Far from the splendour of the most popular European capitals, Tirana's beauty lies in the strength of its inhabitants, intent on leaving behind a troubled and painful past
Tirana is a city to be discovered slowly, because only in this way will it be possible to bring its true essence to the surface. Far from the splendor of the most popular European capitals, Tirana's beauty lies in the strength of its inhabitants, intent on leaving behind a troubled and painful past.
And in fact, more than the most important historical buildings and monuments, what strikes visitors is the industriousness of the inhabitants of the city who, reinventing its spaces, creating places where people can meet, cafés and clubs, seek and build a new future in a city where the contrasts, as well as poverty, are obvious.
That's why this tour of Tirana while starting from the city center and its landmarks, lingers longer on the atmosphere that this capital is able to provide for those who decide to visit it. So let's go and find out what to see in Tirana, Albania's largest city.
What to see in Tirana, a city of many influences
Walking through the streets of Tirana means being amazed first of all by the mixture of styles that are evident in its urban fabric. Because while the Ottoman influences are still visible in the ancient Et'Hem Bey Mosque, an Italian influence and, not least, a Soviet one, typical of the communist period are equally visible. But let's start this tour of the city from the most important square in Tirana, and symbol of the whole Albania: Skanderbeg Square.
Places of interest in Tirana: Skanderbeg Square and its attractions
Located right in the center of the city, Skanderbeg Square is huge. And, not surprisingly, during the communist regime, it was used as the stage for the typical military march-pasts and parades. Named after the Albanian national hero who repelled Ottoman rule, the square covers an area of 40,000 square meters and is overlooked by the most important attractions of the city.
If you have already visited Tirana in the past, coming back to the city you may find this square totally different from how you remember it: for many years, in fact, it has undergone continuous renovation and redevelopment projects. From the busy thoroughfare that it was, the greater part of the square has now been made pedestrian and has been embellished by fountains and even streams. Walk from one point to another to discover its true essence: from children playing football to the elderly observing the comings and goings of people, this is a place that is definitely used and particularly loved by the citizens of Tirana.
Starting this tour of Tirana from Skanderbeg Square has a great advantage because the most important buildings of the city overlook it.
Sights in Tirana: visit the Et'Hem Bey Mosque and the clock tower
The Et'Hem Bey Mosque is one of the most important religious buildings in Tirana. Together with the Clock Tower, it is the symbol of past Turkish rule over the city. You can visit it free of charge and without restriction except when prayers are taking place. The frescoes that decorate the external portico of the building are particularly striking. Unlike other mosques, in fact, here you can see reproductions of trees, waterfalls, and bridges, or subjects that are very rare to find on an Islamic building. The reason is easy to understand: the entire mosque was frescoed and decorated by Venetian and non-Muslim artists.
In addition to its artistic value, however, this building represented a fundamental stage in Albania's liberation from tyranny. It is here, in fact, that in 1991 more than 10,000 people gathered to pray despite the prohibition of the authorities.
The skyline of Skanderbeg Square, as well as the mosque of Et'Hem Bey, is dominated by the clock tower mentioned previously. From a height of 35 meters, after climbing the 90 steps of its spiral staircase, you will be able to admire the square (and Tirana) from above.
This enormous square is also overlooked by many other buildings, including the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Marionette Theatre and Ministry buildings. That's why our advice is, simply, to wander all around the square and discover everything it has to offer, totally independently.
Visiting the museums of Tirana
Tirana is a city that focusses very much on cultural attractions: proof of this are the many museums in the city. The largest of these, also overlooking Skanderbeg Square, is the Albanian National Historical Museum. Its façade is already impressive for visitors, featuring an enormous mosaic depicting the people of Albania. The majesty of the exterior continues in the interior where objects and artifacts dating from the 4th millennium BC onwards, illustrating the history of Albania, are displayed in an exhibition area of over 18,000 square meters.
Bunk'Art 2 is undoubtedly one of the most famous museums in Tirana. Located near the center of the city, it is a museum housed in a former nuclear bunker. As you can imagine, the theme of the museum is historical, and the exhibition covers the period from the Second World War to the fall of the communist regime. It's really a must-see on a trip to Tirana.
Along the lines of Bunk'Art 2, there is also Bunk'Art 1, also created in an old nuclear bunker. We mention this venue second, not because it is less important, but because it is in a slightly more out-of-the-way position than the previous one. Located in the north-eastern outskirts of Tirana, at Bunk'Art 1 the exhibition route unfolds underground on no less than 5 floors, staged in over 100 rooms.
Art lovers, however, should not miss the National Gallery of Fine Arts, opened in 1954. The space dedicated to Albanian artists is vast, so much so that, in addition to acting as an exhibition, this gallery is the only national institution that preserves, studies and archives works of art in Albania.
Another interesting museum in Tirana is the Museum of Secret Surveillance, also known as the Museum of Leaves, which opened only in 2017, with the intent of retracing the short period in which the country was occupied by the Germans.
A walk around Skanderbeg Square: everything there is to see
The old town center spreads out around Skanderbeg Square: walking through the streets of the city will give you an opportunity to discover its many treasures. One of these is the Tanners' Bridge, which is only a 10-minute walk from the square. It is an 18th century Ottoman bridge and is, therefore, one of the many symbols of the past Ottoman rule in the city. Cross it because from this bridge you will have a perfect view of the famous colorful houses of Tirana, standing one next to another along the river.
Places of interest in Tirana: Deshmoret Avenue and the Pyramid
There are lots of large, grandiose and majestic open spaces in Tirana: and, in addition to Skanderbeg Square already mentioned, Deshmoret Avenue is not disappointing either. Designed during the Italian occupation by Gherardo Bosio, the most important buildings of the city and the headquarters of banks, institutions, and universities follow one another, along this great avenue.
Now cross the River Lana to head for one of the most controversial buildings in the city: the Hoxha Pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of Tirana. Built-in 1988 as the mausoleum of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, it then became first a cultural center and then the headquarters of a television station. However, the controversy regarding this building (which is now very run down) is still very heated.
Visit to the Blloku district, the liveliest in Tirana
The Blloku district, very close to the Pyramid, is undoubtedly the symbol of Tirana's rebirth. Today, in fact, it is one of the most dynamic, young and modern places in the city. Yet it wasn't always like that: during the dictatorship, in fact, it was an off-limits neighborhood, reserved exclusively for dictator Enver Hoxha's entourage. After the fall of the regime, the neighborhood was reopened to the population, in a short time, becoming a center of nightlife and entertainment, and one of the coolest neighborhoods in Tirana.
Parks and gardens in Tirana: a walk in Rinia Park
If you're looking for a place to relax away from the chaos of the city, there's good news: you don't have to move from the city center. Rinia Park, in fact, enjoys a central location and, for this reason, is very popular with both residents and tourists, especially attracted by the greenery and the presence of sculptures and fountains.
If you're traveling with children, take a break and let them play on the playground equipment provided for them. And finally, remember to take a picture in front of the big letters of "I Love Tirana".
What to eat in Tirana: typical local dishes
Tirana is a city that, from a strictly gastronomic point of view, still enjoys past influences and dominations. Those who have already been there, in fact, find many similarities with Turkish and Greek cuisines.
So you should not be surprised if the traditional dishes are, essentially, single courses accompanied by a myriad of appetizers called Meze in the local language.
After the countless Meze, continue with Shish kebabs, tasty skewers of lamb and beef flavored with spices. Typical Albanian dishes also include Tave Dheu, a kind of stew of meat and vegetables with the addition of ricotta cheese: the sauce is abundant, so be ready to mop it up with bread!
There is also no shortage of what we would call "savory pies": byrek, in fact, is a flaky pastry pie with alternate layers of meat and vegetables. Really delicious! Another meat dish is the Tave Kosi in which lamb, baked with yogurt becomes a dish with contrasting flavors but with a lasting effect on your palate.
Let's not forget the sweets, which are very much influenced by the Arab world: try the Baklava and the Kadaif and you will not be disappointed at all.
To go to Albania and organize a stay in Tirana you must have a passport or identity card valid for expatriation: both documents must have be valid for at least three months after your date of return. If you do not stay in the country for more than 90 days, you will not need an entry visa (for EU citizens).
When is the best time to go to Tirana? Tirana is a warm city, but suffers from the proximity of the sea, located just 30 km from the city centre. If you want to visit the city it would be better to avoid the winter period, from November to May: the risk of rain, in fact, is quite high. June and September, therefore, are the perfect months: temperatures will not be too high and the risk of rain falls significantly.