I was warned about Tirana. The two English-speakers I met while traveling from Montenegro to Albania told me that it was dangerous. They said that other Europeans considered Tirana a no-go zone, and that the only people stupid enough to visit were Americans and Australians that hadn’t gotten word about Albania’s bad reputation.

Broken door in Tirana Albania

I knew that Tirana wasn’t a popular leisure travel destination, but I hadn’t heard anything about my life being in danger by traveling there. The words of my fellow passengers had me a tiny bit nervous, but I wasn’t about to turn around.

Colorful building in Tirana Albania

Getting to Tirana on my Balkans trip was a grueling eight-hour process. I first had a two-hour bus ride from Budva to the border at Ulcinj. Then there was a two-and-a-half hour wait for my next bus, which took an hour and a half to get from Ulcinj to Shkodra in Albania. From there I hopped in a gypsy cab with five others from my bus. Two hours later we arrived in Tirana and were told to walk five minutes to reach the city center.

Roundabout in Shkodra Albania

My first impression of Tirana was that it looked similar to other major cities in the region. There was a mix of historical buildings and communist eyesores, shops selling freshly baked bread and pastries, and cafes with big red Coca-Cola umbrellas outside.

Chairs at a cafe in Tirana Albania

My group trudged through the drizzle to get to the city center, stopping at an ATM to take out cash along the way. After awhile, I split off to get a taxi to the hotel I had booked. Unfortunately, no driver wanted to take me there for less than I would have paid for the same ride in London.

Colorful communist buildings in Tirana Albania

I had no idea where I was, and couldn’t find the name of the street on my map (later I found out that it was because the street name had changed several years ago). Knowing I was somewhere near the city center and that I didn’t have much time to see Tirana before dark, I walked into a bar/hotel across the street, negotiated a price for one of the three rooms, set my bag down, and went off to explore Tirana. I was certain my laptop would be stolen when I got back.

Old communist building in Tirana

My first task in Tirana was to find out where buses departed for Macedonia. I was traveling to Lake Ohrid the next day, and needed to know where to catch my ride. After a crazy march up and down one of the main streets during which I came across people displaying a huge range of willingness to help a foreign girl, I finally found the tiny office of the bus company to which my hotel owner had given me bad directions.

New building under construction in Tirana Albania

It was on the first floor of a nondescript building with only a small sign outside. The proprietor yelled at my when I told him I had a hard time finding it. It was a bit unsettling. I bought my ticket as quickly as I could, and set off in the direction of the main square.

Building in Tirana Albania

Before I got there, I came across a large open-air cafe in front of a building that called itself a university. There was a crepe stand out front, and I ordered a Greek crepe with chicken, olives, and feta. It tasted good, and at just over 1 British pound, it was a deal.

Crepe for dinner at a cafe in Tirana

After devouring my dinner, I made my way to the square. I had read about how Tirana had been tearing up its streets over the past decade to make room for new buildings and overhaul the city’s urban landscape in an effort to get rid of some of the reminders of its communist past. Nothing prepared me for the scene in Skanderbeg Square, though.

Construction in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana Albania

Tirana’s main square was torn up to the point that it looked more like a construction site than the heart of a European capital city. The area in front of the opera house was fenced off and reduced to rubble. The space by the National Museum of History looked no better. The center of the square, with its statue of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, was equally bad save for one patch of new grass.

Opera house in Tirana Albania

Between the bad directions from my hotel owner, the strange location of the bus company, and the torn-up main square, I was beginning to think I had finally met a city I didn’t like. Was there anything redeeming about Tirana?

Statue in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana

I waded through the muddy gravel path that cut between two construction sites and found myself flanked by a beautiful historic mosque on one side and a clock tower on the other. The former was called the Et’ham Bey Mosque, and had been spared destruction during the communist period due to its historical significance. It started Tirana on the path to redemption.

Clock tower in Tirana Albania

From there I walked by several government buildings that looked like they had been recently restored. Just beyond them I saw a pedestrian street with colorful art on the pavement and trees lining both sides. I took a detour down it, and found myself walking by spacious cafes and the historic ruins of a fortress of Justinian.

Pedestrian street in Tirana Albania

A bit further down there was more art, this time in the form of large colorful butterflies. Across the street the path continued, culminating at the Lana River, which ran through Tirana.

Street art in Tirana Albania

Over the river were communist-era buildings that locals had painted in bright colors as a symbolic act of defiance against the former regime. The cheerfulness of the art and color stood out against the dreariness of the weather and further redeemed the city.

Women walking in front of a colorful communist building in Tirana

I retraced my steps and continued down the wide boulevard that led from the main square down to the university. To my right was a big park with a fountain and several modern buildings with shops and cafes. To my left was the pyramid.

The Pyramid building in Tirana Albania

What was the pyramid? I had the same question. It was pretty much the ugliest building I had ever seen, and the fact that it was boarded up suggested that the locals felt the same way. It turned out that it was the byproduct of the marriage of communism and nepotism. Designed by former dictator Enver Hoxha’s daughter and son-in-law in 1988, it was so unique in its atrociousness that I almost liked it.

The Pyramid building in Tirana

Further down the street I turned off to explore the Blloku area. The former haunt of the communist elite, the neighborhood had been reconceptualized as a trendy area packed with cafes. Tables and chairs spilled out onto the sidewalks and into the streets, and young people filled the interiors. It was my favorite part of Tirana, and it definitively tipped the scales towards full redemption.

Cafes in Blloku in Tirana Albania

After walking around Blloku for awhile, I headed back to the square. It was dark by the time I arrived, and I didn’t want to be out too late on my own. I headed back to my hotel, discovered that my laptop was still there, and sat down to email friends and family that I was still alive in Albania.

Colorful walkway and buildings in Tirana Albania

When I left Tirana the next morning, the only thing I regretted was that I didn’t have more time there. The quirky city with its massive construction projects,wild mix of colorful communist buildings, and serious cafe culture was one of the most unique places I had ever visited. I hoped to travel to Tirana again someday to get a closer look. And next time I wouldn’t need to be warned.

27 Comments on Lady in Tirana

  1. It’s really sad that cities get “reputations.” But I understand the feeling! It’s nice that you were able to discover the goodness in this city in spite of it all. Just think that for the locals of Tirana, it is actually home and there is something beautiful about it. Nice job!

    • I completely agree, bluepop! I think it’s really hard for cities to overcome bad reputations, but hopefully visitors to Tirana will continue to keep an open mind.

  2. Hey, very nice post. About the Pyramid there is a huge debate going on about destroying it and building a new modern parliament building in it’s place.

    • I’m glad you liked the post, Eri. That’s really interesting that they’re thinking of destroying the Pyramid. I hope they keep it, if only because it is such a unique building!

    • That’s great, Iben! I’m sure the new mosque and museum will improve the current construction zone aesthetic in the square! We’ll have to go back and visit once they’re built!

  3. Tell me about cities getting “reputation”! My entire country (India) has one. Sad it is. Currently planning a trip to Parts of Central Europe and Balkans. Your site is pretty helpful in this regard. Thanks a tonne 🙂

  4. Hi,

    Shame you did not have more time in Tirana which in fact looks much more alive in a sunny day.

    the main square has been completed provisionally with paved orderly car lanes, rows of trees and vegetation till a more permanent project, appropriate for a Great square of sizable proportions can be finalized.
    still the center is back to normal again.

    • Hi Armand! I wish I could have spent more time in Tirana, too. It was such a fascinating city to visit, and it would have been great to see it in the sunshine. Thanks for the update on the square!

  5. Tirana is amazing:) Was visiting the city with a friend of mine, who is Albanian himself. And there is just something unique over the city. Really like Albania a lot. And the people there is so heart warm, that its unbelievable. For sure go there – you wont regret:)

  6. Hi there,
    I found your post on Google+. Great writing and nice to see how tourists look at
    the city as an outsider. I got this feeling you were super much in a hurry 🙂

    Hope you will visit out country again and specially south and in particular Vlora and its sourroundings.

  7. Wow – that must have been an exciting trip. Stumbled upon your site and will follow your travels from now. Great writing and site !! Regards from a travel addicted from Sweden 🙂

  8. Albania its a lovely country and has got a greate people too! Happy u had a good time there and hope more people around the world will have a chance to visit Albania.

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