“Mëngjes?” I stutter. The old man at “Freddy’s hostel” looks at me, surprised.
“Breakfast? No, we don’t do that here, but you can get a cup of coffee if you want…” At least that’s what I think he says. Between my pretty non-existent Albanian and his non-existent English skills, it’s anybody’s guess…
I am in Tirana, the capital of Albania. When I got off the bus from the airport the night before, the main square was heaving with quads. Second-hand buses fought for a space with third-hand Mercedes. Pedestrians tried to avert both, while avoiding the potholes that “decorate” the streets and pavements. Yes, visiting Tirana promised to be “something else”!
After my “breakfast” at Freddy’s, I head towards Skanderbeg square. The Albanian flag ruffles in the wind, next to a statue of the country’s national hero: Skanderbeg himself. It’s from this place that I will start my explorations, ready to check out the best places to visit in Tirana!
Things to do in Tirana
1. The National History Museum of Albania
Skanderbeg square is the main square in the centre of Tirana and home to some very significant buildings. The one that stands out is the National History Museum, probably the best place to start and get an overview of Albania’s interesting past. The façade of the museum is characterized by a large mosaic named “The Albanians”. It tells the story of how Albanians have fought against invasion and occupation throughout the centuries. Inside, the collection takes you chronologically from ancient Illyria to the post-communist era. The section on the Hoxha dictatorship is pretty scarce, as if they want to give it as little importance as possible.
The comments in English are a bit random, but you do manage to get a good overview of the numerous invaders of Albania and after visiting the museum, it’s easy to understand why Albanians are such proud people!
There is also a section on Mother Teresa, still one of the most famous Albanians to date.
2.The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower was built by the Ottoman Turks and originally had a bell from Venice. It has since been replaced numerous times and the tower itself has had various renovations.
You can climb the tower for views over Skanderbeg Square. The spiral staircase is 35 metres high and it takes a less than 100 steps to get to the top. Unfortunately when I was there, the whole square seemed to have been turned into a building site!
3.The Et’Hem Bey Mosque
Standing next to the Clock Tower is this 18th century mosque. During communist times access was closed, but on the 18th of January 1991, despite opposition from communist authorities, a group of devoted Muslims came here to pray, supported by many people carrying flags and demanding the end of the communist dictatorship. It was seen as a big day towards the awakening of modern Albania.
Although rather small in size, it is definitely worth a visit to see the colourful frescoes in the portico and on the cupola.
4.Pazari i Ri
To the north-east of Skanderbeg square, in one of the oldest area of Tirana, is the Pazari i Ri or Central Market. It’s a place where elderly Albanian women sell fruit, olives, vegetables and cheese. I pass vendors repairing bicycles and people carrying the carcass of a sheep. It’s a place that takes you back in time.
UPDATE: Unfortunately over the last few years, this market has been renovated and gentrified. It now consists of a large modern market hall and looks a lot more polished than the previous one. The fresh produce is still there, together with the low prices, but the character has faded. It’s still a good place to mingle with locals in the nearby cafés.
5. The pyramid of Tirana
Close to Park Rinia stands one of the most remarkable buildings of Tirana, known as “The Pyramid”. Built in 1988, it was originally a museum dedicated to the legacy of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s leader and dictator for over 40 years. With the fall of communism the Pyramid ceased its function as a museum and for several years was repurposed as a conference centre and exhibition venue. Not keen of keeping a lot of relics from the communist past, there was talk about demolishing the pyramid entirely, but in 2018, a new project was unveiled that would turn it into a IT centre. Until then, the building is in a pretty derelict state and seems to mainly function as a easy meeting point.
6. Blloku area
Not all is derelict and waiting for a better future in Tirana. The best proof that Tirana is reinventing itself is probably the Blloku area. Once the area where only leaders of the communist party were allowed in, it is nowadays the most modern part of Tirana with trendy bars, coffee shops and restaurants. If you are looking for nightlife, this is the place to be!
And what to say about the colourful façades along the Lana river? Edi Rama, the former mayor of Tirana, is also an artist and in order to lift the spirits of the downtrodden city, he decided to paint the dull and grey façades in bright colours and bold designs! A great way to uplift the spirits!
7. The Grand Park of Tirana
If you’re looking for things to do in Tirana on a sunny day, then head for the Grand Park, south of Blloku. Biking and hiking trails will take you around the man-made lake and away from the concrete of the city centre. There are plenty of cafés to take a rest and enjoy a quiet afternoon.
I have to admit, Tirana isn’t, what you would call, an attractive and beautiful city, like the Ottoman towns of Berat and Gjirokastra, but I love the chaos, the contrast and its history.
There are plenty of places to visit in Tirana and the city keeps on moving forward and reinventing itself, albeit at a slow pace. Tirana is a great example of how Albania is progressing after throwing off the years of almost complete isolation.
Have you been to Tirana? Do you like chaotic cities? Looking forward to hearing about it!