Updated on September 20th, 2023
As the capital of Albania, Tirana is so much more than just another European city. It has a lot of stories to tell after 50 years being shut away from the rest of the world. Understanding Tirana’s dark past is important, but enjoying the vibrancy that this friendly & welcoming city has become, is a lesson in optimism. You can discover all of this & more with my top tips on what to do in Tirana.”
I knew very little about Albania when I visited back in 2019. I had read an article about the Albanian Riviera & felt it would be an interesting alternative to a beach holiday in Greece. Then, through a bit of research with my friend, we constructed a 2-week itinerary to discover more of the Balkans. This included Bulgaria, Macedonia & Albania. Overall, we spent a whistle-stop of 9 days in Albania. We soaked up the sun on the beaches & explored the historic towns of Berat & Gjirokastra before our final 2 days in Tirana.
My knowledge of the country was pretty much based on the kidnappers in the film “Taken”, so it’s fair to say that I started with low expectations! I’m pleased to report that all myths about the people were dispelled the minute I set foot on a bus.
Here, I saw respect for each other, trust among strangers & a real sense of community. In addition, I always felt very safe & everyone was incredibly friendly & helpful.”
Even as a history teacher, my friend had limited knowledge of the country itself, apart from an ominous notion of the turmoil from Albania’s past. The longer we spent there the more we found Albania an intriguing destination. Arriving in Tirana we were determined to learn more. So, if you are considering doing the same, then here are my top 20 picks of what to do in Tirana.
Learn about Albania
Albania has a very dark past which only ended in the early 1990s. Following World War II, the country became a communist state, after Enver Hoxha gained control. He governed with a cruel regime for 45 years & cut Albania off from initial allies who he considered were not communist enough (including the USSR & China). A patrolled fence was constructed around the country & nobody was allowed in or out. All residents were considered potential enemies of the state & everyone was encouraged to spy on their neighbours. Those who escaped left their families behind to be tortured or killed in an attempt to learn more.
The regime was paranoid that an attack was imminent. The Albanian government began a massive bunkerisation project. In the 1970’s, they built 175,000 bunkers across the country. That’s one bunker for every 11 members of the population.”
No attacks ever happened & the majority of the bunkers pepper the landscape today. They are almost impossible to destroy, so some have been repurposed in many creative ways.
When the regime fell in 1991, the fences came down & the country tentatively re-joined the world. They only introduced private cars as recently as 1995. Speed limits & signs are regarded as suggestions rather than rules. Things we take for granted elsewhere were coveted as exotic (e.g. a bottle of Coke or a banana had never been seen before).
If you are visiting Albania, it is important to understand its history. It is tragic & harrowing but demands respect for how far the country has evolved. There are plenty of places below which give you the opportunity to do just that. Therefore, please add at least Bunk Art (1 or 2), House of Leaves or a walking tour to your itinerary to learn more.
Take a Walking Tour
As with many cities across the world, one of the best things to do in Tirana is to take a walking tour. It not only takes you to many of the places listed below but allows you to learn more about the Albanian people & their history. Our guide was brilliant with a wicked sense of humour & some fascinating stories. The tours generally last for 2-3 hours. See below for a few options:
This should be number 1 on your list of what to do in Tirana. Bunk Art 1 is located on the outskirts of Tirana, & marks the ultimate “jewel in the crown” of Albania’s bunkerisation project. It was originally built to house the political elite of the country in the ’70s & remained hidden until very recently. Now the vast bunker has been converted into a museum of modern history, & space for contemporary art. This immense underground palace spreads out over 5 floors, 100 rooms & even includes a 200-seater meeting area. You can explore the quarters designed for dictator Enver Hoxha to live & run the country in the event of a nuclear attack.
The attack never came & the bunker was never used but it is a fascinating monument to gain an understanding of a country shut away from the world for 45 years.”
Bunk Art 2
In a similar vein to its larger sister museum, Bunk Art 2 is located in the centre of Tirana, not far from Skanderbeg Square. If a nuclear attack had occurred, this is would have been the location of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Now it is also a museum & art installation where you can learn more about the regime.
The House of Leaves (Museum of Secret Surveillance) is another must-see for anyone interested to learn more about Albania’s tumultuous past. The villa itself innocently sits in the centre of Tirana but hides in its walls many horrific secrets. After the establishment of the Communist regime, it became the home of the infamous Sigurimi (Albanian secret service). This house was a location of torture & death for thousands of people before becoming the centre of communications monitoring (spying). The exhibition here is harrowing & tragic but highly recommended.
This is a memorial to commemorate Albania’s political prisoners who suffered under the communist regime. The monument itself consists of 3 parts. One is an example of the dome bunkers which you can see across the country. The second piece was donated from Potsdamer Platz & is part of the old Berlin Wall. Finally, are the concrete structures that held up the copper mine at the notorious Spaç labour camp.
It is a sobering memorial to those who lost their lives under the regime.”
Once you have developed an understanding of the city’s history, there is lots more to see in Tirana
Impressive Skanderbeg Square is the perfect place to start when considering what to do in Tirana. Skanderbeg became a national hero after he stopped the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Central Europe. The square is home to the National History Museum, Clock Tower, Et’hem Bey Mosque, & the smallest but potentially most important monument in the city, the statue of Skanderbeg himself. Skanderbeg Square is the epicentre of celebrations in the capital & comes alive at night as a key meeting place for locals & visitors alike.
The museum is characterised by a huge mosaic depicting the history of the Albanian people & holds over 4500 objects in its collections. It is THE place to learn all about the country’s ancient history. You can get context on Albania’s complicated past if you explore each pavilion. You will learn about the Illyrian descendants who occupied the country before the Romans & Greeks invaded, through to the post-communist era.
Built in 1822 to resemble the tower in St Mark’s Square, Venice, this originally housed a bell from the Italian city which rang out every hour. Nowadays you can climb the 90 steps to get views across Skanderbeg Square & beyond.
Et’hem Bey Mosque
Back in the 18th & 19th Centuries, 8 mosques were built in Tirana, but this is the only one that still remains. In 1967 the authorities banned all religions across the country, making Albania the first atheist nation. As a historic landmark, the building itself was retained but closed. It remains one of the oldest buildings in the city & unique among mosques to depict plants & waterfalls on the prayer room murals.
In 1991 it became the location of a turning point for freedom as 10,000 people gathered here unchallenged to worship for the first time.”
Potentially Tirana’s, best known & most controversial landmark is the Pyramid. It was originally opened in 1988 as a museum celebrating the “achievements” of former leader Enver Hoxha (by his daughter). As he fell from power & the shift in attitudes changed, it was repurposed many times before being left to deteriorate, looted & covered in graffiti. A restoration project has now started once more & until completion, it is fenced off for access. It remains controversial as many in the city want it destroyed, while others believe it should be preserved for its historic context.
This is a beautiful gold painted Byzantine-style church which was only opened in 2012. It was built as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church. It is the 3rd largest of its kind in the Balkans. Step inside for some impressive murals & décor which rivals its external grandeur.
Tanners Bridge is an 18th-century Ottoman stone bridge that once connected Tirana to the eastern highlands of Albania, bringing livestock & produce into the city. You can still walk over the bridge at the end of Rr Presidenti George W Bush. However, the Lanë River has since been redirected & no longer flows beneath its arches.
Tirana also has some green spaces to explore…
Dajti Express Cable Car & National Park
For a break from all the history, then head up to Mount Dajti National Park, 25 kilometres east of Tirana. You can choose to ride the Dajti Express cable car which takes 15 minutes to travel 1 kilometre to the top. Once there, wander among the forests, take in the vista overlooking Tirana or stay for a meal in one of the restaurants. It’s a great place to watch the sunset over the city. You could also opt to join a hiking tour of the mountain.
For anyone who loves exploring green space in the city, head to Grand Park where you can enjoy 230 hectares & an artificial lake. The park is home to the Botanical Gardens, Tirana Zoo & the Presidential Palace. The brilliantly named King Zog I built the palace for himself but unfortunately, he completed it just before communism took control of the country. It is a great spot for locals & tourists alike & also houses numerous monuments, tombs & an open-air theatre.
Rruga Murat Toptani
Not far from Skanderbeg Square, between the Parliament Building & National Art Gallery is this pleasant pedestrianised street. It is a great place to observe local life. The plane trees create a cooling shade to sit & watch the world go by out of the heat in the summer.
Colourful buildings surround the street which are a feature across Tirana. After the fall of the communist dictatorship, the buildings in the city were grey & foreboding.
The mayor in the early 90s was an artist. He decided to give the dull buildings a much brighter makeover. There are some great examples here, but you will observe many more as you explore the city.”
And then there is the food…
Touted as one of the best restaurants in Albania, don’t miss a meal at Mullixhiu. This restaurant offers a modern take on traditional Albanian cuisine, slow cooking & a fine dining experience. The food & ambience of the restaurant makes this a very special meal. You can choose the 6 or 8-course menus but book ahead to avoid disappointment.
If you are looking for truly authentic food without the frills, then head to Oda. This is also a popular spot. You may need to wait for a table (which can be quite chaotic) or visit outside peak times.
To sample some of the local tipple, there is a great selection of over 50 flavours of local raki at the Komiteti-Kafe Muzeum. Most popular are grape, plum & quince.
Pazari I Ri Market (New Bazaar)
The central market is a place to get your shopping fix & explore the local fruit & vegetables, souvenirs & sample some raki. It has recently undergone a large renovation but although modern looking, is still home to around 130 traditional food stalls. It is a great place to eat, whatever time of day you feel your hunger pangs coming on.
For your choice of restaurants & nightlife, then head to the famous & trendy Blloku district of the city. Also known as the Block, it was once a closed-off area reserved for high-ranking communist officials & the home of former leader Enver Hoxha. Nowadays, we can all enjoy the cool bars, shops & wander its leafy streets.
Get out of the City
The last activity on my rundown of what to do in Tirana is to actually get out of the city. I would thoroughly recommend a day trip to Berat, but what about the historic towns of Kruja, Durres or Shkoder? Check out these links for some ideas.
Where to stay in Tirana
I stayed at the excellent & centrally located La Boheme Hotel. Close to Skanderbeg Square is Capital Tirana Hotel or try Brilant Antik Hotel for a more boutique offering. If you would are on a budget, then check out Tirana Backpackers Hostel, one of the first hostels in the country & still the best value.
Alternatively use the search box below to find your perfect bed for the night.
Most of these sights are within easy walking distance to explore. Start at Skanderbeg Square & then choose where to prioritise from there. The buses are also a great option & cost only 40 LEK per journey. For Bunk Art 1 & the Dajti Express Cable Car, the bus stop is near the Clock Tower & takes 30 minutes (both are in the same direction). Just ask the driver & he will ensure you end up in the correct place. Taxis are also readily available across the city.
Albania is a country that has been through huge turmoil. It is important to understand its dark history & Tirana is the perfect place to start. But today, Albania is so much more than its past. I hope by showing you my rundown of what to do in Tirana you will find a vibrant & fun city to explore with incredible friendly people & an overriding optimism for what the future holds.
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