Tirana, with so much to offer, is the capital city of Albania. Surrounded by mountains, it is located in the center of the country. I have often heard it referred to as “the quirkiest capital city in Europe” but I have yet to figure out why it is been given that title. Personally, I think it’s a great city and I usually end up there for a day or two per month. I will admit that Tirana isn’t a beautiful city; it’s one of those cities that has a “feel” to it. It is great for shopping, has countless coffee shops, and boasts a great nightlife, especially in the Blloku (a term that is used to refer to the block of homes where the former Albanian Communist leaders resided) neighborhood. There are also some very interesting historical things to see and do which we will explore together. Read on!
As you can see, from the map above, there are many “neighborhoods”, districts, if you will, in Tirana, all of which have a distinctive flavor. My favorite, however, is the Blloku neighborhood.
TIRANA FUN FACT:
Do you know that Tirana is the second city in the world with the highest number of coffee bars? In fact, a staggering 18% of businesses in Albania are coffee bars or restaurants. In all of Albania, there are a whopping 473 coffee shops per 100,000 residents!
The Blloku is a lively area with countless nightspots, coffee shops, restaurants, shopping, and to me, it is a jumping-off spot to some of the coolest things to see and do in Tirana. The Blloku is a short walk to Skanderbeg Square (located in the Tregu Çam neighborhood), the main square in Tirana which is known as a gathering hub for activity and rich with history. Around Skanderbeg, you will find government offices, the Opera House, The Bunk’Art Museums and the National Museum of Albania (which has a huge mural painted on the outside depicting patriotic Albanians defending their country), a huge “can’t miss” statue of Skanderbeg and amazingly enough, the Mosque, Et’hem Bey, which was completed at the start of the 19th century. The Mosque remained through the Communist Regime despite, beginning in 1967, Albanians being banned from practicing any religion.
From here, you can make your way to the Pyramid, which was originally built in the 1980s to honor Envar Hoxa, the Communist regime leader of that day. Today, the Pyramid is closed but under renovation and slated to become the “people’s monument”. A Dutch firm has been retained to oversee the renovation and once completed, the monument will have cafes, studios, workshops, and classrooms where I believe, there will be free classes offered. Continuing your walk from the Pyramid on Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit, you will find yourself at Mother Teresa Square, named after, you guessed it, Mother Teresa who is the most revered figure in Albanian history.
As you walk from Skanderbeg Square up this main road, passing the Pyramid to Mother Teresa Square, you will see many green areas with benches, almost life-size chess boards, play areas for kids, and table after table of men selling books. I have tried many times to research the history of these book sales and can’t seem to find anything which explains the origin of this practice. I wonder if the practice is related to the fact that in 1984, books that “were considered harmful to society” were banned in Albania? Close to Mother Teresa Square is the Grand Park, which is the backdrop for the Artificial Lake, another hub for activity, where you will find joggers, bikers, and families having picnics, and is considered a fabulous spot for nature lovers.
Walking back to the hotel after Dinner this evening I snapped these pictures:
Also, from the Blloku a visitor is a short distance from “Embassy Row” where you will find many of the 38 embassies located in Tirana. Interestingly, the American Embassy is not located here but it is just a short walk away.
If you are in the mood to shop, there is a large American-style mall called Toptani Shopping mall about a 20-minute walk and across the river Lanë from the Blloku. Once leaving the mall, you will find The Fortress of Justinian, known simply as Tirana Castle. This is actually one of my favorite spots in Tirana. The “Old Bazaar” of the castle is an area that serves as a restaurant hub and offers traditional cooking, wine bars, and cafes, but also as an area of culture and art, which features souvenir shops focusing on Tirana’s history, mosaics, etc. If you love to sit with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and people watch, this is your spot!
I love seeking out UNESCO World Heritage sites and Tirana has one site on the list of tentative sites, the Castle of Bashtova, which was a fortress built by the Venetians to protect important trade routes. Hopefully, one day the castle will be moved from the tentative list and finally be recognized as a permanent site.
Entertainment for all ages and desired activity levels are available by taking the Austrian-made cable car to the top of Mount Dajti, which takes about 15 minutes. Before going, check the open hours because I’m told the cable car does not operate on Tuesdays unless it is a festive day. Personally, as many times as I have visited Tirana, I have not yet had the opportunity to take advantage of this venue. It is a definite bucket-lister for me! I’m also told once at the top, you’ll find an award-winning restaurant, cafes and wine bars, a hotel, an adventure park, mini-golf, hiking, mountain biking, rollerblading, and much more. The views are apparently, spectacular. Based on the activities listed on their website, this seems to be a year-round hub of activity. If any of you get there before I do, let me know about your experience!
As you walk the city, you see remnants of the Communist Era, older block-style buildings, statues, and in some areas a lack of beauty. But I ask you to pay attention because alongside these remnants of the past, are new buildings, vibrant colors and murals, modern stores, and chic restaurants springing up. It’s difficult to walk more than a few blocks and not see some type of construction or at the very least, renovation. Christmas time in the city is quite amazing especially when you consider that not so many years ago, these types of celebrations were not allowed. I spent a few days in Tirana this past Christmas season and of course, went to Skanderbeg Square. Aside from hearing Shqip spoken around me, complete with a huge Christmas tree front and center, Christmas music playing, carnival rides, game booths, and vendors, it felt like any other modern city in the world!
Tirana is also home to the only international airport in the country, Mother Teresa Airport, also known as Rinas Airport. The airport sits about 20 minutes outside of the city center and is easily accessible by taxi or bus. Serviced by several airline carriers, it’s not a huge airport but operates efficiently and offers a slew of international destinations.
Tirana Has Been Selected as the 2022 European Youth Capital!
And if all that isn’t enough….. Tirana has been chosen to be the city hosting the 2022 European Youth Capital, using the slogan “Active Youth”, where its eight central themes will be Creative Economy & Innovation, Create Culture, Develop Capacity, Participation, Diversity, Europeans, Eco-Health, and Spaces. The European Youth Capital is a title awarded by the European Youth Forum that has been designed to empower the youth of today, boost their participation, and strengthen their European identity. The event takes place throughout the entire year at various venues across Tirana.
In my humble opinion, I believe that Tirana is poised to become one of Europe’s top capital cities. Albania seems to have a way of preserving its past yet, modernizing and using it as a building block for the future. I’ve heard many people refer to Albania as a “third world country”. No, friends, it definitely, is not. I believe a more appropriate description would be to refer to it as a developing country. With Tirana being the capital city, full of art, culture, affordable living, and history, I’d say it’s well on its way to becoming a bucket list destination!
A walking tour is always, without question, my recommended way to explore your destination! Tirana, Albania has much more to offer than you might expect!
I will be in Tirana this coming week for a few days and I look forward to spending time at my favorite home away from home, La Boheme Hotel, in the Blloku neighborhood. I will be meeting with friends, getting some shopping done, and possibly getting a chance to get to the top of Mount Dajti!
Until next time, friends, remember: “To Travel is to Live!”