Tirana - the capital of Albania. Despite the nearby Adriatic coast and super popular countries like Italy, Croatia and Greece among which Albania is sandwiched, this little Balkan country receives very few foreign visitors. Those who end up in Tirana, usually claim that it is unattractive and give up any attempts to explore Albania further. What a mistake this is! Paradise beaches, unique, cozy little towns of Berat and Gjirokaster, crystar clear turquoise lakes and spectacular mountains are waiting for those who stray from the beaten path. I must agree, though, that Tirana indeed pales in comparison with those wonderful sites mentioned above. However, if you look closer and make a little effort to understand its history, the city's overall image changes in a positive way.
Tirana - First impressions
We arrived in Tirana after visiting beautiful and original towns of Berat and Gjirokaster (I've described it here). I simply fell in love with them - traditional oriental houses with roof tiles made of stone, little winding streets, friendly locals, superb food in Mediterranean restaurants and spectacular mountains around - what more do you need! And, for someone like me who loves authenticity and different architecture - it's just perfect. Not too mention there were literally no tourists!
Apart from those lovely towns, we traveled along Albanian Riviera which was just like paradise: empty, secluded beaches, white sand, cliffs, mountains, caves and sea water clearer than in Thailand.
After seeing all this, at first Tirana seemed so plain and gloomy. You won't find a typical beauty of traditional style here. Nor spectacular monuments. The city, for a long time, had been sealed from the outside world (Albanians were not allowed to drive until 1992!) and is a witness of the past communist era.
But when you look closer, Tirana looks like a crazy, interesting mix of Russia, southern Europe and South America with a pinch of modern architecture. Nowadays, the parks and squares are full of young people, there's many restaurants and cafes everywhere and the night life is lively in vibrant. It resembles Prishtina somehow - the capital of the Europe's youngest country - Kosovo which is also weirdly interesting - have a look at the full article about Prishtina here.
What to see in Tirana
You won't need too much time to visit the city. The main city plaza in the center is called Skanderbeg Square. Here, you can see the Clock Tower - the main symbol of Tirana and the 19th century beautiful Et'hem Bey Mosque. If you want to find out more about Albanian history - visit National History Museum which is also in the square.
Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit
The city's main boulevard (which starts at Skanderbeg Square) also has a few interesting constructions, like National Art Gellery and few monumental government buildings. But the most interesting is probably the mysterious, crumbling Pyramid. It used to be one of the most expensive structures erected during the communism era. Now, it is the International Center of Culture. However, it's in appalling condition - it has been left neglected for a long time - it's facade is stripped of glass and decorations. In my opinion, the Pyramid should be left untouched the way it was as a witness of bygone times (even though the times were not too pleasant). You can try to climb it - people do it in order to take some weird and cool selfies. But I must warn you that it's extremely steep. The future of the Pyramid is uncertain - it may be destroyed completely.
Going further down the boulevard, before you reach Rinia Park - full of restaurants, fountains and cafes, take a second to have a look at the interesting building of Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, completed in 2012.
Behind the park, on the corner of Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit and Ismail Qemali street, you will find the Memorial to Communism Isolation. The memorial consists of parts of various structures made during the communism era - a fragment of the Berlin Wall, one of the bunkers (you can find them everywhere in Albania) and concrete supports of a labor camp for political prisoners.
The area is also the main business district in Tirana and you'll see modern, glass skyscrapers here: the Twin Towers and Sky Tower.
You can find the Sky Tower next to Rinia Park. Opened in 2003, this 17-floor skyscraper houses a hotel, offices and a rotating restaurant on top. It's really worth visiting! The entry is free and the pint of beer is less than 2 EUR (2.50 USD) in the restaurant! We went there in the evening, so we could see the panorama of the city, the sunset and the illumination at night. From there, Tirana really looked like one of South American towns with high rise, colorful concrete buildings. At night, however, the view is somewhat different - the fountains and the city lights make it truly beautiful.
What in other post-Soviet or ex-communist states is the most unattractive, grey and depressing, in Tirana, thanks to Edi Rama, the city's mayor (who was also an artist), has been changed into something bright, full of colors. He decided to improve the gloomy image of the city and ordered to paint all the concrete blocks that were a clear eyesore.
Go out of the strict city center and you'll see colorful shapes, patterns and signs all over the place. You can call it weird, kitsch or whatever you like but, in my opinion, you can't deny how different, original and inventive it is.
This was actually the part of Tirana that intrigued me the most. You can see beautiful monuments, churches and buildings in literally every European city. Tirana doesn't have many of them - but it does have its own, unique character!
Do not make a mistake that people make coming to Albania - they often stay only in Tirana or Shkoder (the town closest to Montenegro) - missing out all the best things Albania has to offer.
Kruja is a little oriental village, very close to Tirana (35 km/21 miles). Here, you can admire the old castle perched on a hill, medieval defensive walls and a bazaar where you can buy all sorts of hand made, authentic souvenirs as well as antiques.
Albanian Riviera is not only mostly unspoiled but also one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world: white sand beaches, perfectly blue sea, cliffs, breathtaking bird's eye views at Llogara Pass... Left out by virtually everyone who visits Balkans, it retained the authenticity and... extremely low prices. To be exact, it's not very close from Tirana, but it's obviously a must-see place in Albania! Don't stay in Tirana too long, go south from Vlora to Sarande - this is where paradise begins. Some may suggest Durres - but stay away from there! Durres is a typical, packed with concrete hotels and murky water beach town.
If you want more info on Albanian Riviera, Kruja and other places in Albania, check "Related Posts" below.
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