Tirana was founded in the early 17th century by Sulejman Pasha 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.
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; numerous clubs, some with live music, particularly at the weekends; and an array of restaurants, many of them excellent. 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.
What to see and do in Tirana
Skanderbeg Square was once the hub of Tirana’s commercial and social life. Before World War II, the main market was here; the 18th-century mosque was where men met to chat, as well as to worship; and around the edges of the square were small shops and cafés. In the 1920s and 30s, the square became the city’s administrative centre, with imposing new buildings designed by Italian architects. Tirana’s citizens still refer to it as ‘the centre’. Now it has been completely closed to traffic and an underground car park has been built beneath its paved expanse.
On Skanderbeg Square’s northern side are the National Historical Museum and the Tirana International Hotel; to the west are the National Bank and the arterial roads called Rruga e Kavajës and Rruga e Durrësit; and the eastern side is entirely taken up with what was once known as the Palace of Culture, which still houses the opera house and the National Library. On the southeastern corner of the square, the 18th-century Mosque of Et’hem Bey is one of the few really old buildings left in Tirana, and is perhaps also the most beautiful. Its minaret was shattered in the Battle for the Liberation of Tirana, but it was subsequently repaired, and the mosque’s status as a Cultural Monument kept it from being damaged or destroyed during the atheism campaigns of the late 1960s. There are frescoes on its exterior walls and more wall paintings inside the mosque, all painstakingly restored in 2019–20. Visitors are admitted except during prayers; shoes must be removed at the entrance, before stepping on the carpet, and women must cover their hair.
National Historical Museum
Dominating Skanderbeg Square is the National Historical Museum, with its huge mosaic mural above the entrance. The museum was opened in 1981 and the mural is an excellent example of the nationalist narrative fostered during the communist period. It depicts the sweep of that version of Albanian history: Illyrian warriors, smiling peasants, the fighters and intellectuals who won independence from the Ottoman Empire, and brave male and female partisans, all being led into the glorious future by a Mother Albania figure.
You should allow an absolute minimum of 2 hours to look round the whole museum. There are many interesting things on display, with helpful maps and information on multilingual panels. Each display case usually has a summary in English and French. On the ground floor – the prehistory, antiquity and late antiquity sections – some of the individual exhibits are labelled in English and French as well as Albanian. The exhibition is arranged in rough chronological order, and starts with prehistoric finds from the Stone, Copper, Bronze and Iron ages. There are maps of Illyrian tribes and city-states at different points in time, and examples of Illyrian jewellery, coins and votive objects in terracotta and bronze from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BC.
Although the National Historical Museum holds the best-known objects from Albania’s archaeological heritage, the collection in the Archaeological Museum, located within the Centre for Albanology Studies in Mother Teresa Square, is much more extensive. Few of the artefacts are labelled in English, but in most cases the labels merely indicate provenance, so geographical rather than linguistic knowledge is what is required. Some of the curators speak good English and, their time permitting, they are usually pleased to explain the collection to visitors.
The first two rooms are devoted to the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages, with some particularly nice spear- and axe-heads, and a fine iron helmet. Then the artefacts from Illyrian cities begin, which will be of greater interest to visitors who are not prehistory specialists. Lovely little figurines in bronze and terracotta, including a delightful little bronze dog from Antigonea, are perhaps the most attractive items in these cases, but there is also jewellery and pottery to admire, and a well-preserved helmet complete with nose and cheek guards. The Roman period is represented with statuary, some fine glassware, inscribed tombstones (some with identifiably Illyrian names), and inscriptions from Victorinus’s Wall, built around the ancient city of Byllis.
The Tirana Mosaic
Tirana’s only visible Roman remains, the Tirana Mosaic, was discovered during construction work in 1972. The original Roman building seems to have been the villa of a 1st-century AD winemaker. Two of his (or her?) amphorae are on display at the site, along with other items excavated there. The mosaic floor was laid in the 4th or 5th century AD, when the villa was converted into a basilica. It has been conserved and stabilised to make it one of the few mosaics in Albania that can be viewed in situ by the general public.
The mosaic site is slightly to the south of Rruga e Durrësit, just inside the ring road (Unaza). It is hidden among residential buildings and is a little tricky to find, although it is signposted from the ring road. It should take about 15 minutes to walk there from Skanderbeg Square, or you could board any of the buses that go from the centre to the Zogu i Zi roundabout.
Statues and cemeteries
Tirana has several good examples of Socialist Realist statues, apart from those in and behind the National Gallery of Arts. The monument to the Unknown Partisan stands in a little square beside the junction of Xhorxh W Bush and Luigj Gurakuqi. The partisan rises above the people and the traffic, waving his comrades on into battle with one hand and gripping his rifle in the other. In the Lake Park, there is a charming statue of a partisan girl offering water to a soldier. Most imposing of all is Mother Albania, who overlooks the city at the Martyrs’ Cemetery (Varreza e Dëshmorëve. A flight of steps on the left of the path leads up to the parvis where Mother Albania stands, clutching a laurel wreath with a star and looking out over Tirana spread below her.
The Martyrs’ Cemetery is a long and, until you get to the Palace of the Brigades, not particularly interesting walk from the city centre. Any bus that shows ‘TEG’ as its destination will let passengers off and pick them up at the nearest stop to the gates (TEG is Tirana East Gate, the huge shopping mall at the junction of the Elbasani road and the new Tirana bypass). A taxi from the city centre would take between 15 and 45 minutes, depending on how bad the traffic congestion is.
Sharra Cemetery (Varreza e Sharrës) is just off Rruga Konferenca e Pezës, in the southwestern outskirts of Tirana. The turn-off uphill to the cemetery can easily be identified by the flower stalls just before it. The graves are grouped chronologically, but you need to bear in mind that Hoxha’s coffin was exhumed and reburied in 1992, and so that is his chronological position, rather than the date of his death, 1985. Once you are in roughly the right section, the large brown marble headstone is easy to spot; there may be fresh flowers on the grave. Mehmet Shehu, Albania’s prime minister until his fall from grace in 1981, has also been reinterred in the main cemetery.
The relentless pace of construction over the last decade or so has meant the loss of many of Tirana’s green spaces, but two of the city’s best-loved parks have survived: they were known in the communist era as the Youth Park (Parku i Rinisë) and the Big Park (Parku i Madh).
In fine weather, Youth Park fills with people of all ages, relaxing with their friends or family. A massive monument to Albania’s centenary of independence, set in a pool whose water then flows through the upper section of the park, stands at the corner where the Boulevard meets Rruga Myslym Shyri. The large building on the opposite side of the park – facing on to Rruga Ibrahim Rugova – is a recreation complex known as ‘Taiwan’ (albanicised as ‘Tajvani’), in honour of the country that donated the splendid fountains beside it. The park was re-landscaped in 2019–20; an information panel indicates the intended purpose of each of its new sections.
Travel to Tirana
Tirana is Albania’s main international airport. Its website has real-time arrival and departure data, as well as flight schedules and other useful information. The airport is 17km from the city centre, but the journey time is entirely dependent on traffic congestion in Tirana; anything between 20 minutes and an hour.
Buses and/or minibuses run to Tirana from all other parts of Albania. In Tirana, they depart from one of two inter-city bus stations according to destination. For Elbasani, Korça and other destinations in the southeast, the Southeast (Juglindor) bus station is behind the university’s Faculty of Economics (Fakulteti i Ekonomisë) on Rruga e Elbasanit. Buses to northern and southwestern Albania, including Durrësi and Berati, leave from the North/South (Veri/Jug) Terminal, at the junction known as Kthesa e Kamzës (‘the Kamza Turning’).