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.
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.”
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