Albania was the country I was most worried about visiting solo but Tirana, its capital city, was on my route across the Balkans.
Albania doesn’t have the best reputation and the international media doesn’t help. For 40 years after WW2 Enver Hoxha ruled with an iron fist, and between 1961 and 1991 Albania remained an isolated communist state (think North Korea). After the fall of communism many Albanians went to the US, UK and Germany, often attracted by higher wages and job opportunities.
Unfortunately, having been stuck in a communist bubble, many didn’t realise how difficult life in these countries would be and good jobs weren’t guaranteed. Instead of returning to Albania as a “failure” they turned to crime and the Albanian Mafia and its reputation grew.
But with the rise of globalisation, low cost flights (thank you WizzAir) and Albania’s cheap prices, it is becoming more attractive to those wanting to holiday off the beaten track. And the first place most will visit is its capital Tirana.
All around Tirana are reminders of its communist past. Pictured above is a 2.6-ton graffiti-covered slab fragment of the Berlin wall to commemorate the victims of the communist regime.
Arriving in Tirana
If you arrive by plane, Tirana’s international airport is 30 minutes north of central Tirana. You can reach the city centre by hire car, taxi or an hourly bus.
But if you’re arriving from a neighbouring Balkan country, like I did, then you’ll most likely arrive by bus. Up until last year Tirana didn’t have an international bus station and buses arrived all over the city depending on their operator. Thankfully, they now have a car park they use as a central station. Like most things in Tirana it’s not sign posted but you’ll find it behind Asllan Rusi Sports Palace.
Albania is a cash country. Nowhere takes cards. This means you have to carry cash and use ATMs often. Luckily most ATMs are in English. Alternatively you can exchange Euros and US Dollars for Albanian Lek at one of the many currency exchange offices. But watch out what exchange rate they actually give you and don’t always trust the “NO COMMISSION” signs.
You can’t take Albanian Lek out of Albania so remember to change it up before you leave.
Something to note while shopping – in a local supermarket, Joena, I couldn’t take my bag in with me. You have to put it in a locker and just take your money. I guess theft is high in supermarkets in Tirana.
Driving and cars in Tirana
I’ve been to a lot of major cities but no roads have been as bad as in Tirana.
There’s either no road crossing or drivers ignore them. They is also lots of motorbikes and mopeds. I was sworn at, shouted at, and nearly ran over twice. Having travelled a lot, I know it wasn’t my road safety but their bad driving. The level of aggression seen on the roads takes the fun out of walking around the city.
I took the city buses. They’re easy to use, you get on and the conductor comes over and you buy a ticket from him. However, they fill up fast and get crowded. Perfect place for pickpockets so watch out.
I caught a ride with two British guys who had difficulties driving in Tirana, not just because of the crazy drivers but also with traffic officers. On their first night they found an officer by their parked car (which had foreign plates). He told them they couldn’t park there, even though it clearly said they could. The officer took their keys and then asked for 2000 LEK (€15) to return them. As they had just arrived in Tirana they had no Albanian currency, so had to find an ATM. The first ATM only had 5000 LEK notes and they didn’t feel the officer would give change…. Eventually they found an ATM with smaller denominations, paid the officer and got their keys back.
This isn’t the type of hassle you want on holiday.
By tourist sites BUNK’ART 1 and Dajti Ekspres (the cable car) I ran into some stray dogs. They were just hanging around but they didn’t want me going near their rubbish pile.
I found this situation typical in Tirana – to find a rubbish pile and stray dogs next to a new Mercedes. It seems a cultural thing in the Balkans to focus on nice cars, designer clothes and bling watches, but completely neglect rubbish, upkeep of buildings and stray animals. This outlook doesn’t gel with tourism.
I’d heard a lot of crazy statistics on the number of guns in Albania. It’s well known that when the Albanian government collapsed in 1997, many guns were looted, making Albanians well armed.
I didn’t see anyone with a gun in Tirana (except the police) but while I was up Mount Dajiti I was offered the guns in the picture below to shoot at tin cans. However, I declined because I was concerned about scaring the horses next to the cans.
I don’t think that guns are something the casual tourist in Tirana should be too concerned about, unless you intend on leaving the city to hang around the Albanian/Kosovo border.
What to do in Tirana
1) Skanderbeg Square
This is the main square – a wide open space with lots of attractions around it. Here you’ll find a huge statue of Skanderbeg, the Et’hem Bey Mosque, National Opera House and National Historical Museum. It’s attractive to tourists and is a surprisingly calm spot in the middle of the busy city. It has several water features including fountains and there are small vents in the ground with water flowing out. At first I was confused by these but it’s done on purpose.
2) BUNK’ART 2
BUNK’ART 2 isn’t an art gallery. From its name and logo I was expecting a hipster art gallery in an ex-nuclear bunker. But it’s a twenty room museum dedicated to the police history and communist rule in Albania (1912 to 1991) and it’s my favourite attraction in Tirana. If you only have a day in Tirana, make sure you visit. It’s located in the city centre and gives a fantastic overview of this period and the dark history that led to tens of thousands of people being executed, imprisoned and sent to isolated internment camps.
One hopes that by showing and sharing their history, Albania will become more open to visitors and international tourism.
There is a BUNK’ART 1, the original bunker museum found outside the centre, a 30 minute bus ride away. Unless you’re visiting Mount Dajti (which it lies at the foot of) the effort to get to BUNK’ART 1 might not be necessary as BUNK’ART 2 provides a lot of information on Enver Hoxha and the communist regime. Both of the bunkers have free WiFi.
Outside BUNK’ART 2 is the scene of my near death when a moped tried to run me over.
During Enver Hoxha rule, over 173,000 bunkers were built in Albania, with an average of 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometre. There are many all over Tirana. Unfortunately most are now used as toilets.
3) National Historical Museum
After the disappointment of the National Art Gallery of Albania (see number 4) I was pleasantly surprised by the National Historical Museum. It’s the largest museum in Albania and worth the entrance fee. It focuses more on ancient history than I’m personally interested in but it had some more modern exhibitions upstairs. Not everything was translated into English which was unfortunate.
The outside of the museum is an excelled example of Albanian Socialist Realist architecture in the form of a huge mosaic.
4) National Art Gallery of Albania
This art gallery has about 10 paintings inside. Ok, maybe more but you get my point. I was so confused I had to ask at the information desk if I’d missed out a floor. But no, it’s just that small and there is no information given anywhere. There was an app but it needed wifi or data and there was no free wifi. The few paintings upstairs have a political dimension and show Albanian socialist realism and communist propaganda. These were interesting and are the only reason to visit. If they want to bring in more tourists then they’ll have to get some more exhibitions.
However, outside the National Art Gallery is the impressive Cloud Pavilion, installed by the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. This makes the city feel a bit more arty and attractive.
5) Mount Dajti
More specifically the Dajti Ekspres Cable Car. It’s the longest cable car in the Balkans and takes you up Mount Dajti. I highly recommend the cable car for €6 return. The ride takes about 15 to 20 minutes and the views are amazing.
The start of the cable car is located near BUNK’ART 1, on the outskirts of Tirana, so it’s a good idea to do both at the same time.
While I loved the cable car, the top is a huge disappointment. There’s a modern hotel with a revolving bar but the views from the cable car journey are far better than from the bar. There are also horses around and you can shoot some tin cans. This place has so much potential to attract tourists but there are not enough attractions once you get up there.
There were mini buses to take you to the local restaurants up the mountain but they weren’t interested in solo visitors. I had planned to hike up higher but the road looked sketchy and I didn’t feel safe walking around the mountain alone.
Check the Dajti Ekspres Cable Car opening times before you go because it was closed on Tuesdays for maintenance.
6) Peace Bell and Enver Hoxha Pyramid
Sure, it’s just a bell. But it has a great story behind it.
It’s made of molten down gun shells spent during the unrest of 1997. They were collected by children or priests (the story changes), made into a bell and hung over the bridge as a monument. You can’t ring the bell but you can hit it with a stick if you really want to.
So what’s special about this pyramid? Nothing really but you can climb up it and slide back down. Which is perfect for the young and adventurous. Just don’t do it on a sunny day as you will burn yourself on the hot surface.
Most people would consider this area run down and neglected, which it is, but I liked it. It has a youthful authentic vibe and hasn’t been covered in paint. However, it’s not a top tourist site but the disrepair of Hoxha Pyramid is a reminder of the ugliness of his communist state.
Eating and drinking
Tourists flock to the Blloku neighbourhood. During communist times this area was forbidden to all non-members of the party. It’s now an upscale area and had been revamped. It was obviously the “place to be seen”.
Blloku has all the usual tourist bars, including a Sky Bar which has a panoramic rotating bar. Prices are higher here but Tirana is very cheap compared to Western Europe (the average wage in Albania is €330 a month).
There’s enough to do in Tirana to make it worth a visit, even as a solo traveller. I particularly liked BUNK’ART 2 – the history museum in an old nuclear bunker. While I didn’t feel unsafe, I felt a little unwanted as the locals didn’t want to interact. Especially compared to its neighbours Kosovo and Macedonia where people were more friendly.
Given the crazy roads and drivers, I wouldn’t recommend hiring a car in Tirana. It can bring a lot of unwanted hassle. The buses in the city work fine and Tirana recently built an international bus station, making it easier to travel between cities and countries.
I found Tirana safe and intriguing enough to make me want to return to Albania and visit Komani Lake in the north and travel down to the Albanian Riviera. But I wouldn’t recommend it as a place for a weekend break. Both BUNK’ART museums and Dajti Ekspres Cable Car show signs that Tirana is developing attractions which is promising, but it needs some more investment in the city to make it a tourist hotspot. Let me know if you’ve been and agree or disagree with me in the comments below.