If you have read my recap of travel year 2018, you read that I spent a lot of time in the Balkan. I have already written an article about the Macedonian capital Skopje, but also neighboring country Albania was on my list. Capital city Tirana was my destination and while I was not expecting much I can tell you that I actually liked this city very much. Just like Skopje it is not your average city trip destination, but I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by Tirana! The city does not have much sights, but it is the story behind Tirana what interested me the most. In this article I am sharing my five reasons with you why you should consider visiting Tirana this year.
1. It is the only city in Europe with a pyramid
Yes, you are reading this correctly. In the city center of Tirana you can find a pyramid. Not one made of sand, but one built up from concrete and glass. This building in the shape of a pyramid was constructed in 1988 in honor of former national leader Enver Hoxha. Hoxha died in 1985 and the pyramid was a commemorative monument for the former Albanian dictator. I will share more details about this guy later, but let’s say that he was ruling the country with an iron fist. After the fall of the Albanian communist regime in 1990, the pyramid changed continuously in function. It was used as an exhibition space, NATO base and a night club. You can say that no one really knew what to do with it. The building is quite ugly and in decay. It was supposed to be demolished, but the local government did not go through with it because of local protests. And rightly so, the pyramid is an undeniable feature of Tirana. When you say Tirana, you say pyramid. It is a popular hang-out spot and local youngsters love to challenge each other to run up to the top. If you want to see the pyramid as it is now, act quick. In 2018, a Dutch organization has presented its plan to transform the pyramid into a modern education center. So it might change soon.
2. Tirana is extremely colorful!
What struck me in Tirana is how colorful the city is. Not a single building in this city is dull and grey, everything is painted in bright colors. This is the result of the policy of former mayor Edi Rama who is also a painter. In the nineties Tirana was a grey city, one of the poorest cities in Europe. The city council had no money to invest in infrastructure. Rama decided to use what Albania did have, and that was paint. By using color he wanted to leave the grey communist past behind and rejuvenate the city. And it worked, the city started moving forward. The current mayor has continued this colorful policy. The most colorful buildings are located at the Bajram Curri Boulevard and around the river Lana. My time in Tirana was way too short to see all the colorful buildings, but still I got a good impression. Next time I would like to see more!
3. Tirana has also a hipster side: Blloku
Tirana is not only colorful, it also has a hipster side. The hipster part of town is Blloku. This used to be a closed-off neighborhood where the communist loyalists lived. Today it is the place where the youth of Tirana hang out. I only visited this place during the day. The buildings here are just as colorful as the rest of town. My absolute favorites were the building with the jockey on it and the building with a winding rainbow on the front. In the evening this area comes even more alive. Bars open their doors and the youth of Tirana dance the night away.
4. Bunker country Albania: a fascinating history
Do you like countries with a intriguing history? Then Albania will suit you very well. The recent history of Albania is one with some heavy dark pages. From 1944 to 1992 Enver Hoxha ruled over the country. Hoxha was a sympathizer of the Russian communist leader Joseph Stalin. After the death of Stalin in 1953 Hoxha saw it as his duty to continue with the ideals of Stalinism in Albania. He isolated the country from the outside world and he introduced the world’s first atheist state. Hoxha was a paranoid man and he saw danger everywhere. He gave orders to build antinuclear bunkers all over the country to protect the Albanian citizens against foreign invasions. In total there were 800.000 bunkers built, 1 for every 4 citizens.
Do you really want to understand what the terror regime of Hoxha looked like? Then visit one of the bunkers. You have two of them in Tirana: Bunk’Art 1 is an actual Cold War bunker outside the city and Bunk’Art 2 is a museum copy and is located in the city center (near Rruga Sermedin Said Toptani). I visited the last one, because I did not have much time (remember, I was in Albania for work). I thought the museum was really impressive. As a visitor you wander through an underground network of corridors with small rooms left and right. In these rooms you can read more about the daily practices of the Albanian intelligence service and Sigurimi (secret police) during the Hoxha regime. It is bizarre to think that this only happened not too long ago.
Entrance ticket for Bunk’Art 2 is 500 Leke. For an audiotour you pay 200 Leke (2018).
5. Art is everywhere: spot the colorful electricity boxes
You get the hint: Tirana is a colorful and artistic city. But the art is not only used on walls. Also everyday street objects like electricity boxes are used as canvas. A couple of years ago I already saw this in my own country. In The Hague, street art on electricity boxes is used to brighten up a neighborhood. Also in Tirana, these dull street objects are used for art. During my walk through the city center of Tirana I decided to pay attention to this and I saw all sorts of cartoons and film figures. From Batman to Walter White and Pokémon, once you pay attention you see so much!
More recommendations for Tirana
- Join a Free Walking Tour: I did this myself and I found it really interesting to learn more about the background of the city. Also the guide told a number of personal stories about his youth during the Hoxha regime, really interesting!
- Walk around Skanderbeg square: this square is not mother’s finest. It is empty, grey, gigantic and always under construction. But you do find here the National Historical Museum (unfortunately little to no English explanation, beautiful mosaic on the front though), the statue of national hero Skanderbeg and the Et’hem Bey Mosque. Worth a visit!
- Go with the cable car to the top of Mountain Dajti: just like Skopje Tirana also has its own cable car. Go to the top of Mountain Dajti and enjoy the amazing view over the city. I did not do this myself, but it is on my list for next time. A ticket for the Dajti Express is 800 Leke per person (return ride). Easy to combine with a visit to Bunk’Art 1.
- Got some time left? Go on a day trip: Tirana is a perfect base for a number of day trips. Go to the beach at Durres (30 minute drive), head into nature at Shkoder (3 hours drive) or go to Berat, the ‘City of Thousand Windows’ (3 hours drive).
In and around Skanderberg square.
Have you been to Tirana? What are your reasons to visit this city?