Having left its unpleasant past behind, Tirana is an up-and-coming European destination under construction.
The main thing visitors to Albania’s capital will notice is that development is going on all over the place. There are tall cranes, building equipment, sizable pits, fences, pictures, and posters of spectacular buildings that have been or will be constructed everywhere. Tirana is a city that is growing quickly. At the same time, it is in a historical period where all of the remnants of its recent past are still evident. Muslim mosques, orthodox churches, impersonal communist buildings, tall skyscrapers, and lots of green make up the mosaic of one of the emerging European destinations. Additionally, it is also a city with a fairly high level of services at very reasonable prices. Without a doubt, it is a destination that will attract a significant number of visitors in the near future.
THE HISTORY OF TIRANA
Tirana became a city during the Roman Period, despite having been inhabited since the Iron Age and being a part of the Illyrian kingdom. The Byzantines and the Ottomans afterwards captured it, along with the rest of the country. And it came in 1920, eight years after Albania achieved its independence, when Tirana was designated as the country’s capital.
The idea for Tirana’s centre was created by renowned Italian architects from the Mussolini era. They laid the basis for the modern-day arrangement of the ministerial buildings in the city centre. However, their initial plan was destroyed when massive socialist-style factory and housing complexes were constructed between 1944 and 1991. During this period, a large number of older structures were also destroyed.
Furthermore, the next significant period for Tirana was when the former mayor, Edi Rama, conducted a campaign to tear down buildings that had been constructed without permits around the city from 2000 to 2011. It was also during this period that he painted the building facades in vibrant colours. It was an effort to make the city more attractive, but without addressing its main issues. Today, Tirana, as we mentioned above, is a city that is rapidly modernising and emerging as a modern European city.
Skanderbeg Square was the centre of the commercial, social, and religious life of Tirana until the 1920s, when the city became the capital. During that time, the market, the shops, and the cafes gave their place to the big administrative buildings. The square was bisected by the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation (Boulevard Deshmoret e Kombit), which was used for big parades showcasing the power of the communist regime. Today, the square is completely pedestrianised and the focal point of the whole city.
The equestrian statue of Skanderbeg (the national hero of Albania) dominates the square. Across the road from the statue is the most important religious building in Tirana, the Mosque of Et’hem Bey, and behind it is the Clock Tower. The mosque was constructed in the 18th century. It is one of the very few old surviving buildings with remarkable frescoes on its exterior and interior walls. Surprisingly, during the atheism campaigns in the 1960s, the mosque was protected because of its characterization as a cultural monument.
Other buildings on the square are the Palace of Culture on its east side, which houses the Opera House and the National Library, and the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral on the west side. The cathedral is considered among the largest Eastern Orthodox churches in the Balkans. It opened in 2012 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the revival of the Albanian Orthodox Church.
NATIONAL HISTORICAL MUSEUM
However, the most characteristic building on the square and the most prominent museum in the city is the National Historical Museum. The facade of the museum is dominated by a huge mosaic mural above its entrance, made in 1981. The mosaic depicts victorious Albanians from various historical periods being led into the future by Mother Albania. The museum houses an extensive exhibition that starts with prehistoric finds and ends with exhibits from the recent communist era. Unquestionably, it is an “ark”, showcasing the various historical periods of the country.
Just a few hundred metres from Skanderbeg Square, Bunk’ Art 2 is probably the most interesting and unique attraction in Tirana. Bunk’ Art 2 is actually a bomb-proof tunnel under the Ministry of the Interior that the communist authorities built in the 1980s. It is part of a vast network of underground tunnels that was intended to protect the government and its officials in the event of an invasion or nuclear attack. It is called Bunk’ Art 2 because there is a similar project named Bunk’ Art 1 on the outskirts of the city that houses art exhibitions.
Today, Bunk’ Art 2 is a museum that, with a series of archive photographs and films, illustrates the development of policing in Albania. The exhibits focus mainly on the terrific period of 1949–1990. During this period, the police killed almost a thousand Albanians. while many others were spied, tortured, and imprisoned. In the tunnel, you see the interrogation room used by the police and the cells where the citizens were held.
In total, there are 24 rooms in the tunnel, including an apartment for the Minister of the Interior and a telecommunications centre. One of this room was used as a decontamination chamber in case of a chemical or nuclear attack. Undoubtedly, the whole process of the visit is evocative and particularly touching, and it will hardly leave any visitor unmoved.
A WALK AROUND THE CITY CENTRE
The Clock Tower could serve as the starting point for a short walk that can take you to some of Tirana’s finest structures. City Hall, built in the Italian style, is located on the alleyway close to the tower. Following Rruga Sermedin Toptani from here will lead you to the High State Control‘s recently renovated and unexpectedly pink headquarters. The National Theatre of Albania is located just across the street.
The highly interesting architecturally Ministry of Internal Affairs is located a little distance down the road on your right. The Monument to Police is located in front of the ministry. It is a memorial built to honour the police officers who have died in the line of duty. Each star is meant to stand in for a fallen officer. Although the memorial is stunning, it is completely at odds with the Bunk’ Art 2 installations nearby honouring police victims. These two locations, however, showcase the nation’s turbulent past and its efforts to mend its wounds and move on.
Rruga Sermedin Toptani leads to Rruga Murat Toptani, an attractive pedestrian street lined with trees. The National Gallery of Arts is located at the beginning of the street, and its garden is decorated with the modern metal sculpture “Reja/The Cloud”. If you turn left on Rruga Murat Toptani, you end up at Tirana Castle. A short stretch of the Ottoman-era castle is still visible, while the area inside the castle has been transformed into an open-air mall with shops, cafes, and restaurants, which is part of the nearby Toptani Shopping Center.
Furthermore, two more sights worth visiting are located a few hundred metres from Toptani Shopping Mall. The first one is Tanner’s Bridge, an 18th-century stone bridge that was once part of the road that linked Tirana with the eastern highlands. The second is the Pyramid of Tirana. This is a strange building that opened as the Enver Hoxha Museum, but today, after its renovation, it has been turned into a youth IT centre for creative technologies.
A NIGHT OUT IN THE CITY
Tirana is a relatively safe city at night and has a thriving nightlife. Up until the wee hours of the morning, many pubs, clubs, and even snack shops are open. The Blloku district, located south of Skanderbeg Square, might be considered the nightlife’s hub. Because it was a restricted residential area for members of the Albanian Party of Labour during the communist era, it gained a lot of appeal once communism in Albania was overthrown. Today, with its chic bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafes, it is well recognised as a primary location for entertainment.
BEST PIZZA OUTSIDE OF ITALY?
In Tirana, there are many excellent restaurants where you may try the local cuisine, but the Albanians are proud to claim that their pizza is the best outside of Italy. Their long-standing political and economic ties to Italy, their neighbour, have shaped their culture and made pizza one of their favourite foods. In Tirana, there are many places where you can sample excellent pizza. Consequently, it is challenging to pick the best. If you ask the locals, they will all recommend a different place. However, the three restaurants that we singled out for the best pizza in Tirana are as follows:
PizzArte(Rruga Luigj Gurakuqi): Excellent pizza in two locations in the city.
Pizzeria Favolosa(Kompleksi Delijorgji): Great ambiance and a wide variety of pizzas.
WHERE TO STAY
Tirana is a city where many new hotels have been built in recent years. There are few hotels that are old, while the level of service is high and still at very affordable prices. Three very good recommendations for accommodation in the city centre are the following:
Hilton Garden Inn Tirana(Bulevardi Gjergj Fishta 146): It belongs to the well-known hotel chain with excellent services, parking, and an unforgettable breakfast.
Habitat Hotel Tirana(Kompleksi Delijorgji, Kavaja St): A modern hotel with 30 luxury rooms in a new residential complex.
Maritim Plaza Hotel Tirana(Rruga Abdi Toptani 18): It is a 5-star hotel housed in one of the most impressive buildings in Tirana. Luxury is the characteristic of the shop and the last detail.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
In any case, Tirana is an up-and-coming European destination with a bright future where everything is under construction. It is an intriguing fusion of the temperament of the Balkans, communist history, and contemporary architecture. It is unquestionably a low-cost destination with respectable amenities, while its tremendous personality and diversity make up for the lack of many significant monuments. From the walls of the Ottoman castle to modern sculptures, Tirana has many faces to reveal to its visitors.