime example! Huge beans (what I would recognise as ‘butter beans’ in the UK) are cooked in tomatoes, herbs and spices. Served with a hunk of bread. (Spotted the theme yet?).

plaki, vegetarian food in albania

Lemon and egg soup

Now this was a weird one, it wasn’t bad at all, just a flavour combination that I hadn’t experienced before. A creamy and smooth soup with beaten egg mixed into it (not bits of egg throughout) with a sharp lemon twang. (Just double check that a veg stock is used for the base.) Served with, erm, bread.

lemon and egg soup

Djathë i ziem

A typical dish from up in the north and the mountains, this is a gooey, cheesy, fondu style dish. Perfect with (you guessed it!) a hunk of bread.

djathe i ziem

Qifqi

The closest thing I could liken this to would be arancini. A mixture of rice, egg, mint (and sometimes other herbs too) that is rolled into balls and fried. This is a dish originating from Gjirokaster and is traditionally made in a specific pan with rounded sockets to keep the ball shape of the qifqi. Served warm (but not with bread!)

qifqi, vegetarian food in albania

Sarma or Yaprak or Dolma

All very similar, different names, but essentially some kind of leaf (whether it be cabbage, vine leaves etc.) filled with rice, herbs and spices and wrapped into cigar shapes.

sarma

Stuffed Aubergine or Pepper

An absolute classic that you will find everywhere. Often stuffed with rice, herbs, veg, cheese; these aren’t always served hot. Don’t be surprised if it’s luke warm or even cold.

stuffed peppers

Lakror

A speciality from Korca, this is a phyllo pastry pie generally filled with leeks, but there are variations on fillings. We had a bean filling when we were in Korca. Perfect for on the go.

lakror pie

Petulla

Often served as breakfast but can be eaten whenever. Little bits of fried dough that are served with jams or sometimes a white cheese. Essentially, a deconstructed donut!

petulla

Shapkat or Pispili

Originating from Gjirokaster, shapkat is a cornbread pie with feta, dill and spinach or leeks.

shapkat

Trilece

A sponge cake drenched in cream and topped with a sticky caramel, served cold. You’ll be able to find this all over the Balkans from Sarajevo to Istanbul!

trilece, vegetarian food in albania

Portokalopita

Traditionally, ripped up phyllo pastry is mixed with a creamy orange custard and baked before being topped with orange syrup. The versions that we tried were a semolina based cake instead of the pastry.

portokalopita

Oshaf

Another one originating from Gjirokaster, this is a creamy custard pudding with dried figs mixed throughout. Generally topped with cinnamon in a criss cross pattern. Rich and decadent.

oshaf

Have you tried any of these? Do you have any other Albanian vegetarian favourites?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

Thanks for reading!

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Explore Albania’s City of Stone: Gjirokaster

Explore Albania’s City of Stone: Gjirokaster

Gjirokaster

Explore Albania’s City of Stone: Gjirokaster

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Gjirokaster, also spelt Gjirokastër or Gjirokastra, is a historical city in south Albania, near the Greek border. Being built into the hillside means that Gjirokaster affords stunning views of the nearby mountains from any point in the city.

Gjirokaster has UNESCO World Heritage site status thanks to its old town with traditional buildings and unique rooftops, which has prompted the nicknames Stone City and Silver City. Made from locally quarried limestone, each roof tile is positioned and held in place purely by its weight. When it rained back in the olden days, the whole household would have to work together to rearrange the roof tiles to stop any leaks. The rooftops are essentially a huge jigsaw puzzle and can weigh up to 550 kg per square metre!

Gjirokaster rooftop

Jigsaw puzzle rooftops

As well as Gjirokaster’s traditional rooftops, the city is known for its Ottoman-influenced architecture in its grand mansions, its vibrant bazaar and for being the birthplace of two well-known Albanians: well-loved author, Ismail Kadare, and brutal communist dictator, Enver Hoxha.

Easily accessible from nearby seaside town, Saranda, means that most people visit on a day trip. If you have the time though, this is definitely somewhere worth staying for a while. I would recommend at least two full days (we stayed for five, and fell in love with the place).

How to Reach Gjirokaster

Albanian transport information is limited online. Gjirokaster, being one of two of Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage listed towns/cities, is very well-connected. Buses connect Gjirokaster with Korca, Tirana, Vlore, Durres and Berat, as well as others.

Buses we took to and from Gjirokaster:

Saranda to Gjirokaster: cost 500 lek and took an hour and a half, leaving Saranda at 10am.

Gjirokaster to Korca: cost 1500 lek and took five hours, leaving Gjirokaster at 7am.

Where to Stay in Gjirokaster

Patio Rooms Gjirokaster is the only place you should even think about staying. Run by the loveliest people (and now our good friends), Ergest and Irsida, you are sure to love this place and feel right at home. The accommodation is set out of the main town and away from the crowds, but still only a fifteen minute walk to the bazaar. Peaceful, modern rooms with massive TVs, shared patio space with stunning mountain views, and a delicious homemade breakfast each morning (which is different each day).

P.S. Ask Ergest about his rakia!

Gjirokaster mountain views

Patio Rooms Gjirokaster views

Patio Rooms Gjirokaster outside seating

Walk the Cobbles at the Open Air Bazaar

Gjirokaster’s main attraction. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, it’s worth walking the cobbles to look at the displays on the street and to marvel at the architecture. The bazaar is set amongst several different paths all connected at a crossroads. Brightly coloured carpets, jewellery and ceramics line the streets, and then one shop at the end of the street sells antique military gear. Definitely not in keeping with the rest of the bazaar, but an interesting contrast.

Gjirokaster bazaar

Bazaar cobbled streets

colourful bazaar stalls

Ceramics and Carpets

Slowly Stroll the Backstreets, Camera at the Ready

Get your camera out and wander away from the tourists, particularly over to Dunavat Quarter (the other side of the castle) and up towards Rruga Ago Topulli. The cobbles are uneven and steep, so I’d recommend wearing shoes with decent support. You’ll find beautiful alleyways lined with flowers and traditional buildings, THE best viewpoints of the city and mountains, abandoned buildings, hidden churches and authenticity.

things to do in Gjirokaster - wander the back streets

Away from the crowds

Stop for Coffee with an Outrageous View

Wandering the backstreets high up the hillside, we stumbled across what looked like a little shop selling groceries. We stepped inside to ask if they sold coffee. And they did. She showed us through a room off the side of the shop and on to a balcony that had two plastic chairs and a table, and the most beautiful backdrop. We had the whole balcony to ourselves and THE ultimate coffee with a view.

The place is not marked on Google Maps but is around about here.

coffee with a view

Coffee with the ULTIMATE view

Take a Tour of a Grand Ottoman Style Mansion (or Two)

Skenduli House and Zekate House are two houses that we visited that I would recommend for different reasons.

To take a look around Skenduli House, you pay 200 lek and then are shown around by a member of the family. They show you secret passage ways, give you full explanation on how the rooms were used and give you little anecdotes. The painting and decoration in the building is intricate and detailed, however, the room with the most impressive artwork has strictly no photos allowed.  You have to pay your tour guide in cash and they kind of hover around checking on your every move around their house after the tour. Skenduli House is great because you really get to learn about the history of the house and the family, but you do feel a little ‘monitored’.

interior of traditional Skenduli house

Skenduli House interior

original artwork in Skenduli house

Skenduli House artwork

Skenduli house balcony

Skenduli House balcony

Zekate House, known for its distinctive two tower structure, on the other hand is the complete opposite. You pay your fee of 250 lek and wander round at your own pace by yourself, exploring all the nooks and crannies, taking photos of whatever you want. We had the entire building to ourselves as no one else was visiting at the same time. However, because you have the freedom to go by yourself, you don’t get the information or history of the building. We felt that both had similar layouts and artwork, but preferred the less-pressured approach at Zekate House.

Ornate decoration at Zekate House

Zekate house

Zekate House

Get your Sturdy Shoes on and Venture up to Ali Pasha Bridge

Definitely wear some sturdy shoes for this one. Ali Pasha Bridge is maybe a thirty minute walk up through the town. I recommend using Maps.me to get your there (Google Maps doesn’t have a clue).

From the bazaar, you head up until there is no more up. Once you reach the top of the path, the houses end and the landscape opens up into rolling hills. This part is particularly rocky under foot. The path continues down the side of a valley and this is where you will start to see Ali Pasha’s bridge connecting both sides of the valley.

Ali Pasha bridge

Ali Pasha ‘bridge’

In actual fact, it isn’t a bridge, but a part of an aqueduct that has survived since Ottoman times. Because the rest of the aqueduct is no more, and this arch stands by itself, it looks like a bridge.

You can walk underneath it, or some people dare to walk across it. I didn’t have faith in it and probably would not recommend this as it is a ruin that is definitely not maintained, so it could quite easily end up like the rest of the aqueduct!

Still, the views from around here are beautiful and the structure itself is a sight to behold. You are very unlikely to see any other tourists venturing out here, so you’ll have the whole valley to yourself.

walking across the top of Ali Pasha bridge

Chris venturing across Ali Pasha bridge

Wander around the Ethnographic Museum

The Ethnographic Museum is built on the site of Enver Hoxha’s birthplace. The building in which Hoxha was born burned down and a different building was put in its place to be in keeping with the other buildings in Gjirokaster, not to replicate the original house. The museum itself makes very little reference to the dictator; it is about traditional Albanian culture.

The Ethnographic Museum was being renovated when we were there. We had a look around even though it wasn’t fully up and running yet. So far, there was a display of traditional kitchen items and homeware, traditional clothing and footwear, and rooms were set up as they would have been in Ottoman times. There was a balcony that looked out over the city and towards the mountains. What was going on looked really promising and I was gutted we couldn’t see the finished museum. If you have been, please let me know what it was like in the comments!

Entrance fee is 500 lek.

Gjirokaster ethnographic museum

Dining room setup at Ethnographic museum

traditional Albanian shoes

Traditional shoes

Learn about Gjirokaster’s History up at the Castle, and Take in the View

I wouldn’t say that visiting the castle is a top thing to do in Gjirokaster, however, it is so huge and imposing, and positioned perfectly for some great views, it is worth going for a nosey. There is some information inside but not a huge amount. Your best bet is to pay the extra 200 lek to visit the museums within the castle: prison, military exhibits and Gjirokaster history. Then head outside towards the clock tower for some great views.

Entrance fee is 400 lek.

Entrance to the museums inside is an extra 200 lek.

Gjirokaster castle

Castle walkway

castle clock tower

Castle clock tower

And one thing I would recommend against: Cold War Bunker

The Cold War Bunker tour cost 200 lek and lasted a total of about ten minutes. They rushed us round, gave us very little information and then kicked us out. This was such a rip off and really not worth the time or money.

If you’re interested in exploring Albania’s bunkers, this is not the place to get a flavour of it all. Head to Tirana instead. Read all about things to do in Tirana in this post.

Nuclear resistant bunker doors

Assembly hall 

Where to Find the Tastiest Vegetarian Food in Gjirokaster

Edua

Edua serves healthy and local food, and even has a shop where you can buy some of their produce. We went there twice. And would thoroughly recommend the beet salad, veggie balls, the beans and finish off with Gjirokaster’s traditional oshaf for dessert. They have seating outside on the street in the evenings.

veggie balls and beet salad at Edua

Veggie balls and beet salad

Restaurant Gjoça Tradicional

Gjoça Tradicional is a tiny little restaurant on the main street of the bazaar. There are only a couple of tables outside so if you see one free, grab it. The place is run by one guy who does all the cooking right there in front of you. He will give you recommendations on what to order based on the freshest food he has. The stuffed aubergine, roasted cheese and trilece are beautiful.

stuffed aubergine, roasted cheese and salad

Stuffed aubergine, salad, and roasted cheese

Taverna Lani

A little bit out of the main centre, but worth the ten minute walk. We tried the sarma, stuffed aubergine and rice and beans. We were also given a welcome drink, a plate full of juicy cherries and a biscuit after dinner. The servers are really friendly here too.

Taverna Kuka

Taverna Kuka has a big open seating area. We ordered carbs three ways! Qifqi, which are herby rice balls and are a traditional Gjirokaster dish, cheesy roasted potatoes and beans. Good food and a lovely setting.

roasted potatoes and beans

Cheesy roasted potatoes and beans

Gjirokaster qifqi

Qifqi

Sweets Snacks and Coffee

Snack Bar Simple

This cafe has the prettiest little seating area and serves outrageously good sweets. Give the trilece and portokolapita a go. And don’t forget a rich, dark Turkish coffee to go with it.

Cafe Bar Simple outdoor seating

Portokolapita, trilece and Turkish coffee

Kodra Sweet Hill

Next door to Snack Bar Simple, Kodra Sweet Hill has more of a focus on ice cream. The affogato is amazing! Top tip: ask to switch the vanilla ice cream for caramel. Now you’re talking.

Antigonea Furre Buke Pasticeri

This bakery in the newer part of town. We only tried the donuts from here, they were top notch.

Pistachio donut

Te Raqi

This bar/cafe is out of the older part of town, down the hill towards the bus station. This is a local joint that serves good coffee at good prices.

Have you been to Gjirokaster? Is there anything else you would add?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

 

Thanks for reading!

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Top Things to Do in Tirana: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital

Top Things to Do in Tirana: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital

Tirana

Top Things to Do in Tirana: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital

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I had done a fair bit of research before heading out to Tirana, and I wasn’t sure if it was somewhere we would like. Were there many things to do in Tirana? From what I had understood, the Albanian rich live here, driving round exhibitionist-style in their fancy cars making sure that everyone sees them in their fancy cars. (Anyone that knows me, knows that this is one of my biggest turn-offs.) I had also read that it was really run down, and was a destination in the country that most tourists skip; even Albanians that we spoke to had either not recommended it, or recommended against it. So, we decided that we had to go and see it for ourselves… and I can report that the haters are definitely wrong. We loved Tirana.

Find all the top things to do in Tirana in this guide.

Bright Colours of Tirana

Colourful Tirana

A relatively new city of 400 years, Tirana has been the capital city of Albania since 1920.

Yes, the residue of communism still lingers in its architecture and its main points of interest. It’s not the prettiest of European cities, but it is one of the most interesting.

Even though reminders of Albania’s dark past still reside here; bright and modern elements have begun to take over, switching up the narrative. Symbols of the dictatorship are being transformed to represent modernity and the freedom of Albania. Tirana now has a welcoming and free-spirited feel with its quirky cafe scene and impressive street art collection, while still recognising this bleak period in Albanian history. For a truly unique and inspiring city break, Tirana is the ticket.

In this post, find our favourite things to do in Tirana, as well as our favourite restaurants, and all the practical/logistical info to get there.

How to Get to Tirana

Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza (TIA) is very well connected with most European countries and some of the Middle East.

Wherever you are in Albania, you will undoubtedly be able to get a bus to Tirana.

Buses that we got in and out of Tirana:

Shkoder to Tirana: cost 400 lek and took around two hours, leaving Shkoder at 10am. We arrived into the North/South bus terminal, from which we had to get a city bus into the centre.  There is a small bus stop just outside of the station. When you get on the bus, ask for ‘Skanderbeg Square’ (the main square in the centre of the city). If they nod, you know it’s going the right direction. It should take about thirty minutes to get to Skanderbeg Square and cost 40 lek for your ticket which you pay in cash on the bus.

Tirana to Berat: cost 500 lek and took around two and a half hours. From Tirana Central Bus Stop, just off Skanderbeg Square, get on the white bus with Termini written on the front. Pay 40 lek to be taken back to the main bus station to get the bus to Berat.

Learn About the Communist Dictatorship of Albania in Bunk’Art 1 and 2

Bunk’Art 1 and 2 are museums set in nuclear resistant bunkers that the paranoid Enver Hoxha demanded be built all over the country during his dictatorship.

Bunk’Art 1 is definitely the more hard-hitting of the two. If you have time for just the one museum, make the effort to travel just out of town to visit this one.

At Tirana Central Bus Stop, just off Skanderbeg Square, jump on the blue bus with ‘Porcelan’ written on the front. It’s a short journey of maybe twenty minutes and costs 40 lek each way, payable on the bus in cash. When you get off the bus, you have to walk down a long, dark tunnel (this in itself starts to set the atmosphere). Entrance costs 500 lek to enter this one bunker, but if you wanted to see Bunk’Art 2 also, you can get a discounted double ticket for 800 lek.

Bunk'Art 1 Tunnel Entrance, things to do in Tirana

Bunk’Art 1 entrance

Going down into the bunker is cold and stark. There are many exhibitions displayed across several rooms covering the span of Hoxha’s rule. We had spent about two and a half hours in the bunker going through all the fascinating, yet harrowing detail before we came to the assembly hall. Because we had entered later in the day, we were the only people left in the bunker before closing.

This felt eerie: no one else around while we stood in a large hall full of red velvet chairs facing a stage. This was the stuff of horror films. Not only did I have to continually tell myself that we would not mistakenly be locked in here because we were the last visitors of the day (catastrophiser over here!), but I felt a genuine connection to all the gritty detail in the exhibitions as we stood in this cold and empty space.

Make sure you’re ready for this one. It’s hard-hitting, no question, but it’s the atmosphere down in the bunker that is really powerful.

Bunk'Art 1 Assembly Hall

Assembly hall, Bunk’Art 1

Bunk’Art 2 is in the centre of the city. It is a point of great controversy, understandably, as an artificial bunker dome shape was added to the entrance. This museum, also set in an underground bunker, is focused on the secret police known as the Sigurimi, and the political persecution to which Albanian people were subjected. You could spend about an hour or so taking in all the information in the exhibits.

Bunk'Art 2

Bunk’Art 2

Bunk'Art 2

Bunk’Art 2 entrance

Go in Search of Remarkable Street Art

On a much lighter note, Tirana has some incredible street art. A lot of the art is splashed on the walls of buildings around Blloku which is the area where the Communist party elite used to live. Street art signed by Franko appears all over the city, often featuring prominent issues of today. Keep an eye out for these in particular. We spent an afternoon wandering around and hunting them all down. Vagabundler has a great map that we used to make sure we found the best spots. Don’t forget to look out for street art on the electrical boxes and road signs too.

Tirana Street Art

Hard hitting street art by Kelo

Street art of cartoon birds

Different perspective

Franko Street Art

Franko street art

Go on a Quirky Cafe/Bar Crawl

Tirana is not short on quirky cafes! See how many you can find – heading over to the Blloku district is your best bet.

Our favourites are Komiteti Café MuseumSmall, Nouvelle Vague and Tymi (not a cafe, more of a bar/restaurant, definitely quirky though.)

Small Cafe, thing to do in Tirana

Small Cafe

Walk Skanderbeg Square

What used to be a very communist area surrounded by statues of both Enver Hoxha and Joseph Stalin, is now a very open and inclusive area with a statue of Albania’s national hero: Skanderbeg. The square is paved with coloured stones from different parts of the country. Look carefully, and you might be able to see a place name carved into a paving stone.

There are several buildings around the square worth seeing: Ethem Bey Mosque, Clock Tower, National History Museum, Opera House. Ethem Bey mosque is beautifully and intricately decorated, while the National History Museum is the largest in Albania. Entrance fee is 500 lek. (Unfortunately, we did not see the museum or its communist propaganda mosaic façade as there were restoration works going on. Next time!)

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

Skanderbeg Square

Uncover the Dictatorial Regime Secrets in the House of Leaves

The House of Leaves AKA the Museum of Secret Surveillance is the building that was used as the headquarters of the ‘National Intelligence Service’ during the regime. Collaborators and regular people who were blackmailed or threatened into becoming informants, were spying, recording conversations and reporting their findings. Those found to be speaking out against the regime were then punished; some were imprisoned, some disappeared. This museum shares details on the monitoring, controlling and manipulating of the Albanian people. Entrance costs 700 lek.

House of Leaves Museum, things to do in Tirana

House of Leaves Museum

Former Residence of Enver Hoxha and the Pyramid

Catch a glimpse of the dictator’s former residence. You can only see it from outside of the gates. Again, this is another point of controversy as it remains as it was during the regime, however, there are rumours of plans to turn it into a museum or public space.

The Pyramid was originally constructed to become a museum dedicated to the dictator. Designed by Hoxha’s daughter (amongst others), the attempt to link pharaonic connotations to the dictator was not well-received. The pyramid has had several different uses since the fall of the dictatorship: notably a NATO base during the Kosovo war and then a nightclub.

Now, restoration work is going ahead to dramatically change the structure into an open space; a cultural hub for education and socialising. Plans for walkways over the top of this former dictatorship symbol will act as a modern-day symbol of Albanians regaining their country and their freedom: the period of renaissance.

Enver Hoxha's Former Residence

Former residence of Enver Hoxha

Rummage for Hidden Treasures at the Book Markets

There are book markets and book shops all around the city. My favourite is on this bridge. Otherwise, there are some absolute beauties in basement-style shops throughout the city, where you can find books stacked up to the ceilings!

book market on a bridge, things to do in Tirana

Bridge Book market

Wander Shëtitorja Murat Toptani Pedestrian Street

You will find restaurants, cafes, shops, market stalls and street art all down this one street. Its lively atmosphere really does make it the place to be in the evenings. Head over here around 7/8pm and take part in xhiro (Albania’s custom of walking pedestrian streets in the evening, catching up with friends and family).

Tirana Pedestrianised Street

Shëtitorja Murat Toptani pedestrian street

Amble Through Tirana Castle (That Is No Longer Actually a Castle)

At one end of Shëtitorja Murat Toptani pedestrian street is ‘Tirana Castle’. Enter through the fortress wall, where the castle once stood, and discover an area with bars, restaurants, shops, photo booths, and traditional handicrafts. Once you have completed your xhiro down the main street, veer off and explore this new shopping and eating sector.

Where to Find Tasty Vegetarian Food

So, we had been travelling for six weeks by the time we reached Tirana and were craving Asian food really badly. Back home, we cook Asian dishes on the regular: miso, tofu, curries, we put chilli in everything! And this was something that we had been lacking significantly. So when we got to Tirana and realised there were Asian restaurants and vegan restaurants, we got a little excited and didn’t really eat much Albanian food.

Wondering what traditional vegetarian food Albania has to offer? Read this post here.

Oriental City Chinese

This is where you get the good stuff. We had been missing these flavours big time! Mapo tofu, sweet and sour crispy rice, and spicy aubergine casserole.

mapo tofu and sweet and sour rice

Unbelievably tasty, Oriental City Chinese (excuse the prawn crackers)

Chakra Indian Fusion

Indian food means plenty of veggie options. We ordered onion bhajis, dal, chana masala and garlic nan with a beer and a lassi. Definitely well off budget at 2700 lek. It’s a bit difficult to find using Google Maps alone. Head towards the cinema entrance and you’ll find it right next door.

onion bhajis, naan, and curries

Someone’s excited about the Indian

Veggies

Again, there was so much choice for vegetarians (obviously, it’s in the name). We tried the ramen and the veg noodles. Both were great, and we would have returned to try some more options if we were in Tirana for longer.

Ramen at Veggies Restaurant

Ramen noodles

Veggies Restaurant Decor

Veggies

Green and Protein

This place does big bowls of salad. Not just lettuce, tomato, cucumber; they do proper salad. Falafel, edamame beans, sweet potato, avocado, quinoa. We went for the ‘Wabi Sabi’ and the ‘Eda-Mami Protein’ which were both super tasty and filling. They also do burgers, wraps and juices.

Opa

Greek fast food. The halloumi wrap was a perfect quick lunch stop on our day of street art hunting.

Have you been to Tirana? Is there anything else you would add?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.

Thanks for reading!

Like it? Save it!

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