Planning on visiting Tirana, Albania? Here’s what to expect of a trip to the Albanian capitol:
We arrived in Tirana via a tiny Air Serbia prop plane from Belgrade. Tirana’s airport is sweetly named after one of Albania’s most famous people: Mother Theresa, or Nënë Tereza. The airport is small but modern and clean, with bathrooms in the baggage claim just after immigration and before customs. Immigration was electronic and we did not receive stamps in our passport. Baggage was delivered quickly, and we were on our way. I recommend getting downtown from TIA via one of the official taxis waiting outside the station–their rates are here. Our driver spoke a little English, but it was helpful to have screenshots of our hotel’s address and where it falls on the map saved on our phones to show him, since our pronunciation of Albanian is lacking, and our hotel (The Rooms Hotel and Residence in the Blloku neighborhood, which I also highly recommend) was a small one that he wasn’t familiar with.
Prior to arriving in Tirana or Albania, I’d recommend reading a book like The Balkans by Misha Glenny to help put your surroundings in context. Barring that, I’d at least do some Wikipedia searches on the terms Enver Hoxha, Albanian Civil War of 1997, and Albania and Tirana articles themselves.
2 other things to note: Some signage will spell Tirana as Tiranë, and in Albanian, Albania is not called Albania but rather Shqipëria.
Our stay in Blloku situated us very close to the Parku i Madh (Grand Park) and the Liqueni Artificial (Artificial Lake). The park is quietly lovely, and interesting for all the monuments and abandoned structures inside it. For example, a large cement platform rises out of the lake with an unclear purpose. There is a stone theater deeper inside the park which seems to be no longer in use.
It’s rather more diverting to spend time on the outskirts of the park, where there a ton of bars, cafes, ice cream parlors, and restaurants (including the celebrated slow-food restaurant Mullixhiu).
A note on eating and drinking in Tirana: Locals eat late, and we didn’t see a single person drinking beer or wine before 8pm. Tirana has a lively cafe culture, but most people drink coffee and water until late at night. It’s acceptable to sit in a cafe for as long as you like so long as you buy at least one drink. Furthermore, in Tirana you’ll see many restaurants advertising themselves as Piceri–this means they serve pizza, and the pizza we ate our first night in Tirana at King House Taverna was fantastic. Bizarrely, Trip Advisor is reporting this place as closed, but we ate there in late June 2017. We were some of the first people seated for the tasting menu at Mullixhiu at 7pm on a Sunday, but by the time we left around 9pm, the restaurant was packed and the streets were bustling.
There aren’t a huge amount of sites in Tirana, but you can have a fascinating couple of days here. Taking a long walk around the city, spotting bunkers at the entrance of Blloku and taking pictures in front of the “I Love Tirana” sculpture in the Parku Rinia along Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit, is a great way to spend a mellow few hours.
Across from the Parku Rinia is “The Cloud” (“Reja” in Albanian)–a sculptural installation by Sou Fujimoto that is pretty but a little weatherworn.
Tirana sought to boost its bleak image in the early 2000s by painting its buildings colorfully. These paint jobs have mostly faded, and new construction looks similar to standard modern European buildings, but it’s delightful to happen across facades like these as you’re visiting Tirana.
Another fascinating stop in downtown Tirana is the Hoxha Pyramid. You can’t go inside, but it’s a marvel to walk around and fun to photograph from all angles. Some pictures online show teenagers climbing or skateboarding on the structure, but when we were there on a hot Sunday afternoon it was completely deserted.
Just up the street is the Sheshi Skënderbej (Skenderberg Square), which is Tirana’s enormous, rather peaceful city center. At the northern end is the National History Museum (with an incredible mural mosaic above the entrance), to the east is the Opera, to the southeast is the Et’hem Bej Mosque, and to the south are many important government buildings as well as the entrance to Bunk’Art 2 (more on Bunk’Art below).
Lonely Planet’s entry for the National History Museum shows that they close for a couple hours in the afternoon, FYI.
Parallel to Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit is the Rruga Ibrahim Rugova, where you’ll find the stunning Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral.
Once you’ve looked around downtown Tirana and Blloku, I recommend visiting Bunk’Art and taking a ride on the Dajti Ekpres. You’ll have to take a bus (direction: “Linza”) to just northeast of the city center to access both. If you look like a tourist, you might hear a bus staffer call to you “Bunk’Art!” As the bus is filling up, so that you’ll know which to get on. The buses are actually old Paris public buses, so you’ll see signage in French. Just across from the city bus terminal just east of the Et’hem Bej Mosque, you’ll see a striking monument to the friendship between Kuwait and Albania.
I have more info to share about Bunk’Art and the Dajti Express, but suffice to say: I think anyone who visits Tirana should definitely do both!
Everywhere in Tirana and Albania you will see little bunkers built into the ground and sides of hills. These bunkers even have their own Wikipedia entry. The best place in Tirana to look at these bunkers up close is in the Lulishte Ismail Qemali, a park right at the entrance to the Blloku neighborhood. There are several bunkers as well as some other monuments to the communist era.
I’d recommend visiting Tirana to travelers that enjoy:
- non-touristy destinations
- pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and grilled meats
- sitting in cafes reading and people-watching
- spending time outside; walking, hiking, and even mountain biking
- quirky museums
- budget travel
I wouldn’t recommend visiting Tirana if your priorities are:
- shopping (for luxury goods, local crafts, or otherwise–almost everything for sale seems to be imported)
- luxury hotels or fine dining
- impressive cityscapes, historic buildings, or extensive sightseeing
- swimming or sunbathing
- meeting locals (unless, of course, you speak Albanian!)
- train travel–the Tirana Rail Station was closed in 2013 and demolished.
Takeaways on visiting Tirana:
- Tirana is a comfortable, mellow place to kick off a Balkans adventure.
- Visiting Tirana is rewarding due to its undiscovered feel and affordable amenities.
- Most visitors will feel satisfied with their visit after 2-3 nights.