All Photographs © Joakim Lloyd Raboff

These photos from Tirana, Albania were shot in and around the intensely interesting capital city. Tirana is many cities in one. It feels simultaneously both rural and urban, old and new, tired and fiesty. Surrounded by mountains, the valley in which it lays makes for a dramatic arrival from the air. Just as soon as you leave the airport and head into the center of the city, it becomes evident that Tirana has grown exponentially since it survived communism.

After the second world war, Albania’s ruler Enver Hoxha forcibly shaped the country into a staunch Stalinist state until its transition to democracy in 1992. While the elections ended 47 years of North Korean-styled communist rule, the following decade was chaotic with a constant turnover of prime ministers and presidents.

Architecturally speaking, Tirana’s downtown district is a wonderfully mixed bag of old and sparkling new, soulfully decrepit or being restored. Some of the front-facing residential buildings, often with mom and pop shops on the street level, along the main avenues and wider streets in the Blloku area, aka “The Block”, are in good shape. Buildings just one row behind are often in desperate need of repair and restoration. But it was in these very side streets and snaking alleyways that I most often found the most interesting expressions of daily life in Tirana.

I spoke with many Albanians during my visit and every single interaction left me feeling in awe of their genuine friendliness and spontaneous generosity. I was invited for a coffee at least a half dozen times and on several occasions, the folks I asked for directions generously allocated time to personally guide me to where it was I wanted to go.

Like the architecture, the Albanian cuisine in Tirana is a melting pot with so many different kinds of food to choose from with influences from Greece and Italy being among the more notable. Of the more traditional Albanian restaurants that I tried, Oda was the most memorable.

I can’t recommend Tirana enough. It’s certainly not for everyone, especially during the summer months when the heat can be turned up to 11. But for the rest of the year, especially early spring, the Albanian capital has a lot to offer, culturally and culinarily. The attractions are certainly not as spectacular as in some of Europe’s major cities.

But in addition to the many museums, cold war bunkers, and prolific nightlife, Tirana has something else to offer. But you can’t find it on a map or in a Google review. It’s Tirana’s unique vibe.

I thoroughly enjoyed walking around this sprawling city, absorbing the urban ambiance along the side streets, while chatting with locals, having a simple coffee at one of the hundreds of sidewalk cafés and wandering aimlessly in this salty capital’s residential neighborhoods.