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.
@jetsettimes 5 amazing things to do in Tirana, Albania ✈️🇦🇱 #travel #traveltiktok #albania #tirana #museum #history #education #balkan ♬ riptide – audiobear
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.
Plaza Tirana, Sheshi Skender Beu, Tirana 1001, Albania
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
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.
Street Abdi Toptani, Tiranë, Albania
One of the most visited museums in Tirana must be Bunk’Art 2, a formerly top-secret nuclear bunker operated by the Communist police. The 1,000 square meter bunker showcases an extensive underground network built between 1981 and 1986 to house elite government officials and policemen during nuclear attacks. Former leader Enver Hoxha built hundreds and thousands of bunkers throughout Albania, due to his paranoia of attacks by the “imperialist America and social-imperialist Soviet Union.” Today, the museum depicts the political persecution of 100,000 Albanians during his leadership.
8RGC+HVC, Shëtitorja Murat Toptani, Tirana, Albania
Also known as the Fortress of Justinian, Tirana Castle dates all the way back to 1300 from the Byzantine period. This area has always been the heart of the city since it’s where the east, west, north and south meet. In recent years, the castle quarter has transformed into a modern shopping area, full of restaurants, cafés and shops that celebrate Albanian heritage and history.
Pyramid of Tirana
8RFC+7J, Tiranë 1001, Albania
Currently under construction, the Pyramid of Tirana was opened in 1988 as a museum dedicated to its Communist leader Enver Hoxha. At the time, it was the most expensive structure ever built in Albania. After the fall of Communism in 1991, the pyramid was repurposed as a conference center. During the Kosovo War in 1999, however, NATO used the pyramid as a base. In 2018, it was determined that the pyramid would comprise a contemporary look since the building will serve the youth in technology, IT, programming, robotics and startups.
Parku Rinia – Youth Park – Taiwan Park
8RF9+X84, Tirana, Albania
For a Taiwanese like me, it was a thrilling surprise to stroll through a park named after my homeland in the middle of Tirana. The park was built in 1950 when Albania’s Communist regime terminated its relationship with China and named the park Taiwan to support the island’s sovereignty. Today, the complex is a popular place to hang out. So don’t be surprised to hear Albanians say, “Let’s meet in Taiwan!”
During the 1990s, numerous illegal buildings bolted in this area of the city but within the next decade, the government cleaned up the city and demolished 130 buildings to amass the park area with green grass, fountains and cafés that residents and travelers can enjoy today.
Grand Park of Tirana
8R6G+W32, Rruga Herman Gmeiner, Tirana 1000, Albania
Just south of Blloku, the Grand Park of Tirana is akin to Central Park in Manhattan where citizens can picnic, stroll, and enjoy other outdoor activities with children and loved ones. It is attached to the artificial lake, and includes a slew of attractions: Saint Procopius Church, Presidential Palace and numerous memorials honoring Albanian figures. In addition to the zoo, there’s also a botanical garden that families can enjoy and explore.
Tirana National Archaeological Museum
Sheshi Nënë Tereza 3, Tiranë 1010, Albania
Located on Mother Teresa Square is National Archaeological Museum where much of the collection highlight discoveries from prehistory through the Middle Ages. The museum opened after WWII in 1948, since then, it has become the parent establishment of other archeological museums in Albania. Though not as popular as the National History Museum, this is meant for history buffs that are interested in studying ancient accessories, clay pots, Roman statues and much more.