Albania was an interesting place for us. I’ll be honest. It’s not the first place I’d recommend for a holiday, not even the second one, especially if you like easy destinations. But it was something different. There are a lot of things to do in Tirana, if you decide to give it a chance.
We don’t regret going there and spending one week and probably you wouldn’t either if you’re into discovering places that aren’t on everybody’s radar yet. Albania was isolated from the rest of the world until the Iron Curtain fell in 1991. This being said, we didn’t really know what to expect from its capital, Tirana. But we found a lively city, large boulevard, a gigantic central square and a mixture of old and new.
We were surprised to discover a city full of life, that is proud of its multiculturality and tries to go forward without denying its past, but recognizing it, presenting the facts and hoping for a better future.
Behind the communist buildings, there are colorful pedestrian streets, Ottoman-era buildings and Italian architecture that reflect the rich past of the city. Even if we’re not usually museum persons, this time we really felt like visiting some of them as they seemed interesting and they really were.
The ones no visitor of Tirana shouldn’t miss are Bunk’Art 2 and House of Leaves, but we also recommend you go a little bit out of the city center and visit Bunk’Art1, as it gives you a little more insight into the darkest part of Albania’s history, the rule of former dictator Enver Hoxha.
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15 unforgettable things to do in Tirana (Albania)
1. Learn a little bit of Albania’s history at Bunk’Art2
Hoxha, a paranoid dictator that ruled the country during most of its communist times had an obsession for nuclear war. Thus, he ordered the bunkerization of Albania. More than 170 000 bunkers had been built by 1983, out of the 210 000 planned ones. This means one for every 11 inhabitants of Albania.
Bunk’Art2 was once a huge government bunker right in the middle of Tirana. Nowadays it hosts an exhibition about Albania’s history. A visit to this museum and art gallery should be a priority for any visitor of Tirana. It’s right in the city center and will provide you the background you need to better understand the past and present of Albania and Tirana.
By wandering around the underground rooms, you’ll find out about the rise and fall of communism in Albania, what the daily life of Albanians used to be under the communist regime, political persecutions and crimes that were committed. You can even see the apartment reserved for the Minister of Internal Affairs and the decontamination rooms.
Entry costs 500LEK (4 Euro), but you can also buy a combined ticket for both Bunk’Ar museums with 800 LEK (6.5 Euro). Set aside 1-2 hours for it, as there’s a lot of information.
2. Find out more about the obsession of Hoxha at Bunk’Art1
As interesting as Bunk’Art2 might be, we found Bunk’Art1 even better. I understand why Bunk’Art2 was built, as Bunk’Art1 is a little outside the city center. However, it’s easily accessible by public transport. One can take a bus from the clock tower and get to Bunk’Art1 in half an hour. Besides, it’s located right at the base of Mount Dajti, so you can combine both of them on a half a day trip.
The bunker this museum is in was designed especially for Hoxha himself. There’s no better place to dive into the 45 years of Albania’s dark communism past. Some parts of the museum were left as they would have been at the time. You can see the meeting rooms, the devices that should have produces oxygen, the apartment and cabinet prepared for Hoxha in case of a nuclear war. If you dare to pick up the phone, you can even hear his voice. It was a very interesting and informative visit.
Bunk’Art 1 also seems closer to the original idea of combining history and art. In one of the rooms, you can see a creepy artwork that shows what communism was made out of.
3. Take the cable car to the top of Dajti Mountain to see the best views of Tirana
On the outskirts of the city is Mount Dajti, the perfect opportunity to enjoy the best views of Tirana. You can either hike, go up by car or take the cable car to the top. The cable car costs 1000 LEK and it’s an 1 kilometer-long ride, the longest cable-car ride in the Balkans. It is also pretty steep, as it goes 800m upwards. Up there, you’ll find an adventure and mini golf park, viewing decks and a restaurant. Dajti Mountain or the “Balcony of Tirana” is also a popular weekend getaway for locals looking to escape the crowded Tirana.
4. Visit The House Of Leaves Museum
Housing the Museum of Secret Surveillance, the House of Leaves in Tirana is dedicated to the many innocent people who were under surveillance and then arrested and executed by Albania’s communist regime. The building used to be the headquarters of the Albanian secret police, Sigurimi. Although you can still see how beautiful the old villa must have once been, its dark past is very well presented in this museum, which is a must-see when you visit Tirana.
At first, the building was used as a clinic, but during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Albania, it was used by the Gestapo. At the end of the Second World War, the Sigurimi turned it into its headquarters. Hidden behind many trees and leaves, nobody was supposed to know what went on inside the building. The 31 rooms of the museum portray different aspects of surveillance in communist Albania, from different methods of intercepting communication to torture. There are technological displays as well as various documents (in the Albanian language). But these are brought to life by other displays such as a typical living room from 1970s Albania.
In 2020, the Museum of Secret Surveillance won the European Museum of the Year Award, a well-earned award as the museum approaches the subject respectfully, without trying to turn it into a show. There simply is no need for exaggeration or overstating anything because the facts are shocking enough as they are. The entry fee is 700 LEK per person and prepare to spend at least an hour inside.
5. Find out who Skanderbeg was in the main square that bears his name
The largest square in the center of Tirana was named after Georg Kastriot Skanderbeg, a symbol of Albania. He was a nobleman and military commander from the 16th century that who stopped the advance of the Ottoman Empire from his castle in Krujë. Thus, Skanderbeg is considered the founding father of Albania.
He is represented on a horse and his monument practically dominates the square. Ironically, it stands at the very spot where a statue of Josef Stalin once stood.
Around the square there are several tourist attractions, making it one of the best places to visit even on an one day stay in Tirana. It’s surrounded by the National Historical Museum, the Palace of Culture, the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the Clock Tower and the National Library. This is also the place where most events in Tirana take place and locals hang out every evening for xhiro time.
6. Climb up Tirana’s Historic Clock Tower
Behind Et’hem Bey Mosque stands the historic Clock Tower of Tirana. You can enter for a small fee. It offers eye-bird’s views over Skanderbeg Square and the city center. From the top you can even see the mountain range that surrounds Tirana.
7. Find out more about Albania before and after communism at the National Historical Museum
Albania is a fairly new country, a little over 100 years old. There are several museums in Tirana focused on this short period of time. But what was before it? How were the Albanian spirit and identity born? The National Historical Museum gives you an overview of the history of Albania during ancient Illyria, the Renaissance, Independence, Communist Terror and post-communism. After visiting it, you’ll get a better grasp of Tirana and Albania in general.
The museum is located right in Skanderbeg Square. You’ll easily recognize it by the colorful soviet-propaganda-style mural it’s decorated with. Entry fee is 200 LEK per person.
8. Visit Et’hem Bay Mosque
Albania has a Muslim background because of the prolonged Ottoman occupation. But it developed respect and tolerance towards other cultures and religions.
The tiny Et’hem Bay Mosque is not only a beautiful building, but also a religious and historical symbol. It was built in the 19th century, but closed down during the communism. Despite this, in 1991, more than 10000 gathered and entered the mosque marking the beginning of the fall of the communist regime in Albania.
Anybody can visit the mosque, even women without a scarf. You only have to take off your shoes and be respectful of the people that pray inside.
9. Gaze at the architecture of Resurrection Of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
Albania has a Muslim country. But they are quite tolerant of other beliefs. This might be because of their king that marries a Hungarian countess in order to show that different cultures and religions can live together and that Albania is open to the west. This was before WWI. In 2012, the Orthodox Cathedra, was opened in order to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church. It has an unique design and is the the third largest Orthodox Cathedral in the Balkans. So it’s worth a look.
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10. Check out the Catholic Cathedral and the statue of Mother Teresa Square
Mother Teresa was ethnic Albanian, even if she was born in Skopje. She is the only Albanian ever to have won a Nobel prize. The pope canonized Mother Teresa and the event is celebrated yearly on the 5th of September.
Albanians are very proud of having the same blood as her. They named the second largest square in Tirana after her and the airport. In front of the St. Paul Catholic Cathedral stands her statue, as an honor to the most respected Catholic nun in the world. The architecture of the Catholic Cathedral is very modern, just the the one of the Orthodox Cathedral a fer blocks away. Inside you’ll dins a mosaic and staned glass window representing the same Mother Teresa.
11. Visit one of the largest mosques in Albania
During the Ottoman rule most of the churches were demolished. Thus, both the Orthodox and Catholic Cathedral are very new. The communists subsequently demolished a lot of churches. It’s even a little weird that Et’hem Bej Mosque survived right in the middle of Tirana. But nowadays Tirana is proud of its multiculturality and tolerance for all religions. In a rather small area, you’ll the two cathedrals, the old Et’hem Bej Mosque and Baitul Avval Mosque, the largest mosque in Tirana and one of the largest in the country.
12. Check Out The Pyramid Of Tirana
The Pyramid of Tirana was initially build at the order of Enver Hoxha. It was supposed to become a museum of the legacy left behind the the communist leader. After the fall of communism, the place was abandoned and fell into oblivion. For some time homeless people lived inside.
But as the structure itself is beautiful and Albania is trying to recognize and make peace with its communist past, it was decided that the pyramid shaped building would get a new life. It will be convertd in an office building with a lot of green space around. It is still under renovation, but you can catch a glimpse of it over the fences.
13. Eat Your Way Through Tirana’s New Bazaar
The New Bazaar is another must-see place in the center of Tirana. This is a renovated market in the so called castle of Tirana, on the place where the old bazaar once stood. On the narrow streets you can find fresh fruit and vegetables, souvenirs, wine and raki. If you’re hungry, there are several restaurants you can try. One of the best is Sofra Beratese restaurant that offers a traditional mix dish.
Other places to check out for both shopping and restaurants are the nearby Toptani street and the trendiest quarter in Tirana, Blloku.
14. Relax in Tirana’s Grand Park (Parku I Madh)
Tirana is a crowded city all the hustle and bustle might make you desire for a moment of peace in the middle of nature. Mount Dajti is a great spot for this, but a little far. The Grand Park of Tirana is closer and is also a green and relaxing oasis. Go for a walk along the human-made lake and chill out at one of the pretty cafes. Dotted around the park are several memorials dedicated to Albanian writers and politicians.
15. Drink a beer in a rotating bar in Tirana
The Sky Tower in Tirana is the perfect place for watching the sunset. You can have dinner while enjoying a 360° panorama over the skyline of Tirana. In any other European capital this would cost a small fortune. But Albania is pretty cheap.
If you don’t have much time to explore Albania or just want to see a little bit of it before deciding if you want to discover more of the Balkan country, you probably should spend a few days in Tirana. This time I can’t promise you’ll love it. Tirana is different. It’s a mix of cultures and religions, can be both gray and colorful, old-fashioned and modern. As the capital of Albania, it’s the best place the country’s turbulent history and uniqueness. And here you have a list of the best things to do in Tirana that will help you decide if you want to discover more of Albania or not.
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