Some Reasons You Should Visit Tirana
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. The collapse of communism in 1992 only worsened the situation, as chaos engulfed the city and crime started to rise.
All that has now changed. Today Tirana is – while still often chaotic – a very pleasant little city, and the cultural, entertainment and political centre of Albania. Home to a rapidly-growing population of nearly one million (Albania’s total population stands at around just three million), Tirana has a buzz you won’t find anywhere else in this beguiling nation.
Here are some reasons to make a beeline for the Albanian capital.
1. People’s Honesty and Friendliness
Contrary to the stereotype of the Albanian mafioso, I’ve actually found Albanians to be exceptionally helpful and sincere. It started as soon as I exchanged money at the airport. I was informed by the clerk that the rates in the city are usually much lower. And he even advised me to only exchange a minimal amount of money.
It continued when the bus driver didn’t take advantage of the fact that I didn’t know the ticket price. Instead, he gave me back the exact amount of change he owed me. How could this not be my favorite city in the Balkans already?
2. Clean City Center
Albania’s decades of isolation stopped the development that took place elsewhere. Private cars did not exist until after the fall of the Communist regime. In order to be able to handle these cars, officials had to plan the construction of modern roads. These are in good condition. In fact, the streets in the city center were in much better condition than in Athens or even in Sofia. Furthermore, there are bike lanes which is something we can only dream of here in Athens.
Even the stray dogs are vaccinated and sterilized which is why they all have tags.
3. Visit Tirana to Experience Religious Tolerance
60% of Albanians are Muslim, 20% Atheist, 10% Orthodox Christian, and 10% Catholic. And Albania is the only country in the Balkans that doesn’t base its identity on religion. Albanians place their language first. If you speak Albanian you are Albanian, no matter your religion. Albania has never seen any sort of conflict between the different religious communities.
Because religion was banned under the Communist dictatorship, there are only a few religious buildings in the capital. And most of them are less than two decades old. So while there aren’t many historic religious buildings, you can see a new Catholic church, an Orthodox one, and a mosque within walking distance of each other. And this is another reason Tirana is my favorite city in the Balkans.
4.The Unbreakable Spirit of the People
Being half-Balkan myself, I believe we have a tendency to complain about the state of things but not actually do anything to change. I have found that Albanian people, more than anyone else in the region, refuse to let the circumstances define their reality. They make the best of what they have and continue on with life.
Ugly architecture? No problem, let’s add some color! Not many famous artists? Let’s just display propaganda art from the Communist era as a wake-up call for future generations. After private cars were made legal people had to buy the only cars that would work with tractor fuel.
Albanians have a strong drive to improving their situation and dealing with it in the best way possible. And this is another reason Tirana is my favorite city in the Balkans and why you should definitely visit.
5. Mount Dajti National Park
If you want a break 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.
6. It’s very cheap: 1 coffe is 0.50 cent, 1 hamburger is 1.5 euro, 1 pizza start from 2 euros, 1 beer starts from 1 euro.
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, too, set to a soundtrack of Albanian and Euro pop.
7. Grand Park
Just south of the prestigious Blloku district is Tirana’s Grand Park, which is the city centre’s top spot for fresh air and a bit of exercise. It covers 230 hectares and encloses a large artificial lake. Famously the Presidential Palace can be found here, which was originally designated as a residence for King Zog I, but was completed just a few years before communism. There are also tombs to several Albanian national heroes in the park, among them politicians, writers and philosophers. Throughout the year you can find people fishing on the lakeshore, which indicates the improving water quality, while outdoor swimming is available in summer.
This extraordinary attraction puts Albania’s recent past into perspective. Bunk’Art is an underground bunker that was constructed for Tirana’s communist-era politicians and military top brass in case of nuclear war. What’s astounding is the scale and detail of the shelter: It’s set over five stories, and has more than 100 different rooms including a meeting hall with 200 seats. The goal of the attraction today is to help people come to terms with a troubled period in the country’s history, but will enthuse people who enjoy Cold War-era installations and communist design.
9. Tirana Castle
The Fortress of Justinian, known simply as Tirana Castle is the only one found in the city centre. The fortress is where at one time the main east–west and north–south roads crossed, forming the heart of the town as it was then. The castle history dates back prior to 1300. The walls are 6 m high and are a remnant from the Byzantine era. It is located near to Parliament and the Academy of Sciences, not far from Skanderbeg Square. The recently exposed wall foundations have been incorporated into the pedestrianized Murat Toptani Street.
10. New Bazaar
The New Bazaar is located at Avni Rustemi Sqaure, only 8 minute walk from the center of Tirana and quickly became the newest attraction of the city. Before the Inauguration, even though it kept the same name, the New Bazaar area was a chaotic place where vendors were selling their products not in good conditions. New Bazaar was a much needed investment for the city, replacing the decrepit one. It hosts some contemporary painted buildings, but it respects tradition, and is giving back to the city the beauty and authenticity. The New bazaar is already turned into a major attraction of the city due to the unique facades that have preserved the Italian architectural style, the decoration with Albanian motives, as well as public spaces to enjoy fresh food and rest. From the inauguration day the visitors in this area are increased, not only for the beautiful buildings but for also for the nice café and open bars. Local market offers a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood and meat. It is a nice place for people to spend time with their family or friends. During weekends various activities are organized here such as fairs, concerts and open theatres for kids.