Tirana— Albania’s Colorful Capital

 

The trip started from Tirana, marking the beginning of my 10-day journey around southern Albania. You can read more about it in Unveiling the Hidden Charms of Southern Albania, the capital. Tirana is nestled between the majestic Dajti Mountain and sprawling coastal plains. It combines history and modernity in a lively setting, blending old and new elements for a unique charm.

Tirana has a diverse architectural landscape, with Ottoman-era buildings, Italian-style facades, Communist-era blocks, and modern developments. Its architecture includes Ottoman-era buildings, Italian-style facades, Communist-era blocks, and modern developments. At the heart of the city is Skanderbeg Square, where you’ll find key landmarks like the National History Museum and the Opera House. Unlike the quaint old towns of many Eastern European capitals, central Tirana is known for its bold Communist-era architecture. These concrete blocks, once plain and grey, have been brightly painted, turning the city into one of the most colorful capitals in Europe, thanks to initiatives by former Mayor Edi Rama.

Tirana, Albania
Pops of color have been added to the otherwise drab looking buildings

DAY 1

Skanderbeg Square

Skanderbeg Square is the vibrant heart of the city. It is named after the national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who is celebrated for his resistance against the Ottomans in the 15th century. Dominating the square is a striking statue of Skanderbeg on horseback.

The square is encircled by important buildings, including the National History Museum. The museum is particularly notable for its mosaic façade titled “The Albanians.” This expansive mosaic traces key moments in Albanian history from the Illyrian period through to World War II. Crafted in the 1980s by Albanian artists using local stones, its vibrant colors and grand scale are not just visually striking but also a profound introduction to Albanian history. As someone who loves mosaics, I was deeply impressed by this artwork; it beautifully showcases Albania’s rich cultural heritage.

Tirana, Albania
Skanderbeg Square

Other notable structures around the square include the Opera House, the National Library, and various government offices, such as the Ministry of Finance. The square has recently been transformed into a pedestrian zone, becoming a favorite spot for public events and a popular gathering place for both locals and tourists. Its redesign, featuring fountains and stones from across Albania, symbolizes national unity and transforms the area into a dynamic cultural hub as well as an essential historical site.

Vibrant Street Art Scene


As I walked through Tirana, I was really impressed by the street art. It’s everywhere—on walls, electrical boxes, and more. These artworks do more than brighten up the city—they tell its story.

One mural of Ismail Qemali stands out. It celebrates Albania’s independence and is hard to miss. Nearby, there’s a piece honoring the Five Heroes of Vig, which showing the strength of the Albanian people.

Another striking piece is “The Three Boys Behind Barbed Wire,” which depicts life under Albania’s communist regime and makes you think about the value of freedom. Over in the Blloku district, there’s a colorful mural called “The Dream” by Franko Dine, which captures the youthful energy of the area.

Tirana, Albania
The Three Boys Behind Barbed Wire

Some murals highlight environmental issues, reminding us of Albania’s natural beauty and the importance of protecting it. The vibrant murals add energy to the city, enriching its streets with color and character.

Have a Traditional Meal at Oda

Following a recommendation from a local guide, I enjoyed lunch at Oda Restaurant. This quaint spot offers a delightful step back in time, serving traditional Albanian dishes in a setting reminiscent of a cozy home. After several days of meat-heavy meals, the variety of fresh, traditional Albanian vegan and vegetarian options was a welcome change. The highlights were the stuffed eggplant and peppers, along with pies made from wheat flour filled with leek or spinach and spicy rice balls. For an authentic taste of local cuisine, Oda is a must-visit in Tirana.

The Pyramid of Tirana

The Pyramid is one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks. Originally constructed to honor the dictator Enver Hoxha, it has undergone several transformations, serving as a museum, a conference center, and even a NATO command center during the Kosovo War. Today, its dilapidated condition makes it a striking feature of the cityscape, with local youths often seen climbing its steep, crumbling sides.

Tirana, Albania
The famous pyramid of Tirana

Enjoy Tirana’s many restaurants

On my first evening in Tirana, I had dinner at Gloria, an Italian /Mediterranean restaurant that hit all the right notes. The food was delicious, the staff was friendly and attentive, and the prices were reasonable. The dining room had a lovely atmosphere, with white tablecloths adding a touch of elegance. Located just a short distance from the city center, Gloria managed to strike a balance between accessibility and avoiding the tourist crowds. It was a pleasant start to my time in Tirana, and I left feeling satisfied and eager to explore more of the city’s culinary scene.

DAY 2

Azem Hajdari Memorial

I visited a memorial dedicated to Azem Hajdari and his bodyguard, serving as a poignant reminder of their tragic deaths in 1998. The memorial is straightforward, featuring a simple plaque with their names and a brief description. It is adorned with flowers and candles left by visitors, emphasizing the ongoing respect and remembrance they command

Visiting this site was a sobering experience, making me contemplate the challenges faced by those advocating for democracy and freedom in Albania.

The Café Culture Hub

Blloku is the lively epicenter of Tirana’s social scene. Formerly reserved for the Communist Party elite, this neighborhood is now teeming with vibrant cafes and boutiques. Its fusion of work-friendly environments and lively social ambiance provides a glimpse into the city’s distinct charm.

Tirana’s Bunkers

Tirana is dotted with small, dome-shaped concrete bunkers built during Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship as part of Albania’s extensive Cold War defenses. These bunkers, once symbols of the country’s isolation and fear, are now repurposed for modern use. Around the city, you can find these bunkers serving as cafes, art installations, and even small businesses. This transformation turns a once oppressive symbol into a practical and creative part of the city’s landscape, showcasing Tirana’s ability to reimagine its history.

Tirana. Albnaia
One of the many bunkers around the city

Exploring Bunk’Art Museums

I  visited Bunk’Art 2 — a highly unique museum set within a former bunker. Built in the 1970s to protect Albania’s political elite, including communist dictator Enver Hoxha, from nuclear threats, it has been transformed into a museum that delves into Albania’s communist past.

Tirana, Albania
Walls of Bunk Art 2

The museum is expansive, spanning five levels with over 100 rooms, including Hoxha’s personal quarters. It offers an immersive glimpse into life under communism, with original artifacts, photographs, and multimedia exhibits that cover aspects from daily routines to government surveillance and repression. As I walked through the historic tunnels and rooms, it felt like stepping directly into Albania’s past, confronting the challenges its people endured and their path toward a democratic society.

Although I didn’t get to visit Bunk’Art 1, which focuses on the secret police and surveillance during the communist era, Bunk’Art 2 provided a thorough overview of that pivotal period in Albanian history

Reflective Walks and Historical Bridges

I took a walk across the Tanners’ Bridge in Tirana, an 18th-century Ottoman bridge that was once a vital connection to the eastern highlands. This quiet landmark provided a peaceful break and a strong sense of the city’s historical depth. At one time, it was the main route between Tirana and the highlands to the east.

A Bird’s-Eye View at Sunset

I was also suggested to visit the Panoramic Bar and Restaurant atop the Sky Hotel to get some of the best views of the city. And so that’s just what I did, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. And the bar actually rotated. As the sun set, the colorful urban patchwork of Tirana unfolded beneath me, offering a mesmerizing perspective of this unique city.

Not only did I enjoy spectacular views, but I also enjoyed dinner and cocktails from the bar.

Tirana, Albania
View from the Sky Bar

I stayed at Sar’Otel Boutique Hotel because of the convenience of its central location, making it easy to explore the city.

The hotel staff was welcoming, and the accommodations were comfortable. They also provide spa services on-site. There is nothing better than getting a massage after a long flight somewhere. And that’s just what I did—a hot stone massage, which was fantastic.

The stay also included a delicious and plentiful breakfast buffet.

Leaving Tirana, my perceptions had transformed significantly—from viewing it initially as just another concrete jungle to discovering a city pulsating with life, rich in contrasts and colors, and beautifully framed by the Albanian mountains. Tirana, with its unique blend of history, culture, and vibrant street life, truly left a lasting impression.