In the summer of 2021, after another COVID wave passed, Europe was back open, and we were ready to explore more! One of our stops was in Tirana!
We bought our campervan Rainbow the year before, and after parking her for the winter, we picked her back up and started a road trip from Croatia to Turkey. Of course, Albania was one of the countries on the route, so we spent 10 days in the capital.
Tirana is a beautiful city, and it is growing quickly. After a problematic past, it is finally free to flourish! In fact, between 1944 and 1992, the country was closed entirely to foreign visitors and domestic travel. Everyone had to stay in the area where they were born and lived. Can you imagine something like that today that we are so used to having the freedom to move anywhere we want (with the exception of COVID times of course)?
We spent a few days in the Albanian mountains and on the sea before heading to Tirana, we were curious to learn more about it and we were pleasantly surprised by what we found.
You know what they say about the Phoenix that rises from the ashes? Well, the recent development of Tirana made us think about that. We learned that the mayor of Tirana at the time, Edi Rama, decided to give the capital new life and more colors. He unleashed his imagination and designed the most extraordinary combinations of shapes and colors possible. More colorful new constructions and interesting shapes can be found all around. He cleaned the city of concrete, disposed of litter in the Lana River, and brought back green areas in Tirana.
Rama also installed street lights, got rid of many potholes, and continued painting the buildings. With time, things began to change. People started to feel safe on the streets again, their hopes for better futures were revived, somehow there was less corruption. People saw that things could be done differently and it’s them who have power over their lives, not some vague but frightening image of the government. You can breathe this when you are in Tirana! Our initial stay was planned for five days, but we enjoyed it so much that we prolonged it for five more!
A Brief History of Tirana
The city’s origins as a settlement trace back to the Roman and Byzantine periods. During these times, it became a hub for regional commerce and trade. The city’s founding is credited to Sulejman Pasha Bargjini, an Ottoman general from Mullet, a village near Tirana. In 1614, he built a mosque, a hammam (bath), a bakery, and a Turkish sauna, leading to the city’s establishment as a trading post between Shkodër and Elbasan.
Throughout the centuries under Ottoman rule, Tirana would witness a series of developments, including the establishment of craftsmen and merchant guilds, which would play a vital role in the city’s socio-economic life.
After Albania declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, Tirana’s significance grew. In 1920, the city was chosen as the capital of Albania, mainly because of its central location. The decision cemented its role as the political and cultural heart of the country. Under the leadership of King Zog I and later Italian architects during the period of Italian influence and occupation, Tirana saw a phase of rapid modernization and the construction of government buildings, squares, and boulevards.
However, after World War II, the country entered a period of communist rule under Enver Hoxha. Tirana became the epicenter of the communist regime, and its urban landscape reflected this with the construction of massive state buildings and monuments, many bearing socialist symbols. The city expanded rapidly during this period, and the regime’s isolationist policies ensured that Tirana and the rest of the country remained largely closed off from the rest of the world.
In the 1990s, following the collapse of the communist regime, Tirana experienced a period of rapid and often chaotic urbanization. The post-communist era saw an influx of people from rural areas, and the city’s infrastructure often struggled to keep up. Edi Rama, mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011 (and later Prime Minister of Albania), undertook several projects to rejuvenate the city. One notable initiative was repainting the city’s gray communist-era buildings in bright colors. This “face-lift” symbolized Tirana’s renewal and its looking forward to a brighter future.
Unique Facts About Albania
Albania is a fascinating country with a rich history and distinct culture. Here are some unique facts that we learned about during our time there!
Language Isolation. The Albanian language, known as Shqip, belongs to its branch within the Indo-European family, making it unique and not directly related to any other language in Europe.
Religious Tolerance. Albania is known for its religious tolerance. Various religions, such as Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, coexist peacefully. In fact, during major religious holidays, it’s not uncommon to see members of different faiths participating in each other’s celebrations.
Officially Atheist. Unfortunately, during the Communist era, under Enver Hoxha’s leadership, Albania became the world’s first officially atheist state in 1967. Religious practices were banned, and many churches and mosques were destroyed or repurposed.
Bunkers Everywhere. Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania from 1944 to 1985, was so paranoid about potential invasions that he commissioned the construction of over 170,000 bunkers across the country. They can still be seen scattered throughout Albania today.
Natural Beauty. Almost one-third of Albania is covered by forests, and about 70% of its terrain is mountainous. It also boasts a beautiful coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
Mother Teresa. One of the most famous Albanians globally, Mother Teresa (born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu), hailed from Skopje, now North Macedonia, but was ethnically Albanian. There’s a statue of her in the capital, Tirana.
It was closed to Outsiders. For about 40 years during Hoxha’s rule, Albania was one of the most isolated countries in the world, with strict bans on foreigners entering the country and citizens leaving.
Eagle Land. The national symbol of Albania is a double-headed black eagle on a red background. This is why Albania often goes by the nickname “Land of the Eagles.”
Sworn Virgins. A unique and ancient tradition in Albanian culture, especially among the northern tribes, is that of the “sworn virgin.” Women could take a vow of chastity and live as men, adopting male roles and duties, often to bypass the societal restrictions of being a woman or to lead a family without male heirs.
Iso-polyphony. An ancient form of group singing known as iso-polyphony is recognized by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” This type of singing is native to the southern parts of Albania.
This country is truly a unique blend of traditions, histories, and influences, making it a fascinating place to explore. Now it’s time to see what you can do in Tirana with your family!
1. Visit Skanderbeg Square in Tirana
Skanderbeg Square is the main plaza in Tirana. It was named after the Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, or Skanderbeg. What makes this square unique? It isn’t flat and slopes upwards to 2.5 meters at its tip. It was built in 1968 to honor the 500th anniversary of Skanderbeg’s death. He is seen as a hero for rebelling against and resisting the Ottoman Empire.
However, if you are there with kids and it is a hot summer day, they will notice immediately the water sprinklers next to the monument! Every time the heat made our kids uncomfortable outside, we would promise them to stop at the square for a quick run in the sprinklers! It was never a quick one though! However, keep in mind they are not always on! We didn’t figure out the exact timing, but we were lucky!
As one of the central points of Tirana, the square is surrounded by several important buildings, including the City Hall, the Palace of Culture, the Opera House, the National History Museum, the Et’hem Bey Mosque, and more. It is also very nice to go to at night since it is beautifully lit up. Luckily, we lived very close to it and often passed through on our way home.
2. Climb the Clock Tower in Tirana
While you are running around the square, make sure you make a stop at the Clock Tower. This is one of the city’s most photographed landmarks in Tirana. Climb the 90 steps with your kids, and you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of Tirana’s heart. The Clock Tower dates back to 1822 when it was completed by the court poet Haxhi Et’hem Bey. You can go up the spiral staircase for a small fee and enjoy the view of Skanderbeg Square and Tirana’s city center.
One of the curious features of the tower is its clock, which has been altered several times in the building’s history. The first was a Viennese design. Later, it was replaced by a German-style timepiece destroyed in the Second World War. After that, there was one with Roman numerals, which was substituted in the 70s with the current Chinese clock.
3. Pyramid of Tirana
At the time of our visit in 2021, I had looked up information about this pyramid, and every website said it was easily accessible. In reality, after many years of just keeping it there, the whole area was under construction at our arrival, so we could not access or even see very well the Pyramid.
This iconic structure has had quite an interesting and multifaceted history, serving various purposes since its inception. The Pyramid of Tirana was initially built as a museum dedicated to the late communist leader Enver Hoxha. Designed by a group including Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law, its unique pyramid shape stands prominently in Tirana’s landscape.
After the fall of communism, the building served various roles, including a convention center, nightclub, and even a NATO base during the Kosovo War. Recently, the Pyramid has been a topic of debate, with some viewing it as a dark reminder of Albania’s past, while others appreciate its architectural significance. Plans have been proposed to repurpose it for educational and technological endeavors.
Since I decided to write this post, I checked more information and found out that the restoration is complete, as explained in this article, so it is now time to go back and see it!
4. Learn about the life of bunkers at Bunk’Art museums
Dive into history by visiting the converted bunkers from the communist era, which now serve as museums. Bunk’Art museums combine history with art, creating an engaging experience for kids and adults alike.
As I mentioned above, during the communist time, the leader Enver Hoxha was paranoid about his safety, which resulted in building 750,000 bunkers spread all over the country, one for each family. You can still find these mushroom-shaped concrete structures everywhere: on the beach, high in the mountains, or in the middle of Tirana. Some are decorated, and 2 were transformed into museums and culture centers: Bunkart.
Bunk’Art 1 is the largest of the two museums and is located on the outskirts of Tirana close to Dajti Ekspres cable car. Instead, Bunk’Art 2 is more centrally located just off Skanderbeg Square. It’s fascinating to explore the bunkers while learning about Albania’s modern history in detail.
It is not the happiest place to visit with children, but we still recommend visiting these museums to understand the country’s dark history better. What I can say is that each one will experience it differently. For Mass and I, it was painful to see what up to then we had just read about in history books in school; for our kids, it was a fascinating underground place rich in many cool spy tools!
5. House of Leaves Museum in Tirana
We didn’t have the time to visit this museum, but everyone we spoke to recommended to visit it, so I thought I would include it anyway. This is also known as the Museum of Secret Surveillance, which opened in 2017. Once a surveillance center, it’s now a museum detailing the communist era’s secret operations. The museum is inside the building that served as the headquarters of the Sigurimi – the state intelligence and secret police service during the communist era in Albania.
During communist rule in the country, the government continuously monitored and spied on the public, which led to many citizens being arrested, prosecuted, tortured, or sadly murdered. The Museum of Leaves details the government’s different surveillance techniques, giving a fascinating insight into life in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. The gadgets and stories will captivate older kids and adults.
6. Enjoy Tirana street art
While you are walking around the city, make sure to check out all the street art. There are many incredible murals, smaller paintings on electrical boxes, and colorful buildings. You can breath the new life of the capital through all the street art displayed; it is a beautiful feeling. All this color was brought back to the city by the mayor at the time, Edi Rama, who decided to give the capital new life and more colors. He was successful in this!
7. Take a break at a cafe and enjoy the pastries!
One of the most extraordinary things to do in Tirana is enjoy the amazing cafe culture!
There are cafes everywhere you go, and they are one better than the other. Of course, all the pastries that you can find are delicious! You quickly gain some weight around here! For us, it was a pure delight to enjoy some incredible coffees and cappuccinos combined with the most exquisite pastries. We made a stop somewhere different every day!
8. Stop at the new Bazaar Pazari i Ri
Pazari i Ri is a central market in Tirana known for its blend of tradition and modernity. Originally an old market with deep roots in the city, it has been renovated to feature a mix of fresh produce stalls, traditional Albanian food vendors, eateries, and craft shops. A hub of activity, it offers a snapshot of daily life in Tirana, making it a favorite spot for locals and tourists.
Located near the city center, it’s an essential stop for anyone wanting to experience the city’s vibrant atmosphere and local flavors. Of course, it is also the perfect place to buy souvenirs, in our case, our traditional key chain, which we collect from each country we visit!
9. Enjoy some greenery at Grand Park of Tirana
It is a green oasis, perfect for family picnics, boat rides, and leisurely walks along the artificial lake. The Grand Park of Tirana is within walking distance of the city center; the park is home to various walking trails, a large artificial lake, the Presidential Palace, an amphitheater, a botanical garden, and more.
We spent a peaceful afternoon walking along the lake, looking for a geocache, and playing on one of the bunkers covered in fake green grass. The many trees kept us cool, making it the perfect place for Mass to nap!
10. Walk along Rruga Murat Toptani in Tirana
A pedestrianized street in the center of Tirana, Rruga Murat Toptani is a lovely promenade between the Parliament Building and the National Art Gallery. While primarily for shopping, this pedestrian-only street is lined with street performers and ice cream vendors, making it a hit with the younger crowd.
The name of this street dates back to the Toptani Family, who held sway in Ottoman Albania from the 1700s right up to the Second World War. This street is especially grand in summer when the twin rows of plane trees offer shade from the sun.
Along the route, you can admire some of the city’s old fortifications, dating to when the Toptanis vied for control of Tirana with other powerful local families.
11. Explore Blloku neighborhood
During communist rule in Albania, access to the neighborhood of Blloku was restricted to the country’s leader, Enver Hoxha, and other members of the party elite and their families. Police and secret agents sealed off the area to prevent the public from entering.
Today, Blloku is the liveliest and trendiest neighborhood in Tirana. It has undergone significant development and is home to many cafes, bars, restaurants, pubs, and boutiques. With so many bars in the area, Blloku is the nightlife hub of Tirana. There are several decent restaurants and bars in the area, but one you shouldn’t miss is the iconic Sky Tower Restaurant and Bar – a revolving restaurant/bar offering 360-degree views of the city.
12. Fun day at Latitude
Are your kids tired of walking around? Are they a bit bored of sightseeing? Maybe it is too hot outside? No problem. Latitude is the solution to all of this! It is a vast indoor aerial superpark, offering guests an exhilarating experience with various airborne activities. It offers a variety of activities, including trampolining (“bounce”), climbing walls or courses (“climb”), and possibly aerial courses or zip lines (“fly”).
It was an even more memorable experience for us because we met up with another worldschooling family there for the first time. The kids played all afternoon while we parents chatted for hours. Since then, we have met in 2 different countries and consider them special friends. The magic that can happen on a simple afternoon in Tirana…
13. Take the cable car up to Mount Dajti National Park
One of Tirana’s best places to visit is Mount Dajti National Park, especially in the summer when the city is sweltering. You can take Dajti Ekspres cable car to the top of the mountain, which is already a fun adventure itself, and enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and landscape surrounding the city.
At the top, you can enjoy picnics, explore nature trails, or go to the Adventure Park, considered the top recreational attraction in Tirana. It offers ziplining, climbing challenges, and various rope courses set among the forested backdrop. The park provides equipment and guidance for participants of all ages. Easily accessible via the Dajti Ekspres cable car, it’s a favorite for families seeking outdoor thrills close to the city.
Remember that if you’re planning to visit the Bunk’Art 1 Museum, you may want to do it the same day you take the cable car, as it’s in the same area of Tirana.
14. Fun day at AquaPark Albania Blue Magic Water
Are your kids hot? Do they need a break from the city? No problem, go to AquaPark Albania Blue Magic Water and cool down while going down the slides!
AquaPark Albania Blue Magic Water is the only Aqua park in Albania. It is located along the highway that connects Tirana to Durres. It is a fantastic place for the whole family, especially on a hot day! The Aquapark has 4 pools with a depth of 0.4m to 2m and 7+ slides, parking, showers, toilets, lockers, deckchairs, and umbrellas, all included in the entrance ticket.
Accomodation in Tirana
Tirana, being the capital of Albania, has a range of accommodation options suitable for various preferences and budgets. The city has been catering to a steadily increasing number of tourists, from luxury hotels to quaint guesthouses.
In our case, we arrived here in our campervan but decided to leave it in a paid and protected parking lot during our stay, mainly because there was no campsite close enough to the city. Since we wanted to spend some time here the best solution was staying in an Airbnb. Plus it was extremely hot so the camper van would have been a challenge to sleep in.
Here’s an overview of the accommodations you can expect to find in Tirana.
- Luxury Hotels: There are several high-end hotels have established their presence in the city, offering top-notch amenities, including pools, spas, and gourmet restaurants. Example: The Plaza Tirana, Sheraton Tirana Hotel.
- Boutique Hotels: These are smaller hotels that often offer a more personalized experience. They’re designed with a theme or unique style that provides guests with a distinct and memorable stay. Example: Boutique Hotel Kotoni, Hotel Vila e Arte.
- Mid-Range Hotels: These establishments provide comfortable lodgings with standard amenities and are suitable for most travelers. They’re usually centrally located, offering easy access to main attractions. Example: Hotel Mondial, Sky Hotel.
- Budget Hotels & Hostels: Ideal for backpackers and travelers on a tight budget, these accommodations provide basic amenities. Hostels, in particular, are great places to meet fellow travelers. Example: Trip’n’Hostel, Mosaic Home.
- Bed & Breakfasts (B&Bs) and Guesthouses: Offering a more homely environment, B&Bs and guesthouses are often family-run establishments. Guests can expect a warm, intimate atmosphere and sometimes even homemade breakfast. Example: Vila Verde, Freddy’s Hostel.
- Serviced Apartments: These are especially suitable for extended stays. They come with kitchen facilities, allowing guests to prepare their meals. They’re a blend between a hotel and a rented apartment. Example: City Center Apartment, Tirana Rent.
- Traditional Accommodations: Some places in and around Tirana offer a more traditional Albanian experience, where you can stay in historic buildings or homes and get a taste of authentic local life.
- Vacation Rentals: Platforms like Airbnb and Booking.com offer a range of apartments, homes, and even unique stays (like treehouses or historic homes) for travelers who prefer a more independent lodging experience.
When choosing accommodation in Tirana, consider location, the type of experience you want (e.g., luxury vs. budget, hotel vs. apartment), and the amenities necessary to you (e.g., Wi-Fi, breakfast, air conditioning). Always check reviews from previous guests to ensure you’re making an informed choice. In our case, we opted for staying in an Airbnb because we wanted to cook our meals and also have a little more space when we were at home. We need some down time between moments of going out and explore and a house gives us more space for that.
How to get to Tirana
To get to Tirana, several options are available depending on where you’re traveling from.
- Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza (TIA): Rinas International Airport is the primary international gateway to Albania. Located about 17 km northwest of the city center, the airport hosts several international airlines connecting Tirana with major European cities.
- From the Airport to the City: There are several options to reach the city from TIA:
- Rinas Express: A shuttle bus service running from the airport to the National Museum in the city center.
- Taxis: Available outside the airport. Agreeing on a fare before starting the journey or ensuring the taxi meter is on is advisable.
- Car Rentals: Several international and local car rental agencies operate from the airport.
- From Neighboring Countries: If you’re traveling from nearby countries like Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, or Greece, you can arrive in Tirana by bus or car. International bus services link Tirana with many cities from these countries.
- Note: If driving, ensure you know the border crossing requirements, including any necessary documentation or car insurance.
- While Tirana is not a coastal city, you can arrive in Albania by ferry at the port city of Durrës, about 35 km from Tirana. Ferries link Durrës with several Italian ports, including Bari, Ancona, and Trieste.
- From Durrës to Tirana: Buses, furgons (shared minibuses/vans), and taxis regularly travel the route between Durrës and Tirana.
In our case we crossed over from Montenegro, so our entry was easy. The only requirement we did needed was to get car insurance, because ours would not cover us while in Albania.
Tirana, with its blend of history, culture, and modern energy, proved to be an enriching experience for everyone. From its vibrant squares and parks to its historical landmarks, the city offered a plethora of activities that kept our kids engaged and intrigued. For who is seeking a destination that combines history with modern charm and kid-friendly activities, Tirana should be high on the list.
Now, all I can wish you is happy travels, and remember, adventure is just around the corner! See you in the next country!
**Would you like to learn more about our favorite way to travel? Check out this blog post!
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