Albania’s capital city since 1920, Tirana is an essential stop for museums and nightlife.

Tirana was founded in the early 17th century by Sulejman Pasha of Mulleti, who built a settlement in the area around the modern intersection of Rruga e Barrikadave and Rruga Luigj Gurakuqi. His statue stands today in the little square near that crossroads.

Until it was designated as the capital in 1920, Tirana was a small, unimportant town, whose main virtue for Albania’s political leaders was its geographical position more or less in the centre of the recently independent country, on the fault line dividing the northern Ghegs from the southern Tosks.

Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, Albania by Alla Simacheva, Shutterstock
Skanderbeg Square in Tirana is famous for classical music concerts, operas and ballet performances throughout the year © Alla Simacheva, Shutterstock

It remained a bit of a backwater town for several years afterwards, as Albania struggled to stabilise itself in the face of internal lawlessness and invasions by its hostile neighbours.

It was not until Italian influence became pervasive in the late 1920s that the centre of Tirana took on the appearance of a capital city. Italian planners created the huge new square – which was named after the national hero Skanderbeg – and the wide, typically Fascist Boulevard (now known as Bulevardi Dëshmorët e Kombit); Italian architects designed the ministry buildings, the National Bank and the City Hall around the square, as well as the Dajti Hotel, the royal palace on Rruga e Elbasanit, and some of the embassies.

During the communist era, the few older buildings still standing on Skanderbeg Square were demolished and the opera house, the National Historical Museum and the Hotel Tirana (now the Tirana International Hotel) were added, as were the public buildings further down the Boulevard.

All these 20th century accretions, plus the destruction caused by various earthquakes and by the Battle for the Liberation of Tirana in 1944, means that there is not very much left of Ottoman Tirana. A good deal of what survived into the 1990s has subsequently disappeared under glittering high-rise apartment blocks and shopping centres. 

Mosaic at the National Historical Museum, Tirana, Albania by JM Travel Photography, Shutterstock
This mosaic mural is displayed above the entrance to the National Historical Museum in Tirana © JM Travel Photography, Shutterstock

Tirana has become well known for its brightly painted apartment blocks. This initiative began in the wake of the 2000 local elections, which saw an artist and former Minister of Culture becoming Mayor of Tirana.

The new mayor, Edi Rama (at the time of writing, he is the country’s prime minister), began by restoring to the ministries on and around Skanderbeg Square the ochre colour that they had when they were first built in the 1930s; he went on to give a lick of paint to the tatty apartment buildings in the streets nearby, choosing bold colours which – although they did not convince everybody – at least had the merit of brightening up the city. 

As well as its intriguing mix of architectural styles, Tirana has several very good museums and a range of cultural activities. It has hundreds of cafés; dozens of modern bars, popular with younger people; numerous clubs, some with live music, particularly at the weekends; and an array of restaurants, many of them excellent.

New bars and restaurants open all the time, and a complete list would certainly become out of date in the lifetime of a guide such as this. The more ephemeral Tirana in Your Pocket lists all the latest fashions in eating, drinking and dancing.

Tirana also has some infuriating aspects, mainly the appalling traffic congestion and noise. In general, however, the city centre is an attractive place to stay; and its excellent public transport links make it the best base for exploring the rest of Albania.