To assume that Albania is only about its beaches and mountains, and that Tirana is not worth it is a mistake. The capital of Albania is well worth a couple of days to visit its museums, its vibrant nightlife, and curious places such as the Pyramid or the old bunkers converted into cultural spaces.
Often associated with adjectives such as chaotic or anarchic , it must be understood that for decades, Tirana was the most isolated capital on the planet. Tourism was science fiction and the simple fact that less than 20% of the streets did not even have a name, serves as an example of why Tirana is peculiar. The collapse of the regime in 1991 was a bubble burst, or a release from a chain. For the past 30 years Albania has lived on a continuous merry-go-round and urban growth has not always been orderly. Proof that times are changing is that the European Union has funded a modern addressing and signage system to bring some order to Tirana. A group of experts from the Municipality, the Academy of Sciences and the Albanian Language Institute chose the names of national and international figures to give names to streets that did not have them.
HISTORY OF TIRANA
Wrapped between hills, Tirana (Albanian: Tiranë ), the capital of Albania begins its history with Palaeolithic settlements in the Pellumbas Cave on the outskirts of the city and on the slopes of Mount Dajt.
Albania’s most populous city today did not gain the importance it has today until the 20th century. The Illyrians called the settlement Tërana , and from Roman times there are some traces such as the so-called “ Tirana Mosaic” which was probably the pavement of a villa.
Regarding the origin of the place name (first found in 1418 in Venetian documents), one version is based on the fact that the name derives from the word Theranda used in Greek and Latin to refer to the area known in Albanian as ” te ranat (‘what has fallen’,) . It would indicate the soil and substratum washed away by the water coming down the Dajti Mountain. Another theory focuses on the word Tirkan , the name used by the 6th century Byzantine historian Prokop to refer to a castle, first built in the 1st century BC, on Dajti Mountain, the ruins of which are still there. Finally, others claim that it comes from tyros, the ancient Greek word for “dairy”, on the assumption that it was in the fields that local shepherds gathered to trade in dairy products.
Tirana’s take-off began when the Ottoman ruler Süleiman Pasha Mulleti (sometimes also referred to as Sulejman Pashe Bargjini) founded the city in 1614, promoting the construction of a mosque, the bazaar and a hammam (Turkish baths). Taking advantage of the fact that the city was traversed by caravan routes, rapid commercial growth took place. Artisans specialised in silk-cotton cloth making, leather working, pottery, iron forging, and silver and gold work. The production of oil and tobacco was also another driving force of the local economy.
Old postcard of Tirana
In the 19th century, a new mosque, Et’hem Bey, was built with the participation of the best architects and decorators in the region. Although it was begun by Molla Bey of Petrela, it was his son who completed it in 1821. Throughout the century, under the rule of the Toptani family of Kruja, Tirana saw its development decline, although culturally, in 1889, schools teaching the Albanian language were opened.Coinciding with the rise of nationalism, the patriotic club “Bashkimi” was founded in 1908 and in 1912 Albania proclaimed itself an independent nation. Temporarily occupied during the Balkan Wars by Serbian forces, in 1914-15 it joined the village uprising led by Haxhi Qamili. As a result, after the Congress of Lushnjë in 1920, Tirana became the new capital of Albania, moving the government buildings and the country’s political and economic centre of gravity. One of the reasons for choosing Tirana as the future capital is that it is geographically located on the dividing line between the ethnic groups of the Ghegs in the north and the Tosks in the south.
Tirana before 1914
Interestingly, Tirana owes a great deal, urbanistically speaking, to the collaboration of the Zog monarch (who ruled Albania from 1922 to 1920) with Mussolini’s fascist government. During those years, two of the key architects in the Italian dictator’s projects, Florestano de Fausto and Armando Brasini, undertook a number of works and renovations in the Albanian capital.
The plan was revised by the Albanian architect Eshref Frashëri, the Italian architect Castellani and the Austrian architects Weiss and Kohler. As a result, the Royal Palace (Brigade Palace), the Town Hall, the government ministry buildings and the National Bank were completed. The boulevard Dëshmoret e Kombit (National Martyrs), which runs along the Lana River, was inaugurated in 1930 under the name of “Boulevard Zogu I.” Already occupied by the Italians in 1929, the commission to continue the urbanisation was given to Gherardo Bosio who continued the previous plans and presented a new project for the area of the current Mother Theresa Square.
Tirana was liberated from the Nazis on 17 November 1944. Some of its buildings had suffered from the bombing, such as the razed Sulejman Pasha Mosque of 1614. After the defeat of the Axis, the partisan Enver Hoxha led Albania towards a model of government that was increasingly personalistic and closed to the outside world.
From the communist period Tirana promoted the functional standards of the concrete-based model, demolishing all religious traces, including the Orthodox cathedral and numerous mosques. The first years after the fall of the dictatorship and the fiasco of the first democratic adventure that ended with the economic collapse of 1997 were no more prosperous. Many buildings were constructed without respect for aesthetics and in violation of the law, which spoiled the city. Tirana grew enormously at that time, as the ban on moving houses fell.
The arrival of the new millennium opened the hope of reconverting Tirana, and since then it has been transformed by relieving areas of traffic, reclaiming public spaces and turning them into parks, and transforming the banks of the Lana River or Rinia Park. Another project that has brought colour to the city is the painting of the facades of many buildings with bright colours.
WHAT TO SEE IN TIRANA
Skanderbeg Square can be considered the “historical centre” of Tirana, around which a large number of important buildings and sites of the Albanian capital are located. Its 40,000-metre surface area, after pedestrianisation and landscaping, makes it an ideal place for a leisurely stroll through the city.
Skanderbeg Square in Tirana
A painted city
The best way to beautify a city is with colours. That is why the socialist leader Edi Rama , Mayor of Tirana between 2000 and 2011, and Prime Minister, undertook a project to paint the city’s grey facades.A figure of humanist principles, former player of the national basketball team, son of a sculptor, tireless fighter for democracy since his time as a student confronting the dictatorship, painter and professor at the Academy of Arts, his image washing, together with the pedestrianisation of Skanderbeg Square and the promotion of new tree-lined parks, was undoubtedly a milestone in the improvement of Tirana.
Around the large Skanderbeg Square orbit museums such as the National History Museum, the Palace of Culture (which houses the Opera House and the National Library), the Eh’tm Bey Mosque, monuments such as that of the hero after whom the esplanade is named, the National Bank, the Town Hall together with Albanian government ministerial buildings, the Tirana International luxury hotel, and the Clock Tower.
What the traveller sees today is the result of the great remodelling that the square underwent in the 1960s. Communism, and the declaration of Albania as an atheist state, meant the destruction of the Cathedral of the Autonomous Orthodox Church, the largest in the city, which was replaced by the International Hotel. The same happened to the opera house, which was built on the site of the Old Bazaar (Pazari i Vjetër). The National History Museum was built in what was once the town hall, and even the Albanian Parliament of King Zog’s time was replaced by the Dolls’ Theatre (Teatri i Kukullave).
The square is dominated by the large 11-metre high equestrian statue of Skanderberg, a national hero for the Albanians, which replaced the statues of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha and Stalin after the regime collapsed in 1991. Next to the statue a flagpole with the Albanian flag is the beacon that illuminates this large area gained for the citizens.
Eh’tm Bey Mosque
The Eh’tm Bey Mosque is one of the oldest religious temples in Tirana. Built between 1789 and 1821, after the Second World War it became the most important, breaking the “duel” with the Sulejman Pasha Mosque which had suffered the rigours of the war.
In both Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia, we can find mosques whose ornamentation transcends traditional geometric motifs. Frescoes with flowers and elements of nature decorate the interior and exterior of the Eh’tm Bey Mosque.
One of the few mosques in Tirana – eight out of 28 in 1967 – most of which were demolished during the years when atheism was proclaimed in Albania. It remained closed for many years until the fall of the dictatorship in 1991, when a mass of Muslims forced their way in to break the religious ban.
Next to the mosque is the Clock Tower ( Kulla e Sahatit) , which is 35 metres high. It is an old Ottoman tower built by Haxhi Et’hem Bej in 1821-1822 to which a German clock was added in 1928. Damaged during World War II, it was repaired in 1946.
The Pyramid of Tirana
One of the megalomaniac monuments, inherited from the dictatorship is the Pyramid . It was built in 1988 after Hoxha’s death three years earlier, and under the supervision of his own daughter Prandera Hoxha, an architect who left numerous works of questionable aesthetic taste all over Albania. In fact, the futuristic style of the 1980s was adopted in numerous buildings in countries of the Soviet orbit. In Bratislava (Slovakia) another example is the “UFO” (Most SNP, Most Slovenského národného povstania), a bridge whose construction meant the demolition of an important part of the former Jewish quarter of the Slovak capital.
The building was intended to be a mausoleum-museum in homage to his father, intended to extend the delirium of the autarchy that made Albania the poorest country in Europe. In 1991 the Pyramid, which changed its use, came to be used as a conference and exhibition centre, a NATO base – during the Kosovo War – a discotheque called The Mummy, and even the home of a television channel. Over the years, the neglect of the administration, unable to cope with the refurbishment of a building born for a purpose that Albania wants to forget, has caused the Pyramid to fall into a state of major neglect. Despite the danger it poses, it is still visited and even “climbed” by many curious onlookers and tourists who take advantage of the opportunity to take photographs. A skin of graffiti colours the Pyramid, and although proposals have been put forward to demolish it or put it to another use, its future is still pending.
The curious Komiteti-Kafe Muzeum mixes objects like an antique shop, a trendy bar and a small museum. It exhibits typical Albanian artefacts; Albanians, traditional agricultural equipment and washbasins, hanging on the walls and ceiling. It’s a good place to try Albania’s national alcohol, known as raki, served in the Komiteti-Kafe Muzeum in a variety of flavours, from sage to cranberry.
Albanian National History Museum
A must-see for an in-depth knowledge of Albania’s past, the National History Museum is a landmark of Tirana. Not only are its exhibits interesting, but the mosaic outside is one of the typical photographs of the capital. It is a gigantic social mosaic showing the strength and health of Albanian workers throughout history. Such mosaics and panels were common during the decades of the communist regime, idealising Albanian nationalism. It contrasts in colour with the rest of the building, whose rationalist style is much more restrained.
Museum of National History of Albania
Looking at the mosaic, known as “the Albanians”, from the centre of Skanderbeg Square as people pass by is a delight. Inside the National Museum of History, you can see objects found at Albanian sites such as Apollonia, Butrint and many others. The objects range from Neolithic ceramics to sculptures from the Greek and Roman past, medieval pieces from the time of Skanderbeg – such as the replica of his sword – and from the centuries within the Ottoman Empire. The 20th century chronology focuses on the Declaration of Independence, the creation of the national flag, the Albanian renaissance, the anti-fascist struggle and even the figure of Mother Teresa. The period of communist dictatorship is covered in the rooms called Communist Terror, which deal with the deprivation of liberty from 1945 to 1990. The museum was opened in 1981 and is the largest in Albania.
The National Museum of History is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and is closed on Mondays.
National Gallery of Art
South of Skanderbeg Square is the National Art Gallery, which showcases the works of Albanian artists over the centuries. Outside, somewhat hidden from view are the statues of Lenin, Stalin and Hoxha, “saved” from being destroyed after the advent of democracy, but worth preserving so as not to be forgotten. A few steps away are also the remains of the castle, Kalaja e Tiranës.
Murat Toptani pedestrian street
Not far from Skanderbeg Square, Murat Toptani pedestrian street is one of the most lively and pleasant streets to stroll along.The name is a tribute to one of the signatories of the Albanian Declaration of Independence in 1912. Nearby are the mosque and tomb of Kapllan Hysa, and the monument to the unknown soldier (“Ushtari i Panjohur”).
Markata E Peshkut Market
The modern aesthetics of the Markata E Peshkut market may not seem significant, but the atmosphere here is interesting for pulsing the daily rhythm of Tirana’s citizens.
Deshmoret e Kombit Boulevard
The Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation, designed by the architect Gherardo Bosio, who was close to Mussolini and designed the Presidential Palace and the Prime Minister’s residence, is the most important street in Tirana. Once called Viale del Impero, it connects Skanderbeg Square and Mother Teresa, running north-south. Continuing along it we find on the route the Pyramid and the access to the Blloku neighbourhood.
The Great Mosque – Namazgjah
The Great Mosque of Namazgjah is a newly built temple that looks like something out of Turkey. The four fifty-metre high minarets soaring into the Tirana sky are impressive.
This is one of the Ottoman bridges across the Lana River, connecting both sides of Tirana.
South of the Lana River, and not far from the Pyramid, is the Blloku quarter. At one end, a piece of the Berlin Wall, brought from the German capital, reminds us of Tirana’s communist past.
Converted into a fashionable and trendy area, this was once the residence of Prime Minister Enver Hoxha. In addition to the dictator, many of his close associates in the government and the Party of Labour of Albania lived in this neighbourhood exclusively for themselves. Today, the capitalism he so demonised is advancing unstoppably, and fashionable restaurants such as the Sky Bar in the Sky Tower have converted Blloku.
Bunkers – Bunk’Art 1 and Bunk’Art 2
We have probably heard of Enver Hoxha’s obsession with a nuclear attack or an invasion of the USSR. Several bunkers in Tirana have been repurposed as cultural and exhibition centres. Built in the utmost secrecy, democracy managed to rescue them from memory. The first to make use of the concrete Cold War giants was Bunk’Art 1 , on the outskirts of Tirana, near the funicular railway that ascends to the Datji Mountains. Its almost 3,000 square metres of underground space on several levels was intended to house Albania’s political elite in the 1970s in case of attack. One of the fixed exhibitions is the one on the history of Albania from the Italian invasion of 1939 to the fall of communism.
Exhibitions at Bunk’Art 2 in Tirana
After the opening of Bunk’Art 1 there was a second opening, the Bunk’Art 2 , in Skanderbeg Square. Although much smaller, this bunker in the centre of Tirana is also interesting as it deals with the history of the political police and its victims under the Stalinist regime. Next to the bunker is a piece of the Berlin Wall, which was brought to Tirana to commemorate its fall.
Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ
The Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ was inaugurated in 2012, the third cathedral with the same floor plan in the Balkans. The 46-metre high bell tower and the immense dome can be seen in full view from the nearby Rina Park.
Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ,
The Bektashi sect of Islam has its headquarters in Tirana and its mosque is an interesting point if you are interested in the different religious spaces in Tirana and the current tolerance towards all of them.
Lake in the Grand Park
The Grand Park ( Parku i Madh Kodrat e Liqenit ) in Tirana, south of the city, allows you to escape the traffic and stroll along the extensive man-made lake, surrounded by picturesque hills. Walk along the trails around the lake or take a boat ride, visit the city zoo and the Albanian Presidential Palace.
High above Tirana the Datji Mountains rise. It is very common to visit them with the Datji Ekxpres cable car. Besides the flying experience, we can enjoy this green lung with hiking or mountain biking routes
ACCOMMODATION – HOTELS IN TIRANA
There are good budget hotels in the city centre, for example around Skanderbeg Square. Some good recommendations are the Hotel Marion, the Metro Hotel, Elite Palace, Theranda Hotel, Hotel Colosseo Tirana, or the Dajti Tower Belvedere Hotel.
TOURS AND GUIDED TOURS IN TIRANA
A good way to get to know Tirana is with the guided tours . Often the information is only in Albanian and a guide in English will be able to give you many explanations that only locals know
There are currently no direct flights between Spain and Albania, so the options to get there by plane are to make a stopover, usually in Italy or Germany. Another option is to fly to Podgorica in Montenegro and then take a private transfer or bus to Tirana.
Twenty kilometres from the city centre is the Tirana Mother Teresa International Airport , accessible by Rinas Express buses, which stop near Skanderbeg Square. It is also possible to take a taxi from the airport.
How to get to Tirana from Montenegro
From Kotor, Budva, Podgorica and Ulcinj, all towns in Montenegro, there are buses, although sometimes the journey is tedious or requires changing to another bus. It is possible to hire transfer services at affordable prices.
How to get there by train
The train network does not function particularly well and in fact there is no possibility of arriving by rail from other countries. But there are services from Durrës and Pogradec, via Elbasan. The train station is north of Skanderbeg Square, on Zogu Boulevard I.
Obviously it is not possible to get to Tirana by boat, but it is possible to get to the port of Durrës, which is an hour and a half from the capital.
GETTING AROUND TIRANA
Distances are not great in Tirana, and unless you want to go to the cable car, the best option is to walk. Buses and taxis are the best options if we opt for transport.
TIRANA TOURISM OFFICE
The tourist office is in a building opposite the National Museum of Albania, on Rruga Ded Gjo Luli Street. There are also small kiosks in the style of information points in some of Tirana’s main squares.
WHERE TO EAT IN TIRANA
Restaurant options include the traditional Era Vila, the elegant Millennium Gourmet or Mullixhiu in the Grand Park. The Sky Tower restaurant is a notable spot for its views.
Some recommended dishes are the qofte korçe (meatballs in sauce), and while you’re at it, try a Byrek, sometimes known as burek or borek, with a cup of coffee, a very Albanian tradition.
For a drink in the evening, there are many trendy pubs in the Blloku neighbourhood, such as Bunker 1944.
CLIMATE AND WEATHER
Tirana has a mix of rainy Mediterranean and continental climate. In winter temperatures can be cold with an average of 7 °C in January and generally rainy and in summer temperatures are around 24 °C.
EVENTS IN TIRANA
Throughout the year there are many cultural events, but the Tirana International Film Festival is the most important film event in Albania. Other interesting events include the Summer Festival in March, the Tirana Jazz Festival, the Guitar Sounds Festival, the Albanian Wine Festival and the Telekom Electronic Beats Festival in Tirana.
EXCURSIONS FROM TIRANA
Just outside Tirana is the aforementioned Dajti Mountains National Park , accessible by the Dajti Ekspres cable car. Reached in thirty minutes by bus from the city centre, the journey will take your breath away with its extraordinary views and dizzying heights. Seeing the city from the mountain is worth it and from the top of the mountain you can take a walk in the middle of nature, go mountain biking, paragliding, rock climbing, or visit the Adventure Park, which has zip lines.
To the south is the Petrela Castle , dating from the 4th century, but renovated in the 13th century by Topiaj, and later important in Skanderbeg’s time.
CAR RENTAL IN TYRANA
Both the city centre and Mother Teresa Airport are two of the most common places to rent a car to start your journey in Albania. There are offices of all major car rental companies, including some local ones.