Albania, Europe and Middle East, Newsletter, Tirana, Trip Reviews

Insider Guide to Tirana. Enjoy a fascinating tour around Albania’s vibrant capital.

08/03/2024 by .
Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

Long overlooked by tourists, the small Balkan country of Albania is opening up to visitors and has already been tipped as one of the places to discover in 2024.

Resilient Albania has had a chequered history. After centuries of Ottoman rule, it survived invasion by Italy and Germany during WWII and then years under dictatorship as a Stalinist state until 1992.

These days the country’s capital Tirana reflects all these influences and more.  But its days as a grey, stern city are over.  A few days walking round the compact city for my guide to Tirana reveal a surprising mixture of brutalist architecture, Italian villas and Ottoman style bridges alongside a striking modern skyline and a bright optimistic atmosphere. There are new pastel coloured buildings, multi coloured tower blocks, lively cafes and bars and nightlife sure to attract travellers looking for an unusual and affordable City break.

Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

I started my guide to Tirana tour in Skanderbeg Square, the heart of the city where you find a statue of the country’s national hero, a 15th century nobleman who resisted the Ottomans. Best visited early evening when the light bounces off the square with its fountains and musicians, Skanderbeg also houses The National History Museum, with its striking mural ‘The Albanians’  painted in 1980 and depicting scenes of Albanians fighting occupation and invasion throughout the centuries.

Some have described it as a perfect example of Socialist Realism.  Most of the main sights are within a walk of the square. Clockwise around the square we find the imposing National Theatre of Opera and Ballet and the Et’hen Bey Mosque. The clock tower can be climbed for views of the square which was only restored in 2000 by the city’s enigmatic mayor

Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

A short distance away is Tirana’s weird concrete pyramid, Piramada, built in 1987 by the daughter of Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha who ruled the country from 1944 to 1985. It is now derelict but remains a grim reminder of the country’s communist past.

The lovely Albania Orthodox Resurrection Cathedral is worth a visit. The church, built in 2012, replaced one that was closed in the 1960s. It is said to be the third largest Orthodox Church in Europe

The cathedral is opposite the unusual museum The House of Leaves, the look-alike equavailent of the Stasi HQ in East Germany.  Inside the National Intelligence Service HQ here you will learn a little of the often horrific detail behind Albania’s dictatorial regime.

Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

Having absorbed Albania’s grim past it felt like time for a refreshing coffee. Luckily the city of Tirana has plenty of coffee bars, some spilling onto the pavement and serving excellent coffee, ice cream and pastries. The lively cafes are found in most main streets but Blloku or The Block is where you find the highest concentration of restaurants, clubs and shops.

The area was once off limits to all but the Communist Party’s inner circle, but now represents the bright, fun-loving Albanian spirit and is a great place for people-watching.

Albania is predominantly a Muslim country, but alcohol is widely available and both local beers and wines are good – and very reasonably priced! The local drink is raki available in a range of fruity flavours. Local restaurants tend to be Greek taverna style and the food is fresh and plentiful.

Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

A stroll around the Italian influenced area of with its villas and has a much more European vibe and there are some fine Italian restaurants here.

Looking skywards I contemplate Tirana’s surprising skyline. Futuristic buildings have been built to modernise the view and bright red and yellow apartment blocks brighten what was one a colourless bleak cityscape.

After a short trip to the BunkArt 2 underground museum focusing on the history of the political police and their victims during the regime I was in need of fresh air and walked up to the Grand Park on the city’s south side. It has a lovely artificial lake surrounded by hills.

The original Bunk’Art museum is further out of town, literally carved into the mountainside.  This charts the history of the communist army and what happened to Albanians during that time. It is quite a creepy experience to walk down the bunker’s narrow corridors. You will get to see Enver Hoxha’s luxury bunker and other interesting exhibits

Judith Baker takes a trip to Albania’s quirky capital and her insider guide to Tirana.

It is close to the entrance to the Dajti Express, a cable-car which took me up the dramatic mountain on Tirana’s eastern edge.

The cable-car spans a kilometre, making it the longest in the Balkans, and rises more than 800 metres up the mountainside. The exhilarating journey takes about 15 minutes and at the top there’s a restaurant and hotel.

Tell me more about this Insider Guide to Tirana.

Visit Albania has plenty of information on the places described in Judith’s Insider guide to Tirana and much more on the rest of Albania.

Whizzair and Ryan Air run regular services to Tirana from London Gatwick and London Stansted

There are some good hotels in Tirana from modern international chains including The Intercontinental to smaller charming hotels such as The Opera and Boutique Hotel Whisky, all centrally located.  Rooms at Hotel Opera from £75 per night including breakfast. The stunning Marriott is housed in the Arena area with its eye catching architecture.



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