Tirana, Albania was nothing like I expected. I didn’t expect the city to be surrounded by snow-covered mountains, but it was. I didn’t expect to see churches and mosques sitting comfortably side by side, but they were. I didn’t expect it to be so busy with people walking, driving, or riding bikes at any given hour, but it was. I didn’t expect the food, bread, and sweets to be so delicious and fresh, but they were. In short, I found the most unexpected things to do in Tirana Albania that made me fall in love with the place.
I don’t typically do much research into a place before moving there, instead, I enjoy the thrill of seeing things for the first time on my own. But never has that lack of research left me so in the dark as it has in Albania. This isn’t a country on many people’s radar but after being here for 2 months, I can safely suggest you add it to your travel bucket list. Don’t just take my word for it- explore this list of what to do in Tirana – which will be enough to convince you to visit Tirana.
In addition to sharing the best Tirana attractions, this post also, includes useful tips on how to get here, the best time to visit and where to stay. Loaded with this information, you will be all set to plan a complete Tirana itinerary. So, let’s get going – first with a brief history of Tirana.
- 1 History of Tirana
- 2 Interesting facts about Tirana
- 3 What to do in Tirana? | Things to do in Tirana Albania
- 3.1 Start with the epic Tirana landmark – the Skanderbeg Square
- 3.2 Try a few Albanian dishes at ERA Vila
- 3.3 Walk around Blloku
- 3.4 Visit one of the most famous Tirana attractions – The Clocktower
- 3.5 Get a taste of the Albanian history at the National museum
- 3.6 Hop around town to view the many mosques
- 3.7 Learn about the city’s history at Bunk’Art
- 3.8 Cross over the Tanner’s bridge
- 3.9 Discover the lone pyramid of Tirana
- 3.10 Ride a cable car to Mount Dajti
- 3.11 Plan to do nothing on a Sunday
- 3.12 Take Road Trip Through Albania | Day trips from Tirana
- 4 Common FAQs about Tirana
- 5 How to Get To Tirana?
- 6 Where to stay in Tirana?
- 7 Which is the best time to visit Tirana?
- 8 Before you go, Pin this
- 9 Booking Resources
History of Tirana
Tirana has a long and bumpy history, dating all the way back to the 3rd century with links back to the Illyrians, Roman empire and the Byzantine times. Although the history of civilization in Tirana far predates this, Tirana actually shot into the forefront after it was founded as a city in 1614 by Sulejman Bargjini Pasha – a general of the Ottoman Empire. With a mosque, hammam, and a food stove, he settled into this place, calling it Tirana – after Tehran which was the capital of Persia. From then until Albania was declared a sovereign nation in 1912, Tirana was under control by a number of seizing powers, all holding down the territory for varying numbers of years.
In the early years of Albania’s sovereignty, the country was involved in the Balkan Wars and was even seized by Serbia temporarily. It was in 1920, that Tirana was made the provisional capital of Albania by the Lushnja Congress. From the 1930s to 1990, Albania was controlled by a communist regime that believed in isolationism, keeping the country as far out of international politics and wars as possible. After the fall of communism, the country faced a rocky decade due to a huge diaspora and economic turmoil.
Since then, Tirana has been on the rise and has become an off-the-beaten-path destination for expats and travelers. It’s a country with a vivid history and welcoming population to all of those who’d like to learn from the past firsthand or embrace the present.
If you’re thinking about moving to another country, keep in mind that Albania allows U.S. citizens a visa-free stay for up to one year. Most other nationalities can only stay for 3 months visa-free, but from what I’ve been told, it’s not too difficult to extend your time or apply for residency.
It is not uncommon to visit Greece along with Albania. If that is what you are planning, do take a look at this article on the best day trips from Athens. You will definitely find it useful.
Interesting facts about Tirana
The capital of Albania does have some enthralling facts that further fuel one’s wanderlust. In fact, some of them will prompt you to add certain places to visit in Tirana so that you can verify the stories for yourself. Check them out.
- Tirana is the largest city in Albania with a population of around 800,000.
- The center of Tirana town was designed by Italian architects in the 1930s. Today, when you visit Tirana you will be able to see this Italian touch in buildings like the Palace of Brigades, the Municipality building, the National bank etc. In fact, one of the most popular Tirana attractions – the Skanderbeg Square goes back to this period and reflects Italian architecture.
- During the communist regime, private car ownership was prohibited in Tirana.
- 173,000 bunkers were erected in Tirana during the reign of the Albanian dictator – Enver Hoxha. Most of them were never used. Today, a few of them have been converted to guesthouses or hostels, two of them have been made into a museum while the rest have either decayed or have been removed.
What to do in Tirana? | Things to do in Tirana Albania
Ah well, how’s that for a teaser to the best things to do in Tirana? I am sure that the rest of this post is going to add fuel to the tiny spark that the Tirana facts have ignited. You will find that most of these Tirana attractions are heavy on cultural and heritage dimensions. What you will also, discover is the active Tirana nightlife that adds a different fun element to the city. Take a look.
Start with the epic Tirana landmark – the Skanderbeg Square
It is best to start at the center and in the case of Tirana, that would be the Skanderbeg Square. As mentioned in the Tirana facts section, this is the place that was built by the Italians. You will get a glimpse of this architecture as you walk around the square. Watch out for the Skanderbeg Monument – which is the statue of the national hero of Albania – Gjergj Kastrioti, also called Skanderbeg. It was he who stopped the Ottoman Empire from advancing further and to commemorate 500 years of that event, this statue was made.
The Skanderbeg Square is busy throughout the year with markets and events. You can be a part of those or just walk around to admire the sights around the Square. Most of your Tirana walking tours begin or end at Skanderbeg Square.
Try a few Albanian dishes at ERA Vila
In general, the food in Albania is delicious. Due to its history and geography, the cuisine is a mix of Turkish, Greek, and Italian, with their own location flavors thrown in the mix. In the south, you’ll find a lot more fresh seafood, and in the center and north, where Tirana is located, the meals are much more meat-based. If you enjoy lamb, feta cheese, and yogurt, you’ll be happy as can be eating in Tirana. While we enjoyed many of the restaurants we went to, none of them stood out as much as ERA Vila.
On a warm day, you’ll be able to enjoy eating in their outdoor courtyard, surrounded by plants basking in the sunlight. Already a great place for lunch given the relaxing and welcoming environment, the food is top-notch. Everything we ate was delicious, but I highly recommend you order Tave Kosi. Tave Kosi is a national dish made with baked lamb and rice with yogurt and eggs. It’s really a treat!
Walk around Blloku
Already mentioned as one of the best areas in town to stay in, if you choose to stay elsewhere, I still recommend you take a walk through this neighborhood. During the communist era in Albania, this neighborhood was closed off and home to the party’s elite. Now, it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood known for great shops, restaurants, and lively bars. This is considered one of the trendier areas in town and is mostly filled with young adults.
While you’re walking around Blloku, give yourself plenty of time to stop in any shops you see along the way and enjoy the street art. The entire city of Tirana is covered in unique graffiti and art. The high quality of it and the fact that every corner has something different to see makes for a really entertaining walk through town. Also, keep an eye out for the residence of notorious politician Enver Hoxha – one that is closed now but will soon be converted into a public space.
Start or end your walking tour by grabbing an espresso at one of the countless cafes. I suggest finding a cafe where you can sit outside unless you’re a smoker. Most cafes and even restaurants in Albania allow customers to smoke indoors. For non-smokers, sitting inside is something you’ll want to avoid but for smokers, you might have found your smokey heaven in Albania.
Visit one of the most famous Tirana attractions – The Clocktower
The clocktower is one of the most popular Tirana landmarks that was built during the Ottoman period by a nobleman – Etëhem Bey Mollaj. Initially, the clocktower just had a bell that was rung every hour but with time, that changed to an actual clock. In fact, it changed many times as it suffered destruction during the two World Wars. The first piece had a very Vienna design, which was later replaced by a face with German numerals and finally – Roman ones. Today, it sports the contemporary numerals.
The original Tirana clocktower was a little smaller than the current one. The change of clocks and the technology necessitated adding more floors and a new roof too. One can climb up this clock tower and get a stunning view of the city. This is one of the free things to do in Tirana Albania as there are no entrance fees as of now.
Get a taste of the Albanian history at the National museum
I truly believe that understanding the history of a place gives you a much better perspective of its culture. In the case of Tirana and Albania, all you have to do is visit the National Museum. This Tirana tourist attraction chronicles the entire history of Tirana and Albania – starting with the Paleolithic ages to the Illyrian empire and right up to the 21st century. Keep an eye out for the hero exhibit called the Beauty of Durrës – a mosaic that goes back to the 4th century.
Hop around town to view the many mosques
More than half of the population in Albania are Muslim. Because of this, there are a handful of gorgeous, ornate mosques throughout the city that are truly a sight to see. I highly suggest you go out of your way to see some of the mosques in the city. Most are located in central locations, so you could make visiting them into a fun self-guided walking tour.
These are the top Tirana mosques, I suggest you check out:
Et’hem Bey Mosque – one of the key places to visit in Tirana
Located in lively Skanderbeg Square, this is right next to the famous clock tower. The mosque was built by the same nobleman – Etëhem Bey Mollaj from the Ottoman times. It is the oldest mosque in Tirana, which was closed for decades during communist rule. In 1991, thousands of Muslims gathered and entered the mosque, signifying the end of an oppressive era. Et’them Bey mosque is known for its very unique fresco designs – not commonly found in Islamic architecture. These frescoes depict waterfalls, trees and bridges.
Namazgah Mosque, or The Great Mosque of Tirana
This mosque is still under construction and once done, will be the biggest one in the Balkan region. Even from the outside, Turkish architecture and influence is evident.
Kokonozi Mosque, or New Bazaar Mosque
Another relic of the Ottoman era, this mosque has some shades of Gothic architecture. Like the Et’hem Bey Mosque, the Kokonozi mosque was shut down in communist rule and reopened only in 1991.
Bejtul Evel Mosque
A more modern construction, this mosque is a functional and possibly the largest one in Tirana. Built in 1995, it has a seating of 2500 people and is easily recognized by its two white minarets. The mosque is also, called Baitul Awal Mosque.
Learn about the city’s history at Bunk’Art
Bunk’Art and Bunk’Art 2 are both underground bunkers in the city that have been converted into museums that highlight the nation’s history. Throughout the entire country, there are tens of thousands of bunkers that were built by the communist regime due to the fear of a nuclear war. The entrances to the bunkers all over the country look like small cement mushroom tops. Some are small, while others, like the ones that have been converted into Bunk’Arts, are many stories deep.
Both of these museums tell the story of the communist regime in Albania. They’re great places to visit for history buffs or those looking for a unique experience. It’s not every day you can visit an underground museum that was originally built for the political elite to hide out in the face of war!
Cross over the Tanner’s bridge
A remnant of the Ottoman legacy of Tirana, this bridge used to be over the Lane river, which now no longer flows through this area. The bridge was abandoned for a while and finally fell into disrepair. It was rediscovered and restored in the 1990s and stands today, as a proud monument of Tirana history.
P.S: It is called Tanner’s bridge after Tanner’s mosque that was beside it. Sadly, the mosque no longer exists.
Discover the lone pyramid of Tirana
It might just seem like a youth hang out but the Pyramid of Tirana was built by the daughter of Enver Hoxha as a museum and tribute to him. Naturally, after the fall of communism, this museum was boycotted and used for various other purposes – from being the NATO headquarters to a radio station and even a film set. Recently, it was decided that it would become a IT hub for the youth in Tirana.
While here, watch out for the bell of peace next to the Tirana pyramid. Referred to as the Kambana e Paqjes, this is symbolic of the peace after a violent past in the 1990s. It is made from 20,000 bullets that were used during the civil unrest.
Ride a cable car to Mount Dajti
Get on top of a 1613 m high Mount Dajti in less than 15 minutes with this cable car in Tirana. The ride is definitely worth the views and once on top of the mountain, you can spend a little time admiring the beauty of Tirana. You can also, choose to grab a meal at the rotating restaurant here or even stay the night.
Plan to do nothing on a Sunday
Tirana is a lively city with so much to do and see…except on Sundays. Sundays are truly the day of rest in Albania and Tirana is no different. Sunday is a great day to stay at home, grab some food, and simply relax. It can also be a nice day to walk around the city but expect to see most shops closed and the streets much quieter than on any other day of the week.
You can also, visit the Grand Park in Tirana and stroll around its artificial lake. It is quite a scenic place – in fact, one of Tirana’s Instagram spots. There are quite a few cafes around here too, to spend a lazy afternoon.
Take Road Trip Through Albania | Day trips from Tirana
Although this is a travel guide on how to best enjoy Tirana, it would be a shame to visit Albania and not see more of this beautiful country. Albania is a small country and can be driven from border to border in just a few short hours.
If you have the time, I highly suggest you spend a night or two in one of the many other great towns throughout Albania. A few of my favorite places in the country, all accessible from Tirana by bus or by car, are:
- Berat – A delightful UNESCO World heritage site which is a great option for a Tirana day trip. You can use this link of GetYourGuide to book a trip from Tirana.
- Kruja – Kruja is often combined with a trip to Durres and Viator.com has just the tour for it. Click this link to book one or explore its many other tours of Kruja available with them.
- Gjirokaster – Popularly called Albania’s stone city, you can visit it from Tirana as a day trip. You can use this GetYourGuide link to book one or explore the many others that the site offers.
- The Albanian Alps (Theth or Valbona) – Add a little adventure and nature to your Tirana visit with this day trip to Theth or Valbona. Click this link to know more about the tour
With this, you’re ready to enjoy your time in Tirana, Albania. Although I came to this country with no expectations and a lack of understanding about what I was really getting myself into by moving here, I’ve absolutely loved it here.
It’s a highly unique and beautiful country that I think you’ll enjoy getting to know just as much as I have.
Common FAQs about Tirana
How to Get To Tirana?
Tirana is relatively easy to get to due to its international airport. There are a number of direct flights into the airport from varying European cities. The airport is relatively small, making arriving easy. The line for immigration is nearly non-existent and the distance from where you land to where you’d get a taxi is just a few minutes walk from one another.
Albania is not yet connected to the rest of Europe via train so other than flying into the capital city, you can reach it via bus or by ferry. Although not located on the sea, Tirana is only about 30 minutes from the port town, Durres, so to come via ferry you would first need to arrive at Durres and then take a taxi or bus to the city.
The other option would be to drive into the city from one of the neighboring countries. Tirana is connected via highway to Montenegro, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. You could also bring your car via ferry from Italy or Greece. If you plan to drive or rent a car in Albania, do note that some of the roads are not in great condition and traffic regulations seem to be more of suggestions rather than hard laws.
Where to stay in Tirana?
Most people associate capital cities with being large and difficult to navigate- that isn’t the case with Tirana. If you’re happy to walk, the city is highly accessible and won’t take too much time to stroll around. There are plenty of buses and taxis around though if you’d prefer to interact with the city that way. Keep in mind that currently there are no ride-share apps like Uber, Lyft, or Grab in the country. That being said, so long as you stay near the city center, everything you’ll want to see and do will be within reach.
Blloku and Zona 1 are the two most popular areas for travelers to stay in while in town. In those areas, there are plenty of hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs to choose from for all budgets. Both of these areas are also full of great restaurants, coffee shops, and bars to keep you entertained and full at any hour.
Which is the best time to visit Tirana?
Tirana is an all-year-round destination. Given its Mediterranean climate, you can enjoy the place in almost any month.
Before you go, Pin this
- Consider using Booking.com to get your Tirana hotel in your area of choice.
- Agoda.com is yet another option that you can use to book hotels in Tirana. You can use this link to browse through the various options.
- GetYourGuide has tons of Tirana tours listed on their site. From Cooking classes to walking tours and even transfers in and around Tirana – you can book them all through this link.
- Viator.com is yet another option that I offer as my affiliate. They too, have numerous tours, transfers and cultural classes options. Try them out using this link – remember that booking through it will not cost you anything additional but will give me some commision to keep this site going.
- If you use Amazon to purchase your travel or home requirements, do click through my affiliate link to get to the site.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
This post has been written by my guest author – Kat. Kat is the founder of the popular expat website, A Way Abroad. She’s been living around the world for the last 10 years with her husband and rescue dog. She currently calls Saranda, Albania home but who knows where she’ll head next! She can be followed on facebook.