Tirana is one of my favorite cities in the Balkans, and it always breaks my heart when I hear a traveler has only dedicated a day – or worse, a mere transit stop – to visiting this incredibly vibrant capital.
OK, Tirana isn’t “pretty” in the traditional European sense of the word. It’ll never beat the Parises or Romes of the world for its beauty. But Tirana has a vibe uniquely its own, and in a world full of cookie-cutter European cities with tourist-packed Old Towns, Tirana is endlessly unique and utterly fascinating, worthy of at least two days on your Albania itinerary.
Get your bearings with a Tirana walking tour
I love starting my time in a city with a walking tour. It helps me to understand what the main tourist sites are, and I find that after doing a walking tour, I can usually tick off about half the things I wanted to do in that city in three hours or less.
I took the Tirana Free Tour on my first visit to Tirana back in 2016 and it was a fantastic introduction to the city of Tirana and the history of Albania. The tour is full of facts without a hint of dullness, as Albanian history is endlessly fascinating and completely new to most travelers.
Go deep into Albania’s dark past at Bunk’art 2
There are two Bunk’arts in Tirana, and each covers a slightly different aspect of Albania’s past. If you have two days or more planned for Tirana, I think it’s worth it to visit both. If you only have one day in Tirana, make it this one.
I’m putting Bunk’art 2 higher on this list of things to do in Tirana because it’s in the dead center of the city, making it far more likely that visitors will come here: it’s pretty hard to miss one of Albania’s signature bunkers emerging from a ground in one of Tirana’s main squares, after all.
Bunk’art 2 is more straightforward in telling the story of Albania’s past century of oppression and paranoia under the cruel hands of Enver Hoxha, the former dictator who ruled over Albania from 1944 to his death in 1985.
Those four decades were some of Albania’s darkest, and Bunk’art 2 illustrates that with poignant stories of those persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured by the regime — all in the home of a former bunker used by the Ministry of Internal Affairs during those years.
See the abandoned Pyramid at the heart of Tirana
The ‘Pyramid of Tirana’ is one of Tirana’s biggest quirks, an abandoned museum set inside a park in the heart of the capital. It was built as a museum in 1988 by Enver Hoxha’s daughter to memorialize him after his death. However, upon the fall of communism in Albania in 1991, the museum’s original function became defunct.
It has since moonlighted as a conference center, NATO base, radio station, film set, and beloved oversized slide by local children (though it is now fenced off to prevent this).
The Pyramid was at risk for demolition for years, but Tirana citizens fought against it; luckily, it was announced last year that the Pyramid will be converted into an IT center for young coders and programmers. If that doesn’t show the direction that Tirana sees itself going forward, I don’t know what does.
See the poignant Bell of Peace next to the Pyramid
In the same park as the Pyramid, you can’t miss the Bell of Peace (Kambana e Paqjes), a small monument with an interesting story.
The bell itself is made of over 20,000 melted-down bullets from the civil unrest and violence that occurred in 1997, after a pyramid scheme practically bankrupted the country and led to a violent outburst that caused 2,000 deaths.
While it’s not a large monument by any stretch of the imagination, the history it represents is an important part of understanding modern-day Albanian history, and I find it rather moving.
Chill out in the hip cafés of Blloku
Albanians love to relax in bars and cafés…. a lot. As in, it’s the world leader in most bars and cafés per capita, and there are so many impressive cafés in Tirana that I wrote a caffeine-fueled post dedicated to them.
Cafés in Tirana are a significant part of the social life of locals, who sip espresso all hours of the day chatting with friends. The weather in Tirana is pretty mild year-round, so most bars and cafés have a large terrace area to relax in.
I could wax poetic about all my favorite cafés in Tirana (oh wait, I already did!) but a handful of my favorites are as follows: Komiteti Kafe-Muzeum, Small, and Nouvelle Vague.
Sip creative cocktails at the colorful Radio Bar
My favorite bar in Tirana is Radio Bar. I went there on my first visit to the city and fell in love with its funky décor — I sat at a table adorned with a vintage sewing machine, so I was pretty much in heaven.
My second visit, I visited during the daytime and noticed how completely colorful the outside area is, with rainbow-colored chairs and tables. I fell in love even deeper with this wonderful bar when I tried their tasty rakia caipirinha (try it if you’re brave – rakia packs a punch to the uninitiated!).
Relax in Skanderbeg Square, the heart of Tirana
To understand the direction where Tirana is headed, you need to visit Skanderbeg Square.
When I first visited Tirana in 2016, Skanderbeg Square was besieged by cars at all sides, and crossing from Et’hem Bey Mosque to Skanderbeg Square was almost like playing real-life Frogger with a dozen maniacal drivers.
Now, Skanderbeg Square is the largest pedestrianized space in the entire Balkan peninsula — and in the words of its mayor, it has become “a destination, rather than a place of transit”.
The architecture around Skanderbeg Square is still a bit of a chaotic pastiche: a socialist realist mural bedecking the National History Museum, an Ottoman-era mosque with a clock tower, newly repainted government buildings in a riot of colors. Its mishmash summarizes modern-day Albania perfectly: a wild variety of influences held together by a modern vision of the city.
Climb the clock tower (when it’s open!) for gorgeous views
The Tirana Clock Tower (called Kulla e Sahatit in Albanian) is located right next to the Et’hem Bey Mosque, built contemporaneously. This gorgeous clocktower is a reminder of the centuries of Ottoman rule that greatly shaped the course of Albania’s history.
The Clock Tower is usually open for visitors so that you can ascend the 90-odd stairs to get sweeping views over Tirana and in particular Skanderbeg Square. However, when I visited in summer 2019, it was temporarily closed, as well as the adjacent Et’hem Bey Mosque, for renovations, so it may still be closed. Please update me if this changes!
Admire the improbable Et’hem Bey Mosque
Why improbable? Well, during Enver Hoxha’s rule over Albania, religion was outlawed and hundreds, if not thousands, of mosques, churches, and other religious buildings were destroyed on his command.
Very few religious buildings remain from the pre-Hoxha era, except those which were of great cultural significance (and those were converted into secular institutions where worship was no longer permitted). Et’hem Bey, constructed in 1823, is an exception to this, having survived destruction by Hoxha’s party due to its cultural importance.
Today, it’s the oldest surviving mosque in Albania. When I visited the interior in 2016, it was clear it was in need of a little TLC, so I’m super happy that it’s getting the renovations it deserves, even if it means being closed for a year or two.
See the construction of the new mosque
It’s hard to ignore the construction of an enormous new mosque in the center of Tirana, which is known as the Great Mosque of Tirana or the Namazgâh Mosque. When completed, it will be the largest mosque in the Balkans, fitting up to 5,000 visitors and worshippers.
The mosque is being completed with the help of Turkey (who is also assisting with the Et’hem Bey restorations), and due to the history of Ottoman occupation and Turkey’s current political situation, that naturally brings up complicated feelings for some Albanians.
Turkey’s influence is clear in the aesthetic of the mosque, which to me resembles a modernized version of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.
While it’s not yet ready, I still think it’s worth walking by, since it’s due to be one of the most important religious sites in the Balkans in years to come.
Take a peek at Enver Hoxha’s former residence
While Albania on the whole has done a better job than most Balkan countries at addressing its complex past of communism and authoritarianism, the city of Tirana always seemed a bit perplexed on how to address the former home in Enver Hoxha.
Located in the heart of Blloku — once reserved for the party elite, now a hipster playground for Tirana’s youth — Enver Hoxha’s residence stood guarded yet virtually untouched for nearly 30 years.
This year, it was announced in an article in the Guardian that it will be converted into a public space. Prime Minister Edi Rama said this of his vision for the space:
“If you erase everything completely it would not be good. It’s important to have his ghost inside. My point is that it should be Enver Hoxha’s house, but inside all the things the guy would hate should happen. This could include modern art classes and exhibitions, literature talks and foreign policy discussions… all things Hoxha would have despised.”
As you’ve probably gathered from all the projects underway I’ve mentioned, the number of things to do in Tirana is always increasing, due to the innovative visions for the city and its entrepreneurial and daring spirit.
While it’s not yet open to the public, that should change shortly. In the meantime, it’s worth visiting it. It’s located at the intersection of Rruga Ismail Qemali and Rruga Ibrahim Rugova
Catch the sunset at Tirana’s chic Sky Bar
One of the best places to catch the sunset in Tirana is from the rotating Sky Bar, located on Rruga Ibrahim Rugova, not far from Hoxha’s former residence.
As predictable for a Sky Bar, prices for drinks is a bit higher than elsewhere in Tirana, because you’re paying for those views. It’s not too outrageous though — expect to spend about 400 lek (~$4 USD) for beer or wine and more for cocktails. The food is supposed to be pretty good, but I can’t vouch for that personally… and there are so many other good restaurants in Tirana worth eating at!
See the historic Tanner’s Bridge
It’s not the most beautiful bridge you’ll ever see, but the Tanner’s Bridge is an interesting sight in Tirana nonetheless, as it’s of the remaining relics of the Ottoman era in the city.
It was built near the now-destroyed Tanners’ Mosque, hence the name of the bridge. This bridge used to be part of the Saint George Road, a network that connected Tirana with the eastern, mountainous part of the country, which brought in livestock and vegetables from rural parts of Albania into the city.
Now, it’s not much more than a curiosity in the center of Tirana, but due to its central position, it’s worth a quick photo stop.
Marvel at the colorful rainbow buildings around Tirana
There are dozens of colorfully painted buildings all over Tirana, centered around Blloku and Pazar i Ri.
Wilson Square (Sheshi Uilson) is one of the epicenters of Tirana’s unique approach to urban revival: the colorful painting of otherwise rather ugly apartment blocks to add a touch of whimsy to the city’s landscape and revitalize it an affordable, quick way.
This approach was championed by Tirana’s former mayor, Edi Rama, (now the Prime Minister of Albania), who was also a painter. His painting blitz of Tirana’s central apartment blocks would change the look of modern Tirana immensely, and I think it’s central to the vision of Tirana today: reworking Tirana into a more liveable and exciting place, with a dose of realism on what the city can and can’t afford.
Learn about Albanian history at the National History Museum
The history of Albania is quite distinct from other countries in the Balkans, which have had more overlap and interaction throughout the centuries. While generally, many tourists focus on learning about Albania’s history in the admittedly intriguing past century of conflict, communism, and independence, the history of Albania is a lot more complex than that.
While it’s a small museum that can be seen in about 30 minutes to an hour, it’s well worth visiting the National History Museum (the building beneath the enormous socialist-realist mosaic in Skanderbeg Square) to get a sense of Albania’s pre-communist history, which is all too often ignored by visitors to the city.
Marvel at the modernist Cloud sculpture and exhibition space
Tirana’s “Cloud” sculpture (called Reja in Albanian) is so much more than meets the eye.
From afar, it looks like an oddly geometric cloud, but you can walk inside and sit and see it from all sorts of unique angles. It was created by the Japanese artist Sou Fujimoto, who also showed the piece in London.
It’s also an interactive events space – in the summer, movies are shown here, and it hosts workshops in front of the National Arts Gallery (below).
Check out modern Albanian art
After visiting the Cloud sculpture, be sure to head inside to the National Arts Gallery, which shows Albanian art and has intriguing exhibits which change regularly.
It’s a relatively small museum and only needs perhaps an hour if you’re a big art fan or a bit less if you just want to browse. That said, I still think it’s worth a visit if you have two days in Tirana, but maybe it shouldn’t be one of the top things to do in Tirana if you only have one day.
See the Albanian Open Air Museum (Post-Blloku)
This small ‘open air museum’ is really a series of three sites in one park across the street from the Gallery of Arts, all dedicated to the theme of the end of communism.
There’s a piece of the Berlin Wall on display here, as well as one of Albania’s hundreds of thousands of nuclear bunkers, and finally an abstract sculpture made from columns from a mine shaft at Spac Prison, a forced labor camp and political prison located near Tirana and used against political enemies during Hoxha’s rule.
Explore Tirana’s up-and-coming street art scene
There are several pieces of interesting street art and murals around Tirana, in addition to the colorful paint jobs that many of the buildings in the center have.
Unfortunately, the information about Tirana’s street art scene isn’t super organized as of now, so it’s more of a ‘walk and discover’ situation than being able to outline a street art walking route. I expect this will change in the near future as more street art seekers travel to Tirana and document it!
Visit Tirana’s scenic artificial lake
The Grand Park of Tirana is the lungs of a built-up, dense city: one of few green respites from the busy, chaotic traffic of Tirana, located just due south of Blloku. And at the heart of the Grand Park is the artificial lake (Liqeni Artificial i Tiranës), which may be manmade but is extremely beautiful nonetheless.
A handful of great restaurants have opened up here, including one of my favorite restaurants in Tirana, Mullixhiu, which focuses on creative Albanian farm-to-table dining.
The loop around the lake is about 5 kilometers, so only embark on it if you have an hour or two to dedicate to walking; otherwise, I suggest visiting it briefly, grabbing a cup of coffee at one of the cafés flanking the lake (it is Albania, after all – a café is never more than a stone’s throw away) to relax and take in the views.
Take the cable car up to Mount Dajti
Tirana’s artificial lake may be the green lungs of the city, but Mount Dajti is its true nature escape. Take the Dajti Express from the outskirts of the city up to the top of Mount Dajti, a 15-minute journey that costs 1,000 lek roundtrip (~$10 USD).
It’s the longest cableway in the Balkans and is ultra-modern, using Austrian cable cars (as someone who has taken a handful of ultra-slow, rickety cable cars in the Balkans — I appreciate this!) to whisk you up over a thousand meters rather quickly and smoothly.
At the top, there are hiking trails so you can enjoy Dajti National Park, as well as paragliding and mountain biking opportunities. For those looking for a little less activity, there’s also plenty of relaxation to be had.
There’s also the Dajti Tower Hotel where you can stay the night if you want to wake up in the mountains, a rotating bar in the Dajti Tower where you can enjoy marvelous views over Tirana, and the delicious Resturant Ballkoni Dajtit where you can get a great traditional Albanian meal like a meshana skara (mixed grill).
Visit the immersive, impressive Bunk’art 1
Combine your visit to Mount Dajti with a visit to Bunk’art 1, as the entrance to the cable car is only a few minutes’ walk from Bunk’art 1.
Though part of the same project, the two museums are rather different, and having visited both on separate visits to the city (as Bunk’art 2 wasn’t there yet on my first visit to Tirana) I can say it’s worth seeing both, even back to back.
Bunk’art 1 is especially interesting as it is much larger: five levels, in fact. It was meant to be used by Hoxha and his regime as a bunker in case of nuclear attack. The museum covers the history of Albania’s past century in depth, similar to Bunk’art 2. However, it also includes a lot more conceptual art as well as rooms in the bunker preserved as they were originally intended to be used to give you the sense of how the bunker would have been used in decades past.
Shop at the colorful Pazar i Ri
Another new fixture of Tirana’s tourism scene is the Pazar i Ri, “New Market.” It’s located a short walk from Skanderbeg Square and it’s one of the best places to shop in Tirana — I picked up the kitschiest souvenir ever here, an Albanian bunker-themed ashtray. My friend was delighted by it, and it’s a wonderful quirky gift for friends back home.
There are also vendors selling fresh produce, canned and jarred edibles like local honey and jams, and other souvenirs that you’ll be tempted to take home with you. I’m not a big shopper but I still couldn’t help but leave with a handful of goodies for loved ones back home.
It’s also one of the most colorful places in the city, with beautifully painted buildings inspired by textiles and embroidery, so it’s well worth a photo stop even if you don’t get inspired to buy.
Stroll down the pedestrian Murat Toptani Street
Tirana’s Murat Toptani Street is the first true ‘pedestrian’ street in the city — one that is sorely needed amongst the traffic and congestion of downtown Tirana.
The castle area (Kalaja e Tiranës, below) is one of the highlights of this street, but there is also a large shopping complex and several cute cafés with extensive terraces on Murat Toptani as well.
Relax in the revitalized Kalaja e Tiranës area
Another new fixture in Tirana’s tourism scene, the ‘Tirana Castle’ area was completely undeveloped when I first visited the city but now is one of the cooler places to hang out and enjoy a coffee or shop for souvenirs.
I loved my mid-day snack at Luga e Argjendte, full of traditional Albanian appetizers like rose jam, homemade cheese, and spicy stuffed peppers. There are also several souvenir shops selling slightly elevated versions of what you’ll find in many of the bazaars around Tirana.
Learn about the Albanian secret police at the House of Leaves
The House of Leaves is dedicated to the actions of the Sigurimi, Albania’s secret police force, during the Communist era. It focuses on the vast surveillance efforts that the Sigurimi used to monitor the Albanian people and quell uprising efforts.
There is quite a bit of overlap in terms of thematics and history covered in Bunk’art 2, so you may want to give this or the other a skip. I’d say if you are narrowing it down to two museums between Bunk’arts 1 and 2 and the House of Leaves, to visit Bunk’art 1 outside the city center and the House of Leaves inside the city center to see two different visions of preserving the past without overlapping too much on the history.
Sample Tirana’s fine dining scene
Tirana is quickly becoming a gastronomic destination, with a focus on local ingredients, seasonal produce, and a combination of returning to Albanian traditional and looking to outside influences as well.
I had a number of fantastic meals in Tirana (I’ve outlined my favorites in more detail on this post on Tirana’s best restaurants), but I’d say SALT is fantastic if you crave a little Asian flair, A La Santé and Vila at Artigiano are some of the best Italian-inspired options, and Mullixhiu is delicious for local Albanian fare executed beautifully.
5 Things to Pack to Travel Hassle-Free in Albania
We have a complete packing list for Albania, but make sure you bring these five items with you!
Lonely Planet Western Balkans is a great guidebook for your visit to Albania, and it’s great if you’re also visiting any combination of the following countries: North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. It can be really hard (sometimes impossible) to buy a physical guidebook in English once you’re in Albania, so if you like having your guidebook in your hands you will need to bring it with you from home.
Unlocked Cell Phone: Stephanie and I both have unlocked cell phones that we bought in Europe (Steph uses a Samsung and I use an iPhone). This allows up to get SIM cards when we travel so that we always have the internet. This has gotten us out of so many jams!
If you don’t have an unlocked cell phone that can use an Albanian sim card, you can buy a cheaper unlocked phone online and bring it with you!
Pacsafe Citysafe or Other Anti-Theft Bag: This is the bag both Stephanie and I use (and they also make men’s versions). It has a pouch with RFID technology so our credit cards can’t get scanned from afar, interlocking zippers to make it harder to pickpocket, and it’s roomy enough to be a perfect sightseeing day bag. It’s also aesthetically pleasing and stylish enough to be used as an everyday bag, which is unusual for a bag with so many safety features.
A Sturdy Moneybelt: If you don’t want to get a new bag with anti-theft features as I use, you can use a money belt instead. I prefer to have these features built into my bag instead, but I know for a lot of people a money belt is a less expensive investment than a new bag.
Grayl Water Filter: While the water is safe to drink in the country’s larger cities, you need to avoid it in the small towns and villages inland and on the coast. If you don’t want to be buying millions of plastic water bottles, you can get a reusable water bottle that comes with a water filter so that you can stick to the tap water and reduce your plastic waste.
Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, TP & other Balkan transit needs. Bathrooms in the Balkans tend to be… how can we say it?… not so well-stocked. Save yourself the disappointment and bring a mini-rescue pack of wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
Where to Stay in Tirana
We are working on hotel guides for Albania’s major cities. When traveling to Albania, we recommend checking out Booking.com as early as possible. The country is gaining in popularity as a tourist destination, so some of the best spots do sell-out early (especially in summer in Tirana and on the coast)!
More Albania Travel Resources
First, start by reading our post on planning a trip to Albania. It covers everything from visas to vaccinations to what to pack, so it’s a great jumping-off point for your travel plans.
If you’re curious about the currency used in Albania (the lek) and how tipping works, we recommend our Balkan currency guide to learn all about the Albanian lek and tipping culture. We also have a post on Albanian cuisine!
If you’re looking for even more places to add to your Albania itinerary, we have a bunch of ideas for you from us and other bloggers in this collaborative post about the 15 best places to visit in Albania! If you love UNESCO sites, make sure to check out Gjirokastra, Berat, and Butrint!
We are working on all of our Tirana guides, but for now, we have posts on the best restaurants in Tirana, the best Tirana cafes, and the best Instagram spots in Tirana, plus how to visit the Tirana Christmas Market.
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
If you’re planning a trip to Albania, make sure to travel with a valid travel insurance policy. While we feel safe in Albania, it’s a good idea to be covered in case of an emergency. Travel insurance covers you in case of theft or an accident, which can save your trip if there’s an incident.
For travel insurance, Allison and I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.