Key sights in Tirana

Albania’s capital Tirana, should definitely be on your list when considering a city break as it ticks most of the boxes and is cheap.

The infrastructure is still being developed, but with its quirky buildings amidst the remnants of the communist regime, there’s little indication of its grey past.

Skenderbej Square Tirana with flag

Albania’s captial Tirana would be great for a city break

It is a very pleasant city with plenty of cultural experiences and a buzz that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Albania.

In the Summer months temperatures can reach 30 degrees. So, with the beach being an easy drive away, and an expanse of sand, there’s the potential to couple a visit to Tirana with a lot more.

The key sights in Tirana are generally accessible all year round, so here’s some of my recommendations.

Walking Tour

Always the best way to see any city and gather your bearings. A walking tour of the city is a must. We wandered on foot with a local, picking through the sights whilst getting a feel for life here.

I would recommend a free walking tour as the guides work for tips and this will suit any budget. Make sure to ask for recommendations for places to eat as well as things you like to do, as the best advice will depend on the season of your visit.

Skenderbej Square

Having seen over 100 years of protests and celebrations, this is a good place to start for first time visitors to Tirana. It’s been witness to some of the nation’s happiest and most tragic events.

skenderbej square tirana museum view

Skenderbej Square, National Museum view

It can get pretty hot here in the heat with so much open space without shade, but you can always duck into the National Museum of History (which has 3 floors of exhibits) and cool off.

Make sure you also stop by the Clock Tower and Et’hem Bey Mosque which remain from the Austro-Hungarian times.

Bunkers

Bunkers can be found everywhere in Albania. Many have been re-purposed but plenty remain unused.

bunker in Tirana park

One of the many bunkers

Bunk’Art

It’s been more than 25 years since the collapse of the communist regime, but there is a great deal of history to learn about. The larger bunkers in the city of Tirana have been renovated and opened to the public, to share some of what went on. Make sure you pick one to visit whilst you’re there.

This huge bunker built in the outskirts of the capital mixes contemporary art with history exhibitions. With just a third of the space being utilised by the museum, it will require a couple of hours to visit.

Enver Hoxha office at Bunk'Art Tirana

Hoxha’s office, Bunk’Art

A visit here works well with the cable car trip to Mount Dajti (see below) if you want to make a day of it.The rooms where the government and its officials would have stayed are displayed as they were needed at that time, but they were never actually used. As you wander through the many rooms and displays, it feels a little creepy and unnerving, especially with the endless signs indicating not to panic if the electricity goes off. Bring something warm to wear as it’s cold down there.

Bunk’Art2

The biggest bunker in the city centre, off Skanderbeg Square, this is well presented, and not cold like its big brother Bunk’Art. I actually found it hot and stuffy inside but it is significantly smaller.

The history of the gendarmerie is displayed in the first half of the rooms, but I personally felt it went on a bit too long. The second section is much better and includes an account of the secret police activities from 1945 to 1991. Although interesting, the exhibits seem to gloss over the detail, but it’s a good place to understand the basics.

The central location makes this convenient to visit and ideal if you are limited on time, but if time permits I would recommend Bunk’Art and the House of Leaves instead.

House of Leaves

Being the centre of surveillance in the past, this museum which opened in 2017, features some interesting exhibits. The items displayed here focus on the totalitarian control and its presence everywhere in Albania during that time. There is also a little information covering the other uses of the building.

A visit here really opens your eyes to what went on, and I would highly recommend including this on your itinerary as it’s not a big place and won’t take long. Ask for the guided tour, although everything is in English.

The Pyramid

This derelict building, which is considered an eye sore, has a love hate relationship with the Albanians. Basically Enver (the last dictator) Hoxha’s disintegrating mausoleum, but it stands for so much more.

Enver Hoxha pyramid massoleum Tirana

The crumbling Pyramid

Read up on it, stop by and see it, take pictures and maybe even climb it. This landmark may not remain, as there are some plans to develop the area, so expect things to change in the years to come.

Mount Dajti

I’ve lost count of the number of cities which I’ve visited that have a cable car to a great view. Tirana is no exception, with a trip up to Mount Dajti on the longest cable car in the Balkans (apparently). The view is good and it’s quite a nice place to spend an hour or two.

Cable car station on Mount Dajti Tirana

From the drop of point it’s about 10 minutes walk uphill through an almost residential area.To get there take a bus from near to the Et’hem Bey Mosque in the center of town. There is no bus station but you will see people waiting around, so just ask and confirm with the driver which bus and where to get off.

You can take a taxi if you want the easy option.

Have you been to Tirana, got other recommendations. Please share them.

As for the rest of the country, well, it has so much to offer, whatever your interests. Check out my posts:

Impressions of Albania

Plan a visit to Albania before it changes

Plan a visit to Albania before it changes

Not many people have been to Albania it seems. In fact I was surprised at how few seem to know where it is.

Bordering with Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia, Albania is often overlooked. Being so close to the likes of Croatia and Italy, it would be difficult not to assume some similarities to those destinations, as they were maybe some 20 or 30 years ago.

Albania map

Of course Albania is not undiscovered, but the infrastructure and tourism is still in its infancy, making it a great destination to experience ahead of the crowds.

When Albania successfully joins the EU, having yet to be accepted following it’s application in 2009, there’s a strong chance of it following in the footsteps the likes of Croatia; at least in respect of tourism.

So, of course I’m suggesting you visit Albania as soon as possible. My ‘Impressions of Albania‘ post gives a flavour of what to expect, but here’s a little more info to help you plan a visit there.

History

Tell tale signs of communist slogans and graffiti can be spotted if you look closely. The endless bunkers which pepper the countryside (750,000 built of which many still exist) thought to have contributed to Albania’s poverty.

Enver grafitti Berat bunker

Bunker at Berat

Religion

Enver Hoxha, in power between 1944 and 1985, was deemed a paranoid dictator, who viewed the need for every Albanian to be ready and armed in the event of an attack. However, despite isolating the country from the world and itself, this never happened.

The majority of the population is Muslim but there is little evidence of this. Mosques are located close to churches and head scarves are rare even out of the cities. Often the call to prayer is quietened in built up areas.

Capital city

First impressions of the capital, Tirana, were perhaps it’s urgency to expand as modern blocks shroud the sky line. Despite this it retains an unexpected charm, with tree lined boulevards, green spaces and quirky buildings.

Tirana’s pyramid

The city outskirts are a complete contrast with numerous unfinished buildings of various degrees. The look is often complete with notices everywhere reading “Shitet”(For Sale). Plenty of opportunities for investment but likely to require significant construction over the next few years.Tirana would fulfill a city break adequately, being fairly easily accessible across Europe, there is plenty to experience and it’s reasonably cheap.

Getting around

Although it’s possible to travel around independently on public transport, hiring a car would be the most effective way to experience the country fully. However, be prepared for some of the worst driving ever, although it’s apparently improving. At its best you just need to follow no rules, at its worst the erratic nature of many drivers is just part of the experience. Out of the cities driving appeared easier.

Better still, travel with a local guide or ensure there’s a knowledgeable local on hand, to share details at some of the key sites.

Food

The food is significantly influenced by Greece and Turkey. Yogurt sauces are on the menu in many regions, and tzatziki features too. Byrek (savoury pie) and kebabs/meatballs are favourite snacks available everywhere.

Albanian yoghurt sauce dish Berat

Yoghurt sauce

The quality of the seafood, which costs a fraction of the equivalent dishes, further up, along the Dalmatian coast, is reason enough to plan a visit.I was surprised by the variety and the freshness of many of the dishes and the presentation was often well considered. Most surprisingly vegetarians would not struggle to travel here, unlike many of the other Balkan countries, from what I have see during my visits so far.

Drink

Espresso lovers will most likely agree that the coffee in Albania is very  good, perhaps due to its proximity to Italy. The coffee culture is a part of daily life and easy to become accustomed to.

Tiggerbird cheers Cobo winery Berat with cheese and wine

Cobo Winery, Berat

The obligatory tipple of course being Raki, which certainly becomes an acquired taste after the first glass. Either that or you are too far gone to notice any after burn. The home distilled options are the best, and despite its apparent illegality, you can pick up the local brew along road sides, usually sold in old soft drinks bottles.I couldn’t fault the beers we tried and as a wine drinker the reds are more than palatable.

Sights

With a number UNESCO sites already, there are others not far from acquiring this status.

Baptistery Butrint mosaic view

Beautiful mosaics at Butrint

If the litter problem can be addressed, along with salvaging what remains of more of the archaeological areas, the interest in protecting more sights will surely increase.

Beaches

We missed out on viewing a number of mosaics at both Butrint and Apollonia as they had been covered to protect from the sun, so there is definitely more consideration being made to preserve rather than destroy. This was unfortunately not the case for most of the ruins uncovered in Durres, the former capital. Here, little remains beyond the amphitheatre, following significant looting and destruction.

Unless you want to experience the Benidorm of Albania, avoid staying in Saranda. Most easily accessible from Corfu by ferry. This is where the country’s largest resorts are situated and sadly, they have suffered from rapid over-development.

Instead, head slightly north, to Ksamil, Himare or Borsch and you will find much smaller beaches, some of which are difficult to access. Take a hike or boat to get there. Hopefully they will stay this way, as the pristine white sand and crystal blue water, is the reward for venturing off the beaten track.

blue eye spring near saranda

Blue Eye spring

I’ve yet to experience the north. So, I’m hopeful that the virtually uninhabited wilderness will wait until I can return, and with any luck that won’t be too far away.As we travelled through the country we experienced it’s diversity, both physically and culturally. The transition from the past continues but there is a risk that changes will bury much of the uniqueness which Albania offers.

If you are planning a visit to Albania, do get in touch as I can recommend a great tour company if you are after a truly local experience.

Impressions of Albania

I knew very little about Albania until my visit in September. My knowledge was limited to a bunch of preconceptions built from sporadic research each time this destination made it back into my to do next list. Finally I was going to visit.

Albania flag view Berat

Not yet part of the EU, one of the biggest exporters of cannabis in Europe and yet one of the poorest countries in the region. Albania was closed and ruled by a dictator for many years, and of course I didn’t even know his name before I got there.

Arriving into the capital, Tirana, or Tirona to the locals, was somewhat confusing. Expecting to find remnants of communist blocks, instead there were boulevards, pastel coloured towers, Italian architecture and along one road: a cathedral, a church, a mosque and a casino. The unfinished skyscrapers indicates more is expected to emerge, hopefully retaining the few Ottoman-era remains.

Skenderbej Square Tirana view of quirky building

Skenderbej Square

Et’ hem Bay mosque at sunset, Tirana

We arrived into the city just before midnight, so venturing outside our hotel in the Blloku area wasn’t going to happen until the morning, but we learnt later that this was a restricted area during the communist era. A quadrant of streets, only the party elite could enter until 1991, when it was opened to the public. Now a very fashionable area of the city, full of bars and restaurants; and just a short walk to the centre.The city originally grew from just a mosque, bakery and a hamman, to what it is today. The mosque remains the centre of town and it a popular place to visit when sussing out the lie of the land here when you first arrive.

The rest of the city offers many insights into what occurred in Albania in the last sixty years. As the country had few political allies towards the end of its communist era, it was less progressive than the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The dictator, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Ho-dja), enforced totalitarian values on the people for many years. Every museum and art gallery we visited reiterated this until I could imagine nothing more than permanent lock down. It explains why there are now significantly more Albanians outside the country than in it.

Bunk'Art2 entrance view Tirana

Bunk’Art2

Tiggerbird bunker pose Albania

Bunker post time

Bunkers and rubbish can be found everywhere but there’s much more to see once you get past this. Beautiful beaches, vast scenery and open roads. If you venture beyond the tourist areas around Saranda in the south there’s many areas worthy of a visit including a number of UNESCO sites.As we travelled south from Tirana, it was evident that the influence of communism, has left behind many scars and significantly delayed the progression of modernisation. With this, the infrastructure and tourism is still in the early stages of development and much of this seems to be improving as a result of overseas funding.

Amphitheatre Butrint UNESCO site

Butrint amphitheatre (UNESCO site)

Albania dishes goat cheese salad

A little lunch

The food was immediately surprising, with so much choice. The variations of similar dishes as we travelled further, just got better and better. After a day cooking with a family in the village of Saraqinisht, not far from Gijrokaster, I’m without doubt that Albania is by far the best of the Balkans, for me, when it comes to food.For me, the experience of local life in Albania was by far the highlight. From the coffee culture, and laid back attitude, to evenings sipping home made Raki.

home cooking experience with family near Gjirokaster

Cooking whilst Grandma supervises

Adriatic coastal view from Albania

Ocean view, Adriatic coast

Visit before everyone else does and you will not be disappointed.As for recommending whether you visit, it’s one of the most welcoming countries in the world and definitely the cheapest in the area. We are now in Croatia, still along the Adriatic, and reminiscing of the twisting mountain roads with beautiful ocean views. Here it’s much the same but Albania is somewhat untouched and unmanicured by comparison.

If you want to read more about my travels to Albania, check back soon or follow me on Twitter or Facebook to get updates on latest posts.