10 Of The Best Things To See & Do In Tirana

Tirana, an unexpected surprise. In the best way possible. 

At Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, the gate for a direct flight to Tirana was tucked in a lackluster corner dulled by murky lights, travelers crammed in a paltry room bare from lush carpets or shiny duty free boutiques. My heart pulsed hastily by the minute, never mind the repetition of a self-reminder as cliché as “keep calm, carry on,” I caressed skeptical feelings with: try to have fun, this is part of the thrill you live for. That out-of-place feeling exacerbated as the sole Asian on the plane, heightened by my choice of sporting a mini skirt only to find myself sitting next to a woman in a graceful hijab.

But Tirana felt like home. That was beautifully unexpected. Strolling through developing urbanization of Blloku – a neighborhood previously permitted exclusively for Hoxha’s Communist elites – somehow imported flashes of a childhood four decades ago, when Taipei was climbing its way out of Chiang Kai-Shek’s martial law. In the middle of Tirana, I eased into a wanderlust in the middle of Taiwan Park, a spiteful name given after Albania terminated its diplomatic relationship with China. I found solace in two cities barren of skyscrapers, bounty of tiny shops that sold bits of everything and anything, restaurants that transform intestines into savory bliss.

As much as Tirana oddly felt homely, there were traits that uniquely belonged to this burgeoning capital. The bunkers were remnants of Albania’s former dictator, Enver Hoxha, and his unhinged paranoia of nuclear attacks. Each embodied pervasive underground networks that entomb stories of espionage, investigation, persecution. Today’s Tirana utilizes such themes in various retro bars, dotted throughout former noble areas that now can be enjoyed by all: Radio Bar, Bunker1944 Lounge and Komiteti – Kafe Muzeum…just to name a few.

A trip to Tirana is an eye-opening experience. Most of the sights can be done in one day, but spend a few days there. The ultimate takeaway needs time to marinate, through observation of its kind people, admiration of colorful buildings, a slower pace, and ultimately, your personal connection with the city.

House of Leaves Museum

8RG8+MHG, Tirana, Albania

House of Leaves Museum is the former headquarter of National Intelligence Service, or House of Spies originally built in 1931 as a medical clinic. During WWII, this was occupied by Gestapo (secret police of Nazi Germany.) After the war, the Albanian Communist regime took over the building and used it as a bureau for investigations and espionage. Now a museum, make sure to descend the stairs into a bunker in front of the house. They were built to protect the secret police and Communist leaders from nuclear attacks.

The museum is named House of Leaves as a double meaning: leaves hidden in the woods, as well as the leaflets and files on the Albanian people.

Skanderbeg Square

Plaza Tirana, Sheshi Skender Beu, Tirana 1001, Albania

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana
Skanderbeg Square, Tirana. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Right on the National Gallery Museum’s main plaza is Skanderbeg Square, which not only marks the center of Tirana but it’s also a tribute to Albania’s national hero from the 15th century, Skanderbeg who fought against the Ottomans. In addition to the museum, this square also encompasses the Clock Tower, Et’hem Bey Mosque, Palace of Culture, National Library, Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and Bank of Albania.

National History Museum

Sheshi Skënderbej 7, Tirana 1001, Albania

National Gallery Museum
National Gallery Museum. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

As the most significant museum in Albania, stop by the National Gallery Museum for comprehensive understanding of the country’s sordid politics and history. The museum is categorized into eight sections, spanning from antiquity to the Communist Terror.

Et’hem Bej Mosque

AL, Sheshi Skënderbej, 1000, Albania

A few steps away from the Skanderbeg statue is the minute but magnificent Et’hem Bej Mosque. Founded at the end of 18th century, the mosque miraculously survived destruction when other religious buildings were either torn down or converted into workshops during 1960s. To fight for religious freedom, 10,000 Albanians entered the mosque carrying flags on January 18, 1991. This also marked the end of Communist regime in Albania. Today, you can admire the Islamic frescoes and paintings inside and outside of the beautiful architecture.