Wait, what?! Why does anyone wanna visit Tirana anyway? Isn’t it like a run-down ex-communist stronghold ridden with ruthless mobsters running around guns a-blazin’?
Well no, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. From its controversial communist past to its colorful present, Tirana has re-invented itself to become a vibrant capital city that is super-affordable. It is the bustling cultural, economic, and administrative center of Albania with a very relaxed vibe, and Tiranians, or Albanians in general for that matter, are extremely friendly, hospitable and curious towards outside visitors so that’s definitely a big plus!
Situated along the base of Mount Dajti, Tirana was founded by Turkish General Barkinzade Suleyman Pacha as a small settlement in the early seventeenth century, featuring little more than a mosque, a bathhouse, and a bakery. Since then the city has grown to become home to a population of over 800,000 people. Following German and Italian occupations during World War II, the country was under communist rule for over 40 years. After the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, many of its Soviet-era tower blocks have since been painted with bright pastel colors, transforming the city into a literal rainbow and a unique travel destination in the eastern Mediterranean.
If you’re planning on visiting Albania soon, I would recommend you to download the Albania CityInformation App which has plenty of info about the city. Anywho, here’s an essential guide to some of the must-see attractions of Tirana.
SKANDERBEG SQUARE – THE HEART OF THE CITY
Situated in the center of Tirana is the city’s main plaza, the Skanderbeg Square, featuring a statue of Albania’s national hero, George Kastrioti ‘Skanderbeg’, who led the nation’s revolt against rule by the Ottoman empire in the 14th century. Flanked by the 18th century Ethem Bey Mosque with its idyllic frescoes and the Clock Tower of Tirana whose 90 steps you can climb for panoramic views of the city, Skanderbeg Square is the pulsing heart of Tirana. It is the gateway to the city’s many historical attractions and cafes, where you can sit and enjoy a glass of Raki, a plum brandy popular throughout Albania.
BUNK’ART – CONTEMPORARY ART IN A COLD WAR BUNKER
Originally a Cold War era bunker constructed by Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha during his reign of over four decades, the structure has since been converted into one of the defining cultural institutions of Tirana. Meant to give refuge to Hoxha and Albania’s political elite in the event of a nuclear attack, it has since been converted into a museum where you can roam different galleries featuring contemporary art and exhibitions depicting the modern history of the country.
PIRAMIDA – ALBANIA’S VERY OWN PYRAMID (ODDLY ENOUGH)
Designed by Enver Hoxha’s daughter as a bold testament to her father, Piramida was once a tiled pyramid housing a museum dedicated to Enver Hoxha’s reign. Since then it has been practically abandoned, opening only occasionally for temporary exhibitions. You’ll now find its formerly brilliant white marble exterior slowly crumbling and scrawled with years’ worth of accumulated graffiti. Although many proposals have been made to demolish the structure, city officials still can’t reach a consensus on the issue.
BLLOKU NEIGHBORHOOD NIGHTLIFE
For almost 4 decades, Blloku was restricted to the communist political elite of Albania and the rest of the population was not allowed in. When communism fell, Blloku began its makeover into a glamorous and popular neighborhood filled with bars, restaurants, and cafes. The perfect place for a night out in Tirana!
PARKS – EXPLORE TIRANA’S WILD SIDE
After spending hours exploring all the unique attractions of Tirana, the city’s parks offer a relaxing breather from the city’s dizzying traffic. Why not take a stroll through Tirana’s wooded Grand Park, with a large artificial lake constructed in 1950s as its centerpiece? The southern end of the park also features a zoo and botanical garden. Seeking something more adventurous? 25 km outside of the city you can take the cable car up to the summit of Mount Dajti in Dajti National Park where you can have a quiet picnic in the midst of scenic pine forests.
NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM & NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
Yes, yes, there is place in Tirana for you museum goers as well; and pretty valuable ones to. The National History Museum and The National Gallery of Art are filled with modern and ancient pieces of art and history that might take you at least half a day to explore. Make sure to plan ahead and buy tickets in time.
DAJTI EKSPRES CABLE CAR
For amazing panoramic views of the city, take the longest cableway found in the Balkans and enjoy a breathtaking visual experience. It only takes 15 minutes, so make sure to enjoy every second of it.
THE NEW BAZAR
This newly established colorful space is a popular local spot and a great place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from its market, or to treat yourself to some delicious local street food. Maybe even grab an espresso in the afternoon and enjoy some people-watching… Always an interesting way to take in a different culture.
Unfortunately Albania and particularly Tirana still have a stigma concerning their troubled history and lack of development, mostly compared to the liberal western powerful countries, but I having been there, I can say that slowly but surely, things are changing for the better and Tirana is becoming an established and recognized travel destination. Oh, and did I mention how affordable it is?? That is something that will play a major role in its development as a touristic destination, so hurry up and visit before everyone else discovers it!
True, you won’t find any mind-boggling sights in Tirana, but remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beauty of Tirana can only be seen by those who don’t believe in stereotypes, and are curious enough to take on an adventure off the beaten path…
On June 22nd, 2017