We were both not feeling 100% fit, it was almost 40 degrees Celsius, and Tirana can be a hectic city (driving through the city was an adventure). The conditions for our visit to Tirana, the capital of Albania, could not be called ideal. And although nobody will claim that it’s the prettiest city on the Balkans, it still had an unmistakable charm that made us like the city.
Enjoying our visit to Tirana
Because we were not feeling well after our three day loop through the Albanian Alps (still guessing about the cause of it), we limited ourselves to the things we really wanted to see during our visit to Tirana. We would have liked to explore a little bit more, walking around the city, soaking up the vibe and sitting on a terrace here and there, but after 1,5 day we went to the beach to cool off and recuperate.
Despite feeling weak we still managed to enjoy the city and see some interesting things which we think are worth a look on a visit to Tirana. From what we understand the city has changed a lot in the last few years, several projects still ongoing to modernize and upgrade the city. For those who still think of Tirana as a bleak, post-communist city: think again!.
Must-see: Bunk’art 1
The highlight of our visit to Tirana was without a doubt Bunk’art 1. Located on the outskirts of the city (close to the Dajti Express cable car station) this bunker complex was built in the 1970’s by Enver Hoxha, who was the communist leader of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. Hoxha was so paranoid about a possible war that he had 168.000 small bunkers built, many of which still can be found all over Albania today.
On the outskirts of Tirana he had a special bunker complex constructed that could withstand a nuclear attack. Part of this five level structure can be visited since 2014 as a museum. Some of the bunker cells are decorated with original furnishings, like Hoxha’s quarters, others are used for an exposition about the history of the Albanian communist army and the daily lives of Albanians during the communist regime. Walking through the corridors with some sinister music playing in the background created an eerie atmosphere.
Last year Bunk’art 2 was opened to the public. This second bunker is smaller, but close to the city center. It focuses its exhibition on the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Sigurimi, the political police.
Cheerful: painted houses
One of the things we were particularly looking for on our visit to Tirana were the painted houses. Painting buildings in bright and bold colors was an initiative of the current prime-minister of Albania, Edi Rama. The former artist was the mayor of Tirana between 2000 and 2011. As soon as he came into office as mayor of Tirana he had many buildings in the capital painted to transform the cities dilapidated look, a result of fifty years of neglect.
We saw some vibrant pics of the painted houses, but since most of the work was done over a decade ago many of the colors have faded by now. In addition trees that were planted at the same time are full-grown now and block the view of many of the buildings. Still there were several nice examples around, with some new paintwork as well. The best place to look is around Bajram Curri Blvd.
New: painted electricity boxes
Another initiative to bring even more color into Tirana’s streets is by an institution of the city municipality responsible for city decoration and all public and local feasts. They decorate electricity boxes with pics of well-known characters from comics, movies or the music industry. They can be found at several places around the city center.
Paintings: National Art Gallery
Located in a somewhat nondescript building (that could do with some air-conditioning) the National Art Gallery has really great examples of Albanian socialist realist art. The paintings depict idealized scenes of life in the communist utopian state by Albanian painters. Such an exhibition would have a pricey entrance tickets in any big city museum, here we only paid 200 Lekë (1,50 euro).
Huge: Skanderbeg Square
The very recently revamped but still empty feeling Skanderbeg Square is the focal point if Tirana, with major roads radiating from it. The square is named after national hero Skanderbeg whose equestrian statue can be found here. Other noteworthy buildings around the square are the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the clock tower dating back to 1811 and the National History Museum that has a beautiful façade.
Weird: Tirana Pyramid
One of the strangest structures in the city is the pyramid building that was opened in 1988 as the Enver Hoxha Museum, commemorating Albania’s communist leader. After the fall of communism in 1991 the structure has been used for several other purposes and has been threatened by demolition several times, but is still standing strong (if a bit dilapidated).
Nightlife: Blloku district
To witness the energy of the capital you must head over to the Blloku district, an upmarket entertainment area just south of the city center. The formerly exclusive residential area for Albanian communist politburo members is now full of restaurants and bars with a strong preference for anything American it seemed. Times have changed…
Get out: Krujë Fortress
Not in Tirana itself but 20 kilometers north of the city and accessible by regular furgon services is Krujë fortress. We visited driving from Shkodër to Tirana. The over-renovated castle has a museum dedicated to Albania’s 15th-century national hero Skanderbeg (or Skënderbeu). We found it quirky, but not really memorable for us as foreigners. There’s also an ethnographic museum that we didn’t visit and a souvenir bazaar in the street leading up to the castle.
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