When I was in school, Albania was a mysterious country, run by the enigmatic Enver Hoxha. It was solidly behind the Iron Curtain, yet neither part of the Soviet Union nor Yugoslavia, and isolated from the rest of the world, a bit like North Korea today.

We learnt that religion was forbidden. And if you wanted to visit Albania and you were a boy, you could not have long hair or a beard. That first bit wasn’t that strange. After all, forbidding religion is no worse than forcing it on people. And that has been the case pretty much all over the world at one time or another. Even Norway wasn’t always secular. Convert to Christianity or die, was the rule back in the day. (Admittedly, that was 1,000 years ago.) But that no long hair/beard rule: how did that make sense? Very weird country, we thought.

And here I am – 31 years after communism lost its iron grip on Albania. Arriving at Tirana airport from Belgrade, I can’t help but wonder how entering the curious country will be. I’ve been in Albania before, on a boat trip from Corfu – but Tirana seems different somehow. The capital – the heart – of the once forbidden land.

Landing, getting bags, going through passport control and customs, all is run smoothly and efficiently. Nothing to write home about. Will the rest of our stay be more mysterious? Strange? Challenging in any way?

Landing in Tirana: European Youth Capital 2022

I’m almost sad to say it, folks. But it won’t. Tirana in 2022 is simply an easy place to visit, an easy place to be. That is all.

11 things you’ll love in Tirana

Tirana is not pretty in any conventional way. It isn’t sophisticated like Paris, or elegant like Vienna. It doesn’t have a picturesque old town like Krakow or Tallinn. Instead, it is a colourful, energetic and very quirky capital, with a history most people are not very familiar with, including me. Tirana is a different kind of fascinating. After 2 days here, if I were to summarise my impression of the Albanian capital in a few key points, they would be:

  • bold primary colours
  • unique, whimsical vibe
  • laid-back and easy
  • visually random
  • vibrant cafe and bar culture
  • showing its horrific past in designated spaces

Let me show you what I mean:

1. Skanderbeg, the square

Skanderbeg Square (Sheshi Skënderbej) is the natural place to begin. The square is a massive 40,000 m², the largest pedestrianised space in the Balkans. On both days we are here, it is also rather empty, emphasising the enormity. That, and the tiles, shimmering in the summer heat.

Looking around the square, I notice many different types of architecture, sort of haphazardly put up. Like someone shook a hat and tossed it all out, everything landing in random spots. Here’s the Palace of Culture (1950s Stalinist style), there’s an Ottoman mosque with a Venetian clock tower behind it. Over there is an Orthodox Christian Church, and over there again is a tall rectangular glass structure housing Tirana International hotel. Above it all looms the 85-metre tall Archea Tower, reminding me of barcodes, tipped vertically.

Banka e Shqipërisë, Albania’s national bank, originally a 1930s Italian Rationalist building, was completely renovated in 2018. Archea Tower behind.

Old and new and random and blue – and Skanderbeg on horseback.

But most of all, I see cranes and scaffolding. Scaffolding everywhere, indicating robust construction and maintenance activity, a city evolving. Even the mural mosaic on the imposing National History Museum (see top photo) is covered in mesh.

Ottoman, Venetian and scaffolding style

Another oddity is that the square doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, no shopping streets branching off it, no city centre surrounding it.

2. Skanderbeg, the man

Once, there was a 10-metre high statue of Enver Hoxha on the square, but after the collapse of the regime in 1991, angry locals tore it down, like in so many other former aspiring communist states. There is, however, a statue of Albanian national hero Skanderbeg.

Skanderbeg Square is named after 15th century Albanian military leader and national hero Skanderbeg (Iskender in Turkish), famous for rebelling against the Ottoman Empire all over Albania and neighbouring countries. I’ve seen Skanderbeg statues in Pristina and Skopje, as well – and no wonder: he fought a guerrilla war against the Ottomans not only in present-day Albania, but in North Macedonia and Kosovo, too. And in Greece, Montenegro and Serbia. He is revered also outside of the Balkans, with statues in London, Rome, Vienna, Brussels and Geneva, as a thank you for stopping the Ottomans from expanding even further west.

Skanderbeg died in 1492, of malaria, in Lezhë in northwest Albania. You can visit his mausoleum there.

3. Et’Hem Bey Mosque and the clock tower

In the southeastern corner of the square is Et’Hem Bey Mosque, named after its builder Et’Hem Bey, a 19th century Ottoman nobleman and poet. The little mosque was completely closed in the non-religious communist era, but it was saved from demolition as it was considered a cultural monument.

Et’Hem Bey is also responsible for the 35-metre tall clock tower just behind the mosque. Looks like it could be in Venice, doesn’t it? You can climb the 90 spiral steps to the top.

4. National History Museum

Also on Skanderbeg Square, is Muzeu Historik Kombëtar, Albania’s National History Museum.

The mural shows ‘The Albanians’, figures from Albania’s history through the centuries.

The museum has eight pavilions: Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Independence, Iconography, National Liberation Antifascist War, Communist Terror, and Mother Teresa.

Pavilion of Icons, and Hall of the Anti-Fascist National Liberation War

My thoughts on Tirana’s National History Museum? A bit prosaic. And kinda stifling. Actually, I think the outside is the most interesting. With any luck, the scaffolding is gone by the time you come to Tirana, and you can see the Socialist Realism building – and the mural – properly. So whilst you may or may not love the inside, the outside is well worth a good look.

5. I ❤️ t

 You’ll find a big Instagrammable ‘I ❤️ t’ in front of the Palace of Culture on Skanderbeg Square.

Tirana is all in with the ‘I ❤️‘ trend

6. Bunk’Art 2

On a more sombre note –

Bunk’Art is a museum/art space/learning experience telling the story of Albania’s many thousand communist-era nuclear protection bunkers. Tirana has two Bunk’Arts, both located in bunkers. Together, the two museums cover Albania’s gruesome recent past.

Bunk’Art 1 is on the outskirts of town, close to the Mount Dajti cable car, accessible by bus or taxi. Bunk’Art 2 is easier; the bunker underneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs is less than 1 minute from Skanderbeg Square. You turn a corner, and there it is. Can’t miss it.

Inside the dome/entrance

Walking down the stairs, we enter a tunnel. It seems interminably long, with narrow corridors branching off.

In small rooms along the sides, we learn about the function of the police and Sigurimi, the intelligence services/secret police, whose role was to maintain national security. Just like in many countries around the world still, that’s a euphemism for suppressing political opposition, and preserve the existing system for those that benefit from it.

Bunk’Art 2 is a chilling trip back to the not-so-remote past. Some exhibits are unpleasant, to put it mildly, reminding us that people can be very cruel. We see – and hear – stories of those persecuted and tortured by the state – right here in the Ministry’s bunker.

Oh look! Here it is: the long hair, the beards – and mini skirts, maxi skirts…

Better choose to be adjusted, or else!

7. House of Leaves

Looks idyllic, doesn’t it? This nearly 100-year-old building was once a maternity hospital.

Then it became the HQ of the Sigurimi, ie. an interrogation centre and torture chamber. A house of legend and mystery, the unknown. Whispers of people and rustling of leaves…

Today, it is a museum, all about the feared secret police, how they monitored people and crushed opposition. We see disturbing presentations about the evils that befell you if you were deemed a traitor to the state. But there are also intriguing little surveillance items, such as a training manual on how to stick tiny microphones into walls or shoe soles. People’s homes were penetrated this way, every intimate conversation.

This museum will unfold simultaneously aspects of Albanian society in the conditions of a regime that aimed at the total control over the human bodies and souls.

Info board at the entrance to the House of Leaves

In the back garden is a photo exhibition of those responsible for human rights violations and repression. They have not been prosecuted, nor shown remorse for their actions.

Names of convicted political prisoners – and the faces of dictatorship

As you will have guessed, there is some overlap with the Bunk’Art as to subject matter: two different versions of remembering the past. The House of Leaves is in a villa in idyllic surroundings; somehow that makes it even more poignant. If you have time, I recommend seeing both.

8. Post-Bllok (Checkpoint) – Memorial to Communist Isolation

In a small park is Post-Bllok, a little outdoor museum about the end of communism, across the street from the government building. There are three exhibits: fragment Nr. 28/40 of the Berlin Wall, Bunker TRIII 1976 1 which guarded the main entrance to the home of Hoxha and senior communist officials, and a sculpture created with pillars from a mine shaft at Spaç labour camp/political prison.

9. Piramida

Remember I said Tirana is quirky? Well, here is a BIG quirk. Enver Hoxha’s daughter designed this pyramid as a museum in memory of her father after his death, white marble covering the sides. Later, it has served as a nightclub (I’m curious about pyramid acoustics), a temporary NATO base, a radio station, and more. Today, it is abandoned and left to Tirana’s homeless. It also doubles as a hangout for kids to climb and slide down in the dark of night.

Plans for demolishing the Pyramid were afoot, but it seems Tiranians rather like the bizarro building. I have to admit, I quite like it, too. Or rather, I like the potential of it.

Plans are now in the works to renovate and reuse it, creating a little village with cafes, workshops and studios, as well as a technology centre for Tirana’s youngsters, all about coding/programming and design. At least, that was the plan in 2018. A month ago, well, it looked like the photo here. (Notice the scaffolding?) I reckon Covid is at least partially to blame for any delays.

10. Traffic lights

Traffic lights? Really?

I’m digging Tirana’s traffic lights. It isn’t only the lamp that is green (or red); the entire light pole is illuminated for better road safety. No excuses; running a red light is a thing of the past.

Berlin has Ampelmännchen, Tirana has t.

11. Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral

Back in Hoxha’s day, religion was illegal. In fact, Albania was proclaimed the world’s first atheist state. Two new religious buildings have been built in the years since. One is this Orthodox Christian cathedral. Do go inside for a look at the stunning iconography on the ceiling.

12. Namazgah Mosque

The other is the Great Mosque of Tirana, the largest in the Balkans.

About a 5-minute walk from Skanderbeg Square and the little Et’Hem Bey Mosque, is the anything but little, newly built Great Mosque of Tirana, with room for 5,000. Turkey has helped with the building of this gigantic mosque, which isn’t entirely unproblematic, considering Albania’s Ottoman history.

13. Red bridge

I wish I could tell you about the background for this bridge. About anything regarding this construction, actually. But I cannot. Other than that we walked past it several times, and I liked it. Possibly an ad of sorts. For a wifi provider, perhaps? If you know anything about it, I’d love to know.

14. Tirana eats and drinks

Folks, I’ll be honest, we spent a lot of time doing non-political and non-religious things, namely exploring Tirana’s excellent gastronomy scene and its cheerful bars.

This delicious sea bass at Juvenilja is just one example of Tirana’s quality grub. It is actually half a portion; Tom and I were sharing the fish and an avocado salad, and the waiter – 18 years at the job, professional and courteous – insisted on serving it on two plates.

But the cafes, folks! And the bars! I’m not normally much of a drinker – but the colours alone make me want to go inside that technicolour world and try everything on the menu.

We really enjoyed Komiteti Kafe Museum and Radio Cocktail Bar – both with a retro-inspired, maximalist colour-crazy interior a la Austin Powers. In fact, we liked both so much, we stopped by every day (which were only 2, but still…)

Seems Albania is the country with the most coffeehouses per capita – in the world!

Well, coffee is available at Komiteti, dubbing itself a Kafe-Museum, vibrant, full of vintage curios, and furnished in Ottoman style. This is the kind of surroundings that stimulates creativity. I can easily picture myself writing here.

You’ll find it on Rruga Fatmir Haxhiu Street in the hip Blloku district, once the living grounds of Hoxha and his ilk.

On Rruga Ismail Qemali Street, also in Blloku, is the artistic and equally cheerful Radio Cocktail Bar. Good music, creative drinks and fun atmosphere.

Night-time fun at Radio

You might not love this bar, though

– but I’ll mention it anyway: Bunker 1944 comes recommended. Lonely Planet describes it as ‘a former bunker turned bohemian bolthole stuffed with communist-era furniture and antiques/junk’. Great selection of beer and an international crowd, they say.

Well, not anymore. Now it is a local basement bar, very quiet, very spartan, not much atmosphere. We stopped by, and other than the friendly kid who showed us around, I saw 3 silent locals and a pool table. That’s pretty much it. A bar with an intriguing name, but not much else; A 5 – 10 minute glance is probably enough.

Next time in Tirana

So that’s 11 things you’ll love in the Albanian capital. OK, 11 and a few more.

There’s loads more to see and do in Tirana. I recommend at least 3 days. Summers can be hot, 30°and above, so perhaps choose late spring/early autumn, pleasant weather for outdoor exploration. Next time in Tirana, I’d like to

→ City tour

take a city walking tour, to see what I might have missed – but even more, to hear stories.

→ Mount Dajti

take the cable car up to Mount Dajti for awesome views, especially at sunset – and maybe hike a bit.

→ Bunk’Art 1

visit Bunk’Art 1 – and compare the two bunker museums.

→ Crazy colourful buildings

see many, many of the otherwise rather ugly apartment blocks and other buildings painted in crazy colours on Wilson Square and in Pazar i Ri.

→ New cafes, familiar cafes

try more of Tirana’s cool cafes and bars – in Blloku and elsewhere in town – and more of the familiar ones.

Radio

Tirana practicals

  • There are direct flights to Tirana from several cities in Europe, including London, Rome, Milan, Istanbul, Vienna, Belgrade, Paris, Geneva and more. We arrived by plane from Belgrade, and left by car across the border to North Macedonia.
  • Plenty of hotels, hostels, B&Bs and guest houses. We stayed at Hotel Vila e Arte a few blocks from Skanderbeg Square, and liked it.

Pleasant breakfast and work space at Hotel Vila e Arte

Balkans road trip itinerary post coming up shortly.

Photos by Andrew MorlandTom Brothwell and myself.