Things to Do in Tirana with Kids
Albania was never on our list of ‘countries you must see before you die’, but it was unavoidable on our family travel to Greece and we couldn’t resist stopping for a Byrek at least. For all those don’t don’t know what Byrek is: Byrek (also called Börek, burek, or lakror) is a family of baked or fried filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough. However, Albania offered much more than Byrek.
We grew up with a picture of an undeveloped, poor country that was stuck in the past, but we soon realized that Albania has been quietly developing in many ways. The communist regime established here after the Second World War was considered one of the most repressive in Europe, leaving the country in complete isolation which lasted until the early 1990s when Albania began to slowly open up to the West. During a family trip in Albania, we spent a few hours in Skadar and Sarande and two days in Tirana.
Wild traffic in Tirana
Tirana turned out to be a perfect one-day destination. All the important sights are located in the very city center so it is possible to visit the Albanian capital in just a few hours, even with children. All you need is good weather and a little bit of patience while crossing the street. Before you take a city tour, get ready for the chaotic traffic. The traffic philosophy in Albania is that everyone has the same rights and wants to use them at the same time. Of course, there are pedestrian crossings but to cross the street you really need luck. Otherwise, Albanians are very kind and friendly people. They just get a little bit wild behind the wheel.
Cross the street was a real challenge
The heart of Tirana is Skanderbeg Square, with a statue of the national hero, the Opera House, and a National Museum of History. It was under big reconstruction when we were there and it seems that it will also get a nice green-zone.
Skenderbeg square under reconstruction
A new face of Skenderbeg square
War bunkers in Tirana
The main attraction in Tirana are the bunkers, which were built by the Albanian communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. He ordered the building of thousands of bunkers due to a paranoid fear that someone will attack him. He needed a secure place to hide. The bunkers have never been used for this defense purpose. Today, they have been converted into museums, restaurants, galleries or apartments. I don’t know who would like to live in some bunker-apartment, except paranoid dictators, but it was interesting to visit one of them.
Bunkart museum in Tirana
If you are curious to see how the communist regime worked, you should see Bunk’art, very close to Skanderbeg Square in the historic center of Tirana. It was a little bit of a freaky experience with all that creepy tunnel atmosphere. Through the many documents and artifacts, it shows you how an extreme ideology can manipulate people.
Our children were not very interested in communism, but the tunnel itself and some details were interesting to them. For example, there are pictures of some dogs used by border police during the communist regime and an investigation room with an old writing machine and lights that turn on and off by themselves. We read that during the communist regime, any ordinary citizen or policeman could be investigated. Most of them were arrested without reason and classified as ‘state enemies’.
After being charged with a crime of picking flowers from a public place, our children had the right to make one phone call. They wanted to call Granny. She never accuses them of anything.
In one room there are some old guns, but don’t worry if your child starts to play with them. They are deactivated. But you never know…
The Pyramid of Tirana
Just down the road from the main square, we found a concrete pyramid dedicated to a former dictator. It looked dull, abandoned and demolished, but that was just from an adult’s perspective. The children had a lot of fun there pretending that the pyramid was a toboggan. If you want to practice free-range parenting, this is the perfect place. It can be very dangerous when the children come down, but I let them develop their independence on this dictatorial monument. Finally, they declared that this ugly pyramid was the best attraction in the city.
Pyramid of Tirana became toboggan
Murat Toptani street
Murat Toptani street is a lovely place to stroll around, far away from traffic, but there is nothing much to see: trees, coffee shops, and boutiques all along both sides of the street.
A pedestrianized street in central Tirana leading on to Skenderbeg square
At the beginning of the street, there is a big shopping mall with a playground on the 6th floor. We prefer to go to parks or outdoor playgrounds, but heavy rain didn’t leave us much choice that day. It is good to leave kids in some playground area in a foreign country because when they get bored, they don’t know how to say, “Call my mum!”
Reja “The Cloud” (Tirana)
If you want to encourage your children’s imagination, you could show them this piece of art called ‘Cloud’ in the front of the National Art gallery in the city center. It is interesting to ask kids the question of what this object represents. Our 5-year-old historian of art told me, “It’s a lot of white sticks someone put together!” What an interpretation of modern art! I told them it was actually a cloud, but they didn’t believe me.
The cloud structure outside the museum
When someone asks me how our poor children handle all these changes during our travels, I just show this photo of their survival moments.
Where to eat in Tirana?
If you would like to taste traditional Albanian cuisine and experience authentic ambiance as well, Oda restaurant is a great choice. We felt like we were walking into someone’s house with its traditional furniture, dolls with folk costumes and family pictures on the walls as a reminder of old times. They had a few vegetarian options on the menu too, like pepper stuffed with cheese, beans in tomato sauce, eggplants with vegetables and delicious yogurt.
Traditional and modern food at reasonable prices
Five minutes later
We also had lunch in the modern Albanian restaurant Era Villa which had more vegetarian options, but the atmosphere wasn’t that cozy. We didn’t feel like we were in Albania. The good thing was we didn’t have to pay for lunch because an umbrella suddenly fell down at our table and we almost got hurt. As compensation, we ate for free.
To come to Albania and not taste the Byrek
is like visiting Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids. For those who don’t know, it can be described as layers of pastry filled with cheese, meat or vegetables. Sounds easy, but making a good Byrek is like a secret passed on from generation to generation. You can find Byrek in small bakeries everywhere. If we asked the kids what they would want to eat for the rest of their life, they would say Byrek. You can read more about the best Albanian Byrek in my story about Skadar
Byrek is the best souvenir
If you travel to Albania, you might find some inspiration in our travel stories, because we try to look at things from the new point of view.