Not nearly as ‘behind the times’ as one might think, Tirana is lively, colourful, and chaotic in places. The city has relics of its Ottoman, Italian and Communist past to explore and we’d like to share five of the sights that you shouldn’t miss on your visit to Albania’s capital city.
The best place to start is in the heart of it all – Skanderbeg Square. Located in the geographic and political center of Albania the square was so named in 1967 when a bronze statue of Albania’s national hero was erected to replace the statue of Stalin. The statue of Skanderbeg used to share the square with one of Enver Hoxha but that statue was torn down by an angry mob in 1991 at the end of the communist period so Skanderbeg now stands alone.
Just off the square, you’ll find the Et’hem Bey Mosque and Clock Tower that are well worth visiting. The mosque was built between 1793 and 1821 and is beautifully and elaborately decorated inside and out by some of Albania’s masters. It was saved from demolition, unlike so many other religious sites, during the communist era and was conserved as a cultural monument. It still provides religious services and visitors are welcome to visit. Ladies, you’ll need a covering for your head if you visit (they will provide a scarf if you don’t have one), and everyone is required to remove their shoes at the entrance.
Located right beside the mosque is the Clock Tower that was built between 1821 and 1830 to represent the capital. Reaching 35 meters in height it can be seen for quite a distance and was the tallest structure in Tirana until recent history. It was believed the tower would beautify the city and is one of the few buildings financed by municipal funds collected by the noblemen of the times. They also thought it would make their names remembered in the days to come, so they weren’t collecting those funds solely for altruistic reasons to beautify the city!
National History Museum
At one end of Skanderbeg Square you’ll find Albania’s largest museum – the National History Museum. Designed to take you chronologically through time from ancient Illyrian times through to post-communist era, the museum has a number of archaeological treasures, Orthodox icons, traditional costumes and items related to the national uprising against the Ottomans. There is also a sobering section devoted to the victim of communist dictatorship with photos and objects from the labour camps.
Much of the information in the museum is only in Albanian so it is helpful to have a guide that can give you more information about the artefacts that interest you most.
Up close you’ll be able to view the beautiful mosaic over the entrance the depicts “Albanians victorious and proud from Illyrian times through to WWII“.
Quite possibly one of the least attractive buildings I’ve ever seen in a city, the Pyramid is at least unique. Built by the daughter and son-in-law of Enver Hoxha it was originally intended to be a museum in his honour. It was used as such for a few years but after 1991 it became a conference center and exhibition or concert hall. Now it is pretty much abandoned, all except for the young people who make scaling the walls to the top a sport designed to terrify their poor mothers!
More beautifully on the grounds is the Peace Bell that was built by the children of the Catholic Zadrima community with the shells of bullets being melted to make the bell. It also features children dancing to symbolise Albania’s hope for a better future and was created as a memorial to those who died in 1997 following the collapse of the Pyramid Investment Scheme.
The Bllok was formerly an off-limits area to all those except the elite of Enver Hoxha’s communist party, but today at the entrance stands the memorial called PostBlloku.
The memorial contains one of Albania’s infamous bunkers, a piece of the Berlin wall, and concrete pillars from the Spac mine where opponents of the Communist regime were incarcerated and performed forced labour. It is believed about 6,000 people were executed for political crimes during the Communist era of 1946 to 1991. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned or sent to labour camps.
The creator of the memorial, Fatos Lubonja, said this during the inauguration ceremony; “I want to devote this work to those that did not make it beyond the era of dictatorship to live today.”
Colourful Apartment Blocks
After a dreary and grey period dominated by Stalinist apartment blocks, former mayor of Tirana, Edi Ramos, set out to make the city a brighter place. Formerly a painter he used the city as an urban canvas for bright colours and vivid patterns to signify a new life and promise of a brighter and more colourful future. This is certainly a very unique feature of the city and well worth strolling around to see what patterns and colours you’ll find.
What an amazing city Tirana is becoming as it moves into the future, yet preserving its past and history. A little grimy yet, and quite hectic, but so full of life and energy that I couldn’t help but be drawn to it. Quite a contrast from the mountain town of Kruja, where we started our tour, and a great end to an amazing trip.