There is nowhere to sit at the roomy Radio in Tirana, the capital of Albania. It’s a Thursday night, a New Orleans–style band is cranking out swing tunes, and the tables, surrounded by a vintage stash of the bar’s namesake electronic contraption, are filled with revelers sipping Aperol Spritzes. On the colorful, greenhouse-like patio, dressed with shelves of plants and dangling birdcages, a happy mix of young and old chat and laugh on yellow benches in between puffs of dwindling Marlboro Lights. The positive and carefree vibe is palpable, and it is echoed in restaurants, bars, and cafés throughout the neighborhood and across Tirana. Invitingly peculiar, this former stronghold of Communism is lively and affordable, its residents open and friendly.
Interest in Balkan countries has soared significantly in recent years, with curious travelers now regularly seeking out the serenity of the Adriatic Sea and medieval, stone-walled cities like Dubrovnik in Croatia and Kotor in Montenegro. Tirana does not embody such traditional, picturesque allure. Instead, it impresses as a soulful, urban hub with a strong personality shaped by a turbulent history. Much like Sarajevo remarkably moved past the atrocities of the 1990s to evolve into a thriving Eastern European capital, Albania is looking past its own decades of horror and isolation to the future.
Radio is located in a neighborhood called Ish-Blloku, also known as Blloku. Today “the Block” is a pulsating, upmarket entertainment vortex, lined with countless outdoor terraces that teem with well-dressed guests. It has a decidedly sultry, relaxed aura that is at turns reminiscent of Athens and Palermo. Yet during the Communist years, Blloku was off-limits to anyone who wasn’t a member of the party’s elite.
Until the fall of Communism in 1991, the region was no stranger to socialism. But Albania’s strain, under the leadership of the Stalinist-Maoist, teacher turned dictator Enver Hoxha, was especially concentrated and oppressive. Hoxha reigned over Albania for more than 40 years until his death in 1985, and he purportedly imprisoned, tortured, and killed some 100,000 Albanian citizens in the process. Extremely paranoid, he ordered the construction of more than 750,000 bunkers—dome-shaped, concrete salves meant to assuage his chronic fear of foreign invasion. Delving into this twisted past is essential to understand present-day Tirana, and a prime starting point is the National History Museum on Skanderbeg Square, a chronologically organized trove of archaeological artifacts. Even more gripping is Bunk’Art, one of those covert, nuclear war–proof bunkers on the hillside fringes of Tirana that has been transformed into a museum. Here, in a warren of galleries, wander through Hoxha’s preserved clubby office, and watch a hypnotic video of his funeral. In the city center is the Bunk’Art 2 outpost, a memorial to victims of the Hoxha regime packed with more insightful photographs and documents. It’s fittingly located across the street from House of Leaves. Once the headquarters of Hoxha’s Sigurimi secret police, the petite museum illuminates fascinating surveillance tactics of the era.
Armed with knowledge of Albania’s heritage, one riddled with death, tyranny, and espionage, it perhaps becomes clearer why Tirana is now so convivial, its people so joyous: They are finally living lives of freedom and creativity, inspired and buoyed by the very nations they were forbidden from interacting with for decades. Tirana is not yet a tourist haven, undoubtedly part of its charm, but vacationers are seeing the potential in spending time here. The Central and Eastern European tour specialists JayWay Travel added Albania to its roster of locales last year, and CEO and founder Jay Ternavan says he understands why Tirana is increasingly resonating with visitors. “With all the talk of over-tourism it’s refreshing to go to a capital city and be the only person walking around with a camera slung around his neck,” he says. “It has an energy that surprises people. It’s a young city in a country that’s seen some tough times, but the warm welcomes make you feel optimistic for their future.”
A day organized by JayWay is defined by Gëzim, a savvy guide from Tours Albania, who confidently explains the intricacies of his home city over an espresso at the rotating Sky Club bar, pointing to the panorama of Tirana below. He punctuates a string of visits to landmarks with lunch at the kitschy, homey King House, a restaurant he worked at as a teenager, where waiters rove with trays holding oversize pizzas and large, aromatic platters of grilled meat in equal measure. He suggests going for a drink of raki, Albanian fruit brandy, at Komiteti, where the brick, lace, and walls are graced with plates, contributing to the old-fashioned atmosphere.
Food and drink are vital social elements of Tirana culture. One of the city’s finest restaurants is Mullixhiu, adjacent to the Grand Park of Tirana, home to a tranquil artificial lake. A cozy, modern farmhouse covered in wood, Mullixhiu espouses a slow-food mentality, with chef Bledar Kola, who worked in London and at Copenhagen’s fabled Noma, pairing from-scratch sausage with polenta and cloaking ribbons of tagliatelle-like jufka noodles in Balkan Mishavine cheese. Tirana is the essence of Albania, says Kola, a “vibrant city full of energy and hope. It is also becoming, more and more every day, a gastronomic destination,” he adds, pointing to the country’s diverse climate and landscape, which allow him to experiment with ingredients like Albanian saffron, wild leaves, and mulberry. “Access to fresh and organic products is not a luxury for us,” he says. “We can have wild fish direct from the sea or mushrooms from the mountains within hours.”
Healthier eating is becoming more important to the residents of youthful Tirana, and so they spend mornings on the terrace of Bioteka, with velvety smoothies that combine avocado, green apple, pineapple, and mint, or bantering with the waiter at À la Santé, where the menu, at once wholesome and inventive, leans toward homemade daily soups like an herbaceous fennel and crab as well as bright spinach salads strewn with orange and feta. At E7E, a bookshop, gallery, and café with a surprisingly expansive food menu, they relax for hours out back on the sprawling patio with ricotta-and-pepper casseroles bubbling away in skillets, accompanied by homemade bread and grape juice. Close to the eye-catching Pyramid of Tirana, a crumbling Communist monument, they order glasses of wine in the lounge of the Padam Boutique Hotel and Restaurant’s lush, theatrical garden.
Back in Blloku, when Radio begins to feel too cramped, there is a margarita waiting at Colonial Café, a cocktail bar outfitted with calming Southeast Asian décor and hookah. There is also a negroni, and moody tracks like Madeleine Peyroux’s rendition of “Dance Me to the End of Love” to be found at the indoor-outdoor Tribeca. “The population of the city has more than tripled in 20 years, bringing in Albanians who once emigrated and now returned with excellent know-how of bars, restaurants, and nightlife. The best chefs and bartenders came from big European cities, where they learned their skills, which they are exercising and successfully passing on to others,” says Tribeca’s DJ Lura Elezi. “Great energy comes from the young population that has inherited the hospitality and warmth of the Balkans combined with the Mediterranean spirit. All these youngsters travel and see the world, and we think that Tirana has all it takes to be a new favorite location.”
In tandem with the Albanian Riviera’s beaches and the staggering natural vistas in the southwestern part of the country on the Ionian Sea, buzzy Tirana is a delightful, cosmopolitan beginning to a seaside Balkan adventure.