Tirana is the capital city of Albania, and it has a population of about half a million in a country of about 2.8 million. A small city in a small country, and yet I felt compelled to spend two weeks here without knowing much about it.
I arrived at the bus station outside of the city centre, and there Tirana’s reputation of being wild and undeveloped was on full display. The bus station is nothing more than a giant car park with no terminal building.
I had forgotten to look up taxi prices before I arrived, so to save haggling and that feeling of being ripped off, I walked into the city centre. It’s a bit of a hike, but it was a cold enough day to not break a sweat. I also like easing my way into new cities like this, and I passed some architectural oddities that I would have otherwise missed.
[Kastrati petrol station.]
[Asllan Rusi Sports Palace.]
After walking through the urban blight that is standard for most city fringes, I reached the inner part of the city, and I could already feel the good vibes of Tirana. With walkable tree-lined streets and cafes everywhere, I felt I had made a good choice to drop camp for a while.
These are my random notes and observations of Tirana.
Pyramid of Tirana
Tirana is not a city of famous landmarks, but the one landmark I did know was the Pyramid of Tirana. I’ve seen this posted on various Brutalist groups, so without any other plan, I made my way there first.
Tirana construction boom
On my first day of walking around, it was evident that Tirana is going through a regeneration. There are a number of tall buildings under construction, which is especially unusual for a European city this size.
Skanderbeg Square is the centre of the city and a more logical place to begin Tirana exploration. From here you can see how the city is changing. The Tirana International Hotel extension was nearly finished when I was there.
The Alban Tower was practically finished as well.
Eyes Of Tirana will be one of the most prominent landmarks of the city when it is completed.
The “river” of Tirana
Most inland capitals of Europe are set on a river. Tirana is on a river, though it is technically a stream that is not navigatable by boats.
The Lana River starts from the mountains to the east of the city, forming a north-south divide of the city. The river is gradually being reclaimed from illegal construction, though pollution is still a problem. There is a great walking and cycling path to the mountain source.
At the city limits of the western end, you see the unrehabilitated section.
Probably the most famous Albanian
The most famous Albanian would have to be Mother Teresa, and there are reminders of her around the city.
There is a hospital named after her, and the airport is named Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza.
And probably the second most famous Albanian
Unfortunately, the second most famous Albanian would have to be communist dictator Enver Hoxha. The former residence of Enver Hoxha can be found in a leafy neighbourhood south of the Lana River.
Hoxha’s legacy can be found all over Albania with concrete bunkers, including some in the capital.
Religion in Tirana
I had never stopped to think about the religious inclinations of Albania, and I probably would have said it is mostly Christian on the association with Mother Teresa. The Ottoman-era Mosque at the main square is a subtle reminder that Islam is the most common religion in Albania.
In addition to the building boom sweeping across the city, there is a new grand central mosque being built in the city centre.
There is also a big Orthodox Church near the city square.
And with Mother Teresa being a Roman Catholic, there is a monument of the visit of Pope John Paul II.
I mention religion because Tirana feels like the least religious capital I’ve visited in Europe. This is partly due to the fact that the former communist regime outlawed religion, making Albania the world’s first atheist country. In that regard, it reminds me of Vietnam, which is the least religious of countries in Southeast Asia.
A football stadium hidden in plain sight
Another new building I liked is the Air Albania Stadium. I was drawn to this bright red building thinking that it was a mall.
Inside though is a proper football stadium. The building is integrated into the city, with cafes and restaurants at the ground level. This makes it a useful building instead of being a desolate space when there are no matches on.
Very few chains here (for now)
I went by Tirana Fried Chicken, which looked familiar to another fried chicken place you might have heard of.
It was then that I realised that I hadn’t seen any familiar food or cafe chains here. I looked it up and found there were a few KFCs here (though KFC is practically everywhere). There is still no Maccas or Starbucks though, so if you want to travel back in time to a land without the clown and the green mermaid, then come to Tirana.
Hilton Garden Inn was one of the few hotel chains I saw.
The lack of international hotels is also set to change with a Hyatt being built near the football stadium.
One of the nice things about Tirana was just walking around the tree-lined streets.
I like seeing these tree-lined bike paths. This should be a standard feature for any new city.
The main park of Tirana is appropriately named Grand Park.
On Google Maps I saw a space called “Parku Ish Fusha Aviacionit”. Its shape and title of “park something something aviation” suggested that this is a former airport turned into a park. This is the Tempelhof of Tirana.
There are cafes everywhere in Tirana, and with an espresso at around 90 lek (0.85 USD), this is a cheap ticket to sit down and chat with friends or watch the world go by.
There are no international cafe chains here (yet), so local brands have a better chance of establishing themselves.
Mon Cheri is one of the main brands here.
Mulliri is another prominent chain cafe.
And Sophie Caffe has numerous branches.
In terms of cost of living, Albania is like the Southeast Asia of Europe
I’m not a foodie when I’m in Europe, so I’m not going to do a food round-up (you don’t want to know how many croissants and kebabs I ate, and I don’t want to be reminded). what I will do is show you two food items that highlight how cheap it is in Tirana. This absolute unit of a sandwich was 200 lek ($1.90 USD).
[Big sandwich (via @nomadicnotes).]
This capricciosa pizza (my pizza of choice when comparing pizza consistency between restaurants) cost 350 lek ($3.30 USD).
With the combination of underinvestment in infrastructure and the incredibly cheap prices, you could say that this part of Southeast Europe is more like Southeast Asia than any part of Europe.
Albania has one of the most run-down railway systems in Europe. There is a train that goes from Tirana to Durres (on the coast), but the station is now outside the city of Tirana. The old Tirana railway station was demolished and it is now a public square.
The railway line has since been turned into a park. There are plans to rehabilitate the railway to Durres, as well as the railway to Podgorica in Montenegro and a new line to Kosovo.
The main form of public transport is the bus system.
Articulated buses are used in Tirana (also known as an accordion bus).
There are plans for a light rail along the path of the old railway.
Albania – the next big thing
Google “Albania the next big thing” and you will find plenty of articles using this phrase. Indeed, coastal Albania is becoming more popular as coastal Croatia becomes more expensive. I was here in October and it wasn’t the best weather for being by the sea, so I can’t make any comparisons. If you are considering a coastal trip, then I would say also include a visit to Tirana.
Further reading about Tirana
Visit Tirana – the funkiest capital in Europe – A great guide to the city and how the arts and cafe scene is making Tirana cool.
The fight to preserve an ugly Albanian pyramid – The Pyramid of Tirana has an emotional and political resonance that makes it difficult to destroy.