Tirana is a city that rarely appears on any travel guide must-visit lists, although as it is discovered that will change. With a Mediterranean climate, history dating back to Roman times, an eclectic display of a paranoid leaders desire to build bunkers everywhere, cheap and tasty food and drink options, and friendly locals, Tirana is a great place to while away a few days
Here are our top 10 things to do in Tirana.
1. Start in the centre at Skanderbeg Square
The geographic heart of Tirana, this massive square was designed and built by Mussolini's fascists during their invasion. Now adorned with a statue of Skanderbeg, an Albanian hero who rebelled against the Ottoman empire, where once was a large statue of Stalin.
The square is now traffic-free and used for concerts and events. Surrounded by giant buildings, including the Opera House, National Bank and museums, it is an impressive introduction to the capital city. Nearby the Clock Tower and Et'hem Bay mosque (being renovated) are worth a visit.
If you visit in summer you may be surprised by the streams of water cooling the square hidden by ingeniously hidden pipes.
|The Skanderbeg statue in the eponymous square|
The shadow of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled Albania for over 40 years, is still very visible across Tirana. One of the most unforgettable sites is his top-secret government headquarters built under the suburbs of the capital.
Incorporating a parliament chamber, luxury rooms for Hoxha, and five levels of meeting rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, you cannot deny the leader did not prepare for the worst. It was to be used in the event of a nuclear war. Read more about the Bunk'Art 1 (as it is now known, displaying art in many of the rooms) here.
|The Pyramid of Tirana|
3. See a Pyramid without travelling to Egypt
A massive and expensive memorial to Enver Hoxha. Began after his death in 1985 it took three years to build and cost more than any other building in Albania. It was covered in white marble, and sparkled in the sun, in a similar fashion to the Egyptian pyramids.
History caught up with Hoxha's legacy just three years later with the fall of communism. Abandoned it has been vandalized, and all the marble has been removed. It is now awaiting either refurbishment or demolition.
There is now a fence, with security guards patrolling. It is easy, however, to get through the fence as it does not completely encircle the pyramid, and the guards do not mind tourists getting a closer look. While the locals like to climb to the top and slide down.
|Olives galore at the New Bazaar|
Ten minutes walk from Skanderberg Square lies the New Bazaar. Packed full of seasonal fresh food, honey, and even cigars. A great place to load up for a picnic.
There are also a few tables selling antiques, particularly at the weekend, if you want to but photographs of old Tirana, communist badges, or even a bust of Enver Hoxha for your living room.
|Bunkers on Mount Dajti|
5. Ride the Cable Car to Mount Dajti
The cable car station is located close to Bunk'Art 1, which makes for a good day out. 8 Euro's gets you a return ticket on the longest cableway in the Balkans (closed on Tuesdays). You can get a single ticket and walk down (or up if you are a masochist) but it is a long walk back frequented by aggressive dogs and we don't recommend it.
The views out of the cable cars are somewhat obscured by the diamond ring graffiti art scratched into almost all parts of the glass, but the views from the top make up for this.
You can go horse riding, trekking or take a buggy ride from the operators by the arrival station. Alternatively, just go for a walk and you will be astounded by the number of small bunkers that fortified the mountain top, part of the 170,000 which cover Albania.
6. Find the hidden statues of Lenin and Stalin
The old Russian leaders were revered (mostly) by Hoxha and the statues remained standing even after he fell out with the USSR and feared invasion. They did not survive the fall of communism and are currently hidden away in the car park behind the National Arts Gallery.
Not in the best shape as they were obviously pulled down from their plinths with some force. Go in the morning for the best photographs, as in the afternoon they are covered by the shade of nearby buildings..
|Looking more than a little like a character from Noggin the Nog|
7. Learn about Albania History at the National Museum
Eye-catching due to its colourful communist artwork on the outside (see the first picture of this blog) there is a wealth of information and objects dating back to Roman times. Sadly little of this is in English, but it remains an interesting collection to view.
Surprisingly little is shown of the Hoxha regime, with more of a focus on the Roman period and Second World War. There is an impressive mosaic discovered in a Tirana villa which reminded me of one of my favourite TV series characters when I was a child, Noggin the Nog.
Closed on Monday's, avoid visiting in the afternoons in the height of summer. It gets incredibly hot and stuffy, particular on the top floor, with a distinct lack of air conditioning.
|Very thick walls protect the police bunker at Bunk'art 2|
8. Go underground (again) to see how the Police would survive a nuclear war
Hoxha's main government underground headquarters are impressive, but so too are the much smaller Police and Ministers bunker located close to Skanderberg Square.
With almost 3 metre concrete walls which have been drilled through for a new entrance (the old entrances connect to the basements of the still-functioning Police headquarters), the rooms have been converted to a museum showing how the communist era police oppressed dissent.
Now known as Bunk'Art 2, the museum is open every day.
|Pegs on Boulevard Zogu 1|
9. Look up at the street art
Walking is one of the best ways to get to know a city. The bonus with Tirana is the explosion of street art in the last few years, openly encouraged by the city authorities.
New art is being added all the time, check here for a constantly updated list of the locations and photographs of the best street art.
|At least they warn you now. At the House of Leaves.|
10. See how the Secret Service spied on the Albanian people at the House of Leaves
One of the most interesting museums I have visited. The old Albanian intelligence service, the Sigurimi, used this building as its headquarters. Every room has now been converted to show the tools and methods used by the Sigurimi to spy both domestically and overseas.
The array of different bugging devices is impressive, as is the detailed plans to show how every room in the Hotel Tirana, a place where tourists, businessmen and diplomats stayed during the Hoxha regime, was elaborately bugged.
A short film is shown in one room which is composed of surveillance footage showing how a foreign diplomats wife was selling contraband on the streets of Tirana.
|The view out of one of Hoxha's 170,000 military bunkers. This one is in the suburbs of Tirana|