Its buildings are painted in lurid colours, a gigantic, useless pyramid rises smack in the centre, the main square is a mess, the roads are potholed, and still there’s no official bus station for this city of almost one million people, and yet for all these idiosyncrasies TIRANA is undeniably a charmer. The clash of architectural styles (from Italian to Communist to post-modern) is most evident in the central Blloku area, which was off-limits to all but Party members during Communist times. A generation or so down the line, espresso-sipping, fun-loving locals and trendy bar openings are vivid proof that the city is well on its way to becoming a “regular” European capital.
Tirana’s Ottoman legacy was largely eroded by former dictator Enver Hoxha’s failed regime, an era still evidenced by enormous boulevards and brutal architecture. In 2000, the Edi Rama period began with the city’s charismatic mayor attempting to paint Tirana into the modern day; the resulting streetscape kaleidoscope performs a continuous palette shift from lemon to lime, saffron to cinnamon and burgundy to baby blue. Some locals grumble that their city looks to have fallen victim to a made-for-TV makeover.
Tirana is better for strolling than sightseeing, but there’s plenty to keep you occupied in the southbound stretch from Skanderbeg Square to the Grand Park, which narrowly bypasses the trendy Blloku district on the way.
Heading south from Skanderbeg Square is the “Boulevard of National Martyrs” (Bulevard Dëshmorët e Kombit and Blloku). The first major sight is the National Art Gallery, which is well worth visiting for its renowned icons by Onufri, and a collection of Socialist Realist paintings. On the parallel road, Ibrahim Rugova, there’s the space-age Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, which is particularly striking at night. South of here, the pleasant green verges of the Lana are a good place to get a handle on some of Tirana’s famed colourful buildings. South of the river, any road to the west will take you to the Blloku district, while on the opposite side is the distinctive Pyramid. Apparently designed by Hoxha’s daughter (a disputed assertion), it first functioned as a museum dedicated to the leader, and then as a conference centre; it’s now dilapidated and defunct, though locals are fond of scaling its walls with a beer in hand. Continuing south, opposite the imposing former Communist Party HQ (now the Prime Minister’s residence), the 2013 PostBlloku monument provides an overdue memorial to the years of Cold War brutality: a restored concrete bunker (see box above) stands alongside a segment of the Berlin Wall and supports from a mine at Albania’s notorious Spaç forced labour camp. Walking south again, grandiose buildings rise up on either side of you until you emerge in Mother Teresa Square, home to a passable Archeological Museum (Mon–Fri 10.30am–2.30pm; 100L).
All roads in Tirana lead to Skanderbeg Square, centrepoint of the city and, therefore, the nation as a whole ,arked at its southern end by an equestrian statue of national hero Skanderbeg, who led the ultimately unsuccessful resistance to fifteenth-century Ottoman invasions. The imposing National History Museum sits at the north side of the square and is worth a quick visit, particularly for its coverage of Hoxha's concentration camps..
Heading clockwise around the square you’ll find the Palace of Culture, which houses the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Then comes the pretty Et’hem Bey Mosque (daily 8am–11pm except during prayer times),which was closed off during Communist rule; one sunny day in 1991, thousands flocked here to make use of their new-found religious freedom. Right next door is the tall clock tower, which can be climbed for views of the square.
South of the Archeological Museum, though you'll need to curl west around the hill for access, is Tirana's Grand Park, whose main feature is an artificial lake around which the Tiranese come for a spot of relaxation. Its population of tiny fish will munch the dead skin from your feet – a treatment you’d pay good money for elsewhere – but avoid swimming since villages on the far side of the lake empty their sewage into the waters. Note, too, that although the surrounding forest is full of beautiful fireflies come dusk, it also has snakes.
There are now a decent range of backpacker hostels, many of which offer city tours (try Hostel Albania, Freddy's or Tirana Backpackers), as well as a few new guesthouses and B&BS (try Tirana Smile or Capital).
Tirana’s nightlife scene gets better with each passing year. Almost everything of note is concentrated in the fashionable Blloku area, which can be busy until midnight on weekdays, and far later on weekends.
Usually held in December, the Tirana International Film Festival (www.tiranafilmfest.com) has screenings at the Millennium Cinema and National Theatre. 2011 saw the birth of the Bunker Festival, a wild, bunker-based party set to take place each May – ask at the hostels for details.
Tirana has a fascinating daily market (6am-10pm), which sprawls north of the Sheshi Avni Rustemi roundabout. Shops are generally open daily 9am-6pm. Adrion, on Skanderbeg Square, has English-language books, newspapers and magazines.
Top image: Panorama of Tirana City and largest mosque in Albania © RussieseO/Shutterstock