Tirana, the capital of Albania is a charming city with a welcoming heart. Although small, it's home to nearly one-third of Albania's population, giving it a buzz both day and night. Tirana doesn't boast the architectural delights and world-class museums of other capital cities, but it more than makes up for this with its joie de vivre and colour. It's definitely a city that rewards exploring on foot with unexpected sights around every corner along with leisurely squares and courtyards perfect for people watching. Tirana isn't an ancient city; it was founded by Sulejman Pasha Bargjini in 1614, becoming the country's capital only in 1925. For much of the 20th-century, Albania was ruled by the isolationist dictator Enver Hoxha and the modern world passed it by. On his death, Albania and particularly Tirana moved rapidly into the 21st century by throwing up some intriguing contrasts between the old and the contemporary.
This move into the modern world has led to massive restoration work in Tirana with old buildings being painted and restored and an air of pride being given to its history. English is widely spoken as a second language and this, along with a friendly welcome, is fast turning the city into a tourist hotspot -- a hotspot to be savoured before too many changes take place. The main entertainment centre of the city is Blloku, known as "The Block", which is an area where communist leaders led protected and privileged lives. Join the locals hanging out here in its cafés and pretty parks, then when you're ready to escape the bustle of crowds for a while take a cable-car ride up Mount Dajti and look down on the city from above.
Albanians love to party and regularly take to the city streets to celebrate both ancient feast days with pagan links and more modern events such as Independence Day. As part of its push to a place in the modern world, the city welcomes artists and entertainers from across the globe to annual festivals dedicated to film, contemporary art and jazz, while the as-yet-little-known delights of regional Albanian wines are celebrated each year at the Albanian Wine Festival held in December.
Things to Do
The Clock Tower built in the 1820s has become a symbol of Tirana as it is one of the oldest structures in the city. Placed in the heart of the city centre, it's a popular meeting point for friends and families and a good place to start your tour of the city. You'll find museums and galleries housed in stately old buildings as well as the small and intimate Tirana Zoo and Botanical Garden.
A flavour of old Tirana
Et'hem Bey Mosque stands on Skanderbeg Square next to the Clock Tower and is considered one of the most attractive mosques in the country both inside and out. Opened in 1821, the mosque had taken 28 years to build.
An austere contrast
The historical and art centre Bunk Art can be found in Hoxha's anti-nuclear bunker dating from the 1970s, although bunker is rather an understatement. It was a five-storey underground palace with over 100 rooms and an assembly hall. It was opened in its present form in 2016 as a tourist attraction documenting the austere years of communist rule.
Escape from the city
If the sun is shining and you want to dip your toes into the water then let Spille Beach tempt you. Close to the city centre, this family-friendly beach is long and sandy and backed by shady pine forests.
Was Hemingway here or not?
There's no guarantee Hemingway was ever here, but the Hemingway Bar gets a thumbs up as a friendly venue with plenty of personality and a good way to sample the Tiranan nightlife. Its drinks menu is extensive but the rum collection is the real highlight.
Bartering in the bazaar
The city now has its fair share of global high-street names, but souvenir shopping is much more fun at Tregu i Madh or The Big Market. Some stall holders at this authentic Turkish-style bazaar might be open to a little bartering.
Calendar of Events
In its push towards the modern world, the city has innovated a growing calendar of annual festivals along with programmes of artistic and cultural events held throughout the year. Many of these are held out of doors in the city's squares and you might just be lucky enough to enjoy an unexpected musical or dance performance along with your cocktails. Important annual events are:
The Summer Day Festival. Although only a decade or so old, this official holiday has its roots deep in pagan rites and rituals. It is held in mid-March but called the Summer Day Festival as it marks the point when Winter turns into Spring and Summer is on the horizon. The event also coincides with the city marathon and an annual circus.
The Tirana International Film Festival. Inaugurated in 2003, this is the most important cinematic event in the country. Fiction, documentary and short films from around the world are judged by an international jury panel and awarded several prizes including the prestigious Golden Owl for the Best Feature Film.
The Albanian Jazz Festival. This opens and starts in the capital every July and grows in size and stature every year. Albanian performers are joined by artists from around the globe to share the jazz stage in Tirana before moving on to other cities in the country.
Flag and Independence Day. Held on November 28th each year, this important day celebrates the country's break with the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The country's flag is symbolically raised by the Prime Minister and President in the centre of Tirana and the event is marked by free concerts and street events. Traditionally, locals wrap themselves in the Albanian flag as they celebrate.