Albania’s capital used to regularly top lists for Europe's worst city. Decades of Stalinist rule left Tirana grey and grim, lacking in both infrastructure and services. Today Tirana is – while still often chaotic – a very pleasant little city, and the cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania. Here's our pick of the best things to do in Tirana, Albania.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, your essential guide for visiting Europe.
1. Feel the Albanian hospitality
Being invited for a coffee or a rakija (a plum brandy) is a local custom and you’ll find Albanians friendly towards foreign visitors. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for the latter half of the twentieth century, many are curious about the influx of travellers.
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2. See the local colour
As it’s a small city, you can easily cover Tirana's central area in a day. But as well as a leisurely exploration of the handful of museums, monuments, historic buildings and parks, make some time to marvel at the city's concrete housing estates. Yes, really. Painted in rainbow colours, they add brightness to what was once a rather monochrome cityscape.
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3. Enjoy the café and food culture
Albania might not be famed for its cuisine, but that’s no reason not to make food a focus. Look out for the excellent coffee and beer (Islam is the predominant religion but it is practised in a very tolerant way), as well as decent pastries and good gelato.
Cafés are the perfect place for people-watching — set to a soundtrack of Albanian and Euro pop. If you want to make sure that you get a chance to try all the tasty traditional food that Tirana has to offer, make sure to book one of the food tours, so you don't miss a thing.
4. Take a history lesson in Skanderbeg Square
Visiting Skanderbeg Square, named after the national hero who briefly ensured Albania was independent of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, is undoubtedly one of the things to do in Tirana.
There is a large bronze statue of Skanderbeg on horseback (imagine Alexander The Great meets Thor) in the middle of the square, and the Et'hem Bey Mosque, one of the nation's most treasured buildings that dates back to the late eighteenth century, sits in the southeast corner. Also situated here are the nation's major museums, including The National Historic Museum adorned with a huge socialist mural of victorious partisans.
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5. Visit a not-so-ancient pyramid
You’ll find Tirana’s concrete pyramid, Piramida, a short walk from Skanderbeg Square. Built in 1987 by the daughter of Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha (who tyrannically ruled Albania from 1944–85) as a museum to her father, it now sits derelict, stripped of the tiles that once covered it and splattered with graffiti. There is talk of demolishing it, but some argue that it should be kept intact as an apt monument to Stalinism's ugly spirit.
6. Observe Albania’s elite at play
Blloku, The Block, is where Enver Hoxha lived and was once off limits to all but the Communist party’s inner circle. Now it's the epicentre for Tirana’s beautiful people. Today you’ll find expensive hotels, designer cafés, restaurants and shops. Take in the contemporary glitz from Sky Club, a rotating bar high in the air offering 360-degree views across the city.
7. Immerse yourself in the nightlife
Tirana’s nightlife scene moves up a notch each year and the city’s clubs, largely situated around Blloku, vary greatly in theme and atmosphere. They are best visited with a local who knows which ones to attend (and which to avoid). Be mindful, however, that Albania is still a traditional society.
8. Relax in Parku i Madh (Grand Park)
This large, wooded park is where many of Tirana's citizens head for a bit of time out, whether it’s fishing in the artificial lake, picnicking on the lawns or kicking-back in one of the many café-bars. Considering how oppressive Tirana's traffic can get, this park allows the city's Mediterranean ambience to shine.
9. Visit Mount Dajti National Park
If you are wondering what to do in Tirana away from the city centre, head to Mount Dajti National Park, popular with Tirana's residents for fresh air and countryside walks. You can either take an Austrian-built cable car (expensive) or the city bus (cheap) and once there you’ll find hotels, guest-houses and restaurants if you feel like staying overnight.
10. Take a day-trip to the seaside
Among best things to do in Tirana outside the city is visiting the historic city of Durrësi on the Adriatic Sea. These days it’s largely Kosovar tourists who make use of the plentiful cheap hotels and restaurants along the seafront. Things are rough and ready, but Durrësi is lively, inexpensive and easily accessible.
11. Enjoy the view of the Et’hem Bey Mosque
The Et'hem Bey Mosque is one of the few mosques to have escaped destruction by the Communists, which had resulted in any kind of religious institution being either closed, demolished or converted into warehouses or schools by the end of 1967.
Despite resistance from the communist authorities, around 10,000 people entered the mosque on 18 January 1991. This event was one of the important milestones in the revival of religious freedom and the fall of communism in the country.
Today, visitors can enjoy the mosque's beautiful architecture and its delicate decorations of wall and ceiling paintings in the oriental traditions. The mosque's frescoes depict trees, waterfalls and bridges, and still lifes, which are rare in the Islamic arts.
12. Climb to the top of the Clock tower
The clock tower is a symbol of the municipality of Tirana and, in an ensemble with the Et'hem Bey Mosque, is a unique architectural landmark.
The Clock tower was built by the same man who built the Et'hem Bey Mosque. It is a cultural monument that shows the time in Tirana since 1822. You have a great chance to see the main square of Tirana and beyond it by climbing the steps and reaching the top of the tower.
13. Walk through Bunk’Art
Bunk’Art is a massive bunker built by the communist dictator is now a museum. It was built on the orders of Enver Halil Hoxha, the dictator who ruled Albania for some 50 years, as a hideout in the event of war.
Today the bunker is open to visitors and is a monument to Albania's communist past. A walk through the bunker's dark, spooky corridors is one of the best things you can do in Tirana.
14. Pay tribute to history in the House of Leaves Museum
One of the most unusual museums in Albania, the House of Leaves is the look-alike equivalent of the Stasi headquarters in the former East Germany. Visiting this landmark should be on your list of things to do in Tirana.
Once inside the headquarters of the infamous National Intelligence Service, also known as the House of Spies, there's a good chance you'll be speechless. Inside the House of Leaves you will learn the monstrous side of the dictatorial regime in Albania and the stories of the persecuted people who were not afraid to speak out against the regime.
15. Get some fresh produce in New bazaar (Pazari i Ri)
New bazaar is one of the most historic and oldest neighbourhoods in the Albanian capital, which takes its name from the food market that is located in the area.
Here you'll find a huge variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, seafood and spices, and the farmers of the New Bazaar will not only help you find the best products but also tell you about the history of this bustling market.
16. Taking a walking tour - one of the best things to do in Tirana
One of the best things about Tiara is its compactness, which makes it a great place to walk around. However, although it's not the biggest city, there are plenty of places to walk around:
- Skanderbeg Square
- National History Museum
- Skanderbeg Monument
- Et'hem Bey Mosque
- Clock Tower of Tirana
- BunkArt 2
- Murat Toptani Road
- Tirana Castle
You can also book a guided walking tour around Tirana and make sure you don't miss anything.
- Best for backpackers: Tirana Backpacker Hostel. Featuring a bar, shared lounge, garden and free WiFi, Tirana Backpacker Hostel is located in Tirana, 1 km from Skanderbeg Square and 6.4 km from Dajti Ekspres Cable Car. Boasting a sun terrace, this property is set a short distance from Clock Tower Tirana, Et'hem Bey Mosque and National Museum of History Albania.
Where to stay in Tirana:
- Best for atmosphere: Trip'n'Hostel is set in the old part of Tirana, 500 m from the central square. It features a spacious yard with a barbecue, a bar and a rooftop terrace that overlooks the town. A shared living room with a fireplace and free Wi-Fi is available.
- Best for comfort stay: Green House Hotel & Restaurant is set in Tirana, only a 15-minute walk from the centre and Skanderbeg Square. Featuring free Wi-Fi, free parking and air-conditioned rooms, it offers a bar and a restaurant serving Albanian and international dishes.
- Best for central location: Freddy's Hotel. Centrally located in Tirana, Freddy's Hotel offers air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi and satellite TV. Various shopping streets and bars can be found within walking distance from the property.
Albania is ideal for backpacking trips, in our guide we have compiled information about travelling with a backpack in Eastern Europe that is best learned before you hit the road.
Visiting Albania is a truly unforgettable experience. For more inspirational travel tips check our Rough Guide books.
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Header photo: Tirana, Albania © RussieseO/Shutterstock