Why visit Tirana?
Tirana is certainly not for the faint-hearted: a whirl of potholed pavements, grid locked traffic and a general air of disorganised riot which can be a little overawing for some. However, considering that Albania‘s capital and most important city spent the majority of the last half a century under a totalitarian isolationist dictator, Tirana is a surprisingly lively place.
Let’s be honest Tirana is never going to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities. There are little to no historical monuments, as most of its Ottoman & Italian legacy was ripped apart to be replaced by brutalist communist architecture, but Tirana has still come a long way since opening up to the outside world. The Blloku area, which was off-limits to all but Party members during Communist times, is now the city’s most vibrant quarter and home to espresso-sipping locals and a never ending stream of new and trendy bars openings.
Travellers will enjoy Tirana’s up and coming air with the sense of a city growing into its role as modern European capital.
(1-negative experience; 5-positive experience)
Despite the area around Tirana having been inhabited since Paleolithic times, a settlement on the site of the modern city was not established until much later, as proved by the oldest discovery in downtown Tirana being a Roman house. Other structures from the antiquity outpost include a castle which was built by Emperor Justinian in 520 AD and restored by Ahmed Pasha Toptani in the 18th century but this shouldn’t overstate the importance of what was essentially a village during Illyrian and classical times.
Tirana was founded in 1614, when the local Turkic ruler Sulejman Bargjini established an Ottoman town with a mosque, Turkish baths and a commercial centre. It began to develop in the early 16th century, when a bazaar was built, and its craftsmen began to manufacture silk, cotton, and leather fabrics, ceramics, iron, silver, and gold artefacts. The original city grew up around the Bami District and later the Mujos quarter and it was also during this period that the Ethem Bey mosque was built, which has been preserved and is located on today’s Skenderbeg Square.
In the 19th century Tirana was an important centre of the Rilindja (Albanian national awakening of the 19th century) and the uprising of November 26th 1912 against Ottoman Turks is still a source of national pride. When Albania did finally achieve independence from Ottoman rule, Albania’s newly appointed capital, Tirana, was transformed by Mussolini favourites Florestano de Fausto and Armando Brasini who laid the basis for the modern-day arrangement of the ministerial area of the city centre.
During World War II, Tirana was occupied by the Italian Army in 1939, who subsequently built several administration and residential buildings during their time in charge. It was also in the city that Enver Hoxha with other Albanian communists founded the Communist Party of Albania who then set about freeing Albania from foreign occupation. The town was liberated after a fierce battle against the German forces, on November 17th 1944.
Once the Communist got in charge they set about recasting Tirana in their own image. Massive socialist-styled apartment complexes and factories were built, while Skanderbeg Square was redesigned with a number of buildings being demolished including Tirana’s former Old Bazaar and Orthodox Cathedral which were razed to the ground to be replaced by a Soviet-styled Palace of Culture. The Italian-built municipal building was destroyed and replaced by the National Historical Museum, while the former Parliament of Albania, was turned into a children’s theatre.
Following the fall of communism in the 1990s, Albania was transformed from a centrally planned economy into a market economy. Private car ownership was reinstated and businesses re-established. However, Tirana continues to be plagued by its old ghosts: poor city lighting and road quality are still major problems as is corruption.
Tirana has a humid subtropical climate with hot and dry summers and mild and rainy winters. The average temperatures ranges between 5oC in January to 28oC in the hottest months.
Weather in Tirana now
Tirana’s premium festival is the Tirana International Film Festival (TIFF) which is held in November or December and has been increasing in popularity every year since it was established in 2003. That is not all, however. Tirana Jazz Festival is another groovy little event that has been making waves in south-east Europe. The Albania wide Summer Festival is also celebrated enthusiastically in Tirana on the 14th March and is marked by many events including the city marathon and a circus show in Rinia Park.
Tirana is surrounded by hills, with the Dajti Mountain rising up to the east. The Tiranë river runs through the city, аs does the Lanë stream and are a useful means of orientating yourself. They, together with the Dëshmorët e Kombit street, roughly bisect the central part of Tirana into four sections. Skanderbeg Square lies at the northern end of Dëshmorët e Kombit and Mother Teresa square at the south. The major monuments are dotted in and around this road. The main business and entertainment area is “The Block” (Blloku), the southern area of the city where the former communist leaders lived under strict protection.
Whilst the city centre is small enough to be explored on foot, be aware that the pavements are a shambles. There is no continuity in width, condition and construction material and there are frequently large holes. So, watch your step!
Tirana Free Walking Tour
Monument & Sights Guide
Sheshi Nënë Tereza
(Mother Teresa Square)
What is it? Second largest square in Tirana & site of the University of Tirana
Where is it? On the southern side of the Lanë stream at the end of the Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit
Information: Named in honour of Albania’s most famous daughter, Mother Teresa square is one of the most popular landmarks of Tirana and is the home of the city’s university. On the square, there is a small monument to Mother Teresa, and some of the city’s most important buildings are located here. To the east, the Archaeological Museum in front of which can be found some unique monuments to totalitarianism. Including a piece of the Berlin Wall and one of the many bunkers that can be found throughout the country. Qemal Stafa Stadium lies behind the square to the west and south of the square, Tirana’s Grand Park (Parku i Madh) the site of the artificial Lake of Tirana, a popular weekend destination for many Tiranians.
Monument Type: Former Museum
Address: Rruga Papa Gjon Pali II
Opening Times: –
Information: Formerly known as “Enver Hoxha Museum.” The unique pyramid-shaped structure was designed by the daughter of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha and served as a museum to his legacy until 1991. More recently it was commandeered by NATO & humanitarian agencies during the Kosovo war and today is used as a car park and antenna. Despite slowly falling apart and almost beyond decay, if you’re a fan of blocky communist architecture, you’ll love it.
Ura e Tabakëve
What is it? 18th century Ottoman stone footbridge
Where is it? On the southern end of Rruga George W. Bush
Information: The Tanners’ Bridge formed part of the larger Shëngjergj Road that linked Tirana with the eastern highlands and was so called due to its adjacency to the area of butcher’s and leather workers. After the river was rerouted in the 1930s, the bridge fell into disrepair and has only recently been restored to working order.
Kuvendi i Shqipërisë
(Parliament of Albania)
Monument Type: Parliament
Address: Rruga George W. Bush
Opening Times: –
Information: The super secretive Parliament of Albania is surrounded by guards who don’t like you getting to close. What can you see is the pathway leading up to entrance, its façade and lots and lots of flags.
Katedralja e Ringjalljes së Krishtit
(Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral)
Monument Type: Orthodox Cathedral
Address: Rruga Ibrahim Rugova
Opening Times: 12 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Information: The newly built Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral was opened in 2012 and is the third largest Orthodox church in Europe. The building consists of a large dome building and an adjacent bell tower. The complex also includes a chapel, an administrative building of the Holy Synod and a cultural centre.
Xhamia e Et’hem Beut
(Et’hem Bey Mosque)
Monument Type: Mosque
Address: Sheshi Skënderbej
Opening Times: 8 a.m. – 11 a.m.
Information: Spared destruction during the turbulent atheism campaign of the late 1960s because of its cultural significance, the Et’hem Bey Mosque is one Tirana’s oldest and prettiest buildings. Particularly delightful are the frescoes depict trees, waterfalls and bridges, even more so being that still life paintings are a rarity in Islamic art.
Kulla e Sahatit
(Clock Tower of Tirana)
Monument Type: Clock tower and viewing point
Address: Rruga 28 Nëntori
Opening Times: Mon: 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Thu: 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. & 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Price: 100 lek
Information: The spiralled Clock Tower of Tirana was built in 1822 and contains 90 steps climbing to a height of 35m. It originally contained a bell from Venice that marked the hour but was destroyed by German bombardment during the 2nd World War and was replaced by a numeral clock after the war’s end. The opening times are limited but if you’re lucky your climb will be rewarded with lovely views over the city.
What is it? Main square of Tirana, named after the nationalist hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg
Where is it? Very centre of the city and meeting point of the major roads Kavaja St, Rruga e Durrësit, Bulevardi Zogu I & Rruga e Dibrës
Information: During the Albanian Monarchy, the square was the cultural centre of life, housing the bazaar and other important buildings. During the communist period, the buildings were removed and a statue of Stalin was erected where now the horseback figure of Skanderbeg rises up. Today, the square buzzes with the sound of traffic, the beeping of horns and the chug of engines. On the upside, the square is surrounding by a number of notable buildings including the National Historical Museum, Town Hall, Xhamia e Et’hem Beut & Kulla e Sahatit.
Muzeu Historik Kombëtar
(National Historical Museum)
Monument Type: Museum
Address: Sheshi Skënderbej
Opening Times: Tues – Sat: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Sun: 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Price: General Admission 200 lek Students 60 lek
Information: The National Historical Museum is Albania’s largest museum and was opened on 28 October 1981. The imposing mosaic façade looming of the main entrance is entitled The Albanians and depicts Albanians victorious, perfect & proud from Illyrian times through to WWII. Inside the museum, the collection is almost entirely in English and contains pieces dating chronologically from ancient Illyria to the new post-communist era. The museum’s highlights are arguably the icons by Onufri, a renowned 16th-century Albanian master of colour and the areas dedicated to those who suffered persecution under the communist regime
11 Things to do for free in Tirana
Tirana is not a city packed with sights but look a little deeper into Albania’s capital and you will find you can achieve a lot, all without spending a penny. So let us tighten our shoestrings and take at a look at Hitch-Hikers Handbook‘s 11 things to do for free in Tirana…
① Sheshi Nënë Tereza (Mother Teresa Square) is surrounded by some of the city’s most important buildings. On the east of the square lies the Archaeological Museum, in front of which, can be found some unique monuments to totalitarianism. Including a piece of the Berlin Wall and one of the many bunkers that can be found throughout the country.
② Ura e Tabakëve (Tanners’ Bridge) is an interesting piece of architecture and is an 18th century Ottoman stone footbridge which once formed part of the larger Shëngjergj Road that linked Tirana with the eastern highlands.
③ Katedralja e Ringjalljes së Krishtit (Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral: Rr. Ibrahim Rugova) was opened in 2012 and is the third largest Orthodox church in Europe. The building consists of a large dome building and an adjacent bell tower and is free to visit everyday 12 a.m.-11 p.m
④ Take a stroll around Tregu i Madh (the Big Market: Rr. Ferit Xhajko), the largest of Tirana’s Turkish bazaar style markets. It is located north of the city centre, near the Mother Teresa hospital and is famed for its Turkish influenced products such as coffee, traditional sweets, carpets and handicrafts.
⑤ Piramida (The Pyramid: Rr. Papa Gjon Pali II) is a unique pyramid-shaped structure that formerly housed as the Museum to the legacy of the former dictator Enver Hoxha. Despite slowly falling apart and almost beyond decay, if you’re a fan of blocky communist architecture, you’ll love it.
⑥ Sheshi Skënderbej (Skanderbeg Square) is the heart of Albanian’s capital and its most emblematic public space. Once an elegant and bustling centre of cultural life in the city; today, the square buzzes with the sound of traffic, the beeping of horns and the chug of engines. On the upside, the square is surrounding by a number of notable buildings including the National Historical Museum, Town Hall, Xhamia e Et’hem Beut & Kulla e Sahatit.
⑦ Parku i Madh (Grand Park) is the lungs of the city and a great place to escape the traffic and dust of summertime Tirana. The park is extremely popular with locals who take the time to fish or swim in the artificial lake and snooze on the grass after lunch. To reach the park walk up the path to the west of the university building on Mother Teresa Square.
⑧ If you take a quick trip up Rr Murat Toptani being the National Art Gallery you can find a 6m high wall covered in vines. This wall is the last remnant of the once great Byzantine-era Kalaja e Justinianit (Fortress of Justinian) that dates back to the 14th century.
⑨ Tirana’s most fashionable district Blloku (The Block) was once an area reserved for those in power alone but today it is teeming with shops, cafés, restaurants and bars. If you want to see and be seen, this is the place to head to.
⑩ Xhamia e Et’hem Beut (Et’hem Bey Mosque: Sheshi Skënderbej) was spared destruction during the turbulent atheism campaign of the late 1960s because of its cultural significance, and is one Tirana’s oldest and prettiest buildings. Particularly delightful are the frescoes depict trees, waterfalls and bridges, even more so being that still-life paintings are a rarity in Islamic art. It is free to visit everyday 8-11 a.m.
⑪ The pedestrianised Rruga Murat Toptani is probably the city’s most picturesque street. It contains the Kinema Millenium gardens, a rather expensive but pleasant cafe area, and during December it is transformed into a Christmas market, which is rather surprising given that its a Muslim country.
Staying in Tirana is becoming easier by the day. In the space of 15 short years the accommodation options have grown from 2 bare, basic hotels to a multitude of hotel and hostel options. Below, we offer the most affordable options in town but be warned in the summer demand is high and places fill fast.
Trip’n’Hostel (Rr. Musa Maci 1) comes highly recommend by Hitch-Hikers Handbook and offers dormitory options (9-10€) and private doubles (30€). The hostel is centrally located, offers WiFi and lockers and has common room, kitchen, bar (with cheap coffee & beer) and the owners are both welcoming and helpful. Check out our review of Trip’n’Hostel.
Milingona Hostel (Rr. Riza Cerova 197/2) is located a short walk from the main square and sleeping options include dormitory (10€), private singles (15€) and even camping options (7€) if you have your own tent. Facilities include WiFi, common room, lockers and a BBQ.
Tirana Backpacker Hostel (Rruga Bogdaneve 3) comes highly recommend and offers dorm beds (10-12€) and private doubles (30€). Other facilities include WiFi, breakfast, lockers and the possibility of bike hire (5€)
Like many things in Tirana, the nightlife scene is not as well developed as in other places, but it is growing fast. A night for the locals usually includes an evening stroll (xhiro) ending up in the city’s main bar area blloku. Please note however that Albanians are not the biggest drinkers and most likely the majority of bars will be full of Westerns and other foreigners. It is also common for bars in Blloku to mutate from a cafe in the day, a bar in the evening and a club at night.
Things to try & buy
Tirana is packed full of interesting souvenir ideas but they are spread across a number of different locations. Here is out advice on interesting gift ideas and where to get them.
→ Located to the north of the city centre, near the Mother Teresa hospital, is the largest of Tirana’s Turkish bazaar style markets Tregu i Madh (the Big Market: Rr. Ferit Xhajko). Here you can pick up many Turkish influenced products such as coffee, traditional sweets, carpets and handicrafts.
→ On and around Rr. Qemal Strafa, you can find a huge amount of street hawkers, handicraft shops and market stalls where you can pick up an authentic souvenir. Items include interesting furniture and handicrafts and a particularly interesting idea might be one the many hand produced trays, ubiquitous in Albanian houses.
→ Along Rr. Luigj Kurakuqi & Rr. e Barrikadave are the more traditional souvenir shops selling everything from clothes to watches and from lighters to copper-craft. Items made from bone are also seen as local specialities.
The most common food in Tirana is the ever present qebab (kebabs) and qoftë (grilled lamb rissoles), often served with a bowl of kos (yogurt). In the way of snack food burek, a pastry filled with cheese, meat or spinach common around the Balkans; and sufllaqë, sliced kebab meat and french fries stuffed in a roll of flatbread are the cheapest way to go. Local specialities you may want to try include Dolma (Sarma): stuffed grape leaves with rice, Fërgesë Tirane (Tirana stew): a hot fried dish of meat, liver, eggs and tomatoes.
To drink, in Tirana coffee is king and is drunk in both Turkish and espresso style. If the harder stuff is consumed then it will probably be Rakı or the locally produced Skënderbeg cognac. In the beer department , the light lager Tirana Beer is the most widespread choice.
WiFi in Tirana shouldn’t be too hard to find. In the centre and around the university there are numerous cafés and bars that offer internet services, and failing that, you can always try one of the hotels or hostels in the city. Check out this useful map with some free WiFi spots marked:
Tirana International Airport is located 11km north-west of Tirana in the village of Rinas. Numerous airlines operating services here including British Airways (London-Gatwick), Lufthansa (Munich), Blu-express (Bologna, Rome, Venice) & Turkish Airlines (Istanbul).
Tirana train station is currently under construction as of late 2012, so for the moment there are no train services to Tirana. Instead, there is a replacement bus service to Vorë where passengers can catch trains to the southwest (Durres) & north (Shkoder).
Bus travel in Tirana can be separated into two forms: buses and private mini-van (furgon). Furgons leave as soon as they are full so there are no fixed timetables as such. There is also no central bus station and buses and mini-vans leave and drop off at different points around the city. Check out the latest information here or look at the information and map below:
→ International buses, such as Montengro and Kosovo, often depart from behind the National History Museum on Rruga Ded Gjo Luli.
→ Buses to Durrës leave from north of Sheshi Skënderbej and the end of Bulevardi Zogu I. Buses to Shkodër depart nearby, from Rruga Karl Gega.
→ Furgons & buses heading south-east towards Elbasan, Pogradec and Korça will most likely depart from beside the north-east corner of the Qemal Stafa stadium.
→ A large number of furgons and buses heading south, including to Berat, depart from the largest bus terminal in the city which is west of the centre on Rruga Muhedin Llagani.
City buses in Tirana are not fast but they are cheap (30 LEK). Those with the sign ‘Unaze’ are for the ring road and travel in a loop around the city centre. There are also lines serving suburban shopping centres and Tirana Airport and most go through the central square Sheshi Skënderbej.
Tirana is connected to Durrës in the east by the SH2 & SH6. The main road running north is the SH1 which connects to Shkoder and on to Montenegro. The SH3 main road travels south to Elbasan, and then east to Macedonia.
Tirana Hitchhiking Out
Hitchhiking out of Tirana is very doable. People will stop, however, they will sometimes ask for money. Our advice is to make sure that your driver understands the lift is free before getting in the car. Read about our first experience of hitchhiking in Albania to prepare yourself the journey ahead.
North towards Shkodër, Montenegro and Kosovo
First head to the square Zogu i Zi. From here, follow the large street Rr. Dritan Hoxha away from the centre for about 100m. On the right side of the road runs a bus to Kamez (no number: look for Kamez on the front: 30 lek). Take this bus to the last stop (20-25 min). Having exited the bus, walk towards and across the roundabout 20 m away. You can start hitching from the other side.
West towards Durrës
The key is to get as far along as Rr. Durrësit as you dare. Go too far and the cars are going too fast, too close to the city and everybody is a taxi and buses harass you. We took a bus from Sheshi Skënderbej in the direction of Durres and got off when we thought it was far enough. We recommend before the Zogu i Zi roundabout or after on Rr. Dritan Hoxha.
South towards Elbasan & East towards Macedonia
There is a free bus from opposite Kulla e Sahatit (Clock Tower) that takes you all the way from the city centre to the out of town shopping centre Tirana East Gate, that leaves ever 20 min from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Once you reach Tirana East Gate, head back to the road and start thumbing from the other side of the roundabout.
Written by: Jon