A good cup of coffee can be hard to find for newcomers to any city. This is true in Tirana even with it’s central coffee scene — the cultural product of both Ottoman-era cafes and Italian-style coffee. Ottoman cafés were about much more than coffee. These coffeehouses provided a social scene, where people came together to debate, connect, and sometimes, make a plan to act. Ottoman-era coffee, which now takes on as many nationalities that emerged thereafter, is also served in small cups but is much too strong to gulp down. Differently, Italian coffee is small, fast, and delicious.
Most foreigners to Albania, such as myself, want the taste of Italian coffee, but the experience of “having a coffee”–as is code for intimate, meaningful conversations in the Balkans. To make matters subtly more confusing in Albania, the words for coffee and café are spelled exactly the same in Albanian (kafe) but pronounced differently (kafe versus kafe).
To fill my coffee and cafe-addicted urge, while living and working recently in Tirana, I collected a list of recommendations for cafes with good coffee from Albanians. I further refined it with my Albanian language instructors through the American Councils for International Education program. The list is ever-evolving but I am sharing it now because I will return and finish my PhD research in Tirana in fall 2023. If you have other suggestions, please feel free to message me on Instagram or Twitter (@maryshiraef). I will be happy to visit more cafes and expand the list here.
The most regular recommendation I received from locals for coffee are local chains.
Indeed, “Mulliri i Vjetër” is probably Tirana’s best chain for delicious, reliable coffee. It is also quite affordable. Many Albanians I know stop at Mulliri i Vjetër in the center almost every day for a coffee. You can find them throughout Tirana and in several of Albania’s cities too. Funnily enough, the name refers to the Ottoman-style of grinding coffee, but the menu covers the Italian styles of coffee and even has Scottish biscuits. I stop in Mulliri i Vjetër any time I’m missing a solid cappuccino.
“Sophie Cafe” is also a good chain for coffee with delicious-looking sweets (embelsira). These are found throughout Tirana but are so frequented by locals that they feel more like the local cafe than a chain. For instance, Sophie Cafe in the Ali Demi area currently has three photos at the top of their (very high) Google Reviews which might be the most appropriate depiction of local Albanian cafes I have ever seen.
“Mon Cheri” is another chain with great coffee and where a lot of locals hang out. The traditional time for “having a coffee” in Albania, as throughout the Balkans, is around 4pm. In Tirana though, you can find people having coffees no matter the time of day.
“Ama” coffee is also a reliable brand for good coffee in Tirana. Ama Caffe Bllok (Kafe te Blloku) specifically has a really nice indoor atmosphere for reading and relaxing.
For a quick shot of caffeine, Italian style, I often pop down to the “break room” of Albania’s Ministry of Interior–which, wait for it, has a vending machine that pours a fresh espresso for the equivalent of 40 cents. Even this is a social venture though. Without my officemates “inviting me for a coffee,” I would not have known about this truly amazing life hack for connecting with a quick but still drinkable coffee in Albania.
For a special treat, Opera Cafe (Cafe te Teatri i Operas or as locals refer to it, Kafe Opera) has a wonderful view (pamje të mrekullueshme).
For an experience unique to Tirana, visit Komiteti — Kafe Muzeum, where you will find yourself surrounded by artifacts from earlier parts of Albania’s history including especially the communist period. You can also do a beer tasting here.
Millennium Garden (Kafe te Mileniumi) has coffee, pizza, and several snacks (vakt). It has a striking presence with mostly outdoor seating on Tirana’s stone-paved pedestrian path outside the entrance to Tirana’s castle. I’m realizing as I write this that I’ve actually never been, but know from walking past every day that it appears to be “the place to be in Tirana” –especially for a group celebration or on a big game night, for instance. It is bustling all the time, but there is regular service and usually an open table or two.
Botanika has good food, sweets, and gorgeous cocktails. It is close to the Adrion Bookstore (Librari Adrioni), Albania’s largest bookstore, as well as Opera Cafe (Kafe Operas). So if you want to spend a day reading and cafe hopping, these make up the three-part itinerary I’d suggest.
A street with several cafes is te rruga e Elbasanit in the area Rruga e Salës. For my favorite example, “Kafe-Librari e Përshtatshme” is in walking distance. This is a cafe with a book-and-coffee vibe which feels like stepping off the busy streets of Tirana into the center of Europe. Their Instagram photos give you a sense of the feel, but it’s even more beautiful in person. You can find and buy rare and interesting Albanian and English-language books in their “library” because librari actually means book shop in Albanian–as I was surprised to learn by visiting this lovely spot.
Pazari i Ri is another area in Tirana’s center with several delicious cafes and restaurants, as well as a market (New Tirana market) with wonderful fresh fruit as well as fun trinkets to look at and buy as a souvenir. It is perhaps Tirana’s hippest area. I don’t have a specific suggestion here because they are all very good.
Finally, the streets inside and alongside Tirana’s “castle” (Kalaja e Tiranës) are both overflowing with cafes. I trend toward the less busy-looking ones, like “Nostalgia Bringing You Back” for meeting people for a conversation. I am bound to secrecy on my favorite cafe inside the castle, but as a hint, it may or may not have the word italiani in the title. It is also mislabeled as a restaurant on Google Maps. It’s one of those places better found on foot.
The coffee scene in Tirana is a wonderful, chaotic, and sometimes whiplash-inducing experience influenced primarily by the Ottoman period but also benefiting from proximity to the world’s top-tasting caffeine source (in my humble opinion). Writing this blog opened the question for me, what was the coffee culture in Albania during the communist period?
So I will leave you with that. I hope this guide is helpful — and that you’ll write to me if you have thoughts on this question (or further suggestions for the list!).
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