Full of food, culture, and many stories to tell, Tirana, Albania turned out to be quite the adventure. One of the more unique destinations that we visited in the Balkans, we have learned so much about a place we never thought we’d visit. In this post, we talk about some really cool things to do in Tirana plus what to eat and where to get it. We also give some general tips about taxis, buses and drinking water below.
Free Walking Tour of Tirana
Tirana’s free walking tour was one of our favorites in Europe! Our guide was savvy and sassy, making for a very entertaining morning. We covered a lot of ground so if you take this tour then bring lots of water and good shoes (sunscreen too).
Tirana Free Tour is a great company run by locals who will give you true insight into their city and history. Highly recommended! Always remember to bring cash so you can tip your guide; that’s how they make money, after all.
Pyramid of Tirana and Peace Bell
Let’s start with the most famous of buildings in Tirana: the pyramid. Seriously, you walk up to it and think “what the heck” but the story behind this building, as well as its bizarre architecture, make it one of the most popular spots in the city.
It’s also a very controversial building because it was originally built as a museum to Albania’s communist ruler, Enver Hoxha (more on him below).
Even though it’s pretty much in ruin today (take the free walking tour and find out why!) there are plans to transform this building into a tech school for young people. Very cool!
You’ll also notice a bell in front of the pyramid. This is known as the Peace Bell and is a very important monument. There were a lot of financial scams taking place during the 90s and in 1997, hundreds of people lost their lives due to unrest resulting from the scams (pyramid schemes). This bell is made from the gun shells used during that unfortunate time.
When you arrive in Tirana you’ll notice that it’s surrounded by mountains, like a lot of cities we’ve visited in this region. You don’t have to search very far for some nature. In fact, Mt. Dajti is the perfect blend of nature and fun and it’s reachable by a cable car lift!
If you like pretty views, trying traditional food, and hanging out with locals then be sure to read our post on things to do atop Mt. Dajti. It’s an inexpensive way to have some fun for a day in Tirana!
Another iconic spot in Tirana, Skanderberg Square is a happening place. Surrounded by the opera house, national library, Et’hem Bey mosque, the clock tower, and national history museum (see below), there’s a lot to do in just this area.
Most importantly though, the statue of Skanderberg (who this square is named after) is the main sight to see. He’s a hero of the Albanian people and rebelled against Ottoman rule in the 15th century.
Be sure to spend some time in this square as it’s picturesque, there’s shade and there’s also free wifi!
If you’d like a better view of Skanderberg square then climb the clock tower!
National History Museum
We’d like to specifically discuss this museum in Skanderberg Square because it’s the one museum that’s definitely worth your time. Of course, if you’re a museum maniac there are plenty more to choose from.
Not only does the museum house some really cool artifacts inside, some of them in English, but the mural on its exterior is very cool. Granted, it’s true communist propaganda but one can appreciate this piece of their history through this massive work of art.
Bunk’Art 1 (and 2)
There are more than 150,000 bunkers across Albania. That’s a lot! However, there are two in particular that are great for visitors, as they’ve been transformed into semi-art and history exhibitions.
Bunk’Art 2 is much more accessible as it’s located near the city center. However, Bunk’Art 1 is the one we recommend visiting. It’s absolutely massive, inexpensive, and you’ll learn a lot about Albania’s tumultuous past.
To get to Bunk’Art 1, look for the blue bus in the city center (there aren’t numbers) and take it to its terminal station near the cable car lift to Mt. Dajti. It’s just a short walk from there! Be sure to have some small change on you as the bus ride is 40 ALL (less than $1 USD per person).
Enver Hoxha’s Former Residence
What’s the reason for all the bunkers? Enver Hoxha. He ruled as head of state of Albania from 1944-1985, the year he died. That’s a long time for one man to rule a country so you can imagine the mark he left behind.
You can actually see his former residence but unfortunately, only from the other side of the fence. We weren’t able to go in so it’s really just a building nowadays but you will find a KFC across the street and as our tour guide put it: communism and capitalism get to face off.
Don’t feel the need to plan a lot of time around this house but a walk by would be nice!
House of Leaves
The House of Leaves is a museum dedicated to intelligence service during communist times and the terror that ensued. Think of the House of Terror in Budapest or Stasi Museum in Berlin. While this is a heavy subject and isn’t always the best option for those of us on holiday, it’s important to see what life was like for these people. If you do visit then be sure and follow it up with something cheerful!
Rruga Murat Toptani (Promenade)
Our favorite street in Tirana! With beautiful trees providing a canopy and shops lining the streets, a simple stroll down Murat Toptani is always a good time. Look out for the music theme as you explore. The sidewalk resembles a music staff and benches are in the shape of music notes.
Murat Toptani will lead you to Tirana Castle. Wait, Tirana has a castle? Awesome! Yes and no. While there are remnants of the castle standing today, it’s full of shops and restaurants instead of a museum. But hey, that’s pretty cool too.
Dating back prior to 1300, the Tirana Castle is from the Byzantine era.
Piece of Berlin Wall (Postblloku)
This is a space to remember the victims of Enver Hoxha’s time. There are three pieces in total, the most prominent being the piece of the Berlin Wall. But you’ll also find a small bunker (like the other hundreds of thousands in Albania), and a small structure that’s made up of actual materials from the Spac labour camp, where many political prisoners were held during Hoxha’s reign. You may not know otherwise as you stroll past this scenic area but this is a very important monument dedicated to victims during that time.
Day Trip to Durres
While there are a ton of things to do in Tirana, maybe you’re wanting a break from the city for a day. Durres is a short distance away and is on the coast, which means beaches! From Roman ruins, good eats, and yes, beaches, you’ll find it all in Durres. Check out our post on what to do in Durres plus how to get there from Tirana!
Grand Park of Tirana
Another nature escape with a local feel, the Grand Park of Tirana is literally, as the name implies, grand. Go for a stroll, have some ice cream, hang with the locals, it’s all easy to find and easy to reach. There are plenty of cafes scattered throughout the park so take a break and spend the evening with some coffee.
National Arts Gallery
Another great stop for museum and art lovers, the National Arts Gallery contains thousands of artworks. You’ll find the main theme to be socialst realism but there’s currently a large temporary exhibition from the Japanese architect Sou Fujimot called “The Cloud”.
Behind the gallery, you’ll find a few communist statues still in good condition today. For anyone interested in history be sure to take a peek behind the gallery!
Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
As far as churches in Europe go, this one is very new. But it’s still very important! It was opened in 2012 and it marked the revival of the Orthodox faith in Albania.
If you appreciate churches or their intricate architecture, head inside since it’s free to do so and have a look around.
Great Mosque of Tirana
Currently under construction, this will be a giant mosque when it’s finished. We’ve heard it’s going to hold thousands of people and we’re anxious to see the finished product. Keep an eye out for it when you visit Tirana!
Where to Eat in Tirana
Our favorite restaurant in Tirana, Oda was a tasty experience of Albanian cuisine. We highly recommend vegetarians to try this place out but there are meat options as well. Our waiter was very kind and offered recommendations. The best part? It’s so cheap! Try the rice-stuffed pepper, vegetable-stuffed eggplant, and lakror, a pie with leek or spinach. Yummy!
Another good place in the city to grab some traditional Albanian (they have international foods as well) is Restaurant-Piceri. It’s located near Enver Hoxha’s house so it’s very central. While you’ll pay more than Oda for your meal, your taste buds will not complain!
Restaurant Ballkoni Dajtit
As we mentioned earlier in this post, Mt. Dajti is a great way to spend a day in Tirana. However, one of the coolest parts about being atop the mountain was Ballkoni Dajtit. Lightly fried cheese with jam, cottage cheese with honey and walnuts (not like American cottage cheese), meat stew and stuffed eggplant. It was a hot day so the cold beer was a nice addition. Be sure to have a great meal with a great view!
Things to Note
We took several taxis in Tirana but we have our concerns. The meter was never turned on. That said, every driver was friendly and the ride was never expensive. Almost none of the drivers spoke English so be prepared to use hand gestures! If you know a little Italian, French, or German than give it a go. We used Italian once and it went much smoother than English!
Even better than the other taxis in Tirana, why not go green and use an electric taxi with a meter? Green Taxi is a company that allows you to schedule a pick up by texting them on WhatsApp. Just send a message to +355 69 800 2000, tell them where you are and where you want to go. They’re also great because they’ll send you a link with the realtime location of your driver and they allow you to schedule rides for a later time.
Buses in this region of Europe are a tough cookie to crack and Tirana is no exception. In fact, we think it’s even tougher here! If it wasn’t for some nice people on the internet we never would have figured out how to get to Durres and other places. Buses are colored by route, not numbered. Google Maps does not show you where the bus stops are and the bus stops don’t have schedules. If you’re needing to use a bus, ask a local like your host or one of the free walking tour guides. The nice thing is that buses are very frequent and very cheap.
Like we said with taxis, English was rarely spoken. However, the pharmacy, grocery stores, and most restaurants spoke some English. Again, if you know some Italian, French, or German it will come in handy!
Last but definitely not least, do not drink the tap water in Albania. You can search on the internet and find some people saying it’s fine. Others swear against it. When it’s split like that, we always err on the side of caution. We asked our Airbnb host, who’s from Albania, and he said “NEVER” drink the water in Albania. So, in that case, you have to buy your water in bottles. To keep down on waste, try to buy the bigger jugs and refill a reusable bottle. If you have a bottle that filters then feel free to try but we found some people saying don’t even do that. Of course, the choice is yours!
Summary of What to Do, See, and Eat in Lively Tirana!
We hope you’ve got some ideas of what Tirana has to offer. If you’re trekking through the Balkans then be sure Tirana is on your list of stops! It’s a one of a kind place that we’ll never stop talking about.